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By Jerrod Sparling, Head Football Coach, River Valley High School (OH)

For the last two seasons at River Valley High School (OH), head coach Jerrod Sparling has been using 3 Cloud Coverage against 3x1 and 3x2 formation RPOs. It not only has held up against bubble, smoke and read slant constraints, but has also been effective on vertical RPOs mainly because it doesn’t thin out the run box and decreases the amount of space second level defenders can get stretched horizontally. In this exclusive clinic report, Coach Sparling details how he uses the coverage in his six- and seven-man boxes from odd and even spacing. Read the report...


By Jerrod Sparling
Head Football Coach
River Valley High School (OH)

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Sparling XOLabWe have used 3 Cloud Coverage (“Hardball” to us) and variations of it against 3x1 and 3x2 formations since 2014. During that time, we have had great success in taking away RPOs (Bubbles, Smokes, Read Slants), as well as vertical based concepts, without having to thin out of box to do so. This coverage also decreases the amount of space 2nd level defenders can get horizontally stretched away from the box, which allows for more freedom in your run defense. Over the years, we were able to match 4-2, 4-3, 3-4, and 3-3 fronts with the coverage with relative ease.


Here is a look at the structure that we use in our Hardball Coverage. Note that when we are using this coverage, we use a standard 6- and 7-man box setups such as 3-3, 3-4, 4-2, and 4-3 variations to get proper gap alignment and responsibilities. For us, we usually have 6 in the box to 10 personnel and 7 in the box to 11 personnel, unless specific tendencies have us doing different.


Trip-Side Flat Defender


Depth & Alignment - 2 to 5 yards, with his butt to the sideline. Pre-snap he will stem to 2 yards inside the #1 receiver. If the formation is condensed or if the corner is worried about being able to get inside #1, we tell him to line up in between #1 and #2.

Responsibility - Funnel by looking #2 to #3. Playing curl to flat. 

If both go vertical, he must attempt to get hands on #2 and sink to your curl zone. He can be aggressive because he have over-the-top help. He will then be a late flat player on any outside flat route by #1. Rally to any catch in flat area.

If he gets a flat threat by #2 or #3 (Arrow or Out), he must continue to sink to curl zone and be a late flat player. He must also be aware of any flood concept so that a throw is not made over his head. At that point, he will rally to any catch in flat area. 

  • If #2 goes away - Get your eyes on #3 immediately.
  • If you get any bubble screen - Jump the bubble.
  • If #2 or #3 Runs a Wheel - Collision and Run with it.

4-3 Structure

We could do two separate things depending on what hash the ball was on and what side the two receivers were at in our 4-3 structure.

If the ball was on the upright or short hash and the two wide receiver side was to the boundary, we would kick to a 4-2 box and play pure Cover 3 to that side. (Diagram 21). If we did this, we would usually tell our tackles to play head up on the guards to protect the inside linebackers and loosen up our defensive end to the two receiver side. If you do this, you must remind your free safety to play pure Cover 3 as well.


If the ball was in the middle of the field, the two receivers were to the field, or if felt we really needed to get hands on the release of #2, then we would extend our 4-3 alignment and have a 4-1 box. When we did this, we would typically have some type of interior stunt on, which protected our Mike LB.  This allowed us to play two different versions of 3 Cloud coverage, which we did depending on personnel.

Version 1: "Hardball" - Play pure Cover 3 on the two receiver side and 3 Cloud to the Trips side. 


Version 2: "Solo" - We would play man coverage on the two receiver side and 3 Cloud to the Trips side. This unhooked our free safety up to focus solely on the Trips.


3-4 Structure

When we played a 3-4 this past season, we were able to fit both versions of 3 Cloud (Hardball and Solo) to 3x2 Empty formations and still have two linebackers in the box. We had two bigger, thumper-type of inside linebackers, so this worked well for us.


We also played "Double Hardball" one week vs. 3x2 Empty with success. All we did was tell our outside linebacker and cornerback to the two-receiver side to play it exactly like they were on the Trips-side of Hardball. The OLB funneled #2 and carried him vertical, while the cornerback hung on #2 so he could make a play on #1. Versus a pass-happy 3x2 team, we had great success to that side with this.


Solo Tag Variations

The biggest variation we run off of this coverage is what we tag as “Solo”. Basically, what we do is put our best corner to the single receiver side and put him in man coverage. By doing this, we unhook the free safety from any backside responsibility, so he is solely focused on the trips side. Depending on your scheme and box setup, you have to tell the backside LB/Invert that he has #2 (slot or back out of backfield) in man coverage as well. We tend to run this coverage more if we feel that our best corner is better than their best receiver,  if scouting tells us to be worried more about the trips-side of the equation, or if we want to bring pressure back side from B gap on out.

Velcro-Man Variation

Another variation we have used if we wanted to send pressure off of the Trips-side edge is “Velcro-Man”. Basically, we still use the creep technique with our cornerback, but him, along with the strong safety and free safety and match #1, #2, #3 in Man coverage depending on who enters what space (think matchup zone in basketball concept). In this, the strong and free safety will creep up and use a flat-footed man technique. Generally, the strong safety has #1, creeping cornerback has #2, and free safety has #3. We haven’t used it a lot, but has been helpful to us on occasion. If you can get your Trips-side LB in the box to drift a little more horizontally on this it helps with 2nd level in-breaking routes.

Continue to the full-length version of this report…

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  • The coverage responsibilities of the trips side invert player, trips side linebacker and weak side linebacker in three down spacing
  • The coverage responsibility of the weak side invert, curl flat player, free safety and strong safety to trips side in four down front spacing.
  • How Coach Sparling fits Three Cloud coverage to defend Empty formations in both three down and four down front spacing.
  • Plus game film on all these concepts.

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We went to this coverage years ago because we felt that 3x1 and 3x2 formations put us in equations we were not comfortable with. It was either spread our 2nd level out to take away leverage, which made us thin versus the run, or protect the box, which opened us up to leverage and vertical threats. We were simply tired of trying to play “Cat and Mouse” every week, being forced to be right all the time versus these formations. Hardball and Solo gave us everything we needed to defend these formations. It gives us flexibility in the box and fringes areas, while not giving up leverage and vertical openings. Furthermore, by knowing this coverage inside and out, you are able to tell your secondary the few things that can hurt the coverage, allowing your kids to play fast.

For us, this coverage has been a great addition and has been a strength of our defense, even when we were not very good overall. It has been used and adapted by two separate coordinators and multiple schemes, without changing the overall production.


The credit for this article goes directly to two coaches, Charles (Chuck) Winters and Stephen Brown. Coach Winters took over as my Defensive Coordinator in 2013 and inherited a group that gave up 42.5 points per game. By 2015, Winters had turned that group into the 8th ranked defense in all of Ohio Division V, surrendering only 10.6 points per game. Coach Stephen Brown is a former player of mine and my current Defensive Coordinator. He led our defense this past season to another stellar output. Our school and myself, personally speaking, would not be where we are today without the efforts of these two phenomenal coaches.


Meet Coach Sparling: Jerrod Sparling is the Head Football Coach at River Valley High School in Bidwell, Ohio. Sparling inherited a team that had been 21-109 in the 13 seasons prior to his arrival in 2011. After three seasons of growing pains, the Raiders have went 18-12 over the past 3 seasons, including the school’s first and only playoff appearance in 2015. In his time there, Sparling’s squads have broken nearly every major school record, on both individual and team levels, had more All-Ohio player honors than in the school’s first 20 years combined, and sent 14 players on to the collegiate level to further their careers. 



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