Always looking to stay on top of our in-season research, my weekly routine begins with a breakdown of the upcoming DFS/season-long action by updating player statistics, and then diving into the matchups. For those packing the ability to read and understand defensive coverages, a massive leg up on a large percentage of the competition is on the table.
For all of the progress the industry has made in reporting player news, providing injury updates, and pointing out statistical trends, you’ll be hard-pressed to track down available sources of coverage data. Even in the few locations where some of that data is available, much of it reads like organic chemistry for most without extensive playing or coaching experience. We may know that a WR — we’ll refer to him as Mr. E — has done well facing a specific coverage, but he’ll be entering a new season, and, to complicate the scenario, will be delivered targets from a new QB.
There are tons of questions to ask. Why was he successful? Was it Mr. E’s former QB that supplied the advantage, or does he possess quality traits that preclude him toward success? The list goes on. However, the one question that stands above all others: how is the historical data of Mr. E’s coverage success valuable toward our fantasy success?
Since you have access to this piece, and the following pieces I’m calling “Fantasy Shells,” you are in luck. Tapping into over 30 years of fantasy football experience and nearly a decade of hands-on analytical training from some of the top football IQs in the world, I’ll take a deep dive with this article series into every aspect of the main defensive coverages that directly dictate the allowance/prevention of every single fantasy point scored by NFL passing attacks.
The dollar figures paint a clear picture — NFL franchises pay out a massive percentage of their salary cap in devotion to propagating or stunting the passing game. The seven highest paid positions are Quarterback (Patrick Mahomes), Edge Rusher (Myles Garrett), Defensive Tackle (Aaron Donald), Rush Outside Linebacker (Khalil Mack), Wide Receiver (Julio Jones), Left Tackle (Laremy Tunsil), and Cornerback (Jalen Ramsy). In fact, no other position/player earns an annual salary of $20 million or more — very few earn $15 million or more. To bring home that kind of scratch, players need to significantly impact one of three areas: pass offense, pass rush, or pass coverage. If you’ve ever wondered why franchises surrender so much money to their QBs, a plunge into their pre-snap responsibilities might provide some insight.
On the other side of the ball, we’ll take a look at how the CBs are tasked with similarly important responsibilities. To close out each coverage entry, we’ll examine the strengths and weaknesses of each coverage shell, the aerial shutdown defenders to avoid, and the top offensive players that succeed facing each respective coverage at each of the skill positions. By the end of the series, you’ll have complete access to a compendium of insider knowledge to aid you in taking down your league crown, and/or turning a DFS profit during the 2021 season. When the calendar turns to our beloved in-season action, I will include links to these articles whenever referencing a coverage scheme. So while you might want to bookmark them, I’ll be constantly referencing them.
Pre-Snap Reads by the QB to Identify Cover 1
The first task for a QB inside the 40-second play clock is identifying the defensive personnel. Determining the number of defenders in the box is a significant step toward recognizing the blitz. The next piece of information to collect is not as easy: determining the post-snap secondary alignment … and doing so prior to the snap. That said, the savviest of QBs can distinguish the coverage on around three-fourths of plays. When the QB is unable to determine the exact coverage, he can identify certain tells in order to eliminate other coverages. The defense will not simply give the scheme away — the QB must evaluate the depth of the outside corners, keep a watchful eye on the number of safeties, and locate the Outside LB (OLB) to the weakside. When the defense is in a Cover 1, the CBs know they have help from the FS. The most athletic of CBs will sometimes align head-up over their coverage responsibility, but they will typically align with outside leverage (playing the outside shoulder of the receiver to force them back inside) — a significant Cover 1 tell.
Defenses have literally dedicated decades of their time attempting to mask their intentions. The most important defenders for the QB to track at all times are the safeties. When you track the safeties properly, you will likely crack the coverage. After the QB identifies the SS, if he is stationed at a depth under seven yards over his assignment, and the FS is deep, that’s a massive tell for Cover 1. If the QB spots the eyes of the LB/s locked onto the RB/s, another box is checked indicating man coverage. The safeties provide vital information on the coverage, as well as a potential blitz. One of the tricks a QB uses to identify the intentions of the safety is sending a receiver into motion. If he sees either of the safeties adjust, it’s very possible a five-to-seven defender blitz is coming.
As for the weakside Flat defender, he is a primary target for many of the exotic concepts the offense utilizes to take advantage when a zone coverage is identified. Without the benefit of conflicting a zone weakness, the weakside OLB still helps the QB identify a Cover 1 blitz. When the QB believes a blitz is on the way, he has three choices:
- Notify a designated receiver of a Hot read, targeting the area vacated by the blitz.
- Audible the formation to add protection.
- When all else fails, call a timeout.
Keep in mind, the QB has gone through each of these processes within the 40-second play clock, and he must be very careful not to hand the defense any tells himself. Take a look at the best QBs to ever play the game. Tom Brady and Joe Montana are, obviously, outstanding examples. The routine they use/d on every single play is indistinguishable from the prior. And unguarded indicators can also be identified after the snap. A QB staring down a receiver may not come back to bite him immediately, but that evidence is now locked on tape. He can be sure a future defense will identify those mistakes. To think, all of these presumptive decisions, the QB is still undecided on where to actually throw the ball. The top QBs also spend countless hours reviewing the film. In order to avoid throws into coverage, he must read the defenders pre- and post-snap, never his receivers.
Pre-Snap Reads by the Cover 1 CB
Playing CB is hard — most franchises don’t have two who can both run and cover. And every NFL DC is keenly aware of that fact. As the NFL has evolved to adapt nearly every component of the Air Raid offense, receivers only seem to be getting faster, and more difficult to cover. So, the endless, desperate search continues in every draft to bleed the college game dry of its available defensive backs. When a team is actually able to locate a top CB, he essentially becomes the QB of the defense. That’s not by coordinating the defense on the field, but with his countless hours of film study, and list of pre-snap reads. Whereas, after the snap, the QB relies on his pocket awareness, arm strength, and release consistency, a top CB relies on lightning-quick feet, fluid turns at the break point, closing speed, and — maybe surprisingly — grip strength.
Man and zone CBs utilize vastly different pre-snap checklists. For the Cover 1 CB, he is only provided with the option to view the QB until a certain point. After that point, he will lock his eyes on his coverage assignment. That eye-lock will not be broken until he identifies another set of movements by the receiver. When the CB is actually able to view the QB, he wants to make sure the O-line isn’t already set in conjunction with a delay to the line by the QB. That is an indication of a quick count. Sly CBs will spend so much time in film study that they are able to notice repeated usage of certain words in the QBs cadence, pairing them with offensive concepts. Even seeing a QB licking his fingers can tell a CB a pass play may be upcoming.
With a single-high safety, CBs have the benefit of help over the top. When a CB identifies something that indicates a certain route will be run, he may desire taking a shot at jumping the route. However, if he doesn’t properly communicate his intentions with the FS, that risk could result in the worst-case-scenario: a coverage bust. The Cover 1 FS can only assist one side of the field at a time. One of the common references to CBs during the draft is boxing their skills as an “off the ball,” “press,” or “zone” defender. While every CB possesses certain traits that preclude him to strengths within a particular coverage or alignment, to become a top CB — or even crack the gameday roster — he must have the ability to defend in Bump-and-Run, Off Man, and zone schemes.
Every zone coverage has man-to-man requirements built within, and, to defend the modern WR equipped with elite athleticism, they must vary their techniques to keep receivers guessing. When the Cover 1 CB begins his pre-snap reads on the WR, he is paying particular attention to his eyes. He wants to take note if the receiver is looking at the sticks, at a spot on the field, the safety, or directly at the CB. The CB also looks at his split, using it to identify the potential routes he may run, and those his alignment eliminates. Each of these offers the CB with keys to his intentions. After concluding his pre-snap checklist on the WR, the Cover 1 CB looks back to the QB until just after the snap. Keeping the WR in his peripheral, the CB must read the QB’s dropback. It’s information that will narrow down the potential route. After the third step of the drop, the CB establishes his eye-lock on the WR.
And the Cover 1 CB already knows that, when the WR reaches his break point, he will attempt to use the CB’s hip turn to throw off his momentum. A hand fight will ensue during that exchange that could turn the tide of the battle. The most concerning transition is when a WR runs an Out pattern. For everyone other than the most devoted of CB technicians, instincts tell him to look back inside after an Outside break. Listening to that instinct can be catastrophic, especially if the WR turns that Out into an Out-and-Up pattern. For that precise reason, the CB is coached to maintain his eye-lock until four steps into his route. While this narrative of the CB progression is far from an exhaustive list, it offers a view into the intelligence, dedication required before any of the athletic traits are even brought into play. Needless to say, the top-heavy quality of NFL CB play should paint quite a vivid picture detailing why Cover 1 defenses should be weekly targets for fantasy passing components.
Strengths of Cover 1
The most simple coverage for a DC to install.
Offers the bonus of adding pressure without sacrificing holes in the defense.
When played at a high level, tight coverage provides plenty of time for the pass rush to get home.
Ability to defend every potential receiver.
FS help over the deep middle of the field (“to the post”).
With the SS dropping down, allows the defense to add one more defender to the box than the offense — referred to as “strength” — in support of the run.
Outstanding success against zone option routes when able to mask the coverage.
With CBs typically utilizing outside leverage, Out-breaking routes should be preventable.
Weaknesses of Cover 1
Must roster truly elite defensive backs.
Without elite defensive backs, the risk vs. the pass is only matched by a Cover 4.
With every defender occupied, there is no help underneath if a receiver breaks free.
Picks/Rubs/Scrape Exchanges on intersecting routes are particularly troublesome.
Receiving TEs can create conflicts on option routes.
LBs typically mismatched vs. RBs.
Motion requires defenders to follow, providing a distinct tell to QBs.
Two of the three deep zones are left uncovered.
The FS is only able to help one side of the deep field.
If the QB is able to look the FS off, he can choose a receiver to place on an island with his coverage defender.
If contain is broken vs. the run, coverage defenders have their eyes locked on receiving assignments.
With their backs to QBs, mobile QBs can take advantage.
2020 Defenses Utilizing the Highest Rate of Cover 1
- Miami Dolphins
- Detroit Lions
- Arizona Cardinals
- Philadelphia Eagles
- Cincinnati Bengals
Cornerback Shadows to Avoid
NOTE: Assuming the Washington Football Team will continue with its zone-heavy usage, William Jackson III was left out of the rankings, where he would have landed at No. 3 on the list.