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Summer School 2020, Cover 6: What this coverage is, and how offenses attack it

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Cover 6: strengths, weaknesses, and how to beat it

NFL: OCT 27 Giants at Lions Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Cover 6 (also known as quarter, quarter, half) is a common coverage in modern day football. It’s name derives from a combination of Cover 4 and Cover 2 (4+2=6), since the coverage is a mixture of the two. Cover 6 is in the two-high safety family and the coverage has a ton of iterations. Essentially, Cover 6 plays Cover 2 to the boundary (or away from the strength of the formation), with Cover 4 elements to the field (or the strength of the formation), depending on what the offense’s personnel looks like.

Cover 6 is a great coverage to use when an offensive team likes to put its backside receiver on the weak side. This will allow the defense to cloud cover the backside receiver, when the defense is in 3x1 sets. Usually the defense will run the Cover 6’s Cover 2 technique towards the boundary to assist the safety with his coverage space.

As you can see above, the strong safety takes a deep half of the field, over the top of the squatting cornerback who is playing Cover 2 technique outside. It’s to the closed side of the formation, but there’s two receivers on the other end, so the Cover 4 element will be focused towards that threat. The SAM linebacker (S as it’s designated above) can be any type of overhang or apex defender. He can drop to make the coverage a 3x4 coverage (three deep, four underneath), or he could read the tight end and rush if the tight end stays in to block.

On the two-receiver side, the cornerback and free safety are splitting the deep half responsibility and playing Cover 4 concepts, with the WILL dropping to his curl/zone. The MIKE plays hook zone in between the hashes.

One of the big strengths to the coverage is its three-deep roll aspect, with the weak-side safety cheating off that hash mark, which provides greater deep outside coverage abilities. This should, theoretically, eliminate high-low combinations towards the side (post/corner, smash route, deep outs/clear out, etc). The Cover 2 cornerback can press and disrupt the weak-side routes since there is coverage over the top, and he can disguise himself well to jump underneath throws towards that side. Any type of out breaking routes, or stick/out combinations can be eliminated by the Cover 2 cornerback and the SAM. This can put the quarterback into scramble mode, if the coverage is disguised well enough. The strong safety can also drop his depth much closer to the line of scrimmage if the corner on his side is jamming, which can also disguise the coverage significantly. Conversely, the free safety in the diagram above can do the same, especially if he’s rangy, since there is a corner covering deep in the area; of course, there has to be an understanding between the players, and communication is vital, but there are several ways to force quarterbacks into believing that they’re facing Cover 4 or Cover 2, and not Cover 6.

The Cover 4 side allows the cornerback and safety to work in tandem against two-man or three-man route combinations. They can bracket, combo cover, or inside out technique the receivers while going against 2x2 or 3x1 sets. Within every defense, there are different calls that present different assignments for the defenders. Calls like MOD (man only deep) or MEG (man everywhere he goes) would be assigned to these plays as well to change the assignments up. My colleague Chris Pflum describes MOD & MEG well in a Summer School piece from 2016:

  • MOD: “Man Only Deep.” This concept reintroduces man coverage back into the coverage scheme with some added responsibilities for the players. The deep 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.

Obviously, MEG calls would render much of the Cover 6 into man coverage, but it’s yet another way to alter the coverage and assignments from pre- to post-snap.

Coverage vulnerabilities

The strong side of the coverage (the quarters side) presents a visible vulnerability in the flat, since the cornerback vacates to a deep quarter. Similar to a Cover 3 or Cover 4 defense, the apex defender (first underneath defender inside the cornerback) has a difficult task in covering the entirety of the curl/flat zone.

(from blog.firstdownplaybook.com)

With the corner bailing deep, the void is opened up for the flat to be attacked. The offensive formation above is I Formation, 21 Personnel, and it still presents a problem to the coverage, even though this is viewed as more of a running formation.

If the Z runs the clear out and the Y runs the stick, who is stopping the H from catching a pass with nothing but space and two blockers? The SAM has a lot of space to cover towards the sideline, especially when it’s to the field.

On the other side of the formation, there’s a vulnerability in the Honey Hole between the corner and the free safety. When the cornerback is forced to sit underneath on routes, like the F’s flare, then the quarterback could squeeze a pass in over the corner’s head and before the free safety, who is forced to cover half of the deep portion of the field. This is the same vulnerability in Cover 2. Also, speed out concepts with double moves attached are great ways to attack the coverage. Let’s say the Z keeps running speed outs, gaining 5 yards each time. Eventually, the corner is going to cheat up in an attempt to make a play on the ball. This is where offense’s use double moves like an out and up to get the defender to bite, while using his positioning against him. This is how huge plays happen against good defenders sometimes. They over-anticipate and become aggressive to a fault. This could also work with a curl and go double move. These are simple ways from an I Formation. If an offense really wants to manipulate a Cover 6 defense with the I Formation, then they should incorporate play action.

The strong safety typically has to act as a primary run defender in the look we see above. He will read the end man on the line of scrimmage and his run keys, while filling his run fit aggressively if necessary. This makes the Cover 6 vulnerable to strong side play action passing behind him. If the offense is actually running the ball here, it could be a huge gain and the strong safety has to be cognizant of the run, but it opens up play action shots like a deep post behind him. The backside dig should occupy the deep half safety enough to allow that strong side post to go for six points. The deep post can use an outside lean to his initial stem to sell a comeback and create more separation between the corner and himself. The strong safety can also be high-lowed off play action, as we see below.

The strong safety is put into conflict here because of the play action. He’s forced to creep up and then bail, but the tight end’s curl may be open, since the SAM and MIKE both bit up to play the run. This may prompt the safety to sit on the tight end’s route, which opens up the post.

The strong safety could be fully aware of the route combination and the fake, but it wouldn’t matter. He’s put into conflict and whatever decision he makes will be the opposite of the quarterback’s throw. If he sits on the Y’s route, he’ll hit the deep post for a big gain. If he bails back to the deep quarter, then the Y should be open for at least 6 yards, due to the SAM scrambling to get into position and the H’s flare. This is a type of high-low concept. It’s designed to bail the safety in an effort to throw the deep post. A similar concept can be applied with play action to the X receiver running a deep post towards the strong safety’s area. That, combined with a dig from the Z, would really stress that overly aggressive run defender. Putting defenders into conflict is a foundational part of any offense, and this is an excellent way to do so off play action from a heavier personnel set.

Another common way to put the strong safety into conflict is with a three-tiered dig/clear out concept. The strong safety will have to carry the No. 2 wide receiver’s (F) route deep, which opens up the deep quarter for the dig route from the Z. The strong safety is put into further contact with the tight end’s stick route that could possibly be wide open if the SAM expands outside towards the two receivers.

Have you ever been watching football and there’s a random 12-yard pass to a wide open receiver in the middle of the field? Well, that’s usually because of a concept like this or a Mills concept, where a defender is put into a precarious situation and has to make a decision that will be wrong no matter what. Defenders are taught to eliminate the most dangerous route, so that’s why the dig is typically open in zone when the defender is put into conflict, and there’s an underneath route to hold the linebacker’s depth at bay. On the backside, the 7 route with the inside stem gives the X leverage behind the corner and in front of the free safety. This could also provide for a nice option against the Cover 2 portion of Cover 6.

The strong safety is not the only defender who can be manipulated by certain combinations. This is an easy drive concept above, with the running back acting as a replacement route for the X. The linebackers are all put into conflict here. They have to make a choice to allow the X to operate in space or to eliminate the dig from the Y, which is run at a depth before the safeties. The objective of the offense is to make the linebackers decide between the X and Y. Whichever they decide, the quarterback throws to the other receiver, effectively high-lowing the second level defenders. The H’s route can be a number of things; if he were to release to the other side, he’d be a blocker in the open field against the SAM for the X or Y on their horizontal based routes. The F and the Z run clear out routes to open up the other side of the field.

These mirrored concepts are designed to put two defenders into conflict. This is a mirrored Under Concept where the inside receivers run clear outs to open up the in route underneath. The WILL and SAM are both put into conflict as they have to pass the clear out receivers off to the safeties. If timed up, the X and Z should be open in the voided zone by the vacated defenders. If the WILL and SAM read the route combination correctly, then they’ll jump off the clear out, which gives a bit of space for the quarterback to hit the inside receivers before the safeties arrive. If the offense’s timing is on point, this should be an easier completion.

Another bait situation here where the offense is trying to get the strong safety to bite down on the dig route behind the linebackers, which opens up the deep post in the Mills Concept. This would be the progression for the quarterback — look for the underneath route on the Cross Concept while reading the strong safety’s reaction to the F’s dig. If the MIKE and SAM successfully pass the Y’s cross through their zone’s then the dig should open up behind them. if the strong safety bits down on the dig, the deep post would be open. If the strong safety drops to the post, and the dig is covered by the WILL, then the running back’s route should be open for a short gain. The same concept can be assigned to plenty of route combinations that we’ve been over, like the Texas concept or anything out of quick game (double slant route combinations, stick isolation, double curls, etc).

Final thoughts

The Cover 6 defense has a lot of positive aspects. It’s easy to disguise, good against deep routes to the strength of the formation, can utilize cloud coverage on the weak-side receiver, and allows different techniques/rules on different sides of the formation. However, like every defense, there are vulnerabilities. The weak-side safety must have some range, floods will manipulate the coverage as will specific route combinations, the strong side flat is vulnerable, and the run contain to the strength can be manipulated with play action, since the safety has to respect the run.

Teams that don’t possess the right Jimmies to match the offense’s Joes will struggle to man up throughout a game. Cover 6 allows these teams the flexibility to add different zone aspects to several offensive looks. There is no perfect defense, nor will there ever be, but Cover 6 does a solid job allowing defenses to play zone against different types of off-balanced sets.