Clemson’s Brent Venables’ Base Defense

By Cameron Soran

If you were to poll members of the college football cognesceti who the best non-head coach defensive coordinators are in the game right now, you’d see a fairly short list. They would include guys like Bud Foster, Don Brown, and Dave Aranda. But probably the name that would come up most often is Brent Venables, Clemson’s defensive coordinator since 2012.

Since taking up his post at Clemson, Venables’ defenses have ranked 34th, 12th, 1st, 6th, 6th, and 2nd in Bill Connelly’s Defensive S&P+ rankings. And he’s done that while losing about half of his starters every year – many to the NFL. This upcoming 2018 season will be the first several seasons where Venables returns nearly all of his key pieces on defense. So we’re going to be breaking down what I think will probably be the college football’s best defense in 2018.

An intriguing part of Venables base defense is that it is simultaneously complex yet straightforward. (I use the term base defense here to mean non- blitz calls.) He runs essentially five main split safety and nine main single-high play calls (and four of the single-high calls are essentially the same). So at first glance, Venables defense is relatively simple. But each individual play call is intricate and complex, particularly his split safety run fits. Venables schematic philosophy might be best summarized as, “depth over width.”

Perhaps equally interesting was that even though Venables has a reputation as a quarters coverage advocate, split safety coverages comprise only about half of his non-pressure calls. The other half: he’s in single high. Even in the spread-heavy ACC, Venables is dropping a defensive back into the box 50% of the time – and that’s only counting the plays where he isn’t bringing a blitz. Venables is a man firmly committed to stopping the run, and isn’t afraid put his guys in one-on-one coverage to do it.

In fact, I think the main takeaway from a survey of Venables base defense is how aggressive it tries to be. Unlike a lot of defensive coordinators who try to be a bit more careful in their approach – only having the safeties come down late and to the outside, for example – Venables is much more willing to gamble. But it’s a calculated gamble. By running so much single-high and being highly aggressive run fits from two-high, Venables increases the likelihood that his defense will generate more run stuffs and tackles for loss. The downside is that his defense is more likely to give up big plays in the process, particularly through the air.

The end result is a defense that’s almost tailor-made for the spread-to-run. Offenses such as Auburn and Ohio State – both predicated on the ability to run the ball or throw quick RPOs from spread sets – have great difficulty moving the ball against Venables’ defense. More pass-happy offenses tend to have greater success since the aggressive run fits by the safeties can often leave holes in the back end of Clemson’s coverage. Thus, in many ways, Venables’ scheme is predicated on the pass rush. If his front four is harassing the quarterback early and often, then Clemson’s scheme is incredibly hard to overcome. If they are not, then the opposing offense has a lot of opportunities to generate big plays through the air.

A Quick Note on Personnel

Venables spends most of his time with three “linebackers” on the field. I put the term in quotations because both his Sam and Will linebackers (Apex players) are typically about the size of his strong safety. (About 6’1” and 220 pounds.) That description makes it sound like Venables base personnel is really a nickel or dime by other name. But Venables’ terminology does not reflect that. Even more confusing, Venables has a designated nickel player he can trot out in passing situations (often a starting defensive back). So … yes, the Sam and Will are called linebackers, but are closer in physical profile to that of a defensive back.

Why am I mentioning this? Two reasons.

First, Venables spends a lot of time switching whether a certain defensive back or linebacker will be stepping up to fill a certain gap. And that may initially seem like a bad trade on paper. But on the field – since the Sam, Will, and many of his safeties are about the same size – it’s a different story. So as you’re going through the article, keep that in mind, as many of his run fit assignments look quite different on the field than in the diagrams.

Second, I think Venables personnel approach is part of a larger trend for defenses to run what I call a quasi-dime. A quasi-dime ostensibly uses a 4-3 or 4-2-5 framework, but employs smaller, faster Apex players closer in profile to defensive backs, and larger safeties to help fill against the run. This allows the Apex players and safeties to become more interchangeable, and therefore better able to adjust to spread offense tactics. Just something to look out for. With that little note, let’s dive in.

Cover 1

Brown is a Cover 1 Robber coverage. There will be one deep safety and one player in the hook area – what Venables calls the Low Hole– eyeing the quarterback and robbing any routes over the middle. If the quarterback scrambles, then the Low Hole will mirror the quarterback horizontally in the hook zone until the quarterback crosses the line of scrimmage; only once the quarterback has crossed the line of scrimmage will the Low Hole play run responsibility.

Like Saban, Venables does not designate the Low Hole in Brown. He uses what he calls a 2-on-1 concept, which Saban calls Funnel. 2-on-1 simply means that two designated players will eye the running back, and the near side player will take the running back if he breaks out of the backfield. The opposite side player will become the Low Hole. So if the running back goes to the right, then the right 2-on-1 player will take the running back, and the left 2-on-1 player will become the Low Hole.

Why does Venables run it this way? Same reasons as Saban. 2-on-1 first ensures the nearest linebacker will have responsibility for the running back, who is commonly faster than their linebacker counterpart. Having the far side linebacker, for example, try to get across and match the back is only inviting disaster. Second, it increases the likelihood the Low Hole player is dropping from the side the quarterback isn’t looking post-snap. Most offenses like to use half-field reads with the running back as the third option. By having the Low Hole come from the backside increases the likelihood the quarterback will not see him while reading a front side on a dig or other crossing route.

The final component to Brown is that in all 2×2 sets, the safety to the weak #2 will come down to be the Weak Apex and the other safety will drop to deep third. In all 3×1 sets, the safety to the strong #3 will drop down to become the Strong Hook and the other safety will drop to deep third. The kicker about running it this way is that the down safety must come down fast and early in order to hold up against any quick routes or RPOs by their designated man. If the dropping safety comes late, the offense is effectively getting a free completion and yardage.

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If you’re willing to tolerate showing your hand a bit early (and Venables definitely is), Brown is probably the best form of Cover 1 to stop the run. You’re keeping both run stoppers in the box and not asking them to cover anyone but the primary run threat, i.e., the running back. You’re handling the slot receiver with your nickel player (rarely an error) and covering the fourth receiver with a safety. If you’re looking more to stop RPOs, then perhaps Saban’s 1 Funnel would be best. But since Venables has a strong ‘stop the run’ mentality, Brown is his most called 1-high coverage.

Blue is Venables other Cover 1 Robber coverage. In contrast to Brown, however, Blue sends the safety opposite the running back down to become the Low Hole. Ergo, the safety on the same side of the running back drops to the deep middle and everyone else underneath is just running man coverage. The strength and weakness of Blue lies almost entirely in personnel. If you are comfortable with: (i) your underneath players being man-to-man on the offense’s #2 weak or #3 strong and (ii) your safety coming down to play in the interior of the box against the run, then you get a great way to match up against most spread run concepts. That limitation, however, is why Venables almost exclusive runs Blue against 11 or 20 personnel. His Will and Mike players match up well against most tight ends or H-backs. Having either match up against a 4th receiver, however, might be a bit more dubious.

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Vice is Venables Cover 1 coverage while doubling a designated receiver. Vice is a fairly common defensive concept where you want to double an opposing offense’s star receiver but protect the middle of the field deep. Vice appears to be one of those concepts that Venables won’t run for weeks at a time, but will use it liberally when the game plan calls for it.

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Base Cover 3

Venables base Cover 3 scheme is almost exactly like Saban’s Cover 3. And by “almost exactly like” I mean it is exactly the same schematically, just the terminology is different. If you’d like to know how it works, I’d recommend reading the section Saban’s Cover 3 here: https://rileykolstefootball.com/2018/04/15/nick-sabans-alabama-pass-coverages/.

Here’s the differences in terminology:

What Saban calls “3,” Venables calls “3 Sky.”

What Saban calls “6,” Venables calls “3 Weak.”

What Saban calls “6 Buzz,” Venables calls “3 Robber.”

And what Saban calls “3 Buzz,” Venables surprising calls the same thing (“3 Buzz”).

Otherwise, it is the exact same scheme. So if you’ve mastered Saban’s Rip/Liz scheme, you’ve just mastered Venables’ base Cover 3 schemes. Kind of nice how that sometimes works out.

The difference between Venables and Saban when it comes to Cover 3 is not in scheme, but in usage. Saban isn’t particularly inclined to drop his safety to the Strong Apex (what he calls 3 or what Venables calls 3 Sky) in nickel or dime personnel. He’ll do it – there’s very little Saban won’t do schematically if he thinks the situation calls for it – but it’s pretty rare. Venables, however, has been a bit more inclined in recent years to drop his safety over the slot and bump his nickel/Sam player inside the box. This isn’t to suggest he was doing it all the time – Venables primarily ran 3 Weak and 3 Robber – just a lot more than I’ve seen with any other defense versus the spread. My theory is that this tendency was less of a difference in philosophy and more matching scheme to personnel: Venables starting “Sam,” Dorian O’Daniel, was a thoroughbred run stopper. (He led Clemson in tackles last year while almost exclusively lining up over the slot. The dude was a beast.) Just something interesting to note.

3 Cloud and Saint

Venables final two 1-high coverages are Cover 3 schemes with the corner sitting in the flat. The first, 3 Cloud is Cover 3 with the boundary corner playing the flat. The second, Saint, is Cover 3 with the field corner playing the flat. If you’re not familiar with this scheme, your first reaction is probably: “That sounds cool, but how does it work in practice?” Short answer: Rip/Liz to one side and Cover 2 pattern match (what Saban calls “Cut”) to the other. But let’s break that down, beginning with 3 Cloud.

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3 Cloud vs 2×2

  1. Strong Corner – Man on #1 unless #1 goes under (inside and short) in the first 5 yards. If #1 goes under in the first 5 yards, then yell “Under! Under!” and zone off to deep third, eyeing #2.
  2. Strong Apex – Man on #2 unless #2 goes under (inside and short) in the first 5 yards. If #2 does go under in the first 5 yards, then yell “Under! Under!” and take any #3 to the flat. If no #3 to the flat, rob #1.
  3. Hook – Eye the releases of strong #1 and #2 as you begin your drop to the middle of the Hook area. If both strong side #1 and #2 are vertical, then take any strong #3. Otherwise, defend Hook area from crossers.
  4. Strong Safety – Deep middle of the field.
  5. Weak Apex – If you #1 runs inside and RB goes to the flat, then take #1. Otherwise, if #3 releases to your side, then man on #2 for everything. If #3 does not release to your side, then man on #2 for everything except when #2 goes out to the flat, and then cut (rob) #1.
  6. Weak Safety – Take all of #1 vertical; if #1 is not vertical, then bracket any #2 vertical (alert Smash).
  7. Weak Corner – Take the first man to the flat. E.g., #1 if he runs a 5 yard hitch, #2 if runs out or bubble, #3 if the RB swings to the flat, etc.

The above rules are nice, but let’s take a look at a few examples.

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To the field, since #1 is not running underneath, the corner has #1 man-to-man. Similarly, since the #2 is not running underneath, the Strong Apex has him man-to-man. To the boundary, the offense is running a snag combination. Since the running back is out to the flat, the cornerback takes him. The Weak Apex takes #1 since the #1 is coming inside and the running back is in the flat. And since #1 is not vertical, the Weak Safety has the corner route.

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To the field, the corner and Apex handle the Smash combination just like they would in standard Cover 3. To the boundary, the offense is running levels. The corner will push with the #1 to make sure he’s running underneath before sinking back to the flat. The Weak Apex is man on #2 since he’s not out to the flat. The Weak Safety drops to help cover on the vertical of #1 (or #2), and once he sees there is none, works to help on the dig route. The Hook simply defends the Hook area from crossers. There’s a big gap open for the shallow cross route by weak #1, and that is an inherent weakness to this scheme.

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3 Cloud vs 3×1

  1. Strong Corner – Man on #1 unless #1 goes under (inside and short) in the first 5 yards. If #1 does go under in the first 5 yards, then the cornerback will yell “Under! Under!” and zones off to deep third, eyeing #2.
  2. Strong Apex – Man on #2 except when #3 goes to the flat or #2 goes under. If #3 to the flat, then take #3. If #2 goes under; then buzz to the flat.
  3. Hook – Man on #3 except when #3 goes to the flat or #3 goes under. If #3 is to the flat, then man to man on #2. If #3 goes under, then defend Hook area. You do not have #3 deep cross.
  4. Strong Safety – Deep middle of the field.
  5. Weak Apex – You have all deep cross by strong #3. Otherwise, man on #2 for everything except when #2 goes out to the flat, and then work to cut #1 or defend against crossers.
  6. Weak Safety – Take all of #1 vertical; if #1 is not vertical, then defend boundary deep third, including bracketing any #2 vertical (alert Smash).
  7. Weak Corner – Take the first man to the flat. E.g., #1 if he runs a 5 yard hitch, #2 if runs out or bubble, #3 if the RB swings to the flat, etc.

In 3×1 sets, 3 Cloud essentially operates by running Saban’s Mable/Skate to the field, and Cut to the boundary. Let’s review a couple route matches.

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The strong corner and Apex both have #1 and #2 respectively since they are vertical. Like in Mable/Skate, the weak Apex takes the deep cross by #3 while the Hook ensures his area is covered. Since the weak #1 is vertical, the weak safety takes him.

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I show this particular example because it reveals a theme about 3 Cloud. In comparison to base Cover 3, you are essentially trading a Hook player for a corner sitting in the flat. So 3 Cloud gets an edge on handling any routes to the flat, but loses an edge on handling shallow crossers. No coverage scheme is without weaknesses, and shallow crossers are the Achilles Heel to this scheme.

Now let’s move onto the companion Saint.

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Saint vs 2×2

  1. Strong Corner – Take first to flat. E.g., #1 if he runs a 5 yard hitch, #2 if runs out or bubble, #3 if the RB swings to the flat, etc. If #1 begins to go vertical, always reroute #1 before breaking to cover the first man to the flat.
  2. Strong Apex – If #3 releases to your side, then man on #2 for everything. If #3 does not release to your side, then man on #2 for everything except when #2 goes out to the flat, and then cut (rob) #1.
  3. Hook – Eye the releases of both strong #1 and #2 as you begin your drop to the middle of the Hook area. If both strong side #1 and #2 are vertical, then take any weak #3 that isn’t to the flat. Otherwise, defend Hook area.
  4. Strong Safety – Take all of #1 vertical; if #1 is not vertical, then take any #2 vertical (alert Smash).
  5. Weak Apex – Man on #2 unless #2 goes under (inside and short) in the first 5 yards. If #2 does go under in the first 5 yards, then yell “Under! Under!” and take any #3 to the flat. If no #3 to the flat, rob #1.
  6. Weak Safety – Bail to deep middle of the field.
  7. Weak Corner – Man on #1 unless #1 goes under (inside and short) in the first 5 yards. If #1 does go under in the first 5 yards, then yell “Under! Under!” and zone off to deep third, eyeing #2.

Saint has essentially the same rules, only with the Rip/Liz to the boundary and Cover 2 pattern match to the field.

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Saint vs 3×1

  1. Strong Corner – Take first to flat. E.g., #1 if he runs a 5 yard hitch, #2 if runs out or bubble, #3 if the RB swings to the flat, etc. If #1 begins to go vertical, always reroute #1 before breaking to cover the first man to the flat.
  2. Strong Apex – Take first out of #2 or #3 that isn’t to the flat (corner has it). If no out, then have #2 man-to-man.
  3. Hook – Take first in of #2/#3. If no in, then have #3 man-to-man.
  4. Strong Safety – Take all of #1 vertical; if #1 is not vertical, then take any #2 vertical (alert Smash).
  5. Weak Apex – Man on RB if he flows to your (weak) side. If RB stays into block or flow away (strong), then cut the first crosser.
  6. Weak Safety – You have all of #3 vertical. If no #3 vertical, then bail to deep middle of the field.
  7. Weak Corner – Man on #1.

Against 3×1 sets, Saint essentially becomes what Saban calls In-Out to the field, with Cover 2 pattern match to the backside.

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Alright, so why would you want to run 3 Cloud and Saint? There are a lot of potential answers to this question, but one of the simplest is that it allows you to get the benefits of a Cover 2 scheme (corner in the flat) while mitigating its major weakness: post routes. It’s one of the open secrets among defensive coaches that they are not terribly worried about the outside receiver running a Go or Fade route against a Cover 2 scheme – the safety is in a solid inside position to handle those. But the route that will absolutely ravage a Cover 2 scheme is the post because of the safety’s angle coming to it and the lack of help inside. The entire Tampa-2 scheme was built around mitigating this problem. 3 Cloud and Saint are a much more direct solution to the problem: just drop a safety into the deep middle of the field. That gives the safety help inside on any post routes. So if you know what side you want a corner sitting in the flat, then 3 Cloud and Saint can be great schemes.

Also it can be a great way to mess with a quarterback’s reads. The first time I saw Clemson run 3 Cloud, I think I must have hit rewind several times to assure myself that it was not a form of quarters coverage. As in, “No, really, your eyes are not deceiving you: they are running Cover 3 to one side and Cover 2 to the other.” (As we’ll see below, Venables runs a lot of Cover 2 in his split safety coverages.) If that was my reaction from the comfort of my living room, I can only imagine how it would look to a quarterback in real time.

But as I mentioned before, 3 Cloud and Saint essentially trade a Hook player for a corner sitting in the boundary. Therefore, in order to for them to work against the run, the flat corner must be actively involved in the run fits. So unlike some forms of Cover 2 where the boundary corner is only secondarily involved in run support, 3 Cloud requires the flat corner to really charge in and attack the edge of the offense (typically the D-Gap). That’s a double-edge sword. On one hand, the offense is probably not going to be accounting for a corner aggressively coming off the edge when they drew up their run plays. (They might be accounting for someone to be there, it just probably isn’t the cornerback.) On the other, most cornerbacks are neither built nor inclined for such an assignment. In other words, it’s probably not a scheme you should be introducing the Monday before a game. You are really going to have to commit to developing your corners for this play.

Split-Safety Coverages Generally

There are a few points I need to make before diving into Venables split safety coverages.

First, Venables has clear terminology for triangle coverages (3 defenders over 2 receivers), but does not have any distinct terms for his box coverages (4 defenders over 3 receivers) or backside coverages (2 or 3 defenders over 1 receiver). Rather, he groups them under his term for the triangle coverage, e.g., Quarters, which can be confusing at times. So when Venables says “Run Quarters to the Field,” he means run X triangle coverage if there are 2 receivers, Y box coverage if there are 3 receivers, and Z backside coverage if there is one receiver. If Venables has separate names for these, I have not been able to discover them. So if you’re a bit confused as to why there isn’t a separate name for Quarters versus trips as opposed to twins – even though they are completely different – that’s because: (i) Venables doesn’t have separate names for them, or (ii) he does, and I just don’t know what they are.

But the point here is that Venables then takes those triangle coverage headers and combines them to create plays. For example, Buffalo means “run Bracket to the Field and run Quarters to the Boundary.” So that’s why we are going to be tackling each individual play call on their entirety, rather than individual coverage concepts.

Second, all of Venables coverage schemes are tied into his run fits. Literally, the coverage scheme you are running and the number of receivers to your side will tell you what your run fits are in that situation. So we will be breaking those down as well as we go through the coverage headers. It’s sort of cool how that works out once you get a feel for the general framework. It can be a bit of a slog, however, until you start catching onto the patterns.

Third, all of Venables split safety coverages and run fits abide by what I call the “Venables H-Back Rule.” The rule can be articulated as follows: (i) If an H-Back to a 3-man surface comes across (to the 1-man side) post-snap, then treat as a 2×2 set; (ii) if an H-Back to a 2-man surface comes across (to the 2-man side) post-snap, then treat as a 3×1 set. Critically important here: this applies to both coverage and run fit assignments. The Venables H-Back Rule serves two purposes. First, if an H-Back is coming across post-snap to run a route on the opposite side, e.g., flat route, then you want your coverage scheme to reflect that. Second, if an H-Back comes across as part of a blocking scheme, e.g., wham or counter, then you want your run fit scheme to compensate for that as well. As far as I am aware, he’s the only guy who does this for both his run fits and coverage assignments post-snap. Not easy to teach, but it can greatly elevate a defense’s response.

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Fourth, on all bubble or smoke screens in split safety coverage (except for Bracket), the cornerback plays the screen and the safety plays the vertical RPO (possible vertical route by the blocker). This fits well with the rest of Venables run fit scheme, but it also serves the purpose of freeing up the corner to go make a play. A lot of the time you will see a corner not come up and aggressively attack a bubble screen. This isn’t because of a lack of effort (for the most part). The problem is that the corner has the vertical of the guy who is blocking him and therefore must make doubly sure that guy won’t suddenly take off on a vertical route behind him. Venables cuts the Gordian Knot by simply telling the corner, “Go make a play. The safety’s got your man if he goes vertical.” It’s not a perfect solution – nothing against RPOs is – but it’s a refreshing break from watching the corner hesitate and hold their man for a couple seconds on every bubble screen.

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With that, let’s start with Buffalo.

  • Buffalo

Buffalo versus 2×2

  1. Generally: Play Bracket to the Field and Quarters to the Boundary; play Palms to the Boundary versus any 2 detached
  2. Pass Assignments vs. 2×2 w/ TE
    1. Strong Corner – Off alignment. MEG (Man Everywhere he Goes) on #1.
    2. Strong Apex – Man to man on #2 unless #2 runs under; then swipe to flat.
    3. Strong Safety – Bracket the deeper of #1 and #2.
    4. Hook – Take any #3 (RB) strong or weak that will not be picked by the CB, Apex, or Safety. If none, defend the Hook deep to short.
    5. Weak Safety – Take all of #2 vertical. If #2 is not vertical, then bracket #1.
    6. Weak Apex – Take the first man to the flat. If #2 begins to go vertical, reroute him before breaking to first man to the flat.
    7. Weak Corner – Man-to-man on all #1 except when #1 breaks at 5 yards or less (e.g., shallow, 5 yard hitch). If #1 breaks at 5 yards or less, then zone to deep quarter.
  3. Pass Assignments vs. 2×2 – All detached
    1. Strong Corner – Off alignment. MEG (Man Everywhere he Goes) on #1.
    2. Strong Apex – Man to man on #2 unless #2 runs under; then swipe to flat.
    3. Strong Safety – Bracket the deeper of #1 and #2.
    4. Hook – Take any #3 (RB) strong or weak that will not be picked by the CB, Apex, or Safety. If none, defend the Hook deep to short.
    5. Weak Safety – Take #1 vertical if #2 is out immediately (not out and up). Otherwise, take all of #2 vertical. If #2 is not vertical, then bracket #1.
    6. Weak Apex – Man on #2 except when #2 is out immediately (not up and out). Then relate to #3. If no #3, then rob #1. You do not have #2 vertical.
    7. Weak Corner – Man on #1 for everything except when: (i) #2 is out immediately (not up and out), then take #2; and (ii) #1 breaks at 5 yards or less (e.g., shallow, 5 yard hitch), then zone to deep quarter.

Buffalo is Venables most frequent form of quarters coverage. To the field, the corner and Apex are man-to-man on #1 and #2 respectively, and the safety is bracketing the deeper of the two routes. To the boundary, the defense is playing standard Quarters (what Saban calls “Mod”) except when there is two detached to that side. When there is two detached, the defense will play what Venables calls Palms (what Saban calls “Clamp”) and is also known as Cloud and 2-Robber, among others.

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Buffalo’s run fits are more interesting. Since the Strong Apex is man-to-man on #2 to the field, Venables has the Strong Safety come up and fill the B-Gap against the run whenever there is a tight end or H-Back opposite. This allows the Hook and Weak Apex to aggressively play against the front side of the run, and the Weak Safety to remain deep against any play-action to that side.

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When the offense goes two-detached to each side, however, Venables simply directs the Hook and Weak Apex players to fill the interior gaps. The Weak Safety must roll over the top to handle any potential vertical RPOs in the boundary.

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Buffalo versus 3×1

  1. Generally: Play Stubbie to the Field and MEG to the Boundary
  2. Pass Assignments vs. 3×1
    1. Strong Corner – Off alignment. MEG (Man Everywhere he Goes) on #1.
    2. Strong Apex – Man on #2 for everything except when #3 is out or #2 runs under. If #3 is out, then take #3 man to man. If #2 runs under, then zone off.
    3. Strong Safety – Take all of #3 vertical. If #3 is not vertical, then take/bracket #2 if he is vertical.
    4. Hook – If #2 or #3 runs under, then match that crossing route. Otherwise, wall off the #3 from the inside and take him to safety if he goes vertical.
    5. Weak Safety – Work to rob #1 from the inside.
    6. Weak Apex – Man on weak #2 to the flat. Otherwise, defend weak Hook area.
    7. Weak Corner – Off alignment. MEG (Man Everywhere he Goes) on #1.

Against all 3×1 sets, Buffalo means run what Saban calls “Stubbie” to the Field and MEG to the boundary.

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By running MEG to the boundary, the Weak Safety is freed up to play against the run.

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  • Lock

Lock versus 2×2

  1. Generally: Play Bracket to the Field and Halves to the Boundary
  2. Pass Assignments vs. 2×2
    1. Strong Corner – Off alignment. MEG (Man Everywhere he Goes) on #1.
    2. Strong Apex – Man to man on #2 unless #2 runs under; then swipe to flat.
    3. Strong Safety – Bracket the deeper of #1 and #2.
    4. Hook – Take any #3 (RB) strong or weak that will not be picked by the CB, Apex, or Safety. If none, defend the Hook deep to short.
    5. Weak Safety – Take all of #1 vertical. If #1 is not vertical, then bracket #2.
    6. Weak Apex – If #3 releases to your side, then man on #2 for everything. If #3 does not release to your side, then man on #2 for everything except when #2 goes out to the flat, and then cut (rob) #1.
    7. Weak Corner – Take the first man to the flat. E.g., #1 if he runs a 5 yard hitch, #2 if runs out or bubble, #3 if the RB swings to the flat, etc.

Lock is probably Venables second most called quarters coverage. In Lock, the defense is playing Bracket to the field like in Buffalo, but switches to plays Halves (pattern matching Cover 2) to the boundary.

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Since the corner is always playing the boundary flat, Venables has the Strong Safety coming up on all fits to the field.

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Lock versus 3×1

  1. Generally: Play Stubbie to the Field (with Hook having deep cross by #3) and Halves to the Boundary
  2. Pass Assignments vs. 3×1
    1. Strong Corner – Off alignment. MEG (Man Everywhere he Goes) on #1.
    2. Strong Apex – Man on #2 for everything except when #3 is out or #2 runs under. If #3 is out, then take #3 man to man. If #2 runs under, then zone off.
    3. Strong Safety – Take all of #3 vertical. If #3 is not vertical, then take/bracket #2 if he is vertical.
    4. Hook – If #2 or #3 runs under, then match that crossing route. Otherwise, wall off the #3 from the inside and take him to safety if he goes vertical.
    5. Weak Safety – Take all of #1 vertical. If #1 is not vertical, then work to help against deep cross by #3.
    6. Weak Apex – Man on #2 for everything except when #2 goes out to the flat, and then defend weak Hook area from crossers. If no crossers, then work to cut (rob) #1.
    7. Weak Corner – Take the first man to the flat. E.g., #1 if he runs a 5 yard hitch, #2 if runs out or bubble, #3 if the RB swings to the flat, etc.

Again, Lock is the same as Buffalo to the field in 3×1, but instead of running MEG backside, the defense runs Halves.

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Since the Strong Safety has to play the vertical of #3 (or #2), Venables has the boundary corner drop into all the run fits in 3×1. To prevent the corner from having to play the B-Gap, the defense will commonly (though not always) execute a run stunt to send the weak defensive end into the B-Gap, and have the corner play the C-Gap / Outside Contain. The default, however, is that the boundary corner has the backside B-Gap.

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  • Clamp

Clamp versus 2×2

  1. Generally: Play Palms to the Field and Halves to the Boundary
  2. Pass Assignments vs. 2×2
    1. Strong Corner – Man on #1 for everything except when: (i) #2 is out to the flat, then take #2; and (ii) #1 breaks at 5 yards or less (e.g., shallow, 5 yard hitch), then zone to deep quarter.
    2. Strong Apex – Man on #2 except when #2 is vertical or out to the flat, then relate to #3. If no #3, then rob #1. You do not have #2 vertical.
    3. Strong Safety – Take #1 vertical if #2 is out to the flat. Otherwise, take all of #2 vertical. If #2 is not vertical, then bracket #1.
    4. Hook – Take any #3 (RB) strong or weak that will not be picked by the CB, Apex, or Safety. If none, defend the Hook deep to short.
    5. Weak Safety – Take all of #1 vertical. If #1 is not vertical, then bracket #2.
    6. Weak Apex – If #3 releases to your side, then man on #2 for everything. If #3 does not release to your side, then man on #2 for everything except when #2 goes out to the flat, and then cut (rob) #1.
    7. Weak Corner – Take the first man to the flat. E.g., #1 if he runs a 5 yard hitch, #2 if runs out or bubble, #3 if the RB swings to the flat, etc.

Clamp, by contrast to Lock, instead has the defense running Palms (or Clamp) to the field instead of Bracket. The defense continues to run Halves to the boundary.

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Since the defense is now playing Palms to the field, now it is the Strong Apex that is freed up to insert (primarily into the B-Gap) against the run.

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Clamp versus 3×1

  1. Generally: Play Palms on #1 and #2 to the Field and Halves to the Boundary
  2. Pass Assignments vs. 3×1
    1. Strong Corner – Man on #1 for everything except when: (i) #2 is out to the flat, then take #2; and (ii) #1 breaks at 5 yards or less (e.g., shallow, 5 yard hitch), then zone to deep quarter.
    2. Strong Apex – Man on #2 except when #2 is vertical or out to the flat, then relate to #3 in the flat. If no #3 in the flat, then defend the curl. You do not have #2 vertical.
    3. Strong Safety – Take #1 vertical if #2 is out to the flat. Otherwise, take all of #2 vertical. If #2 is not vertical, then bracket #1.
    4. Hook – Man on #3 – including all vertical by #3 – except when #3 is out to the flat. If #3 is out to the flat, then zone to defend Hook deep to short.
    5. Weak Safety – Take all of #1 vertical. If #1 is not vertical, then work to defend against deep cross by #3.
    6. Weak Apex – Man on #2 for everything except when #2 goes out to the flat, and then cut (rob) #1 unless he’s under. If #1 is under, defend weak Hook area.
    7. Weak Corner – Take the first man to the flat. E.g., #1 if he runs a 5 yard hitch, #2 if runs out or bubble, #3 if the RB swings to the flat, etc.

Clamp versus all 3×1 sets operates just like Palms on #1 and #2, with the Hook having all of #3 vertical. The only exception is that the Apex will take all of #3 out to the flat.

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The run fits for Clamp remain the same as Lock when everyone is detached. But when there is a tight end or H-back to the field, since the Strong Apex doesn’t have the immediate out by #2, he is freed up to play the D-Gap.

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  • 4 Cloud (aka Rhino)

4 Cloud (aka Rhino) versus 2×2

  1. Generally: Play Quarters to the Field and Halves to the Boundary
  2. Pass Assignments vs. 2×2
    1. Strong Corner – Man-to-man on all #1 except when #1 breaks at 5 yards or less (e.g., shallow, 5 yard hitch). If #1 breaks at 5 yards or less, then zone to deep quarter.
    2. Strong Apex – Take the first man to the flat. E.g., #1 if he runs a 5 yard hitch, #2 if runs out or bubble, #3 if the RB swings to the flat, etc. If #2 begins to go vertical, reroute him before breaking to cover the first man to the flat.
    3. Strong Safety – Take all of #2 vertical. If #2 is not vertical, then bracket #1.
    4. Hook – Take any #3 (RB) strong or weak that will not be picked by the CB, Apex, or Safety. If none, defend the Hook deep to short.
    5. Weak Safety – Take all of #1 vertical. If #1 is not vertical, then bracket #2.
    6. Weak Apex – If #3 releases to your side, then man on #2 for everything. If #3 does not release to your side, then man on #2 for everything except when #2 goes out to the flat, and then cut (rob) #1.
    7. Weak Corner – Take the first man to the flat. E.g., #1 if he runs a 5 yard hitch, #2 if runs out or bubble, #3 if the RB swings to the flat, etc.

4 Cloud, also known as Rhino, is essentially Clamp without the rule that the field corner takes the immediate out by #2.

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The run fits for 4 Cloud are the same as Clamp in all 2×2 sets as well.

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4 Cloud (Rhino) versus 3×1

  1. Generally: Play Quarters on #1 and #2 to the Field and Halves to the Boundary
  2. Pass Assignments vs. 3×1
    1. Strong Corner – Man on #1 for everything except when #1 breaks at 5 yards or less (e.g., shallow, 5 yard hitch), then zone to deep quarter.
    2. Strong Apex – Man on #2 except when #2 is vertical, then relate to #3 in the flat. If no #3 in the flat, then defend the curl. You do not have #2 vertical.
    3. Strong Safety – Take all of #2 vertical. If #2 is not vertical, then bracket #1 if he is vertical.
    4. Hook – Man on #3 – including all vertical by #3 – except when #3 is out to the flat. If #3 is out to the flat, then zone to defend Hook deep to short.
    5. Weak Safety – Take all of #1 vertical. If #1 is not vertical, then work to defend against deep cross by #3.
    6. Weak Apex – Man on #2 for everything except when #2 goes out to the flat, and then cut (rob) #1 unless he’s under. If #1 is under, defend weak Hook area.
    7. Weak Corner – Take the first man to the flat. E.g., #1 if he runs a 5 yard hitch, #2 if runs out or bubble, #3 if the RB swings to the flat, etc.

Against 3×1 sets, 4 Cloud is again essentially Clamp without the rule that the field corner takes the immediate out by #2.

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And the run fits for 4 Cloud are the same as Clamp in 3×1 sets as well.

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  • 4 Man

4 Man versus 2×2

  1. Generally: Play Quarters with corners in Press Man on #1
  2. Pass Assignments vs. 2×2
    1. Strong Corner – Press alignment. MEG (Man Everywhere he Goes) on #1.
    2. Strong Apex – Take the first man to the flat. E.g., #1 if he runs a 5 yard hitch, #2 if runs out or bubble, #3 if the RB swings to the flat, etc. If #2 begins to go vertical, reroute him before breaking to cover the first man to the flat.
    3. Strong Safety – Take all of #2 vertical. If #2 is not vertical, then bracket #1.
    4. Hook – Take any #3 (RB) strong or weak that will not be picked by the CB, Apex, or Safety. If none, defend the Hook deep to short.
    5. Weak Safety – Take all of #2 vertical. If #2 is not vertical, then bracket #1.
    6. Weak Apex – Take the first man to the flat. E.g., #1 if he runs a 5 yard hitch, #2 if runs out or bubble, #3 if the RB swings to the flat, etc. If #2 begins to go vertical, reroute him before breaking to cover the first man to the flat.
    7. Weak Corner – Press alignment. MEG (Man Everywhere he Goes) on #1.

4 Man is just Quarters coverage with both corners in press man on both #1s.

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Against 2×2 sets, the run fits for 4 Man remain the same as Clamp and 4 Cloud.

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4 Man versus 3×1

  1. Generally: Play 4-Man on #1 and #2 to the Field and MEG to the Boundary
  2. Pass Assignments vs. 3×1
    1. Strong Corner – Press alignment. MEG (Man Everywhere he Goes) on #1.
    2. Strong Apex – Take the first man out to the flat. If none, then man on #2 except when #2 runs under or vertical, then zone off to Curl.
    3. Strong Safety – Take all of #2 vertical. If #2 is not vertical, then bracket #1 if he is vertical.
    4. Hook – Carry all #3 vertical to Weak Safety. If #3 is out or under, then zone to defend Hook deep to short.
    5. Weak Safety – Take all of #3 vertical. If #3 is not vertical, then work to bracket weak #1 inside.
    6. Weak Apex – Man on weak #2 to the flat. Otherwise, defend weak Hook area.
    7. Weak Corner – Press alignment. MEG (Man Everywhere he Goes) on #1.

4 Man is essentially standard Quarters for the Strong Apex and Strong Safety. The main twist, however, is that the Weak Safety has all of #3 vertical.

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Against 3×1 sets, 4 Man’s run fits get … weird. Unlike in his other split safety coverages, Venables keeps his Hook and Weak Apex players directly in the box on 3×1 sets. Then he essentially lets the Weak Safety go where he is most likely needed, including across the field to the opposite side of the offense.

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Split Safety Coverages – Usage

So here comes the grand question: when to use each one of these calls?

Buffalo is the easiest to answer. By playing Bracket (2×2 sets) and Stubbie (3×1 sets) to the field and Quarters to the boundary, you are essentially covering all of your bases. It handles all vertical routes well, and therefore is quite stodgy against the pass. It comes with the weakness that in 2×2, the strong safety – the same one who has to bracket the deeper of #1 and #2 – will have to come down and fill in the box against the run. This requires the safety to get a quick run/pass read, but assuming he does, it allows the defense to be very aggressive against the run. Therefore, Venables tends to use Buffalo where there is a more likely threat of a pass or RPO (2&7+, 3&4+, etc.), than in run first situations.

Lock is more commonly used when Venables wants to be aggressive into the boundary. By keeping the corner in the flat, Clemson’s defense is better able to handle horizontal attacks to that side and fill against outside runs into the boundary. The primary issues with Lock are in 3×1 sets. There, the Hook will have all vertical by #3 and the corner has a long distance to cover to get into the run fits. So Venables tends to run Lock more against 2×2 sets with a tight end or H-Back into the boundary, and like Buffalo, in more likely passing or RPO situations.

Clamp, 4 Cloud, and 4 Man tend to be used more in run-first type situations. All of the run fits from these plays are a bit quicker then Buffalo or Lock, though each is a bit more vulnerable against traditional split safety beaters (e.g., Pin/Mills). The offense’s tendencies then tend to dictate what might be called from there. 4 Cloud is probably the most called of the three, though if he’s are getting a lot more flat or bubble routes to the field, then he’ll run Clamp. And if he believes his corners – particularly his boundary corner – are well-matched against the opposing outside wide receivers, then he’ll tend to run more 4 Man.

You can reach Cameron Soran on Twitter at @cameronsoran

One thought on “Clemson’s Brent Venables’ Base Defense”

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