Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Five Spoke Secondary Part II

In the first installment of the Five Spoke Secondary, we learned about what type of player to look for at the three safety positions.  We also took a look at the overall philosophy of "why" you would want to run or consider running a three safety defense.  In this segment, we will talk about alignments of the three safeties and how this dictates run support based on coverage.  We will talk a bit about coverages, but nothing in-depth as the main focus here is the flexibility and adaptability of the three safety secondary.

Aligning the Defense

TCU, generally speaking, sets the coverage to the multiple receiver side.  When this is balanced, then they will set the coverage to the "most dangerous" side.  This could be the twins side of a Pro Twins formation, or to the quarterback's (QB's) arm in a Doubles formation.  Also, if balanced, and both threats are equal, they may set the coverage to the wide side of the field.

For the Strong Safety (SS), he will align to the strength of the formation when the ball is in the middle of the field (MOF), and will align to the wide side of the field when the ball is on a hash.  The Weak Safety's (WS) rules are pretty simple, align away from the SS.  The Free Safety (FS) is the guy that has to distinguish where he needs to be in the coverage setup.  In zone, as mentioned above, the FS will set the passing strength, or what Gary Patterson refers to as the "Read Side" to the most dangerous side of the offensive formation.

For example, as shown below is a Pro formation (two backs, one tight-end, and two receivers).  In this particular example, the offense has three immediate vertical threats, the two receivers, and the tight end.  Numerically, the offense has a two-by-one vertical threat alignment.  The FS would set the read side to the most dangerous side, which in this case would be the pro side of the formation, or to the tight end.

Against a one back, 11 personnel look, that I refer to as Pro Twins, the FS has to know where he is on the football field as to where to set the passing strength.  If the ball is in the MOF, then by base rule, the FS would look at which side of the offense is the most "dangerous".  The base rule for "most dangerous" is that the FS should look at where the speed threats are in the offense.  Since two receivers in a twins set is generally faster and more athletic than a pro side, the FS would set the strength to the twins side.  However, the flexibility of the defense, allows you, the coach, to predetermine if that is where you want the FS reading or not.  For instance, let's say your opponent has a TE that is a poor match up for either of the outside safetys (OSS's), but is a good match up for your FS.  Well, when they come out in Pro Twins, you can set the read side of the coverage to the pro side.  Herein lies the beauty in the system is that the offense can no longer dictate to you who and how you cover them.  You can always get the best players in the right spot to defend what an offense is attempting to do to your defense.

Pro Twins, read side set to Twins

Pro Twins read side set to most dangerous player

I literally get an email a week about what somebody saw TCU do, and how this doesn't fit their rules etc.  Listen, these guys are game planning every week to stop what another offense does.  They may have their base rules, but they have the ability to align however they need to based on what they want to take away from the offense.  Just because their base rule tells the SS to go to "the strength of the formation when the ball is in the middle of the field" that they can't tell him to go away from the strength of the formation.  The idea here is that you have a hard and fast rule players can hang their hat on when the bullets are flying (like Baylor running a bazillion plays at you 90 miles to nothing) and still be sound against both the run and the pass.  Aligning the back end of the defense is extremely important because if somebody's left uncovered, or an underneath defender thinks he's got deep help, but he doesn't, it could easily result in six points.

Manipulating the System for High School Football

I get this all the time as well.  "How should I play it?".  I bet that has to be the number one question I get on a week-in, week-out basis.  To be honest, not being on YOUR staff and seeing exactly what it is your seeing makes questions like these very difficult to answer.  I will say this, a good friend of mine, who runs this defense has a very good way to set the Five Spoke Secondary up for high school football.  I will elaborate on the basic rules.

In the defense, as shown below, you have two tackles, two ends, a read side LB and an away side LB to along with the two OSS's that present a balanced eight man front.  The call side end, labled "S" in the diagrams, the call side Tackle ("T"), the Mike ("M") and the SS will all travel to the call based on the run strength of the formation.  Opposite of this call is the Nose (N), End (E), Will, and WS that will travel opposite of the call.  Now many will argue that this isn't the way TCU does it, and in some regards you are right, but they have been known to align this way.  In high school though, let's face it, most teams run the football.  Sure, early in the year, many suffer from a disease called "Summer Seven-on-Seven Disease" where everyone thinks they can chuck the pigskin all over the gridiron, but by the middle of the season, most OC's have figured out, you better run the damn ball if you want to move the chains and score some points.  So, the theory behind aligning the SS to the run strength is geared towards doing what most high school teams do, and that's run the football.  With the SS being more LB in nature, this makes absolutely perfect sense.  Remember, the SS is one of your best pure "football players" you have on your defense.  He's the old Monster in the 50.  This is the chess piece you put where you feel, by game plan, your opponent is wanting to run or throw the football.

Now I know what many are thinking and that is there are several formations that you can get the SS away from the FS.  Well, that's where some of our coverage nuances and adjustments come into play.  Without going too much into depth, here is a breakdown of what coverage each of the three safeties needs to master in order to play in the defense.

Setting the Pieces

For the most part, the SS will be coupled with the FS and will be playing a "sky" technique where he is a flat dropper and will be asked to carry the third receiver through the zone on a wheel route.  However, by rule there could be some situations where the FS will not be with the SS and the SS will be asked to now play a Robber technique.  The other coverage, other than "sky" and man that the SS must master is that of Bronco coverage.  Bronco has been discussed at length on the Huey board as well as in other blog posts around the Internet.  The basic rules are simple:

  • SS- Will take the number two receiver man to man on anything other than shallow drag.
  • Corner- Man-to-man coverage on the number one receiver.
I've talked with many coaches who simply "man up" on that side, or put just the corner in man.  Any of the above work, so long as vertical routes by both the number one and number two receivers are handled.  The idea behind Bronco coverage is to have a way for the defense to defend two immediate vertical threats away from the FS.  The coverage is not ideal vs. two quick receivers (Twins), but it will work.

So now we can see some of the brilliance in the system taking shape.  The SS only needs to know the following:

  1. If the FS is to me, play the "sky" technique.
  2. If the FS is away from me and I have two backs, play the "sky" technique".
  3. If the FS is away from me and I have one back and two immediate vertical threats, play Bronco.
  4. If the FS is away from me, it is one back and my vertical threat is in the backfield, play "sky" technique.
  5. If we are blitzing, and I'm not involved, I cover the number two receiver outside the tackles.
Now, many will say, dang that's a lot, but in reality the SS gets told what to do by the FS.  Remember the SS is not really one of the communicators in the secondary.  Sure, he'll announce motion, or may call out some game plan key, but the SS shouldn't be setting the coverage, that is the role of the FS and the WS.  What the SS will hear, based on the above criteria is the following:
  1. The FS will set the coverage based on receiver structure or game plan, but will generally be in Robber or Quarters to the read side (to which he'll announce this to the Corner and SS by calling the direction he's reading as well as the coverage).
  2. When the FS goes away he must give the SS a call that lets him know this, then tell the SS and corner what coverage to play.  This is pretty easy because it all relates to the number of vertical threats these players are getting.  Only one vertical threat, the FS gives his removal call (I've heard some coaches use "I'm gone", YOYO for Your On Your Own, and "Adios" to name a few, I do not know what TCU tells their FS to call this) and will set the coverage to "sky".
  3. Again, the FS will give his removal call, and then set the coverage to "Bronco" because of the two immediate vertical threats.
  4. This one is the same as number two.
  5. The FS doesn't communicate much to the SS when blitzing.  It's the FS's job to cover for the blitzer, or be the free dropper.
(Note: the number above correspond with the number for the SS)

The WS's job is basically two-fold as sometimes he's going to be like the SS and have the FS to his side, whereas other times, he's going to have the FS away from him.  When the FS is away from him, he is going to be taught that he is setting the coverage.  When the FS is coming to him, the WS does not set the coverage, but now must listen to what coverage the FS is setting his side to.  I will not go into the coverage options that the WS has to set his side to in these posts.  That could easily be setup for a separate post all of its own.  Just remember, this is the reason why the WS needs to be the most intelligent member of the secondary.

The system really sounds more intimidating than it really is.  One reason I say this, is back in 2013 I played, almost exclusively, Quarters to the read side.  I had a SS and FS that combined may have scored a 15 on the ACT.  I couldn't have these guys playing a myriad of coverages and checks etc.  If these guys were able to understand the system, then believe me, it's not complicated.  Where it tends to get a bit more complicated is on the away side.  The WS I had in 2013 was a very intelligent, and fortunately, athletic young man.  He did a very good job setting us up in the proper coverages that we needed to be in.  We didn't run that many on the away side (we ran Quarters, Halves, Bronco and Man), but he was able to manage these choices very well.

Yes, even this guy could play SS...

Now that we understand how the verticals are handled by basic coverages let's look at alignments.  I will start with two back sets and work our way to empty sets.  These are basic formations!  I couldn't possibly have the time to discuss every formation and adjustment.  This post is meant as a basic guide to aligning the Five Spoke Secondary.  Use the rules as they are laid out to set up your defensive structure.

Two Back Offenses

Two back offenses don't have much they can align in that really threatens the players mentally as it does physically.  If setting the SS to the run strength, then the SS will generally follow the TE, unless otherwise dictated by game plan.

As shown above, the SS travels with the run strength set to the TE.  If the SS is called to be set to the passing strength, nothing would change in the above diagram.  Where the differences in alignment and coverage come into play are against twins sets.

In the above example, the FS will set the coverage to the most dangerous side.  None of this matters to the WS or SS because the SS is set to the run strength, while the WS aligns away.  The FS gives the call letting the SS know he's no longer there.  In this case, the away side coverage can be game planned to whatever it is that the SS can play.  These coverages are man, Bronco (zone/man combo) or zone (sky).  Against most two back teams, the base rule here would be "sky".  To the read side, the defense can play any number of coverages.  Robber is shown, but halves, quarters, man free, you name it can be played to this side.

The next illustration only switches the SS and the WS.  There are any number of reasons for this.  I have seen twins teams that actually run more to the twins side than they do the nub side.  In that case, you better have the flexibility in your defense to set your key player (the SS) where you need him.  Again, the coverages presented to either side are a laundry list of what is that you want/need to defend?  Obviously Robber or Quarters is the standard answer to the twins side, but really whatever it is you need to play over there you can.  Again, to the away side, the WS can set the coverage by himself.  He has some options at his disposal, but the base rule would be to play "sky", the same as if this was the SS.

Another option to keep in mind is that of playing the SS fixed to one side of the field or the other.  In this case, for many, the SS will be set to the wide side of the field.  This is a great way for those teams that try to get slick and figure out where your SS is being set, then go formation to the sideline (FSL) to get this player away from the wide side and then run to the wide side.  By setting the SS to the field, neither run nor pass strength dictate where the SS aligns.  This is also a good way to handle up-tempo offenses, as it creates less moving parts for the defense to attempt to handle.

Again, when the offense sets the run strength to the field, not much changes.  It is when the offense attempts to put the run (or pass) strength into the boundary in an attempt to isolate and run (or pass) away from one of your best defenders.

Now we see that the offense has put the formation to the sideline (FSL).  In many cases, teams will not read into the boundary due to the constricted space and will generally check to some generic zone coverage such as quarter, quarter, half, or cover 3.  You can read into the boundary if need be, though, but it's not a necessity.  Since the SS doesn't have an immediate vertical threat to deal with, he can play "sky" coverage.  If the offense checks to a play away from your SS, they are playing right into your hands, and running (or passing) the ball into the 12th man, the sideline.

Twins to the field doesn't change much either.  The SS simply aligns to the twins set, and plays whatever coverage the FS has called.  The WS sets the coverage based on game plan and plays into the boundary as shown below.

Lots of two back teams I see set twins into the boundary to get the coverage rolled away from the field so that they can run Power O, or Toss Sweep to the field.  Many will even motion to this look.  Again, the flexibility of the system allows for none of these attempts at mis-aligning the defense to work.  The SS plays to the nub side and will play whatever coverage he has been instructed to by game plan (generally "sky").  The FS can either read into the boundary or can check to some generic zone coverage.

Twins Open, isn't really an issue, and is treated pretty much the same as Twins.  The SS can be set to pass strength, run strength, or fixed to the field or boundary.  One beauty, as illustrated below is with over shifted backfield sets.  I see plenty of teams do this, where they align Twins to one side, but play an over shifted backfield (think offset I) on the opposite side.  While it may not seem like much, this gives the offense a numerical advantage when they do this by having a player align off the midline.  If the defense doesn't adjust, then it can easily find itself a man down to one side or the other.  In the case of setting the SS to the running strength, this offset back may be the key for you.  The defense can still put it's players where they are needed, but set the passing strength and put the FS where he is needed, as shown below.

As you can see the defense is protected from toss sweep and lead option to the offset back, whereas they are also three-over-two on the twins side by having both the SS and FS over there to handle an Twins route combinations.  Also, boot away from the twins side, where the fullback (FB) leaks into the flat is easily handled by the SS, and should be a decent match up, if the FB decides to convert this route into a wheel route.

The same can be said for an offset back into a Twins set.  These sets are ones that power run game teams like to run power pass flood into.  The SS, is in great position here to help on the run, as well as help in the passing game.

One Back Offenses

I honestly think where the real beauty of the Five Spoke Secondary comes into play is against 11 personnel.  11 personnel can really stress an offense because of the varying nature of the offense's personnel.  To one side, you have a run side with a TE and flanker.  To the opposite side you have a passing side with two quick receivers.  Obviously, through film study and game planning you will be able to decipher what it is that you want to take away from your opponent.  However, if setting the SS to the run strength, care will be need to be taken to insure that the match up between the SS and the TE isn't a mismatch.  If this isn't a mismatch, or they don't throw to the TE particularly well, then setting the SS to the running strength is a great way to limit your opponent's run game out of 11 personnel.

Some sort of man or match up zone coverage will need to be employed on the away side to keep the offense from hurting the defense with four verticals.  To the read side, again, the coverage is totally up to the end user in what it is you are trying to defend.

Again, no matter who the defender, the coverages can remain the same whether it's the SS or WS set to the run strength.  Once again, coverage to the read side is unlimited based on what it is that you're defending.

Again, where the beauty can be seen is when "fixing" the SS to the field or boundary.  Now you have your chess piece to where your opponent is likely to attack.  All the SS has to know is am I alone, or is the FS to my side.  Again, the SS makes no calls, but listens to see if he's given the signal that he's alone.  Coverages are completely based on game plan.

In both cases, the FS will set the read side to the field (due to the offense being balanced, or 2x2), indicating he will be reading in that direction.  Since Pro Twins is a two-by-two (2x2) set, this means there are four potential vertical threats.  Robber, Quarters, Palms, Robber etc. can be played to the read side.  A bit more care needs to be exercised to the away side of the coverage.  If given a Pro side, the WS cannot play "sky" because of the two immediate vertical threats.  The WS must play a coverage that accounts for both of these verticals.  Into the boundary, Quarters, or a version of Palms (2 read) would be fine, however if playing to the field, I would recommend man or Bronco.  If given Twins to his side, the WS can then play Palms, or Quarters to that side, regardless of where they are on the field.  Here we see, once again, why it is so important to play a smarter defender at the WS position.

Three-by-one (3x1) sets can be tricky, but the 4-2-5 does a good job of being able to handle these formations out of 11 personnel.  Again, if defending the run is your thing, then setting the SS to where your opponent wants to run the ball is critical.

In the above example, the pro's of the setup are that if your opponent likes to run the ball to the TE side of the formation, you have one of your best ball players set there.  The cons are, now you cannot handle three verticals to the trips side of the formation very well.  The ideal coverage here is quarter-quarter-half, or cover three to the read side.  To the away side, since there is only one immediate vertical threat, the coverage should be "sky".  Like I stated, this is good vs. the run, but not so solid vs. the pass, since you only have three dedicated deep zone defenders (the FS and the two corners).

In the second example, now the SS is set to the pass strength.  This move, allows the defense to handle four verticals, because the WS is a better deep zone defender than the SS.  There are many coverages you can utilize to gain the WS in the trips-side coverage.  One of the major weaknesses of the second version is that of being weak to the run to the nub side of the formation.  The WS's job becomes much tougher if he's designated as defending a player vertical on the trips side, but is also allocated in the TE side run game fit.  Choosing which method is critical in setting up the defense for success.

If you are setting the SS to the field, then the alignment are pretty much the same.  Trips to the field allows you to attack the offense with a myriad of coverages that can handle four vertical threats.  The SS is also in great position to play the bubble screen or wide runs to the field.  Where Trips closed hurts some defenses is when it goes FSL and puts the passing strength into the boundary and the run strength to the field.  If you over rotate your coverage to passing strength, you could be soft to the field vs. the run.  However, by keeping the SS to the field, you are strong vs. the run and are sound vs. any sort of passing game the offense might employ into the boundary.

Against 10 personnel the defense is just as strong as ever.  Against Doubles (2x2), the offense is balanced and the SS can be set in the manner I have discussed earlier.  The problem with 10 personnel is that you don't want the FS to be set away from the SS if you can help it.  The reason for this is the match up that is presented with the more linebacker type player of the SS vs. a WR.  Not an ideal match up, but if your SS is good enough, you could play it this way.

The ideal way of setting the coverage is to keep the FS with the SS vs. these sets.  This is not hard to do, and can be done easier by just keeping the SS to the field, but in some cases you may want your SS to the run strength.  Whatever you do, I'd make sure the SS traveled exclusively with the FS against these types of formations.  The WS is adept in covering WR's, so having him, the away side linebacker (AB) and the weak corner (WC) to a twins side (that would generally be into the boundary) is not a bad setup.  Again, coverage options are limitless here, I'm not going to delve into that part of the defense, but you get the basic principles being applied here.

Trips Open is no different than Doubles, in that you really need to have the SS travel with the FS if you can.  However, there are some times when it's better to have the SS travel with the run strength to be sound vs. the running game.  There are many teams that will set the Trips side away from the RB in the shotgun in order to run speed option at a soft flank.  If you are in a coverage, such as Solo, the WS's job is tough, in that he must account for number three vertical, but also be the primary force player on the away side.  Speed Option, or QB sweep to the away side, with a vertical release by the number three receiver is something I have seen, and can really stress your WS.  Of course, other coverage options are worth exploring, but if the offense is really hurting you, and easy way to stop this is setting the SS to the side of the RB as shown below.

One downfall of setting the defense like the above illustration is that of not being able to handle four vertical threats.  Again, this comes down to film study, and knowing your opponent.  This may not be the adjustment you need, and you may need to handle the issue with coverage instead of alignment.

As shown above, the "ideal" way to handle Trips open is to let the FS travel with the SS.  This puts the defense in a better position to handle the four vertical threats presented by the offense.

One thing teams will do with trips is either motion out of 2x2 to 3x1 and create FSL or simply align with trips into the boundary (as shown below).  I've seen many teams do this and then try to run to the field, or away from the motion.  By setting the SS to the field, you can eliminate such headaches of not having your best player into the boundary.

Obviously, you are somewhat weak here in coverage, but get four verticals out from the boundary is not an ideal thing most offensive coordinators (OC's) want to do.  If the offense does what most do and sets the passing strength to the field, or motions from 2x2 to 3x1 with the Trips to the field, there really isn't much adjusting that needs to be done, other than getting the defense into whatever Trips check coverage you might want to play vs. your opponent.

Empty Backfield Offenses

Against Empty sets, since they are not predominately known as running sets, the easy adjustment is just set the SS to the passing strength, which for many is also the run strength.  This is a fairly easy adjustment, and then the defense just plays whatever your Empty check coverage is.

Now, for whatever reason, if your opponent likes to run weak or attack weak out of Empty sets you "could" set the SS to the Twins side if you like.  It is not ideal, for two reasons.  First, you aren't as protected against three verticals coming off of the Trips side (the only real check you can make over there is Quarter, Quarter, Half or Cover Three).  Secondly, despite having your SS aligned where they are attacking, he will be somewhat passive in that the only real check to me made to that side is some sort of man, or match up man coverage, meaning the SS will have to at least "peak" at the number 2 receiver.  This will make him a bit less aggressive in stopping the run.  However, it "can" be done, I don't recommend setting the defense up this way.

The main theme here though is that if for some reason, your defense gets misaligned, there still able to play somewhat sound defense.  This is why the SS MUST learn Bronco coverage.  It keeps the defense sound in situations like the one shown above.  Again, this is not ideal, but it is manageable because even if your SS misaligns, by rule he will know if I have two quicks, the only coverage I can play is some sort of man or match up man, such as TCU's Bronco coverage.

The same situation is presented if setting the SS to the wide side of the field.  If a team aligns or motions out of Empty sets to present FSL, your defense needs to be able to handle this.  Aligning to FSL is easy if you simply want a check to put the SS to the pass strength, you can do that, it's motion that can make life tough on the defense.  You don't want your SS chasing motion across the formation and then having to have the WS run to the opposite side of the field with an uncovered number two receiver standing there.  That is not an ideal situation at all.  By having the automatic Bronco check built in, the defense, though not great, is still sound.

As you can see the 4-2-5 has a very simple, easy way to keep the defense sound, all the while allowing the defensive coordinator (DC) align his chess pieces where he needs them.  Sure, while some are not ideal, all defenses have their weaknesses.  It's up to you, the end user, to choose what is right for your situation.  The defense is a very flexible defense, and many of it's general, underlying principles can be passed on to other defenses.  I'm not planning on coverage discussion in these articles, as I think I've covered that ad nauseum on the blog.  What I will say is however you choose to set up your defense, the above scenarios are a great, generic, place to start.

Next, we'll look at how the Five Spoke Secondary handles blitzing by using TCU's Cover 0 and Cover 0 Free to keep things simple.