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Summer of Spags: safety and linebacker coverage technique

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Looking into the safety and linebacker coverage techniques that we could see the Chiefs deploy in 2019

NFL: New York Giants-Rookie Minicamp William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

It’s another great day in the Summer of Spags!

After covering some of the cornerback techniques that we could see in 2019, we’ve moved on to the next logical positions — safety and linebacker. This will be an example-heavy post, as it will take a look at what defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, secondary coach Dave Merritt, and linebackers coach Matt House have done with their players in the past.

With that said, let’s not waste any time and dive into some more technique!

High hat/low hat and route stems

Safeties and linebackers are constantly put into a run-or-pass conflict. These players have to identify if the play is a run or a pass immediately and react accordingly to get to their run fit or their coverage drop.

One of the most common ways to identify this quickly is by watching the offensive line to read how they are blocking. If an offensive lineman fires off the snap as a run blocker, trying to climb to the second level or pulling to get out in front of the running back, players identify that as “low hat” and start to engage in their run fits. If an offensive lineman pops up tall and doesn’t try to gain ground on the defenders in front of them, players identify that as “high hat” and drop to their coverage responsibilities.

This read is one of the many reasons why RPOs are so successful. On the above play, the linebackers read low hat due to the flow of the blockers and the offensive linemen climbing, particularly the center. The linebackers begin their flow to the running back, leaving an open throwing window on the back side of the formation. This is where the safety read comes into play.

While safeties can and will read the offensive linemen for clues on a run/pass identification, they have the luxury of reading the triangle of lineman-receiver-quarterback if his assignment is not in the box. The safety may have the initial low hat read on the above play, but he can also see the release of the slot receiver and the quarterback pulling the ball.

Because this is a Cover 3 look with the field safety dropping to the deep third, the boundary safety can stay patient off the snap before reacting and moving to a robber role. Reading low hat with an aggressive receiver route stem opposite the flow of the running back, the safety reads a potential quick pass — remember, on RPOs, the ball gets out quick so that linemen don’t get too far downfield if it is a pass. The quarterback pulls the ball and throws to the curl route, but the safety is there to break it up.

There is an awful lot of conversation about route recognition when talking about coverage defenders, but the context clues at the snap can make or break a scheme.

Flat-footed read

When some think of the deep safety position, they think of a player that is constantly gaining depth to keep routes in front of him. That leads to the natural assumption that the deep safety will line up at 10 to 15 yards deep and start to backpedal immediately on the snap. With the various blitz packages and coverage asks, the deep safety in Spagnuolo’s scheme routinely has a flat-footed read.

Instead of gaining depth on the snap, the safety doesn’t move his feet and quickly goes through his reads to react accordingly. If he needs to spin down in run support or to cover a player in the flat, he doesn’t have to stop his momentum to move downhill. Conversely, he has to quickly go through his reads in this technique because if he does need to stay on top of a route as a deep safety, he has to get depth quicker than he would if he were in a backpedal.

The above play shows a great example of this read. The safety knows that the linebackers are blitzing and the defensive tackles are dropping into shallow zones to take away hot routes. The rush is designed to get a quick free rusher against the offensive line, and because of that, Spagnuolo has his secondary in tight man coverage. However, the running back is the key read for the deep safety. If the back stays in to help block, the safety will then progress to the middle of the field and stay over the top of the routes. If the back comes out into the flat as a hot route, then the safety will drive downhill to make the play.

The back does run the hot route and due to the flat-footed read, the deep safety can quickly get to the ballcarrier, resulting in a stop.

Backpedal and step-replace

While Spagnuolo may utilize a traditional backpedal from his safeties more often, Merritt isn’t afraid to go with a step-replace technique with his safeties — similar to his cornerback technique. Neither is right or wrong, but the above clip shows that Merritt will allow the safeties to do what makes them comfortable.

The field safety chooses to gain depth via a backpedal, and his T-step to break out of it and follow the wide receiver on the crossing route is obviously comfortable for the player, as it results in a pass break up. Meanwhile, the boundary safety has no problem gaining shallow depth with his step-replace technique while reading the route, then flipping his hips to run vertical with the receiver.

It will be interesting to see the preferred methodology of the players and coaching staff, but Merritt doesn’t seem to show a preference for one technique over the other — instead relying on his players comfort level in the system.

Linebackers “carrying” receivers

There is plenty of hand-wringing about the coverage ability of the Chiefs linebackers. We will touch on each player’s responsibilities in various schemes, but I wanted to quickly highlight the responsibilities that linebackers are asked when carrying receivers to other areas of the field.

The above play shows the amount of ground these linebackers typically have to cover in Spagnuolo’s match zone schemes. The Giants are in the nickel and the MIKE linebacker — which will typically be played by Anthony Hitchens — is responsible for colliding and carrying the tight end vertically to the safeties (Remember, in the nickel, Reggie Ragland will more than likely come off the field). If the tight end does not run vertically, he’s responsible for the shallow hook/curl zone.

The WILL linebacker is also responsible for a shallow hook/curl zone, but he gets an “under” call from the cornerback and has to carry the back-side receiver across the formation to where the slot cornerback is in his shallow flat zone.

While the coverage responsibilities of the linebackers will be somewhat dictated by the offense’s route distributions, there is typically a smaller area that the linebacker is covering through to get to a better coverage defender in these match schemes.

Drop step and read

When discussing the cornerbacks last week, I mentioned the cornerbacks playing in a half-turn and keeping their eyes through the inside receiver to the quarterback. While the linebackers will still have the backfield in their peripheral vision, their initial drop step tends to open up to the boundary to see the inside receiver’s route distribution.

The above play has the WILL linebacker opening up while keeping his eyes on the No. 2 receiver — in this case, the running back — while still gaining depth to rob the crosser from the strong No. 2 receiver. Since it is a third and medium scenario, the WILL sits at the first-down marker and keeps the running back in front of him for a checkdown.

Meanwhile, the MIKE linebacker opens his drop step to see the No. 3 receiver — the tight end — releasing vertically. He engages the tight end to slow the release and lets him go just outside of the five yard window. The field safety initially reads a deeper route from the strong No. 1 receiver and moves to stay on top of the route, but is still in a position to take the tight end from the linebacker on a deep post. Instead, the tight end runs a dig route. Due to the linebacker carrying the tight end to the safety — and therefore undercutting the route — he’s able to keep good leverage and break up the pass.

House also asked his linebackers to open to the boundary with their drop step. Gaining depth with his drop and open to the sidelines, the WILL linebacker is able to see the No. 1 and 2 receivers clear linebacker depth and keep his eyes on the running back in the flat. Because he’s already open to the boundary, the WILL is able to drive to the catch point quicker than he would in a traditional backpedal.

The technique implemented by turning and reading through inside receivers may be different for some Chiefs fans after years of backpedaling, but the synergy at all levels makes these techniques help with a flowing, adaptive defense.


Moving forward

Now that we’ve covered alignments, personnel, and general techniques, we can get into the true fun stuff — Coverage Schemes!

In the upcoming weeks, we’ll touch on some match coverage variants and hopefully answer even more questions about how and where players will be deployed and what they will be asked to do inside each coverage scheme.

Until then, thanks for reading the Summer of Spags!