Inside the Playbook - MSU's Nickel Seam MIKE 3

For how basic much of MSU’s defense is, on third downs when the offense is behind the sticks, the Spartan’s defense is anything but. Much of the focus is on Narduzzi’s blitz package, and often rightfully so. But what I took away from Saturday’s game against Michigan was a very interesting coverage on the back end. In this post we’ll look at how Narduzzi pulled out a very unique Cover 3 look (some have called it an inverted Tampa 2 defense, which it kind of is, but I honestly think it’s closer to a cover 3) and we’ll discuss why this is such an effective context within the scheme that MSU often runs.

MSU’s Cover 4
I’ll briefly discuss the Cover 4 just to give a primer of what it looks like. Basically, the cover 4 will look like a flat back. Two safeties will be even about 10 yards off the LOS and will not retreat on the snap. They have responsibility for the #2 receiver, while the CBs on the outside will essentially be playing man coverage on the #1 receivers.

Tampa 2
There is a slight but significant difference between Cover 2 and Tampa 2. Cover 2, as most know from their basic understanding of football, has two high safeties and is generally strong underneath, with the outside CBs taking the flats, and the LBs taking the zones in between.

The weakness here is in the corner, or perhaps more significantly, in the “hole”, which is the void in between the two safeties and the MLB. This is attacked with digs or posts and are difficult to defend, especially if the safeties also get threats to the outside.

So to adjust, football coaches decided to give a similar look but take away that void. As per usual, they also gave this a name and some weird lingo. Tampa 2 was actually developed by the ’75 Steelers, but it became famous when Dungy ran it heavily for the Buccaneers.  So that’s the cute name. As for the weird lingo, well, the MIKE will get sent down “the pipe”, which is the middle alley in the defense. This essentially turns the defense into a three high coverage, although the two safeties will generally still play a deep half to cover some of the deficiencies of LBs in coverage.

MSU’s Initial Alignment
This is a set up that I looked at earlier in the season, and this is just another wrinkle to it. I previously explained several ways that MSU could get pressure (or at least fake pressure) and run a solid cover 3system. Then they did this, which took advantage of some of the strengths of the defenses I discussed, but added the advantage of looking initially like cover 4.

We’ll call this alignment Nickel Seam, because that seems like an easy thing to call it and I feel like calling it something to make my life easier.

Nickel Seam Cover 3 Boundary Safety Blitz
Here’s how you would expect this to look, and possibly why you can justify calling it an inverted Tampa 2.

This would make sense and would be safe. This would put players in position off of their initial alignment. Rather than get two safeties to play seams to out as they did against ND, it would get a LB and a safety, but that’s alright, they’re playing underneath. It’s preferable to have more speed underneath maybe, but it’s also to have that speed in the deep third, so yeah.

But no, that’s not what MSU decided they were going to do. Narduzzi decided he was going to blow up the QB’s reads completely, and make this look almost exactly like a cover 4 look.

Here’s how this looks right after the snap.

Notice how the FS has stepped into the seam and the field SS has stayed in the seam. Gardner knows pressure is coming, which is fine, but this looks almost exactly like cover 4 behind that, which in general because straight man. But this isn’t cover 4, despite what it looks like.

Like I said when I last wrote about this defensive alignment, there are only 2 underneath defenders. They know that they are blitzing, and they know, or at least assume, that because of that pressure the QB will have to go to the initial direction he looks. As soon as the QB looks, both break in that direction.

Here’s what the coverage looks like in a basic sense

And here’s what it looks like after the QB commits his eyes.

So the coverage looks like cover 4 but has defenders that are shooting underneath anything to the outside. Tricky, tricky.

FWIW, I call this a cover 3 because the CBs don’t squeeze inside like they would in something that constitutes a Tampa 2 look. They generally stay outside on the #1 and play their deep third. There is no way they make a play in the center of the field here, they are looking for the MIKE to do that. This is a straight cover 3 look with the MLB taking the place of the FS.

Here's the video (wait for the replay to get a better view)

This shows improvement that MSU has made in this coverage since the Notre Dame game. In that game, the seam safety failed to read the QB’s eyes quickly enough and break underneath the throw to the sideline.

This also shows how Gardner, who has struggled with his reads a bit this year, needs to trust his WR more. If he keeps his eyes to the center of the field just a little longer, and then sets and throws quickly to the sideline, he completes this pass to an open Gallon. But it’s about trusting your read and your receiver, and to an extent, your line.

Why your line? Well, Gardner actually had more time here than he anticipated. Frankly, he anticipated he had less time than he did because by this point he had already been beat up a lot. But if he holds his eyes in the center of the field, he can then get a better feel of the actual coverage, key the underneath defender, and pick on him by going outside in with his reads. In fact, here there may be enough time for him to work outside, #2, to the opposite side of the field, which is absolutely wide open at this point. But that’s a tough thing to ask a college QB who has been hit a lot already.


  1. Something that I didn't address in the post itself, but is equally important. Many coaches can go crazy with the X's and O's and that's great. Former Texas DC Manny Diaz may have shown the most interesting pure X's and O's of any DC in college football. But if you don't have the personnel, if you don't teach the techniques and fundamentals, all the X's and O's mean nothing. This is what has made Narduzzi special. He has a guy doing something that 99% of college MLBs can't do, and a good number of NFL MIKEs probably can't do either. This is because of both Narduzzi, the LB position coach, and Bullough himself for being athletic and smart enough to do all this.

    So he is using that to his advantage within his X's and O's in a great way. And plays like that shown above are a great example of that.

    1. As far as you know was the Michigan game the first time they rolled this defense out? I'm curious if Borges had the opportunity to prepare for this or had to adjust to it on the fly.

    2. I've seen the alignment as far back as ND, so the alignment isn't new. And I've seen Bullough drop in a Tampa 2 type coverage before. But I have no personally seen this exact coverage where it looks so much like Cover 4 but ends up being cover 3.

      He does appear to have a pretty deep set of plays to work with from this alignment though, most of which turn into cover 3 (though if I'm not mistaken I have seen them run cover 4 from it as well).

    3. FWIW, the hard part is, even if you see it, how do you teach the QB to react to it, especially if it's something that you've seen on film maybe once? I mean, you teach the QB to read the safeties, he did that, the safeties look like cover 4. Really, the teaching moment here for Borges and Gardner are with his eyes before the throw. If he holds the seam safety a little longer, he can complete that pass on the outside.

    4. I've read your pieces on Maize 'n Brew and MGoBlog which are always interesting and thoughful but first time I found this blog. This is a nice change from the more emotional posts (even though I'm guilty of those sometimes myself)..

      I do have a question/comment though. While the video was hard to see on my device it appeared that Butt and Funchess were stacked with Butt running a skinny post and Funchess running about a 15yd hitch. If Devin had kept his eyes in the middle of the field would Funchess have been the better target? Is it realistic to expect that college QBs and WRs would recognize the safety blitzing and have Funchess adjust the route to fill the spot vacated by the blitzer?

    5. Appreciate it!

      As for your question, you are correct in your set-up. Butt and Funchess are stacked to the boundary. Now, here's where it becomes tricky answering your question.

      If DG kept his eyes down the middle of the field longer, would have he thrown in that direction? The answer depends on if he would have correctly read what the coverage really was at that time. As is, to DG's right is the two high beater. To the left is the single high (cover 1, cover 3) beater. This defense falls into the latter group. So really, it's dependent, not on if he would have read the safety blitzing (remember that that void is being filled by the FS coming over initially; the FS doesn't rotate until DG commits his eyes), but the MIKE running to the deep third. In theory, if he read this correctly, he would throw to the skinny post as FS has taken the lower receiver in the seam.

    6. -on first viewing it appeared to me the FS wasnt moving down to take Funchess at all. But i see now how the FS rotates after seeing DG has locked onto the field side. If Gardner goes beyond eyes in the middle to llok off the safety with more time to work with Funchess as a WR,although if ifs and buts were candy and nuts...

    7. That's all true, but, at the end of the day also remember that MSU is bringing pressure that has been getting home all day. DG is feeling that heavily and so is trying to get rid of the ball off his first read.

  2. Absolutely, that's what I meant by if ifs and buts were candy and nuts. That's a lot to ask in any situation for a relatively inexperienced QB, but especially after getting hit so much. Hopefully next year!


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