What is quarters coverage? The basic X’s and O’s behind the NFL’s two-high revolution

What is quarters coverage? Peyton and Eli Manning discussed Seattle's "new-look" defense, which is based off its principles.

What is quarters coverage? The NFL looks much different in 2022 than it did in 2014 when the Seattle Seahawks “Legion of Boom” dominated opposing offenses. Despite their rudimentary “country” or “spot drop” Cover 3 scheme, Seattle rostered perfect schematic fits and impressive talents that smothered opponents.

But the league looks different now. Quarters-based coverages are now the wave. What did Peyton and Eli Manning say about the “new look” during their Monday Night Football broadcast? It’s not necessarily new in Seattle, though. While there are still a few holdouts from the old-school Cover 3 tree, Pete Carroll’s defense is no longer a holdout.

What is quarters coverage?

There are countless variations of two-high zone-match, spot-drop, man-match, and straight-man coverages. Cody Alexander’s Match Quarters: A Modern Guidebook to Split-Field Coverages is a great way to learn more about the two-high revolution. Cameron Soran’s The Pass Coverage Glossary succinctly covers various coverages from a bevy of college coaches and rarely leaves my side while watching All-22.

At the core, quarters is a 4-deep, 3-under coverage. But that is the base-level country-zone form of the coverage. The quarters coverage we know has rules, and we will go through the rules for each player in the distribution.

The simplistic way to look at this is that defensive backs are playing man coverage inside their zone responsibility instead of “playing grass.”

The basics

quarters coverage

It took me an embarrassing amount of time to create that very crude diagram of the basic assignments associated with quarters. Essentially, the field is split in half between the strength of the formation and the weakside. In this case, “FS” means field safety, not free safety. The “BS” stands for boundary safety.

This is essentially what the coverage distribution would look like in a 2×2 formation, with the strength into the boundary. The varying cornerback depth is on purpose. Depending on the situation or overarching defensive philosophy, cornerbacks can play in press or from depth.

Additionally, the “A” or apex defender (a slot or linebacker) can also vary in alignment. However, they will usually align with inside leverage of the No. 2 threat so they can more conveniently get their eyes through No. 2 to read the No. 1 receiver.

Cornerback rules in quarters coverage

Remember, this is a zone-match coverage, but it plays like man-to-man. It’s different than man-match coverages, but that is its own post for someone who can more adequately articulate the minor differences between the two.

Eli talked about Seattle’s quarter shell during a red-zone drive for the Denver Broncos during Monday Night Football.

“They’re kind of playing, you know, it’s almost man on the inside. It’s zone, but all the defensive backs are playing the receivers man.”

In the base quarters coverage, the cornerback is playing man-to-man coverage against the No. 1 threat to his side. He can do so from depth or from the press and will usually have outside leverage on the receiver.

It’s important to note that this is the case in normally-distributed 2×2 formations. Quarters is a triangle coverage that gets three defenders covering two offensive players. When teams go to 3×1 sets, teams will run box coverage variations like stump or stubbie.

But the cornerback won’t always carry the receiver. He’s playing what is called “MOD” coverage, which is “man other than drag.” So, if the receiver is underneath immediately, he’ll give the apex defender an “under” call. In that instance, the CB drops into the deep quarter.

He’ll also come off of No. 1 if the receiver runs an underneath stop route. In that case, the cornerback will give the apex defender a “smash” call and drop into the deep quarter to take away the “smash” concept, which would be a seven/corner/flag route.

Apex rules in quarters coverage

The play that the Eli quote comes from was an excellent encapsulation of how quarters coverage plays out against four verticals. The replay showed the apex’s responsibility perfectly. Jerry Jeudy released vertically, and the slot (apex) defender does his job to perfection.

There are more rules for the apex defender than the CB in quarters. The apex plays the No. 2 receiver in man coverage first and foremost, but with exceptions.

As with the play from last night, the apex walls the No. 2 receiver from getting a vertical release inside of him, but he doesn’t continue to carry vertically. He’ll then look to see if there is a threat or someone coming into the flat. If there’s no threat, he continues to gain depth and read the quarterback’s intentions, much like a spot-drop concept.

If the cornerback makes an “under” call, the apex will come off the No. 2 and carry the WR1. Likewise, if the cornerback gives a “smash” call, the apex will dart out to cover the No. 1 receiver.

There is one more exception, but we’ll get to that in the hook defender’s responsibilities.

Safety rules in quarters coverage

A safety’s responsibilities in quarters variations make it so being able to cover at the position is more important than ever. Some would argue it’s more important to have good safeties than good cornerbacks in a quarters-based scheme.

But in its base form, there isn’t too much going on with the safety, although that doesn’t make their job any easier. The safety is responsible for the No. 2 receiver if they go vertical. With NFL offensive coordinators using their primary receivers in the slot more and more, it’s heightened the necessity for safeties to be good in coverage to avoid allowing splash plays.

But “vertical” isn’t just straight down the field. Every defense will have a point considered “vertical” in an offense, whether it be five, seven, or 10 yards down the field. Past that point, the safety has that man. That opens up many options to work off the outside receiver, like running a deep out, flag, post, dig, blaze out, or a straight vertical route.

But if No. 2 is not vertical, the safety gets to rob No.1.

Hook defender in quarters coverage

The hook defender is usually a linebacker. Generally speaking, they will be responsible for the running back. If the back doesn’t release, they’ll play as the hole defender in the middle of the field at the second level. Or, in Madden or old-school football terms, the “hook” zone area, playing deep to short while reading the QB’s intentions.

Using the previous diagram, there is a chance that the hook defender cannot get out to the back quick enough if they scoot out fast to the strong side. If that happens, the hook defender can call a “push.”

In a “push” call, the hook defender will pass off the responsibility of No. 3 to the apex defender and immediately take over the apex’s responsibility in coverage.

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