Cameron Sutton’s third quarter interception was a game-saver for the Vols. With the Mountaineers leading 13-3 and driving past midfield, the Vols were looking to their defense to step up and make a play.
Another score for Appalachian State would’ve been devastating, putting the Vols down 20-3 . Fortunately, Tennessee’s all-conference corner stepped up at the right time and made an incredible play to put the ball back in the hands of his offense.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at how Sutton made the play.
The first thing to note is the Vols’ personnel. With new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop at the helm, Tennessee showed some new looks on defense against Appalachian State. One of those looks was a dime formation.
Under John Jancek, the Vols rarely ever put more than five defensive backs on the field, but Shoop used a 3-2-6 dime package on multiple occasions. He liked to go to his dime look on third-and-long, when the Mountaineers would clearly have to pass.
Up front, the Vols had three defensive ends in the game to rush the passer. Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen came off the edges, while Jonathon Kongbo lined up as a nose tackle. Tennessee left their two starting linebackers, Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Cortez McDowell, on the field. Cameron Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley manned the corners with Todd Kelly Jr. and Micah Abernathy lining up at safety. Malik Foreman aligned to the right as the nickel back, while Rashaan Gaulden entered the game as the sixth defensive back.
This is an effective package versus the pass for a variety of reasons. In a passing situation where the offense goes with four wide receivers (as Appalachian State did here), the Vols can counter by bringing in Gaulden, one more defender capable of covering a receiver. The former safety has the ability to matchup with tight ends and slot receivers alike.
Out of the Vols’ six defensive backs on the field, all but Kelly have played cornerback at some point in their college careers. This gives Shoop the ability to match up well against any potential offensive formation. The Vols can play man coverage versus a five-wide set and not be at a disadvantage. If Shoop wants to play zone, now he has outstanding speed on the field with the extra defensive back.
This can also be an effective formation from a pass rushing standpoint. The three defensive end package puts the Vols best past rushers on the field.
The three man front enables Shoop to use creativity in determining which defenders rush the passer. Typically, Shoop will rush four players. So if you’re an offense, you have to wonder where that fourth rusher is coming from. Will it be Foreman? Gaulden? McDowell? Kirkland? What if Shoop rushes more than four? The offense has to be prepared for anything.
Below, you can see six Vols creeping around the line of scrimmage, with Foreman, the nickelback, also close enough to blitz. That’s seven potential pass rushers the offense must be prepared for.
Now that we understand the formation and personnel, let’s look at the pass coverage. Shoop dialed up one of his favorite coverage schemes: Cover Six. The name Cover Six is apt, because the coverage is Quarters (aka Cover Two) to one side of the field, and Cover Two to the other.
Quarters is a zone coverage that uses man principles. This is how I explained it in an article about Shoop and quarters coverage in January.
“The corners will lock on to the number one receiver (closest receiver to the sideline on each side of the field) on any vertical routes. As long as the number one receiver releases vertically, the corner will carry his route. Should the receiver release on an underneath route, the corner pass him off to a linebacker. The corner must move his eyes to the number two receiver (the second receiver from the sideline) and help the safety by bracketing any vertical route.
“The safety will align slightly deeper than the corners at about a nine to twelve yard depth. They will make a similar read on the number two receiver. If the number two receiver releases vertically, the safety will carry the route. If he releases underneath or outside, the safety will become a robber. He will eye the number one receiver and give the corner inside help.
“The two outside linebackers are responsible for covering the flats in pure zone coverage. The inside linebacker will cover the hook zone over the middle. He must wall off any crossing routes. These underneath zones are where the defense is most vulnerable, but even that is by design. The defense aims to use the zone to keep everything in front and avoid giving up the big play.
“The reads of the defensive backs turn quarters into a coverage that is adaptable to any route concept. This is why quarters is so popular. It is not a static, spot-dropping zone, but rather a read-and-react coverage. It can be molded on the fly to defend any formation and any route concept an offense could conceivably run.”
Now, let’s look at the other half of Cover Six. Cover Two, unlike quarters, is pure zone coverage with two deep defenders (the safeties) and five underneath defenders (corners and linebackers). Each safety is responsible for his deep half of the field. The corners cover the flats, while the linebackers are the hook and curl defenders.
Put together, these two schemes are called Cover Six. Shoop loves this coverage scheme because it enables him to give the offense a different look to each side of the field.
Typically, Shoop will rush four and drop seven in coverage. On this snap, he only rushed three, allowing eight defenders to drop in coverage. The Vols played Cover Two to the (offensive) right side and quarters to the left.
Now, let’s look at what Appalachian State was trying to do on offense. The Mountaineers ran a smash route concept to the boundary, designed to attack the Vols’ Cover Two look.
Smash is a two-man route concept. The inside receiver will run a corner route, while the outside receiver will run a hitch, or speed out. The quarterback’s read is on the cornerback. If he drops to defend the corner route, then the quarterback can throw the shorter route to his outside receiver. If he jumps the quick route, then the quarterback should have room to throw the deep corner route. The safety, in deep half coverage, won’t be able to defend the corner route in time.
With the Vols playing Cover Two to the boundary, Appalachian State got the look they wanted. Quarterback Taylor Lamb dropped back to pass and immediately looked to his right, towards the smash concept.
Sutton, the Vols’ star corner, was the flat defender. At the snap, Sutton covered the quick out route, but kept his eyes on Lamb the whole time.
Sutton recognized the route concept and knew that Lamb wanted to throw the corner route. By staying low and taking away the quick out, Sutton knew he could bait Lamb into throwing the corner route.
After the game, Sutton was asked about the interception and said, “Just a familiar set I’ve seen on film, they had tight splits in the boundary so obviously I was thinking a high concept. Something that was coming back towards the sideline, just because they were trying to give them self space on the sideline. Just baited the quarterback a little bit and just came up and made the play.”
As soon as Sutton saw Lamb bring the ball back to throw, he began sprinting towards the corner route. He almost didn’t get there in time, but fully extended and snagged the ball out of the air for the interception.
This was an incredible play by Sutton. His athleticism shined on the diving catch, but even more impressive was his heady play to recognize the route concept and bait the quarterback into the throw.
Editor’s Note: Seth Price writes Vols Film Study weekly for FOX Sports Knoxville. You can see more of his work at Football Concepts. He is also the author of Fast and Furious: Butch Jones and the Tennessee Volunteer’s Offense, which is available on Amazon.com.