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By Jared Pospisil, Defensive Coordinator, Union High School (IA)

"The drill described here assumes that our safeties have made a run call based on the offensive formation before it. For the most part, because our safeties are the run-first players in this call, much of the drill focuses on their reads and reactions." Jared Pospisil, DC, Union High School (IA)

We use a version of Cover 4 as our base coverage because it helps us get as many players defending the run as possible. Out of a base 43 defense, Cover 4 allows our safeties to be very active in run support while ensuring that we have at least two pass-first, deep pass defenders. Therefore, because the run fit for the safeties is so important to our defense, we incorporate the Cover 4 Run Read Drill as the cornerstone of our defensive practice. We have set up our in-season weekly practice schedule to include one day devoted entirely to defense and two days that split offense-defense evenly. We incorporate the Cover 4 Run Read Drill into the defense-only day so that we can devote as much time to the drill as possible.

In our version of Cover 4, before each play begins, each side of our secondary makes one of two calls based on the offensive formation that comes out before it. Certain formations allow the safety to stay tighter to the tackle box, allowing him to be a key player in the run. Other formations pull him out wider and deeper to allow him to play the pass more effectively.

The drill described here assumes that our safeties have made a run call based on the offensive formation before it. For the most part, because our safeties are the run-first players in this call, much of the drill focuses on their reads and reactions. The corners, who assume the pass-first responsibility during a run call, basically go through their alignment, stance, and start when the ball is snapped, and finish each repetition with their late fill technique. When we play teams that crack heavily, however, we incorporate the crack-and-replace concept into the run read drill.

Although we set up the Cover 4 Run Read Drill to mimic the unique offensive look and blocking scheme we will see each week, the standard set up for our drill consists of the following: 4 or 5 trash cans that represent 5 offensive linemen, 2 players representing end men on the line of scrimmage (EMLOS), 2 or 3 players representing offensive backs, 2 safeties, 2 corners, and 2 coaches (one acting as the QB and one giving blocking/running assignments) (diagram 1).

We start each drill with three things in mind that we hope the athletes carry over into games: alignment, stance, and key. Generally, when our safeties make a run call to their sides, they align at 8-10 yards deep, on the outside shade of the EMLOS; in most cases, this is a tight end or an offensive tackle, depending on the offensive set we see that week. For the stance, we ask our safeties to use a square stance, with knees and hips flexed, back slightly flat, hands loose in front of the body. During a run call, we want our safeties to keep their eyes out of the backfield. As a result, we tell them to key the EMOLS solely. We find that, in most cases in high school offenses, the tight end or open side offensive tackle tip off the type of play. At the snap of the ball, we tell our safeties take a couple pop steps in place as they key the EMLOS; this gets their feet moving without losing ground.

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The drill begins with the secondary making its calls and aligning properly to the offensive set before it. The coach standing behind the defensive backs then gives a series of quick, simple hand signals to each offensive player, to indicate blocking assignments and running paths. The coach simulating the QB then gives a cadence and takes a snap to begin the play, at which time the defenders execute their reads and assignments based on the blocking schemes or releases they see before them.

In our Cover 4 scheme, when the safeties make a run call, they follow these basic rules:

  • If the run is to you, fill aggressively.
  • If the run is away from you, move forward to about linebacker depth and shuffle with square shoulders to the run direction, checking for cutback and reverse.
  • If the play is a pass, jump any routes run by your key receiver over 7 yards deep but let short routes go.
Next, we coach our safeties how to fill aggressively against specific key reads:
    • Against a down block, the play side safety fills fast as the contain player (diagram 2).
  • Against a fan block (the EMOLS blocks out), we tell our safety to fill on the inside hip of the defensive end/outside linebacker being blocked out. In this case, contain is taken by the defender being blocked out, so the safety can help against the inside run (diagram 3). 
  • Against a reach block, our safeties must attack the edge as the contain player (diagram 4).
  • Against a release by the EMLOS, the safety must honor the pass and begin to back pedal. If the receiver runs anything over 7 yards, the safety must lock on and run with the receiver, wherever he goes; if the receiver runs a route under 7 yards, we tell the safety to let the route go and look for work. Generally, "work" is determined by the unique route combinations each of our offensive opponents run each week (diagram 5).
One coaching point we emphasize for key reads involves reading the EMLOS’s shoulders. If our safeties see that the blocker’s shoulders have turned perpendicular to the LOS, either toward the ball or away from the ball, hiding their jersey numbers, the play is most likely a run, so fill. If our safeties see that the EMLOS’s shoulders—especially in the case of a TE—stay square to them and move up field, there is a good possibility that the play is a pass; honor it as such.

Our staff does a couple things to improve efficiency and effectiveness of the Cover 4 Run Read Drill. First, we spend time in the pre-season camp teaching all of the DBs the hand signals and how we coaches expect the offensive players to move. At the snap, we do not want blockers lazily leaning in a direction given, for this gives our DBs confusing run reads. Next, during each drill, we give each DB three or four reps in a row, before a new set of DBs partakes in the drill. This cuts down on time wasted when offensive players flip over to defensive players and vice versa. Often, each DB is able to partake in at least two sets of the drill. In each set, the coach giving directions attempts to show the DBs a new look to ensure that all of the DBs defend all combinations of blocks and releases they may see that week.

Certain offensive schemes and logistical issues sometimes force us to adjust the drill. As mentioned, we try to make the physical setup of the drill look like the offense we face each week. We align the backfield to mimic our opponent’s backfield. If an opponent does not use two tight ends, we make one of the EMOLS stand in place of one of the "tackle" cans. If an opponent uses a lot of wing or slot, we set up the offensive people accordingly. If only one of our defensive coaches is present for the drill, a player steps in as the QB. If we are short of players altogether, we sometimes use a half-line set up. However, we still try to use a back-side safety so that the safeties can get in the habit of executing their back-side shuffle technique. At times, we will incorporate wide receivers as place holders or crack-block simulators for the corners. Other times we may replace ‘guard’ cans with actual players if we play an opponent who runs a lot of Buck Sweep or Waggle.

Even though we practice the Cover 4 Run Read Drill often, we still have a few kinks to work out. One issue we have had to address is when our front side safety tries to defend a run he thinks is going inside, when in fact the offense was giving some form of inside fake and the run is headed outside. To fix this problem, in the Cover 4 Run Read Drill, we started placing long sections of white rope perpendicular to the LOS, that extend from the inside hips of the EMLOSs, straight back into the secondary. The safeties align just outside of these ropes. During the drill, the safety makes his normal run reads based on the EMLOS; however, if the safety gets an inside run read, he must fill straight ahead and not cross the rope to the inside until the ball has crossed the LOS. We tell the safety that we have two or three linebackers inside that rope, so he should wait outside.

Two other issues we must address often deal with the back-side safety. Against a run away, sometimes the back-side safety gets in too big of a hurry trying to run to the play, often with his shoulders turned perpendicularly to the LOS. This creates huge cutback lanes, and the turned shoulders hinder the safeties ability to turn around to a runner who has cut back. The Cover 4 run read drills allows us to really focus on staying slow and square on the back-side. Another issue we face regularly is the read that a back-side safety gets from a cutoff block from the EMLOS. The DBs often claim that that cutoff block looks similar to a down block, but the play ends up going away. We tell the back-side safety to assume that a block in which the EMLOS moves inside indicates that run is coming to the back-side safety’s "C" gap, so fill accordingly. As the safety fills, he should begin to recognize that the run has gone away; therefore, he should begin to execute his square shuffle to play side, looking for cutback and reverse.

Additional Details: Cover 4 Run Read Drill

  • Drill Frequency: Our secondary runs this drill once during a game week, on the defensive-emphasis day.
  • Possible Drill Adjustments: We adjust the drill according to each week’s offensive opponent’s formations, blocking schemes, and favorite run plays. Sometimes we must adjust to the availability of coaches and players.
  • Time Allotment: We usually spend about 10 minutes running this drill. We allow each DB the opportunity to see as many block combinations they might see from a given opponent. To keep things moving, each DB gets three or four reps at a time, often partaking in at least two sets of the drill in 10 minutes.
Copyright 2011 X&O Labs

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