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By Mike Kuchar, Senior Research Manager, X&O Labs

Most coaches will argue that in press coverage, the feet must move before the hands. But where they move is just as important as how they move. Too many times, a corner will put himself out of position by stepping back or stepping away from the receiver. Find out how coaches are combatting this problem. Click here.


By Mike Kuchar
Senior Research Manager
X&O Labs
Twitter: @MikeKKuchar


Addressing False Feet

Most coaches will argue that in press coverage, the feet must move before the hands. But where they move is just as important as how they move. Too many times, a corner will put himself out of position by stepping back or stepping away from the receiver. So, to combat this issue Coach Sewell at Bowie State University will use agile bags for his corners to work on their feet before making contact in press technique.

Coach Sewell calls this the No Retreat Press Drill, which works on press technique without retreating. “We’re focusing solely on sliding in the direction where your leverage advantage is without giving ground,” said Coach Sewell, who will use this from press alignment and catch alignment at 5 yards.

Conversely, some corners will develop the bad habit of a forward jab step in playing press technique. According to Coach Moore, if it can’t be fixed with extra study and individual work, he will back the player up a half of a yard and let them play using the false step, like a golfer playing for his/her slice. For example, in the clip below, the corner at the bottom is playing further off than the defender up top because he would always take the false step (Diagram 1). “So instead of playing at the normal depth, we backed him up a half a yard or so he can still take the false step,” said Coach Moore. “We had trouble getting it out of him.”


At Southern Arkansas University, former defensive coordinator Josh Lawson, taught a slide technique to play press coverage. But to alleviate players using their hands before their feet, he would make his corners wrap their hands behind their backs. “We would have a receiver holding a dummy and we would cover the receiver without using hands so they had to use their hips and body all the way through the receiver,” Coach Lawson told us. “We don’t backpedal. We don’t think it helps us. So, we over exaggerated how many times we had to slide. So, if I felt like we needed two good slides in our press coverage before we can get our hands on them and open up with them, we would have exaggerated that to four slides. We would slide laterally four times and then punch a bag to open our hips. We over exaggerated their feet a lot.

Addressing Dead Feet

Aside from taking false steps, some corners have issues with stopping their feet in press coverage as well. How Mac Alexander, the defensive backs coach at Colorado Mesa University alleviates this issue is by using what he calls his “motor technique.” He will start his drill work every day for 10 minutes working his motor drill then progress to one-on-one’s. In his motor back technique; the emphasis is keeping the feet shoulder width apart with weight on the balls of their feet. The hands are up ready to punch and in athletic stance with flat back. When wide receiver releases the defensive back moves his feet back quickly gaining six inches with each step, while staying square.

Like many coaches, Coach Alexander will film his individual time of all the man technique. “We show them that ‘yes, you can do this,’ but you just have to focus on what you are doing,” he told us. “Because many times what gets a defensive back in trouble is that when they come press, they don’t have a plan on what they are going to do. So, getting them to think and focus every time they press will really benefit them.”

Once the motor technique is understood from a stagnant position, Coach Alexander now implements the fundamental to simulate when a receiver moves back and forth. It comes in the shape of his Zig Zag Drill.  “As the wide receiver goes back and forth, the defensive back is working his motor literally staying square and inside of the wide receiver,” said Coach Alexander. “The hips do not open and there is no punch.”

Addressing The Eyes and Hands in Catch Technique

As opposed to on the ball corners which use a press technique in man coverage, off the ball safeties or outside linebackers use what is called a “catch” technique with the visual of “catching” receivers and not giving ground, as they get into their routes. So, we asked each contributor to talk about how he is training the eyes and hands of defenders when in catch technique on a number two receiver.

Zack Moore, defensive coordinator, Morehead State University (KY): “At safety, most footwork issues center around two things: giving ground before utilizing ‘catch’ technique and giving up leverage due to breakdowns in their footwork.  We combat these issues by teaching our safeties to play on a cliff, understanding they cannot give vertical ground prior to making contact with the receiver. We also teach them to understanding how teams may attack our coverage helps the player understand not only what routes they’ll see, but why. Therefore, understanding why they must keep leverage. The technique correction is usually their failure to stay square and mirror lateral movement by the receiver. Correction may be as simple as re-teaching or may call for intervention by means of an alternative drill or approach.

If a player is in man coverage, we do not teach them to read the QB. They can be taught, dependent on the opponent, what routes to expect from various splits, field positions, different players and situations. Also, knowledge of what the weaknesses of the coverage may be and how offenses tend to attack the coverage should give them a good idea of how they’ll be challenged. For example, if we are outside leverage on a slot receiver, we know that slants and inside fades will be on the menu for whatever offense we are playing that particular week. RPO always adds to the challenge of defending, but this is also a big reason why we choose to utilize cover 1.  The back set is often a good indicator of whether you will be on the passing side of RPO. As mentioned above, this, as well as other pre-snap indicators, can help the player anticipate or be prepared for certain routes.    

Josh Lawson, former defensive coordinator, Southern Arkansas University: “We read near hip and we collision. We line up four yards in off coverage and we are not backpedaling. If he’s running vertically, we will take two slides and make that receiver run into me. If he’s trying to run a crossing route, I need to chase him. If he’s running an out, he will run into me. We had to train our defensive backs’ eyes more than anything else. They wanted to peak at things that weren’t there and they think the quarterback is throwing them the ball for whatever reason. If we are in our man coverage, we don’t let them peek at the quarterback. I tell them all the time; man coverage is not designed to get interceptions. It’s designed to have them not throw your guy the ball and it’s designed to knock balls down. It’s also designed to tackle your guy when he gets the ball. We don’t talk about short routes and intermediate routes because the receivers are breaking so much off of us that there is no timing involved. So, we taught mainly to never look away from the receiver. We would go from finding his hips to finding his hands. It’s all hips and hands. We will jump in and out of leverages. That gives the receiver enough time to feel comfortable and it gives the coach enough time to feel comfortable. This is a little psychology. Eventually the coach stops looking at what leverage that cover player is because he thinks he knows.”

Antoine Sewell, defensive coordinator, Bowie State University (MD): “We do still read the quarterback at times, but with the shotgun being so prevalent it becomes difficult for most players. We will read the WR and after he’s hit his 3rd step we will know if he’s going short or intermediate route. We use a lot of drill work and film work to address losing leverage such as partner drills where we have the wide receiver work hard to take away the defender’s leverage. On film, we will show them how losing their leverage compromises the integrity of the defense. Everything we try to do is to get collisions on those receivers and force them to where our help is. We play outside leverage and force everything into the safety.”

The clip below best illustrates the catch technique. According to Coach Sewell that receiver only ran outside breaking routes when he aligned on the numbers or inside. “He never aligned outside so the defensive back knew he would run the hitch or slant. Instead of pressing, he backed off and baits the quarterback into thinking he won’t play the short route. He’s not retreating, he’s shuffling inside and catches the receiver with both hands. If the receiver would cut his route off sooner, the corner would use outside hand because he knows he has inside help. We tell our defensive backs that if the receiver gives you his number, we want to punch with both hands. If he gives you a shoulder, we want to flatten the shoulder.”

Teaching and Implementing
Man Principles to Defend RPOs

X&O Labs Releases Brand-New Special Report:
Man Coverage to Defend RPOs

By Mike Kuchar
Senior Research Manager
X&O Labs

Nick Saban once called it the best coverage in football. Chip Kelly told us this spring it was all he saw at the NFL level to defend his RPO package. The answer is simple: Man-Free Coverage. It’s a simplistic coverage rooted in the following forms of efficiency:

  • It provides for more aggressive coverage on short or intermediate routes, both cornerstones of the RPO offense.
  • It’s a great change up from having QBs find windows in zone or match coverage forcing them to make throws when a defender is “in phase” with their intended target.
  • It makes the wide receivers work for catches.
  • It uses contact to throw off the timing of routes.
  • It places defensive backs closer to where the ball should wind up which provides for drill work that teaches them how to compete for the ball.
  • It’s adjustable to get matchups where defenses can succeed.

In implementing cover one, teaching defenders who to cover is easy. So we wanted to get into how our contributors are teaching man coverage principles. For this research project, we exclusively selected six 4-2-5 coaches who have integrated man free principles to supplant some of the split field variations they were using to defend RPOs. According to Coach Moore, the defensive coordinator at Morehead State University, it was a smooth transition from two-high quarters coverage structures. “We believe in cover one because it aligns not only with our personnel, but with the aggressive mindset we work to establish and foster within our defensive unit,” Coach Moore told us. “In 2015, we began as a quarters-based defense, but quickly evolved into cover one after evaluating not just the effectiveness of the coverage, but the aggression it brought out in our players.”

Quite simply, cover one is a coverage designed to be immune against RPOs for the following three reasons:

  • The entire premise of the RPO system is to manipulate a defender in zone coverage who may have a dual responsibility by playing both run and pass. There are no dual read defenders in cover one. Defenders are either run or pass responsible but have the ability to be “add on” defenders to either based off the reaction of the offensive player you’re responsible for. This cultivates confidence, which in turn promotes speed post-snap.
  • The integrity of keeping six (or more) in the box equates numbers in the run game.
  • The one high defensive coverage structures promotes the potential of 8 man fronts, thus eliminating any apex or overhang defender having to play an interior gap in the run game and a coverage area in the pass game.

At Husson University (ME), defensive coordinator Grant Caserta exclusively ran cover one to defend RPOs because as he told us, “it’s the easiest way to cover every one down and force the give on the run element.” Husson’s numbers were staggering, leading the nation at the Division III level in total defense (181 ypg), rushing defense (47 ypg) and passing efficiency defense (84 ypg).

Josh Lawson, who spent last season as the defensive coordinator at Southern Arkansas University, told us he went purely to man coverage to defend RPOs because it helped his defenders with their eye discipline. “We felt that we can do it with limited athletes because there were several games where we were down to our fourth, fifth and sixth corners and we were able to stay in it and play with our principles,” Coach Lawson told us. “We were cover one about 85 percent of the time last year and most of the teams we faced were RPO in nature.” The Mulerider’s finished 9-3 last season, the last nine win season since 2003.

But this brand-new study, Man Coverage to Defend RPOs, is available right now in our exclusive membership website, Insiders. I’ll show you how to get instant access in just a moment, but I want to cover a few more points. This study is not just about defending RPOs because the reality of the situation is once your defensive hand is drawn and your pre-snap disguise gone, the RPO component is out of the equation. It’s six in the box to defend the run with at least five perimeter players. The post-snap choice is out of the quarterback’s hands. Now you have to teach perimeter defenders how to both cover and interior defenders how to play the run. And how you teach those defenders to execute those run or pass assignments can make the difference between winning and losing.

So, for this special report we wanted to research purely 4-2-5 defensive structures and how they were getting matchup advantages on the perimeter, both by personnel and formation recognition, while keeping the integrity of the box. Our contributor list came directly from what we feel is the purest form of recognition, coaches’ recommendations. Coaches in our network that credit these programs for effectively stalemating some of their RPO packages.

Contributor List (in alphabetical order):

  • Mac Alexander, defensive backs coach, Colorado Mesa University
  • Grant Caserta, defensive coordinator, Husson University (ME)
  • Josh Lawson, (former) defensive coordinator, Southern Arkansas University
  • Zack Moore, defensive coordinator, Morehead State University (KS)
  • Will Pluff, defensive coordinator, Utica College (NY)
  • Antoine Sewell, defensive coordinator, Bowie State University (MD)

Naturally our research is continually centered on solving the issues presented by defensive coaches that utilize man free coverages. Basically, those issues fell into the following four realms:

  • Masking defensive deficiencies to defend more talented offensive personnel.
  • Training the eyes of perimeter defenders to recognize both run and pass.
  • Defending Compressed Formations and rub routes.
  • Finding ways to equate numbers in the QB run game by manipulating the box.

Our research was segmented on focusing on alleviating the issues coaches were having in utilizing cover one. Of course, greater detail is given to these solutions within the cases of the study. These are in no particular order:

Problem #1: “We don't have the dudes to play man coverage.”

Solution: We’re not questioning the relativity of talent in playing man coverage, we’re just asserting that talent shouldn’t be the only factor when deciding to play it. We’re finding that you may not need the shutdown corner or the 6ft. 3in. rangy safety to play this coverage effectively. There is so much more to teaching man coverage than relying on birth given ability, including factors such as down and distance, field landmarks and understand break points or receiver tendencies. The benefit of coverage structure in man-free is it provides for two post-snap bonus defenders, a low hole defender and high hole defender, that can be displaced to assist any personnel deficiency you have in the back end.

In this study, we provide the specific drill work, over 30 of them, that our contributors are using to teach both press man and off man technique. The drills are arranged to troubleshoot what we found to be the most problematic aspects of playing man coverage such as:

  • False feet
  • Dead feet
  • Opening the hips (gate) too early
  • Short arms on contact
  • Addressing holding issues
  • Rounding their breaks

Problem #2: Playing Man Coverage Leaves Defenders Vulnerable on Perimeter

Solution: Playing man coverage is all about both pre-snap and post-snap leverage, which includes identifying formation structure and receiver splits. It also includes receiver stems on pass routes and angle of departure in the run game. Now with the defensive emphasis being shifted to reading the demeanor of receivers to diagnose their post-snap intentions, determining run or pass happens more quickly and defenders can make accurate split second decisions to play either.

In this study, we present our research on how defensive coaches are coaching pre-and post-snap leverage to their perimeter defenders to get them to trigger on the right run or pass reads. If this is done correctly, can shift numbers for a defensive advantage. Some of our research included:

  • The buzz, hit and stick technique used at Utica College for perimeter players against the run game.
  • How teaching is segmented based off of the location of the back.
  • How coaches are alternating between inside and outside leverage points based on the formation and split of the receivers.
  • How seeing the big picture of offensive line and movement of the receiver can provide the most accurate read.
  • Variances of teaching the free safety to trigger post-snap based off run or pass- which include reading the quarterback, offensive line or slot receivers.

Problem #3: Compressed offensive formations equate for matchup problems defensively

Solution: It’s true that stacks and bunches are prerequisites for offensive coordinators when preparing against man coverages. While some believe that’s a liability, the defensive coordinators we spoke with find it to be an asset. After all, the majority of the work week these defenders are getting this from their own offenses in both spring and fall ball. Exhibit A: over 40 percent of the clips that Zach Moore submitted for this project consisted of double stack, triple stack and bunch formations from the offense. So, repetition develops consistency.

In this case, we present our research on how defensive coaches are doing the following:

  • Getting their players to understanding levels of receivers.
  • Educating them on the pre-snap protocols for potential pick routes.
  • How the alignment of the back can be a trigger for rub routes.
  • The differentiation that needs to be made between tight bunch and wide bunch formations
  • Main coverage concepts used to defend double and triple stack formations.

Problem #4: The QB run game manipulates the box count advantageously for the offense

Solution: We got that. The easiest answer is to add numbers pre-snap completely neglecting the pass game. While effective, at times (see Bear front special report), there are other ways to get an advantage numerically without committing all defenders to the box. This can come in the form of understanding the alignment of the back in off-set structures, adding a defender to the bubble of the front in Pistol alignments and finding ways to commit an extra defender to the run against three-man surfaces- both with Y attached and unattached.

In this case, we focused on the following:

  • How add on defenders can affect the H/Y off alignment run game.
  • How teaching a gap-based system in the box, such as the one used at Husson University, provides for malleability in both zone and gap run concepts.
  • How teaching a low (offensive line) to high (backfield) reading system, such as the one used at Bowie State University, clears things up for linebackers by telling them which way to take on blocks and providing them the freedom to fast flow based on their help.
  • How teaching a high (backfield) to low (offensive line) reading system, such as the one used at Morehead State, slows backers down before bursting into their fit, which allows them to get into underneath throwing lanes in the RPO game.
  • How teaching a low ball and high ball system of the quarterback, such as the one used at Utica College, provides for both an inside RPO and outside RPO defender based on the ball placement of the QB.
  • How coaches are choosing to “add on pressure” from their box linebackers based on offensive formation.

Get instant access to X&O Labs’ brand-new special report, Man Coverage to Defend RPOs, click the link below right now.

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