Football Fundamentals: Cover 4 Front Seven Leverage

We talked previously about the variety of Cover 4 coverages that allow defenses to mix up their look and reaction to routes while still playing what is essentially the same basic scheme. This time, I’m going to move away a bit from what is done post snap and look at how a defense can be benefitted by pre-snap positioning; that is: leverage and depth. In this way, you can combat some of the offense’s strengths while still maintaining your base scheme. This article will focus on the position of the front 7 and what they can do to benefit the coverage scheme.

Defensive Line
I’m not going to go into a ton of depth here, because it’s been discussed before. The point here is that you can play certain techniques, particularly with your DL, to help your LBs adjust their leverage. Let’s focus on Jam and Cage adjustments, which move the DEs over top of the offensive EMOL.

In each of these cases, you’ve slid a DE inside, so that he can more easily get into the gap inside the EMOL. This benefits because:

  1. The DE is likely going to have an inside gap responsibility anyway because of the positioning of the OLB; moving him inside will get him there earlier and without giving the blocker a chance to seal him outside. Likewise, it puts the OLB in a better position to both play his run fit and coverage responsibility
  2. It defines the offensive player’s release making the run/pass conflict easier for the defensive players to read. If the EMOL releases out, the OLB knows he needs to charge forward to anchor the edge; if a TE releases vertically, he knows how to play his coverage assignment (depending on if the TE is #2 or #1), if the EMOL down blocks then the OLB knows to run off his outside shoulder. Essentially, the read is simple: play off the EMOL’s outside shoulder for your run fit
  3. It is very difficult for the EMOL to make a second level block, and because of this, it is more difficult for him to sell the run/pass conflict on play action. That’s because the DE is lined up over top and slanting inside, which makes it difficult for the EMOL to have an inside release.

The downside here is that the OT or TE has a clean release to the OLB, meaning the LB has to be able to be strong at the point of attack and not give up ground. In that case, you have to trust your DE to be able to get his eyes to his target and scrape to the play from inside-out as the OLB anchors.
Let’s take a look at how this works

We’re going to look at five OLB positions that they can play within the defense: Inside, Stack, Loose, Apex, and Split. Inside will line up inside the defensive EMOL. Stack will stack over top of the EMOL. Loose will have an outside shade over the EMOL. Apex will split the offensive EMOL and the next offensive player evenly. Split will play inside shoulder of the split receiver, and the tighter the receiver is to the formation, the more your leverage adjusts to the outside shoulder.

Looking at this from a 4-3 Over standpoint, the Inside position is a standard position for the OLB. He aligns over top of his gap and is lined up with his offensive key (typically the OG) between himself and the QB. Obviously, this position helps the defense go up against the interior run game, and can be run against pro formations or twins. The key for the latter case is that the safety needs to understand the position of his LB.

Against a twins set, the safety may want to play slightly closer to the LOS but shade further outside, over the receivers inside shoulder. He still reads #2 as he typically would, but he needs to be able account for the quick out because the OLB won’t be able to get outside quickly. How tight you play the safety to the LOS will depend on gameplan and capabilities of the safety. The OLB won’t be able to reroute underneath, so this is quite likely to be simply man-to-man coverage on the outside. If the safety isn’t as capable, you may want to play a little further off and have him slide based on how the receiver stems off the LOS. Either way, however, it takes responsibility off of the run/pass conflict that is more present in other LB positions, because the safety knows his eyes have to be on #2 throughout the play (and can’t peak into the backfield too much) and the OLB knows he has run first responsibility and needn’t concern himself too much with the quick out until the throw is made.

A key benefit to aligning like this is that it makes it very difficult for the offense to run crossing routes, particularly in the shallow area of the field. There is a lot of congestion in the box as is, but the OLB is in a position where he can easily wall off inside. This allows the safety to read any shallow inside release and flash forward to fill the alley in the run game.

Let’s look at some diagrams:

But notice on any out pattern, particularly when there is run action to hold the OLB, the WILL can't get out to defend the flat. So the safety must play flat-footed and jump anything going outside quickly. The benefit for the safety here is that he is relied much less on a run/pass conflict, his eyes stay on #2 throughout.

An advantage of this inside position for the WILL is for walling off any sort of inward breaking route from #2. The SAM in this case is going to exchange #2 to his side (when the RB crosses under the Y-TE, the RB becomes #2 and the SAM follows), but that leaves two LBs to wall off any inward breaking route, fully splitting the field into two outside halves and taking away the short middle of the field while providing safety help over the top.

Stack isn’t a whole lot different. The primary benefit is two-fold: it’s more difficult for the blocker to get out cleanly to the OLB and the OLB and DE can play games with their gap responsibilities or even have the OLB simply make the DE right based on how he is blocked.

This also starts the LB slightly closer to the outside, though not much. This gives him some ability to get to the curl flat than in a standard inside position. It can also help against a TE, as he’s in a heads up position at the snap and doesn’t necessarily allow for such a clean outside release, particularly on action away where the TE is threatening the flat off PA.

Stack isn't significantly different in how it defenders the pass, which you could assume based on the alignment.

This does allow the defense to play some games with gap responsibility though, forcing the offense to adjust their blocking schemes quickly off the fly.

If the SAM were stacked, it would make it more difficult for him to jam the Y-TE releasing inside, so the MIKE will WALL the Y-TE and the SAM will always attack the outside shoulder of the Y. So if the Y is blocking the MIKE (say Power-O), that automatically takes the SAM to the hole; if Y is trying to reach outside, he makes the DE correct by maintaining the proper gap (if DE gets sealed, he stays outside, if the DE doesn't get sealed, he stays inside).

This is often paired with Cage or Jam technique, though not always. In the event it is, you can look above for the benefits and concerns. But when the DE still aligns outside, this has a bit of a different positive and negative aspect to it.

On the negative side, you can be susceptible to the inside run game, particularly if the MIKE struggles to fill down quickly. However, it is very effective against the outside run game and screen game. Teams that like to release the OT or TE to block on swing screens or tunnel screens, now need to run slower developing screen plays because that blocker needs to release outside before getting out the OLB. That gives the OLB time to read and react and make a play on the ball. Similarly, you can overload the edge and prevent the offense from scooping you and sealing you inside; essentially you force the offense to play between the tackles if they want to run the ball.

Here you'll see an inward stem from the #2 allows the WILL to get back in the play and allows the safety to help over the top.

Now we move out even further, splitting the difference between the offensive EMOL and the next receiver. This is also often paired with Cage and Jam techniques, though not always (particularly, it isn’t when the offense is in more spread personnel, such as 11 personnel when two LBs alone can account for all the gaps).

The major benefit of this alignment is in the pass game however. It puts the OLB in a position where he can cover the flat on a quick out and still wall off any inside release. Likewise, it can even allow for a reroute if the receiver initially stems inside. Furthermore, on bubble screens and such, it allows the OLB to get to the point of attack sooner and chase down the play from inside-out without having to start all the way from inside the box.

Any outside run forces the receiver to account for the OLB with a block, because he’s in a position to force player. This allows the safety to play on the inside shoulder of the #2 and account for the gap outside of him; this alley filling technique can charge hard from the secondary and is difficult to account for with blocking.

However, for the most part, it still allows a free release from the slot. This puts emphasis on the run/pass conflict the safety is in. The OLB is easily a part of both the pass and run game, which is a nice aspect of the position, but it does maximize the run/pass conflict for both the LB and the safety.

Obviously, the split position pulls the OLB a little bit out of the run game. Because of that, often times the safety will be a little more involved as he has responsibility to fill down the gap inside of the #2 (the OLB will have responsibility outside the #2). However, because of the flow of the MIKE, the safety doesn’t need to react quite as quickly as he does in some other schemes.

Likewise, the safety can start a bit deeper. That is because the OLB is in a good position to defend the flat/curl area of the field. However, he can’t be tasked with walling off an inside release; any inside release should be met with him rerouting and then looking for another threat to replace the vacating receiver (such as in the event the #2 is crack blocking inside or the RB is running a swing route; the OLB doesn’t follow the inside release). This means that the MIKE now has responsibility for walling off the crossing routes, but the receiver has more room to adjust his route, making it easily for him to dodge the MIKE and get through clean.

The biggest advantage here is that the OLB can reroute any vertical route. This forces the receiver to define his intentions and puts the safety in much less of a run/pass conflict. It also knocks the timing off of the routes and gives the safety more time to react and gain proper position on the receiver, who will struggle more getting in and out of its breaks.

Furthermore, this positioning really hinders the ability of the screen game, particularly bubble screens. The OLB is in such a position that he can meet the #2 and shadow him on any outside release. On top of that, he forces everything to go inside. While in many ways the inside positions – inside, stack, and loose – split the field in half and the Apex position splits the field into thirds (far outside, middle, far outside); the split position simply condenses the field and forces everything to happen inside, and it works against tight formations or spread formations.

The point here is that you can make adjustments to your front to help out your backend. Playing the OLB inside stacks the box with 7 defenders, forcing the offense to pass the ball; likewise, it mitigates the run/pass conflict the safety often faces in a Cover 4 scheme because he knows he has pass responsibility throughout and can allow the box players to be more concerned with the run. It also walls off the middle of the field, forcing the offense to play from where they align.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a split position allows the OLB to prevent a free release from the slot. This forces the play to develop a little more slowly, allowing the safety time to read and react and make correct decisions while messing with the timing of the play from the offense's perspective (the OLB can jam because he knows he has over the top help). Similarly, it forces offenses to play in the center of the field, something a lot of modern offenses don't prefer to do. This reduces space and mitigates a basic tenet of spread offenses: utilize the width of the field.

And then there is the Apex position. The Apex position attempts to essentially use the benefits of everything. By splitting the difference, you are allowing the OLB to be a part of the pass and the run. This maximizes numbers for both pass and run plays when it is executed correctly. The difficulty is that it puts more players in run/pass conflicts, including the OLBs and Safeties. But if they diagnose their keys correctly, there is nothing they can't hold down.

Mixing up these alignments forces offenses into more of a guessing game. You stack the box and the focus needs to be on outside plays. You split the OLB and the focus needs to revert back inside. You adjust to an Apex position and the focus needs to be on creating run/pass conflicts. But constantly changing those positions forces the offense to constantly change what it wants to do, preventing them from gaining a rhythm or possibly taking away their favorite plays in given situations. It comes back to the defense controlling what the offense can do, and when you can do that on defense, you're one step ahead of your opponent.