Inside the Playbook: Defending the Speed Option with a Two-High Defense (BDS Exclusive)

Last time we looked at how Michigan attempted to stop Nebraska’s speed option attack with a Cover 1. Not finding much success, the very next week, facing Northwestern, they turned to more two-high coverages in the face of the Kain Colter lead spread attack. In this post, we’ll look at how Michigan utilized a two-high man under and Cover 4 to defend the speed option.

How the Speed Option is Run
Be it under center or from the shotgun, the speed option is essentially the same. The offensive line, in the case of most modern day offenses, will run their standard outside zone blocking scheme. The one difference is that the offense will bypass the defense’s EMOL toward the play and instead work to the 2nd level. The defender left free with be the option defender, the player that the QB will read to determine if he will keep the ball and run it himself or pitch the ball to his RB.

Here is how it looks:

Northwestern will also occasionally run a true triple option from the pistol. To the pitch side, it is run similarly to the speed option, with the “dive” portion of the triple option acting as the seal block to the pitch side. Here’s how it looks:

Defending the Speed Option with a Two-High Defense
While the man under defense and a cover 4 defense have their differences in coverage, they are very similar in terms of how they are used to defend the option. In both cases, the defensive EMOL, who will also be the pitch read defender, will have QB responsibility. Often times the rest of the DL and likely a backside LB will also flow to the QB. The safeties, meanwhile, will be responsible to sprint down the alley and take the RB. The frontside LB and likely any coverage defender will also support the effort.

So, responsibility goes to
RB: Safety, frontside LB, coverage
QB: EMOL, DL, backside LB.

The EMOL, typically a DE, has QB responsibility. Because the rest of the team is in pursuit, a cut back against the grain is potentially disastrous. At the snap he must square up to the QB and squeeze as tight as he can into the player next to him, making sure to leave no run lane inside of him. He doesn’t want to gain depth or width, but let the QB come to him in a good, fundamental, break down position. As the QB approaches, you must keep proper relation so that you are even with his playside (outer most) number by strafing. If he finds it useful to close the gap before pitching the football, make him not want to do that.

The responsibility of the safety and outside LB will depend on the coverage, formation, and checks within the coverage. Ideally, however, you will always have a force defender preventing the play from escaping outside, and an alley fill defender responsible for the RB from inside to outside.

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Hit the jump to look at specific defensive examples

Man Under Defense
In man under, the safety can attack the alley immediately as he sees the QB take his initial step to run the speed option. The man coverage underneath should be able to cover the receiver, especially as the QB’s run to the outside restricts the amount of throws he can make. Once the coverage over the slot feels the run, they will stop and anchor without outside arm free.

In this case, Michigan is facing Northwestern in 2013 and is actually in a three man down front. They have one of their LBs lined up over #2, with 2 ILBs and 5 DBs. Each of the CBs are lined up in man with both safeties lined up over the top.

At the snap, the DE shoots up, squares to the QB, and squeezes in to give no inside run lane to the QB. The LBs are working from inside-out over top of the zone stretch scheme from Northwestern, and the Michigan MIKE is able to beat the Northwestern OL to the spot. The CBs and split LB all take inside leverage and force the WRs outside of them, who then work to carry the defenders deep. The playside safety is crashing down immediately with no necessary pass responsibility, and the backside safety is rotation to the playside.

A poor angle from the safety, who has his MIKE and the pitch defender in pursuit from inside-out, allows the RB to escape outside of him. With the WRs in man coverage, their back is to the football, and once the RB gets outside he has room to run before pursuit catches up to him.

Cover 4 with OLB in the Box
In Cover 4 it will change based on how the defense wants to use their OLB to the option side. Against a twins package, if the OLB stays in the box, the safety must respect the immediate seam from #2 and give time for the backside safety to rotate across. In this case, he may strafe playside to maintain proper relation with the RB but momentarily keeping the distance closed on #2. The stem of the #2 WR in this case can give hints about the intention of the play. In this case, you’ll likely also adjust your DE position to be more heads up on the offensive EMOL and protect the OLB so that he, too, can have RB responsibility. In this case, because the OLB is pursuing inside-out, the safety must make sure he allows no runner between him and the sideline, keeping his outside shoulder free.

Cover 4 with Apex OLB
If the OLB was in an apex position – a position half way between the offensive EMOL and the slot – he must be careful to recognize if the offense is treating him as the EMOL or not. To do so, he must look through the offensive EMOL to the football. If the offensive EMOL blocks the DE, the OLB must squeeze inside, square to the QB, and make sure not to allow him inside of him. In this case, the safety must take the RB, but again, cannot allow the slip before rotation. So upon seeing the option present itself, he’ll jump outside and maintain outside leverage on the #2 WR and allow the backside safety to rotate, all while maintaining relation with the RB and breaking once the offense is committed to the option run.

Here we see Michigan State taking on Nebraska in 2013 where MSU aligns their OLB to the field in an apex position. The safety aligns 7 yards off the LOS and 1 yard inside the #2.

At the snap, you see the playside DE slanting inside. This is because with the LB in the apex position, the DE actually has the B gap, whereas the OLB takes the C gap. This slant actually confuses some of Nebraska’s blocking scheme a bit, though it isn’t yet detrimental. Which you can note is that the safety does not attack down at the snap, instead, he strafes (more stands still) reading the #2, unconcerned with the backfield and making sure this isn’t a pop pass off of option action.

The OLB then fights to maintain his relation with the RB, working inside-out. The safety also is working inside-out, and has outside leverage on the RB. But because he must respect the pass, he’s a bit late, and here’s where the slant inside has messed up Nebraska’s QB’s read.

As Nebraska’s QB attacks MSU’s OLB, the OLB never gets outside leverage, but does control the Nebraska WR and fights back inside. The QB doesn’t pitch, and instead keeps for a short gain.

Cover 4 with Split OLB
In this case, the OLB is split out wide. He will work to maintain his outside leverage on his receiver (he is playing a zone in the flat, so his help in pass coverage will tend to be from the zones of the LBs inside of him, so an outside shade is appropriate in coverage too). He will anchor down, keeping his outside shoulder free and allowing no one outside of him. The frontside safety, with less quick pass responsibility due to the OLB rerouting any seam and therefore allowing the backside safety time to rotate, can now shoot down immediately upon an option look to attack the RB.

Here you see Michigan facing Northwestern in 2013. Northwestern is aligned with a trips formation, and Michigan responds with putting the SAM over the #2 to the option side.

On the snap, you see the defense react to the speed step from QB. The SAM begins jumping outside #2. Meanwhile, the playside safety comes crashing down immediately. SAM can reroute the #2 and hold him down and the backside safety can rotate over in plenty of time to take anything deep from #3. As soon as the EMOL is obviously left free, it is known that it is a run rather than a pass and so the defense can get into their run defense. Note how the DE is square to the QB and restricting the gap inside of him so that the QB has no choice but to pitch.

The MIKE is coming from the inside out and fighting to get over the top. By now, the SAM has anchored down and doesn’t allow the WR to move him. This anchor constricts the run play. At this point the safety is free and in the backfield, he has a defender with clear outside leverage outside of him, and the pitch key DE is pursuing from inside-out.

Cover 4 to Knob
Against any knob formation – where the formation is closed with a TE with no WR outside of him – a cover 4 will adjust to a cover 6, which is Cover 2 on the knob side of the formation and Cover 4 away from it. In this case, with a DE still aligned outside the offensive EMOL, he will be the read defender. The defense will have “cloud” force, meaning the CB cannot allow anyone outside of him. That means the CB has RB responsibility. The safety, for his part, must make sure the TE doesn’t slip a block and attack the seam, but then can pursue inside-out to the RB.

Here’s a video of Michigan, again against Northwestern (in2012) running a Cover 4 against a knob. In this case, Michigan flipped their CB and Safety to have Sky leverage rather than Cloud leverage (in my opinion, this is something that should be done more, as safeties are stronger at holding the point and better at filling, Boundary CB can then match up against any releasing TE downfield, but the CB has to do better at filling down than done here).

At the snap you see the DE come forward, not gain too much depth, and get square to the QB, forcing him to pitch the football. LBs are pursuing inside-out, while the SS in “Sky” support is beginning to attack down on the LOS. The CB over the top is taking a useless angle that provides little help in run support, rather than filling down into the alley.

The SS has jumped outside the TE coming out to block him. The TE, in this case, is successful washing the Safety down and to the sideline, which further opens up the running lane for the RB. The outside zone blocking scheme from Northwestern also manages to get out into the MIKE LB, who does a poor job with his hands and easily gets cut. This is all well by Northwestern, but again we point to the awful angle from the CB crashing down as not filling the alley at all. The DE is pursuing from behind.

With the SS washed out and the poor angle by the CB, a clear run lane in the alley opens up and doesn’t allow pursuit to get home. From there it’s just the RB making that CB look even worse.

So as you can see, the basic set up for defending the speed option has slight tweaks within the two-high schemes, but also is quite different than what we saw with a Cover 1 defense. A two-high defense tends to be a bit more natural in covering the speed option, as the QB, who is keying on the EMOL, is defended by the EMOL, and the players that have better angles get to use those angles to defend the pitch man. Still, it isn’t without its weaknesses, and if the defense is undisciplined it will get beat, either over the top of speed option looks, or with the speed option itself.


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