“Cover three can solve a lot of headaches.”
With the advent of the spread offense, defense has had to adjust to keep up. Resulting in changes and adaptations in coverages and defensive fronts and movements. All this has led to the prevalence of “Palms” and “Match Quarters” coverages. There is no denying that match coverages have made a huge impact on the defensive football world. I believe it should be in every DC’s arsenal. However, people tend to forget about a tried and true coverage that is both simple to teach, and simple to execute. It relies more on discipline than athletic prowess (yes it helps of course). This coverage is Cover 3. For this article we will focus on base cover 3 and its use against spread offenses. In a future article we will go over “Match 3”. For now, lets look at some reasons to use cover 3 as your base coverage.
- Simple – Cover 3 makes alignment extremely simple since you typically have 1 high safety. It’s a balanced defense for the most part. The rules are extremely simple, especially for the DB’s
- High School Players on Offense – the philosophy for running cover 3 can be reinforced by the players on the opposite side of the ball. Most OC’s will smirk and say, “I’ll just run 4 verts!” when they hear about cover 3. They forget that very few high school QBs can consistently hit the seams, or that few high school teams understand the spacing. Or that the QB will typically have to throw under pressure due to numbers in the box…
- Numbers – being in cover 3 allows you to put more bodies in the box and force the offense to throw the ball. Most good teams still prioritize running the football, so let’s stop what they want to do!
- Impatient OC’s – I’ve only come across one OC that will throw the hitch and stick with it. Eventually they ALL go deep or try to run a double move… that’s when you get your sack, or your pick because they threw under pressure. Stay the course and be more patient than the OC.
Let’s look at some base alignments vs typical spread sets before we get into the rules for cover 3:
Spread tends to be the easiest offense to line up on in most situations. 2×2 is by far the easiest to deal with as far as alignment is concerned. Your Corners and Free Safety will be 8-10 yards deep and the corners will have inside leverage. Remember, the most difficult balls to throw are high and outside. Inside leverage is just enough to encourage the WR to stay outside on a deep ball while still playing in “confined” space. The FS will align directly over the ball when in the middle of the field and over the B gap when on the hashes.
Your OLBS/SS will align head up to an inside shade on the slots. You can play with their depth; I typically like them about 3-4 yards off. Most slots are off the ball anyways and can’t be jammed.
For 3×1 sets you have a couple options based on being in 2 high or 1 high. For now, lets focus on being in 1 high. Your Corners and FS will align the same way. Your SS and OLB will stay on their respective sides. The SS/OLB to the 3wr side will align apexed between 2 and 3 but will back up to 6-8 yards deep. (will cover rules later). If you got a corner that can lock up in man coverage, feel free to bring the other OLB/SS over to the 3wr side, but you will have to slide backer’s vs motion if you do this…
Against 20p I like to keep 7 in the box. The alignments for the FS/Corners will not change. The SS/OLB alignments depends on the following. To the 2wr side, he uses his 2×2 rules. The OLB/SS to the 1wr side will align 6 yards deep over the center in the middle of the field or to the field side when on the hashes. if your using an odd front. If you’re in an even front, have him follow the H around to take away the powerO.
You can treat it like 2×2 on one side and 3×1 on the other… or you can take a guy out of the box. If the QB can tote it…. do the first thing I said.
Corners – DON’T GET BEAT DEEP! That’s the number one rule. Nothing gets behind the corner. He is responsible for the deep third of the field. They play deep and rally to the ball once it is thrown. They don’t leave the deep third till the ball is in the air. If number 1 runs a hitch, then his eyes go to QB as he continues to sink to take away the corner/out by number 2.
Free Safety – Deep third and back pedal on the snap. Eyes will be on the QB and can drift with the QBs eyes. We are looking for and deep route across the middle. Break on the ball once it is in the air. It helps if the FS is an instinctive guy with some ability to run.
OLB/SS – against 2×2 they will have eyes on the OT to read run or pass. If pass is read, they will collision anything vertical or inside and then drop to curl. The collision is important to reroute the WR and screw up the spacing. If 2 goes out they will widen and drop to curl. If number 1 tries to cross face or run a slant, the OLB should clean his clock. This area of the field where OLBs and slots play are the most under officiated parts of the field… do be afraid to get physical. After a collision if a back crosses their face while dropping, they will widen. Break on ball once it is thrown
Against 3×1, they will align back at 6-8 yards. On the snap they will drop with number 2. They will jump any flat route/hitch. If you’re in an even front… hithes by number 3 can be an issue. Motion back to 2×2 he goes back to 2×2 rules. Motion to 3×1, he backs up. If you are facing a team that effectively and correctly runs RPO’s, you will need to get into some man or some Match 3. I will have an article on Match 3 in the future.
Deep Outs/Comebacks by #1 – these are tough routes. They force the corner to bail then the receiver is breaking outside. It’s the toughest route to cover in football. However, it is also the toughest route to complete. If you have an offense that can consistently complete this ball, the coverage really doesn’t matter… it can be a long night if you don’t start bringing pressure or have a corner that can lock down the WR in man.
Post Wheel Combo – this route effectively mitigates spacing issues with 4 verts. Undisciplined corners tend to chase the post route leaving the wheel open. Make sure the corner stays in his third and the FS reads the QBs eyes. Both post routes are coming to him anyways. Fortunately, this combination tends to take a while to run, allowing pressure to get there. “A good pass rush is better than 4 Champ Baileys”.
Smash – This is an issue because the corner rout by 2 keeps your corner deep. Forcing the OLB/SS to take the hitch. Train your OLB to read the eyes and widen so he can make a play on this. Quite often a schooled up OLB/SS can break this up or get a pick. If drops straight back, the hitch can be an issue, fortunately, most OCs wont sit there and throw the hitch over and over as we discussed earlier.
Obviously, there are a lot of nuances and little things you can do with alignments and techniques. This is meant just to be guide on the simplicity of cover 3 and to show that it is still a very viable defense to use against spread offenses! I happened to be lucky enough to be a part of staff that won 3 straight state titles, in those three years we got out of cover 3 only a handful times per season! So, it is effective when you understand its components and limitations. Subscribe to the email list to be updated whenever a new article posts! You can follow me here on twitter at @TheCoachVogt and be sure to check out the STORE for the Ebooks: Installing the Wide Zone and The Speed-T Offense.