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uvwisefootballBy Justin Hamilton, Defensive Coordinator/Secondary, University of Virginia at Wise 


UVA Wise’s defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton details the teaching progression he uses to instruct his players on the coverage behind zone pressures, particularly the three underneath defenders responsibilities in three deep blitzes.  




uvwisefootballBy Justin Hamilton

Defensive Coordinator/Secondary

University of Virginia at Wise (D-II)



Author’s BioJustin Hamilton enters his second season as defensive coordinator and his third season overall at UVa-Wise in 2013.  A year ago, the defense limited opponents to less than 25 points in five of the Cavaliers' 11 contests.  The unit also collected 11 sacks and eight interceptions in 2012.  In his first season, Hamilton's defense allowed just over 31 points per game, an improvement of nearly five points per game from the 2010 season.   The defensive unit had its strongest day of the season on October 1 when UVa-Wise shut out host West Virginia Tech 13-0 to cap off a three game winning streak.  Under Hamilton's tutelage, three Cavs have earned first-team all-conference honors.  Previously, Hamilton worked with the football program as the school's strength and conditioning coordinator.



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As with most defensive staffs, at UVa-Wise, we want our defense to be sound, play fast, and attack at all times.  When talking to our unit, we often use the term “Offensive Defense” and have named our defense the “Red Swarm” to describe the identity we are after.  Our obvious goal is to defend opponents; however, we don’t want our guys to think in “defensive” terms, we want them to think aggressively.  As most coaches would attest, players are most sound and aggressive, and play the fastest when they are confident in the scheme and their individual assignments.  By using the term “Offensive Defense”, we stress to our players that the offense must stop what we do, not vice versa, thus creating ownership, belief, and confidence in our system.  We also believe this method creates a desire from the players to earn significant roles which creates constant competition and pride in one’s product.

We base from a 4-2-5 structure and will use a variety of D-Line stunts and games, or all out blitzes to attack offenses; however, our favorite (and most successful) means of attack has been through the use of Zone Blitzes (Fire Zones).  Like most players, our guys love the idea of blitzing which creates an excitement-level that is critical for all of us to achieve the level of play we desire from our players. The beauty of a 5-man pressure package is that it can be implemented into any defensive scheme, the flexibility of the 5th rusher (or 4th and 5th for Odd front teams), the simplicity of the zone-match principles, and the ability to play zone coverage or Man-Free coverage without trying to make a living by “selling the farm” with zero-man coverage.  For the purpose of this study, I will discuss our teaching philosophy and route match principles in our 3-Under/3-Deep Fire Zone Coverages.


Although some of our younger players don’t realize it, we actually begin teaching Fire Zone Coverage on Day 1 of install by teaching our Base Cover 3 Defense (4-Under/3-Deep).  In our Base Cover 3 we classify the four underneath defenders as Seam/Flat and Sky/Hook defenders.  In Fire Zones, we simply change Seam/Flat to Hot/Flat and Sky/Hook to Hot/Hook.  Nearly every rule each player learns Day 1 carries over into our Fire Zone teaching, we simply add the word “Hot” to alert each player to expect hot throws as a response to the blitz.  Because none of us want “robots”, we teach the three underneath defenders to align at a minimum pre-snap depth of 6 yds or a maximum pre-snap depth of 8 yds.   For us, the teaching must be flexible (i.e. a Safety coming down to play Hot/Flat may be at 8 yds, where a drop DE may only get to 6) however, we stress that no underneath defender should be less than 6 yds until the ball is thrown.   The pre-snap alignment for each defender directly corresponds with their route match rules, which we have found simplifies the post-snap structure of the coverage. Hot/Flat defenders are taught to align inside #1, outside #2, and the Hot/Hook defenders are taught to align inside #3 (between #3 & QB).  Though a WR may begin as #1 and end as #3, or a TE as #2 Strong and end as  #2 Weak, etc., the principles and concepts remain the same in our teaching.


Rope Fire Zone

As with most 4-2-5 teams, we believe, heavily, in blitzing our Strong/Field Safety (“Assassin”), and our Boundary/Weak Safety (“Rover”) from the edges of our defense.  As a staff, we do our best to identify our most-physical player(s), and best blitzer(s), and teach them the Assassin position; however, we look for nearly identical body-types and attributes when recruiting or making personnel decisions for both the Assassin and Rover positions.  For this study, the diagrams show blitz patterns, rules, checks, and coverage matches in our most commonly used Boundary/Weak Edge pressure, “Rope Fire Zone.”  For the sake of simplicity, we chose the word “Rope” to signify “Rover Outside Pinch End.”  In our Fire Zone teaching progression, we have built in that the name of the blitz explains the full structure of the front, blitz, and coverage.  For example, the word “Rope” triggers a Field (ball on hash), or Strong (ball middle) Front call and a Boundary (ball on hash) or Weak (ball middle) Pinch Technique by the Tackle and End as well as coverage responsibility.  I am a huge believer in eliminating even the smallest amount of gray-area in communication so we also ask our blitzer (in this case the Rover) to make a “Rope Lt” or “Rope Rt” call, and our Sam LB to echo front calls to guarantee assuredness at all 11 positions.   The phrase “Fire Zone” indicates we are playing 3-Under/3-Deep coverage and must be “signed and co-signed” with hand-signals by our DB’s to, again, eliminate the possibility of any gray-area. 



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Join  the X&O Labs exclusive Insiders and gain full access to Coach Hamilton’s full length clinic report including:

  • The responsibilities of the “Hot Flat” and “Hot Hook” underneath cover players and the routes they are taught to match.

  • The “squeeze and search” and “expand” concepts Coach Hamilton uses to teach underneath coverage.

  • UVA Wise’s Rope Fire Zone pressure and the various checks used against offensive formations and route concepts.

  • Plus game video of the Rope Fire Zone pressure and more.



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While the use of 5-man pressures is nothing original, the idea of blitzing excites players and creates an aggressive mentality, and the use of Fire Zone coverage allows an ability to attack without stressing the Corners (and their coaches) with the burden of constant man to man coverage.  Zone Blitzing also puts pressure on an offense to execute blocking schemes, and forces the QB to make quick and accurate decisions, or check into correct plays, while providing sound structure for the defense against the run and in the passing game.  I hope that some of the teaching we use at UVa-Wise has been of use to you.  If you would like to speak in more detail, please contact me as I love to share ideas and grow in the great profession of coaching.  I would also like to give a special thanks to the entire staff at X&O Labs for asking me to participate in this study.  All the best to coaches everywhere!





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