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By Steve Erxleben, Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator, Southern High School (MD)

As a defensive staff, we feel being a heavy zone pressure team gives us an opportunity to dictate the game and concern ourselves more with what we are running versus having to have a litany of checks per formation, motion, personnel, etc.

By Steve Erxleben
Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator
Southern High School (MD)
Twitter: @CoachErxleben



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The ability to utilize Fire Zone Blitz concepts on any down and distance allows a defense to be multiple and defend numerous Formations and blocking schemes without checking out of most calls. In our league, here in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, each of our opponents present diverse formations, motions, run schemes, pass protections, and pass combinations out of a variety of personnel packages and tempos. As a defensive staff, we feel being a heavy zone pressure team gives us an opportunity to dictate the game and concern ourselves more with what we are running versus having to have a litany of checks per formation, motion, personnel, etc.

As a 76% blitz team here at Southern High School, we primarily use a 3 under 3 deep coverage scheme behind our zone blitzes. We feel it is the most important part of our blitz scheme in that it allows us to blitz while focusing on eliminating big plays and dictating how the ball will be leveraged from the outside-in as well as creating turnovers to get the ball back to the offense.

Unfortunately, a 3 under/3 deep scheme is sometimes referred to as a “cheat” coverage because it is relatively unsound in the immediate flat areas, the deep seam, and in the middle of the field between 15 and 20 yards. Every year we do an efficiency report on our Defense looking at all passes over 10 and runs over 15 to determine why these plays happened. In over half of our completions over 10, Hitches and bubbles were the routes completed and either created a first down or a long gain.

To challenge these short throws without giving up our blitz identity, we have gone to incorporating some of our quarters techniques into a Rip/Liz match cover 1 scheme against 10/11 personnel and formations where #2 and/or #3 is removed.

Every year our defensive staff creates a report and cut-ups within HUDL of all our completions given up over 10 yards to determine why the Blitz didn’t get home, why the throw was a completion and was the completion caused by either a lack of technique, a lack of execution, or a lack of effort. Below is an example of the excel sheet we tabulate.

Erxleben 030519 1p


This report is the 21 passes over 10 yards we gave up as a Defense from 2015. In the 12th Column we tabulate what route or route combination each of these completions was and from the data collected, Hitch and Bubble were almost 1/3rd of all passes completed over 10 yards. Before this year we were primarily a 3 under 3 deep team using some match principles but giving up or “China” calling any non-threatening route by #1 (basically hitch) and coming off late and rallying to the bubble. Our goal was that the Blitz would get home and the QB would either get sacked, flushed, or that the pressure would cause an error in footwork or decision making that would lead to an incompletion or turnover.

We think in a “worst case scenario” frame of mind quite a bit as a staff and try to rep those situations as a defensive backfield when the blitz is either picked up or the pass is off, so we must play coverage. To alleviate the quick throws, our goal was to play more pressed coverage out of quarters/Read 2 principles. However, with no post safety vs 2x2, we were way more subject to the RPO game and 4 verticals, which becomes a match-up issue 4 on 4.

This past year, we experimented and successfully ran a match-up cover 1 (Rip and Liz verbiage) from a pressed alignment while keeping our blitz on and adjusting to 3x1. From a technical aspect, we relied on our pressed quarters' technique and pressed quarters rules specifically for our Corners and coached our MOF safety in more of a "robber" technique to add him to the run fit.



Even though this article is about Cover 1 and Fire Zone, it is warranted to first touch on our base verbiage and what the Blitz and non-pressure sides are doing. In our base defense, we will set our front either to the field or the boundary, to or away from the multiple receiver side, to or away from the TE, or to or away from the Back in the shotgun. Where we are setting the front is a weekly game plan decision. Every snap we make either a "Roger" or "Louie" call which dictates where the 4th rusher is coming from and if we are in a 3-deep situation, where safety support is spinning. Our Interior linemen always slant away from the front call (Roger/Louie) as the 4th rusher (our call side OLB) becomes the C gap player/5 technique call side. The reduction side call correlates with a coverage call to establish who the force player is to the reduction side as well as who the seam player will be. All our same-side ILB/OLB or "edge" blitzes correlate with a Roger or Louie call, which we feel makes it easier for our players to identify and gives them a chance to focus more on the disguise and triggering the blitz from a proper depth and angle. 

We align in a 2-high shell with our safeties leveraging #2 to their side at 10 yards and our corners aligned 2 yards deep and on the inside eye of #1 every down. Before or after every snap, depending on the alignment of #2 and the game plan for the week, we will roll our secondary and bail our corners to create a 1 high MOF when we get into our odd or MOF-closed coverages.

We feel that pre-snap movement is key to not only affecting the calls and execution of the protection, but we also feel it has an effect on the decision making of the QB if he is in a situation of having to find some sort of hot read in a limited amount of time. We also like the spinning and bailing of our Secondary in a no-huddle or tempo situation because it could eventually affect a check from the sideline and a possible delay of game, unwanted timeout, or lack of execution by the 11 players on Offense. Additionally, all of our pre-snap movement helps our players play faster because they are not sitting “static” and are ready to trigger as soon as the play develops. 

If we roll our coverage and set the reduction and down safety right, we will echo the “Roger” call from the front with a “Rip” call (DIAGRAM 1). This tells the front that the safety aligned to the right will be rolling or “spinning” to the right and is now the force player and Seam Player to that side. If the front is setting the reduction the Left, we echo the “Louie” call with a “Liz” call to set the force player/Seam player to the left (DIAGRAM 2). We feel like making 2 calls gets everybody talking and communicating so that we have gap integrity and the 3 underneath defenders are aware of who is playing what.

Diagram 1

Diagram 2



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  • The divider rule that Coach Erxleben uses to train his corners and seam two defenders to be in advantageous alignments to the field and boundary.
  • The difference between the “dead read” for the free safety in Cover 1 coverage as opposed to the buzz technique used in Cover 4 coverage.
  • The only situation where he would have his “Seam 2” defenders play inside on a number two.
  • How the “3 Hole” defender’s role shifts from running with to leveraging the number three receiver in trips formations.
  • The “three release” philosophy that Coach Erxleben uses to train his back end to pattern match different route structures.
  • Why he puts his “Match 2” defender to the side of number three in a quarter cock alignment.
  • Plus, game film on all these concepts.


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Meet Coach Erxleben: Coach Steve Erxleben just completed his 3rd season as the Head Football Coach at Southern High School in Harwood, Maryland. Previously, Coach Erxleben was the Defensive Coordinator/Secondary coach at South River High School in Edgewater, Md and has 16 years of Coordinator experience. From 2005-2010 Coach Erxleben was the Head Coach at South River High school appearing in 1 playoff game and winning 7 games in 2010. From 2011-2012 Coach Erxleben was the Head Coach at St. Mary’s High School in Annapolis, MD. Coach Erxleben has also coordinated defenses at Meade High School, and Southern High School, all in the state of Maryland.





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