Bombers 101: Understanding Richie Hall’s Base Pass Coverages

“Soft-zone.”

“Prevent defence.”

These terms have long followed longtime CFL and current Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive coordinator Richie Hall.

Correctly or incorrectly, those are very circumstantial, oversimplified descriptions of the base concepts of Coach Hall’s pattern-matching defence. The reality, though, is that it can be soft as a 5-deep, 3-under zone at its most basic, but can also be a tight cover-0 at its most aggressive. It all depends on the routes of the receivers.

Pattern-matching is the modern, aggressive way of playing zone-coverage. Defensive backs take zone-drops while reading the receivers, and depending on the responsibility of the defender and the route(s) of the receiver(s) he’s reading, the defender’s coverage becomes either man-to-man or zone-coverage. On most plays, a portion of the defensive backs will be in man-coverage, while the others are in zone. It’s all dependent on what the offence does.

“M.O.D.” coverage: 

In short, Coach Hall’s base pass defence is a coverage concept called “man-only-deep”. In Canadian football, “M.O.D.” is a 5-deep zone defence with cover-4 rules that becomes man-coverage when opposing receivers run vertical routes. A “vertical” is described as any route that breaks past linebacker depth (5-9 yards). Each defender is reading 1-2 receivers that will dictate his coverage. If the receiver that he’s reading runs vertically past linebacker depth, the defender becomes responsible for playing him in man-coverage, whether he ends up running a go, post, corner, hook, dig, etc. Defenders will assume their zone responsibilties if their receiver declares a shallow route (i.e. drag, slant, arrow, etc.) before reaching linebacker depth of 5-9 yards. Defenders will “number” receivers on each side of the field from outside-in, making the widest receiver the no. 1, the middle receiver the no. 2, and the most inside receiver the no. 3.

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-The MIKE is the middle-hook defender with eyes on the quarterback. If he hears an “under” call, he’s responsible for “walling off” any shallow route coming across the middle from the side of which he received the call.

-The WILL is the hook-curl defender to the short-side of the field. If the running back is aligned to the short-side, he will take a more shallow zone-drop with eyes on the ‘back.

-Whether he’s the aligned to the short-side (boundary) or the wide-side (field), the free safety is always reading through the no. 3 receiver. If no. 3 goes vertical, he becomes the safety’s responsibility in man-coverage. Fortunately, though, the safety should have outside help on any routes that break outwards to the sidelines. If no. 3 runs a shallow route, the safety gets his eyes to the quarterback and is free to look downhill for any inside-breaking route to rob.

-A change Coach Hall has implemented in 2018 is that he always has the SAM follow the no. 3 receiver regardless of whether he aligns to the boundary or the field. If no. 3 runs any sort of quick out-route or hitch, the SAM is responsible for matching 3’s release (see Maurice Leggett in clip below). If no. 3 goes shallow-inside (i.e. drag, etc.), the SAM will pass him off to the inside linebackers before dropping to his hook-curl zone. The SAM cannot let no. 3 go vertical up the seam uncontested, and will respect no. 3’s vertical stem before passing him off to the free safety and dropping to his hook-curl landmark. If the MIKE linebacker is sent on a blitz, the SAM has the same initial read on the no. 3 but has to run with him if he runs an immediate shallow route across the middle.

-The cornerbacks must first get their eyes to the no. 1 receiver. If he stems vertically, the corner is man-to-man on him. He wants to maintain outside-leverage in order to funnel the receiver to his inside help from the halfback. If no. 1 runs a shallow route (slant, hitch, speed-out) the corner will get his eyes to the quarterback and will not break on no. 1’s route to make the tackle and limit yards-after-catch until the QB aims his front shoulder to the receiver. Meanwhile, he’ll continue to sink using soft-squat technique, providing underneath help to the side-lines for any corner-route going over his head from an inside receiver. (See CB Kevin Fogg on play below).

-The halfbacks are reading the no. 2 receiver to the no. 1 receiver. If no. 2 pushes vertically, he becomes the halfback’s responsibility in man-coverage. The half needs to maintain inside leverage as he’s not guaranteed to have safety help, therefore he must attempt to funnel the receiver to his outside help from the corner-back. If no. 2 goes shallow, the half assumes a deep 1/4 zone and must get his eyes to the no. 1 receiver, bracketing him with the corner and creating a double-team.

Strengths: This coverage has five deep defenders regardless of what the offence does, while the man-coverage on deep-routes allows for tighter coverage and prohibits defenders from being pulled out of their zones, creating “soft spots”. This coverage allows the free safety to be heavily involved in the run defence, as shown by Taylor Loffler’s team-leading 75 tackles in 2017, and if the no. 3 is shallow, the safety becomes a free-roamer over the middle to rob any in/over/dig-routes.

Weaknesses: Underneath coverage is very susceptible to being overloaded. Cornerbacks can be left on islands on deep-routes, and are the only defensive backs on the field with no underneath help (quick hitches to the no. 1 will always be open). Defensive backs are in disadvantageous positions to defend 8-to-12-yard hooks, often being caught in the transition from deep 1/4 zone to man-coverage.

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Trap” coverage: 

Every defence that runs cover-4 “M.O.D.” will also run trap-coverage. The 5-yard-out is the number one challenge for all defensive coordinators who run cover-4 concepts to find ways to cover, and trap-coverage (also called “Palms” or “Cathy” coverage) is the best way to fool offences into thinking the flat is wide open before a cornerback emerges and capitalizes on the throw.

In trap-coverage, the corner is reading the no. 2 receiver while using soft-squat technique (sometimes the Bombers will align their corner slightly deeper to give him more of a flat-food read). At the snap, he needs to start sinking deep to disguise the coverage as “M.O.D.”, which will hopefully convince the quarterback into thinking the flat will be open. If no. 2 runs a quick-out, which is a common “M.O.D.” killer (but the perfect route for trap-coverage), the corner will break forward and should be in good position for an interception.

If no. 2 runs a shallow inside-breaking route, the corner will then get his eyes to the no. 1 receiver, and is free to jump any route from him as well. If no. 2 goes vertical, he becomes the deep defenders’ responsibility, and the corner needs to immediately turn his eyes back in front of him to the no. 1.

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-The halfbacks are also reading the no. 2 receiver. If no. 2 goes vertical, the halfback will assume a deep 1/4 zone. He essentially becomes man-on-man on the no. 2 with outside-leverage, but has inside help from the safety, creating a bracket/double-team.  If no. 2 runs any sort of shallow route, the halfback must immediately get his eyes to the no. 1. If no. 1 runs a go-route, the halfback needs to be overtop of him.

-The safety will rotate over to the boundary at the snap. If no. 2 stems vertically, the safety keeps inside-leverage and double-team him with the halfback. The safety should be in good position to make a play on the ball on any hook or inside-breaking route (dig, post, etc). If no. 2 runs a shallow-route, the safety will drop into a deep 1/4 zone with his eyes on the quarterback, and needs to put himself in a position to get overtop of a possible seam- or post-route from the no. 3 to the field.

-The MIKE linebacker has a middle read zone. He needs to gain more depth than his typical middle-hook zone, and will open his hips to the field-side receivers. The MIKE is responsible for carrying any deep route deep-crosser over the middle from the no. 3, as the safety has been rotated over to the boundary.

-The WILL has his usual hook-curl zone if the no. 2 receiver runs any shallow-inside or vertical route, but is also responsible for matching any quick out-route from the no. 2. This is designed to trick the quarterback into thinking his receiver has outside-leverage, and can be thrown open to the sidelines. That’s where the corner comes in to snag the interception.

-Nothing changes for the SAM and field-side defensive backs. They are playing “M.O.D.” coverage and have the same reads and assignments. The only difference for the SAM is that he needs to carry any vertical route from the no. 3 a little bit longer in order for the MIKE to get enough depth to overtake the receiver.

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Strengths: Excellent counter for defences who are getting abused by speed-outs against “M.O.D.”, and relieves stress on the underneath linebacker zones while maintaining four deep defenders.

Weaknesses: Need to get pressure on the quarterback. Hi-Lo route concepts are easy trap-beaters. Linebackers can’t afford to bite on play-action. Backside defensive backs won’t necessarily have safety help against vertical routes.

Thoughts: 

Trap-coverage is only one of many variations Coach Hall has of his base cover-4 “man-only-deep” pass coverage. As does any defensive coordinator, Hall has a number of exotic wrinkles he can tag onto his base coverage to counter any adjustments the offence is making, and is obviously sure to mix in a number of separate coverages — cover-0, cover-1, 2-man under, quarters, etc. — and blitzes in order to keep offences off balance.

In my opinion, there are a number of reasons that Coach Hall takes a lot of fire from a play-calling perspective. For one, I think the Bombers run far too many zone-blitzes with their inside linebackers. The CFL is no longer a blitz-happy league, as defensive coordinators are noting how quick quarterbacks are releasing the football for short, consistent gains. The league’s best defences (Calgary, Saskatchewan, etc.) are consistently dropping 8+ defenders in pass-coverage.

When the Bombers do send pressure, I think there needs to be more variance in the blitzes and coverages being played in the secondary — quarterbacks seem to pick apart the underneath zones when the Bombers don’t pair their blitzes with man-coverage. Although Coach Hall’s blitz package becomes exponentially more exotic as the season progresses, I think there needs to be even more chaos (i.e. defensive ends dropping into pass-coverage while linebackers replace them in the pass-rush) in his blitz schemes. Trap-coverage is all about pressuring the quarterback with unique blitzes and forcing him to make a poor decision — this doesn’t happen when linebackers are blitzing from 6 yards deep.

Most importantly, I think Coach Hall needs to let his defensive backs play more aggressive. Seeing as “M.O.D.” can become a tight cover-0 against certain route combinations, there is really no room for error for defensive backs. Instead of playing cover-4 with a 10-yard-cushion on 2nd-&-10, get Adam Bighill and Taylor Loffler back deep as safeties and mix in some two-high pattern-matching coverages. Put your top-notch group of defensive backs in a position to take away throws in the flat while trusting their skills to prevent any deep-routes with the help of two safeties.

Especially considering its used by other defensive coordinators around the league, Coach Hall’s base cover-4 “M.O.D.” scheme is a good foundation for a CFL pass defence. It’s not “prevent defence”, and its an aggressive coverage as much as its a “soft-zone coverage”, but there are obvious flaws (which is the case in every coverage scheme). Fortunately, though, these flaws can be limited with the inclusion of good situational play-calling and adjustments.

That is where much room for improvement lies.

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