Football 101 - Defensive Secondary

This is the fourth article in a series of articles where I will talk about the basics of Football 101.

  • The precursor to the first article: Is This Really Air Garrett
  • The first article in the series: What Are All These Numbers And Letters
  • The second article in the series: The Receiver Route Tree
  • The third article in the series: Air Garrett Part II
  • In the last article we dealt with the Receiver Route Tree and talked about some of the more common route names that are included in that tree. We also mentioned a little about some of the nuances in the differences between the Garrett Playbook and the "Air Coryell" Playbook, which are not a lot.

In this article we will deal with the Secondary, AKA Defensive Backs (the Corners and Safeties), and some of their responsibilities and techniques.

Before getting into the specifics, I want to mention an interesting point about playing defense that is not mentioned very often. When the defense is on the field, first thing that should be apparent is that the offense has the advantage. There are several reasons, and I would like to mention a few:

1. If you have ever played "Keep Away" and you were the guy in the middle, you had this distinct feeling that somehow it just wasn't fair. It was two against one, and the guys that were throwing the ball and catching the ball, (and trying to keep it away from you), had the advantage in that you could normally only look at one of them at a time because you were sandwiched between them. Advantage, the guys with the ball.

2. The guy that is going to catch the ball, knows where he is going and you have to react to his moves. That alone puts you at a very big disadvantage in that you are always playing catch up because you are reacting to his moves, and if you try to "guess" where he is going, it can be a worse disaster.

3. If he is faster than you, (WR's are often faster than corners, and definitely faster than safeties), then if he ever got by you, you were once again in big trouble.

So, you can see that just using plain logic, the Offense has the advantage. They know what is coming and where the ball or ball carrier is going and the defense has to react after the fact.

The next thing one should observe or know, is that there is no such thing as a perfect Defense, if for no other reason than the offense has the advantage, and that the best defense is when it is sitting on the sidelines.

So, with that background, we will do a little bit of definitions and terminology used in the secondary and then we will look at techniques.

  • Man Coverage - Each of the DB's are assigned a man to cover. Often he can be assigned to the man lined up on his side of the field, or he can be assigned to a player and he is to follow him all over the field no matter where he lines up. The advantage of Man Coverage is if the defense is blitzing, it is a safer coverage because there will be no mistakes made when "passing him off" to another area or zone of the field like you do in "zone" coverage. Also, in Man Coverage the concept is to try to do your best on shutting down the receiver but all the while making help stopping the run, secondary at best. There are three basic types of Man Coverage, "Press Man Coverage", "Off Man Coverage", and "Man Up Coverage" and the main difference is how far away the DB is from the Receiver. One of the "keys" when playing man is to watch the "hips" of the receiver, and not his shoulders because shoulders can "fake" but hips can't and he can't cut without turning his hips.
  • Press Man Coverage - Also known as "Man Under." In this coverage, the corner will try to disrupt the "timing" or rhythm of the play by getting his hands on the receiver and directing him to the outside usually because it is the harder pass to complete. Corners that can play "press" coverage well are rare and usually expensive, because a truly "lockdown" or "shutdown" corner has to be able to play this coverage to do it.
  • Off Man Coverage - Also known as "Loose Man". Typically the corner plays anywhere from 5 to 10 yards off the line of scrimmage and trys to prevent any deep passes. Of course by playing off, the corner is making it easier for the QB to complete the short passes especially the slants and flat passes.
  • Man Up Coverage - Regular Man coverage. Here the idea is to play close to the receiver, but not trying to press or hit the receiver. The idea is to let the receiver get behind the you, but then get as close to the receiver as possible and make the QB have to make a tougher throw because he has to throw over the top and then the QB has to hope he doesn't over-throw the receiver.
  • Zone Coverage - In Zone coverage, the DB's are playing an area and then man-up on who ever comes into their zone and then once he is out of your zone, he is "passed off" or turned over to the guy in the next zone. The advantage of Zone Coverage is the ability to easily help with "run support", or stopping the run because the defenders are facing the QB instead of turning and running with the receiver like they do in Man Coverage. In Addition, the idea is to defend an area that certian passes in the receiver tree are thrown to. This means that the DB is sitting and waiting to jump a route because he can see which route is in process. The disadvantage is that certian routes are run to "sit down in between" or stop in between the zones.
  • Quarters - Each of the 4 DB's take one fourth of the field, from left to right.
  • Half's - Usually this refers to just the two safeties. Each of them take Half the field.
  • Thirds - This is where the defense is in Cover 3 and each of them is responsible for a third of the field.
  • Cover Zero - There are no DB's deep. This is usually used with man-to-man coverage. It is usually done when at least 5 are rushing the passer.
  • Cover One - There is only one DB deep. This is also usually used with Man-to-man coverage.
  • Cover Two - There are two DB's deep. This is usually used with zone coverage with the two safeties deep and each responsible for half the field each. This can be used with man coverage and will be called "Cover 2 man." When it is used in zone it may be "Tampa 2" where the "Mike" drops back into the deep middle and makes it become "Cover Three." Often a CB covers the Flat area, and the Outside Linebackers cover the Hook zone.
  • Cover Three - There are three DB's deep and each covering a third of the field. This is usually used with zone coverage.
  • Cover Four - There are four DB's deep. (Prevent Defense.) Each of the four DB's take one fourth of the field. Also known as "Quarters."
  • Cover Six - "The Cover 6 gets its name from the fact that it combines elements of the Cover 2 (the strong safety covering half the field) and the Cover 3 (the use of three deep zone defenders). The Pittsburgh Steelers are a Cover 6 team. The quarters play of the strong side safety, like the Steelers' Troy Polamalu, allows him to support on runs quickly. The Tennessee Titans have also been known to use it." Wikipedia - Here is the link to read more.
  • Bump And Run - The DB will press the receiver for the first 5 yards and try to disrupt the timing between the QB and the receiver. This is especially effective against teams that employ the "Timing Based" Offense, because it disrupts the timing.
  • Play the Pocket - When talking about secondary play, the area where the receiver is catching the ball is sometimes called the receiver "Pocket."
  • Inside Leverage - The defender is not playing right in front of his man, but is playing towards his inside shoulder, (towards the middle of the field.) This is a good tactic to take away the slant if done correctly.
  • Outside Leverage - The defender is playing towards the outside shoulder of his man, between his man and the sideline. This is a good technique to allow the DB to see the man, the QB and the ball without having to turn his head. (The disadvantage is it gives the receiver a bigger advantage if the play called is a slant.)
  • Nickel Defense - When the offense is in its "11" package with their slot receiver, then one of the front seven is replaced with another defensive back. It is usually a linebacker, (the Will), so the set has "5" DB's. (Hence "5" cents is a nickel.)
  • Dime Defense - When the offense is in it's "01" package with 4 Wides, then two of the front seven are replaced with defensive backs. Again, usually linebackers, so the set has "6" DB's. (Two nickels is a dime.)
  • Quarter Defense - This is where each of the guys in the secondary has one forth of the field as their responsibility. The corners have the two outside fourths, and the safeties have the two inside fourths.
  • Base Defense - The "normal" alignment for this teams defense. Usually a 3-4 or a 4-3 set.
  • Hi Hat / Low Hat - The Safeties "key" on an uncovered linemen, (does not have a defender directly in front of him). This is done at the snap of the ball to determine if it is a run or pass. If he stands up (hi-hat) it is a pass and the safety will stay home or drop back. If he stays down, (low-hat), then it is a "key" that the play is a run. He will then look at the running back for his next "key." A very good example of how smart Garrett is, is where we have the O-line all go "Hi Hat" and that gets the Secondary going back on their heels, and then we run the delay hand off to DeMarco Murray. This play has "fooled" one of the Secondary's "keys" as to "Is it run or pass?"

These designations are not completely standard and Here are some other good explanations of the different coverages. On some teams the Defensive Calls for the Secondary might be as simple as signaling in one word....something like "Quarters", with the actual sets determined by how the offense lines up and the secondary signal caller (Abram Elam) makes changes as needed within that general coverage.







There are two basic DB Coverage Philosophies when you are in "Man to Man Coverage". (One is what I call the Dave Campo Philosophy, and the other I call the Darrell Green Philosophy. Maybe you guys can guess which is which.)

  • Play The Man - This one is usually played with either inside leverage, or straight up and is where you line up and at the snap of the ball, you follow the receiver all over the field, and when the receiver reaches up to catch the ball, you reach up into the "Pocket" and try to dislodge the ball. The advantage of this technique is you never lose sight of your receiver. The disadvantage is you wind up with less interceptions unless you look back when he looks back instead of doing the "reach into the pocket" technique.
  • Play The Ball - This one is played with outside leverage where you can see the receiver, the quarterback, and the ball when it is thrown, without having to move your head or position. You stay behind, (further from the QB, or downfield), or to the outside of the receiver for as long as you can, (back pedalling), and then when the receiver turns to look for the ball, then you also look for the ball and essentially become the receiver. The advantage of this is you get more interceptions. The disadvantage is that if he gets behind you, ( unless you maintain "touch", i.e., reach back and just feel his presence which is normally allowed), then he could make another move and get open if the "look back" was a trick.

Positioning for proper scheme - If you play "straight up", (line up directly in front of the receiver), the technique will be different than if you choose to use "Inside Leverage" or "Outside Leverage."

Often you may want to "take away" the slant. When you line up to take it away, you will position yourself to the inside shoulder of the Receiver. Next you will see the good DB's drop their right foot back a few feet so that the left foot is forward. When the receiver gets off the line and tries to go inside, you are already in his way and you will need to "punch" his chest with your Left hand to keep him from over powering you. This is the essence of using what is called "Inside Leverage."

For me the best coverage is to do the opposite, (unless you want to take away the slant), and position yourself with "Outside Leverage" and that way you can see the QB, the Receiver and the Ball at all times and when the ball is in the air, you can get a good break on it. The disadvantage of this technique is that you are letting him have a slight advantage on a slant. If this is done on the Weak side, and your DC will let you work with the "Jack" (D. Ware), you can have him drop into the slant area and sometimes he will be able to pick the pass off.

For Straight up, you want both feet even and your weight on your toes.

Thirty Yard Rule - This is a "CoachGary" rule and I am sure somebody must be teaching it, but I have yet to read about it. Once the receiver reaches 30 yards from the line of scrimmage, the defender should turn and look for the ball because the amount of elapsed time is such that the odds of the ball not already being in the air are almost nil. This goes along with the idea of not using the "pocket" technique because you want more interceptions, and from now on watch and perhaps track how many times the "pocket" technique doesn't work. How many times have you seen a defender 30 or more yards down field and the ball goes right by his ear hole and the QB is depending on the defender NOT turning around?

Redzone Rule - Another "CoachGary" rule that says once the receiver is 5 yards deep into the endzone, the defender should turn and look for the ball because the receiver is running out of room and the odds are the ball must already be in the air. Again, the opposite of using the "pocket" technique.

Well, there is a lot more to cover but there are plenty of links out there with the help of google you guys will hopefully have enough knowledge to at least know what you want more of. That is one of my purposes of doing these articles is to give you enough so that you can know what to ask.

Keep in mind that some DC's will have their own zones and terminology but this will be a good start. For example, some that teach the zones will start with saying there are 5 zones underneath, and either 2 or 4 zones for the Secondary, while others will talk about the 7 underneath zones that I have in my "Zones" Figure.

And also keep in mind that I have checked some of this, but not all of it since much of it is from memory, so if I missed something or got something wrong, please help me correct it.

I am thinking my next article in this series will be on Saturday and then every Saturday after that until I can't think of any other topics to do. I may post some other articles about other stuff that won't be part of this series during the week.

Thanks for reading.....

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