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Cover the receiver, not air!

How to get a jump on the receivers and tighten your coverage

The advent of option routes for the receivers plus the accuracy of the quarterbacks have made it extremely difficult for the underneath coverage defenders. They are no longer able to simply drop back to specific points on the field, read the quarterback, and shut down the receivers. Just check the stats on completions, yards gained, and touchdowns.

Obviously, something more is required to tighten up on the receivers and anticipate their patterns. The answer, we believe, lies in a slight shift of emphasis. Instead of reading the quarterbacks, the underneath coverage should be taught to read the receivers, especially the #2 and #3 receivers.

By reading their positioning and angles of release, the underneath defenders will be able to get a head start on their coverage. This kind of awareness will also improve the players' understanding of the passing game and what the offense is trying to do to the defense.

This kind of defense will force the quarterback to hold on to the ball longer because of the defenders in the throwing lanes. And it will also allow the less athletic but intelligent LB's to get a head start on the more talented wide outs or backs.

It may be only two steps, but that could be the difference between making and not making a play. There is nothing more annoying than watching an underneath defender covering air.

The accompanying diagrams delineate some of the things that defensive coverage can do to read the patterns, get a jump on the receivers, and tighten the coverage.

Note: Symbols used in the diagrams: B, linebackers; C, corners; S, safety; ss, strong safety; M, Mike middle LB; S, strong LB (Sam); W, weak LB (Wil).


Diag. 1, "Push ": Tells the underneath coverage to slide wider because the pattern or QB action allows a LB or underneath defender to drive hard to a side because there's no threat to the coverage anywhere else. The B can thus push to the next threat.

Diag. 2, "I'm Here": Tells an adjacent defender that the LB nearest him is available because the LB's key didn't release or the pattern was such that the LB could help on any crosser or inside breaker. This allows the LBer receiving the call to come off a coverage and help or find the next threat.

Diag. 3, "Stack": When taught in the installation of a coverage (not a field call), it means the defender is dropping but keeping a relationship on his key or on a receiver. This gives the defender the opportunity to drop according to his key yet get under another receiver. It also tells the defender that he cannot cut to a receiver, meaning he cannot turn his back to the formation.

Diag. 4, "Cut": Tells the defender, based on the release of his key, he must turn his back and get under the next inside-breaking receiver, meaning he will lose sight of the QB.


The defender, on his drop, must find the receiver and get close enough to him (arm distance) before looking back to the QB. This facilitates the tight coverage on a receiver and helps play him m/m within the zone. Once the defender is arm distance from the receiver, he must look back to find the ball.

Diag. 5, "One Defender Covering Two Areas": The defender must align his body to take away the receiver's route, while he (defender) looks for another receiving threat. The diagram shows how the defender takes away the curl with his body while his eyes hunt for a crosser, before looking to the QB.

Diag. 6, "Carry Seams": The defense must always account for the vertical release of a receiver, especially a #2 receiver, as he is the most dangerous threat to the defense.

On an NFL field, the seams in a single safety defense fall between the hash and about three yards outside the numbers, down the field to the goal line. In two-deep coverage, the seam may extend to inside the hashmark. When a defender comes off a seam, it means someone else is the defense must take it over.

Diag. 7, "Outnumbering Receivers": We are always attempting to outnumber the offense by pushing the coverage to where the route and ball are likely to arrive, while keeping a free safety or halves coverage. We push four defenders to the strongside when three receivers release that way, or three defenders to the weakside when two receivers release that way.

Diag. 8, "Picking Up Crossers": Whenever a team is carrying seams or a zone is being cleared out by the offense, the defense must have a man underneath responsible for a crossing receiver from strong to weak or weak to strong in each coverage. He may be defined by his coverage assignment - i.e., the weak hook dropper - or by position. He may be asked to stack on the crosser or just come down on the receiver and pick him up m/m within the zone.

Diag. 9, "Pattern Pick-Ups vs 4-Under, 3-Deep - Clear and Cross": The offense attempts to clear one side and send a crosser from the other side to the vacated area. Dropback action.

Strong Safety - flat dropper will cover the outside portion of #2 and #3 receivers, but initially puts his body inside #1 receiver. Only covers fiat if #2 or #3 brings him to it. Will slide inside, but never pass any receiver who has the potential to release to the fiat, either by checking out late or from the other side of the formation on a hard cross. Puts body under #1 and sees fullback (#3).

Sam - closed hook dropper (strong hook in diagram). Stacks with depth on first crosser (TE) and looks for early throw to crosser. If no throw is made early, stacks back and hunts the first inside breaker to either side.

Mike - openside hook dropper (weak hook drop in diagram). If assigned the seam by #2, Mike must turn and maintain inside position on receiver. This could be varied, particularly because of the dropback action. Mike could come down with the crosser and Wil could hold outside portion of seam, while Sam pushes hard and looks for inside break of #2 weakside - while his body holds off any inside intermediate breaker from the strongside. Notice again, this is dropback action (three out strongside).

Wil flat dropper weakside. Basically, Wil is doing the same thing that the SS does, but is doing it to the weakside - but with the exception noted in the diagram.

Diag. 10, "Play-Action TE Across vs 4-Under/3 Deep": Offense executes full flow with the TE clearing underneath to create a high/low on the defense.

Strong Safety - the flat dropper, slides inside, holding off #1, but not crossing any receiver who has the potential to release to the flat.

Sam - the closed hook dropper (strong hook, responds to the play fake. With no threat to the seam or to the flat, Sam will stack on #3 with a 10 to 12-yard cushion and vision on the checkdown.

Mike, the weak hook dropper, opens to the play fake. Once the play is recognized and he sees a threat to the weakside flat, he immediately cuts to the first inside breaking receiver (X), then looks to the Z receiver.

Wil, the flat dropper, cushions under #1 until a flat threat materializes. The diagram shows that Wil LB must come down with the crossing TE after holding off #1.

Diag. 11, Play Action Pass with a Variation; i.e., TE to flat in the pattern vs 4-under/3-deep.

Strong Safety, the flat dropper, must still cushion under #1 until the flat threat (TE) crosses his face and becomes a threat to catch the ball and rum upfield. SS must then cover him.

Sam, the strong hook dropper (closed hook). Upon seeing #2 (TE) release to the flat, must cut to #1, realizing he has been used up in the flat.

Mike, the weak hook dropper: If he sees no threat to the weakside flat and that Wil is available to hold off #1, Mike can push to #3 and stack on him with depth, staying alert to the checkdown.

Wil, the weak flat dropper: Having no threat, he must stay under #1 and slide inside with him, but never crossing a potential late releaser to the flat.

Diag. 12, Dropback Cross and Clear vs 5-Under, 2-Deep: Both corners are rolled up to a flat responsibility. Meaning they must attempt to jam and funnel #1 inside and cushion to take away the fade.

Safeties have 1/2 coverage and are not part of this underneath discussion.

Sam and Wil have seam drops - strong and weak, respectively. They are in position to cover #2 or #3 down the seams. Their body takes away seams but their eyes focus on #1 in the early part of their drop. This will allow the LBs to come off the seam if #1 breaks his route off short.

Since the TE (#2) goes inside in this diagram, Sam must pass him off to the Mike man and stack back on #3 and get inside #1 while visioning the QB and #3. Wil carries the seam by #2.

Mike, the strong hook dropper, keys #3 and takes any crosser in all balanced sets. In this diagram, Mike takes the crosser. (His pattern pickup rule is set because Wil is carrying the seam.)

Diag. 13, Dropback with Three Receivers Out Strong vs 5-under, 2-Deep coverage:

Corners have flat responsibility same as before.

Sam covers #2 down the seam, since #1 is pushing downfield.

Mike, seeing #3 push to the flat and #2 working the seam with Sam covering him, must work to extend his coverage to any deep inside breaking pattern receiver (i.e., #1).

Wil keys #2. Upon seeing #2 block, he must stack off of #2 and stay alert to #1 breaking inside or #2 (the back) checking out late. Depth should be no less than 10 yards.


This is just the beginning or a way to become more defined in picking up patterns and making your defenders more aware of routes and receivers.

It should provide some food for thought in getting tighter coverage within a zone and limiting the amount of time a defender will be covering air.
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Title Annotation:football's defensive coverage
Author:Olivadotti, Tom
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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