When we talk coverages in the NFL, things can get very complicated, and later we may look into some of the more complicated coverages but today we will look at 3 zone coverages and 3 man coverage schemes that you will see every Sunday in just about every game. Again, we have to remember that each teams “system” will include the same coverages and the same ideas. The differences come from where you align your players, and what you emphasize as your base defense, coverage etc. This all impacts the type of players you seek for your team.
With that in mind we will begin with our zone coverages.
1)Cover 2/Tampa 2
In cover 2 both safeties drop to a depth of 15-18 yards and cover a deep half zone of the field. The corners press the WR and get their hands on them at the line of scrimmage to reroute them to the outside using the sideline as an extra defender. They then drop to a depth of 10-12 yards. The line backers drop to the intermediate zones around 10 yards deep and look for short throws. We could get into more technique for each of the positions, but I think right now its more important to know the scheme than the technique.
As you look at the coverage drawn above you should notice one glaring weakness in the coverage. That weakness is the big hole in the deep middle of the field between the safeties. Of course offensive coaches and QB’s recognized this over time so Monte Kiffin, long time defensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Bucaneers developed a modification for the coverage, called the “Tampa 2” which is shown below.
As you can see the main difference here is that the MLB now turns his hips to the strong side of the field and drops deep between the safeties taking away the vulnerability there, and moving it more in the shallow area where all three LB’s can rally to make a tackle if there is a completion.
2) Cover 3
Here the SS walks up toward the line before the snap creating an 8 man defensive front. On the snap the corners, who are aligned deeper off the line of scrimmage, drop to the deep outside thirds of the field and the FS drops to the deep middle. The SS and WLB both drop to the “curl/flat” area, and the SLB and MLB drop to the hook/curl area.
As you can see this is a sound defense with 3 deep defenders, and 4 underneath players, and an 8 man front to help stop the run. But its important to remember every coverage is beatable, and this is no different. Notice the “seams” between the corners and the FS in their deep thirds. Teams began countering this coverage with an offensive scheme called “4 verticals” in which 4 players ran straight down the field past the underneath players to the deep zones. This created a 4 on 3 for the offense… Easy Pickings for an NFL QB.
Which leads us to….
Here you can see we now drop both safeties deep as well as both corners where each plays a deep 1/4th of the field. This took away much of the advantage of “4 verts” but left the shallow areas more susceptible. You’ll see this coverage played inside the “red zone” (inside the 20 yd line when your opponent is about to score), to clog up the throwing lanes into the end-zone and hopefully force your opponent to throw it underneath and settle for field goals. Be careful not to refer to Quarters as Cover 4, this is the name of another type of coverage we will go over another time.
As you see from each of our zone coverages we have 7 players in coverage leaving only 4 to rush the passer. This puts a premium on defensive line talent, (ie Mario Williams getting a $100 million contract in Buffalo) you have to be able to get pressure on the QB with only 4 guys in order to be successful playing zone coverage consistently.
So what do we do if we don’t have top flight pass rushers, or we want to put more pressure on the QB?
GREAT QUESTION! I’m so glad you asked, that’s why coach’s put man to man coverages in their game plans.
1) Cover Zero
This is true man to man coverage, this is used in situations where the defensive coordinator wants to use extra players to rush the QB. The CB’s funnel their men to the sideline as an extra defender and the idea is to disrupt timing and let the extra guys on the blitz get the sack.
2) Cover 1/Man-Free
As you can see here we now have the FS playing the deep middle of the field, while the other defenders play man coverage. Now the corners funnel their men to the middle of the field where their help is. This coverage is used with either a blitz, as shown here, or with a LB also playing an underneath middle coverage.
Here we use 2 deep safeties as in Cover 2, to put a top on the defense, but your underneath defenders play man coverage rather than dropping to their zones. They play in a trailing position almost tempting the QB and WR to try a deep throw where the safeties can make a play on the ball.
So there we have it. Those are the 6 (really 7) basic coverages that you will see every single Sunday in the NFL, different teams lean more towards different ideas, but almost every team goes into the game with each of these in the game plan.