With Bo Pelini out and Mark Banker in, the Blackshirts were faced with a sizable conceptual shift. Pelini liked to play a lot of bracket coverages, with his safeties 2 High and primarily as pass defenders with limited run support responsibility; he tried to overcome this by mostly two-gapping his defensive line (though he unsuccessfully attempted to move away from this late). This scheme worked great in the Big 12, with offenses using 11 and 10 personnel packages, rarely committing to consistently running the ball and instead throwing it down the field into that bracket coverage. In the Big 10, Pelini’s defense had substantially less success, as teams would often formation Nebraska into a light box and force Nebraska’s OLBs into playing the run from a man disadvantage (6 blockers versus 5 defenders, etc.) while also having to play RPOs like the bubble, Y stick, pop pass, etc. That’s an unwinnable battle, and we saw the Blackshirts get drilled a number of times because of it. Think 63-38 in 2012 and Ohio State running wild on the Blackshirts.
Enter Mark Banker and his Cover 4 (or “Quarters”) base defense. There are a lot of things I like about this defense and how it fits the Big 10. Let’s take a peek at its basic principles.
Alignment and Run Support
This is Nebraska’s first defensive play against South Alabama. Base Cover 4 Quarters. Let’s talk about box alignment and run support first. Banker’s Quarters is a one back, one gap scheme. What that means is when there is one back, Nebraska’s box defenders each have a gap they are responsible to defend. You’ll sometimes hear announcers refer to this as “being gapped out/up” or having “gap integrity.” Football jargon at its finest. Remember, in a typical 11 personnel formation (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 detached WRs), there are 7 possible gaps for the offense to run the ball:
To the side away from the TE, you have the A, B and C gaps. To the TE side, you have the A, B, C and D gaps. That means you need 7 total defenders in run support to “gap up” this offensive formation. Here, Nebraska has 7 primary run defenders lined up in a modified Over front, with 4 DL and 3 LBs; they are gapped up. Each of the defensive linemen lines up in a gap, with Collins and McMullen lined up in the B and C gaps toward the TE, and Freedom Akinmoladun lined up in the C gap away from the TE. Big Vince is in a 2-technique (“2-tech”), lined up directly over the LG, but we’ll call him an A gap defender. The WILL, MIKE and SAM will fill the remaining three gaps depending on whether the ball is run to or away from them. Note, just because a DE or DT lines up in a gap does not mean he will have run fit responsibility for that gap. Assignments may change depending on the direction the run goes, as well as any slants or twists the Blackshirts run. For right now, though, just remember one back, one gap; against 10 or 11 personnel, Nebraska will assign one defender to each gap.
Let’s talk briefly about the safeties as well. You may have heard, probably from Pat Narduzzi, that playing Quarters allows you to get an “8- or 9-man box!” Yet you’re probably also looking at that picture going “But the safeties are 9+ yards deep from the line of scrimmage and Cockrell is nowhere near the box!” You’d be correct. Cockrell is lined up 11 x 1 with inside leverage (11 yards off the #2 WR to his side and 1 yard inside him), while Gerry is 11 x 1 with outside leverage (11 yards off the #2 WR to his side and 1 yard outside him).
When you hear Narduzzi talk about a 9-man box, he’s not talking about pre-snap alignment with both safeties dropped down into the box. If you were to look at a Quarters team before the snap, frequently its safeties don’t look a whole lot different, if at all, from a Cover 2 team. That’s part of the defense’s disguise. Where you do get the 9-man box is after the snap. Because Quarters coverage rules free up safeties to come up as run support defenders when necessary, this defense should play fast with safeties dropping down into the box post-snap to play the run. As you’ll see later, in this play, the #2 receiver (Y) to Gerry’s side down blocks, instantly triggering Gerry into the box to help in run support if needed.
Here, South Alabama is in 11 personnel with 3 WRs detached from the formation’s core.
This is base Quarters for Nebraska. There are a ton of different tags you can add to change the coverage responsibilities of any individual DB, but let’s assume for now all 4 DBs are playing “Man Clue” base coverage. What this means is that they will play coverage depending on the receiver they are “cluing” (same thing as “reading”). You’ll also sometimes hear this referred to as “Man on Demand.” The rule is simple. If the clued receiver goes vertical, the DB is then locked up onto that receiver in man coverage (hence “man on demand” and “man clue”). So what’s vertical? I’m not sure what Nebraska’s rule for vertical is right now, but typically it’s either clearing the level of the LBs or some defined yardage point (e.g. 8 yards in the image below at the red line). If the clued receiver clears that line in his route, he gets manned up by the DB cluing him.
But if the receiver goes inside or outside before that vertical demarcation, then the DB zones off into his 1/4 of the field. CBs have the outside 1/4, safeties have the inside 1/4 on their side of the field. For example, if X above immediately runs a crossing route inside, the CB cluing him would yell out “in in in” to alert the LBs to an in-breaking receiver and then zone off into his outside 1/4 of the field. If Z ran out, the FS would yell “out out out” to alert the Will LB (“W”) that he needs to get out to cover the flat while the FS zones off and looks for X or anything coming from the other side of the field.
Sometimes, however, rather than zoning off teams will turn this into a bracket coverage with their safeties based on game plan. Again, from our example, if Z runs a crossing route, the FS alerts “in in in” and then would help bracket X on any vertical route (go, post, corner). The upside of this is that you can provide an immediate double team on a dominant WR to help the CB. The downside is that offenses will often attack the safety’s vacated zone from the other side of the field by running a route across the field. In this case, the offense could send Z on the cross and then bring Y back across over top him on a dig route. With the FS bracketing X, the inside 1/4 is vacant and the SS is now chasing Y while leveraged away from the route. That’s why film work is so important for both players and coaches. It helps identify an opponent’s favorite route concepts and then game plan the coverages to account for them.
As for the LBs, the WILL and SAM are the curl/flat defenders keying off the #2 receivers (Z and Y in the example above). If #2 is out to the flat on his side, the WILL or SAM matches that route and immediately expands to the flat. If #2 is vertical, he will collision the receiver before passing him off to the S and zoning off to look for a new #2 receiver. If #2 is in, the WILL or SAM will alert “in in in” and squeeze #2 to the MIKE before passing him off and zoning off to look for a new #2 from the core of the formation (in this formation, usually the RB running a swing route or wheel). MIKE is a hook defender that must match the #3 receiver (in this case, the RB). If the RB stays in to block, MIKE opens to the passing strength (the 2 WR side in this formation) and zones off in the hook area (middle of the field). If he gets an “in” call from either the DBs or SAM/WILL, he will look for that man coming into his hook zone. If the RB comes out of the backfield, MIKE must “match” him. If the RB is vertical or in, the MIKE covers him vertical or in. If the RB is out to the flat, the MIKE calls “out out out” and looks for a new #3 coming in (in this example, RB out to the left flat, Z crossing becomes the new #3).
Adding to Run Support
Fine, but what the hell does this have to do with run support and a 9-man box, right? A couple of huge differences from Cover 2. First, your SAM and WILL, who are curl/flat defenders, are strong run-first defenders because the SS/FS are man clue on the #2 receivers. This takes the run/pass conflict away from SAM and WILL, as they no longer have to carry the #2 receiver vertical in the passing game. They can play downhill fast against the run and let the safeties clean up the vertical passing game. Second, the FS and SS can also get involved in the run game based on the #2 WR’s actions. This is a drastic change from Cover 2, where the safeties are pass defenders first and taught to backpedal and gain depth and width on the snap. In Quarters, however, the CBs are your primary pass defenders while the safeties are able to play downhill on the run when necessary. The FS and SS will flat foot read #2 without immediately peddling out to gain depth. If #2 blocks, the safety cluing him can get into the box post-snap to defend the run. Watch Gerry below trigger to the run the moment he sees #2 block down. If, however, #2 releases into a passing route instead of blocking, the FS/SS will then clue him to play the pass.
Against the run, you’d almost always prefer to have your safeties helping out first in run support rather than your corners; bigger bodies, usually better tacklers and more physical too. Quarters gives you that by freeing up the safeties to read #2 and get downhill into the run game, which is especially beneficial against teams that add the QB to the run game.
So let’s see how it plays out on film:
This immediately shows the difference that Quarters brings. South Alabama opens with a crafty play action pass off speed option/toss to the RB while pulling the RG. This is a run key for the WILL and MIKE, as they are primary run players, and so they jump the run to defend it. Normally, this would leave a huge hole for the receivers to get into behind and between the WILL and MIKE. But that hole is not there because the FS, Byerson Cockrell, is playing man clue on the #2 WR. Once Cockrell clues that WR vertical, he’s now locked up in man and closes on the route. By the time the ball arrives, Cockrell is on the WR and can break up the ball thrown slightly behind him. That’s the benefit of Quarters: the WILL (Dedrick Young) and MIKE (Chris Weber) are in perfect position to stop the run while the coverage marries with it to get the safeties immediately to the #2 WRs on play action pass.
On the backside of the play, Daniel Davie is pressed up on #1 playing man clue. Because #1 is vertical, Davie now takes him vertical in man to man coverage. Gerry clues the #2 WR (Y) with a flat foot read and triggers downhill immediately on the run when #2 down blocks. Once Gerry clears this run/pass key and recognizes play action pass, he zones back off into his 1/4 and helps Cockrell.
Strong against the run with an answer for multiple verticals in the passing game. Doesn’t get much better than that if you have the thoroughbreds to cover the WRs man to man down the field.
Wrapping It Up
I really like the Quarters fit with Big 10 offenses. Quarters’ primary strengths are defending the run and disguise. As discussed above, the defense is able to get safeties involved in the run and pass games, thus freeing up its LBs to play the run first. That’s huge against modern offenses and RPOs, and it’s one of the reasons why we were so good against the run this year. It’s also significant because Big 10 teams predominantly lean on the run, meaning Nebraska has an answer for its opponent’s greatest strength. Also, because the FS and SS almost always line up 2 High, the defense looks the same pre-snap, whether it’s playing as Quarters, Cover 2, or rolling safeties into Cover 1 or 3. This takes away the QB’s ability to diagnose the coverage shell before the snap, making his job difficult in terms of RPOs and matching his route concepts to the coverage. And let’s be frank: Big 10 QBs are already on the remedial side of the curve, so giving them additional disguises to deal with leads to some horrific performances from even the best of them.
Quarters does have its weaknesses though. It demands very good coverage guys at the CB position, as they’re often matched up in man coverage on the opponent’s best receivers (the #1 receivers above). Nebraska struggled early in the season to find the right combination of corners (“daddies,” as Banker likes to call them) before settling on Chris Jones and Josh Kalu late. Neither was an elite corner this year, but they compete and showed a lot of progress by the end of the year. Ideally, Nebraska finds at least one elite corner to lock down the #1 receiver moving forward, and Banker would prefer him to be long and rangy. Finding that guy would allow Banker to push coverage to the other receivers. Perhaps Nebraska found two of them through the 2016 recruiting class in Lamar Jackson and Marquel Dismuke, though I think one of them may end up at safety simply by necessity.
And that leads me to the safeties. Quarters also asks a lot of the safeties to not only be physical and help out in the run game, but also to match #2 receivers in man coverage when needed. Nebraska didn’t have those types of safeties last year, though in the bowl game Antonio Reed and Aaron Williams showed the new era was coming. Along with the pass rush, the safeties are where I will focus in the spring and fall camps: can Nebraska take the next step at safety and find rangy guys who are comfortable covering a man in open space down the field? Again, I think this is where Jackson or Dismuke may fit in. Also, look for Avery Anderson, who is moving to safety, to make a potential impact here as well. Anderson is a bit undersized for a true box safety and may struggle a bit in the run game because of it, but he’s a guy who can lock receivers down the field.
Finally, Quarters coverage is often exposed in the flats when an offense can pair a strong running game with play action pass or RPOs like the bubble and smoke screens. As seen above, the WILL and SAM must be able to rally out to the flats to cover the #2 receiver in that area. Because they are primary run defenders first, however, that becomes a difficult task when the opponent has a strong running game that requires the WILL and SAM’s attention. When that happens, it’s time to game plan with some trap coverages. We’ll look at one of those in our next installment.