Just as is the case with Cover 2, NFL defenses aligned in a Cover 4 on merely a little over 10% of snaps last season. But don’t let those numbers fool you into thinking those snaps aren’t vital components to the defenses who deploy them. And, exactly the same as Cover 1, any team that throws a Cover 4 scheme at an offense must have truly elite CBs to avoid disaster. It may seem rather dramatic to jump directly to “disaster” territory, but that is another trait it shares with Cover 1: the level of risk vs. the pass. Simply look at the top-10 teams that used Cover 4 — also commonly referred to as Quarters — last season: 49ers, Rams, Washington, Browns, Saints, Bills, Chiefs, Buccaneers, Bears, and Chargers. Every one of those teams brought at least two well above-average CBs. For six of those teams, their top two CBs border on elite. For others, attempts were made to offset their CBs with talent at safety.
We can simply use the fact that four defenders will drop deep to help explain the identification process for Cover 4. However, it likely comes as no surprise that the intricacies of the scheme are a bit more complex. For instance, the common alias (Quarters) is drawn from the fact that the defense is split in half, with four defenders patrolling both sides. The Mike linebacker serves as the fourth component on both sides in defending the “Middle Hook” zone. He is responsible for inside-breaking patterns. The Sam and Will LBs break outside to defend their Flat territory. DCs sometimes attempt to use the outside CBs to try to disguise the coverage as either Cover 2 or 2-Man. By placing them directly in the faces of both No. 1 receivers, they can even have their hips square (man coverage technique), and jam them at the line as long as they have help from the deep safeties. However, both outside CBs will retreat to their deep landmarks immediately following the reroute.
Maneuvers to slow down opposing receivers at the snap adds another level of risk. Whiffing on that bump-and-run attempt can result in catastrophe. That’s precisely why elite CB potential is so highly sought during the draft. We could see a great representation of that fact inside the top-five picks of the 2022 Draft, with teams chasing after LSUs Derek Stingley Jr. and Florida’s Kaiir Elam. We just saw two CBs go in the top 10 of the 2021 NFL Draft, as well.
Pre-Snap Reads by the QB to Identify Cover 4
For all of the reasons mentioned above, the rate of Cover 4 has slightly dwindled in favor of Cover 6 (Quarter-Quarter-Half) — a scheme combining elements of Cover 2 and Quarters — in recent years. And the teams that stay away from Cover 6 will show every single quality of a four-deep, and end up only dropping three (Cloud) on as many snaps as they do actually drop four. The responsibilities of the NFL QB borders on brain surgery. Many of the reads he must make are done so on the fly, mid-play. And it’s the collection of pre and post-snap reads that separate a playoff QB from those destined for an early career shift to coaching.
It doesn’t take a seasoned analyst to see that the overall talent level of QB play in the game is far from average. That is all the explanation you need to understand why team’s annually throw first-round draft capital at the position. Even some QBs who offer limited dimensional skill sets can force their way into becoming a first- or second-day selection by possessing most of the traits required to succeed at the highest level. One of those skills, of course, includes the ability to read the most frequent coverage schemes. Some may consider that to be a wreckless approach, but a few OCs are so acute in their understanding of what the defense wants to do that, in certain situations, they can simply motion a receiver to force the secondary into the coverage they want to face.
The QB can obviously use motion to help identify any man-to-man matchups, but they can also use it to force the safeties to swap responsibilities, or simply to confuse pre-snap reads. That’s particularly true when a defender thinks he’s completely diagnosed the offense when, seconds before the snap, the QB shifts to an alternate formation. As with all coverage reads by the QB, the depth and alignment of both the safeties and CBs offer vital information. When the offense is in a heavy set or the No. 2 receiver doesn’t run a vertical route, the CB and safety to either side of the field are free to double-cover the No. 1 receivers. That’s why you’ll sometimes see exotic formations from the offense, shifting a WR inline late to block for the run, or a FB shifted to outside receiver. These shifts are inserted into the game plan during pre-game scouting in order to force the defense to show its coverage hand. The OC-QB tandem will use any trick in the book to gain that advantage.
Reads by Cover 4 Safeties
The success of Cover 4 depends on the reads made by the safeties. The safeties defend the middle-two deep zones, with the outside CBs patrolling 25% of the deep area at their respective sidelines. However, in addition to their deep zone responsibilities, the safeties are also accountable for reading all handoffs. They must make split-second, informed decisions to attack the run. For that reason, a Cover 4 defense has the potential to be the top run defense in existence. However, only a handful of teams can state that they field a pair of elite safeties.
In addition to the recent rule changes to protect the safety of receivers, offenses are deploying Spread and Air Raid components that have forced the safety position to reinvent itself on-the-job. The explosion of the RPO (Run-Pass Option) combined with the already tricky-to-read Play Action have made those reads entirely cumbersome. When the safeties incorrectly bite down on the run, they leave both CBs on an island to defend all four deep zones. When that happens, an in-his-prime Deion Sanders could be your No. 1 CB, and he would be unable to do anything to prevent the inevitable. The key to reading the handoff correctly is to avoid actually looking at the handoff. Safeties must always look at the actions of the O-line for their answer. Even the craftiest of handoffs cannot mask the O-line’s responsibility to protect the pocket, which forces them to remain at-or-behind the LoS.
There is a wonderful saying in regards to deep defensive backs: “if he’s even, he’s leavin’.” All that is required for a deep defender to allow a receiver to reach paydirt is a blatant step-or-two forward. To make matters worse, receivers are evolving into faster, quicker athletes by the day. All defenders with zone responsibilities should always fall to their zone landmark first — never looking first at a receiver, track the eyes of the QB, and play his area high-to-low. When two receivers enter his zone, if they enter at different depths, they should ignore the underneath pattern in favor of hanging just under the deep. The goal is to force the QB to throw short, only then reacting toward the ball. If the two receivers are tracking vertically, the defender should split the difference, and focus on the QBs eyes. Outside of those insane, no-look throws from Matthew Stafford, a QB will eventually be forced to look at his target.
Strengths of Cover 4
Safeties read the formation, allowing them to drop into the box, and offering the single-best run defense of all of the zone schemes.
CBs can align head-up over No. 1 receivers, disguising the shell as either Cover 2 or 2-Man.
When the No. 2 receivers don’t take vertical patterns, the safeties key to the No. 1 receivers, and allow the option of Bracketing them on specific patterns.
Look at the Rams, Saints, 49ers, Washington, Browns, and Bills from last season to see the level of effectiveness when played correctly: 42% completion percentage, 5/9 TD/INT ratio on 245 targets of 10 yards-or-more.
Weaknesses of Cover 4
Potential for improper Play Action and/or RPO reads by safeties make it the riskiest scheme vs. the pass.
Must have elite/nearly elite CBs and safeties.
Potential for safety manipulation leaves it vulnerable to the Mills (Pin), Scissors, and Smash Concepts.
Spread and Air Raid offenses can pick apart the underneath zones.
How to Attack Cover 4 in Fantasy
Setting out to take advantage of a fully healthy defense simply from the knowledge they will field a Cover 4 is risky. For one, even if we eliminate the teams that used Cover 4 at a rate below 5%, the remaining defenses only average a rate of 14%. And the teams that used it the most are some of the top passing defenses in the NFL. That said, when one of those defenses is undermanned at either outside CB or safety, they become a prime target. But we must check the QBs statistical history facing Cover 4 before we take the plunge. Consider the fact that Tom Brady and Ryan Tannehill have combined to throw six TDs to 10 INTs over the last three seasons against Quarters. And potential DFS salary savers Carson Wentz and Andy Dalton threw one TD to 12 INTs.
However, history also suggests that we want as much exposure to the Buffalo Bills’ passing offense whenever they are facing a Cover 4-heavy defense. Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs are obvious, but Cole Beasley, Gabriel Davis, and even Isaiah McKenzie have simply mauled the scheme. Performance issues or recent poor health at safety is also a green flag for RB potential. Without safeties offering their typical run-stopping capability, that normally stout defense can net unexpected output. Knowledge is power. The more details we have in our possession, the easier it becomes to identify those golden avenues to attack.
2020 Defenses Utilizing the Highest Rate of Cover 4
Cornerback Shadows to Avoid
*First of all, Wallace and Sherman are just too close to separate… you get six. Ramsey, Roby, and Wallace are the only true shadow CBs. Alexander traveled off-and-on. Fuller (Left) and Sherman (Right) remained locked to their side of the field.