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Inside the playbook: Cover 3

Breaking down Cover 3 and the eight-man front on the chalkboard. Matt Bowen

Print This May 18, 2010, 06:36 AM EST

Throughout May and heading into training camp, the NFP’s Matt Bowen will take you inside the playbooks of the NFL -- basic defenses, the running game, red-zone passing, fire zones, etc. -- to give you a better understanding of what your favorite teams are doing on Sundays.

Last week, we discussed the Tampa 2 coverage and broke down the scheme on the chalkboard. A 2-deep, 5-under defense that turns into a 3-deep, 4-under scheme once the middle linebacker runs the middle of the field with any inside vertical scheme. A basic defense, but just like installation in the NFL offseason, we will work our way through the core coverages.

Today, let’s look at the classic version of the 3-deep, 4-under defense that is played at all levels of football, but still has a home in the NFL: Cover 3. Three defenders split the top of the defense into deep thirds, while the four underneath players take care of the flat, the curl and the middle hook.

Why is a defense that is still taught at the high school level so prevalent on Sundays? Simple: the ability to create an eight-man front. We talk about that extra player in the box all of the time, and in Cover 3, that is the strong safety dropping down to the closed side (TE side) for run support.  A defense that is part of every playbook and a lead call for Tampa 2 teams who want that extra defender in the front in running situations.

Let’s check out the chalkboard with the defense in a base 4-3 alignment vs. pro personnel (2WR, 2RB, 1TE) on offense with split backs…


I put the defense in a 2-shell, giving the secondary the look of two safeties ready to roll to the deep half. The corners are aligned at a man-to-man depth (around 7 yards) where they can walk up to the line to jam in Cover 2, play Cover 4 responsibilities or drop to the deep third. At the snap, the strong safety drops down into the box and the free safety rolls to the deep middle of the field.

Think of Bob Sanders — when healthy — of Indianapolis. In my opinion, the best in-the-box safety in the game because he has the ability to contain any run that presses the edge of the defense, fill any cutback lanes on weak-side runs and make plays in the passing game when he is part of the defensive front.

Let’s break down the defense by position…

DE- Align as a “5” technique — Outside eye up the OT. Attack "C" to "B" gap on run.
N- Align as a “1” technique — outside eye of the OC. Attack “A” gap on run.
DT- Align as a “3” technique — inside eye of the OG. Attack “B” gap on run.
DE- Align as a “7” technique — head up the TE. Attack “C” gap on run.
WB- Align head up the OT. Contain vs. run, drop to curl/flat vs. pass.
MB- Align strong side “A” gap. Drop to weak hook/curl vs. pass. Fill "A" gap strong.
SB- Align outside eye of OT. Drop to strong hook/curl vs. pass. Fill inside fullback lead block vs. run strong, scrape to "A" gap vs. run away.
C- Drop to deep outside 1/3 with outside leverage on No. 1, zone technique (back to sideline)
FS- Drop to deep middle 1/3 with enough depth to get over the top of any outside vertical by No. 1.
SS- Drop into box at snap with 5x3 alignment on TE.  Contain vs. run, drop to curl/flat vs. pass.
C- Drop to deep outside 1/3 with outside leverage on No. 1, zone technique (back to sideline)

Some keys to think about…

The Will Linebacker and the SS play important roles in both the run and pass game. Versus any outside run weak to the Will or strong to the SS (think of the outside zone, Power O, Lead Open, Lead Strong) they must contain and force the run back to their defensive help. This requires them to “hammer” the lead block (lead with inside shoulder) and close the gap between blocker and ball carrier.

In the pass game, both players have to work through the curl but cannot get outflanked by any receiver to the flat. Think of the Curl/Flat combo by the offense. The Will and the SS cannot get beat to the outside by any flat route. That is why QBs will hold the ball until the defender breaks to the flat to throw the curl route.

The corners must maintain outside leverage and use the free safety to their advantage. If they get beat to their outside, they have no help to rely on. That is why they use zone technique (back to the sideline) and widen with any vertical release to protect the sideline.

The free safety is the top of the defense. He must honor his responsibilities and not chase any intermediate routes. Offenses will run a deep dig (15-yard square in) to entice the free safety to jump the route — while running a post from the opposite side of the field, leaving the corner naked and playing from outside in with zero help. A classic Cover 3-beater.

This is an eight-man front. If a defense can’t contain the running game with this defense, it will be a long, long Sunday.

Up Next: Base Open Side Fire Zone

Follow me on Twitter: MattBowen41


Add a Comment
Andy Brown
May 18, 2010
07:23 AM

Love these playbook breakdowns!

Da Coach
May 18, 2010
08:15 AM

Thanks Matt. These are not found anywhere else and really make the NFP stand out.

May 18, 2010
08:48 AM

This is really fascinating and instructive thanks Matt. Excuse my ignorance, but I'm not quite sure what you mean by '2-shell'. Is it just that the pre-snap look is for two deep safeties, who may or may not be joined by other players also covering deep.

Also, I was wondering about the positioning of the CBs. In the Tampa-2 article last week they were all set to jam at the line of scrimmage, whereas in the Cover-3 they are shown at at an initial position 7 yards deep. Would I be right in thinking that the jam an almost essential component of the Tampa-2 (or in fact any Cover-2)? I would imagine that if the WR is allowed a free release in a Cover-2 then the safety is going to really struggle to cover the deep pass. So if the CBs are playing off at the snap, then the QB would be reading that the defense is quite unlikely to be running Cover-2, right?

That's Your Basic
May 18, 2010
09:54 AM

Matt - great stuff again this week, thanks for taking the time to lay it out. I particularly enjoy (a bit more last week) naming or highlighting players and teams that utilize each particular defense to better illustrate the key positions and the ideal players.

A quick comment - I believe it was a poster last week who pointed out that the Tampa 2 relied predominantly on turnovers in addition to your point about "keeping everything in front of them." What does is the theme of the Cover 3 defense? Possibly incorporate an 'Achilles Heel' line for the defenses your reviewing?

Fantastic work though. Cheers.

May 18, 2010
10:22 AM

Great stuff once again. The diagrams are a big help and yes, have not seen a football site (even ESPN) get into this much detail about the X's and O's of the game.

May 18, 2010
11:38 AM

Matt great stuff. Any chance you can show how a 3-4 defense can run variations of these coverage schemes? I think this same scheme in a 3-4 would enable you to either rush an extra guy (CB, S, LB) to make a 4-man rush, or have the extra man spy if necessary.

May 18, 2010
11:56 AM

Great article.

I think people need to realize one of the reasons Tampa Bay had such a successful defense back in the early 2000's was entirely their ability to play both Tampa-2 and Cover-3 styles effectively. They could adapt vs. varying offensive styles.

The reason they were such an effective Cover-3 team was how great their SS (Lynch) and WILL (Thomas) were in the system.

All the things you describe above as requirements of the WILL and SS positions, those two players had in spades.

One of the reasons I don't like the Tampa-2 is how many skill players you need. Think about the requirements of getting above average pass rushers up front (because this defense doesn't blitz much). Think about finding the right WILL backer, the right MLB to drop into coverage (Urlacher or Cato June (converted safety)) and a good strong safety (Lynch or Sanders).

This defense accomplishes that by sacrificing some requirements in the cornerback position. You never see Tampa-2 defenses spend a lot on cornerbacks because that position is somewhat sacrificed because of the needs at other positions. Same things with SAM linebacker. You rarely see high priced or high draft picks spent on SAM backers.

The combination Tampa-2, Cover-3 is really what we call Tampa-2 defenses these days. They are separate and unique in thier positional value and posiitonal "shape" vs. 3-4 defenses and agressive, blitzing 4-3, Buddy Ryan/Jim Johnson defenses.

All teams dabble in every defense. You'll see the Steelers play Tampa-2 and Cover-3 on rare occasions (or at least run something with similar principles). But as far as core, base defenses in the NFL today, those are the three big groups.

May 18, 2010
12:40 PM

I believe the nose tackle is playing 1-technique they way you described it here, not 0-technique.

Shading to an A gap like that is 1-technique.

May 18, 2010
01:25 PM

Love the detail. Reminds me of play-art in the Madden games.

May 18, 2010
02:40 PM

WOW... this website is second to none!! NO ONE ELSE really breaks down the sport of football for us TRUE FOOTBALL FANS like this. MAJOR KUDOS to you NFP!!! You just got yourself another subscriber, and Ill spread the word.

May 18, 2010
02:43 PM

I came to this site looking for football - what you ignoramuses in the U.S. call soccer. What do I find but this nonsense. You people are all dorks of the first degree. Its no wonder your U.S. teams are below average in real sports...

May 18, 2010
03:10 PM

Another great write up. Matt, at some point do you think you could explain how run defense works in a little more detail? I'm not exactly sure what "Attack "C" to "B"" means. Thanks again.

May 18, 2010
03:48 PM

Very much enjoying this series, but I have a question:

So far, w/ Tampa 2 and Cover 3, you've been breaking down what a lot of the 4-3 front teams do on defense (Chicago, Indianapolis, Minnesota, etc.). Any chance you could talk some about what the 3-4 fronts are doing? I know they play the same, basic coverage schemes, but I've always been curious how something like Cover 3 would work out of a 3-4 front, especially as most articles on playbook breakdown tend to focus on the 4-3 (presumably b/c it's less complicated?).

Either way, thanks for the good work.

May 18, 2010
03:55 PM

The gaps A, B and C are labeled away from the defender.
A = between center/guard
B = between guard/tackle
C = between tackle/TE-WR

Strong is to the TE side and weak is the other side.

Matt Bowen
May 18, 2010
04:36 PM
Matt Bowen

@Andrew- I will get into some 3-4 fronts as well as the 46 front as we get into the summer. Keeping it basic right now.

@Sean- It is tough to draw up specific run fits on the chalkboard, as the fits will change on different types of running plays. However, attack B to C is the same as saying check B gap to C gap on run.


The corners in Cover 3 can also align in a press look and use a "bail technique" at the line of scrimmage. The "bail" is used by corners who turn their hips and drop at the snap with zone technique, keeping the receiver to their inside and with enough depth to drive down on the throw.

May 18, 2010
08:12 PM

You should probably do something on 4 -Deep "Quarters" coverage. Which was kind of the rage in the early 00's

May 18, 2010
09:00 PM

Hey Matt,
Great Article. I know there are more of these playbook articles on the website but do you think you could provide links for all previous and future articles in one easy to find area? Like at the end of each article.

Cheers, keep up the good work

Mr. Murder
May 18, 2010
09:05 PM

Before the snap, corners always lie, safeties tell the truth.

Nice to see a Bob Sanders picture for the three cover article, even though we may never have the pleasure to view him playing to that level again. One of the greats, he was on Oakland;s board and the Colts got a pick ahead of them moving up. The Raiders were ready to send his name to the podium....

May 18, 2010
10:37 PM

As a devoted Chicago Bears fan, I've recently been studying the 'Tampa 2' defense from resources I've found on the web. I find your articles to be the most detailed and easy to understand breakdown of the defense so far. I'm learning a lot and picking up on the terminology, too.

Great work.

May 19, 2010
12:53 PM

Very cool breakdown. Thank you fo doing this!

May 19, 2010
02:05 PM

Great write-up. Looking forward to "Base Open Side Fire Zone" - whatever that is.

Jun 01, 2010
07:06 PM

Love the breakdowns of the various schemes. Please keep it coming. Love to learning about the technical aspects of the game.

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Your post style is excellent. Very simple and to the point which really helps to learn the content.

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