The Lions' Stubbie/Special Cut-up from Week 1
Detroit stunned the Chiefs offense in Week 1 by running Quarters. I break down their use of a popular lower-level Trips coverage: Stubbie.
Stubbie is one of, if not the most popular, Trips coverages at the lower levels of football. The coverage has several names, but the Saban version is called Stubbie. I first learned the coverage with the name Special, which is also called Mini, X, Lock, Book (Fangio), and others. Regardless of what you call it, the coverage is basically the same.
In simple terms, Stubbie’ locks’ the CB on the #1 WR (MEG: Man Everywhere he Goes) and plays 2-Read (Cloud/Palms) over the #2 and #3 WRs. Locking the CB on #1 eliminates him from the zone coverage. The Ni, FS, and Mike will create a triangle coverage over the two inside WRs. The coverage allows the backside Safety to help with the single WR (X) or be a part of the run fit (Quarters).
Even though Stubbie has Cover 2 elements, the coverage is not considered a Cover 2 scheme. For a coverage to fall in that family, there must be a true flat defender. Stubbie lacks that because the CB is locked on #1. Yes, some routes will take the Ni to the flat, but in the overall scheme of things, the coverage is more related to Quarters than Cover 2. Teams who want to play Cover 2 to Trips at the NFL level will run a Tampa 2 concept.
Against the Chiefs in Week 1, the Detroit Lions did something no one expected them to do: run Quarters. According to PFF, the Lions ran Quarters on 32.3% of their snaps against the Chiefs on the NFL’s opening night, fifth most in Week 1. In contrast, the Lions were the #1 Cover 1 team in the NFL last year (28.9%) and dropped in at 30th in Quarters usage (3.8%).
The preseason skewed the metrics even more. PFF had Detroit running Cover 1 on 61% of their calls during the reason. The biggest surprise was that PFF only recorded one snap of Quarters in the Lions’ three preseason games. One! The lowest mark in the NFL.
Now, I understand that preseason football is not what most teams will do in the season, and many times, defensive coordinators will work on ‘things’ as they prepare for the season. Most of the work is done in joint practices, but to only run one snap of Quarters in the preseason and use it as your base coverage against the best QB in the NFL in Week 1 is quite the 180.
Lions DC Aaron Glenn was under some heat following last year’s abysmal performance on defense. Detroit came in 27th in DVOA compared to their offensive counterparts, who finished 6th (FTN). Over the offseason, the Lions completely retooled their secondary. CBs Cameron Sutton (Steelers) and Emmanuel Moseley (49ers) were brought in to shore up the outside CB spot and allow more diversity in coverage. Safety CJ Gardner-Johnson is known as a TE ‘killer’ and can play all over the field, another versatile piece to use in the back end. Glenn also coached him in New Orleans.
Finally, the Lions selected Alabama’s Brian Branch in the draft and immediately placed him at the Nickel spot. Branch gives Detroit a versatile playmaker who has experience running multiple schemes. The Saban system, at any level, is one of the most diverse coverage schemes in the country.
The departure from the norm was a shock to all, especially Mahomes. Though the Chiefs’ QB finished with a respectable 70.5 QBR, the Pick-6 by Branch won the game for the Lions. The absence of all-world TE Travis Kelce allowed Detroit to leverage coverage back to the passing strength. When the Cheifs went to 3x1 formations, the Lions could sit in split-field coverage, using Stubbie as their primary tool.
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The Chiefs motion the #1 WR back toward the two stacked WRs near the box. Stubbie functions similarly to ‘Box,’ a simple and effective Bunch Check for most teams. Kansas City runs a Drive concept (Dig/Shallow), which Detriot easily picks up. Because the Lions are playing Quarters on the backside, the weak Safety can now work to the Trips side (Poach) and cut the Dig. Even the check down to the RB is leveraged by the Ni, who is in the flat. Mahomes has to step up and scramble for a few yards with nowhere to go.
The Chiefs run a ‘Bench’ route to the Trips side and a Dig by the TE away. Both outside WRs will run ‘jerk’ routes back inside while the #3 WR runs a Corner. The Mike has leverage on the #3 WR and forces him to stem outside. Safety Kerby Joseph (#31) does an excellent job of seeing the departure angle and working to the outside of the WR; this allows him to nail down and hold leverage on the route. Underneath the CB, Ni, and Mike all layer to create a three-on-two. Though the TE does come open to the weak side, DE Aidan Hutchinson flushes the QB out of the pocket.