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Film room: Nick Saban’s Cover 1 Defense

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Nick Saban Coverages (Part 2) - Cover 1 “The best coverage in ball”

Last post, I went over Coach Nick Saban’s 3 deep pattern match zone concepts: rip/liz and 3 mable. I thought it would be a good post because those coverages have made their way into the NFL and are used a lot today. So, I thought I’d continue this series by going into Saban’s cover 1 defense, because he uses some very unique rules and leverages in his cover 1 pass coverage that are also utilized a lot in the NFL today.

The Patriots under head coach and former Saban boss Bill Belichick, for example, run a lot of cover 1 that is similar to Saban’s cover 1.

Saban calls Cover 1 “the best coverage in ball” because it stops the run, forces throws to the outside, and takes away the easy, short throws that zone gives up. So, here’s a breakdown of how he uses leverage rules to get his defensive backs in good man coverage positioning when playing cover 1.

Like I said above, Cover 1 is great defense to stop the run because it gets that extra number in the box:

In the pass game, Saban’s cover 1 uses unique leverage rules to minimize the throwing windows for the opposing quarterback. The base for these leverage rules is the divider. There are two divider lines. Both are straight, vertical lines (ten yards from the sidelines) that run all the way down the field.

DB rules when outside the divider

Saban’s first rule for his defensive backs in cover 1: if your man is outside of that divider line, you play with inside leverage. Why? Because once that receiver gets outside of that divider, he is now too far away for the middle of the field safety to make a play on him. All the DBs in man coverage must play with the proper leverage in relation to the deep middle safety. In other words, if a wide receiver is outside the divider line, there is a large seam between him and the deep safety, so the DB must play with inside leverage in order to take away any inside breaking routes, preventing any easy completions.

Here’s an in-game example that exemplifies why Saban wants his DBs to play with inside leverage, when outside the divider:

Here’s what it looks like when a DB plays the slant properly with inside leverage:

The corner must not only take away the inside route, but also take away the deep go route, since there is no safety help deep and to the outside.

By playing with inside leverage and staying high and over the top to take away the go route, you give up the comeback route, or back shoulder throw; not enough room outside to run the out/corner route. This plays into the defense’s hands however, because the comeback route/back shoulder throw is considered the hardest throw to make; Saban even says that he can live with the opposing quarterback throwing the comeback route all game.

If any of that was confusing, here’s Coach Saban breaking down what he wants out of his defensive backs outside the divider.

DB rules when inside the divider

Saban’s second rule for his defensive backs in cover 1: if your man is inside the divider, you play with outside leverage. Why? Because, now that the receiver is not as wide and is closer to the line of scrimmage (inside the divider), there is much more space for him to run the out breaking routes, so the DB must play with outside leverage in order to take those routes away. Also, the WR is now closer to the deep middle safety, which means that the DB can use his outside leverage to funnel the opponent to the deep middle safety.

Here’s a good example as to why Saban wants his DBs inside the divider to play with outside leverage. Here, Cowboys receiver Cole Beasley is inside the divider and thus, has lots of space to work outside — if the DB lets him:

Here’s a good example of what Saban wants out of his defensive backs inside the divider:

Saban wants his DBs inside the divider to not only play with outside leverage, but also low, vertical leverage (trail technique). Since the deep middle safety is deep, he can’t make a play on a slant/dig route, even if the WR is inside the divider. So, Saban tells his DBs to play low in order to take away the slant/dig.

This is a good example as to why; as you can see here, the DB does play with outside leverage, but doesn’t play low to take away the slant. As a result, it’s two easy completions.

Here’s a good example of what Saban wants out of his DBs inside the divider: play with outside leverage and low/trail technique to take away the slant/dig.

What this leaves open is the deep post. However, we know that the deep middle safety is in this spot for this very reason.

And if any of that was confusing, here’s Coach Saban again breaking down what he wants out of his DBs inside the divider:

As you can see from this, the only real open throw this coverage gives up is the deep comeback route, or back shoulder throw, which again, is one of the most difficult throws a QB can make. If executed right, the receivers outside the divider will be forced to run comeback routes, and the receivers inside the divider will be forced to run right into the deep safety.

But like all defenses, it is not perfect. This coverage can be countered by motions/stacks/bunches, which force off coverage (can’t press when a receiver is moving before the snap), and rubs/pick plays.

I can go over popular motions and rub concepts vs cover 1 if you guys want, and I can go over more complex details about Saban’s cover 1 defense, but this post is just a general overview of how Saban teaches his DBs to play in cover 1, and how lots of NFL DBs play this way in cover 1 as well.