ITP Glossary: Cover 4

Football is littered with specialized terminology. From set the edge to reserve / future contract, 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 4

Cover 4 or “quarters” is a coverage shell with four deep defenders. The cornerbacks cover the outside deep zones, while the safeties handle the deep zones in the middle. As in Cover 3, the corners often have help inside – from linebackers for short routes and safeties deep – but the corners effectively play a lot of man concepts. With four deep men, Cover 4 is strong against vertical attacks, but that leaves only seven defenders to counter runs and short passes.

The Carolina Panthers utilize a variety of zone defenses, including Cover 4:

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In this example the Jacksonville Jaguars send three receivers out in deep patterns against Carolina’s Cover 4, with the tight end and running back running shorter routes. Quarterback Blake Bortles (#5) looks to the go route along the right sideline but finds the pattern well-covered. He attempts to work his progressions, but the pass rush hauls him down for a sack before he can find an open receiver. This solid pass coverage, particularly against deep patterns, is typical for Cover 4.

Safety First

Safeties have multiple responsibilities in Cover 4 – they must defend vertical routes from slot receivers, help the outside corners on deep in-breaking routes, and provide run support. They do not have to range as far as in many other defenses, but the mental demands are considerable. A safety with good recognition and instincts has the opportunity to make plays in a Cover 4 scheme.

Here, the Arizona Cardinals defense is in a 3-3-5 package showing Cover 4. The San Francisco 49ers try play action on this play, with quarterback Colin Kaepernick (#7) taking the snap, opening to his left and faking an inside zone run to Carlos Hyde (#28), before pulling the ball out and working through his progressions.

Kaepernick checks Vernon Davis (#85) on the out-and-up, finding him covered. The QB then works to the slot side of the field and spots Anquan Boldin (#81) on the out route. But as he locates his WR – and well before he makes the throw – safety Tyrann Mathieu (#32) is already breaking on Boldin. To make matters worse, the QB double-clutches this throw, before finally releasing a pass while falling away from the target because of pressure in his face:

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Mathieu intercepts the pass and races to the end zone for the easy score. A safety with good understanding of the offense’s passing concepts can attack routes and make plays as Mathieu does here. The young safety’s great recognition let him break on this route well before Kaepernick has even finished reading the out-and-up route from his tight end.

Pick Your Poison

The safety’s many responsibilities in Cover 4 give him the opportunity to impact a game, but offenses will target and attack the safeties at times, making him choose between responsibilities. The Mills concept, where an offense lures the safety away with a deep dig from the slot and then attacks the vacated zone with a post from the outside receiver, is one such approach. Below, the Indianapolis Colts run Mills against the Kansas City Chiefs, who are in a two-high Cover 4 look. Speedy wideout T.Y. Hilton (#13) is in the slot running the dig:

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As the play progresses, the safety drives downhill, man-keying Hilton with his eyes the entire time. Note that multiple defenders key in on the dig route and have it completely blanketed. This leaves the cornerback alone on the post route, and the middle of the field open for the outside WR.

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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