Updated: Apr 5
It is genuinely challenging to revolutionize Cover 3. It is one of the oldest and most used coverages in all football. From the earliest youth levels to the NFL, this coverage is found in virtually every defensive playbook in football. This includes Cover 3 "haters" like myself, who still have it in the playbook - we might call it something different... There are two significant issues with Cover 3, defending 4 Verts and Over routes off of Play Action. Nick Saban and others created a solution for the first, and I believe the NFL's DC du jour, Vic Fangio, has created a solution to mitigate some of the issues of the second. Even though it's an NFL-level concept, I believe you can adapt it to any defense, even at the high school level. In exploring this concept, I discovered a way to tweak it to stifle the Wing-T staple, the Waggle.
One note to emphasize on this post, and all posts going forward, is that when talking about the history of football, it is almost impossible to figure out who did what first. I make a lot of assertions about specific coaches popularizing or even creating certain concepts. Others may have done it first, but these coaches are attributed to these creations and/or influenced their rise in popularity.
Cover 3, And Its Problems
Even if you've never coached a down of football, you can probably recite the responsibilities of every defender in Cover 3: 2 Deep Outside 1/3s players, 2 Curl/Flat droppers, 2 Hook/Curl droppers, and a Middle 1/3 player (we capitalize defensive responsibilities on this website).
Cover 3 has flaws, but its prevalence comes down to its simplicity and ability to line up to almost any offensive formation without a glaring "we-are-about-to-give-up-six-points" problem. Of course, not every coverage can say that - try playing Zone Cover 2 to 3x1 without a Tampa and/or backside Poach or Quarters to Empty. However, two of the most significant flaws are simple and widely known. First, you don't have to be a Stanford math major to realize if they have 4 players deep and you have 3, you're screwed. Second, there's a massive hole between your 2nd & 3rd level of defense if the offense runs Play Action. Other issues are vying to be at the top of the list, but we will focus on these two, specifically the second one.
Rip/Liz, Skinny, & Match Fire Zones Morphing
Nick Saban is widely credited with solving the first issue of 4 Verts vs. Cover 3 with his "Rip/Liz" and "Skinny" calls. Both concepts changed the responsibilities of the Curl/Flat defenders and told them to carry #2 Vertically unless #2 went inside (1 in Skinny, both in Rip/Liz). This idea is also referred to as a "Zone Match."
The original "Rip/Liz" check basically turned Cover 3 into Cover 1 if everyone started going deep in 2x2 sets. However, if receivers started going underneath, it would revert to a "regular" Zone Cover 3. It is important to note that even though it played out like Cover 1, the footwork for the overhang defenders in Rip/Liz is called "Scooch." Scooching is a kick slide backward. This is important because even though it plays out like Cover 1, the overhangs must zone drop (scooch) first. Otherwise, it's difficult to initially play flat-foot catch and/or press technique and bail back to the Curl.
Here are the original route matches from the 2006 Miami Dolphins playbook (more on that later).
A "Fast 3" rule was adopted later, which allowed Rip/Liz to turn into more of a true Zone Cover 3 if #3 (the RB) went fast. This is to prevent what you see in the drawing in Box 6 - the LB having to match a Fast #3 to the Flat and potentially getting out-leveraged.
Here are some route matches after the Fast #3 rule was added. The first picture is 4 Verts with a RB blocking and/or releasing slowly. The second picture is how it plays out if #3 is fast.
Here is what happens if #2 goes "Under."
An important note: the Fast #3 rule can be taken off if you're playing against a certain head coach whose yell leaders are the best/worst part of college football ("Happy Birthday Kip... IYKYK...)
Against 3x1, "Skinny" was used to the 3 WR side in Trips. Skinny puts the Corner on #1 unless #1 goes underneath, the Nickel/Star on the vertical of #2, and the Weak/Hook defender carried #3. You can see the difference between Skate (the "true" zone way of playing Cover 3/6 in Saban world) and Skinny).
Skinny helps match up with #1 and #2 Vertical, but both coverages have another Achilles heel: #3 Vertical. We will talk about this later.
Side story: Coach Matt Brophy and I were the first to talk about Rip/Liz online, in-depth (that I knew of; another difficult thing to pin down... internet history). I had been gifted a playbook of Nick Saban's 2006 Miami Dolphins playbook and had been studying it feverishly that off-season. Yep, that same playbook floating around online was my handy work. It took me months to scan and involved a professional printing company because one of the playbooks was bound, and I had to return the original owner, in-tact. The return of said playbook to its owner, Kent Baer, almost ended up in a 4 am street fight after I fell asleep in an apartment in a San Francisco apartment after a Giants game. That's a whole 'nother story for another time... Back to Matt - he had obtained audio of Saban talking about this at a clinic, and we joined forces for the blog linked above.
The story goes that many coaches in the NFL started adapting Rip/Liz style rules for their Cover 3. However, there was a very similar concept already happening in the NFL. Dom Capers & Dick LeBeau had been refining Zone Blitzes. The backbone of the concept was the 3 Deep/3 Under Coverage behind all those badass Fire Zones patterns.
Fire Zone 3 played just like Rip/Liz mechanically, albeit with one less dropper. In its most basic form, the "Fire/Flat" droppers would carry #2 Vertical & Out, just like Rip/Liz. The difference is, with one less inside dropper, the Fire/Flat droppers would have to carry #3 if they went inside unless #3 was coming toward them. If Fire/Flat had #3 coming fast at them, the player matching #3, the #3 Rec Hook dropper, would take #2 inside, effectively swapping with the Fire/Flat dropper.
The concept plays out like Cover 1 without an underneath dropper, except if #2 and #3 exchange. Side note: in a CW Post 4-4 clinic, Bryan Collins describes this as a "Tito" call - Two In/Three Out. I love the Jackson 5 and stole this. Teams in the NFL were getting away from the true zone version of 3 Deep/3 Under as offenses spread out. There were too many holes (I wrote an article for Matt Brophy about this in 2010). Many of these concepts are laid out in a 1997 Carolina Panthers defensive playbook floating around the interwebs. Can you guess who Dom Caper's defensive coordinator was for that year? Vic Fangio.
Interestingly, if you browse that playbook, regular Cover 3 doesn't show up much in Sub sets vs. 2x2. All of the snaps of Cover 3 are in Base/Nickel vs. Pro, or 3x1 in Sub packages, with a smattering of Zone Drop 3 to 2x2 usually in the form of Buzz, where a Safety is inserted in the Hooks, presumably to carry verticals. It only shows up in a Drop 8 variation, which mitigates the issues of 4 Verts.
Vic Fangio's Cover 3 Evolution
If you study Fangio over the last ten years, you will see that he plays mostly Split Safety coverages and Fire Zones in Base personnel, and Split Safety/Cover 1 in Sub packages. Over time, he begins to play more 3 Deep vs. 11 Personnel, which he calls Cover 9 (more on this below). At this point, he has many of the same calls as he did with Capers, with a little more Drop 8 out of his base personnel. You can also see some of the Ravens' influence.
I do not know the exact timeline, but the story has been passed down to me that with Coach Fangio using Match 3 principles in Fire Zone 3 (Rush 5/Drop 6), he decided that the easiest way play to play Zone Cover 3 (Rush 4/Drop 7) in sub personnel where 2x2 formations would present a problem, is to simply add an extra Hook defender (the Bonus Hook) to his already existing Fire Zone 3 coverage. So why come up with a bunch of rules when you already have the skeleton of the concept staring you in the face?
Fangio Fire Zone vs. 2x2
Fangio Cover 9 vs. 2x2
As you can see above, Vic changed Fire/Flat to SF or Seam/Flat. He doesn't specify which Hook is which 2x2, but whatever side the passing strength is, becomes the 3 Rec Hook (3RH), and the Hook opposite is the Bonus Hook (BH). The 3x1 alignments and responsibilities are below.
The "Site" call - Stopping 4 Verts in Trips
Vic played Cover 9 and dominated with it - he had some of the better defenses in the NFL featuring this concept. It quickly became one of his top Nickel calls. He solved the 4 Verts problem in 2x2 using the Fire Zone concepts of carrying verticals, just as Saban did. Also, he is attributed with another significant innovation in 3x1.
I talked earlier about the issue with #3 Vertical. Whether it is off of Play Action or a Dropback Pass, a mismatch can be created if the offense puts speed at #3 and sends him vertically. Think Tuf Borland vs. Devonta Smith.
To combat this, Vic created the Site concept against 3x1 Gun Weak. This told the FS to read the release of the RB. If the RB releases fast to the Flat, The FS matches him, and the Weak Hook defender (Fangio calls him the 3 Rec Hook, just like Fire Zone) takes #3 Vertical. This plays out exactly like their base Cover 9 rules.
However, if RB did not go fast, the FS would take #3 Vertical, and the LB would play man-to-man on the RB.
With Site, you are getting your better athlete against the offense's biggest threat depending on the release: if the RB swings and can run a Wheel, the FS has him. If the RB blocks, the FS can take #3 Vertical. Note: the offense can still run 4 Verts with a weak swing route by the RB, but many coaches argue it's not as prevalent.
The defense is exchanging the Seam/Flat and 3 Rec Hook player from the drawing above (see Fangio's Cover 9 vs. 3x1) post-snap. This is the key to the next part of this post.
Like any tool in a defensive toolbox, you can turn the Site call on and off whenever you like. For example, say you're playing a bigger RB that isn't a threat to outflank you with a Swing or a Wheel or a RB that always stays in to block or chips and comes out late, with the QB never throwing to him. In this case, you can skip the post-snap reading process and "Auto Site." The defenders will simply switch responsibilities. It's a cheap and easy way to play 3 Weak Buzz without your players knowing it.
Conversely, if you're playing Christian McCaffrey or have a LB that can't cover well, you take the Site call off completely and play regular Cover 9
Creating Problems with Over Routes in 2x2
The second major weakness of Cover 3 is stopping the Deep Over routes off of play action pass. These plays are tough to stop in any scheme that isn't man-to-man (and even that is tough), but their effectiveness skyrockets vs. 3 Deep.
I have said for many years now that the Seattle Seahawks' defense of the early to mid-2010s set defensive football back half a decade. Many teams tried to imitate the Seahawks, and like the 1996 movie starring Michael Keaton, "Multiplicity," a copy of a copy is always worse. And the more copies you make off the copy, the worse it gets. Seattle took a structurally poor defense vs. some offensive concepts and used future Hall of Famers to extinguish them. Many coaches tried to replicate the "Legion of Boom" with "Dollar Store" versions of their archetypes and failed miserably.
Sean McVay took advantage of the Cover 3 boom and "over-routed" the NFL to death by slightly spreading out. By this time, many Cover 3 defenses had figured out how to defend the West Coast offense's playaction staples using Over routes in 21 and 12 personnel. Defenses were exchanging responsibilities to avoid turning a WR loose and being out-leveraged by swapping the responsibilities of the Corners and Safeties with pre- and post-snap alerts. Here is an example of one such adjustment.
McVay knew he could spread out a bit, get into 2x2 sets and use the inside WRs as the Over routes to negate this tactic. This would prevent the Corners from being able to exchange routes with the Safeties because inside receivers would occupy them. Instead, the defense must use its ILBs to cover the Over routes. By sucking them up on play-action, they would have to turn and run at full speed to cover. This is often called the "Robot" technique, but I prefer what other teams call it: the "oh shit" drop.
McVay would spread out, but not too much - he knew the Rip-Liz Match 3 rules and knew if he aligned the slots too wide in 2x2, the defensive team could check and have the overhangs match the Overs or what some teams call "the Dirty Vertical." To combat that, he would condense splits and/or align WRs in TE positions. This was to get defenses to check back into Zone Cover 3, allowing the overhangs to let those Over routes go.
If he didn't want to condense the splits of the receivers, he could force Match 3 teams to alter their plan by using motion and backfield action directly at the Seam/Flat defender, putting them in conflict. He preyed on the defense's rules to turn Match 3 into Zone with the Fast #3, with some defenses specifically having built-in rules to do so, specifically if the Fast #3 comes from the other side of the formation (side note: they will leave it on in Fire Zone, though).
Covering Over Routes in Match 3 with a Fast #3
This wasn't a novel offensive concept - far from it. But the rate at which he used this concept to accelerate his offensive production was staggering. Every time you'd watch the Rams, there would be wide-open Over routes everywhere. So many defenses were trying to play Cover 3, and he repeatedly exploited the space between the 2nd and 3rd-level defenders. And as we know, the NFL is a copy-cat league. Guys like Andy Reid took Tyreek Hill's speed and exacerbated the issue - that Deep Over goes from 16-18 yards to 20-22 yards, and now the ILB is toast (hence, the "oh shit" drop).
The "easy" solution is to leave the Match 3 concepts on no matter what and prevent the Seam/Flat player from dropping the Over route, playing the original Saban Rip/Liz concept sans Fast #3 rule. However, there was a reason Saban created it - if the Fast #3 comes in the form of Fly or Jet motion (yes, there is a difference - Fly is under Center, Jet is in the Gun, and I will die on this hill). If the Seam/Flat defender doesn't take the Fast #3, now an ILB has to defend the run and a player to the Flat? It's impossible. If you try to play man coverage on these routes, McVay will put you into a blender the same way. You could play 2-high, but now you're lighter in the box. What if you want to stay in 1-High? What do you do?
Solving the Over Route Dilemma: "Site" on the Run
Vic Fangio created a solution to help solve these issues. He took his 3x1 Site concept, switching the Seam/Flat and Hook players against specific patterns, and brought it to defending 2x2. The idea is that if the Seam/Flat's (or Curl/Flat in True Zone 3) receiver they are matching doesn't go Vertical or Out, the ILB will match that player. Then, after exchanging their responsibility with the Hook player, the Overhang will climb and look across the field for the Deep Over.
Compare this to the drawing above this one, with the Backer having to roll under the Over route. Again, like 3x1 Site, you have the Overhang, usually a Safety, playing a faster player, and the LB on the TE, simply going to the Flat.
There are some obvious obstacles to overcome if you want to use this concept. First, it's important to note that it is better paired with certain fronts/playing styles than others. For example, if you are playing an Even front, 10 technique LB to the TE or coaching your ILBs to fly downhill, attempting to wheel back and cover a player going in the opposite direction could be an issue. But if that LB is aligned wider and more patient with run away, and/or there is a formation set tendency that alerts a Deep Over is coming, you can enact this call. The essential teaching point is that you must emphasize to the ILB and Overhang that they are switching responsibilities. This makes the "Site on the Run" much smoother to execute.
For a very long time, we have taught our Curl/Flat defenders in Cover 3 that if nothing is threatening you, to help underneath #1. But in today's NFL and other levels of football, the threat is often the Over route, especially on mixed downs (1st & 10/2nd & 1-6). So Fangio is essentially turning the Overhangs into the fixers and using Quarters' concepts of poaching Safeties from the other side in 3 Deep Coverage.
If you have gotten this far, first, congrats! It's my first writing in almost four years, meaning I haven't bored you to tears. Second, if you are either an NFL or college coach or fan, you're saying to yourself, "Wow, what a brilliant concept by Coach Fangio!" But if you coach high school football, I am willing to wager some of you are sitting there thinking, "There is no way hell in hell this works in high school." Hell, even Coach Fangio didn't play it all the time against 2x2. He would turn it on and off like his 3x1 Site variation. On the other hand, Brandon Staley tried to Site on the Run as much as possible.
Using the "Site" Concept in High School
Since early 2020, I have consulted high schools, colleges (from the NAIA level to CFP teams), and even some NFL teams. I've talked about my love of Site in some of those sessions but never spoke about the 2x2 version with high school coaches because, frankly, I thought it was too difficult even to attempt (and I feel damn near anything is possible). So I considered the possibility in passing but saved my suggestions of implementing this concept for teams at the collegiate and professional levels.
Last week, I was doing a session with a coach and going through how we used to fit up Wing-T Waggle (Boot). We played a Quarters/Robber variation to the TE/Wing side called "Blue Pitch" and Sky coverage, almost identical to Cover 3 to a single WR. I was lamenting how even in a 1/4s concept, Boot was hard to defend. Those Wing-T Tight Ends don't practice many passes besides those damned Deep Over routes, and they were skilled at getting inside our SS. They would flatten out so the QB can rip the ball in there and complete the pass (we are in 4-2-5 land now, so that player will henceforth be called the FS).
We needed to help the FS with an underneath player, as you should defend any Boot concept. The problem against this play is that the DEs were trained like police academy dogs (shoutout KB) to spill kick-outs, so if the offense X-blocked the Weakside DE, they would get sucked in and lose Contain. This meant a second-level defender had to pull the QB up. We wanted to Secondary Contain the Weak ILB (Will) because he's closer to the QB, but the Strong ILB (Mike) couldn't cover underneath the Crosser. By the time the Mike realized it was a pass, the TE had crossed behind him, and he was out-leveraged. Thus, the Will had to get underneath the Crosser; the Mike had to Secondary Contain from the opposite side. This left the Weak Safety (FS in all previous drawings) on the FB in the Flat, the Solo side Corner on the X Fade or Comeback, and the SS on the line of scrimmage spying Tailback Throwback Screen.
How We Tried to Defend Waggle/Boot
This drawing is how it should fit. However, getting a high school LB to cover this isn't easy. They should see the pullers going the opposite of the backfield action (easier said than done) and not be fooled, but alas, they do follow the ball sometimes. Also, the offense could easily block "Solid," and not pull anyone, and the same issue arises.
I explained the inconsistencies in defending this play to the coach I consulted and mused, "If only you could just 'Site on the run' this play..." I got quiet for a second, did the calculations in my head, and exclaimed, "HOLY SHIT!" My poor Patreon member was confused while I blathered on and began drawing adjustments. After some tinkering, this is what I came up with.
Using Fangio's "Site on the Run" vs. Wing-T Waggle
Using Site to defend Wing-T Waggle is based on having the Will and the Weak Safety switch responsibilities, as I have previously mentioned (again, this is a key point!). The Will matches the FB, which would be his assignment anyway, vs. this Split flow look (FB Trap). The Weak Safety would see the action go away and see the QB turn to Boot to him. The WS would flip their back to the sideline and bail like a Corner getting a "Smash/China call," climbing and looking to play underneath the Over route from the opposite side. The bonus of this concept is the QB may not see it - if the QB bypasses the FB too quickly, he may fix his eyes on the TE and never see the WS coming from the other side. When you evaluate this concept against this type of formation and/or play, it looks far from revolutionary; it is a minor tweak but one that could help defend the top Wing-T pass. I invite you to poke holes in it and comment below, telling me how full of shit I am.
Using "Site on the Run" to defend Waggle
As I mentioned, Cover 3 has been thought to be a Curl/Flat concept by the Overhang, especially vs. 2 Backs - hold off the Curl, rally to the Flat when/if the ball is thrown, and if nothing threatens you, help underneath the outside receiver. Even the most hardened Saban Rip/Liz Match, Aranda "Gone," and Rex Ryan "Raider" teams play this concept as a Zone Drop vs. 21/22 personnel, using the rules I listed above.
The Site concept vs. 2 Backs plays similarly to how Full Flow pass strong, with the WS (FS in Sabanland) taking #4 to the 1st Crosser back, so the players would already know the concept. The difference is that it is played with Split Flow, so there would be a slight rule change.
As I mentioned before, playing Site on the Run vs. 2x2 at the high school level may be an insane idea unless it's targeted vs. certain opponents, formations, and/or concepts. However, you can use it on the backside single WR in 2 Backs beyond just the Wing-T. I am currently experimenting with that now!
What This Tells Us
Learning this concept and seeing it in action made me happy for a few reasons. First, seeing one of the oldest concepts in defensive football get a new paint job made me hopeful for defensive evolution. It means we haven't reached the end of progress. Second, it's frankly refreshing to see defensive innovation come from the NFL. Watching NFL defense is, as my mentor Keith Burns used to say, "as exciting as watching two old men fish." It's largely stale, with most of the teams doing the same safe but not necessarily helpful concepts, getting their asses kicked repeatedly - with a few notable exceptions, of course. Lastly, I think Coach Fangio's Site concept applies to all levels. Even if you take small pieces of it, I think anyone can teach their players to use its basic premise: if I am an overhang and the WR I am dropping off of doesn't do anything, look across the field and get depth.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I don't particularly enjoy writing because I get obsessed, I take six times the time to write as it should take, and frankly, I don't think I am too good at it. But damnit, I paid an assload for this website, and I will use all of its features!
Stay tuned for more information, as this blog will be a forum for coaches, journalists, super fans, etc., to join us to share their ideas. I want to create a space where aspiring writers have a platform to test the waters and see if they like it or just always want to give it a go.