OSU and Cover 4

By Ross Fulton on May 10, 2012 at 10:00a
An adaptation that fits within the overall philosophy.

While Ohio State will implement a new offense under Urban Meyer, all indications from Spring indicate that the OSU defense under Luke Fickell and Everett Withers will largely retain Jim Heacock's successful scheme - a 4-3 under defense that will convert to a 4-2-5 over with their nickel to the boundary against 'spread' offenses, one that is not overly blitz heavy but instead focused on making offenses earn their yards.    

That is not to say that the defense will remain untouched, however.  One evident adaptation seen this Spring was the predominant use of cover 4, aka quarters, coverage.  Cover 4, as the term implies, simply means that four defensive backs each take a deep quarter of the field.  But this belies the aggressive nature of the coverage.  As Chris Brown--in a must read article--states:

At first glance, Cover 4 looks like an anti-pass "prevent" formation, with four secondary defenders playing deep. But therein lies its magic. The four defenders are actually playing a matchup zone concept, in which the safety reads the tight end or inside receiver. If an offensive player lined up inside releases on a short pass route or doesn't release into the route, the safety can help double-team the outside receiver. If the inside receiver breaks straight downfield, it becomes more like man coverage. This variance keeps quarterbacks guessing and prevents defenses from being exploited by common pass plays like four verticals, which killed eight-man fronts. 

The coverage thus provides a perfect vehicle to pattern read.  As such, what is a zone often looks like man coverage live.  

The coverage's real beauty, however, is what it provides against the run game.  As noted, the safeties sit their heels at ten yards, with their eyes in the backfield, and read the number 2 receiver.  As Brown diagrams, if the safeties see run blocking, they immediately become run game force and support players. 


Thus, what looks like a pass first defense actually produces a nine-man front, and keeps all defenders eyes in the backfield.  For this reason, Brown titles quarters coverage the most important defensive scheme of the past decade.

Putting its intrinsic benefits aside, quarters coverage fits well with OSU's defensive philosophy of the past decade--willing to sacrifice yards underneath to force the opposing offense to be efficient, not provide big plays down the middle, and yet have safety support in the run game.  Against spread offenses, the coverage allows the Ohio State hybrid nickel play to the field side flat, able to stick his nose in both the short passing game such as bubble screens, and yet attack wide side zone plays.

As such, the Ohio State defensive coaching staff has chosen wisely.  They have implemented a coverage that permits for recent adaptations such as pattern reading and allows for aggressive run support, yet one that fits well within the overall scheme that has been so successful for OSU in recent years.  




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dubjayfootball90's picture

similar/almost identical philosophy to what my college ran, and we held up great against the run and had good pass defense. I remember one game where we held a team to -90 rushing yards for the game, with a lot of it due to several sacks. (yes, negative 90 yards rushing). I love this defense so much, mainly because I was a part of it and it worked wonders. We also ran a straight 4-2-5 with no variations, except in special situations.
good, informative article. also brought back some memories, even if they were only 2-3 years ago, haha.

You can feed a bobcat all the chili it wants. That don't mean it's going to crap out diamonds.

Buckeyeholicwompa's picture

This type of defense is going to be really difficult to go up against more so with the stud d line we have. That will really allow the safeties more room and time to adapt to where they need to be at a given time.

bassplayer7770's picture

I'm not sure our D Line will give the DBs more time to adapt if you know what I'm sayin'...

Doc's picture

Ross, thank you for covering the defense.  I have really enjoyed all of your articles and look forward to Thursdays because of them.
Is quarter coverage better than a more blitzing defense because it allows time to react and read a play?  I loved the swarming attacking defenses we had early on in Tress' tenure.

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SaintTressel's picture

Ross, is this primarily a run-situation defense?
It seems to rely on two athletic and instinctive safeties, right? Play action, draws, or draw/bubble combinations (among others) teams run would seem to be pretty effective in messing with their reads. If i was looking for a weakness/something to worry about, it would be that bryant/barnett are aggressive and maybe not-quite athletic enough to recover if their aggressive nature gets them in trouble.

Borrowed Time's picture

Agree with what you said - cover 4 seems to rely on the safeties being able to recognize the play quickly, and being athletic enough to respond appropriately

Milk Steak To Go's picture

From the referenced article:

Defenses needed something better. They needed Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu.

Earle's picture

Ross, can you comment on what distinguishes an "over" defense from an "under"?  I've looked at the various articles and can't see anywhere that these terms are actually defined.  Much thanks.

Snarkies gonna snark. 

JKH1232's picture

So, this is the short version.  (Defensive alignments at the line of scrimmage can get kind of complex, so we'll just talk about the linebackers here.)  In a standard 4-3, there are for down defensive linemen, and three linebackers behind them, off the line of scrimmage.  In "Over", the strong side linebacker moves to the line of scrimmage, outside the defensive end, and over the offensive tight end.  In "Under," the weakside linebacker moves down to the line of scrimmage, again outside the DE, and either over or outside of the weakside offensive tackle.  Both alignments put five men on the line of scrimmage, and change the usual alignment of defensive linemen.

Earle's picture

So, that makes sense, except that all of the diagrams  and pictures of the 4-3 under seem to show the SLB on the line over the TE and the WLB off the line, more or less over the weak-side OG.  What am I missing?

Snarkies gonna snark. 

Riggins's picture

The WLB is never on the line of scrimmage in the 4-3 Under or Over alignments. 
In 4-3 Under, the SLB is walked down to the LoS at the outside shoulder of the TE.  The MLB is aligned in the strong side B gap. The WLB slides over to the backside A gap.   If you don't know gaps, B gap is between Guard and Tacvkle, A gap is between Center and Guard.
In 4-3 Over, the SLB in the same spot.  The MLB is over the Center (sometimes just a hair to the strong side).  The WLB is lined up outside the backside Offensive Tackle.

Maestro's picture

Thanks Ross.  Barnett seems to have a handle on the cover-4, but I fear that no other safety does.  Hopefully another year in the system has developed another great safety whether it's Johnson, Bryant, Wood, Tanner etc.

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Bucks43201's picture

Tanner &/or Wood need to step up this year. Don't trust OJ back here, and Bryant gambles/goes for the highlight hit too much.

"You win with people." - Woody Hayes

741's picture

This is good stuff. Great addition to 11W!