How to Distribute Passing Routes Among Linebackers

By Cody Alexander

Most defensive coaches understand the distribution of routes when it comes to the four secondary players. Whether running a single-high Cover 3 scheme or a two-high quarter scheme, there is simplicity in teaching the basic rules.

In a Cover 3 scheme, each secondary player is responsible for the deep thirds with the fourth being an overhang and responsible for the seam (curl/flat or SCiF). This can be simply explained to players by dividing the field into thirds: boundary to hash, hash to hash and the other hash to boundary.

Though Quarters adds a slight degree of difficulty – who’s over the top – Cover 2 vs. Cover 4 – it still is simple to teach the basic fundamentals to secondary players.

Where many defensive coaches struggle is in pass distribution at the linebacker position. It is easy for defensive coaches to overemphasize the run and leave their linebackers to “just drop” in the pass, to a spot or an opponent. Though this simplifies the teaching, it leaves a huge void in the development of a young linebacker. This would be like teaching coverage to a defensive back but not teaching him how to tackle.

Linebackers must constantly be communicating and identifying formations. Where is their key, and who do they need to relate to when the offense decides to pass? One basic rule of thumb: defenders should relate to a player and not to a spot on the field.

One major mistake coaches make when teaching linebackers how to pass drop is to tell them to drop to a spot. The issue with spot dropping is that players are defending grass and opponents. Many times, a linebacker will bypass the nearest receiver and work to the spot while the receiver he just passed curls up inside of him to catch a pass.

As the spread becomes the most dominant form of offense around the country, well the passing concepts seep into even power football teams, it is important for defensive coaches to change their teaching of pass distributions. Most importantly, linebackers or any defender who is dropping into coverage should relate to a man, a concept known as match coverage.

When developing pass distributions, it is important to understand the coverage first. In a Cover 3 scheme, the overhang defenders (the second-level defenders outside the box) must carry the seam and widen the path of the slot receiver, or the No. 2 receiver. The inside linebacker, usually the Mike, will always relate to the No. 3 receiver, and in most cases, this is the running back in a simple 2-by-2 formation.

If a coach were to simply tell a player to drop 12 yards and work out at a 45-degree angle, the overhang might not even touch the slot, creating an issue for the sinking corner. Even in Quarters coverage, the linebackers must be aware of their assigned player and match his movement. One simple way to teach this is the phrase, “Match, Carry, Deliver.” Verbiage and communication are as important as scheme. Teaching distribution comes down to the language a coach chooses to use. By using these three words, a coach can easily adjust the distribution when the coverage changes.

  • To relate and work to the near hip of the player responsible for and match his movement.
  • To match the movement of an offensive player and carry him to the next defender.
  • To not leave your man until the player has been passed off to the next defender.

Teaching match rules instead of spot dropping allows a defensive coach to cut down on the learning. In any basic match coverage, the outside linebackers will relate to No. 2 and the Mike or inside linebackers will relate to No. 3. Keeping it simple allows players to feel comfortable and adjust to any coverage the defensive coordinator might run.

Eye discipline and the reading of keys coincide with a player’s responsibility versus the pass. Linebackers need to find the near hip of their responsibility. As they work to their opponents, they relate to that near hip, punching through it. If the receiver is going vertical, the linebacker will make him widen by relationship or “run the hump.” This technique elongates the route and throws off the timing of the offense. If the receiver comes on a crossing route, the linebacker will attempt to stretch the route by forcing the receiver to run over top of him or underneath. If the receiver chooses to go underneath, the linebacker will “beat him up.”

One way modern offenses are taking advantage of a lack in linebacker pass distribution is in the utilization of crossing routes. Spread teams, especially the Air Raid offenses, push receivers vertically down the field to get the secondary to drop. One receiver will run a crossing route underneath the dropping secondary. If the linebackers don’t do their job in matching the underneath or crossing routes, the receiver can run across the field unabated. This creates large chunks of space.

Not only should a linebacker understand how to relate to his man but understand what to do if his man runs across the field. This is where communication and “hot” words come into play.

When defending crossing routes, it is important to create “hot” words that communicate when receivers are crossing the field and when receivers are working the sideline. For instance, when a running back works from the backfield to the sideline, the Mike will need to work with the back (match No. 3).

In many Spread schemes, someone is darting or working the inside (cross). One of the most popular Spread plays is Y-Corner or “Pick.” This route combination uses a triangle read to stress the defense. First, the outside receiver (No. 1) will run a pick route, or an angle hitch, while the inside receiver (No. 2) runs a corner route. Finally, the running back pushes to the flat. This crossing action can cause problems for a defense that does not communicate.

One way to cut down on mistakes is for the Mike to give a “push” call when the running back works to the sideline. This call allows the outside linebacker to “push” outside the angle hitch. The Mike should work to his new No. 2 in the angle hitch and the outside linebacker zone over the back. The corner and safety both work to “cone” the corner route. With one simple “hot” word, the defense has adjusted, and everyone is on the same page.

Here is an illustration of what that looks like.

Another popular Air Raid concept is the Y cross. This concept uses the vertical push of the backside receiver to create a void for a crossing receiver from the field.

By pushing the running back to the flat front side, the Mike is challenged to relate and can over pursue. The key to defending the Y cross is not necessarily the backside safety robbing the crossing route but the Mike and his drop. Establishing a push call allows the front side outside linebacker to leave the No. 2 receiver and push with the running back. The Mike’s eyes will shift from the back to his new No. 2, and in the case of Y cross, the slot receiver. As the Mike works to the near hip of the slot, he will begin to drop and match the depth of the receiver. This will help the frontside safety who is on top of the route.

Now, the route is sandwiched, and the QB must go elsewhere. This distribution also allows the backside safety to work under the single receiver.

Many Air Raid teams will use a post route on the backside and read the leverage of the safety. If he takes the post, the QB throws the crossing route. With good distribution, the QB will not likely see the Mike underneath.

When spread offenses begin to cross the No. 2 receivers utilizing under routes (underneath or at linebacker depth), there needs to be an “under” or “cross” call.

Whether mesh or Y shallow, one receiver is going to run an under route around five yards deep. The key to defending the shallow and mesh pass concepts is to teach the linebacker on the crossing receiver’s side to give an “under” call and then sink getting his eyes to the middle of the field.

Versus the shallow concept, the opposite slot will be running a 10- to 12-yard dig. By sinking, the linebacker will be in a better position to help the safety – much like Y cross. Versus a mesh concept, the linebacker to the under can catch the over route as it comes across. By communicating, the linebackers do not chase, and there is no void.

The key to both of these combinations is the running back. By pushing the back to the flat, the offense is creating a window for the crossing routes. If the defense is using “hot” words such as “push” and “under,” the linebackers are more suited to adjust correctly and not chasing routes. See the distributions of Shallow and Mesh below:

The key to teaching linebacker distribution is to work it daily. Whether in a controlled 7-on-7 drill or utilizing a drill during individual time, pass distributions cannot be forgotten.

The second level of any coverage is just as important as the top. If a defense is struggling to defend the pass, an easy adjustment that will show substantial improvement is to teach linebackers how to relate to their man in pass. Developing “hot” words and an understanding for pass combinations is an important aspect of improving pass defense. Linebackers must understand their role and how offenses take advantage of their position.

Cody Alexander is the secondary coach at Midlothan (Texas) High School. He also is the author of “Cautious Aggression: Defending Modern Football,” which is available at Amazon and other online bookstores. You can follow him on Twitter @The_Coach_A. Visit his website at: