Zone Coverage Schemes

Includes
Cover 0, Cover 1, Cover 2, Cover 3, Cover 4

Please note that these diagrams and descriptions are truly over-simplifications, but they provide a basis of how different assignments and zones work.  In the end, the plays will vary significantly and the personnel used will move around in order to confuse the offense.  Defenses attempt to make their defensive plan unrecognizable to the quarterback so he doesn’t know what to expect, is more vulnerable to attack and less able to execute the plan.

Before you read this read  MAN-TO-MAN VS ZONE COVERAGE


Cover 0:  This is actually Man-to-Man defense, where each Defensive Back covers a different Receiver.  It is an aggressive scheme and is used in blitz packages because it is easier for players to drop their Coverage (since they are only leaving one player rather than an entire area) and rush the Quarterback.  The disadvantage to this scheme is that there is no help to a defender to make up the Coverage should the defender be weak or get beaten by his opponent.

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Cover 1:  This is Man-to-Man Coverage for all but one player (usually a Safety) who plays deep.  He will guard the middle and assist in the play as it unfolds.  This allows a team to put eight men in the Box (LINK TO DEFINITION) to focus on preventing the run.  As a result, the remaining players who will be defending against the pass must each be individually fast enough and strong enough to beat their opponents to the ball and prevent them from catching it.   Like the Cover 0, this is a very aggressive defense in which teams can blitz in a variety of ways.

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Cover 2:  In this scheme, there are two players in deep coverage.  These are the two safeties (Free Safety and Strong Safety) and they split the deep part of the field in half.  Because they are deep in coverage, their prime responsibility is to defend the pass as they are far back and therefore not in a position to defend the run (unless a runner breaks into their zone).  The Cornerbacks move up closer to the Line Of Scrimmage and their goal is to cover the areas on the field that are along the edges from the front to the middle (Curl and Flat) and to act as Force Defenders on any outside runs.  The Force Defender forces the player carrying the ball to move from the edge of the field to the inside, where there are more defensive players to tackle him. The Linebackers cover the middle area, with the Middle/Inside Linebacker extending to the deep middle of the field.  The Defensive Linemen rush the Quarterback and are in Man-to-Man coverage. Here is a diagram out of the base 4-3 Defensive formation.

Deep ½ (FS) Deep ½ (SS)
Curl(CB) Hook(LB) Middle(LB) Hook(LB) Curl(CB)
Flat No Cover Zone (man-to-man)(DE)       (DT)       (DT)       (DE) Flat
——line of scrimmage—–

The Cover 2 provides great versatility to the defense as the Cornerbacks can defend against the run, short pass and deep pass with the confidence that they have support from two deep safeties.  The main disadvantage of the Cover 2 occurs in the middle of the field between the Safeties.  In addition, this leaves just seven men in the Box to defend against the run (all four Defensive Backs are occupied either deep or on the edges of the field). Therefore, in Cover 2 the Cornerbacks have increased run stopping responsibilities and generally defend against shorter passes. Although if two receivers run a deep route on a certain side of the field, that side’s Cornerback has deep coverage responsibility as well. Cover 2 also relies heavily on the Middle (MLB or Mike) Linebacker’s ability to quickly drop deep downfield into pass coverage when he reads pass plays.  The front Defensive Linemen will have to take responsibility for putting pressure on the quarterback as the others are all involved in pass coverage to some extent.  If the Defensive Linemen are not able to accomplish this, the offense will have more time to create offensive opportunities. Blitzing in the Cover 2 often creates greater areas of weakness in the defense than other coverage, especially if unsuccessful.

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Cover 3:  There are three players in deep coverage.  These are the two cornerbacks and the Free Safety and they divide the deep part of the field into thirds.  An easy way to remember what personnel are used in the Cover 3 versus the Cover 2 is to remember that the only player involved in both schemes is the Free Safety.  He will be joined by either the other safety (for a total of 2) or the cornerbacks (for a total of 3) in deep coverage.  In the Cover 3 the Strong Safety moves up and typically covers the outside, middle area, functioning much like a linebacker.   This coverage focuses on preventing big pass plays and stopping the run, while giving up short passes. One of the biggest benefits of the Cover 3 scheme is the ability to walk the strong safety up into the Box with minimal to no changes in the coverage due to his position. The disadvantage is that Cover 3 schemes are susceptible to short, timed passes to the outside, middle of the field due to the deep positioning of both Cornerbacks. This puts pressure on the Outside Linebackers to react to pass plays and drop back quickly if they need to cover a receiver.  Another disadvantage of Cover 3 scheme is it is relatively easy to diagnose by opposing quarterbacks. Because of this, teams will often employ slight wrinkles in their coverage to confuse offenses. An example of this includes employing man coverage on one side and zone on another or swapping coverage zones amongst defenders.

Deep 1/3(CB) Deep 1/3 (FS) Deep 1/3(CB)
Curl(LB) Hook/Curl(LB) Hook/Curl(LB) Curl(SS)
Flat No Cover Zone (man-to-man)(DE)       (DT)       (DT)       (DE) Flat
——line of scrimmage—–

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Cover 4:  This refers to having four deep defenders, each guarding one-fourth of the deep zone. The most basic Cover 4 scheme involves two cornerbacks and two safeties. The main advantage of a Cover 4 defense is that it is more difficult for quarterbacks to complete long passes against it. Therefore, this coverage is generally used as a Prevent Defense to be utilized near the end of a game or half.  Prevent Defense means that the defense sacrifices the run and short pass to avoid giving up the big play with the confidence that the clock will soon expire.  However, the quarterback is often able to make short and medium length passes and move the ball down the field.  Legendary NFL Coach and Commentator John Madden once said that the only thing the Prevent Defense does is prevent you from winning.

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