Understanding coverages and attacking them with passing game

There are many qualities that a quarterback must possess. However, the most obvious is the QB’s ability to throw the football. Throwing the football requires a tremendous amount of coordination and teamwork for proper execution. The QB can make up for some deficiencies with proper reads. Whether it is the Pre-Snap Read, Reading on the Move, or Adjustments in routes, the QB’s recognition, anticipation and reaction are based upon his knowledge of the offense as it relates to what he sees.

Pre-snap read
The QB must make a “Pre-Snap Read” confirming the defensive secondary’s alignment. The PSR provides the QB with help in making the proper throwing decision; i.e., allows the QB to establish his thought process prior to the snap. There will be many times when the QB can determine what the coverage is before the snap. About eighty percent (80%) of the time the coverage will be given away by someone’s alignment in the secondary, typically the second defender inside. Even when the total coverage is not given away, through observation of particular alignments, you will be able to eliminate some coverages or narrow to a “Hard Focus” area. The QB must approach the LOS the same way every play and get his hands under the center. The PSR process includes a “Soft Gaze” left, middle and right. The purpose is to identify (1) the depth of the corners, (2) number of safeties, (3) weakside flat defender, and (4) the number of run defenders (“front”):

  • Find the Free Safety (“FS”) and Strong Safety (“SS”) to determine the type of front – seven-man or eight-man. If the safeties adjust to motion, be aware of a possible blitz.
  • Find the weakside linebacker (Whip (“W”)). This is a crucial read to recognize an outside blitz. It is the QB’s responsibility to adjust the protection to handle the outside blitz or allow the receivers to read “HOT.”

The PSR is only the first step in the throwing decision. The QB must identify the primary defender (the “Key”) to read (“Hard Focus”) and determine where to throw the ball. The Key is determined by the pattern and the related PSR. The ball is thrown based upon what the Key does within the QB’s line of sight. For example, on a strong side route the PSR must identify the SS. Upon the snap the strong safety can either man-up, cover the flat, cover deep third (1/3) or cover deep quarter (¼), and it is the SS’s action that allows the QB to decide where to throw the ball. Depending upon the route, the SS’s action might change the key (Reading on the Move [“ROM”]) to the Corner (“C”) or FS. The QB will make their throwing decision based upon what happens in his Hard Focus area and the related routes within the “line of sight”; i.e., does the Key rotate, invert or play man. When the QB keys defenders, not receivers, there are fewer throws into coverage.

Basic Coverages

A brief summary of coverages, including strengths, weakness, and how to attack them follows. The summaries include a place (“Patterns”) for the coach and QB to write in their specific routes to attack the coverages. These are the basic coverages: Invert (“sky”); Rotate (“cloud”); Two Deep, Man Under Two; Man with a Free; Man – Zero; Quarter, Quarter, Half; Zone Blitz; Robber; and Prevent.

Three Deep – Invert (“Sky”)

cover3
The PSR is based on the alignment of SS and C on the strong side. Teams will typically define the TE as the strong side, however a scouting report will provide this information. If the SS is aligned with less depth than the C, the read is an invert by the SS; i.e., the SS is covering the flat, if a receiver is in the flat. Confirm 3D coverage by the alignment of the FS. If the FS is off the hash and favoring the middle, assume that it will be a 3D. Also the QB must be aware of the weak side, if the Weakside Linebacker (“W”) is in a stack (lined-up behind a defensive lineman or end) or walk (off the LOS outside the end) position, it denotes a soft corner, with W responsible for the weak flat. If the end (“E”) is up on the LOS or in a three (3) point stance, assume he will rush. If you are throwing to the strong side upon the snap you can determine whether E is coming or has curl or flat.

- Strengths

  1. Safe – always three deep
  2. strong side force against the run
  3. SS can get under an out and may be able to get under a stop or flat depending upon the wide receiver splits
  4. can cover eight zones with a three man rush
  5. can still bring four with strong side contain and have seven in coverage

- Weaknesses

  1. Versus eight in coverage the defense can only rush three with five or more to block them
  2. four defenders underneath to cover the six zones – large curl and horizontal seams
  3. no leverage on wide receivers; i.e., cannot bump or push inside
  4. possibly late to cover stop and flat, both weak and strong
  5. cannot cover a strong side flood route (three or four receivers in the pattern) without E, then it is a three man rush
  6. weak flat
  7. weakside force

- How to attack it:

  1. Stretch vertically and horizontally
  2. plenty of pass protection
  3. throw in the alley created by sending three on two in the perimeter (“flood type” routes)
  4. weakside curl & flat
  5. sprint away from SS

Three Deep – Rotate (“Cloud”)
The goal of this coverage is to take away the short passing game or protect against the wide side of the field when the offensive formation is strong into the boundary (short side). The PSR is based on the alignment of the SS and the C. The SS must be deeper than normal in order to cover the deep middle or deep outside (is aligned deeper than the adjacent C), the read is a rotate by SS; i.e., SS is covering the deep middle or outside. Also, in this coverage the C to the side of the rotation will be tight (up close) on the wide receiver as they have the flat. The secondary can disguise this by having both Cs up and on the snap the away (from the rotation) C back peddles to deep third [1/3] quickly (“bails”). However, we can determine the side of the rotation by the position of the Outside Linebacker (“OLB”). The OLB, whether W or S away from the rotation must be stacked or walked off as they have flat away from the rotation. You can confirm the 3D by the alignment of the FS. If the FS is off the hash and favoring the middle, assume 3D.

- Strengths

  1. Safe – always three deep
  2. force (to the rotation) against the run
  3. leverage by the C (shut down weak flat or out)
  4. can cover eight zones with a three man rush
  5. can still bring four with force and contain to the rotation, and have seven (7) in coverage
  6. easy to disguise

- Weaknesses

  1. Versus eight in coverage the defense can only rush three with five or more to block them
  2. only four defenders underneath to cover the six zones – large curl seams
  3. cushion on the wide receiver away from the rotation
  4. OLB is alone in the flat away from the rotation
  5. cannot cover a flood route (three or four [3 or 4] receivers in the pattern) • force and contain away from rotation

- How to attack it

  1. Flood routes – throw in the alley created by sending three on two in the perimeter (“flood type” routes)
  2. plenty of pass protection
  3. quick passes away from the rotation
  4. run away from rotation
  5. get TE involved

Two Deep – Five Under (Cover 2)

cover2
The PSR is based on the depth of the Cs and safeties. The Cs will usually be outside of the wide receivers and the safeties will be near the hash marks, aligned deeper than the corners. If the ball is on the hash, look to the strong side defensive back for their alignment because the safety will naturally be on the hash. If the end (“E”) drops to the curl, then all six (6) underneath zones are covered. When W has outside leverage on the second receiver, assume W has flat and rule out two (2) deep, five (5) under coverage and is possibly 3D rotation or Quarter-Quarter, Half.

- Strengths

  1. Strong versus run
  2. leverage on both wide receivers
  3. cover five (5) of the six (6) underneath zones
  4. four (4) man rush
  5. takes away the outs
  6. can hold up the TE
  7. weakside force and contain

- Weaknesses

  1. Safeties must cover half (½) the field; i.e., the three (3) deep zones are covered by two
  2. inside receiver down the middle
  3. LBs must cover curl
  4. strong side contain
  5. weak inside linebacker to curl
  6. wide splits can create lanes

- How to attack it

  1. Use “Spread Formations” to horizontally stretch the safeties
  2. vertically stretch the flats to create lanes
  3. a natural hole twenty to twenty-five (20-25) yards along the sidelines
  4. weakside curl
  5. corner routes
  6. flood type routes

Cover 2 Man / Man under two-deep
This coverage is man-to-man with help over the top in the two (2) deep zones. This coverage allows the defense to bracket or double two (2) receivers. The PSR is based on the alignment of the Cs on the wide receivers. If the safeties give a 2D look (safeties near the hash marks, aligned deeper than the C’s) and both C’s are up tighter or looking primarily at the receiver instead of the QB, then Man Under Coverage (“MUC”) is confirmed. The Cs are the primary key, as they will usually be head up or shaded to the outside of the wide receivers. Also, the undercover (LB’s) will be head-up or at least in position to cover their man. Motion will force the undercover to adjust or run with the receiver.

Strengths

  1. Double or bracket two receivers
  2. four man rush
  3. every potential receiver is accounted for (covered)
  4. can bump because each defender has help over the top
  5. excellent versus zone type routes or screens

Weaknesses

  1. Poor run support
  2. mismatch with the backs versus linebackers
  3. hard to disguise versus motion
  4. three (3) deep zones are not covered
  5. one on one underneath
  6. crossing routes
  7. “bunch” and “snug” type sets

- How to attack it

  1. Back routes on the linebackers
  2. create mismatches with the TE running option (“read”) routes
  3. stay shallow with routes, catch the ball short and run long
  4. crossing routes (“mesh”) with the wide receivers
  5. TE in the alley or fades to the wide receivers
  6. running plays
  7. use motion

Cover 1 man / Man-to-man with a free safety.

cover1
This coverage is man-to-man with a FS to help over the top. The PSR is based on the alignment of the Cs and linebackers on the receivers. The C’s will be head up or in an outside alignment because they have help from the FS. This allows the C’s to take away the outs. Also, if the SS aligns head up on his eligible receiver at a tight to normal depth (four to six [4-6] yards) and the FS is deeper than normal (twelve to fifteen [12-15] yards), this will confirm the Man with a Free (“MwF”) coverage. The linebackers will have the backs man-to-man. The QB should anticipate pressure from a five (5) man rush, with the possibility of the defense bringing seven (7). The QB must identify whether a blitz is coming and throw the ball to the defenders vacated spot (i.e., “hot read”) or add protection with an audible.

Strengths

  1. Pressure from a five (5) man rush
  2. every potential receiver is accounted for (covered)
  3. defenders have help to the post • excellent versus screens and delays
  4. C’s can play a tight man as they have help from the FS – crowd the receivers on third and five or longer
  5. excellent versus zone routes
  6. can take away the outs with an outside technique by the C’s
  7. speed on speed – good blitz coverage

- Weaknesses

  1. Poor run support
  2. mismatch with the backs versus linebackers
  3. hard to disguise versus motion
  4. three deep zones are not covered
  5. no under cover • crossing routes
  6. “bunch” and “snug” type sets

- How to attack it

  1. Back routes on the linebackers
  2. create mismatches with the TE running option (“read”) routes
  3. stay shallow with routes, catch the ball short and run long
  4. crossing routes (“mesh”) with the wide receivers
  5. TE in the alley or fades to the wide receivers
  6. running plays
  7. coverage away from FS by “looking off”

Cover 0 / Man-to-man blitz with no deep safety

cover0blitz

This coverage is a straight man-to-man with no safety help. The PSR is based on the alignment of the safeties. Usually in Man coverage, the SS will play head up on the TE and the FS will play shallow on the weak side. Typically, there is no safety in the middle of the field. We can confirm this coverage by the inside leverage alignment by the Cs on the wide receivers. The C’s need this alignment as they have no inside help. The QB should anticipate pressure from a blitz. The QB must identify whether a blitz is coming and throw the ball to the defenders vacated spot or a crossing receiver; i.e., “hot read”. The QB could audible to add pass protection.

- Strengths

  1. Pressure (blitz capability) and penetration from a six to seven man rush
  2. big play potential
  3. clog up the running lanes inside
  4. force the offense to throw short

- Weaknesses

  1. Poor run support
  2. mismatch with the backs versus linebackers
  3. hard to disguise versus motion
  4. three deep zones are not covered
  5. no under cover
  6. crossing routes
  7. no deep help
  8. gamble defense
  9. “bunch” and “snug” type sets

- How to attack it

  1. Empty Formations — all receivers are one-on-one (but free rusher)
  2. tough to cover slants – nobody in the middle
  3. running plays – force and secondary force weakened
  4. should have somebody open if QB has time

Quarter, Quarter, Half

qtrqtr
The Quarter, Quarter, Half (“QQH”) coverage provides three (3) defenders deep, however it uses one (1) defender to cover half (½) of the three (3) deep zones and two (2) defenders each covering a quarter (¼). The underneath coverage can utilize four or five (4 or 5) defenders. This coverage employs a traditional weak side 2D with a squat corner and half coverage safety. The strong side can employ a multitude of variations (invert and rolls). The most common is a bail technique by the strong side C covering the deep quarter (¼) with the strong side OLB covering curl to flat. The PSR is based on the depth and alignment of the C’s and safeties. The weakside or side away from the quarters alignment will look like a 2D with the C head-up or to the outside of the wide receiver and the safety near the hash marks, aligned deeper than the C. The strong C can be aligned head-up and tight, but will bail (retreat) so that they are off six to eight (6-8) yards at the snap. The SS will be even with the C at the snap, and can also employ a bail technique.

- Strengths

  1. Leverage on weak wide receiver, can use bump technique
  2. deep routes to strong side
  3. cover five (5) of the six (6) underneath zones
  4. four (4) man rush
  5. weakside force and contain
  6. easy to disguise
  7. can double (inside/outside) against a single receiver to the weak side

- Weaknesses

  1. Weak safety must cover half  the field
  2. flood routes to the strong side
  3. S must cover curl and flat
  4. strong side contain
  5. weak inside linebacker to curl
  6. wide splits can create lanes

- How to attack it

  1. Horizontal stretch on the safety covering half
  2. vertically stretch the flats to create lanes
  3. strong side outs
  4. weakside curl
  5. cannot cover a flood route (three or four [3 or 4] receivers in the pattern)
  6. trips type formations & motion

Zone Blitz

03_graph_2

The Zone Blitz is a defensive scheme used to confuse the offensive line’s pass protection schemes, and the QB’s reads. A frontal rusher — i.e. a linebacker or defensive lineman –  briefly engages the offensive lineman, then retreats to his pass zone, if he reads pass. The blitzers go through their assigned gaps. The droppers replace the blitzers in the pass zone. The coverage could be anything, but the most common zone blitz is the “fire zone,” which involves three deep and three intermediate pattern reading defenders.

- Strengths

  1. Run lanes are covered
  2. pressure on the QB – confuse protection schemes
  3. QB reads are changed
  4. easy to disguise
  5. can double (inside/outside) against outside receivers and cover underneath zone with defensive linemen

- Weaknesses

  1. Defensive linemen and other defenders in coverage who are not skilled/used to it – limited range
  2. crossing routes through the underneath coverage
  3. play action, if offense can protect

- How to attack it

  1. Horizontal and vertical stretch on the pass zones
  2. TE versus defensive linemen
  3. screen passes
  4. play action, with patterns to the backs
  5. Maximum protection with deep combinations through the open areas

Cover 1 “Robber”

prorat
The Robber coverage is a defensive scheme used to confuse the QB’s reads. It is designed to take away the middle pass zones, both the underneath and deep middle. It can be employed out of a four across or two deep look. A QB reading through the middle of the field (goal post) will read man or rotation and attempt to hit crossing routes or attack the deep middle which is where the “robber” is. The coverage can also be used with man coverage allowing the “robber” helping out in the middle.

- Strengths

  1. Middle zones
  2. confuse QB’s reads
  3. easy to disguise
  4. can double (inside/outside) against inside receivers
  5. can lock-on QB’s eyes

- Weaknesses

  1. Deep outside versus man
  2. outside breaking routes by inside receivers
  3. play action

- How to attack it

  1. Outside on timing routes
  2. play action with deep routes
  3. crossing routes to the outside versus man
  4. QB must look robber off
  5. clear lane throws

Prevent
The Prevent is a defensive scheme designed to force the offense to use time to score. It protects against the quick scores, while allowing the offense to pick up chuncks of yardages. The QB must be descipline when facing the Prevent by taking the easy yardage. At the high school and collegiate level, attack the middle of the prevent because the clock stops to move the chains for first downs. The defense linemen will use outside rush techniques to keep the QB in the pocket. The QB must be patient throwing in the underneath zones to recievers on the run.

- Strengths

  1. Deep zones, four defenders deep
  2. can get under deep outs and curls
  3. can keep the QB in the pocket with an outside rush
  4. defensive backs can fly to the ball when it is thrown deep
  5. protect the boundary

- Weaknesses

  1. Inside run – draws
  2. backs on delays to middle
  3. middle hook zones
  4. quick routes on time
  5. in the undercover seams

- How to attack it

  1. Horizontally stretch the pass zones
  2. deep crossing routes
  3. underneath at twelve yards or less with stops, flats and outs on time
  4. empty sets
  5. draws
  6. backs on delays
  7. get the ball to speed underneath

Review
A critical component to a successful pass is that the quarterback recognize the coverage. Materials given to a quarterback (DVD, flash cards)

  1. Quick recognition of the secondary.
  2. The strengths and weaknesses of the coverage.
  3. Where to attack the coverage based upon the play called.

  • OldSouth

    Solid article on the basics. Good for a refresher on the “how to beat its” too if one forgets.

  • patspsycho

    Great read. Tom Brady is considered one of the best at PSR.. would love some comments on that.

  • Justin S

    I have been looking for an article like this for a long time. Thank you!

  • coach4life

    Chris so glad you and Coach Mountjoy are combining efforts. Bill Mountjoy is one of the most knowledgeable football guys around with a treasure trove of knowledge up in that noggin’ of his.

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  • Brian

    I’ve never really been a football fan. I dismissed it as slow, uninteresting, and a wimp’s version of Rugby which is, by all accounts, a brilliant game.

    What I failed to recognize until lately (hey, it only took 35 years) is the tactics, formations, intricacies, etc. of American football. It’s basically a game of chess played with human pieces. Now instead of watching a mass of big men shove each other around I’m just beginning to see the bigger picture.

    Your articles are EXACTLY what I need so the next time I play Madden I’ll have the slightest clue what is going on when I select my plays.

    Thanks,
    Brian

  • Ken

    @Brian–

    Welcome to the wonderful world of gridiron. :-) My story is something like the reverse of yours; about 15 years ago I was watching playoff rugby from the UK in a bar one night, and what struck me was how much the players’ techniques reminded me of leather-helmet-era American football. Track down some films if you can; a video search on “Red Grange” or the “Four Horsemen of Notre Dame” or “Sammy Baugh” might turn up something interesting. The helmet wasn’t rigid and didn’t have a facemask; therefore, the player couldn’t use his head as a weapon to the extent modern players do. Blocking and tackling used the arms and shoulders, and the cross-body block was still in wide use. Offensive linemen were not allowed to use their hands at all in blocking (until the mid-1970s, when the slow slide to “trench sumo wrestling” began)

    I haven’t got to see much rugby since the ’03 Cup. What I noticed from that (alas, American Eagles!) is that (1) Speed kills, and (2) it looked like much of the offensive tactics is to get the ball moving against the flow of the defense. American football will always be my first love, but rugby is a heck of a game.

  • Jabronsky

    can you explain why this is the case… If the safeties adjust to motion, be aware of a possible blitz

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  • Bill Mountjoy

    Jabronsky: If a Defensive Back goes with motion it is most likely man (& possibly Man/Blitz).

    Any questions – contact me at billmountjoy@yahoo.com

  • Antuan

    Thanks alot played qb for high school but been off the field for five years after joining the army and stopped playing football but still have a big arm and trying out for the local semi pro team and needed a refresher.

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  • fraankie

    great able to read a defenses coverage and attack with a passing game good way to tear apart a defense by reading there players alighnement and actions this is greatt

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  • Mr.Murder

    The curl/flat read is critical to attacking teams opposite rotation. Norm Van Brocklin put up amazing stats against that look in a time teams were known for their run games.

    The thing not referenced as a way of attacking these looks that add additional underneath defenders is dualies. Using double slants, etc. True the all curl is similar, perhaps some more references on dual routes and how they apply to above sets could be a future story.

  • Chet

    In a cover 2 zone, if the Z runs a short yo medium IN/CROSSING route and the Y runs a SEAM route, would the SS typically close on the Z or instead help MIKE in covering the deep middle against the Y?

  • Chet

    In a COVER 2 zone, if the Z runs a short to medium IN/CROSSING route and the Y runs a SEAM route, would the SS typically close on the Z or instead help MIKE in covering the deep middle against the Y?

  • David Ortiz

    This is legit!

  • Air It Out

    Chris, all of this is very helpful, but I am wondering how this fits in with the Air Raid guys, because I know Leach usually, if not always, tells his qbs not to worry about the coverage and simply go with the progression assigned to the concept that is being used on a given play. Of course it is important to understand all this for play calling and audibling if the QB recognizes the coverage pre-snap, but how does all this fit in post-snap for the Air Raiders?

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  • QB2

    This has been a very informative and helpful analysis even to a college QB, well done. 

  • Mr Metoo2009

    who do you play for, just wondering?

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  • oneyard@atime

    Great. this helped alot trying to make a name for myself in High-School football and trying to maybe go farther. Thanks!

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  • http://www.hotnewhiphop.com/ Jeremy

    good shit
     

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  • Mario Rodriguez

    Probably because there are some plays better against some covereages, i think this is helpful for a coaching point, i mean you call a play (in any system) that has the best chance to work well and atack the defense better.

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  • Z-takeover

    This is great I used this in my games this season and I had a 85% completion rating. And my PSR’s have been easier to go on. I was backing up 3 games into the season and our starter got injured and I felt like Nick Foles out there. 0 ints. And an 85% passing rating. My coaches never regretted that!