Patrick Towles has been named the starting Kentucky quarterback. OC Neal Brown and HC Mark Stoops don't often get into specifics as to what one player does that puts him above other candidates. We know Towles has improved his release, mental preparation, and other fundamentals. This post will examine the mental side of a quarterback's job with a specific focus on reading the defense's pass coverages. We have previously discussed pass coverage basics, but now we will focus on how a quarterback reads and attacks those coverages.
Note: Reading coverages gets more complicated as defenses will disguise their coverages. For our purposes we'll keep it simple.
Over-Simplified Decision Trees
First rule of being a quarterback: read the safeties. The quarterback will identify where they are located in the hope that information provides their coverage scheme. Let's run through a basic "decision tree".
Step 1: Towles sees two deep safeties somewhere within 10-15 yards of the line of scrimmage. They are aligned slightly inside of UK's inside receiver. Depending on where they're located within the 10-15 yard range can identify if they have run support responsibilities or not.
Step 2: Towles at this point can probably eliminate the coverages that only have one safety: Cover 1 and Cover 3. Towles probably thinks he's facing Cover 2 or Cover 4.
Step 3: Towles determines he is facing Cover 4 because the safeties are right at 10 yards from the line of scrimmage meaning they probably have some run support duties. In Cover 2 they would be closer to the 15 yard mark.
Step 4: At the snap of the ball if one of the safeties turn and run then they were actually in free-man coverage (Cover 1), and is now trying to get back deep for support. If they stay put and read the backfield then it's probably a zone quarters coverage (Cover 4).
Towles has other clues as his disposal as well. Let's run through another decision tree that requires him to process more information.
Step 1: Again, Towles sees two deep safeties around 12 yards from the line of scrimmage. This time the safeties are aligned wider, and no longer shade the inside of UK's inside receiver. This probably indicates they don't have run support responsibilities and are in Cover 2 but it's not quite definitive. More information is required.
Step 2: Towles then reads the other defenders in an attempt to gather more information. The outside linebacker or nickel back will be aligned on the inside of UK's inside receiver if it is man coverage.
Step 3: Pre-snap reads with two deep safeties and man coverage is probably Cover 1 with the strong safety eventually rolling up to defend an inside receiver. Pre-snap reads with two deep safeties and zone coverage can still be Cover 2 or Cover 4. More information is needed.
Step 4: Finally, Towles reads the cornerbacks. If they are uptight on the receivers it's probably man coverage. If they are playing off it's probably a zone coverage. Meanwhile, if they are looking in the backfield they have run support duties, and won't be dropping back deep. If all these clues point to a zone defense, Towles recalls the zone defenses with two deep safeties and he knows he's probably dealing with a variation of Cover 3, Cover 2, or Cover 4.
Optional Step 5: If Towles is still unsure he can put a running back in motion. If a linebacker follows him then they are in man coverage. Man coverage with two deep safeties is probably Cover 1.
Sometimes teams will play with only one safety back deep ("one high"). If Towles reads this look he knows he's either facing Cover 3 or Cover 1. How to diagnose further to determine if he's facing Cover 3's zone or Cover 1's man coverage?
Step 1: If Towles is facing a "one high" look that means there are probably more defenders in the box that offensive blockers, so if a run play is called Towles will probably check to a pass play (alternatively, if facing two deep safeties the offense may check away from a called pass play and run it).
Step 2: Towles reads the cornerbacks. If they are tight it's probably Cover 1, and if they are off the receiver by approximately 5 yards it's probably Cover 3.
Step 3: After diagnosing the coverage Towles attacks that coverages weak point. If it's Cover 3 he's looking for routes run along the seam.
Teammates Can Help Too
Reading defenses can get very complicated for a quarterback, so teammates spacing can help identify coverages. Let's use the last example, and say the offense is facing one high safety again. The receivers will then alter their spacing. The inside receiver will slide in tighter than normal to UK's offensive tackle. This helps the quarterback see if the outside linebacker or nickel back aligns inside the receiver suggesting Cover 1's man coverage.
The outside receiver can also help if he reads a one high safety look. He will space even wider than normal creating a lot more room along the seam making a possible Cover 3 more vulnerable. Also, by going out wider, he may place the cornerback on more of an island in case it's Cover 1. Again, the running back can also be placed in motion, and if a linebacker follows him it confirms it's Cover 1's man coverage.
Even in these over-simplified examples one gets the idea how mentally competent quarterbacks must be to operate an efficient offense. They must diagnose the coverage, and attack its weak spot usually in a matter of seconds in a loud stadium. This doesn't take into account HUNH mode, reading blitzes, or checking out of bad plays to name but a few. Nor did we talk about tricky coverages like Quarter-Quarter-Half, Robber, or other types of playing two different types of coverages on different sides of the field.
Quarterbacks who are very good will quickly recognize the coverage, recall its weak points, and specifically know which weak points to look at first depending on the play call. If the coaches are doing their jobs they are making it easier for the QB, by calling plays that naturally attack the weak points of the predicted coverage.