Breaking Down the Robb Smith Defense

Posted on | February 11, 2014 | No Comments

For the fourth straight year, the Razorbacks will have a new defensive coordinator.

Former Tampa Bay assistant and Rutgers DC Robb Smith was hired as Arkansas’ defensive coordinator earlier this week, and the Razorbacks defense will undergo some schematic changes. Arkansas finished 11th in the SEC in total defense in 2013, and surrendered a staggering 6.9 yards per play, likely the worst in modern school history. Defensive coordinator Chris Ash left for Ohio State in December, taking a $30,000 pay cut and job demotion (he will not call plays) in order to do so. While many Razorbacks fans are now questioning whether or not Ash’s departure was planned or he was asked to leave, the fact remains that Bret Bielema was not pleased with the defensive coaching and decided to move in a different direction.

Smith and Arkansas linebackers coach/associate head coach Randy Shannon both coached under Dave Wannstedt and are thus members of the Jimmy Johnson coaching tree. Former Razorbacks defensive coordinator Reggie Herring (2005-2007) and former Hog player Butch Davis (1970) are also members of this network of coaches. Herring’s 2006 defense led the SEC in sacks and remains, statistically, the best Arkansas defense since 2002. The Johnson line of coaches focuses on being aggressive and disruptive and attempting to dictate the opposing offense. Rumor has leaked that new defensive line coach Rory Segrest will be tinkering with the stances of his linemen in order to maximize pass-rushing abilities.

In Smith’s introductory press conference, Bielema noted that Arkansas will be largely abandoning the “Quarters” defense that it ran in 2013 in favor of a conceptually similar defense, “Cover 6″ or “Quarters-Quarters-Half.”


Arkansas’ 2013 defense, Quarters, is run all over the NCAA and NFL. It is a complex, pattern-reading defense that traces its roots back to the 1990s. It is most notably run at Michigan State by head coach and former Nick Saban assistant Mark Dantonio. Michigan State has produced top-5 defenses each of the last three seasons. TCU head coach Gary Patterson has successfully adapted the Quarters concept into his 4-2-5 defense, forming a defense known as “2 Read” that helped TCU rise out of the ranks of the mid-majors.

Quarters is a variant of Cover 2 (below). Cover 2 is one of the basic defenses in college football, and it has been around for a long time.

Cover 2 vs. 11 personnel (3WR, 1TE, 1RB) in a Twin set

Cover 2 vs. 11 personnel (3WR, 1TE, 1RB) in a Twin set

Cover 2 has a couple of basic problems. First, if all four receivers run “Go” patterns (a concept known as Four Verticals), there are only two deep safeties to cover them. Second, years and years of the same old Cover 2 being run gave offensive coaches plenty of time to figure out various route combos (two or more routes that work together to “stretch” the defenders) that could beat Cover 2. The most famous of these is Smash (below), but there are plenty of others.

"Smash" concept. The safety must run all the way to the sideline with no help from the cornerback

“Smash” concept. The safety must run all the way to the sideline with no help from the cornerback

Needing to shore up these issues, defensive coaches came up with Quarters, named after the fact that the field is divided into four vertical quadrants. Each quarter has a primary defender. These are, from left to right: a cornerback, safety, safety, cornerback. Shown is the basic read against a basic offense.

Quarters vs. 11 personnel (3WR, 1TE, 1RB) in a Twin set

Quarters vs. 11 personnel (3WR, 1TE, 1RB) in a Twin set

Responsibilities for all of the pass defenders (both cornerbacks, both safeties, and both outside linebackers) change based on the routes that each receiver runs. The cornerbacks cover “all #1 except under,” meaning that they play man defense against the #1 receiver unless that receiver runs a “drag” or “under” route. The safety covers “#2 vertical,” meaning that if #2 goes deep, the safety mans up on him. If #2 does not go deep, then the safety plays basic “deep-half” coverage like in Cover 2. The linebacker is responsible for a shallow “hook” that he reads inside (middle) to outside (sideline). There are various checks and calls that slightly change the responsibilities, but this is the basic defense.

Problems with Quarters

It’s no secret that Arkansas’ players had trouble grasping much of the concepts. Bielema and even Ash routinely noted to the media that coverages were blown and adjustments were not properly made. In Smith’s introductory press conference, Bielema said that “communication needs to be cleaner.” Bielema and Smith coached together at Iowa under legendary defensive coordinator Norm Parker, who, according to Bielema, preached “simplicity.” Simplicity should better help Arkansas’ players not make common mistakes.

Apart from player-made mistakes, SEC offensive coordinators had great success carving up the Razorbacks from the schematic standpoint. Quarters works well against traditional pro-style offenses, like what Michigan State routinely does to Big Ten offenses. However, spread systems create mismatches, specifically with the outside linebacker.

When there is a #2 receiver (slot receiver), the outside linebacker is matched up against him for most shallow routes. He must quickly decided whether the play is a pass (in which case he must cover the receiver) or a run (in which case he must come up to help). Ole Miss, for example, exploited this by using Twin sets (two WRs to one side) and then running the read option. Once they had run the successfully run ball a few times out of that look, the linebacker to the Twin side came sneaking up to stop the run, and Ole Miss faked the read and threw it. Quarterback Bo Wallace hit a 20-yard pass on a bubble screen on one play, and later hit a 56-yard wheel route to inside receiver Jaylen Walton later on. When Arkansas’ safeties came sneaking up to help, Wallace hit JaMes Logan with a 52-yard bomb to put the Rebels up 27-17 in the third quarter. All of this (over 200 passing yards and nearly 100 rushing yards) came from that same concept of exploiting the outside linebacker.

It is worth noting that this does not specifically represent a fundamental flaw in Quarters, but rather the fact that Arkansas’ linebackers struggled with their reads. “Great” linebackers could probably make most of them the right way, but the coverage is extremely complex and hard to play. “Great” linebackers are few and far between, and Arkansas needs something that the players can execute, but that can still yield good defenses.

Cover 6

Cover 6 is a similar coverage. It allows an extra man (the middle linebacker) to help in coverage to the field side (wide or open side when the ball is on the hashmark), allowing the defense to account for the type of play that Ole Miss kept beating the Hogs on in 2013. It is a little bit more aggressive in that while Quarters committed four players deep, Cover 6 commits only three players deep, allowing the boundary cornerback to help against a run to his side.

Cover 6 (Quarters-Quarters-Half)

Cover 6 (Quarters-Quarters-Half)

Cover 6 is a classic “split” (asymmetrical) coverage, allowing the defense to match up differently to each side. The name is derived from the fact that half the field is Cover 2 and half the field is Cover 4 (2 + 4 = 6). The Cover 4 side (the left side of the diagram) is the field, or wide side. The ball spends almost of all of its time on the hashmark, so coaches use the different distances to each sideline to their advantage, both offensively and defensively. The boundary is the short side, and thus the deep-half defender there technically has less ground to cover, even though he’s playing “half” the field.

The base defense uses a cloud technique. Cloud is any three-deep coverage in which two safeties and one cornerback are deep, leaving an extra cornerback for run support. Sky is when you have two cornerbacks and one safety deep, leaving a safety for run support. A “sky” variant of this defense would have the safety ($ in the diagram) come down to cover the flat zone while the cornerback on that side would take the deep half zone.

One of the added benefits of Cover 6 is actually the mechanics of the football field itself. In college football, the hashmarks are much wider, so a throw against the half defender is going to be much more difficult, whether the “half” side is the boundary (less room to cover) or the field (very wide, making the throw difficult).

One caveat about the diagram is that it portrays a basic zone coverage with no pattern reading. This is not always the case in Cover 6. The Quarters diagram showed more pattern reading rather than strict zones, and Cover 6 includes many of these reads. I’ll address these in future posts.

Fronts: Over vs. Under

Now that we understand the basic concept, let’s look at the fronts. The “front” is the way that the four defensive linemen and the three linebackers are aligned. First, the Under:

4-3 Under front

4-3 Under front

The name “under” means that the defensive line is shifted “under” the linebackers, who shift to the field side.

The shift of the line to the boundary and the linebackers to the field has three characteristics:

1. The field (or strong) side defensive tackle plays a 1-tech (on the shoulder of the center, go here to review all of the techs), while the boundary (or weak) side defensive tackle plays a 3-tech. Generally, the 1-tech is more responsible for stopping the run up the middle, while the 3-tech has more pass-rushing freedom. Case in point: Arkansas’ 2013 1-tech, Byran Jones, recorded 1.0 sacks, while the 3-techs, Robert Thomas and Darius Philon, combined for 6.5 sacks. The 3-tech is usually called the “under tackle” while the 1-tech is the “nose tackle/guard.”

2. The boundary defensive end, who plays a 5-tech, has more room to rush the passer because the linebackers are shifted away from him. The boundary DE, also called “jack,” is an OLB in a 3-4 defense; when you hear analysts at the combine or draft project a college defensive end as a linebacker, this is the position they are talking about. Demarcus Ware of the Cowboys is a prime example. Chris Smith was Arkansas’ jack in 2013.

3. The defense is a one-gap defense, meaning that every player is responsible for one “gap” in the line. Almost all modern defenses are one-gap, so this isn’t a unique characteristic.

Now for the Over defense:

4-3 Over front

4-3 Over front

As the opposite of the Under, in the Over the defensive line shifts “over” to the field while the linebackers shift to the boundary. Some traits of the Over:

1. Again, as the opposite of the Under, now the field side tackle is in a 3-tech (he’s called the over tackle) and the 1-tech (nose tackle) is on the boundary side.

2. Generally uses smaller, faster outside linebackers. However, as a payoff, the middle linebacker must be that much bigger and stronger against the run.

History of the Over and Under defenses

The University of Arkansas has been essential in the development of both of these fronts.

The Under is the more popular version and dates back to the 1960s, developing directly from great Cowboys’ coach Tom Landry’s 4-3 flex defense. The Under is the defense of choice of the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. Seahawks’ coach Pete Carroll learned the Under as a graduate assistant at Arkansas in 1977 under legendary defensive coordinator Monte KiffinThis article from dives into what Carroll learned in Fayetteville that year and how it drove the rest of his career.

The Over defense was, if not invented, at least popularized by Jimmy Johnson at Miami in the 1980s. Johnson, an Arkansas alum, developed the Over as the defensive coordinator at Arkansas (1973-1976) and as the head coach at Oklahoma State (1977-1981) before winning big at Miami and the Cowboys. Johnson’s two most-noted defensive coordinators, Butch Davis and Dave Wannstedt, have spread the defense to their former assistants. Of course, among those Davis assistants are both Shannon and Smith, who are now in control of Arkansas’ defense. Both of those coaches spent time coaching under Wannstedt as well.

So will Arkansas run the Over front? That is yet to be determined. Arkansas preferred Under in 2013, as it did under both Paul Haynes and Willy Robinson. The Razorbacks coaches are certainly capable of installing the Over, and it is likely that Hog fans will see some of it, but Bielema made specific mention of the terminology of the Under front in Smith’s press conference. Fans should probably expect to see both.

Once we get to the start of spring practice, I’ll try to get some more information on the Cover 6, the fronts, and some new offensive material as well. Until then, happy offseason Hog fans!


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