When offenses creep into the +16 yard line, the Hokies bear down by calling Cover 89, a matchup zone/man coverage. See the adjustments Va Tech uses to defend common short yardage route combinations the techniques DB coach Torrian Gray uses to defend them.
By Mike Kuchar
Senior Research Manager
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Editor’s Note: We all know the success that Virginia Tech has had on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster and the rest of his staff have continually developed top tier defensive units. X&O Labs Senior Research Manager Mike Kuchar spent time talking with Torrian Gray, the Hokies defensive back coach, talking about Cover 89, the Hokies short yardage coverage.
The Hokies traditional defensive structure is generically made off of two fronts- a 4-4 "G" package that Bud Foster helped develop and honed into a dynamic unit against pro-style offenses. It consists of a four-down front with two interior linebackers (Mike and Backer) two exterior backers (Whip and Rover) and a Free Safety meant to "rob" any underneath routes (Diagram 1). For the last few years, Virginia Tech has used more of a 4-3, Quarters type structure (Diagram 2) particularly against some open sets that the Hokies have encountered in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
In Virginia Tech’s terminology any even numbers (0,2,6,8) represent that "G" package while odd numbers (1,3,5,7) are indicative of the 4-3 front. For example, Cover 8 is a base robber coverage from a 4-4,while Cover 9 is a pure quarters coverage. When those ACC teams start to creep into the 16-yard line (or what Foster calls the red zone) the Hokies will combine both Cover 8 and Cover 9 into what they call "Cover 89" which is a man/zone matchup. Cover 8 pertains to the field side of the coverage (who is playing robber with on exception on the Free Safety which will be explained below) while the boundary side is playing Cover 9. "Cover 8 is a pass thought progression. It’s a pass coverage where we’re going to play in and out routes with the Corners and the Whips and Rovers. Cover 9 is a man principle backside."
"Cover 9 is the red zone version of our Quarters coverage backside," said Torrian Gray, the defensive backs coach. " The corner is locked backside and the Rover Safety is locked on two vertical on any outside release. If the ball is in the middle of the field, we would play a Strong G instead of a Field G." Cover 89 consists of what is known as a "play it" or "lock it" call given by the Corners which is all based on down and distance. The scheme will be explained in more detail below.
We all know the scheme is always over rated, it’s the fundamentals that make plays, so we wanted to detail some of the more important coverage techniques that Torrian Gray teaches his Corners and Safeties in the passing game.
Gray wants his Corners to have hard, square, inside alignment with no tilt. "We try to deny the inside and easiest throw," said Gray. "We want to force the outside route and make him throw it through our body. Against an extended number one receiver, we want to see the ball being snapped. I don’t want to be just looking at a receiver because if he moves he’s gained leverage. Once the ball is snapped our Corner’s eyes are going to the inside hip of that receiver. We use a good two-handed collision to force him outside and make him throw it to our body."
According to Gray, he doesn’t like to press his Corners inside the red zone because it invites the fade ball, which can be a particularly easy completion in the back of the end zone where space is limited. "Some of those guys prefer pressing and sitting on the route so I let them play with it based on their individual strength," said Gray. "Right now I got a 220 pound guy who likes to get his hands on receivers so I will allow it, but I prefer for them not to do that. You don’t want to give them an extra shot at the fade route because to me two/thirds of fade routes get completed."
The Whip and Rover have a dual responsibility of playing number to the flat (based on number one’s release) as well as playing force in the run game. The Whip is the field safety and the Rover is the boundary safety in the Hokies scheme. Their pre-snap eyes will be consistent. They will key the number two threat whether it’s a Tight End or number two detached anyway. The "play it" or "lock it" call given by the Corners, tells them to trigger the run or the pass. "If they get a play-it call, it would be pass in their mind, so they should sneak out to one and see his release instead of waiting for a verbal from the Corners," says Gray. When a lock-call is given, it gives the Whip/Rover freedom to tighten up to the box, telling them to be more involved in the run game while playing anything to the flat.
In this defense, the Mike and Sam linebackers are freed up to play the run game. They don’t need to worry about any particular play action, because of the presence of the five coverage defenders. "They will relate off the back," said Gray. "If they get a flair by the back they are freed up. If the back leaks through the line they will match him up. They don’t worry about a back flaring because it will always be picked up by an outside backer, Nickel, Whip or Corner. The linebackers play their run gap and play off that single back."
In some instances, teams will line up in FTB – Formation to Boundary, meaning the receiver strength will be to the boundary. According to Gray, this could present some issues. "We see Tight End and two receivers to the boundary. You get it enough for teams to show it so you can work on it. Our adjustment is our Whip or Nickel would have to come over to the boundary and he’d play number three on a vertical or outside release. He’s locked up on three (Diagram 11)."
Virginia Tech devotes a good deal of practice time on Cover 89, starting during the Spring . "We install it in Spring Ball and we continually use it in fall camp," said Gray. "We practice it on Monday practice focus with red zone and short yardage. Thursday we do a red zone script skelly from the 25 yard-line in so I’m making those calls when we get inside the 12 yard-line. I’ll make my 8 and 89 calls depending on down and distance. We will do a red zone period again on Thursday. Friday we start on the field and we end up in the red zone to mentally put them in the game. "
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