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Insights into Pete Golding’s defense

Jul 12, 2023

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Let us dabble in a general understanding of Ole Miss’ new defensive look.

As you may have heard once or twice, Pete Golding is the man in charge of remodeling an Ole Miss defense that finished last season in a dilapidated state, bordering on being condemned.

Whether last year’s issues were more related to talent than scheme is a worthy debate, but Lane Kiffin decided the 3-2-6 life was no longer for him and brought in Golding to establish a new path. Golding’s hire was met with, to quote Seinfeld, unbridled enthusiasm among Ole Miss fans (and many Alabama fans).

Golding has had success at every stop in his career and spent the last five years refining his skills in the coverage dark arts of zone featuring man-match principles with Nick Saban. He is either the most accomplished or one of the most accomplished defensive coordinators* Ole Miss has ever employed.

*In thinking about this, I remembered David Cutcliffe once hired the defensive coordinator of the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League. I may need a few minutes to lie down.

Since Golding started collecting a paycheck from Ole Miss, fans have engaged in rampant speculation, as if there is any other kind of speculation, about what his defense will look like. Said speculation has involved talk about the 4-3, 3-4, and 4-2-5, almost as if searching for relief in knowing the 3-2-6 is dead and buried*.

*Surprise! We’re going to see some 3-2-6 this year!”

However, most of the discussion has fallen into the light snacking category, without trying the delicious meat and potatoes of a Saban/Golding defense. And that’s what we’re going to attempt to do today.

But before we TURN ON THE TAPE, BOB, there are a few things to keep in mind. This defense has a ton of calls and roughly one billion checks* within each call.

*More on checks later!

So while we’re going to sample the good stuff, this will not be an all-encompassing breakdown. I have things to do and you have things to do, which means we don’t have time for a 12-volume set on a Saban-inspired defense that has been an ongoing project for 30+ years.

Finally, this is going to primarily focus on pass coverage. While we all enjoy a good run fit, Saban’s defensive coverages involve more moving parts and are more interesting.

The following is based on what Golding and Saban ran together at Alabama. I imagine Golding will likely add and drop things based on him being the boss now.

And with that, let’s start asking and answering questions.

Hang on one second there, professor. We need to talk a little terminology first.

In the form of a question please. This is not a press conference with reporters.

A few of these may be somewhat familiar, as they’ve become more common terms for a lot of defenses.

Apex is probably the most unfamiliar term, but if you’ve listened to some of the defensive players’ media appearances, they’ve talked about playing the Apex. An Apex defender can be the Star/Money or a safety. It just depends on what the call is.

Going from bottom to top here, the Apex defenders are a linebacker (Money position) and the Star.

Initially, the Apex’s primary responsibility is the #2 receiver (receiver inside the outside receiver). However, based on the call, he might run with the #2 vertically, push the #2 off the seam if that receiver is going vertical and look for receivers in the flat, or immediately look to defend the flat against an outside receiver, running back, or tight end.

Hook = This is the second defender insider the outside corner. It is generally a linebacker, but it can be a safety rotating down or the Money. They primarily focus on the run, but can have shallow coverage responsibilities depending on the call.

So let’s put that all together in one shot.

Finally, two more basic things related to coverage and not positions.

MEG = Man everywhere he goes. If this is the call, it’s pretty self-explanatory. The defender follows his assigned receiver wherever he goes during the play and doesn’t pass him off to another defender.

MOD = Man outside and deep. This tells the outside corners their responsibility is to cover their man only if he runs deep and outside routes. If his receiver breaks off his route, the corner passes him off to the Apex and continues to drop as if in zone coverage. More than likely, the corner tracking the #2 receiver who should be running a route beyond five yards.

In general, like almost all modern football defenses, Ole Miss will spend the majority of its time in a 4-2-5 look. Those front four defenders could be four traditional defensive linemen or three linemen and the Jack.

At times, we will also see 3-3-5, 4-1-6, and 3-1-7, with some rare appearances of a traditional 4-3-4 or 3-4-4. A Saban-like defense loves the speed and options more defensive backs provide.

The short answer is all of them, but the two coverages doing most of the lifting will be Cover 3 (Saban’s terminology calls it Cover 6) and Cover 7.

Essentially, the two outside cornerbacks and one safety in the middle of the field drop into coverage and divide the field into thirds. Each player is responsible for a receiver in their third.

Using our trusty example from before, here’s what that might look like:

Alabama did not run Cover 3 on this play, but this is just to give you an idea. Everyone without an arrow would have responsibilities in underneath coverage.

Cover 7 is a little more complex, as it refers to split-field coverages. That means one side of the field is running principles of one coverage and the other side is running something different. Essentially, the two sides of the defense are working independently.

However, at its core, Cover 7 is a form of quarters coverage, which is when the two corners and two safeties drop and divide the field into fourths. Back to our trusty example:

Like the Cover 3 example, Alabama didn’t run pure quarters coverage here, but if those guys were told to only follow those arrows, it would be quarters.

What separates it from pure quarters is, as previously mentioned, the defense is playing man-match in the quarters. That means once they identify where the receiver is going, they match him man to man.

The other tenet of Cover 7 is that the defense is going to play 3 defenders over 2 offensive players on the weak side, and 4 defenders over 3 offensive players on the strong side. The point is to always have a numbers advantage.

Let’s do it. Back to our example, this is what Ole Miss runs. At the bottom of the screen, Malik Heath (#1 WR) and Jonathan Mingo (#2) run a scissors concept, where Health trails Mingo before they split and Mingo runs a corner route and Heath goes to the post.

At the top, Dayton Wade (#1) runs a shallow cross, Jordan Watkins (#2) runs a corner, and Quinshon Judkins is the checkdown to the flat.

As the play develops, the defense is seemingly in good position and following the MOD call in Cover 7. The Apex at the top of the screen is tracking Wade (#1) after he did not go vertical, and the Apex at the bottom is doing the same with Heath (#1) who has not declared what he’s doing yet. And the Hook is following Judkins out of the backfield.

In the back, things are going well at the top of the screen, as the corner is getting depth and the safety over the top has turned Watkins’ (#2) route into a dead one. Quarterback Jaxson Dart can’t throw the ball there.

However, at the bottom of the screen, there is a developing situation. The Apex has to hold because Heath (#1) has slowed down and appears to be his responsibility, but he also did nothing to redirect Jonathan Mingo (#2) off his vertical route. That means Mingo has a free run right at the safety, which is not ideal for the safety.

The corner is also not getting enough depth, as he is still tracking Heath despite Mingo going vertical. That means the safety is one on one with Mingo and can’t give help to anyone else. The corner should be running with Mingo, which would allow the safety to still protect the middle of the field.

A big part of the issue for the defense here is Heath runs an incredible route. He slows down around 10 yards, knowing the Apex is tracking him, but that gives Mingo time to get deep and hopefully occupy the safety. That’s exactly what happens.

Heath gets isolated on the Apex, who is a linebacker, and the safety has to cover for the corner, who is late dropping, and can’t help in the middle of the field.

Heath accelerates vertically and will cook any linebacker running down the middle of the field without any help. A recipe for a big gain.

37 yards to be exact.

Look, as an Ole Miss site, we need to work in a few wins for the good guys. But the point stands. If the corner had played it correctly, Dart probably has to initiate scramble mode.

And you got to see how the defense identifies who they should match.

Based on my research (here and here), these are variations of just Cover 7 (other than MOD and MEG, but these could include MOD and MEG within the call):

Each is specific to an offensive formation (such as 2 x 2 or 3 x 1 receiver sets) and position relative to the hash marks. The method to the madness is to have as many answers as possible for the questions the offense will ask of you.

As I said earlier, no one, other than people paid to coach it and teach it, has the time to sift through all of that here. But if you are ever intrigued, it is interesting reading.

No! Here’s Pete Golding, in great detail, explaining how a defensive call is a variation of Cover 7, but they check to Cover 6 based on a shift in the offensive alignment.

Ole Miss DC Pete Golding talking about their FIB check "Laser." Versus 3x1 FIB Y Off they play Cover 7 "Steeler Read." 3 over 2 Cover 7 match concept, but if the Y comes back to the field, the coverage checks to Cover 6 (3 Match). Ron Roberts Coaching Tree Bundle is 62% Off!

The rough translation there:

Again, it’s another answer to a question the offense is asking of them.

I concur. We ain’t here to play defensive coordinator.

Hopefully though, I may be able to do shorter posts about Cover 7 during the season if, say, Golding Cones and Dogs LSU to death, and we have a real good time that weekend.