Where Single-High & Two-High Collide: 6-Cross
MQ looks at the melding of two main camps of coverage schematics & why it's a trend you should be following.
We’ve seen this before. A two-high shell system takes the NFL by storm and challenges offenses to change their protocols and systems. No, Tampa 2 is not coming back, and though time moves in a flat circle, the settings and scenarios change. Even at the college level, the Tampa 2 three-high systems have had to become more dynamic because, in football, static equates to death.
The trickle-up effect of “college” systems is evident now more than ever. Horizontal screens, tempo, and basic Air Raid concepts are melting into the West Coast Offense and Air Coryell systems that have dominated the league since the ‘70s and ‘80s. I wrote about the evolution of the NFL into modernity in Hybrids: The Making of a Modern Defense. With the addition of analytics, offenses across the league are moving forward into the future and accelerating past their defensive counterparts; this is the natural ebb and flow of the game.
Defense, in general, is reactive. The offense knows and understands the play being called, and it is the defense’s goal to align and limit what the offense can do. We are in the age of Spatial Darwinism, a term I coined to describe the era of football today. The ultimate goal of the offense is to create space; the defense’s goal is to constrain space. Understanding this simple objective is the key to being successful in the modern game.
Offenses in today’s NFL are using pre-snap motion and play-action to create the space they need. The pre-snap movements assist offenses in coverage identification or help to gain leverage at the point of attack. Defenses that are structured to over-react to motions can get out leveraged relatively quickly. The combination of condensed formations and quick motions makes it difficult for single-high dominant teams to keep run fit and coverage integrity through the play.
Two-high shells are not the complete answer either. In a two-high system, the defense can better manage motions and shifts pre-snap but lacks run coverage. The adage of throw versus single-high and run versus two-high still rings true. In a clinic this past offseason, Saban remarked that he likes his Mint Front when running two-high because it cancels gaps, and if you play a four-down defense, you need movement to assist in the run fits. Thus, the conundrum of the modern game. Defenses need to play two-high to cap the passing game and leverage pre-snap motion while contending the robust run game of an NFL offense.
Last year, we got a look into the future of football as the Broncos (Vic Fangio), and Rams (Brandon Staley, now the Chargers Head Coach) used a two-high shell at such a volume that everyone took notice. Both defenses were also near the top in the league, with the Rams having a tremendous year on defense, limiting explosive plays and dominating the run game.
The Tampa 2 died off as a popular defense because the Mike linebacker was constantly in conflict. Defenses couldn’t find the perfect player to hold down the middle of the field and react quick enough to eliminate conflict (Brian Urlacher). Though it gave way to other advancements like the rush tackle (Warren Sapp) and the Under Defense, which used three and four down principles, the Tampa 2 is not the answer to the modern offensive issue.
The Vic Fangio system is the counter to the Shannahan/McVay systems that are taking over the NFL. This past offseason saw Brandon Staley get a head coaching job with the Chargers, and the Packers and Bears hire Fangio disciples. Dallas hired a Pete Carroll disciple in Dan Quinn, but we see him stepping outside his “rigid” box. Robert Saleh, Head Coach of the Jets, attempted to hire Saban disciple Jeremy Pruitt to help him modernize his 4-3 Cover 3 system only to lose him to Joe Judge and the NY Giants. Mike Zimmer hired Karl Scott away from Alabama too. All this is to say, NFL defenses are taking notes and beginning to align in philosophy: run a two-high shell.
Post-snap movement from a two-high shell is a trend that probably will not go away overnight and would argue is here to stay. Combining Quarters and single-high coverages from a two-high umbrella is what the Fangio system’s philosophy is built upon. Additionally, the post-snap movement is a great counter to the uptick in play-action usage across the league.
The NFL is still an under-the-center (UTC) league, and the rise in Wide Zone only helps usher in the movement to a two-high shell. In Wide Zone, the QB has to turn his back to the defense. From a two-high shell, the defense can shift to most coverages without many issues. For instance, if a team wanted to spin down a Safety to the TE side to get more numbers near the box, they could easily do this post-snap. The depth also gives the Safety a clearer picture as he moves towards the box. It is much easier to work down than back.
Below is a prime example of showing a two-high shell and spinning to single-high post-snap. Buffalo is clearly in a two-high contoured shell as the QB is under center to take the snap. For the QB, he is building a mental model of what the coverage will look like post-snap. Once the ball is snapped, the Bills will spin to the three WR side, changing the picture for the QB.
Post-snap, the Bills work to a single-high coverage. The QB is blind to the post-snap movement and will need to create a new mental model once his head snaps back around. With no vertical threat, the CB stays low and doesn’t push vertically. One other aspect of this picture is how defenses are starting to play their DEs. Buffalo charges the QB with their RDE instead of having him work down the line to spill what looks like to be a puller (Spilt Zone). Now the QB is blind to the rush and the coverage.
Below is the entire play. Had the DE not charged the QB, he would have set up and reset his mental model. Instead, the Bills are showing two of the best-practice ways to combat play-action from UTC. Reteaching how DEs attack if unblocked versus a down-block and post-snap spinning to different coverage contours forces the QBs to process more information quickly and under duress. In the NFL, this is how defenses are competing with the modern offensive onslaught.