Bills' Offense v. Bucs' Split-Field Coverage, 2013 Week 14

The Bills' offense was coming off its most productive outing against Atlanta and Tampa Bay had just lost 27-6 to the Panthers to make them 3-9 when the two teams met in Week 14. For fans expecting a late season surge in the win column against some weaker opponents, there was plenty of disappointment as the the offense managed just 6 points, all negated by interceptions that led directly to Tampa Bay field goals for a net score of 0.

A defensive look they faced for a good portion of the day was the Bucs' split-field coverage, Quarter-Quarter-Half. Two 1/4 defenders to the strong side, one deep 1/2 defender to the weak side. You might see it called Cover 8 in the NFL or Cover 6 in high school and possibly college, but coaches at all levels are using it to defend against 3x1, or trips, formations and the threat of four vertical releases.


Like any defense there are variations, but here's a look at the Bucs' version of Quarter-Quarter-Half:

Quarter coverage to the strong side, 2-Man to the weak side

Receivers are numbered 1-5 from the strong side to the weak side and their final #s may be different than their starting #s if there are quick switches near the line like in the diagram above (i.e. the starting #1 receiver becomes the final #3).

Starting with the weak side assignments, the Weak Safety (WS) will drop to the deep 1/2 zone while the Weak Corner (WC) plays the starting #5 receiver man-to-man (M/M) wherever he goes.

And it's Quarters coverage to the strong side, which employs pattern-read coverage. Pattern-read is like a mix between man and zone coverages with defenders essentially ending up in man coverage based on the releases of the receivers and their recognition of the route combinations. The white boxes in the picture above represent traditional zones, so you can see why defenders match up the way they do; they're usually in great position to match up with their final assignment pre-snap.

Here are the basic assignments of the pattern-read defenders with "vertical" meaning pretty much anything over 10 yards:

  • Strong Safety (SS): Short-to-deep inside 1/4 (match final #2/#3) or double-cover outside vertical (final #1)
  • Strong Corner (SC): Match outside vertical (final #1) or zone-cover deep outside 1/4
  • Sam/Nickel (S/N): Match 1st flat route or 2nd in-breaking route (final #2)
  • Mike (M): Match 1st in-breaking route, final #3 vertical, or 2nd flat route
  • Will (W): Match final #4

The Bills saw the Bucs' Quarter-Quarter-Half when studying their Week 13 game against Carolina, a team that runs similar concepts, so what led to them getting sacked twice, scrambling twice, and throwing an interception while averaging 2 yards/pass attempt against it when the Bucs showed it pre-snap? When it's that bad, it's a little bit of everything.


Every successful day for the offense starts with building a game plan to attack your opponent's tendencies or weak links and preparing your QB. The Bills had a gameplan to attack the Bucs' Cover 2, including the play below, but unfortunately those same playcalls ran into the strengths of the Bucs' split-field coverage, one of which is the potential to tightly double the outside receivers:

Q2, 12:28, 2nd and 6

The pre-snap read is based on the alignment of the corners and safeties. To the Quarters side, you'll see the equal depth of the SC and SS anywhere between 7-10 yards and the SS will play flat-footed at the snap. On the weak side, the WC will play up on the receiver with inside leverage, which is an indicator of man coverage, and the WS will align further back around 10-12 yards outside the hash marks and drop to the deep 1/2 at the snap.

The Bills had seen this coverage a few times at this point, even against this same play earlier in the game, but they still seemed unprepared for it:

Q2, 12:28, 2nd and 6; INSERT: Q1, 1:56, 3rd and 11

The safest throws are the flat or drag. Robert Woods is matched up 1-on-1 with the Mike for a likely first down, but Manuel throws this to TJ Graham on the dig route. Rookie WC Johnthan Banks, playing with a trail technique because he has help over the top, makes the interception. Manuel also hesitated to pull the trigger on Woods earlier in the game for a potential 1st down when the staff wrapped this dig/drag read into another play (see insert).

Even though it was a poor read with Manuel obviously expecting Cover 2 Zone where the the dig route would open up in a hole of the coverage in front of the WS, second-year pro TJ Graham didn't do his rookie QB any favors by running a poor route:

The dig route needs to break flat across the field or even come back to the QB a little, but after trying a head-and-shoulders fake, he's out of control, tips off the route, doesn't get his upper body immediately around, drifts downfield away from the QB, and Banks ends up running a better route than Graham does to the ball.


One of the concepts that kept popping up was a double hitch concept. The Bills paired this up a few times with a quick 3-step drop (1-step from the shotgun):

Q3, 8:01, 1st and 10

Against the Bucs' pattern-read coverage, the hitch routes will be tightly matched and the flat-footed SS will aggressively split them as the SC handles #1 alone. You can see the tight cluster of defenders around the hitch routes in the 1st insert. The only reason this play picked up 9 yards is because safety Dashon Goldson went for the interception and barely missed.


Below, you can see the same double hitch concept paired up with a wheel route to attack the deep outside (instead of the go route) and a slant on the weak side:

Q1, 14:35, 1st and 10, SS "pushes" Mike to 2nd flat

This is the first play from scrimmage for the Bills. Here, Manuel's first read is the weak-side slant instead of the hitches. With the 3-step drop, there's only one real receiving option because by the time Manuel would reset his feet and look back across the formation to find a strong-side target, all the routes would be declared and matched and the pressure would be in Manuel's face given his close proximity to the line at the end of his drop and the Bills' struggling offensive line.

And as opposed to a Cover 2 Zone cornerback who plays with outside leverage, the corner in 2-Man coverage will play with inside leverage, so the offense is already starting at a big disadvantage.

Robert Woods runs a textbook 3-step slant here, but it was curious to see the staff use TJ Graham, arguably the Bills' 4th-best route runner, on this slant-or-bust play later in the game:

Woods on the left, Graham on the right

The 3-step slant starts with the inside foot forward and plants on the 3rd step with the outside foot, breaking at a 45-degree angle inside or the angle required to break in front of the corner. On this pure timing route, the footwork has to be perfect.

The pictures above compare Woods and Graham on the same play v. the same coverage and leverage by the WC. Woods is on his 4th step and open; Graham is on his 7th step, has engaged the WC, and Manuel is looking for another option, which he doesn't have. The play resulted in a sack. This is why they say every player is part of the pass protection.

Stevie Johnson made his name beating Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman as the isolated X receiver in trips formations and it might have helped Manuel to have him over there more.


Any defense has weaknesses, but the Bills passed on opportunities to attack the off coverage of the SC, the worst of which might have been this big 3rd and 6 play near the red zone:

Q3, 11:15, 3rd and 6

On this verticals play, Marquise Goodwin (#1) likely has a go route he can cut short against off coverage, which is what happens here. In the picture above, the ball should be almost halfway to Goodwin, but the play resulted in a sack for a loss of 9 yards.

TE Scott Chandler (#4 receiver) is the primary on this play, as the seams usually are in the verticals concept, and would be the "hot" receiver if the Will linebacker blitzed like he was threatening pre-snap, but once Manuel saw the Will linebacker drop to match Chandler on the inside vertical and the WS drop outside to his deep 1/2 zone, he should have known Goodwin was his best bet against a SC who was aligned 10 yards off the line of scrimmage.

And again, Manuel was let down by his primary read:

Q3, 11:15, 3rd and 6

It's the job of every receiver to stay in their vertical lane on this play, but Chandler lets second-year safety Mark Barron (playing in the Will linebacker position) push him all the way out to the numbers, closer to Robert Woods' vertical lane than his own. He's about 4 yards away from where Manuel expects him to be in the picture above.


Chandler also failed to get body position on WC Johnthan Banks and showed a lack of speed when he was lined up as the #5 receiver in a closed 3x1 set:

Q1, 11:59, 3rd and 5

It's another dig/drag read with Chandler and Graham. Chandler has position initially, but by the time they get to the other side of the logo, Banks is able to switch from being on the outside hip to the inside hip (see Woods running the drag on the same play against Banks in an insert above).

And what initially looks like a severely under-thrown ball to Graham on this play is actually a severely overrun route:

Q1, 11:59, 3rd and 5

TJ Graham is running an In route that breaks at 12 yards. EJ Manuel sees what should be Graham's plant step, begins his throwing motion, but Graham is only beginning an uneccessary move on the off-coverage corner who is already out of position to defend the in-breaking route.

Manuel throws to where he expects Graham to be, around the 40, but it falls short of the receiver as he ends up near the 45. To see the route run properly, you can check out Goodwin running it on the same play at 1:56 in the 1st quarter.

After grading out as one of the worst receivers in the pass game in back-to-back years on Pro Football Focus (105th of 105 in 2012 and 103rd of 111 in 2013) and QBs having a rating that's almost 20 points lower when throwing to him than when throwing to any other receiver on the team that was targeted at least 10 times, Graham certainly has his offseason work cut out for him.

As a sidenote, Stevie Johnson ran an amazing inside vertical on the play above (you can see him beginning to call for the ball) and is clearly still the Bills' best receiver.


While the Bills managed only four plays over 15 yards all day (with one of them solely due to a penalty), the Panthers had multiple ways to get explosive plays against the Bucs' split-field coverage:

Week 13, Q2, 4:10, 1st and 10

Great Quarters beater here. The Panthers turn the Bucs' coverage into a middle of field open (MOFO) coverage by occupying the SS with the speed out and running the skinny post against the SC who, with outside leverage, has no chance to defend it. The draw fake also freezes the Mike, so if the SS ran with #1, the speed out would be wide open.

Cam Newton overthrew this 50-yd pass by inches, but it was a great playcall that got the receiver open downfield.


They also occupied the safety with an inside route and worked the comeback against the corner 1-on-1:

It was similar to what the Bills were doing here with Goodwin outside and Johnson running an In route:

Q1, 2:04, 2nd and 11

But Manuel threw it to double-covered Stevie Johnson instead of Goodwin for the likely 1st down.


After the Panthers missed on that 50-yd pass, they picked up the 1st down with a tunnel screen against the off coverage:

Week 13, Q2, 4:04, 2nd and 10

Right after that, they hit a 30-yd delayed screen to TE Greg Olsen.


After finding so many ways to attack the off coverage on the boundary, they cashed in and burned Darrelle Revis with a double move by Ted Ginn. I think the Bills tried to copy it, but were less successful. First the Panthers:

Week 13, Q3, 10:58, 1st and 10

The vertical by #2 occupies the S/N and SS, so the SC is left 1-on-1 with the outside receiver. Newton pump fakes, Revis bites, and Ginn blows by him for a 36-yd touchdown.

But there were major differences in how the Bills ran it that made it unsuccessful:

Q1, 8:19, 3rd and 16

The Bills ran it to the weak side, which means there's a chance the WS would be able to help if he's playing the deep 1/2 zone. It's 3rd and 16 as opposed to 1st and 10, so the Bucs aren't concerned with the run or short passes like a 5-yard hitch route.

Most importantly, the Bucs showed blitz pre-snap, but it didn't change the Bills' playcall. The Bucs blitz, roll into Man-Free coverage, Revis stays over the top of Stevie Johnson as the pressure comes pouring in, and Manuel throws this away into the end zone to avoid a second straight sack. Johnson's footwork was perfect on the fake 5-yd hitch, but it didn't matter.

This is a special play. You might be lucky if it works out for you once on the day. For the Panthers, it was a play they'd built up to all game and used in a situation where the Bucs would be trying to keep them to a 50+ yard field goal. The Bills wasted it in a situation where it had almost no chance to succeed.


The Bills' struggles against the Bucs' split-field coverage can act as a microcosm for the season: a lack of explosive plays, repetitve playcalling, an absence of pre-snap motion, the use of the same personnel grouping for whole series at a time, an unprepared QB who was unsure how to attack the coverage he was seeing, and poor execution.

As a silver lining, Stevie Johnson is still an amazing route runner and the Bills should be very pleased with their 2013 2nd and 3rd-round wide receivers, Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin.

Here's hoping an offseason of self-scouting does this staff and its players some good.

Just another great fan opinion shared on the pages of

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