Football 101: Coverages

When you are watching a football game, I am sure you've heard the color analyst tell you that a defense is playing a "Cover 2", or they are in "Man-to-Man". Even if some of you know what these terms mean in great detail, you still might enjoy this quick tutorial. Even if it is just to brush up on the lingo. Here are four very typical defenses you might see the Huskies deploy on Saturdays.

COVER 2: Employed by a lot of 4-3 defenses on long passing downs

If you've ever heard the phrase "Cover 2 defense" and wondered what the heck people were talking about, read on. From casual fans on to even the most devoted football junkie, few can accurately describe just what the defense is doing when they are in a "Cover 2".

The term "Cover 2" comes from the defensive strategy of separating the deep area of the football field 15-yards off of the line of scrimmage into two zones. You draw a line about 15 yards down field from the line of scrimmage, and this essentially separates the field into a grouping of shallow zones and a deep zones.

It is called a "zone defense" because defenders to not defend players, per se, but rather are responsible for areas of the football field in front of them.

Bud Carson, a defensive coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers during their "Steel Curtain" era is the one that most give credit for being the originator of this scheme.

The area closest to the line of scrimmage (between zero and 15-yards from the line of scrimmage) is divided into five smaller zones across the field, and then the deeper ones (from 15-yards off the line of scrimmage to infinity) is split into two zones, right down the middle, for a total of seven zones.

Each of the two deeper zones is played by one of the safeties. The four defensive linemen rush the quarterback, and the three linebackers and two cornerbacks separate and defend the five smaller zones in front of the safeties.

Therefore, the Cover 2 is an entirely zone defense (no man-to-man coverage) that is deployed out a basic 4-3 personnel set (4 linemen, three linebackers).

A Cover 2 is considered a pretty conservative approach to defenses and is meant to keep everything in front of the defense and not allow big gains.

The main fault of the base Cover 2 is the middle of the field once you got beyond 10 or 15 yards from the line of scrimmage. The safeties often cannot reach that area of the field if they have someone already in the outer parts of their zones.

COVER 3: Employed out of a 4-3 defensive set on long passing downs

In recent years, defenses have made an adaptation to address this and have adjusted into what is known as a "Cover 3". Instead of having five zones in the shallow area, teams will now split this more into just four and cover those with two linebackers and the two cornerbacks. The deeper area is now split into three zones, with the safeties covering the outside zones and a middle linebacker now covers the deeper vulnerable area where the Cover 2 was deficient. It requires a speedy and athletic linebacker that is comfortable in coverage to achieve this, and is often done with a "nickel back" which is usually a hybrid linebacker/safety.

Tony Dungy is credited for creating the Cover 3. He learned the basic Cover 2 while playing defensive back for Bud Carson, and as a coach, Dungy tweaked it. Depending on how many receivers are out running routes on the play, cornerbacks in this set are usually prone to try to force the receiver toward the center of the field where more coverage awaits.

MAN-TO-MAN: Employed out of 3-4 or 4-3 defensive sets

Simply put, Man-to-man coverage is when a defensive back plays one-on-one coverage with a wide receiver. Defensive backs play man-to-man, or one-on-one, coverage for a number of reasons, including when the receiver is not top-tier talent, when the defensive back is top-tier, when the defense focuses on stopping the run or in blitz situations when it needs to apply pressure on the quarterback. This scheme differs from zone in that the defensive back follows the receiver throughout the receiver's route instead of dumping him off to another defensive back as the receiver leaves his zone.

Defensive backs will line up across the wide receiver that they are covering, typically giving the wide receiver 5 yards of space. This gives time to watch a short play develop and, more importantly, to prevent a big play. However, distance off the line of scrimmage can vary depending on the down and distance. If it's 3rd-and-1, you'll see more "press coverage" (no cushion) to prevent an easy slant or cross for a first down.

Defensive backs typically try to stay on the inside of the receiver's route. The inside of the field has more space for the wide receiver to catch and run, so taking away the inside route makes sense. If there is safety help, such as a cover 2, then you will see defensive backs play to the outside of the route.

From there, the defensive backs have three things they concentrate on. First, they watching the quarterback as the play begins, as that can tip off what the play will be. A three-step quarterback drop indicates a short pass, while a seven-step drop indicates an intermediate to deep ball.

Then they watch the hips of the receiver, which will give indication of where the route is going. They also watch the eyes of the receiver after they come out of a break or start to make a move. On the deep ball, receivers will turn their head usually, which gives the defensive back notice that the ball is on its way.

NICKEL: Employing five defensive backs to stop the pass

The nickel defense is a basic defensive formation that is designed to defend against a passing play. The typical nickel alignment will deploy four down lineman, two linebackers, and five defensive backs against the offense.

You have two defensive ends, one on each end of the defensive line, and two defensive tackles in between. Behind the defensive line are two linebackers, usually in the middle of the defense toward the middle of the field.

Then there are usually two cornerbacks and a "nickelback" lined up to cover the wide receivers when the offense is in a three-receiver set. There are also two safeties which can either play zones behind the man-to-man cornerback coverage or they can double up in covering a particular receiver(s). Usually when defensive backs double-cover someone they Will Do it with "bracket coverage", meaning one defensive back stays on one side of the receiver while the other remains on the other side, until the ball is thrown. That way, if the receiver either cuts to the inside or outside, he will have a defender covering either option.

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