O'Neil/Ryan family defense Part III: Man coverage rules, Spy coverage, weakside rotation and coverage calls

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Fooch's note: Perfect timing for part 3 of this series, with kickoff just a few hours away.

Part I of this series

Part II of this series

It's time to take a look at the man coverage techniques and common play calls in the Ryan-O'Neil defense, the techniques and methods used to trick teams that are looking to take advantage of the single high safety looks that are the backbone of this system.

Man-cover technique

Rex Ryan describes cornerback play in man coverage in Coaching Football's 46 Defense:

"The cornerbacks should play a loose man-to-man coverage. The cornerback's alignment is from five to seven yards off the receiver. He shades the outside eye of the defender and places his outside foot format in a heel-to-toe stagger. Upon the snap of the ball he shuffles backward in a 3/4 stance turned toward the ball. He should read the quarterback as he feels the receiver."

The corner is taught to read the details of the qb's drop; a low back shoulder indicates a five or seven step drop and so an intermediate or deep route, while a high back shoulder with a more upright posture suggests a three step drop and a quickly developing route.

It's important to remember that when the free safety is in the middle of the field the defender can use outside trail leverage knowing he has help in the deep middle of the defense.

Spy coverage

This is one of the primary change ups available to stop teams from taking advantage of the defenders isolated in man coverage in the 'single' scheme.

Pre-snap 'spy' looks identical to 'single' and the defense can switch between the two schemes with one call or hand signal, allowing the defense to rapidly adjust on the fly.

The difference between the two is that while single is a five man rush with the strong safety, along with the Mike and Will backers, on green dog reads (rushing when their man blocks), in 'spy' two of them drop into underneath zones with the Rush/ROLB and Sam taking their RB or TE on the green dog reads. So in this defense you're sending three rushers and adding one more every time an eligible receiver stays in to block, so if the offense keeps a back in to protect then you get a four man rush, with man coverage on the four receivers plus three zone defenders helping in the middle of the field. 'Single' would result in a six man rush on such a play.

This ability to shift the defensive stance from the aggressive 'single' scheme to the safer 'spy' defense gives the coordinator more flexibility and allows the players to make quick adjustments pre-snap.

It should be noted that even though the scheme is call 'spy' there isn't actually a defender spying the quarterback in this play. (And no, I have no idea why. All football coaches seem determined to wage a jargon-based war on the beauty of the English language and this, as you will see, is just the start of the assault of nomenclature).


When facing reduced splits, stacks or when game planning suggests the offense is likely to use pass routes that will intersect with each other, usually in an attempt to pick or rub the defenders off a receiver for an easy catch they can exchange their coverage responsibility.

They will each take one side of the pattern instead of a particular receiver, allowing for them to maintain position on the route and avoiding collisions that will lead to a busted coverage.

In the Ryan scheme this exchange is called a 'banjo' Why? Because all coaches HATE plain English (not really, it's more of a seething, peevish animosity).

Weakside Rotation (Cover 7)

Back to Rex Ryan, again from Coaching Football's 46 Defense:

"The ability to play the weakside rotation coverage is what separates the true 46 from its imitations. The weakside rotation -cover 7 in our terminology- provides for double coverage of the X receiver (i.e., split end) by the cornerback and free safety."

The basic scheme of the cover 7 is that out of the identical, single high safety alignment of the 'single' defense the defense sends a four man rush while the free safety bails out to the weak side of the field, the strong side corner drops to a deep half on his side and the strong safety drops towards the flat but picks up the flanker (strong side wide receiver) in underneath trail coverage (Ryan calls this the 'swipe' technique). In effect the strong corner and SS create a bracket coverage on the flanker, the tight ends and backs are picked up in man coverage and the split end (the weakside wide receiver) is caught in the weakside rotation.

When executing the 'swipe' the Mike can make a push call if the second receiver (numbered from the sideline) looks like he can outflank him. This results in the SS staying outside to pick up the receiver 2 if the first receiver runs a crossing route with receiver 1 being picked up by the Mike. (Note: Ryan describes this as being between the Mike and SS but I cannot work out why the same call couldn't be made involving the Sam, who has the TE in man coverage, the principle is the same as it's basically just a 'banjo' call.)

Ryan defenses use a series of calls to trap the split end:

'Fist'- the corner plays press coverage with inside out leverage as the free safety rolls over the top to give deep support.

'Thumbs'- the free safety covers to the inside while the corner stays deep over the top.

'Slice'- Ryan describes this as 'bracket' coverage, which seems odd because fist and thumbs are pretty close to brackets themselves. Ryan details the response to the main routes: facing an in/crossing route the free safety will drive inside the route while the corner sinks to look for a deep route from across the field, against an out the corner will attack the expected ball location with the safety dropping to guard against an out-and-up. If faced with a vertical route both DBs drop with the receiver maintaining leverage to both the inside and outside.

'Trap'- per Rex: "Used as a primary defensive weapon against the short passing game, the trap technique provides a challenging squat type of coverage against a quick slant or quick out route." The corner reads the qb's drop, on seeing a 3-step drop he drives on the short route with a pick, dropping into trail coverage if the qb takes five or more steps while the FS covers the deep half.

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