French on the Bench: Pass Coverage Basics

The start of fall practice marks the beginning of the 2012 season. One thing starts, another ends. Today's post on pass coverage completes my overview of Foster's defensive system.

First let's cover some basic, but unique terminology:

  • Boundary Corner: Cornerback playing to the short (boundary) side of the field. The boundary corner usually has more man responsibility, lines up in a press alignment (close to the wide receiver) and must be able to play zone with less safety help.
  • Field Corner: Cornerback playing to the wide side of the field. The field corner tends to play off the line of scrimmage (usually 7 yards off the ball, aligned even with the safeties).
  • Rover: In the old 4-4 defense the rover could line up all over the field, but most of the time opposite of the whip as a hybrid outside linebacker. As Tech's defense evolved, the rover essentially became a strong safety, most often lining up 7 yards deep to the strong side of the formation. The rover tends to be used more in blitzes, and in the past was usually the bigger, and better tackling safety.
  • Free safety: When the Hokies use two deep safeties the free also lines up 7 yards deep. You will also see the free safety line up ten yards deep in some change up looks. The free safety usually has the responsibility of calling the coverage and audibles for the secondary.

Foster's pass coverage schemes are predicated on getting turnovers as byproducts of the pressure generated through blitz schemes. Film review shows that the Hokies are much less dependant on straight man-to-man coverage than talking heads lead us to believe. However, every defensive coverage uses man-to-man principles which mandate that defensive backs have great functional football vision, hip flexibility, and explosion from a backpedal.

4-4 G Coverage (Cover 4)

The 4-4 G is Tech's base coverage, it's a cover 4 zone—the secondary is essentially split vertically into 4 quarters. In each zone, the assigned defender's goal is to not let a receiver behind him. When the Hokies play 4-4 G, the corners will either line up seven yards off the ball, even with the safeties, or they will line up in press, but backpedal immediately at the snap, or after the quarterback finishes his pre-snap reads. Initially the defender plays zone coverage, unless his cushion is threatened. The cushion is the space between a defender and receiver. The defender wants to turn and run without being burnt deep. While in coverage the defender is looking into the backfield, reading the quarterback's eyes. Once the cushion is threatened, the defensive back will turn and run with the receiver, just like in man coverage.

The 4-4 G is a "safe" coverage, but it still has an aggressive streak. Defensive backs often vacate their zones, especially on deep seam routes, because they determine that the quarterback will not throw in their zone.

On this play from the 2009 Peach Bowl, Tennessee sends numerous receivers deep on seam routes. Rock Carmichael recognizes that his deep quarter is not threatened and is watching Vols QB Jonathan Crompton the whole way. Crompton thinks he has man, and throws a deep ball anticipating that Kam Chancellor, who has his back to the QB, can't make a play.


Carmichael rolls and makes an easy interception. However, when you watch the play you will notice that the Vols have a wide open receiver in Carmichael's original zone (with Cody Grimm playing the short flat). Carmichael takes a risk to make a play, gambling that Crompton's eyes will take him to the ball. Note, top tier QB's can take advantage of this aggressiveness.

This is also a great example of a trademark of Tech's defense: the use of a robber in almost every zone or man look. Robber coverage is a term you will hear me use repeatedly during my film reviews this year. A "robber" means that in a coverage package, one player (it could be any defensive back, linebacker, or even defensive lineman who drops into coverage) is assigned to watch the quarterback and attempt to read where the throw is going. The robber does not have a zone responsibility, so he must be uber-aggressive and instinctual with a knack for making plays. Even in the wide-tackle six days, the robber was a key component in turning mistakes into turnovers. More often than not, when a defender intercepts a pass closer review will show him playing a robber coverage. The robber is a simple concept, but it is dangerous and difficult for a young quarterback to read because you can assign a robber in cover 1, cover 2, and cover 3 zones. Foster's defense will even allow quick underneath routes to be open in order to attempt to bait a quarterback into throwing to the robber on a quick read later in the game.

Cover 2 Robber

The standard cover 2 has two deep safeties, each responsible for covering a deep half of the field, with corners playing underneath zones. The Hokies use the robber to flip that look.

At the snap, both corners retreat from the line to play deep safety, or run with a receiver that goes on a deep route through their zone, while both safeties come forward to play short, wide zones. The safeties are in great position to intercept either a quick slant or seam as they come forward looking into the backfield. They are also in excellent position to support the run. The Hokies use this coverage less than in years past, but it continues to be their base look in clear run-support situations. It's weak if the opponents can send multiple receivers through a deep zone. Florida State absolutely torched the cover 2 robber in the 2002 Gator Bowl.

Cover 3 Zone with a Robber

In a standard cover 3 zone, teams will have three defensive backs drop deep with responsibility for a deep third of the field, while the linebackers and one defensive back play an umbrella of short zones. The Hokies will usually have their boundary corner show press coverage and then drop to a deep third, along with both safeties, while the field corner plays with his heels in the 7 to 10 yard range.

Quarterbacks seeing Cover 3 will look to make a quick throw, either on a seam to the back shoulder, or a quick curl in front of the retreating deep corner. The corner must be able to read the quick throw, plant, and fly forward to make a sure tackle, and if he reads screen or a quick throw to the flat, he must plant in his backpedal and fly forward to make the tackle. Once the QB becomes accustomed to throwing to that soft spot, Coach Gray throws in a robber coverage.

In the robber, 3 DBs will still drop into deep zones, but one player will aggressively read the QB's eyes and jump the route. Normally, safeties serve as the robbers, but Coach Gray's best corners, knowing that they have safety help, can also be used. The Hokies usually will run the Cover 3 robber with a lead at critical moments late in a game.

Here is a terrific example from the 2010 Miami game. Stephen Morris threw quick hot routes against Hokies cover 3 easily throughout the game. After the Hokies took a lead on Ryan Williams huge touchdown run, Miami found itself in a passing situation with a young QB.

Jayron Hosley is the robber on the play. He shows the Hokies standard cover 3 look, showing press and then almost peacock-like strutting backwards as Morris makes his pre-snap read. On the snap, the free safety rotates out to cover the boundary deep third. Jayron plants and is coming forward at the snap, looking directly at the QB expecting the quick throw to the Miami receiver, but he can take the risk because he has deep help. Jayron picks the pass off easily, and looks like Deion Sanders in the process, but the design of the defense, coupled with the repetition of the cover 3 look earlier baited Morris into the throw, which lead to the nail-in-the-coffin touchdown for the Hokies.

Cover 1 Robber and Zero Coverage (Straight Man-to-Man)

Cover 1 is man-to-man with a deep safety, while "zero coverage" is man-to-man across the field with no safety. The Hokies went through a period where they often "pressed" from zero coverage, meaning that the defensive back got right on the line of scrimmage, attempting to hold up the receiver within the 5 yard contact area and then turning to run over the top.

Recently the Hokies tend to only press when they play cover 1, with safety help. While this is safer, it is much more difficult to cover in man when the receiver has a free release from the line of scrimmage. Also, while 4-4 G can allow a cover guy to pass off a receiver to another defender, in man the Hokie defenders must follow their assignment all over the field, restricting their ability to read the quarterback or play in run support.

Still, special talents like Jayron Hosley make plays in man. Here, we have the Hokies in a cover 1 with Exum as the deep help (Whitley is near the line playing a spy on Denard Robinson).


Hosley is 7 yards deep at the snap (a standard Hokie look if they are not showing press) but it's man coverage. He reads the turn-in route and jumps in front of the Michigan receiver for a terrific interception.

I will admit, this was a challenging assignment for me. I have always been a lineman, but always wanted to be a receiver. Watching film for this piece has been a learning experience, and I am eager to learn more about alignment (why the standard 7 yard cushion?) and the fundamentals that Coach Gray and Coach Foster teach for reading keys and finding the football. Hopefully we will be able to explore this topic further as secondary play will be a key for the success of the Hokie defense this season.

This concludes my preseason look at the basics of the Hokie defense. Next week, I will overview the evolution of the Virginia Tech rushing offense from the early 90's until present day. After the August 18th scrimmage, I'll finish with a look at the identity of the 2012 offense. Thanks for reading! I'll answer any questions you have below.


Damn, son!

Do you ever sleep?! This is stellar work!

I think somebody deserves himself a TKP bonus check at the end of the year.

"You know when the Hokies say 'We are Virginia Tech' they're going to mean it."- Lee Corso

Mrs. French says TKP needs to take us to the Bama game next year, with a trip to the Sizzler thrown in.

Five star get after it 100 percent Juice Key-Playing. MAN

Great work as always french... Amazing detail..

Win one for the Beamer...

I think that the most suprising thing I noticed in watching film of the secondary is how deep the Hokie corners play off opposition wide receivers most of the time, especially with the reputation of being a pressure defense. Even back to the mid-90's, corners who are not in press coverage give a 7 yard cushion at the line of scrimmage, and Foster counts on those corners to fly up to the ball on bubble screens and quick throws and make the tackle for minimum game.

Even more amazing is the lack of success that other teams have had throwing the ball short against the soft coverage, but Clemson made mincemeat of it in the 3rd quarter last year. Against guys like Hopkins and Watkins, I think the Hokies will have to decide to press them and hope that Fuller and Exum are athletic enough to turn and run with them. It is a difficult task indeed.

Five star get after it 100 percent Juice Key-Playing. MAN

After a great overview like this...

I can see why the coaches are looking at trying Edmunds at RB first.....the defensive side of the ball has changed a lot and grown immensely intricate since my playing days where we lined up and the coach just said sic' em!

Thanks for the fantastic analysis!

Take the shortest route to the ball and arrive in bad humor.

Much appreciated, although I am 100% behind Edmunds moving back to defense. If both backer and running back were immediate need positions, I can assure you he would be at backer. As you know by past reading, I am absolutely convinced that he will be an all-time Hokie linebacker, up there with Del Ricco, Adibi, and Hall.

Does anyone else notice that the Hokies corner is bigger than all 3 whips, or is that just me? Why can't Ronnie VanDyke play rover and whip?

Five star get after it 100 percent Juice Key-Playing. MAN

Don't disagree...

with that at all....just saying that it might be harder to pick up the idiosyncrasies of our defense more than the offense. I'm looking forward to TE moving to backer too.

Take the shortest route to the ball and arrive in bad humor.

i was wondering the same thing. if he can play whip, he can sure as hell play rover .. and i wonder if the cb depth becomes an issue if rvd moves back to rover to free up bonner or jarrett to play corner?

Thanks French, I've always wondered what you meant when you talked about Robber and 4-4 G coverage. I'll definately be watching for these when the Hokies play this season.

Great Work

This whole series is really helping me understand everything.

I now understand why you have been harping over our safeties and how they haven't been playmakers the past few years. With robber they are required to make a play on the ball and it is key for turnovers in our defense. Hopefully putting cornebacks at that position will help increase the interceptions and big plays.

Do we tend to play robber more against certain teams compared to others? Also how often do we use robber coverage? Half of the time or is it more used to surprise the defense?

Thanks Mikey. I wish I had an good answer for the robber/pure zone/pure man ratio but I have not had the bandwidth or the film angles to watch entire games and track how often they run it. As teams have become better at running the spread, they have used more and more 4-4G and less robber because running a robber takes a player out of a zone. 4-4 G looks so much like man that it is hard to spot. The only way I can spot it is if a receiver runs out of one zone and the Hokie DB's let him go. It is not suprising that both coverages can trick quarterbacks, especially inexperienced ones.

I wish I had film of the game, but when Joe Dailey was the QB at UNC, the Hokies had a day where they pilfered him like taking candy from a baby. Over and over he threw seam routes against what he thought was man coverage, and over and over the offside safety came over and picked him off. Dailey and his backup combined for four INT's that day.

So, why do some teams have success?
1) Terrific athletes beating the less skilled cover guys (be it the whip, or a safety) who have to turn and run just like man coverage when a receiver goes deep.
Examples: Miami in it's heydays, FSU in it's heydays, Clemson last year

2) Teams that establish the run and effectively use play action.

Examples- Stanford, Boise, Clemson last year.

Five star get after it 100 percent Juice Key-Playing. MAN