"For a time, offenses got away from 3x1 open because of protection issues. Now they are using it more to either manipulate you down the middle of the field or to isolate your boundary corner. You have to protect him. You will not always get the matchup that favors him."
- Bud Foster, former Defensive Coordinator, Virginia Tech University
By Mike Kuchar
Senior Research Manager/Co-Founder
The Ideology: Varying Coverage and Insertion Points to Exploit Mismatches
Let’s start with a foregone conclusion: Bud Foster loves to pressure offenses. That has never changed. But how he decides to manufacture pressure has been a continual development in the mind of the legendary defensive coordinator. We’ve all seen the grainy footage of Virginia Tech’s Whip Dogs and Cane Dogs of the early 2000s. If you haven’t, we’re willing to show it again. Those samplings are included in the Film Room section of this study. You need to see how Xavier Adibi and Corey Moore got after the QB. But his evolution now has come in the form of altering two main aspects of his zone pressure system: varying insertion points for his pressure people and building out the coverages on the back end.
He tells me that in a good year, he will be 15-18% zone pressures, 30% man free pressures, and 55% zone coverages. There are also be years where they are not a good pressure team so he will play more base. The difference lies in how many coverages are used to support them on the back end. “In any of our pressure patterns, we can play Cover 7, Man Free, Trap, Cloud, Robber, or Quarters he told me. “It can change week to week for us. It’s based on whether an offense is a run team, an RPO team, or a pure drop-back team. That is where we’ve been different.”
One of the more interesting things I garnered from my sessions with Bud is noticing how different he is in classifying his zone pressure system. Most coaches I’ve worked with classify their zone pressures based on the concept type and would follow this traditional format:
- 3-deep, 3-Under zone pressures
- 3-deep, 2-Under zone pressures
- 2-deep, 4-Under zone pressures
Each one of these categories will have a distinct amount of pressure patterns tied to it. For example, a “Bark,” pressure pattern would continually be with always be utilized with 3-deep, 3-under zone pressure coverage. But Coach Foster doesn’t classify his pressures in that regard. Instead, he’ll build coverages off the pressure pattern. And because he varies the coverage behind these patterns, most of his pressures are grouped by name, not by coverage. For example, a Whip (Nickel) zone pressure alone can be supported by several coverages on the back end. I assumed this could be confusing for players but the more time I spent with him the more I realized that players knew by alignment who was involved in the pressure. And that knowledge came with the understanding of the offensive formation presented. I’ll have more on that in the next section.
Like most coaches, Coach Foster teaches the back end of coverage before creating the pressure pattern. He is a self-reported coverage-loaded coach. “Our people have to understand invert coverage concepts first then we build our pressures around them,” he said. “It’s coverage first then we plug the blitz pattern in. You don’t mess with the coverage. You can plug people into the coverage.” This placement is the culmination of the process of finding mismatches in protection and coverage, both of which I elaborate on below.
- Cover 7- This was a strong thirds rotation coverage that would replace the blitzer to the field. He liked to use these against spread offenses that took vertical shots on the perimeter. This softer coverage matched up well against deeper routes.
- Cover 5 (Trap)- I noticed he used this coverage to get immediate protection in the flat to defend the horizontal pass game. It was something he built in when offenses started to identify pressure indicators and attack the flanks.
- Cover 2 (Robber)- This coverage he used to soften the leverage of corners who had to defend speedy receivers to the field. I noticed it was something he used a great deal of against Miami who had faster receivers outside.
- Cover 9 (Quarters)- This was used as a tighter fit coverage to contest intermediate throws and RPO’s. It played out more like man coverage with boundary pressure.
- Cover 5 Switch/Cover 2 Switch- This is the coverage he progressed to protect seams. It’s part of his adaptation and is explained below.
But there are certain staples in Coach Foster’s zone pressure catalog that need to be understood before digging deeper into his methodology. The number one rule is simple: the first level must secure their gaps, either with their bodies or the bodies of their opponents. That is a non-negotiable and that wording is littered all over his 500-page defensive manual. There are several pre-snap movement verbiages tied to his system, which is explained below.
First Level Movement Categories:
- “Tag”- 3-Technique works from B gap to A gap.
- “Spark”- Same as Tag but 2i defender goes from A gap to B gap.
- “Long Pinch”- C gap to B gap movement. Used by defensive ends to the side of the pressure. They will read the block of the Guard. If the Guard fans, he comes underneath the block. If the slide goes away from the pinch, he has to work back into the C gap.
- “Long Scoop”- Used by Nose and Tackle to cross the face of the Center. This defender needs to be deep enough to get over the top of the Center. The same rules apply above. Center works slide to him, they cross face.
- “Stem”- Nose and Tackle pre-snap movement. Each will stem from a 2-technique to a 3-technique. These stems are called. “We can’t play with two 3-techniques,” said Coach Foster. “If they get caught on first down, they are both sparking.”
Except for Stems, all of these calls are built into the call. Players are notified of the side of the pressure by “Lucky” calls (blitz is coming from the left) and “Ringo” calls (blitz is coming from the right). Any two-shade in Lucky tells them they are an A gap penetrator. Any three-shade in Lucky tells them they are tagging.
Zone Pressure Principles:
Pressure defenders at the second level are either contain rushers or benders. Each of these responsibilities is below:
- Contain rushers= crash stunt. This is taught to Backers, Nickels, Whips, Rovers, Corners, FS. They would play pitch on the option and have flare control in the passing game. They have the contain element of the concept.
- Benders- D crashers. According to Coach Foster, this defender cannot be flat enough. They will take the ball/dive player on option or the QB if no dive element. They must spill everything with a free rush. Corners or Nickels and Rovers can all be benders.
In most scenarios, the initial penetrator would be an outside edge defender and then LB would be contain. I’ve noticed many breakdowns in the technique of the D-crasher when I was sitting down with Coach Foster to not come tight enough down the line of scrimmage. He teaches this by using his Hoops Drill, which is available in the Film Room section of this report.
With a pressure catalog as extensive as his, I was curious to see how he assesses blitzers. He told me that although different years bring different personnel, he found that the Nickel in his system usually was a better pressure defender than a cover defender. This is why he relied more on them to pressure than to play more coverage. The same could hold true with the Rover. “It’s all about timing, anticipating, and the ability to slip blocks,” he said. “They need to play with good leverage and not be allowed to get pushed.” He teaches this by using his Skate Drill, which is available in the Film Room section of this report.
Bud felt that the hardest thing to get pressure players to understand is to make sure they have a plan before they rush. “Those second-level players can’t have hesitation,” he said. “The worst-case scenario is to bull rush or power rush the blocker but I don’t want to get run by the QB where he can dip up and run away. I want them to play fast. You don’t want QB’s to step up and attack seams, etc. It’s the same thing with our front four. We want to push the pocket with our defensive ends. There are different QB that can turn and run or slide out with vision downfield. We need to keep the launch point in a certain area and close the pocket. We need to limit the passing lane.”
Zone Pressure Installation:
He follows a progression when installing his zone pressure catalog. I include his complete fall and spring installation in the Appendix, but from a general standpoint he uses this framework:
- Field Fire Zones first
- Boundary Fire Zones second
- Pipe (Middle) Fire Zones third
“Once you have those patterns put in it just becomes concepts like insertion points, long pinches, and wipe techniques,” he said. “We would have a full run-through in practice to emphasize two back offense to get our base rules. Then we move to one-back offense. I want to get base fundamentals done.”
The man pressures described in Section 4 get installed first. Then, he progresses to teaching his zone pressures. We will follow the order below when detailing them in this section:
- Whip Dog
- Cane Dog
- Clippers (30 Pressure)
- Boundary Dog (30 Pressure)
Field Pressure Patterns:
How he classifies these pressures has so much clarity, particularly for the defenders upfront. All of his field fire zones abide by the following outline below:
The field pressures are all the same to the pressure side. “It’s only different for the Nickel, Free Safety, and Mike linebacker based on coverage,” he said. There is a lot of text in that outline above, but essentially Field fire zone rules follow the format below:
- The defensive end to the pressure side is either long pinching or he’s up the field like he would be on the “Slice” pattern.
- Tackles are long scooping.
- The Nose is sparking away
- The Defensive end to the boundary is dropping.
The following pressures are included in Coach Foster’s field zone pressure catalog:
- Whip dog
- Cane Dog
What I wanted to do first is introduce these pressure patterns and when to use them. Then I’ll address how he went about altering the coverage structure behind them to attain mismatches in either protection or personnel.