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Summer School: Cover 4 and Cover 6 -- Now things start to get interesting

Find out the nuts and bolts of two of the NFL's more intricate coverage schemes.

Thus far in our discussion of the defensive secondary, we've kept things fairly up-front. The coverage shells we've talked about so far, Cover 0, Cover 1, Cover 2, and Cover 3, are all basically "What you see is what you get," with only the Tampa 2 really offering deceptiveness.

That isn't the case today. Today we look at a pair of coverage schemes that can flip from passive to aggressive in the blink of an eye, without giving anything away before the snap.

Cover 4

By now you should be able to guess the general idea of what a Cover 4 shell looks like. Both safeties are deep, and the corners join them in covering the deep part of the field. Cover 4 has specifically come up several times in regards to Steve Spagnuolo. Foremost, Cover 4 was used fairly often by the late Jim Johnson, from whom Spags learned his aggressive, blitzing, style of defense in Philadelphia.

More recently, before returning to the Giants, Spags spent some time at OSU, learning from Urban Meyer how to deal with some of the newer college concepts that are seeping into the NFL.The folks over at Land Grant Holy Land pointed to Cover 4 as a schematic way of dealing with spread - option offenses for the Ohio State Buckeye's defense.

Second, Janoris Jenkins specifically mentioned Cover 4 in relation to the Giants' defense.

Looking at the basic Cover 4 defense, it's easy to assume that it's a passive defense, a "Prevent" defense that trades yards for time or opportunities to take the ball away.

However, perception and reality aren't always the same thing, especially when it comes to defensive schemes.

In practice, there are three basic forms the Cover 4 can take.

  • Quarters: The basic zone coverage Cover 4. Fairly obviously, the corners and safeties divide the deep part of the field into four quarters. The underneath coverage is divvied up by the linebackers. The coverage is played as standard zone coverage, with defenders covering players as they enter their zones, and passing them off as they leave. Quarters effectively takes away the deep part of the field and safeties can be aggressive in run support, but the linebackers underneath are vulnerable to quick short routes and play-action.
  • MOD: "Man Only Deep." This concept reintroduces man coverage back into the coverage scheme with some added responsibilities for the players. The secondary secondary players are each responsible for a wide receiver and reading his route. If that receiver runs a shallow route -- something like a slant or flat route -- then the defender will stay in zone coverage. However, if the receiver runs a deep route -- such as a post, corner, or fade route -- he will stay on him in man coverage. Putting man coverage back into the mix, without necessarily letting the offense know it's there, makes for tighter coverage and deception from the defense. However, underneath routes are still a vulnerability, and certain route concepts and combinations, such as rub routes or double moves, can create issues for the defense.
  • MEG: "Man Everywhere He Goes." The cornerbacks appear to be in zone coverage but are manned up on the wide receivers, and will stay with their man regardless of the route he runs. The safeties read the inside receivers, -- usually slot receivers or tight ends -- and play man coverage if their receivers run vertical routes, or double the wide receivers if they run deep routes. By taking some coverage responsibilities away from the linebackers, MEG coverage tightens up the coverage even more while allowing the defense to take away an offense's best receivers. However, like with Cover 1 or Cover 0, it could potentially see a cornerback on an island if the offense recognizes the coverage. But with corners like Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Janoris Jenkins, Spags probably won't be hesitant to risk it.
By adding the "MOD" and "MEG" wrinkles to basic quarters coverage, Cover 4 can match an offense's aggression. A Cover - 4 defense can frustrate an aggressive offense with a softer "Quarters" look, or they can ratchet up the pressure and play similarly to a Cover 1 or 0 look with "MEG" coverage.

The Cover 4 can even emulate a Cover 3 look by having a safety  play a "Robber" technique. While typical deep safety coverage has them go "deeper than the deepest" to stay on top of deep routes, "Robber" technique has the safety jump down underneath deep routes. While it takes away from the defense's ability to cover deep routes, it puts the defender in position to jump curl or comeback routes, a place a defender isn't "supposed" to be. Adding "Robber" technique to Cover - 4 also brings a safety back down into the tackle box, improving the defense's ability to stop the run and underneath routes.

So while Cover 4 might look like a soft, passive, prevent defense, adding a couple wrinkles and reads make it very versatile, as aggressive as it needs to be, and deceptive for offenses. It's a defense that at demands discipline, awareness, intelligence, and communication to get the most out of it. That being said, the Giants have made an effort to bring in high IQ players to fit in Spagnuolo's already communication-heavy, and aggressive, defensive scheme.

Cover 6

If there's one thing that has been a consistent factor throughout the development of the modern NFL defense, it's that part of the arms race between the offense and defense is the evolution of new wrinkles and disguises. While every defense wants to be able to run out their base personnel and simply beat the team across from them, it's rarely that simple.

So, defensive minds throughout league history have adapted to rules changes, personnel changes, and the developments of their offensive counterparts to come up with new ways to come at offenses in ways they aren't anticipating. One of the most successful -- for a time, at least -- permutations was the Tampa 2 defense, which sought to deceptively hide coverage until the snap of the ball, then use extreme athleticism to create havoc for the offense.

So rather than simply counting the number of players in coverage over the top, it's innovation and deceit that brings us to the Cover 6 defense.

The Cover 6 breaks with the system of naming coverage shells by the number of players in deep coverage. Instead, much like the "Dime" set, which gets its name by having two "nickel backs" on the field (nickel + nickel = dime), the Cover 6 is actually half Cover 2 and half Cover 4.

In the Cover 6, half of the field is lined up in a traditional Cover - 2 shell with a safety roaming the deep half of the field while the cornerback covers underneath -- usually in a zone coverage, but man could also be called. The other half of the field plays Cover 4, with the safety and cornerback dividing up that half of the field. As above, there is nothing to say that those two players might not have MOD or MEG reads, which would add another layer of deceptiveness and versatility to the Cover 6 scheme.

Darian Thompson -- assuming he wins the starting free safety position -- would likely line up as the deep safety on the Cover 2 half of the field. On the other side, Landon Collins would man the deep quarter.

At times the Pittsburgh Steelers the Cover 6 as a part of their defense to let Troy Polamalu help cover a deep quarter of the field while also giving the master freelancer the flexibility to come down and blitz or play the run. For the Giants, the Cover 6 could give Landon Collins that same flexibility of a limited deep coverage area while also allowing him to play downhill if the play dictates it. But while the Cover 6 has the advantages of the Cover 2 and Cover 4 of taking away the deep part of the field, it also has similar drawbacks. Like both the Cover 2 and Cover 4, the Cover 6 can take both safeties, and a corner, out of run support, spreading the defense thin in that regard. Also, it's emphasis on deep coverage opens the defense up to quick passes targeting the underneath coverage.

Discussion Points

  • Do you think the Giants have the personnel to run Cover 4 or Cover 6 coverage schemes on a regular basis?
  • Having learned about Cover  0, Cover  1Cover  2, Cover 3, and now Cover 4 and Cover 6, which coverage schemes do you like best, and least, for the Giants?
  • If you had to choose, which one, specifically, for the Giants to use in their base defense?