Our Football 101 series continues today, trying to better help all of us as fans of the game better understand what we’re watching on Sunday (or Saturday, Monday, Thursday, etc.), as well as what analysts are talking about on all times. week. Today’s Football 101 topic looks at the defenses being used, how a quarterback “reads” them, and what it means to “cover __.”
Essentially, we’re going to build this based on how a quarterback would interpret the defense. Before the offense throws the ball out, a quarterback has a lot of things to worry about and decisions to make. the offensive play caller may have made a decision about which play will work in the down position and distance versus the offense, as well as what tendencies the defense plays based on the formation and that same down position and distance . the quarterback, when the pack is broken, now takes control (and assuming he has the ability to listen, he could change the play).
You’ll often hear the quarterback and/or center yelling a number and pointing at a linebacker. this can also include “it’s the microphone” in the call. basically, they’re establishing who the middle of the defense is (typically the middle linebacker, hence the so-called “mike”), which aligns the blocking scheme for the offensive line, tight ends, and running backs.
Reading: How to read football defense
The quarterback is also trying to figure out what kind of coverage a defense has for that play. To do this, a quarterback will start in the deepest part of the field and move toward the line of scrimmage. reading the locations of safeties, cornerbacks, and outside linebackers will help a quarterback determine if the coverage is man-to-man or zone, and where the holes in the defense should be.
again, this is all before the snap. After reading the defense, a quarterback might already begin to eliminate routes that receivers run, or know an option for a route that he expects to see from a receiver. he will also begin to see hand signals or the quarterback calling out to receivers to let them know what he is seeing and what he wants them to do.
We’ve covered a lot of this before in this Football Coverage 101 post, but we’ll have to revisit the coverages to understand what a quarterback looks for to diagnose the defense.
So how does the quarterback make a decision based on the positions of the safeties and cornerbacks? it’s about how many defensive backs are deep versus how many are close to the line of scrimmage, and then what some of the other players are doing.
Cover 0 is a pretty easy coverage to define. It means there are no safeties deep. This typically means a man-to-man scheme for the defense, with all the defensive backs up close to the line of scrimmage with a specific player responsibility. This alignment also can signal a blitz coming from the defense, as there are extra defenders compared to the number of receivers available for the offense (an offense has a maximum of five receivers available after five offensive linemen and one quarterback is taken out of the 11 total players an offense can have).
0 coverage is a strong run defense as all 11 defenders are close to the line of scrimmage. however, he can be attacked through the air, as there is no “overkill” help for a cornerback from deeper down the field. due to the “islanding” effect of a player defending a receiver, look for defensive backs to use an inside lever (aligned slightly inside the receiver they are covering) to try to push the receiver’s path to the sidelines, congesting the field, using the sideline as an additional defender, and keeping the receiver away from the open, deep midfield.
reading the indicators
To read this coverage, a quarterback must recognize the free safety moving toward the line of scrimmage. a defense will try to hide this for as long as possible, not wanting to alert you to the open deep middle or where the attack might come from.
You can probably already figure out what the difference between a Cover 0 and a Cover 1 is. The one indicates one safety (the free safety) deep, typically between 12 and 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The strong safety will move to about five yards off the line of scrimmage, aligned over the tight end. The cornerbacks will be in man coverage on their respective receivers, and typically will be playing press.
This coverage can also be called “no man” indicating that the defense is playing primarily man-to-man, but instead the free safety is close to the line of scrimmage to allow for an additional blitz player , he is back deep to provide coverage help. there are still plenty of ways to go after the quarterback, with one player available to attack (five covered receivers, plus free safety, allows all four defensive linemen plus one to rush the quarterback). the other option, and this is the one that makes reshad jones money, is to allow the strong safety to remain unassigned and not tagged as a carry option, but to allow him to go off to wherever he thinks he can have a better impact on the move; this type of role is usually referred to as a “thief”, which might lead an analyst to describe the defense as “cover thief 1”.
reading the indicators
To read this coverage, a quarterback will identify the free free safety, as well as at least one linebacker in man coverage and the strong safety toward the line of scrimmage. those inside defenders are likely to play an outside lineup in an effort to force their responsibilities into the middle of the field, where free safety can help. outside cornerbacks will continue to be islands, looking to use inside leverage to add the sideline like a defender. switching to a running play might be the right move here, with receivers immediately tying up their respective defenders, offensive linemen each selecting a defender (all four linemen plus one linebacker), and the running back being asked to foul a player (or move the play away from that defender) while the free safety is deep. this could also be where sending a man on the move from one side of the field to the other, or to the middle of the field and back, could help the quarterback diagnose what the strong safety is doing on the play.
cover 2 (man)
Again, the number gives away the basic read in this defensive scheme: two safeties, both deep. The safeties are probably about equal in depth, about 12 to 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The cornerbacks are probably still pressing their receivers, and are in man-assignments. (Cover 2 is like the transition zone between basically man coverage versus basically zone coverage, so we will talk Cover 2 (Zone) momentarily.)
Basically, this is the same as a coverage scheme 1, except now the two safeties split the field in half, providing support to both sides of the field. cornerbacks can be more aggressive with their receivers, whether it’s blocking them at the line of scrimmage or trying to jump a route, because they know they have safety help above all else.
cover 2 (man) can be attacked on the ground, especially if you have a running quarterback. receivers and tight end will get their defenders (cornerbacks and linebackers) away from the line of scrimmage. the two safeties are safeties and the four defensive linemen face the five offensive linemen. that leaves a linebacker to account for the running back and quarterback. If the running back goes down a receiving route, the quarterback can read the opening in the middle of the field and determine that he wants to run the ball and rack up yards that way.
The deep midfield is vulnerable in a Cover 2, where the two safeties are helping the cornerbacks on the flanks. this is where a seam-threatening tight end becomes a huge offensive weapon. As tight ends have become the mold of rob gronkowski, they have been able to take advantage of the middle of the field against coverage 2.
reading the indicators
both security devices are deep. cornerbacks and linebackers in man coverage will generally line up with outside influence, looking to force receivers into zones being patrolled by safeties (of course, if a receiver goes too deep, he can now find that hole in the midfield zone, so there is a risk for the defense and an opportunity for the offense if they have read the gauges correctly).
coverage 2 (zone)
Like the Cover 2 (Man), the Cover 2 (Zone) puts two safeties deep in zone coverage. Now, however, the rest of the defense is also switching to a zone scheme. The cornerbacks could be playing off the receivers, or they could press the receiver, jamming him at the line of scrimmage, then transitioning into a zone coverage in the flat. The linebackers each have a zone of coverage as well, with the outside linebackers covering behind the cornerbacks’ flat zones, and toward the middle of the field, while the middle linebacker has the middle of the field.
The run can be used again here, as linebackers move away from the line of scrimmage to make sure they’re covering their zones. short passes are more difficult to make against zones, because there are defenders moving towards the flat and sloped areas of the field. getting a receiver past cornerbacks before linebackers set up, or into holes in the zone between cornerback and safety is key. if a team has multiple deep threat options, this defense will struggle if it breaks through to overwhelm security zones.
reading the indicators
at first this will look like cover 2 (man), but there are small differences that can be spotted. cornerbacks may not be pressing. linebackers may not have the same outside influence they had on the man, but instead be closer to the middle of the field before they get into their zones. again, movement can help determine if coverage is man-to-man or one-time.
We are not going to spend much time on the Tampa 2, but it does deserve a mention here, because it gets so much discussion by analysts. Essentially, a Tampa 2 is a Cover 2 coverage, but takes the middle linebacker and adds a zone in between the safeties (probably not as deep, but deeper than the linebackers normally would play a zone) to try to defend the hole in the middle of the field.
We are purely zone now, but we are also in a defense that is designed to stop the deep passing game as well as prevent runs up the middle. Here, you are going to have the free safety deep, again about 12-15 yards, with the strong safety moving up toward the line of scrimmage, probably about 5 yards back with the linebackers. The cornerbacks are going to play off their receivers (for the most part).
The free safety and cornerbacks then divide the deep field into thirds, each responsible for their zone. linebackers then take over the lower reaches, along with strong safety, essentially quartering the field here, with each responsible for one section. The strong safety is also closer to the line of scrimmage to help against the run, again, a reshad jones specialty, and all linebackers will start the play near the middle of the field, again as a run-stopping measure.
short, quick shots from the offense are going to make money here. strong linebackers or safeties responsible for outside short zones will likely move into the zone from the middle of the field at the snap, while the cornerback will attempt to return to his deep zone. this might be the dreaded nickel-and-dime passing game that everyone loves to hate, but it will be effective against coverage 3 (most of the time).
Defenses can adjust coverage 3 to keep the cornerback in press coverage, allowing him to lock down the receiver before he returns to his deep zone coverage. this will prevent the quarterback from being able to complete the pass rush and give linebackers and strong safety a chance to get into their zones, but also risks the corner being hit in his zone by a quick receiver or someone that plays. through the jam. Defenses need strong, fast cornerbacks to be able to execute a “pressure coverage 3,” and they must have a free safety who can react quickly and instinctively to recover any slack left by the cornerback (think Seattle Seahawks here). p>
reading the indicators
safeties are lined up as if they were in a coverage 1 formation, but linebackers are inside the box, rather than being lined up against a specific receiver. cornerbacks are likely messing with their receivers, preparing to run back to their zones. fast, flat routes where the receiver can get the ball without much coverage in front of him and then go on a run after the catch is the best game design here.
Cover 4, or “quarters” defense, is designed to stop (or prevent – see what I did there?) deep passes. The two safeties and two cornerbacks split the deep portion of the field into quarters, with each responsible for one area.
The linebackers below then divide the field into thirds, each taking an area along midfield. flats will basically be abandoned by the defense, allowing for short passes and the possibility of a running attack, but it is hoped that deep defenders can quickly cover ground to get back to the line of scrimmage.
Linebackers could also be asked to bomb in a 4 coverage, although it becomes risky for the defense. typically, if the linebacker rushes in, a defensive end could fall into zone coverage.
reading the indicators
the defense will initially look like a cover 2, unless they actually go to a preemptive defense, in which they will likely start with all four defensive backs deep. in a conventional coverage 2, the two safeties will be deep, and the cornerbacks will likely play their receivers as well, ready to return to their respective zones. linebackers can start to spread out to better cover their zones before the snap.
If you have been following our scheme builds, you will be ahead of us at this point. Cover 6 is six zones deep – no, it’s not. Cover 6 is actually a combination of Cover 2 and Cover 4 (the six coming from two plus four). Half the field is in Cover 2 – typically the side of the field closest to the sideline (the “boundary” side of the field). The other half is in a Cover 4 scheme. The free safety covers the boundary side of the field in a Cover 2 system, while the strong safety and a cornerback split the other side of the field (the “field” side) in the Cover 4 style. (Of course, the safeties could have opposite responsibilities, but the free safety is typically the better coverage option, so he gets the Cover 2 side.)
The strengths and weaknesses of Deck 6 are the same strengths and weaknesses of the Deck 4 and Deck 2 systems, depending on where you look on the field.
reading the indicators
The two sides of the fenders will look different. the safety and cornerback on the coverage 4 side will be deep, while the coverage 2 side will have the deep safety while the cornerback is closer to the line of scrimmage.
Obviously, there’s a lot more to defense than just this, but it’s at least a start of what a quarterback is trying to see before the snap. defenses will also disguise their appearance, giving an initial impression before changing to something else. defenses can “roll” from an initial look (like a cover 2) to the actual scheme (like a cover 1) by lining up security in one spot, then moving it just before the snap or as soon as the ball snaps. there are also hybrids of the schemes, in addition to the nickel and dime packages that can change things. There are a lot of complexities in defenses, and this is just a small part of a quarterback reading what he sees before the snap, but it’s a starting point.