Heading into 2014 it was clear that run/pass conflict schemes like the POP pass in conjunction with other packaged plays and nasty versions of play-action were going to burn aggressive defenses designed to gang up on the run. Teams that taught players to fly downhill on run reads, particularly if they were reading the OL blocks for pass or run cues, could get themselves into a heap of trouble.
In light of that development, new best practices have emerged amongst defenses that are looking to control modern offenses without getting the top taken off their coverage and giving up points in a hurry.
The base coverages of a team defines much of their identity as it dictates who comes to help stop the run and how they do it. Two main base coverages saw the most action in 2014 and served to provide an identity for some of the better defenses in the country.
Old faithful: Cover 3
Cover 3 is one of the most ancient tactics for playing defense and was the preferred method of greats such as Joe Paterno, Jim Tressell, and modernized in the 90s by Nick Saban to allow it to continue in usage today.
The appeal of the scheme is in the simple structure, the way it overlaps in teaching with fire zone blitzes, the fact that it creates an eight-man front, and how it easily affords a "bend don't break" strategy by dropping three deep pass defenders.
The latter points is remarkably useful for stopping offenses that create run/pass conflicts with POP plays but there are still vulnerabilities underneath for the defensive coverage, particularly on the edges against a spread team:
The potential problem for cover 3 can be seen in those double arrows, indicating dual assignments for the nickel and strong safety in this concept. While cover 3 has the advantage of playing three deep pass defenders who don't have to worry about being primary actors in stopping the run, that doesn't mean that the underneath defenders don't have to protect them.
Here the nickel and strong safety have to protect the seam and force the H and Y receivers to the middle where the LBs or free safety can pick them up. But, if the offense has called a running play? Or they use an H-back/fullback to create angles? That creates problems for those edge defenders:
Count the conflicts and stress points:
On the weak side, if the offense runs a zone read then either there's no force defender to help keep the QB under wraps or there's not enough numbers to stop the quick bubble pass to the Y receiver. Any solutions to those problems has to keep in mind the possibility of the running back cutting upfield behind the double team of the defensive tackle.
Pick your poison.
Or if the offense wanted to block up the weak side, there are still stress points on the strong side. If the will linebacker (W) and strong safety ($) flow hard to the ball who's going to stop the H receiver from running a quick stop route behind them for an easy pass from the QB?
If the defensive end gets reached or just dominated by that offensive tackle the defense is in major trouble since they'll need a hard edge to stop the running back and won't be able to get it due to a need to deny the POP pass to the H receiver.
Some teams just live with these types of stress points and look to make the offense beat them with either whatever they are weakest at, or with the pass which has a higher likelihood of being thwarted by execution error.
Other cover 3 defenses, when facing opponents that are just trying to use these types of conflicts to find easy yardage, will just drop eight defenders and deny them any easy reads or yardage:
The DL will try to occupy the interior gaps to allow the underneath defenders to get out into the passing windows and then take away the conflicts, option routes, and control the open spaces that spread offenses like to attack.
Another solution that has kept the cover 3 (as well as the similar fire zone) a viable and even preferred strategy is simply looking to control the edges with the defensive ends/outside rushers so that those outside players, like the nickel and strong safety above, can focus first on coverage and respond to the run after making sure their coverage assignments are carefully carried up to the deep pass defenders.
For instance, against the stresses above:
Either a defensive end or a linebacker (here demonstrated as both, in reality it would be either the end or the will linebacker) on each side of the formation will play contain and look to keep the ball inside the tackle box where the six-man box can fill hard and stop the runner from quickly pounding creases created by double team blocks.
On the weak side the nickel would chase Y and stop the bubble without concern about getting gashed by the run, the defensive end would force the QB to hand the ball off, and the middle linebacker would have to be ready to navigate the double team and meet the running back in the hole in the event of a cutback.
On the strong side, the strong safety can cover the H receiver and the will linebacker can even help in coverage for a step before attacking the line of scrimmage since he's protected by the end and the defensive tackle. Or, he might be used as a blitzer on the edge to force the ball inside to the DL or middle linebacker while the safety handles the receiver alone in man to man coverage.
It's harder for teams to play great run defense from these looks, which is making cover 3 into a defense that's most optimal for controlling the run and pass game rather than outnumbering and stuffing everything. Unless the team has phenomenal inside linebackers, in which case funneling the ball inside the tackles can result in a stifling defense.
With these types of tweaks, cover 3 has remained a favorite tactic in college football and a best practice in the current age of defense. Cover 3 was represented in the playoff by the Florida State Seminoles who were done in by an interior D that couldn't survive having the ball funneled inside.
Safely involving the safeties: 2-read
Alabama, Oregon, and Ohio State relied more on 2-read this season and with good reason as it's become one of the best "safe" ways to create a "nine man front" against the run and use the safeties to clean up errors.
It's a variety of cover 4 that doesn't (usually) involve the safeties when assigning run-force responsibilities. If there's only one removed receiver? The cornerback is in charge of forcing the run with the safety behind him playing over the top of the receiver and picking him up if the corner is sucked in by a POP or play-action.
If there are two removed receivers? The outside linebacker is now in charge of forcing the run while the safety behind him reads the number two receiver and either picks him up in coverage or fills the alley if it's a running play.
The outside linebackers, the nickel and will, are watching the inside receivers (H & Y) but they will aggressively force the edge on running plays. Meanwhile, the safeties are also reading the inside receivers. If the linebackers attack the edges and the inside receivers are still running routes, the safeties will pick them up in man to man coverage. The safeties stay flat-footed while they read the play and will come downhill to fill the alley and provide extra numbers/pursuit against the run once they know it's a running play.
There probably wasn't a safety in the country better in this defense than Alabama's Landon Collins while the struggle of the Oregon safeties to arrive quickly and make tackles made them prime victims for Zeke Elliot and the Buckeye run game.
Underneath, the linebackers also have to be very quick running from sideline to sideline to fill creases without the help of a safety inserted into the front like in more aggressive versions of cover 4 or in cover 3. The cornerbacks have to be willing tacklers on the edge as well, as there are multiple instances where they are responsible for forcing the edge.
So, a good 2-read team needs speed and tackling at every position, but needn't necessarily have elite coverage abilities in the secondary since the structure can lend adjustable leverage to the defenders.
The hardest thing in a 2-read defense is stopping inside runs from four-receiver formations like the one above. For instance, if the running back is a good blocker and the QB can run the ball?
A 2-read team can be vulnerable when an offense can plow gaps between the tackles from spread alignments like this since they don't have the convenient, easily made six-man box that cover 3 teams have.
In this instance above there are a few stress points.
On the strong side the nickel would attack the bubble by Y while the free safety (F) would be ready to clean up in support where ever the ball actually goes. The 2-read team is really in solid shape here unless the double team dominates the tackle and reaches the middle linebacker.
On the weak side if they follow traditional rules and the end comes steps inside and forces the QB to bounce outside then the will linebacker and strong safety might be able to first take away the POP to the H receiver before closing on the quarterback.
At times teams will have the defensive ends step inside into the b-gaps in order that the ball is spilled outside to the linebackers who are already outside of the box so they can play the slot receivers without forcing the safeties to abandon their 2-deep shell. Particularly against trips formations that force the middle linebacker out of the box:
The nickel is still the force player, while the cornerback is the force on the opposite side, but the middle linebacker and defensive end trade gaps so that mike can cover the H receiver and play the outside gap instead of having to get back inside the box in time to stop a downhill run.
As you can see, ideal execution requires perfect orchestration from the front and protection from the DL followed up by speedy and alert play from the defensive backfield. If a team can get that from their players, 2-read is a very sound defense to rely on as a base.
It's also easily accommodating to the 3-4 defense:
And has found itself to be a natural ally to that ancient tactic, the big man blitz. If your corners and safeties are being trained to cover vertical routes in man to man coverage, as they do in 2-read, then it requires very little additional teaching to call a blitz that brings six or seven pass-rushers and asks them to play that coverage without any help underneath.
Best practices for the future?
Not everyone is going to have the DL and linebackers to execute cover 3 well, or the team speed and physicality to execute 2-read. Some teams will rely on both, but usually with greater emphasis on one with a stripped down version of the other to run as a change of pace.
These two schools basically represent different takes on defenses like Miami's speed based 4-3 cover 2, or Paterno's cover 3. Given how those philosophies have stood the test of time, you can probably expect 2-read and cover 3 to continue to be tweaked and preserved in future seasons.