ITP Glossary: Coverage Lanes

Football is littered with specialized terminology. From punt gunner to scramble drill, commentators rarely get to explain everything you need to know before the next play. Inside The Pylon’s glossary was developed to give fans a deeper understanding of the game through clear explanations, as well as image and video examples. Please contact us with any terms or phrases you’d like to know more about.

Coverage Lanes

Coverage lanes are vertical sections of the field that members of the kickoff unit are assigned to fill once the ball is kicked. Proper use of coverage lanes requires minimal overlap between members of the kickoff unit, as well as moving downfield as a unit. Spacing and working in concert are essential  to minimize vertical or horizontal gaps that opportunistic returners seek on kickoffs. When maintaining  coverage lanes it is critical to return to the coverage lane as quickly as possible if forced out.


The kickoff unit establishes coverage lanes to minimize the available gaps for returners to exploit. Most NFL and college football kickoff coverage units employ a standard 5×5 formation on kickoffs. Here the Cleveland Browns show a standard pre-kick look against the Tennessee Titans:BrownsKickoff1

As indicated by the orange arrows, each member of the Cleveland kickoff coverage unit has a defined lane to fill. While this diagram does not show safety coverage because of variation between teams, most teams use either L5 or R5 to provide a last line of defense – along with the kicker – in the middle of the field.

As the Browns advance after the kick, they have generally stayed in their designated lanes:BrownsKickoff2

One error appears toward the right of the frame, where the R2 and R3 are tightly bunched, with a gap appearing to their left. However, in this case, it does not cause problems as the kick sails into the end zone for a touchback.

Some teams will show a different look, clustering the coverage unit prior to kicking. This is an attempt to disguise coverage lanes to the return team. Kickoff return units typically target specific players to block, so clustering coverage units can help to confuse the opposing unit. Here, the San Francisco 49ers line up in a bunched formation pre-kick:


However, as the kicker approaches the ball, the coverage unit fans out into the familiar coverage lanes shown previously:


Maintaining proper coverage lanes is critical to success in kickoff coverage, as even small gaps can be exploited by returns for big gains or touchdowns.

Chuck Zodda contributed to this entry.

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Inside The Pylon covers the NFL and college football, reviewing the film, breaking down matchups, and looking at the issues, on and off the field.

All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.

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