How to spot what a defense is doing….

I played football, not for very long or at a high level, but I played. I played 4 seasons at cornerback for the Glasgow Lions between the age of 15 and 19 (the equivalent of high school level in the United States). I never progressed to Senior football, injuries and distractions would be the cliché reasons for me giving up, but the truth was simpler, money. It was expensive to play the game in the 1990’s and with the disastrous way in which it was administered it almost put paid to the entire game in this country.

Football has progressed a long way since then. I’ve just returned from watching one of my former team-mates strutting his stuff for the Edinburgh Wolves at the sprightly age of 42 and I can tell you the urge to be out there was almost overwhelming!

It’s actually from this game that this article was germinated.  Most guys I watch or talk football with in Scotland understand the game. In fact it wouldn’t surprise me if the knowledge and understanding of fans in the UK rivaled ordinary fans in the US. I expect it’s probably to do with the fact that it’s not part of the furniture when we grow up so there is more thirst to find out more.

However, playing and watching are two different things. My understanding of the game changed the second I stepped on the field at that first practice in Toryglen Park in Glasgow. There were 6 hard core players in my hometown. We all had enough skill to play, but after the first couple of practices only two of us had the stomach to take it further. The level of aggression needed to play is only matched by the level of savvy you need to understand what’s going on around you.

After that trip to Edinburgh it got me thinking. What if I explained a little bit about the way I watch football and while I’m at it explain some of the concepts that will give you some extra depth to your viewing. I’m not professing to be an expert it’s more just passing on some of my 30 years experience.

I’m going to start with something familiar to me (defense) and then if I have any requests I’ll progress from there. However this won’t be a football 101. There are plenty of sites and articles out there that describe the difference between a nose tackle and a safety). The blog will concentrate on the basics of a commonly seen defense and how it sets up to stop the run and pass.  I’ll also touch on how a good QB reads a coverage and uses them to his advantage.

Before I start it’s important to remove some of the preconceived ideas you may have in your head about man-to-man and zone coverage. Essentially all defenses are based on both concepts and need to use both to succeed.  When you hear analysts talking about man to man schemes versus zonal schemes they are usually talking solely about the cornerbacks in the defense. Personally I don’t like hearing this simplification. Football is the ultimate team game. A successful defense is the result of 11 players working in unison not the product of 2 players on the perimeter covering the pass or the 3 players in the middle at the heart of the running game.

It doesn’t matter whether we’re dealing with a 3-4 or 4-3 as essentially every defense is defined by it’s basic coverage against the pass. The coverage or shell in both the 3-4 and 4-3 involve the same personnel groups; four guys who rush the passer and seven who drop into coverage. Any change to this basic grouping is essentially a special situation package that we’re not going to discuss at this stage.

It’s also important to note that the 7 guys who drop into coverage can vary, but we’re going to concentrate on the basic x2 cornerbacks, x2 safeties and x3 linebackers personnel group.

Let’s breakdown our first defense. They’re usually defined by the type of coverage used or shell. The one I’m going to discuss is the shell most commonly found at lower levels of football i.e. high school and college due to its simplicity, safety and versatility against both the pass and run.

Cover 3

Although it’s one of the most common shells used in football it doesn’t mean it isn’t found at the highest level. The best example of Cover 3 in action is last year’s NFC champion Seattle Seahawks. Although they add their own particular concepts their base D is essentially the good old Cover 3.

In general terms the Cover 3 defense is a zonal defense. This means each defender is responsible for a small area of the field. In Cover 3 the field is split into 7 zones. There are 4 short zones near the line of scrimmage (LOS) and 3 deep zones (where the term Cover 3 comes from) that start 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage (see image 1 below).

defense in cover 3 alignment

defense in cover 3 alignment

The reason Cover 3 is the most common defense seen at lower levels of football is because it’s also one of the safest to employ. It’s designed to limit long passes and be strong against the run. It does this by allowing one of the safeties to help out near the line of scrimmage (or join the “box”). This effectively gives the defense 8 run defenders while still having 3 players deep preventing long gains in the passing game. As it’s a zone based defense the Cover 3 is strong against the run, but we’ll talk about specific run responsibilities in another blog.

The aim of the defenders in Cover 3 is to keep the offensive players in front of them at all times and be quick to react to the developing play. Generally, the 2 cornerbacks stay back from the line of scrimmage and retreat to the deep outside zones with one of the safeties taking the other deep zone (central). The linebackers and other safety are then responsible for the 4 shorter zones.

So how do you spot the Cover 3 defense?

The Cover 3 is actually one of the easiest defenses to diagnose (although at the NFL level this isn’t always the case). The important thing is for you to try and diagnose the key concepts when the defense is employed. Just like a QB you need to use pre-snap keys to help you diagnose how the defense is set-up. In the case of Cover-3 you’re looking for 2 pre-snap keys.

The first key is the location of the two safeties (generally one close, one further back favouring the centre of the field). The second key is the position of the cornerbacks. They will usually be playing 3-5 yards away from the LOS (advanced-the corners will usually take an outside shade, meaning they’ll face the QB and have their back to the sideline and there is also a good chance the SS on the strong side will be closer to the LOS than the CB).

On the snap of ball the defenders will move quickly to their zone areas rather than attempting to divert or slow the receivers releasing from the LOS. As the play progresses you should see the 3 deep defenders quickly take their positions in a classic Cover 3 look (see image 2 below).


Seahawks showing Cover 3 in action

The defense does have a number of significant weaknesses. As you can see above although the 4 short zone defenders have smaller zones to defend they are extremely vulnerable to short, quick passes. This is even more so in the case of the two short outside zones and especially on the weakside (the blue zone in image 2 next to the 20 yard line marker) where the defender (usually a linebacker) also has critical run defense responsibilities.

The cover 3 can also be attacked using “flood” routes. This is where the offense sends multiple receivers into a single area. The final key weakness is routes that attack the free safety. This is usually done by sending a receiver across the gap between the short and deep zones parallel to the line of scrimmage and then sending another receiver vertical along the hash marks.

So there we go. Hopefully that’s a good starting introduction to a basic defense. Next time I’ll break down Cover 2 and it’s variants.



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