ITP Glossary: Cover 3

Football is littered with specialized terminology. From sail concept to jab step (kicking), 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.

Related: Check out the primer on reading defensive coverages.

Cover 3


Cover 3 is a zone defense where three defensive backs ‒ typically two outside cornerbacks and a free safety ‒ divide the deep portion of the field into thirds, with four defenders (a combination of the strong safety, linebackers, and any nickel- or dime- backs) underneath. The safety in the box helps guard against the run, and the underneath zones protect against crossing routes that can stymie man coverage. Four underneath defenders provide options for blitzing, and 3-4 teams often pair their zone blitz concepts with Cover 3 on the back end. The outside corners effectively play man-to-man against vertical routes, so Cover 3 tends not to give up as many easy completions as most zone defenses.

Cover 3 Diagram

Cover 3’s soundness and versatility against the run and pass have made it popular of late, and the Seattle Seahawks rode a modified Cover 3 to the Super Bowl XLVIII Championship.

With three deep defenders, Cover 3 is stout against the deep pass, as the Houston Texans show here:


The Carolina Panthers come out in 13 personnel, a run-heavy look, and they execute a play-fake to convince Houston that they are running the football. This is a shot play, designed to get the ball to wideout Devin Funchess (#17) on the deep post. Cornerback Kareem Jackson (#25) gives Funchess a seven-yard cushion at the snap and stays on top of the deep route, and the underneath pass defenders also stay tight to their assignments. Newton ends up pulling the ball down and scrambling for a short gain.

Every zone defense can be vulnerable if offenses overload zones with multiple receivers or attack the seams between zones, and Cover 3 is no exception. One of the most popular ways to attack Cover 3 is with a “four verticals” concept, which is aptly named: the offense sends four receivers on deep vertical routes to flood the deep part of the field and stress the seams between the free safety and the cornerbacks.

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The Cincinnati Bengals ran a variation of the four verticals concept to hit a big touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens’ Cover 3. Marvin Jones (#82) and A.J. Green (#18) run straight streak routes, with Jones the outside trips receiver and Green the middle trips receiver. Tight end Tyler Kroft, the only receiver on the right side of the formation, also runs a vertical route, releasing to the outside and then upfield along the numbers. The slight twist is the post route from TE Tyler Eifert (#85), who begins the play on the left, but ends up crossing the formation.

Baltimore has their base 3-4 defense on the field and show Cover 4 before the snap, but roll their coverage to Cover 3 as the play begins. Against this coverage, the vertical routes from Green and Eifert bracket the safety, Will Hill (#33). With Eifert’€™s post route crossing in front of him, Hill needs to split the difference between both targets, while reading Andy Dalton’€™s eyes and breaking on the football. If Hill breaks too early, in the wrong direction, or fails to maintain the balance between the two routes,’ Dalton can exploit his mistake.

Safety Kendrick Lewis (#23) begins this play across from Green, gaining depth as the WR releases vertically. Lewis expects to have some help from Hill, but Hill is still in the middle of the field as Dalton releases the football -€’ because he needs to respect the threat of Eifert’€™s vertical pattern. Dalton places this throw perfectly and Green breaks two tackles and cruises to the end zone.

For more, you can find the primer on identifying pass defensese here.

Click here for more Glossary entries. Follow us @ITPylon.

Mark Schofield  & Dave Archibald wrote this entry. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield. Follow Dave on Twitter @davearchie.

All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.

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