Unless you have experience playing football or study it intensely, you probably are stumped when you hear football commentators say things like “base cover two”, “nickel package” or “cover zero”. The average fan probably shrugs it off when they hear this kind of terminology.
But, as far as the different coverages are concerned, it’s really quite understandable material, albeit wordy. All of these coverages can be applied to either the 4-3 or 3-4 defenses.
Here is an overview of the primary football coverage schemes that defenses utilize.
Key: FS = free safety, SS = strong safety, C = cornerback, SAM/MIKE/LB = inside linebacker, WIL/LB = outside linebacker
Cover 1 (man coverage)
Cover 1 may sound foreign but hopefully “man coverage” gives you an intuitive grasp. The premise of this coverage is simple: The cornerbacks and one of the two safeties are playing man coverage with the outside wide receivers or slot receivers. This means that wherever the receivers go, the defensive backs follow.
The cornerbacks and the safety, typically the strong safety or nickel corner – nickel translates to “third” – lock in at reading where the receivers go, not the quarterback. The outside and inside linebacker(s) are usually covering tight ends or running backs. So, every defender that isn’t on the defensive line, is shadowing or trailing an offensive receiver except for the other safety, usually the free safety, is playing deep as the last line of defense. Simple enough, right? Here’s a visual to help process the assignments:
*4-3 defenses contain one middle linebacker while 3-4 defenses have two.
This is a very standard, basic defense that all defenses should be familiar with. You may hear someone say “Tampa two” and that is a reference to the cover 2 defense that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers employ. Unlike cover 1, cover 2 does not involve any man coverage; it is all about zone coverage.
The cornerbacks have flats this time, which are the sideline zones about 5-10 yards off the line of scrimmage. The outside linebackers drop into their “hook to curl” zones, a dropback coverage that first takes away the “hook” or shallow middle routes, usually where tight ends go. Then the “curl” or routes that trail off towards the sidelines. The middle linebacker has the biggest pressure on him because at times he must help out the safeties deep while also being responsible for any short to intermediate patterns over the middle. The safeties have got to be ball hawks as well as strong hitters to close the gap on the deep ball. Essentially, the safeties split the deep portion of the field in half so they’ve got a lot of ground to cover between the two of them.
I like this visual because it indicates with a yellow circle the soft spots in this coverage. Though cover 2 is built around athleticism and is a base defense against the run and the pass, there are a few areas of the field that the offense can exploit.
The obvious first weakness is the deep middle of the field. With each safety occupied in open space, responsible for each half of the deep field, the middle is this sort of flex spot or zone that lies in between safety responsibilities. This is why a strong cover 2 defense requires a fast middle linebacker who can cover. A good middle linebacker must drop back deep to help make the quarterback hesitant of throwing the ball down the middle. If there is a shallow crossing route, hitch pattern, or something of the sort, then the middle linebacker must come up and collapse on it, even if they only surrender a few yards.
Cover 2 shouldn’t be concerned of underneath routes as much as protecting the deep middle of the field. The second weakness of the cover two defense is the intermediate zones in between the cornerbacks and safeties’ responsibilities. Just like the middle linebacker, the cornerbacks should drop back deeper rather than shallower to help close the gap between them and the safeties.
Cover 2 Man (2 Man Under)
Cover 2 man is a hybrid between cover 1 and cover 2. The cornerbacks and outside linebackers/nickel/dime (fourth cornerbacks) are playing man coverage with the outside and inside receivers. The middle linebacker plays middle zone but, whether he’s deep or shallow usually differs from team to team. I’m okay with the middle linebacker playing closer to the line of scrimmage because he’s able to help take away the slants and crossing routes if the receivers get an inside release. Plus, everyone who is playing man coverage has got help over top in this coverage because the safeties split the field in half, just like in regular cover 2.
Bottom line: If a team has excellent man to man cornerbacks, this is a great coverage to deploy. I always love playing in this coverage as a cornerback because I know that even if the receiver I’m up against blows by me that I have deep safety help. This coverage also works well in the dime defense (four cornerbacks and only one linebacker).
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