NFL Coverage Bible: A Fantasy Study


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NFL Coverage Bible: A Fantasy Study

For a breakdown of what players to target against certain defensive coverage shells, check out another piece at Fantasy Points.

Gone are the days of describing NFL defensive coverage principles through the pigeonholed terms of “man coverage” and “zone coverage,” both in analytics and practice. New-age defensive coordinators mix and match varying coverage methodologies with an aim at disruption and confusion for the offense.

This, in turn, leaves fans, tape heads, and fantasy players alike two to three years in the dust, all the while thinking we have a firm grasp on current defensive tendencies around the league. But we can get better.

This article will aim to break down the major coverage schemes found in the NFL today, explore how those coverage principles are intertwined with other areas of the defense — the front, pressure, blitzes, and the linebacking corps — and parlay those findings into actionable intel to use in fantasy games of all kinds.

The statistics for this piece were pulled from the Fantasy Points Data Suite. The Fantasy Points Coverage Matrix and Wide Receiver Coverage Matchup tools are invaluable in identifying mismatches during the season.

What Caused the Change in Defensive Tendencies?

The NFL has historically been a copycat league. Coaches and general managers pluck everything from unique alignments and personnel groupings to specific plays from one another from year to year.

From a macro perspective, this causes a sinusoidal ebbing and flowing in the power struggle between offenses and defenses. Basically, as one idea or exploitation takes hold on the offense, defenses are forced to adjust to catch up and regain the upper hand over the subsequent seasons. The easiest way to visualize this eternal dance is to look at the median pass rates over the previous two decades of play.

The tables below illustrate this idea.

Median Pass Rates — Last 20 Seasons

Med Pass %55.4855.2354.5657.0656.5057.1056.6258.0458.2458.66
Med Pass %59.4059.7759.4158.2158.8559.7958.6858.7458.2857.19

Median passing rates began to climb substantially after the turn of the decade leaving the 2010s, maintaining a tight band between 58 and 59 percent for over 10 years. This was the “passing era” of the NFL, with names like Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, and Aaron Rodgers at the peak of their powers.

The bulk of the defensive alignments employed by coordinators during that span were rooted in Cover-2 and variations like Tampa-2, the latter of which required athletic linebackers that could drop into coverage in the second level after diagnosing a pass. That led to a stark shift in focus from defensive coordinators to a heavier emphasis on Cover-3 base alignments in zone (35.7 percent in 2023 and 36.4 percent in 2022) and Cover-1 base alignments in man (18.7 percent in 2023 and 19.9 percent in 2022) in recent years to both reduce efficiency down the field and make it less appetizing to pass.

But before we get too far down this rabbit hole, let’s first turn our attention to what these coverage shells are, how teams are currently employing them, and the archetype of pass-catcher that excels against them.

The Coverages


To best understand the defenders' responsibilities in the alignments we are about to describe, try looking at the number following the hyphen as the number of free defenders in the secondary with no man coverage duties.

Therefore, Cover-0 defensive alignments would indicate that there are no members of the secondary without any man coverage responsibilities in coverage, meaning all defensive backs and linebackers are either in man-to-man coverage with a member of the offense or are blitzing the opposing quarterback. That typically leaves five players in man coverage to cover the opposing wide receivers, tight end(s), and running back(s), and six players charged with generating pressure on the quarterback (typically three to four defensive linemen and a mix of safeties and linebackers). A coach who employs a relatively high percentage of Cover-0 is generally considered an “aggressive” coordinator.

This coverage has all but been phased out of the league outside of short-yardage situations and key downs on two-minute drives due to the propensity to give up splash plays if pressure is not generated in a timely fashion. So even the most aggressive coaches tend to reserve their Cover-0 packages (also known as a “Zero Blitz”) for specific late-game situations or money downs.

THE GOODS of Cover-0 include high pressure rate, simplicity in coverage as every player knows their responsibility prior to the snap of the football, a boost to players in the box — which helps against the run in short yardage situations- — and the ability to reduce separation at target.

THE OTHERS (aviator lingo for bad stuff) include a susceptibility to splash plays against and a susceptibility to quick outs, slants, and crossers through players who can win within the first couple yards of the line of scrimmage.

The most common utilization of Cover-0 alignments coincides with press-man coverage, where the players in coverage line up less than two yards beyond the line of scrimmage to “press” the opponent off the line. Teams around the league averaged a 4.0 percent Cover-0 rate in 2023, with the Vikings leading the way with a robust 11.7 percent Cover-0 rate under new defensive coordinator Brian Flores and his aggressive scheme.

Because of its low utilization rates from teams around the league and the fact that teams are typically employing this coverage in short-yardage situations in today’s game, the players that took most advantage of Cover-0 in 2023 were, unsurprisingly, running backs.

Kareem Hunt led the league in half-PPR fantasy points per target against Cover-0 while A.J. Brown (15), DJ Moore (14), Stefon Diggs (12), Keenan Allen (12), CeeDee Lamb (10), and DeVonta Smith (10) were the only players to see more than 10 targets against Cover-0 a season ago. Mike Evans (3) and Jonnu Smith (3) were the only pass-catchers to notch more than 2 touchdowns against this primary alignment in 2023.

From a fantasy perspective, the largest actionable edges to be gained against Cover-0 are in weekly roster decisions like start-sit or in DFS, where alpha-type pass-catchers gain a slight bump against the more aggressive defenses in the league like Minnesota (Flores) and the 2023 Giants (Wink Martindale, who is no longer with the team).


Cover-1 is similar to Cover-0 in that it is a base man coverage alignment. That said, the defense now utilizes a single “free” player, typically the free safety, who is the lone player in the secondary with no man coverage responsibility. This is the most common man coverage shell deployed by defenses in today’s game, with an 18.7 percent league-wide utilization rate in 2023.

Whereas six players are typically in on the blitz from Cover-0, Cover-1 typically sees five players charged with pressuring the quarterback. While the base coverage alignment is relatively easy to comprehend, today’s defensive coordinators incorporate numerous unique rotations and micro alignments to gain the upper hand in pressure rates and post-snap confusion. Some of these tactics include:

  • stunt blitzes

  • weak side blitzes (blitzes originating from players on the opposite side of the formation than the tight end)

  • rat coverage (the free safety gives the look of a standard deep alignment before the snap of the football but then cheats down into the passing lanes over the middle of the field while the quarterback is in his dropback)

  • QB spies (quarterback spies are most often linebackers, but there are some teams that incorporate free safety spies on mobile QBs)

  • Press-man

  • Off-man

  • double teams

Forward-thinking defensive coordinators have begun to utilize dual safety blitzes with a dropping athletic linebacker in addition to delayed (or “wrap”) blitzes from this base formation to great effect.

In today’s game, we typically see teams with extreme athleticism in the secondary employ elevated rates of Cover-1 as it mitigates the risk of losing the one-on-one battles on the perimeter that can lead to splash plays against.

The Browns (Jim Schwartz, 37.2 percent) led the league in Cover-1 utilization in 2023, followed by the Saints (Joe Woods, 32.0 percent), the Cowboys (Dan Quinn, replaced by Mike Zimmer, 30.9 percent), and the Giants (Wink Martindale, replaced by Shane Bowen, 29.1 percent).

THE GOODS of Cover-1 include a lower propensity to give up yards after the catch as compared to Cover-0, and risk mitigation.

THE OTHERS of Cover-1 include susceptibility to deep passing on the perimeter (away from the free safety), high strain on defensive backs to maintain their assignments, and susceptibility to speed on the perimeter.

The leaders in yards per reception against Cover-1 in 2023 included George Pickens (31.9, lol), Diontae Johnson (29.6, lol), Tyreek Hill (25.1), Tank Dell (25.0), Christian Kirk (24.4), Odell Beckham Jr (24.4), Deebo Samuel (23.7), George Kittle (22.5), DJ Moore (21.8), Brandon Aiyuk (21.6), Chris Olave (20.5), Terry McLaurin (20.3), and Darius Slayton (20.3).

Mike Evans (19.7) and Rashid Shaheed (19.7) narrowly missed eclipsing 20.0 yards per reception against Cover-1 a season ago.

The leaders in targets against Cover-1 in 2023 included CeeDee Lamb (49), Michael Pittman (47), A.J. Brown (44), Davante Adams (43), Cooper Kupp (42), DK Metcalf (40), and Garrett Wilson (40).

Of qualified pass-catchers, A.J. Brown led the league in targets per route run (TPRR) against Cover-1 in 2023 (0.44), followed by Davante Adams (0.38), DK Metcalf (0.38), Tyreek Hill (0.38), CeeDee Lamb (0.36), Justin Jefferson (0.36), Cooper Kupp (0.36), and Sam LaPorta (0.35).

As you can see from the data, players who can separate early excel against this coverage shell and players with high aDOTs (Odell Beckham Jr., Darius Slayton, Mike Evans, and Rashid Shaheed) can generate immense upside if they can shake free of their primary coverage down the field.

In start-sit decisions and DFS against teams that deploy elevated rates of Cover-1, target players with the ability to get off the line of scrimmage against press-man and off-man or players with elevated aDOTs and plus speed on the perimeter.


Once the preferred base zone alignment around the league, Cover-2 has seen its utilization curbed slightly in favor of Cover-3 and quarters (more on these two below) in recent years.

Cover-2 functions exactly as it sounds, with two deep safeties typically responsible for an area, or zone, of the secondary. Cover-2 is rather versatile and can be played in conjunction with a 3-4 (three defensive linemen and four linebackers) or 4-3 base (four defensive linemen and three linebackers). Different variations of the Cover-2 base alignment began to appear prior to the virtual league-wide shift to a Cover-3 base, including Tampa-2, Cover-2 man, Cover-2 invert, and two-high, amongst others.

Tampa-2 saw the two deep safeties playing wider than normal and utilized a dropping linebacker to generate depth over the middle of the field. This typically required an athletic and smart middle linebacker, as they also shared responsibilities against the run and could not drop into coverage until they diagnosed a pass.

Cover-2 man involves two free safeties who divide the field in half. Both of them typically align 12-20 yards behind the line of scrimmage to keep the play in front of them. The linebackers and cornerbacks are then deployed in man coverage in front of the back half, which can occur through press-man and off-man coverage alignments.

Cover-2 invert, or Cover-2 robber, switches responsibilities for the deep perimeter areas of the field from the safeties to the cornerbacks, instead relying on the safeties to cover the underneath routes like crossers, curls, slants, and some outs, in certain instances.

Although not directly a Cover-2 alignment, many teams have begun using two-high alignments as their base on early downs. There are many reasons for this slight tweak as the preferred base set in today’s game, most paramount of which is the balance against the run and pass. Also key is that many variations of this coverage can be introduced after the snap, but the base formation appears the same to the quarterback before the snap. Cover-2 also features robust mitigation of downfield passing due to the two free safeties.

The Vikings led the league in Cover-2 utilization a season ago at 21.2 percent (Flores), followed by the Bears (Alan Williams, replaced by Eric Washington, 20.3 percent), the Patriots (Bill Belichick, replaced by DeMarcus Covington, 18.1 percent), and the Chiefs (Steve Spagnuolo, 17.4 percent).

THE GOODS of Cover-2 include its simplicity, the balance it provides against the run and pass, and strong protection against downfield passing against mediocre offenses with vanilla schematical design.

THE OTHERS of Cover-2 include its susceptibility to intermediate passing over the middle of the field (behind the linebackers and in front of the safeties) the fact that it is more of a “jack of all trades, master of none” alignment, the league’s familiarity with it, and the challenges the alignment faces in dealing with layered route concepts.

Historically, elite route-runners shred Cover-2 due to their influence on safety positioning through their route. There are many different aspects that influence safeties in today’s game, all of which will be covered in a later section. The leaders in yards per reception against Cover-2 in 2023 included Gabe Davis (23.8), DeVonta Smith (21.0), DK Metcalf (20.5), George Pickens (20.5), Deebo Samuel (20.1), Puka Nacua (19.3), Amon-Ra St. Brown (18.9), and Jayden Reed (18.7).

The leaders in targets against Cover-2 in 2023 included Tyreek Hill (35), DJ Moore (23), Evan Engram (22), Alvin Kamara (21), T.J. Hockenson (21), Sam LaPorta (21), Cole Kmet (20), Jaylen Waddle (20), and Chris Godwin (18). Of qualifying pass-catchers, Tyreek Hill (0.46) led the league in TPRR against Cover-2 in 2023, followed by Deebo Samuel (0.40), Dalton Kincaid (0.40), Sam LaPorta (0.38), Keenan Allen (0.38), T.J. Hockenson (0.36), and Jaylen Waddle (0.35).

The names on those lists incorporate a wide variety of archetypes, so let’s boil it down to the most actionable conclusion we can. The ways to stress Cover-2 alignments originate in route concepts, with a combination of vertical components, attacking the intermediate middle of the field, and layered route concepts giving playmakers the best chances of exploiting the Cover-2 coverage tendencies.

We’ll examine the causal factors for that conclusion in a later section – suffice to say, this is the governing reason why we see a mix of archetypes dotting the lists above. Vertical players like Davis, Smith, Metcalf, and Pickens have been able to successfully exploit weaknesses in Cover-2 introduced via layered route concepts and off-ball manipulation of the safeties, while players that work the middle of the field and are elite route technicians — like St. Brown, Reed, Samuel, and Nacua — can generate their own separation off the line and find the weaknesses in the intermediate levels.

In other words, exploiting Cover-2 goes much deeper than “target slot wide receivers against Cover-2” and carries more nuance on an “Xs and Os” level. For that reason, we should narrow our search to players who can generate their own separation off the line of scrimmage that also work the intermediate middle of the field, as well as players with a high percentage of their route tree consisting of the seven through nine routes (corner, post, and go), with the additional caveat that these players get a boost while playing on an offense with layered route concepts. These layered route concepts are paramount in creating the room on the perimeter for the wide receiver to thrive.


Current defensive coordinators have recently shifted to a high emphasis on Cover-3 alignments. Cover-3 is the most versatile of the schemes currently in use in the NFL, providing a solid mix of men in the box to stop the run, athleticism against an increasingly athletic tight end cadre around the league (typically covered by the strong safety from this formation), depth against the deep ball, and defenders around the point of reception.

Defensive coordinators have begun to install variations of the Cover-3 base, including Cover-3 press, Cover-3 man, Cover-3 bail, and Cover-3 buzz. Cover-3 was, by far, the most commonly utilized primary defensive alignment around the league in 2023 at 36.1 percent.

The Cover-3 press involves similar principles to the Cover-1 press in that the perimeter corners are charged with pressing the wide receiver on their side of the field off the line of scrimmage. The primary difference between the two is the assignments of the players in the box, with the strong safety most commonly being deployed in tight end coverage in Cover-3 press compared to on the blitz from Cover-1 press.

Cover-3 man appears similar to Cover-1 before the snap but is still a zone coverage at heart, with the primary deviation from base Cover-3 being cornerback responsibilities deep. Corners are charged with playing strict man coverage over the deep areas of the field from Cover-3 man and melded into zone coverage principles over the short and intermediate areas of the field.

Cover-3 bail, or Cover-3 press bail, was made famous in the early 2010s by the Seattle Seahawks and the Legion of Boom. It involves showing Cover-3 press coverage at the line of scrimmage and “bailing” into intermediate-deep Cover-3 principles post-snap.

Cover-3 buzz appears extremely similar to Cover-2 pre-snap, with two deep safeties, but the strong safety “buzzes” into the intermediate flat to cover the curl/hook zones, dropping the free safety into deep coverage to set up Cover-3 principles after the snap of the football.

The Colts (Gus Bradley, 55.5 percent) and Panthers (Ejiro Evero, 55.1 percent) handily paced the league in Cover-3 utilization rate in 2023, followed by the Seahawks (Clint Hurtt, replaced by Aden Durde, 46.9 percent), the Steelers (Teryl Austin, 43.9 percent), and the Packers (Joe Barry, replaced by Jeff Hafley, 43.5 percent).

THE GOODS of Cover-3 include solid help against the run (primarily due to a safety in the box), the transfer of underneath crossers, and defenders around the ball at point of reception.

THE OTHERS of Cover-3 include poor gap coverage, poor elasticity over the intermediate middle of the field, and susceptibility to overloaded, clearing, and layered routes. We often see teams with poor run defenses play elevated rates of Cover-3 as the best compromise. These defenses also often struggle to generate disruption, yielding long, sustained drives.

Alpha pass-catchers typically eat against Cover-3 as offensive coordinators can elongate the intermediate middle of the field through various means in the current game (more on this in a later section).

The leaders in yards per reception against Cover-3 in 2023 included Khalil Shakir (21.3), Amari Cooper (20.8), Michael Wilson (19.7), DJ Chark (19.6), Brandon Aiyuk (17.6), Jerry Jeudy (17.4), George Pickens (17.3), and Cooper Kupp (17.0).

The leaders in targets against Cover-3 in 2023 included Chris Olave (62), Calvin Ridley (59), DeAndre Hopkins (56), Keenan Allen (56), Amon-Ra St. Brown (56), A.J. Brown (55), Evan Engram (55), CeeDee Lamb (54), Stefon Diggs (53), and Mike Evans (52). Of qualified pass-catchers, Tyreek Hill (0.39) handily led the league in TPRR against Cover-3 in 2023, followed by Kendrick Bourne (0.35), A.J. Brown (0.34), Stefon Diggs (0.34), Keenan Allen (0.33), Davante Adams (0.33), CeeDee Lamb (0.33), and DeAndre Hopkins (0.32).

The primary reason we see alphas, or a team’s top pass-catcher, absolutely eat against Cover-3 is the alignment’s rigidity. That said, a select few current defensive coordinators employ enough variation to the base alignment to achieve sweeping success (primarily Ejiro Evero, Steve Spagnuolo, and Lou Anarumo).

On the other hand, there were some defensive coordinators who lost their jobs this offseason due to the team’s struggles from Cover-3 (among other shortcomings), including Joe Barry (Packers) and Clint Hurtt (Seahawks). We’ll save the rest of the discussion on the player archetype to target against Cover-3 for the final section of this piece, as it pertains directly to how current offensive coordinators quietly shift the meta-balance back to the offenses.


The basics of Cover-4 alignments can best be boiled down into two different principles – man match and spot zone.

Spot zone, or spot drop, involves players in the secondary dropping to a deep spot, or zone. Defenders are responsible for covering a portion of the deep areas of the field, with the safeties most commonly aligned near opposite hashes and the corners responsible for the deep perimeter. In man match, defenders are responsible for mirroring, or matching, the route of their primary coverage.

For these reasons, Cover-4 and quarters coverages are gaining popularity around the league due to the multitude of schematic principles available to defensive coordinators. In other words, these coverages provide an interesting mix of man and zone coverage principles, all wrapped into a coverage shell that simultaneously appears to mimic Cover-2 and look static to opposing quarterbacks prior to the snap of the football. That fluidity allows defensive coordinators to generate confusion and disruption.

In current iterations of Cover-4 and quarters around the league, we typically see the safeties playing shallower as compared to Cover-2 and Cover-3 (typically eight to 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage). This gives the defense more men in the box against the run while also providing the necessary depth from which to retreat against the pass.

Cardinals head coach Jonathan Gannon preferred to play from this base set in 2023, as evidenced by his 30.4 percent quarters utilization rate (led the league, and was the team’s most oft-utilized coverage scheme). Gannon’s safeties typically found themselves setting up 10-12 yards beyond the line of scrimmage prior to the snap, which allowed them to diagnose the offensive play, step forward into the box against the run, and retreat into a more standard quarters depth against the pass.

The team did not experience the levels of success the Cardinals had envisioned when they hired Gannon to be their head coach last year, but that is something to keep in mind as the team enters year two with Gannon at the defensive helm. In other words, I would expect Arizona to perform better as a unit in the coming season, and identifying these types of trends can benefit season-long gamers and DFSers alike.

The league-wide Cover-4/quarters utilization rate in 2023 stood at 14.2 percent, with the Cardinals, followed by the Jets (26.4 percent), the Titans (22.2 percent), the 49ers (22.1 percent), and the Texans (21.9 percent), leading the way.

THE GOODS of Cover-4/quarters include its malleability, the fact that it’s difficult for inexperienced quarterbacks to diagnose pre-snap, the additional defenders in the box against the run, and its propensity to minimize splash plays against.

THE OTHERS of Cover-4 and quarters include time to teach (this is a relatively new formation and requires significant efforts to coach), its heavy communication requirements, and the need for athletic and smart safeties. In other words, a lack of experience or continuity amongst the linebackers and secondary often leads to underperformance from this defensive alignment, making injuries difficult to overcome during a grueling season.

The leaders in yards per reception (assuming a minimum of 10 targets) against Cover-4/quarters in 2023 includeD Jameson Williams (18.88), Amari Cooper (18.77), Alec Pierce (18.40), Christian Kirk (18.38), DK Metcalf (17.69), Calvin Ridley (17.40), Deebo Samuel (17.31), Gabe Davis (16.88), and DeAndre Hopkins (16.87).

The leaders in targets against Cover-4/quarters in 2023 included Puka Nacua (39), CeeDee Lamb (36), A.J. Brown (30), Stefon Diggs (29), Amon-Ra St. Brown (28), Travis Kelce (28), DeVonta Smith (27), T.J. Hockenson (27), and Davante Adams (26). T

The leaders in TPRR against Cover-4/quarters in 2023 included Jaylen Waddle (0.41), Puka Nacua (0.39), Amon-Ra St. Brown (0.38), Cole Kmet (0.35), Mark Andrews (0.34), DeAndre Hopkins (0.34), and Trey McBride (0.33).

It makes sense that downfield players like Williams, Pierce, Kirk, Metcalf, Ridley, and Davis excel in yards per reception against Cover-4/quarters due to the heavy communication requirements in the defensive alignment. If the alignment is not executed properly, busted coverages and open receivers downfield are more likely. Often, teams and quarterbacks are looking to exploit inside-breaking routes against Cover-4/quarters due to the width of the perimeter corners.

That said, the single greatest tool an offensive coordinator has against Cover-4/quarters is play action because of its effect on safeties and their ability to read and diagnose the offensive play. In other words, if an offensive coordinator can effectively stunt the safeties’ ability to diagnose the play, it can open up significant portions of the deep interior of the field, which is why we see the players with high aDOTs and deeper route trees take advantage of this formation. The other means of exploiting Cover-4/quarters is to effectively attack the void behind the linebackers and in front of the secondary, which can be done via crossing routes, slants, outs, and posts.


Cover-6 combines the defensive principles of Cover-2 and Cover-4, effectively splitting the field into two separate coverage alignments. It appears to mimic Cover-3 prior to the snap of the ball, with three deep defenders and four underneath.

This coverage functions as a split coverage and is oftentimes utilized against unbalanced formations (3x1), allowing the defense to effectively utilize Cover-4 on the strong side of the offensive formation and Cover-2 on the weak side of the offensive formation. We don’t see this defensive alignment utilized at a high rate in today’s game, typically reserved for unbalanced formations where the opposing alpha is aligned away from the strong side of the formation.

Cover-6 was utilized at the second-lowest rate by defensive coordinators in 2023 at just 9.4 percent, higher than just Cover-0. That said, the Chargers (24.4 percent), Dolphins (21.2 percent), Falcons (17.9 percent), Rams (16.9 percent), and Ravens (16.5 percent) utilized Cover-6 to great effect last season.

THE GOODS of Cover-6 include deep coverage on the strong side of the formation, the ability to disguise coverage sets due to the similarities to Cover-3 pre-snap, and the additional defenders in the box against the run.

THE OTHERS of Cover-6 include insufficient coverage of the flat to the strong side of the formation, the requirement for a rangy free safety on the weak side of the formation, and its susceptibility to play action due to the safeties' requirement to diagnose the play.

Tee Higgins (27.25) led the league in yards per target against Cover-6 in 2023, of players that saw 10 or more targets against the primary coverage. Higgins was followed by Diontae Johnson (25.00), Quentin Johnston (24.80), Jerry Jeudy (20.88), Ja’Marr Chase (19.10), and Jordan Addison (18.44).

The primary caveat here is that only a handful of pass-catchers saw more than a modest 15 targets against Cover-6 last season. Those players were Tyreek Hill (22), Chris Godwin (22), Garrett Wilson (20), Chris Olave (18), Amon-Ra St. Brown (17), Stefon Diggs (16), Chigoziem Okonkwo (15), Davante Adams (15), Justin Jefferson (15), and Jake Ferguson (15).

The leaders in TPRR against Cover-6 in 2023 included Tyreek Hill (0.49), Noah Brown (0.37), Chris Olave (0.33), Amon-Ra St. Brown (0.32), Jake Ferguson (0.32), Gerald Everett (0.32), Jaylen Waddle (0.31), and Dallas Goedert (0.30).

As you can see from the data, the primary avenue of attack against Cover-6 remains the short perimeter areas of the field. Players who can win within the first few yards of the line of scrimmage and escape underneath the strong side corner excel against Cover-6. Players who work the weak side of the formation that can exploit Cover-2-style coverages can also cut loose against Cover-6, as evidenced by the leaders in yards per reception against Cover-6 from last season. Four of the six leaders in YPR against Cover-6 from 2023 work the weak side of the formation from unbalanced looks.

Where is the League Going from Here?

NFL teams averaged 2.38 touchdowns per game in 2023, the lowest total since the 2017 season (2.39). Between the 2018 and 2021 seasons, that number was above 2.60 in every season, peaking in the 2020 COVID season at a robust 2.88 touchdowns per team per game. But in the three seasons since that offensive outburst, scoring has precipitously dropped in each season (2.61 touchdowns per team per game in 2021, 2.43 in 2022, and 2.38 in 2023). That signals a shift in the meta, with defensive coordinators turning the tides in their favor.

That said, we’ve begun to see various aspects of the offensive game change, and with it, some teams have achieved higher levels of offensive success of late. I expect that trend to continue into the new league year, with the copycat style of the league rounding into form. But how and why are some teams instituting changes that beat recent trends?

Mike McDaniel.

That seems and sounds pedantic at its core, but it’s true when you examine what this man is bringing to the table each week. If I had to summarize McDaniel’s offensive principles, I would highlight the factors of his offense that have led to the shift in the power struggle between offenses and defenses – pre-snap motion, vertical principles, layered route trees, and dynamic run-blocking schemes.

And we started to see some of these principles mimicked from other offensive play-callers during the 2023 season, most notably from Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan (other disciples of the Gary Kubiak coaching tree). Shanahan was quoted in the middle of the season saying that he directly took the “loop route” from McDaniel.

In the “loop” concept, Tyreek Hill acts as the pre-snap motion man from the weak-to-strong side of the formation (originating on the opposite side of the formation and ending on the same side of the formation as the tight end). The ball is snapped with Hill still in motion parallel to the line of scrimmage, after which Hill doesn’t simply work up field. Instead, Hill arcs his route around the perimeter receiver on the strong side (typically illustrated as the “X” receiver on paper) and ends the route over the intermediate middle of the field. We mentioned in the above sections that Cover-2 and Cover-3 struggle to contain cohesion over the intermediate middle of the field and had the propensity to become elongated due to the responsibilities of defenders in coverage. This simple route design aims to exploit those tendencies.

The Texans’ Bobby Slowik began implementing some interesting run-blocking principles stolen from McDaniel later in the season as well (Slowik is also a distant disciple of the Gary Kubiak coaching tree). On paper (and on the chalkboard, “Xs and Os”), there are two primary run-blocking schemes currently in use in today’s game – gap and zone. Gap run-blocking schemes utilize down blocking and pulling linemen heavily, designed to generate a “gap” along the defensive line, whereas zone run-blocking schemes typically involve linemen responsible for a “zone,” or area, of the defensive formation and is less reliant on man-blocking principles.

The play in question begins with tight end Dalton Schultz as the motion man. Schultz motions across the formation and then resets in depth, more akin to where we would expect to see a fullback aligned. The right tackle (Charlie Heck) pulls across the formation at the snap while Schultz cuts back into the vacated blocking space left by Heck. These are extremely gap-centric concepts. The left side of the formation, however, blocks utilizing zone principles, with the center, left guard, and left tackle (Laremy Tunsil) all blocking away from the face of the play to the left with spot-man responsibilities. Tunsil sets contain on the left edge while running back Devin Singletary follows the lead blocker (Heck). Mike McDaniel utilized these run-blocking deviations earlier in the season, as early as the team’s Week 3 historic dismantling of the Broncos.

Other unique elements of McDaniel’s offensive system include speed sail (Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle, and Mike Gesicki all on the same side of the formation and running layered routes), hank concept (overloading one side of the defensive formation from a balanced offensive formation), and bow concept (utilizes hook or curl routes underneath with a dig or crosser behind it – this is the concept that McDaniel morphed into the “loop route” via Hill, discussed above).

All of those principles are designed to exploit two key components of today’s defenses – safety manipulation and defensive line manipulation. Those are the two areas of the field that are most important to defensive success in today’s game. Fading are the days of linebacker-driven defenses (sorry Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll, and Joe Barry), meaning the two most important levels of the field to manipulate are the secondary and the front. And the ways that forward-thinking offensive play callers are using to influence those areas of the field are pre-snap motion, vertical principles, layered route trees, and dynamic run-blocking schemes. It’s simply a case of Mike McDaniel designing plays to emphasize those four pillars better than anyone else in the league at present.

But the copycat nature of the league is starting to shine through, meaning we should continue to see other coaches and teams draw up interesting variations to exploit opposing secondaries and fronts. Not every team has Patrick Mahomes under center to continually extend plays and manipulate those areas of the field with his legs, eyes, and body (yeah, that dude is on another level in his understanding of the game and how to win in the current meta).

Regarding individual alignments from the defenses around the league, I expect Cover-3 to continue to reign supreme. Quarters is also on the rise, and for good reason. Quarters looks a lot like a standard two-high shell to the quarterback prior to the snap, making it more difficult to diagnose. Those tendencies are going to force offensive play callers to increase their dynamism while also emphasizing two abilities from route runners – the ability to get off the line of scrimmage against both press and off coverage and the ability to run crisp routes. Sure, receivers like Gabe Davis, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Darius Slayton, and Rashid Shaheed are extremely valuable to offensive coordinators for their ability to manipulate safeties, but we’re unlikely to see this archetype of receiver flourish in the game again for some time.

What can we do for fantasy?

In summary, alphas are going to alpha – it’s what they do. As far as hunting for secondary pass-catchers to exploit current trends, look for players who are capable of beating Cover-2 principles, as are found in Cover-6, and players who possess solid route-running abilities that can exploit Cover-3 and Cover-4/quarters principles. The poster children for this leap in 2023 were Amon-Ra St. Brown and Puka Nacua, two players who parlayed their excellent route-running abilities into true breakout seasons.

Mark “Hilow” Garcia is a medium to high-stakes GPP grinder specializing in SE/3-Max and Game Theory. He joined Fantasy Points in 2024 and also serves as the head of DFS, BB, at One Week Season.