During the summer, the best thing a casual fan can do if they want to learn more about football is study as much as possible. With the access to All-22 Coaches’ Film and streaming sites, the ability to watch film to learn blitzes, coverages, and general play concepts, everyone should take advantage. Throughout the last several weeks, I’ve become obsessed with how defenses attack a trips-bunch formation.
Watching a great secondary is extremely interesting, from man-to-man with a single high safety to zone coverages with defenders responsible for walling off crossers. There are plenty of ways to attack and adjust defensively against 3×1 out of 10 or 11 personnel.
I began watching the Patriots’ defense because of Matt Patricia, the new head coach of the Detroit Lions – a team that I’m especially interested to watch. I specifically watched how he defended these trips-bunch formations. While he is one of the brightest defensive minds in football, when matched up against an equal competitor in offensive coordinator Matt Nagy, Nagy and QB Alex Smith got the best of him.
The Patriots appear to play man to man coverage versus the Chiefs, and that is too simple a coverage to play against the veteran QB, especially when you have a beautifully designed play like this. Pre-snap, Smith sees the single high set. Now he has to determine if it is man or zone coverage. If it is zone coverage, it is likely cover 3, at which point Smith will likely attack with the ‘All Verticals’ concept built into the play. If man coverage, Smith will target the ‘Mesh’ concept. Based on the ‘corners over’ look, where both corners are to the side of the receivers AND the Patriots’ safety Devin McCourty (No. 32) showing man posture over Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, it shows as man coverage.
Starting cornerback Stephon Gilmore (top) is at a disadvantage. While the other two defensive backs can easily get into ‘phase’, Gilmore has too much green between himself and the #1 WR once the ball is snapped. But he is expecting to get a little help, a little interference, from the linebacker who is the ‘Rat’ defender. That linebacker, Kyle Van Noy (No. 53), is responsible for reading the QB, directing traffic, or disrupting any crossers coming over the middle.
On the snap, Smith looks to his right and confirms that it is man coverage. As he is taking his drop, his shoulders are pointing to his right, which moves Van Noy just a bit, and wide receiver Tyreek Hill is uninterrupted as he runs the shallow drag. Smith delivers, and Hill is able to gain some yardage after the catch.
Below is another example of how teams can choose to defend bunch formations. On this play, Buffalo shows man coverage across the board, but post-snap it shows a little differently. Only CB Tre White (M2M over the point WR of the bunch set) is in man coverage against the bunch set. The other two corners are pattern matching.
The outside cornerback WR will match any out-breaking route, and the slot corner will match against any in-breaking route.
The linebacker to the field will drop into the ‘rat’ role, help out versus any quick in-breaking routes, but ultimately read the QB’s eyes as the offense runs a ‘Snag/Spot’ concept. On the backside of the bunch set, Buffalo matches their safety vs. the #1 receiver to the boundary and their linebacker vs. the running back to round out the coverage. The coverage is beautifully executed, and the Bengals have nowhere to throw.
Cover 3 “Buzz” Against Trips-Bunch Formation
Offenses don’t always line up in their primary formation; teams will move to a bunch set in order to get the defense in a coverage that may not defend the formation well. That’s why most teams have a check/audible any time a team motions to trips — but not here. Buffalo trusts their base coverage because they are schooled well in it. They played Cover 3 more than any other coverage this past season. The Bills have three defensive linemen with the right defensive end in a wide-nine technique. Linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, No. 57, is the fourth rusher, coming on a delayed blitz. The secondary drops into a Cover 3 buzz look.
When Alexander blitzes, Preston Brown (No. 52) sells a fake blitz before dropping into the middle zone, where he has a hook-curl responsibility. Ramon Humber is pattern matching, which is essentially a zone coverage that turns into man if a receiver enters his zone.
As you can see, the defense works in synergy. Both cornerbacks defend the outer third of the field while the free safety, Jordan Poyer, drops to cover the deep middle third of the field. This is Cover 3, but with a wrinkle. Strong safety Micah Hyde is a “buzz” defender, so he drops down to provide support against the run, but also has a curl-flat responsibility against the pass. The nickel cornerback is at the line of scrimmage and jams his man before sinking into coverage, where he defends the flats, and the running back runs a wheel route. But if you are going to play a simple coverage like this, you must generate some kind of pressure and also have zone defenders who have discipline. Hyde drops down and is aware of the mesh concept developing in front of him. The nickel corner, Leonard Johnson, has his eyes on the QB the entire time as he sinks, and he is completely aware of the possible wheel route up the sideline that he must carry. White, the cornerback to the bottom of the screen, shows off his awareness to help take away the deep over route.
Watching the play unfold in real time, you’ll see perfect execution by Buffalo’s defense against Kansas City’s trips-bunch formation aligned to the field. Thanks to Alexander’s pressure, Smith is rushed to force a pass that’s off target from an open Tyreek Hill, one of the most explosive receivers in the NFL.
There are multiple ways to defend a trips-bunch formation. These are just a few of the coverages and alignments that defenses can use. These coverages allow coaches to put their players in positions to succeed with various wrinkles. From a “rat” defender to assist on pattern matching coverages to a “buzz” safety that drops down to help in run support or to take away the curl/flats post-snap.
A team may get caught in their base coverage, such as Cover 3 ‘buzz’, as a team motions into a bunch set, but they must know how to defend the special look regardless of the situation. How teams defend bunch packages is a segment of every defensive coordinator’s playbook and is worked on weekly. How does your team defend the formation?