Inside Mike Leach's Playbook: Four Verticals, Via Cougar Sports Weekly

Four Verticals. Best play ever? Best play ever. (diagram via bruceeien.com)

Most times, I just give you just a small excerpt from Cougar Sports Weekly to tantalize you. But today, I wanted to pass along the entirety of the opening section so you can get a sense of what you're missing if you don't subscribe. You can find subscription info here; your subscription will get you three mailings a week as well as access to our archives.

Incidentally, CSW also makes a wonderful holiday gift -- either for the favorite Cougar on your list or for yourself if you're too broke to pay for it on your own. ("Hey mom/dad/significant other, check out this link ... sure would love that!)

One quick editorial note: I've embedded some video at various points in this post. That's not possible in the emails. But everything else is the same.

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Time for the second installment in our series looking at the staples of Mike Leach's Airraid playbook. We talked last week about how passing plays seek to stretch defenses horizontally and/or vertically, and that Leach will often use plays that do either to an extreme. We first looked at Blue Right 92, also known as "Mesh," which is a horizontal play. Today, we look at the mother of all vertical-stretching plays, Blue Right 6 -- or, as Leach simply calls it, 6.

You might remember in 2010 when Chris Polk ran into the end zone for the Huskies on fourth and goal from the 1 to beat Cal in 2010. After the game, Steve Sarkisian famously called that off-guard trap "God's Play," suggesting that if God were a football fan, he'd prefer such a powerful run.

Forget that. If God really was a football fan, his favorite play would be Four Verticals. Like Sarkisian's run, this is straightforward and elegant, but like the creator Himself, Four Verticals can destroy you if you don't pay it the proper respect. It's the closest thing there is to the perfectly designed football play.

Four Verticals

On it's face, it looks just like the ultimate sandlot play you remember from recess as a child -- the kid with the strongest arm at quarterback tells everyone to just "go deep." How can that possibly work at the highest levels of football? But when you see what it does to different coverages, you see why it's so incredible.

Defensive coverages start with how many deep defensive backs there are on any given play. When you hear the terms Cover 1, 2, 3 or 4, the word "cover" simply refers to the number of defensive backs responsible for covering a deep zone of the field. The rest of the non-linemen on the field can be in either man-to-man or zone, but the number of deep DBs generally will dictate where the ball is to go an any given pass play.

Let's first take a look at Four Verticals against both Cover 1 and Cover 3, because they're very similar in terms of the pressure the play puts on the defense. In both coverages, there's a safety playing centerfield -- the difference is in Cover 1 the corners are manned up on islands outside, rather than dropping deep to cover the outside thirds of the field. Honestly, I can't imagine the Cougs facing much Cover 1 next year; that's a coverage where the safety comes down into the box to defend against the run. So let's start by looking at Cover 3. Here's a basic Cover 3 scheme:



There will be variations, but this is basically it -- three deep defensive backs with four underneath defenders. Here's what Four Verticals does to this coverage:



Generally, the corners are going to run with the X and Z receivers. That leaves the safety to make a choice: Roll to the H or the Y? You see the issue here: It essentially becomes four on three, and no matter what the defense does, someone will be open. The corners, of couse, could cheat in to pick up one of the guys streaking down the middle, but that leaves them to get beat over the top, the cardinal sin of any defensive back.

And that's the most interesting thing about Four Verticals, and why it's not really the sandlot play it looks like: It's usually not about beating the defense over the top. It's about finding the open space in the coverage and hitting it quickly. If you try too hard to go over the top, you give the deep defenders time to adjust to the ball in the air, unless it's a complete blown coverage. Instead, the ball is usually delivered about 10-15 yards downfield outside one of the hashes, over the top of the underneath defenders but beneath the deep defenders:

If you're fortunate as an offense, the safety ran hard at either the H or Y and the QB hits the other for a very long catch and run. But at the very least, against this coverage, you're looking at a 15-yard or so gain -- it's the one time the safety could be rewarded for indecision, as he's probably in the best position to make a tackle if he just stays home in the middle of the field.

Here it is in video form against the Cover 3. Just look at the safeties at the snap, and you'll see exactly what the QB sees, dictating where the ball is going to go. It's not as easy as these guys make it look, as 6 requires a lot of timing, anticipation and accuracy -- especially to run it the way Leach wants it run -- but all of those things will develop in the next nine months. Notice how deep the Idaho DBs get, the hole that creates, and the delivery into that hole:

Next, let's look at Cover 2 zone, where two deep safeties each are responsible for half of the field and the other five defenders are covering underneath. In the strictest sense, you've got just two deep defenders trying to cover four receivers. However, many Cover 2 zones will ask the MLB to drop deep into the middle third -- this is basis of the Tampa 2 you heard about under Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin in Tampa Bay. In that case, it's still four on three:



Against Cover 2 zone, the ideal place to hit a receiver isn't usually down the middle, but on the sidelines -- once the X or Z drives past the squatting corner, there will be a hole between that defender and the deep safety. And, again, if the ball is delivered into that gap, the receiver will have the chance for a long catch-and-run, either because a safety has bailed out to the middle or because he can make one move to beat the safety in open space. Oh, and if the MLB drops very deep and one of the OLBs drops a little deeper than usual before passing off the H or Y, the F will be sitting underneath in that vacated area as a safety valve for five or 10 easy yards.

Notice here how the receiver breaks off the route to sit in the zone against this Cover 2:


But what about Cover 2 man? This is where the mandate to stop throws over the top works against the defense. The outside receivers are going to push hard upfield immediately, and if the receivers can beat the corners off the line, the safeties are going to vacate the middle of the field to protect the sidelines. Now we're back to the middle of the field being left open, and because it's man coverage, guess who's covering the H and Y? Linebackers. As an offense, you obviously take that matchup every time, as linebackers are unlikely to be able to turn and run down the seams with wide receivers and/or running backs. (Marquess Wilson and Connor Halliday against Arizona State say hello.)

Lastly, let's look at Cover 4, also known as "quarters" because the safeties and corners will be sitting in deep zones with responsibility for 25 percent of the field. Finally, a fair fight! It's four-on-four deep. That leaves three defenders in zone underneath. One problem: That's usually going to be three linebackers, each covering 1/3 of the field (although it could just be one or two depending if the defense is in nickel or dime personnel). That's an awful lot of ground to cover for those guys. The OLBs are going to head for the flats, while the MLB stays home. Suddenly, he's matched up one-on-one with the F. Depending on the MLBs leverage, the F can run a little hook, break outside, or continue a flare up the hash. And when he catches the ball, he will need only to beat a linebacker in space for another big gain, since all the DBs are now about 20 yards downfield:



There's one other possible wrinkle against Cover 4. If the H and Y notice this particular coverage, they can break off their routes and sit in a zone (as noted above by the squiggly lines). If that's part of the plan, the F would obviously want to run directly at the MLB with a hook to keep him anchored in the middle of the field. If the MLB stays home on the F, both the H and Y should be wide open, again with a chance to catch and run against safeties who have bailed 20 yards downfield.

Here's what it might look like. It's impossible to know if the defense was playing Cover 4, since we can't see the safeties, but notice all the room the running back has to catch and run, suggesting a deep coverage:


Before wrapping up, a quick thought on Cover 1. I sort of dismissed it earlier, but it's not the worst thing in the world if a team has good cover corners on the outside. It keeps the safety from having to make one of the aforementioned decisions that could leave a receiver wide open. Still, with corners matched up on the outside one-on-one with no help, it leaves them exposed to back-shoulder fades or the receivers breaking off the route when the ball leaves the QB's hand, to say nothing of getting beat over the top by a guy such as Marquess Wilson. And if that one corner misplays the ball, or misses the tackle ... guys can run for days.

Example here. So sorry, Texas:

You'll hear me say it again and again, but this is why Leach doesn't have that many plays: If the ones he has are run properly, there are very few times when someone won't be open, and it's usually multiple someones. In this case, there's really only one alignment that can contain Four Verticals, and that's Cover 4. However, if a defense runs too much Cover 4 because it's scared of getting beat vertically, it opens itself up to being surgically picked apart horizontally by plays such as Mesh and next week's staple, the Shallow Cross. It truly is pick your poison with Leach's offense.

Look closely on any given Saturday or Sunday, and you'll see Four Verticals time and time again. Heck, even Army used it to throw for a TD pass against Navy last weekend, one of the six passes the Black Knights attempted all game. Technically, it was only three verticals, but the same principles apply. Go here, and fast forward to the 1:05 mark. Yep. It's that good. And WSU will soon run it as good as, if not better than, anyone.

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