Defensive Coverages

Football is game of brains and braun. If you study and learn the defensive coverages and tendencies of your opponent you will dramatically increase your chance for a “W.” One key to a successful offense is reading the defensive coverage prior to the snap. This is what we call a PSR (Pre Snap Read). The QB is not the only player who should understand and anticipate what the defense is attempting to do. The receivers, tight end, and running backs also need to understand coverages.

While the offensive line has it’s own reads and blocking assignments from the Center, the rest of players on the offense should each understand the alignment and assignment of the Defensive Backs. Your job doesn’t begin at the snap of the ball – it starts as soon as you break from the huddle.

An accurate Pre-Snap Read will give you a HUGE EDGE over your opponents. You and your Quarterback’s chemistry will be extremely heightened when you learn to adopt the skill of reading defensive coverages. Your combined recognition, anticipation and reaction is all based upon your ability to see the field and know what’s going to happen before it happens.

What happens prior to the ball being snapped can change after the ball has been snapped as well. The secondary can show one coverage before the ball is snapped and then roll into another coverage after the snap. Offensive players needs to be able to read this change as well and we would call this a Post-Snap Read. If the coverage changes all the players on the offense must know how to adjust their assignments on the fly based on the new coverage they are seeing after the snap of the ball.

Many times you can determine what the defensive coverage is before the snap. A majority of defensive coverage’s 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 coverage’s and/or narrow them down to a few options.

Although you and your Quarterback may be aware of the defensive coverage, you must approach the line of scrimmage the same way each and every time so the defense won’t be able to, in turn, read what pass routes you will be running.

The Pre-Snap Read process includes a scan of the football field. The purpose is to identify:

  1. The number of safeties
  2. The depth of the corners
  3. The weak-side flat defender, and…
  4. The number of run defenders (“front”)

First, find the Free Safety and Strong Safety to determine the type of front – seven-man or eight-man. If the safeties adjust to motion, be aware of a possible blitz.

Next, find the weak-side linebacker (referred to as ‘Will’) . 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” which means to run a hot route (short/quick route that allows the Quarterback to release the ball quickly).

The Pre-Snap Read is only the first step in your quarterback’s throwing decision. The QB must identify the primary defender to read “Hard Focus” and determine where to throw the ball. If you happen to pick up on the same read your QB does and if you’re not receiving double coverage, through practice in situational coverage’s, you’ll know exactly what to do to get open and get the football. The primary defender is determined by the pattern and the related pre-snap read. The ball is thrown based upon what the primary defender does within the QB’s line of sight. For example, on a strong side route the pre-snap read must identify the Strong Safety. Upon the snap the strong safety can man-up, cover the flat, cover deep third (1/3) or cover deep quarter (1/4). It is the strong safety’s action that allows the quarterback to decide where to throw the ball.

Depending upon the route, the strong safety’s action might change the primary defenders read to the Corner or Free Safety. 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 primary defender rotate, invert or play man?

As you can see, there’s a lot to grasp in reading a defensive coverage. If you master this skill, it will help you know when you should run your routes as a decoy, when you should run a hot route to get the ball quicker, avoid a pick (turnover), and allow your quarterback to elude the defense.

As a receiver you should also notice the eyes of your defender. If your defender is watching the QB then he’ll be in some kind of zone coverage, but if his eyes are fixed on you then it will be man-to-man coverage.



The following is a list of coverages that you will see the most often at the high school level or below. We are not going to list a bunch of complicated coverages that you might see at the professional level as they just won’t apply here. The main idea is to LEARN YOUR COVERAGES! Nothing will help you more than understanding coverages and it’s the one thing that is lacking at the high school level. If you know the zones you will know where the holes are in those zones. As a receiver, if you recognize when it’s a variation of man coverage you will understand when you need to apply a line release and how you need to attack the defender over the top of you.

Here is a list of coverage diagrams we’ll show on the following pages:

Cover 0 (straight man)
Cover 1 (man-free) All man with the exception by the Free Safety
Cover 2 (half coverage)
Cover 3 (thirds coverage)
Cover 4 (quarters coverage)
Cover 6 (quarter, quarter, half) One safety is half coverage, the other two are quarters.
Cover 7 (two-man coverage) Safeties are half coverage, all other defenders are man. Looks like Cover 2.


Cover 0 is a straight man-to-man with no safety help. The pre snap read 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 Corners on the wide receivers. The Corners 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.

In the following coverage diagrams a dashed yellow line indicates man-to-man coverage and solid yellow line indicates the zone area of each defender.


Cover 1 is man-to-man with a FS to help over the top. The pre snap read is based on the alignment of the Corners and linebackers on the receivers. The Corners will be head up or in an outside alignment because they have help from the FS. This allows the Corners to take away the outs. Also, if the SS aligns head up on his eligible receiver at a tight to normal depth (4-6 yards) and the FS is deeper than normal (12-15 yards), this will confirm the Man-Free coverage. The linebackers will have the backs man-to-man. The QB should anticipate pressure from a five man rush, with the possibility of the defense bringing seven.

How to Recognize Cover 1
Video Link:


Cover 2 zone half-coverage. The pre snap read is based on the depth of the Corners and safeties. The Corners’s 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”)

How to Recognize Cover 2
Video Link:


Cover 3 thirds coverage. The pre snap read is based on the alignment of SS and Corner 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 Corner, the read is an invert by the SS; i.e., the SS is covering the flat, if a receiver is in the flat. Confirm 3 deep coverage by the alignment of the FS. If the FS is off the hash and favoring the middle, assume that it will be a 3 deep. Also the QB must be aware of the weak side, if the Weak side 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.


Cover 4 refers to four deep defenders, each guarding one-fourth of the deep zone. The pre snap read is the depth of the third level defenders. If both corners, the SS, and FS are aligned in the third level it indicates 1/4’s coverage. Cover 4 schemes are usually used to defend against deep passes. The most basic Cover 4 scheme involves two cornerbacks and two safeties. Upon snap, the cornerbacks work for depth, backpedaling into their assigned zone. Both safeties backpedal towards their assigned zone. As with other coverage shells, Cover 4 is paired with underneath man or zone coverage in its most basic form.


Cover 6 refers to three deep defenders. The pre snap read is based on field alignment. Unlike ‘Cover 3’, the field is not split equally. Most teams that use Cover 6 are 3-4 Defenses, call offensive strength to the Field instead of to the offensive formation or front, and organize personnel by Field-side player and Boundary-side player. The position of the ball on the field therefore dictates strength of the offense. In Cover 6 the field safety and field corner cover fourths of the field, and depend on a field outside linebacker to support underneath them. The free safety covers the boundary-side deep half and the boundary corner plays the flat. Thus the field side of the coverage is quarters, and the boundary side is cover 2.


Cover 7 zone half-coverage. The pre snap read is based on the alignment of the “W” backer. If he is head-up over 2 (slot receiver) and Corners are man-up. The Corners’s will usually be man up on the wideouts. The Corners will have their eye’s on the receiver if they are playing man and their eyes on the QB if they are playing zone. Cover-7 is often called “man-under halves” weak-side rotation coverage.


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