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Summer School 2020: Strengths and weaknesses of a Cover 1 defense

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Diving deep into the nuts and bolts of the Cover 1

Minnesota Vikings v New York Giants Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

The pendulum in the chess match of offensive and defensive football tends to swing. The former has been on an upward trajectory for quite some time now, but schematic innovations can assist the game to find equilibrium. That is, of course, if the rules stop favoring the offensive side of the sport.

Man coverage has always been, and still is, utilized in the NFL. The most prevalent type of man coverage is Cover 1, which is also known as man free. Let’s take a closer look.

(From Smart Football)

Cover 1 means man coverage across the board, with one defender in a deep zone. That deep defender is referred to as a center fielder. Typically, the center fielder should possess good athletic traits, range, and a high level of football IQ (think Earl Thomas III). It is the duty of the deep safety to act as a security blanket for the corners; if a corner is beaten trying to force an incompletion against a post or slant, then it’s the job of the safety to assist his teammate and make a tackle. In Cover 1, the outside corners align with inside leverage (forcing wide receivers to go outside). This allows a corner to use the sideline as an extra defender. The corner’s job is to force the receiver towards the sideline and off the red-line (a designated spot on the field between the hash and the sideline; usually leaving about 4 yards of width between a receiver and sideline is sufficient enough to allow an NFL quarterback to place the ball over-top and out of the reach of defenders), which limits the wide receiver’s space to operate on go routes. Ideally, a boundary man coverage corner has above average athletic ability, length, and possesses very good reactionary quickness (Think Stephon Gilmore), but that isn’t a necessity.

As you can see in the picture above, the corners are doing just that — lining up inside, while the strong safety is lining up outside of the tight end. He’s doing so to force that tight end up the seam and towards the free safety (FS). The FS’s assignment, in this context, is to understand what he’s seeing, from a route combination perspective, read the quarterback’s eyes, and react instantaneously to assist his teammates underneath.

There are many iterations of Cover 1, but one of the most common is Cover 1 press.

The use of press man coverage is one of the biggest strengths that a defense can have because it affects the offense’s timing and rhythm. In the NFL, defenders have a 5-yard window where they can put their hands on eligible receivers, effectively slowing them down. Being close to the line of scrimmage at the snap also gives the defense an advantage because they can stay in the hip pocket of the receiver and act accordingly on routes, whereas off-man coverage provides a cushion that athletic receivers can abuse. Cover 1 press really helps make quick game passing windows smaller, and that’s one major reason why it’s called so much in third-and-manageable situations.

There are also times where Cover 1 implements a robber element to the defense. In this defense, the FS drops to the deep middle (middle of the field closed defense), while the strong safety drops down to eliminate any inside breaking routes from a receiver (either backside or No. 2). Pre-snap Cover 1 robber may look like a two-high defense (middle of the field open).

(From Inside the Pylon)

This is a base defense look above (not a nickel, dime, dollar, or quarter sub-package that is predicated on speed, which commonly uses Cover 1). We can even see the cornerback to the right side; his leverage is a bit more to the outside shoulder of the receiver, which is different from the inside leverage that Cover 1 (man free) usually lines up in. That corner is giving away the inside release to possibly bait the quarterback to throw into the robber’s coverage. Say you’re a quarterback trying to decipher coverages. Pre-snap, you see the strong side linebacker flare to the outside of the tight end and the weak side linebacker takes the No.2 wide receiver in the stack. You see the two-high safety look and think that it’s Man Under (a two-high safety defense with man coverage underneath). Then you look to the outside and see your best receiver with a free release inside, and you think that looks pretty appetizing. But right as you snap the ball, the FS rotates to the middle of the field, the strong safety rolls down to the hashes, and there’s pressure coming. The next thing you know, you throw the ball into a trap coverage for an interception. Many of the great quarterbacks have made this mistake, and many will make it in the future.

Pre and post-snap looks are one of the many ways defenses confuse offensive protections and the passing game. A lot of cover 1 plays restrict the defense from bringing extra pressure. When the defense does bring the pressure, that may leave an eligible receiver open for the quarterback to throw the ball, and it may be an easy hot read for the signal caller. So how does the defense scheme pressure, if it can’t consistently win one-on-one matchups? They stunt and twist. Tackle/End an End/Tackle stunt/twists, along with coffee house stunts are common ways to confuse the offense’s protection and force poor decisions with a four man rush.

Route vulnerabilities

Isolation and crossing routes are excellent ways to defeat man coverage, as is having a receiver that can beat press at the line of scrimmage. Beating press coverage leads to big gains because the defender is usually left off balance and behind, especially if he allows the receiver to stack on top of his turn (upon the release, the wide receiver goes either outside or inside. After that, he then positions himself behind the cornerback before the defender can fully turn ... that is stacking). Receivers who possess release skills are important for winning at the line of scrimmage, but receivers who have excellent acceleration, speed, and fluidity are great at maintaining separation throughout a route. Horizontal crossing patterns are difficult to guard when a receiver has the traits listed in the previous sentence.

Another big weakness of man coverage is the weakest defender in the unit; there’s a saying in the military, you’re only as strong as your weakest link ... this rings true in man coverage. If one defender is a liability, then the offense will attack that defender and scheme to take advantage of his vulnerability. Isolating that weak link with double moves or choice routes (Y-Option, H-Option, Slot-Option) is a common way to move the football, and the offense can always use pre-snap motion and adjustments to either isolate or clog an area of the field, while the defense typically has to show its hand.

The mesh concept is a common man beater that has zone elements built into its routes. As you can see above, if the receivers recognize man coverage, they subtly angle their routes upfield. But if it’s zone coverage, the mesh receivers sit in the zone and find a soft spot. The mesh concept doesn’t have to always angle upfield, but it’s another wrinkle to provide an advantageous throwing window into space, if the coverage players are in phase.

(From blogs.usafootball)

Above is a Yankee Concept, which is a two-man route combination that consists of a deep post and a deep horizontal cross that is designed to put the FS into conflict. This play is commonly run off play-action, which sucks the defense towards the line of scrimmage in an effort to play the run. As you’ll notice throughout this article, horizontal patterns are a tough coverage for the defense. In a Yankee Concept, the FS has to either bite down and help the horizontal cross (which is what the offense wants), OR drop deep to cover the post, which gives the crossing pattern space.

Here’s another FS isolation concept that is common - The Mills Concept. It’s a two-man route combination (Post-Dig) that forces the FS to react. Whichever one the FS doesn’t choose is the primary read for the quarterback. A lot of these concepts aren’t exclusively used to defeat Cover 1 defense; this Mills concept is common against Cover 4 teams, but isolating the single-high safety, with two inside breaking routes is a good way to defeat man free defenses as well. A dig/inside vertical combination (Dagger) is also dangerous against single-high defenses.

Here’s another gem from our very own Mark Schofield. Another man beater is a well-timed deep comeback route. The route can be a backside pass on a 3x1, a mirrored outside route in a 2x2, or just a part of a route in a 2x2 like we see above. Corners align with inside leverage against the outside receivers; this gives the receivers the opportunity to sell a vertical stem, get the hips of their defenders turned, and then sink their own hips and break outside and back towards the quarterback. With a well timed pass against this leverage, it’s hard for a corner to make any type of play on the pass. This, of course, requires a lot of repetition, for the timing is critical to the success of the pass.

(From xsosfootball.com)

Here are two deep comebacks (can also be hitches, which are effective against man coverage) with a Texas route underneath. The Texas route is in red and is very difficult to defend in man coverage, especially if it’s a player like Saquon Barkley against a linebacker. The deep post from the Y occupies the FS and allows the fullback to be isolated against his man coverage assignment.

Switch routes are common ways to defeat Cover 1 man, and as you can see above, zone as well. The switching action on the stem of the switching receivers involved in the route combination forces a picking or crossing act that provides a problem against press man coverage. This can also be effective against defenses that employ banjo coverages and other types of switch coverages. The switch route can create confusion by the defense and could result in extra separation, while also acting as a pick against man coverage.

Now, let’s take a look at my excellent Paint skills that I learned in second grade.

First off, this is a base Cover 1 defense, out of a nickel sub-package. The strong side “H” (LB) has several responsibilities depending on the play call. The blue line is man coverage on the halfback, if the back releases to the strength. If that does happen, then the weak-side linebacker would either be free to blitz or drop. The yellow is blitzing either the strong side A or B-Gap, and the green is the LB dropping into a hook zone defense. Any of these responsibilities could be called for this linebacker. This is a clear-out isolation route to the weak-side from 11 Personnel. The goal of this play is to isolate the FS and force him to make a choice on jumping the Dig route from the weak-side boundary or going deep with the slot clear-out. The quarterback reads the FS’s decision and reacts. On the strong-side, the quaterback will have the boundary receiver in a one on one, with a post corner route, which is excellent against man coverage because it’s a double move. The receiver fakes the post hard, getting the cornerback to flip his hips inside, before putting his inside foot into the ground and exploding back to the sideline. Due to the clear-out/dig combination, the strong-side corner will be alone and the offense will have the upper hand. If something goes wrong, the QB has the tight end in the flat. Due to this being a long developing play, the RB would probably stay in for protection, but this can be a dangerous play against man coverage.

Mirrored slant routes can work against Cover 1 out of the quick game. The quarterback can look to see if his receivers win inside off their release and quickly fire the ball into the intended receiver. This is a “bang bang” type of play. Also, the running back flaring out of the backfield causes traffic with his coverage assignment. The linebacker could struggle to locate the back, due to the two slants coming towards him.

The slant/flat combo is a common man coverage beater. The slot/tight end runs directly to the flats, while the boundary receivers run slants. Usually, the inside receiver has leverage on the route and space, while the inside breaking route of the slant receiver can create a pick against the inside receiver’s coverage. This is very common in 3x1 sets, with the No. 3 receiver (innermost) runs the flat, with two slants creating traffic over-top (similar to the last play we went over). Isolation, crosses, picks, and creating traffic are all ways to confuse and disrupt defense’s coverage assignments. This is why a defense must be cohesive, communicative, and be ready for these types of offensive tactics.

The inside receivers above can run their routes as speed-outs or with a hard vertical stem and a 90 degree cut. As stated above, with the right release into space, the speed-out can give the receiver leverage on the defender. This play also forces a one on one outside with the vertical route, if the quarterback manipulates the route well enough. If an offense has good receivers outside, then double verticals against Cover 1 is a good way to create these types of matchups. The inside receivers could also run pivot routes and stick routes, which are both excellent ways to defeat man coverage. A Y-Stick, with an option to sit or expand depending on the leverage is a great foundation of Air-Raid offenses.

A mirrored under concept, with two inside verticals is another way to clear out the middle and allow for the outside receivers to win inside. That’s not exactly what we see above though; above is an under concept to the strength, with the TE running the seam. To the weak side, we have the same inside receiving route up the seam, with an option to run a corner route (would happen depending on the reaction of the FS and if the slot receiver was to the field, especially in the NCAA). But on the weak-side, instead of the mirrored route, we see a deep horizontal cross. Crossing patterns are an Achilles heel to man coverage, and this crossing pattern forces the FS into a severe decision. Putting defenders into conflict is a very common practice from NFL offenses. If the protection holds up here, the FS would be in a precarious situation due to the route combination above. If the linebacker is playing hook zone, he could sink to the depth, but that would provide leverage to the under route from the strong side. The game of chess in football is lovely.

Four verticals is another way to create one-on-one coverage to the outside. If the offense feels the isolation outside is advantageous for their receivers, this is a way to attack the man free defense. The two inside receivers run their streaks and that single high safety must adhere to their presence, which doesn’t allow him outside. The 3x2 is not favorable to the offense, but the one on one can be, especially if the wide receivers are far better than the corners. The running back can be the check down and dictate his route based on the leverage of his defender or he could stay in and pass block. A variation of the deep verticals, where the corners aren’t getting beat by the receivers, is the deep comeback as well. The quarterback and wide receiver can realize that they don’t have up-field leverage against the corner, then they can break the route off at 12 yards, and that’s where the two need to really have rapport.

A drive concept is a way to create a few different one-on-one scenarios, with the offense having advantageous routes like the drag and the dig going over the middle. The FS will have to play the two vertical routes, while they clear out that portion of the field for the two underneath routes. If the offense has very good protection and the defense has a weak pass rush, the running back can run a wheel to the strength and be in a position where it’s a true one on one situation against a linebacker. Picture a player like Barkley against a linebacker in Cover 1 with this type of route; the quarterback would have multiple appetizing options and the defense is left in a tough position to defend.

To reiterate, Cover 1 man free can be susceptible to a lot of different route combinations and concepts. Isolating, crossing, and putting the free safety into conflict with high-low decisions are some ways to manipulate the sound defensive strategy. Mesh, Yankee, Mills, Drive, 4 Verts, Slant/Flat, Mirrored Slants, Texas, Deep Comebacks, and Switch concepts are all ways to possibly defeat Cover 1. Horizontal crosses of all types are difficult to cover, as are double moves like the pivot route, dino stem, COP (Corner Post) route, POCO (Post Corner) route, and Sluggo (Slant/Go) routes. Quick game isolation routes, wheel routes, pick screens, pick and rub concepts and curl/hooks are all ways to try and defeat Cover 1.

Move the pocket type of plays with deep horizontal crosses and a POCO route, or just a corner route, are very hard to defend when off of a play action stretch to the opposite side. These roll-away plays get the defense going one way, after being baited into playing the run, while the receivers are running against the grain of the defense. We saw this a lot with Jimmy Garoppolo and the San Francisco 49ers this season.

Offenses are always trying to find ways to defeat man coverage because it can be so effective. As you can see, there’s been a lot of successful ways to score on Cover 1 and free up receivers, whether that’s by putting defenders into conflict with the Yankee Concept, creating multiple one on one isolations like the Drive Concept, or utilizing Rub/Pick route combination like a Slant/Flat concept. Creating traffic, so defenders cannot execute their assignments is a goal of the offense. The foundational aspect of Cover 1 is to have those five men underneath, with one over the top and a possibility of five rushers (one linebacker can be a quarterback spy, drop into coverage, or blitz). The speed of football is very fast, so the pressure is on the offense to beat the man coverage, whether that’s press, close, or off. The vulnerabilities have been expressed throughout this article. But if the defenses’ Jimmies are as good as the offenses’ Joes, then the margin of success for the defense exponentially grows.