By Drew Lieberman
As coaches, one of the most difficult aspects of our jobs is organizing practice time in order to maximize every minute allotted to us. There is seemingly never enough time in a given week to fully prepare our players for game day and teach them every nuance of the game plan.
With that understood, offensive coaches must take advantage of the time they have and simplify the game by creating a strategy with multiple formations and personnel packages. This reduces the amount of calls defenses can make because practice time also is limited for them.
It becomes difficult for defensive coaches to allocate enough reps to defend every formation set that an offense shows on film. At the least, using multiple formations should limit the defense to one or two calls against some of the more exotic sets – such as bunch formations, stack sets and empty – simply because there is not enough time in the week to dedicate entire practice periods to defending one exotic set.
As a result, defensive coaches at the high school and Division III college levels often settle on one or two ways to defend an exotic set in order to put their players in the best positions possible to be successful and build up the reps necessary to perfect a specific defensive call.
Once those calls are uncovered through film study and game planning, offensive coaches can lock in to the best plays to attack a specific look. Bunch formations simplify the game and dictate the defense’s hand when they are used as part of an offensive game plan with multiple formations and personnel packages.
Conversely, offenses must invest a lot of practice time to become proficient in bunch pass game because almost every route must change out of a bunch formation compared to spread. Quarterbacks also must commit real time to studying the opponent’s “bunch checks” and learn to understand how the defensive coverage will change versus bunch as compared to a normal three receivers set. However, much of that work is done early in preseason when introducing concepts and not necessary later on during a game plan week in the regular season.
When designing bunch concepts, there are four base defenses that most teams will use as “bunch checks.” Teaching your players how to decipher each look and where the weaknesses are in each defensive scheme will help the players execute when it counts.
Man coverage looks
The first common indicator of man coverage vs. bunch is a one-high safety look with the Sam linebacker or strong safety rolled down in press technique over the point of the bunch. The cornerback will be aligned five or more yards off the ball with outside leverage of the widest receiver in the bunch.
The strong safety or Sam linebacker (whichever is not pressing the point) will be aligned five or more yards off with inside leverage of the tightest receiver in the bunch.
Study the film to determine whether the defense aligns like this to “lock the bunch” or play “point banjo” or “point combo” (banjo and combo are interchangeable terms).
In both looks, the defender pressing the point will play him man to man. If the defense tends to lock the bunch, the corner will stay locked on the widest receiver, and the linebacker or rolled safety will stay locked on the No. 3 receiver in the bunch and run with him where ever he goes. Against this defense, crossing routes and rub routes are effective. In-breaking routes by the No. 1 receiver and out-breaking routes by the No. 3 receiver are simple, easy ways to take advantage of the leverage they have on the defenders over them.
If a defense’s plan is to play “point banjo” or “point combo” vs. bunch, its alignment will look similar, but responsibilities will be different. The widest defender will wait outside and take the first outside threat. The most inside defender will wait inside and take the first inside threat. Neither defender will chase crossing routes or flat routes across the field but will wait for the first threat to come into the zone and then play man coverage from there. Running two receivers at one of these defenders playing combo coverage will put that defender in a bind and create simple post snap reads for the quarterback.
Zone coverage looks
Defenses that run primarily two-high coverages will often “cube the bunch” and play with four defenders over three receivers, which plays out a lot like quarters coverage.
The Sam linebacker will walk out over the point of the bunch and is the flat defender responsible for the first shallow outside threat. The cornerback will be outside of the bunch at least five yards deep and is responsible for the first deep outside threat. The Mike linebacker is aligned inside of the bunch responsible for the first shallow inside threat or will squeeze on any vertical if nothing threatens him inside. The strong safety will be aligned at about 10 yards with inside leverage of the point of the bunch and is responsible for the first deep inside threat.
The weakest area in cube coverage is the center of the cube. A snag concept with a corner route by No. 2, a flat route by No. 3 and an inside stem snag route settling right over the point of the bunch is a very simple concept that is hard for this defensive coverage to defend.
From my experience, defenses that run primarily one-high coverages are usually forced to make some sort of man-to-man bunch check or roll back to a 2-high coverage. If defenses play 1-high zone coverage, they are usually undermanned vs. bunch or are forced to push defenders out to defend the bunch and will have trouble fitting their gaps in the run game.
A lot of defenses like to bring zone pressure and force the ball to come out quick if they stay in one-high zone pressure vs. bunch. Spacing concepts, snag concepts and easy quick game out of bunch are all effective vs. one-high zone looks.
Drew Lieberman is the wide receivers coach at Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J. He previously served as the wide receivers coach at his alma mater, Wesleyan University, in 2016-17 and was a graduate assistant and assistant receivers coach at Rutgers in 2014-15, where he helped guide four NFL receivers. In August 2017, Lieberman founded The Sideline Hustle – a football education resource for players and coaches. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram