Trend #5

Two High Eyes

Training the Eyes of Safeties to Activate on Run/Pass Reads

Quarters coverage, or two-high safety structures, have been proven to be continually sound against spread offensive outfits for two main reasons: safeties playing from depth are able to play the vertical routes of slot receivers and apex players, such as outside linebackers, are in a position to fit the zone run game of one-back sets. But now that two-back offenses are operating out of the guise of one-back sets (à la H/Y off formations), it is forcing safeties to be tied into the run game. When you then add the RPO element into the equation, that safety becomes in conflict and can no longer trust his run/pass keys.  

Why It’s Trending

When we first published our special report on quarters coverage in 2013, nearly all of the defensive backs coaches we worked with, including Pat Narduzzi who was the defensive coordinator at Michigan State at the time, relied heavily on reading offensive linemen to get the best indicator of a run or pass. Fast forward four years later and the emergence of the RPO game has changed all that. “I think the increased use of RPOs has really challenged defensive coaches to re-think their key reads,” said Adam Waugh, the former defensive backs coach at Army who was a contributor to that study. “The bottom line is that I don’t think the offensive line is reliable anymore. There are too many looks offensively and it confuses the kids.”

So now the challenge among defensive coaches is to decide who they are teaching those safeties to read pre-snap and how they are teaching them to react post-snap off their movement. We’ve found that now defensive coaches are clueing their safeties into recognizing run vs. pass as it pertains to the following scenarios:

  • The pre-snap location of the back 
  • The release of the number two receiver 

How It’s Being Implemented

We have found that secondary coaches are now putting more validity into the release of the number two receiver, particularly in defending RPO concepts. As Coach Waugh told us, “In two-high coverage concepts, I think the best key is the number two receiver. You may be a hair slower reacting, but ultimately that guy will tell you whether it’s run or pass and it cuts down on the potential of a missed read.” That is why Northern Colorado safeties coach Woody Blevins has bought completely into using two-high bracket coverage that has tied outside linebackers and safeties into the release of the number two receiver. Originally designed to defend perimeter RPOs such as bubbles and smokes, the outside linebackers will align at five yards outside the slot if he is off the line of scrimmage (thus being a bubble threat) and will align inside the slot if he is on the line of scrimmage (see Diagram 19). If in outside alignment, this linebacker will typically handle any out-breaking routes of slot receivers while safeties who play at twelve yards will take the in-breaking ones, and can be an extra hat in the run game. The Mike linebacker is man-to-man on the running back. Quite simply, the inside bracket defender is responsible for the run fit, while the outside bracket player is the force defender and will handle the quarterback on option runs.  

Diagram 19

According to Coach Blevins, the key strengths of Bracket are as follows:

  1. vs. Run: There is always an extra defender on the quarterback for read zone.
  2. vs. Run: There is always an extra defender in the run fit.
  3. vs. RPO: Even though we have an extra hat for the run, none of them are in conflict because the WRs are locked up in man coverage. 
  4. vs. Drop Back Pass: a bracket will be created on the slot WRs.
  5. vs. Pass: When necessary the “bracket” players have the ability to pattern match the most threatening route.

In the video clip below, you can see the safety trigger on an inside route by the slot, thus breaking up the play. 

Since the back is a vital indicator of play direction, many defensive backs coaches are tipping their safeties off to the potential run threat that may trigger them to engage in the run game more quickly. In its simplest sense, the safety to the side of the back is a “slow to go player” who should be a “pass first” defender while the safety away from the back is expected to be an extra hat in the run game. 

At NAIA powerhouse Marian University’s (IN) 4-2-5 scheme, one safety will be tied to the fit and other will be more of pass defender first against one-back offenses. Safeties coach Mike Ridings will align his safeties at 9 yards in depth and two yards off the EMLOS and says the depth of those defenders help them to trigger off their keys quickly. “They are typically getting a read on tackle and tight end,” said Coach Ridings. “With any type of vertical separation they need to see the tight end’s path whether it is vertical for pass or attacking the linebacker. Any type of path towards the linebacker is a very muddy look, because they could be attacking them for a block, or they could be releasing out into a route and playing from depth is our biggest advantage for any muddy looks. If the tight end continues to climb vertical, we have the ability to get hands on as he attempts to get out in a route. As he initiates a block we are able to make the run fit right because of our depth as well.”

One of the things that Marian does to help its safety to get involved in the fit is to align the Sam (or field linebacker) with outside leverage on the number two receiver at 8 yards (see Diagram 20)

Diagram 20

If the back is to the Sam linebacker/Free Safety, they both will key the tackle to the release of the back for coverage responsibilities. The Sam is in position to play the cutback of the back while the safety can play number two vertical (see Diagram 21). In this situation, the weak safety could be slow to go off his read on the tight end (see Diagram 22)

Diagram 21
Diagram 22

The safety to the tight end or three-man surface will be out of the fit making it easier to get a great run pass read off the tight end. “Our thinking is that safety can now be more patient with the tight end,” said Coach Ridings. “The safety to the open side can now be more aggressive because he doesn’t have a threat to his side. We felt like this really let our guys play fast.”

In Pistol formations, Coach Blevins will also use the tackle as a primary indicator for the safeties (see Diagram 23). “The inside bracket player should always read his tackle and react accordingly,” said Coach Blevins. “The RB’s alignment, however, will give the inside Bracket player context clues as to what his job will most likely be once the ball is snapped.” 

Diagram 23

His rules are below. 

Run: React to offensive tackle.

– Veer/Down Block = Outside QB player

– Base Block = Dive player 

Pass: Bracket the #2 WR inside and underneath.

– Be late to the pass. Remember, this lack of conflict is what protects the defense from RPOs.

– Pass Set = Bracket the #2 WR inside and underneath. 

In trips alignments, the safety away from the trips is responsible for the QB on pull reads even if he’s asked to come from depth.


As with all our research and clinic reports, our goal with the 2017 Football Trends Report is to help our readers get an early advantage by identifying emerging trends and reporting evolutions of established coaching concepts. This year’s top five trends are really about solving problems. After all, as coaches, we generally face many of the same issues. That is why we are providing you with additional research and clinic reports that detail options at solving these same problems. So take a few minutes and scroll down to review these additional resources. Just click on the link and you’ll be able to read the full-length versions of these reports — and watch the game film.

Designing RPO Systems: Case 4 RPO Route Designation to Combat Man Coverage

The talk around the clinic circuit this off-season was that man coverage provides a viable answer in defending these RPO schemes. We have the research to back it up. We found that 46 percent of defensive coordinators either use pure man coverage or a version of split field coverage (which essentially turns to man post snap) to defend run/pass option concepts. So, case 4 of our special report, Designing RPO Systems, serves as the pure counterpoint to the topic, how offensive coaches are attacking man coverage in their RPO game. Read the report.

Adjusting the Dump RPO Vs. Man Coverage

At Northeast Oklahoma A&M, head coach Clay Patterson has established the Norsemen as an RPO based team with a base run play being the inside zone. Patterson has added quick passes tagged off virtually every run play he can call. The dump pass concept, which is an RPO play on the classic pop pass, is a tag that Patterson has had great success with when it was paired with his inside zone. Read the report.

Four RPO Answers to Beat Man Coverage

The popularity of RPOs have exploded in the past couple of years and there are very few offenses that don’t use some aspect of them. With that being said, defensive coordinators have been scheming at a consistent rate to stop the advantage the offense gains. So far, their best answer is to play Man Coverage. This kills most RPOs that are out there because it triggers an automatic give to the running back or forces you to win the 1-on-1 between the wide receiver and defensive back. Another huge problem that this creates is that defenses then can have a +1 advantage in the box. In this exclusive clinic report, Jeff Smith, offensive coordinator at Warrenton High School (MO), details simple answers to flip the advantage back to the offense and take advantage of the matchups that man coverage creates. Read the report.

Insert Zone — Adjustments in Zone Identification, RB Entry Points and Training the Inserter

This report may be a zone study, but it’s essentially an advancement on running the inside zone concept. We specifically researched programs who were “hanging its hat,” as coaches say, on the inside zone concept. Specifically, we wanted to contact coaches who were finding ways to run the inside zone when they had to run the ball, which often came at the expense of seeing loaded defensive boxes. Of course, one of their answers was to use an insert blocker such as a fullback or H/Y off the ball. But before we address the three run concepts in the full-length study (Divide Zone, Cut Iso and Wham Zone), we wanted to provide the framework of how coaches teach their offensive linemen who to block. Read the report.

8 In-Season Block Destruction Drills by Position

It would be impractical to teach how to get off blocks without first teaching the proper hand placement to do so. Many of these drills emphasize the actual placement of hands as well as how to defend against types of blocks. Read the report.

Mukwonago Defensive Line Block Destruction Progression

While it is becoming more and more “sexy” to talk coverage and pass rush, we all know if you don’t stop the run you don’t win football games, and stopping the run at any level starts with the guys up front. This includes stance, get offs, one-on-one block destruction and two-on-one block destruction. Read the report.

Eastern Washington Squat and Cathy Coverage Techniques

Eastern Washington University prides itself on being a defensive football team, often finding itself in the thick of the FCS playoffs each season. The Eagles are primarily a quarters coverage team that mixes in Cover 2 and zone pressures out of a 4-3 Front. Eastern Washington’s cornerbacks coach Cherokee Valeria sat down with X&O Labs’ Mike Kuchar to talk about the two ways in which he teaches his corners to play cover 2, a “Kathy” technique and a “Squat” technique. Read the report.

Quarters Safety Flat Foot Technique

Having played and coached the safety position in the 4-2-5 defense, Harding University’s defensive backs coach Luke Tribble, is a big believer in playing his safeties flat footed whenever possible. Tribble plays a form of Cover 4 most of the time and this clinic report is written from the perspective of a quarters defense. Tribble may play it a little different to the boundary than he does to the field, but it’s still cover 4 by principle. Read the report.

Chat with other coaches about this trend by visiting the Hudl Forum.

X&O Labs 2017 Football Trends