The Cover 3 defense has been a staple of some of the best defenses in recent memory. It’s a basic coverage that relies on 3 players eliminating the deep thirds of the field, while the remaining 4 players focus on underneath coverage (assuming 4 defenders are rushing). There are many variations to Cover 3, but typically the two cornerbacks eliminate the outside deep thirds of the field, while the free safety protects the deep middle of the field between the hashes. The strong safety drops into underneath coverage and can act as a contain/force defender against the run, a flat-pass coverage defender, or as a middle hook defender inside the numbers, essentially acting as a robber.
Depending on what personnel is employed by the defense would determine who has the underneath responsibilities, but let’s say the defense is in nickel personnel (5 defensive backs). The linebackers would take the hook zones, while the strong safety and nickel corner’s responsibilities lie in the curl/flat areas of the field. Here is a simple design of the Cover 3 defense:
This isn’t necessarily new for any fan that plays Madden. It is a strong pass coverage defense that can drop a safety down into the box for run support but still prevent deep passing plays. The essence of the coverage is to force underneath throws that can quickly be confronted by defenders planting and driving downhill on receivers who are attempting to secure a catch. This is contingent on the underneath defenders gaining the proper depth and finding their landmarks while reading the quarterback and keeping the play in front of them.
If all of this is achieved, is the defense unassailable? Of course not; the Cover 3 defense has some critical vulnerabilities that can be exploited through a variety of route concepts, patience, creative play calling, and touch passes. Let’s take a quick gander at some of the common areas to attack a Cover 3 defense:
The seams and the flats are generally the areas of weakness for the Cover 3 defense. The National Football League plays on a field that is 53 ⅓ yards wide and the Cover 3 defense entrusts 4 underneath defenders to cover that width and most of the times at least 2 of the defenders are linebackers, who lack the athletic ability of most offensive pass catching options. This is why short, rhythmic offenses are lethal against this defensive structure.
Cover 3 struggles to cover quick passing game elements; if you’re an offense that is working the sideline with speed outs and curls to the flats, which would really stress the ability of the curl-flat defender to be effective, then what will happen to the 4 underneath defenders, if they’re still in Cover 3? They will naturally widen to compensate and combat the offense’s game plan, which then leads to more space in the middle of the field. That space that can then be exploited by a dig route or a seam route. Let’s take a look at the 2017 AFC Championship game, where the Jaguars nearly pulled off an upset in Foxboro:
The Pats see a Cover 1 look and send a wide receiver from the field to the boundary, which prompts the Jaguars to roll their boundary safety deep and drop their previous deep safety into the box. The motion brings the corner to the boundary where there are two receivers. After the snap, the play action brings the linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage. The #2 receiver to the boundary executes a streak, which holds the center ⅓ safety for just long enough, while the #1 to the boundary does a quick in route. The streak juxtaposed with the play action and Chris Hogan’s out and up, which widens the field CB’s coverage just enough, creates a perfect little space for Tom Brady to use touch and find Rob Gronkowski up the seam for a big play.
You can see how the free safety has to show respect to the #2 receiver to the boundary and the field CB has to widen out on Chris Hogan, which inevitably leaves the void in the seam behind the linebackers.
We can take a look at a similar play where the seam is exposed; let’s take a trip up to Centurylink field, where Deshaun Watson showcased his talents. With the playbook wide open on a 2nd and 10, lined up in a 2×2 set on their own 42 yard line, Watson motions tight end Ryan Griffin tight in an H-Back look, which helps sell the play action. The Texans go into full protection mode and have three receivers out on the route, running a variation of the Yankee Concept, a concept they’re quite fond of in Houston: The #1 runs a 10 yard dig, while the #2 runs a crossing route and gains excellent depth behind the linebackers that bite hard on the play action. The lone receiver to the field is the speedy Will Fuller, who is looking to take the top off of the defense, which he is able to do because of Earl Thomas’ slight hesitation.
Fuller lines up about 5 yards off the seam and explodes from the line of scrimmage on a tight post, perfectly splitting Shaquill Griffin and Earl Thomas. The All-Pro safety sees the void behind the linebackers and has to pay attention to the #2 receiver and by the time he opens his hips and realizes that Fuller is streaking up the seam, it’s entirely too late.
Pay attention to the red rectangle in this Cover 3 defense; the play action forced those linebackers to scurry to their landmarks, which affected the next level of the defense, which led to six for the offense. Defense is all about continuity and the play action is another way to hinder the ability of the curl/flat defenders to get outside. Here’s the entirety of the play:
The play above is not the only time the Texans had a big gain by using play action versus Seattle. Watson and the offense dialed up a tight unique look from the shotgun, which had a RB to the field, about 1 yard behind the QB, and a FB to the boundary, about 1 yard in front of the QB. Watson then motioned the #2 receiver around the RB and hiked the ball, where he executed a play action and a misdirection toss to the motioning receiver. This prompted the linebackers to react, but it was a farce and ended up being a two man Yankee route concept by Houston. Fuller executed a streak angled inward at Earl Thomas, which created a one on one matchup for DeAndre Hopkins on the same type of route concept that they scored the touchdown on earlier. Hopkins ran a crossing route and became matched up with a LB well off his spot and none of the underneath defenders to the boundary had the proper depth. The linebacker was forced to try and cover Hopkins, which is never ideal for a defense. This resulted in a huge void in the flat and Hopkins easily creating separation against the struggling LB.
The second clip shows the Giants executing a very similar play structure against the 49ers Cover 3 defense. The Giants motion the field receiver in tight, which enhances the Yankee concept; that receiver then clears out the middle safety and the CB to the field, which allows the crossing route to have ample space behind the linebackers who were slow to get to their landmarks due to the play action. These are just a few examples of how the Yankee concept can take advantage of a Cover 3 defense, especially if the offense has a strong running game, which the Giants did not, and fast receivers.
Going up the seam and the Yankee concept aren’t the only ways to attack the Cover 3 defense off play action. Let’s take a look at two plays where a checkdown route proves to be advantageous for the offense by putting the curl/flat defender into conflict. First, here’s some crappy play art by me:
Defensive coordinator Robert Salah calls a simple Cover 3, with the LEO showing blitz and dropping into the curl/flat to the field. The Giants are in 12 personnel and execute a simple post route by the #1, with a 10 yard out by the field TE. This puts the curl/flat defender towards the boundary in conflict because he is forced to carry the TE through his break, which creates a high/low read for Eli Manning; the running back releases off the play action directly to the flats:
This leads to an easy first down because there is no defender in the flats because his zone was flooded with routes. You can see this executed below, along with another play that we will break down:
Due to this play structure against a Cover 3 defense, there’s not a defender within 12 yards of the running back at the catch point. We see a similar look in the 2nd clip, where the underneath curl/flat defender is put into conflict and has to choose between the deeper, more threatening, route or the underneath route in this high/low situation.
Minnesota lines up with two wide receivers on opposite ends in between the numbers, an H-Back, tight end, and a running back, with Case Keenum under center running play action. Stefon Diggs runs a streak to the boundary, splitting the middle safety and the boundary CB, while Adam Thielen slightly angles his 14 yard hitch inside to gage the attention of curl/flat defender Vic Beasley.
What Beasley failed to anticipate here is the lockdown coverage Robert Alford had on Thielen. Beasley turns his hips completely away from the flat, in order to provide underneath coverage on Thielen, but this just leaves running back Jerick McKinnon all alone in the flat for an easy first down. This is excellent understanding of personnel by offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur; the strength of Beasley’s game is rushing the passer, that is why he led the league in sacks during the 2016 campaign. Pat Shurmur is aware that the curl/flat defender in a Cover 3 defense may struggle to get out to his landmark, especially to the field off of a play action pass. Then you throw the player, who is not known for his coverage ability, into conflict with a tough choice and that’s how you move the chains.
The Cover 3 demands these curl/flat defenders get outside quickly and it invites athletic and processing errors, especially when these lateral read route concepts are effectively utilized. Whichever player Beasley didn’t cover in the lateral read would have been the recipient of the pass and this makes football very difficult for players who are tasked in zone coverage to handle two on one isolation plays.
I mentioned earlier about how pernicious the quick game can be against the Cover 3 defense, especially when the sidelines are being stressed. This is even harder to contain when a defense has to deal with fluid athletes like Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill. In this next clip, you’ll see Alex Smith lined up in shotgun, with Kareem Hunt adjacent on the boundary side.
Smith motions Kelce to make it a 2×2 set and confirm his pre-snap assumption that the Chargers are running Cover 3. The outside receivers are both outside the numbers, while the inside receivers, one being Kelce, are 5 yards off the hash. Chargers corner Craig Mager has to show respect to Hill’s speed, so he backs off right before the snap and the sheer presence of Travis Kelce forces Jahleel Addae (curl/flat defender) to stay near the numbers just long enough for Alex Smith to hit his back foot and fire a dart to the sidelines on an out route to Tyreek Hill.
Both the field slot and the running back run to the flats of the opposite field, creating a cross, while the field outside receiver runs the same route as Tyreek Hill. This is an excellent example on how to utilize the quick game against Cover 3.
Four streaks are another excellent way to create an advantageous situation for the offense; the deep ⅓ cornerbacks will be occupied by the outside receivers, which creates a 2 on 1 isolation of the free safety. The Rams utilized this concept against the Falcons Cover 3 defense in the playoffs this past season; the 2 on 1 isolation forces the curl/flat defender to carry the inside streak up the seam far enough to leave a void in the flats. This is further helped by the inside streaks slight outside release:
Robert Woods easily finds the sticks due to the vacant area of the flats. Once Jared Goff sees the presumed curl/flat defender carry the TE’s streak, he releases a pass to the sidelines, where the outside receivers are running comebacks at the first down marker. Comebacks are incredibly effective when the corners are providing an ample amount of cushion in the Cover 3.
There isn’t a defender within seven yards of Woods, who makes an easy first down catch at the sticks. The deep nature of these four routes pushes the defense back and provides an easy checkdown to the running back, as you can see above. The running back has seven yards of cushion and the Cover 3 defense invites underneath routes, as I previously stated, but that’s only effective with sound execution by the defense. This is not always the case and you’ll see that in the next video. On plays that are 2nd or 3rd and long, a play like the one below makes sense versus Cover 3:
You can see the void illustrated by the red circle in the video. The Rams stretch the field vertically and the defense keeps everything in front of them, but Jared Goff has three short routes that all have at least 7 yards of separation from any Falcon defender at his disposal. Since it is only second down, any type of yardage would be welcomed by the Rams.
Cover 3 defenses are expected to keep these underneath defenders on top of these short routes, so they can disrupt the ball at the catch point or prevent the ball carrier from earning any additional yards. But when the underneath defender fails to execute a tackle and misses, then the Cover 3 becomes compromised. Tyler Higbee isn’t exactly the most fleet of foot athlete on the field, yet he was able to break away from a tackle attempt by Keanu Neal and pick up what would have been very close to a first down, if Robert Woods wasn’t flagged for the block.
Now that you’ve seen several videos of a Cover 3 defense at work, we must take a look at a tricky aspect of the Cover 3 defense; good defenses’ do an excellent job disguising their looks by either switching their alignments, rolling their safeties, selling the blitz, or by executing any other sort of unconventional coverage. The tricky part of a Cover 3 defense is that it can look very similar to a Cover 1 defense pre-snap.
You can see the similarities between the looks: one deep safety, corners isolated on outside threats, three linebackers and a player showing blitz; can he be the 4th underneath defender? Offenses that are not sure use motion to see if the defender follows the player, but here it’s a bit more obvious if you look at the play and notice the offensive personnel. The Vikings are in a pistol formation out of 21 personnel with the FB to the boundary, which is the weak-side. This keeps those linebackers in the box and aware, while the outside corners are three yards off the wide receiver, in more of a press look, which isn’t traditional with the Cover 3 defense that is usually played in off man coverage. Teams like Seattle, during the Legion of Boom’s hay day, would run their Cover 3 defenses out of press at times because their corners ability to disrupt at the line of scrimmage and flip their hips to get back, but traditionally the corners being that close to the line of scrimmage indicates that it is Cover 1 not Cover 3, which you can see in the end zone view.
Once CJ Ham and Latavius Murray enter their route, they’re met by Falcon’s linebackers, who follow the players throughout their route. Although the coverages look similar, they are two totally different coverages. Cover 1 is also one high safety look, but the safety roams the “centerfield” while every other defender plays man coverage. Defenses may bring additional rushers, like the Falcons did on the play above, to expedite the pressure on the quarterback. It is on the defenders to play with the correct leverage and be athletic enough to eliminate their assignment.
Attacking the seams, flats off play action, the Yankee Concept, and four verticals are just some of the more popular ways to attack a Cover 3 defense. Creating the 2 on 1 or 3 on 2 isolations, along with high/low reads, while putting players in conflict is a very popular way to manipulate any type of zone coverage. If you want additional information on how to attack certain coverages, I highly recommend Steve Axman’s book Attacking Coverages with the Passing Game and if the different types of Cover 3 defenses intrigue you, go check out Matt Bowen’s article (formerly of Bleacher Report) Introducing the Basics of Cover 3. These are valuable assets I’ve used as I continue to study the game that I love. Football is an art, a science, a wonderful game of chess and the knowledge is endless.