I decided to put together a brief tutorial of basic coverage shells that defenses use (especially for Colleen because she asked). Essentially, the defense divides the field into halves. There’s the underneath half, which is nearest to the line of scrimmage, and there’s the deep half, which is the furthest away from the line of scrimmage.

We name the coverage shells based on how the defenses cover the deep half. For example, if no defenders are back there, it’s a Cover 0. If there’s two deep defenders, it’s a a Cover 2. And so on.

Let’s take a look at each in greater detail while looking at strengths and weaknesses of each.

Cover 0

This has no defenders deep. It’s man-to-man coverage across the board. Its strengths are it highlights your best players and allows them to be shutdown coverage players. It also allows you to blitz the sweet bejesus out of the offense. You are also able to stack the box with up to nine defenders for run support. It’s weaknesses are it relies strictly on man-to-man coverage, which can be burned by superior offensive talent, and it has no deep safety help.



Cover 1

This deploys one deep safety, which is usually the free safety. It’s also strictly man-to-man coverage across the board. It allows you to blitz the offense while offering some deep safety help. You can play up to eight in the box for run support. Once again, however, superior offensive talent can exploit man-to-man coverage. Also, the deep sidelines are very vulnerable to long passing gains because that’s a long way for the free safety to run.



Cover 2

This has two deep safeties, each guarding half of the deep half. This is a very strong defense against the pass because it allows two safeties to help deep routes. It is highly effective at taking away two vertical routes by the defense. It is weak in the middle of the field between the safeties. Also, it is weaker against the run than other defenses because you absolutely cannot put eight defenders in the box.



Cover 3

This splits the deep half into thirds. It is strong against the deep passes, particularly three vertical routes. It also allows the defense to play the strong safety in the box for run support. However, it is vulnerable against underneath passes, particularly directly in front of the free safety.



Shallow Cover 4 (Quarters Coverage)

This splits the deep half into quarters. This is a great defense against deep passes. If the offense runs two vertical routes, each of the receivers will be double covered. If the offense runs four deep verticals, each will be single covered deeply down the field. If the safeties cheat a little bit towards the line of scrimmage, they can offer considerable run support. However, if they don’t drop back fast enough, they leave the back end wide open. Imagine a play action pass sucking them up only to be burned deep over the pass. Also, during pass plays, the defensive backs are taught to retreat deep immediately. This makes the defense vulnerable to short passes. During run plays, there is no way to play eight in the box. This is strictly a pass defense.



Deep Cover 4 (Prevent Defense)

This also splits the deep half into quarters, but is much deeper as the ball is snapped. It has the same passing advantages as the shallow Cover 4. However, it is considerably deeper, so it’s much more vulnerable to the shallow passes. During run plays, there is no way to play eight in the box. This is strictly a pass defense. This is basically the prevent defense, complete with all the flaws that every fan knows and loves.



Cover 6

This is a hybrid of the Cover 2 and the Cover 4. While it splits the deep half into thirds, they aren’t even thirds. The wide side of the field is defended by the strong safety, so he’s basically playing a Cover 2. The short side of the field is covered by the free safety and cornerback, so they’re basically playing Cover 4. Strengths include be able to play eight in the box for run support, which includes walking the strong safety into the box (he will drop into coverage during pass plays). It also is great at taking away three vertical routes. Since the wide side cornerback has safety help, so both short and deep passes are defended well on the wide side. However, since one side is quarters, the short side is vulnerable to shallow passes. Also, the entire deep half is very vulnerable to playaction passes. Another way to look at it, the Cover 6 has all the strengths and weaknesses of the Cover 2 and Cover 4 combined.



I hope you enjoyed this little breakdown and it was helpful for you. I enjoyed writing it up!


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  • Colleen

    Very helpful! Thanks!