The Jets' STAB tag in Quarters coverage
Let's talk about Safety "spokes" and how the Jets use a simple tag in Quarters to add numbers to their run defense.
Cover 3 is still “king” in the NFL, but the league has adjusted as more offenses turn to quick motions, RPOs, and running QBs. As a result, the coverage data from the past five years shows a distinct trend towards more middle-of-the-field-open (MOFO) coverages. Cover 2 has always been a staple for the NFL, especially since the Tampa 2 days, but its zone- and man-match cousins in Quarters and 2-Read have been harder to come by.
Below is a coverage matrix showing the usage percentages of every team. Cover 3 is still the dominant scheme at the highest level of football. To the bottom right, you can see more teams are starting to up their use in Quarters coverage.
Five years ago (2018), no teams utilized Quarters coverage for more than 20% of their calls. In ‘18, there were only four teams that used Quarters coverage in the double digits: Jacksonville (13.3%), Minnesota (13%), Buffalo (12.4%), and Arizona (11.3%). It just wasn’t that common. However, things were about to change as 2018 was the year that the Spread took over the NFL.
2017 was a precursor for the explosion in offense that would occur the following year. Philadelphia would ride an RPO-centric offense (and a backup QB) to a Super Bowl victory. Under rookie Head Coach Sean McVay, the Rams were just getting started and even made the playoffs at 11-5, winning the NFC West. On the other side of the standings, the Chiefs and rookie Patrick Mahomes were about to wake a sleeping giant.
So, it is no surprise after the ‘18 season and the offensive explosion, we start seeing a higher use of Quarters coverage. 2019 saw the number of teams utilizing Quarters more than 20% of the time rise to one, the San Fransisco 49ers. Vic Fangio would receive a head coaching spot at Denver and take then OLB Coach Branden Staley with him. In one year, Staley would depart to LA to join McVay and give us one of the best charts indicating the NFL was about to change.
In ‘20, six teams deployed Quarters more than 20% of the time, and it was a landmark year as the Fangio system hit full throttle, and the buy-in to a MOFO defense began to grow. Though the Fangio system is based on a two-high shell, it is not necessarily a MOFO defense nor Quarters heavy. Still, the mixed use of coverages and weak rotations intrigued others around the league.
The ‘21 season saw the Quarters number dip to three total (SF, LAR, WFT), using it +20%, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Looking at data from PFF, the use of Quarters has risen tremendously in the past five years, from 2,089 total plays in ‘18 to almost 5,000 in ‘22. Teams in the NFL are not basing in Quarters, but their use of the scheme is rising as more teams try to find answers to combat running QBs and Spread/RPO schemes.
One defensive coach, in particular, has seen a sharp rise in Quarters usage since the ‘18 season - Robert Saleh. The 49ers under Saleh started using Quarters as a primary coverage within their scheme following the ‘18 season. In ‘17 and ‘18, the coverage accounted for roughly 3% of his calls. Following those seasons, Saleh held steady at around 21% until this year, when he jumped to 26% usage (below).
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Below is a look at the 2022 Jets coverage matrix under Saleh. The “Big 3” are Cover 3, Quarters, and Cover 1. The use of Cover 3 should be no surprise, as that is where Saleh is anchored philosophically. However, the high use of Quarters shows how much he has evolved in the past five years.