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.
Before we can dive into the coverage framework, we need to understand the language. While every effort will be made to clarify the analysis, initial comprehension of the most commonly used terminology, concepts, and techniques during the offseason will pay off down the road. Study up now, before you have less time during the season. While coverage recognition is absolutely vital for offenses to succeed, no defensive unit that’s ever played the game has succeeded without the ability to pressure the pocket before receivers break free. To that end, we’ll also need to understand the basic defensive fronts that prevent their secondaries from being exposed.
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.
Passing Game Glossary
2-Man Coverage: Two-deep defenders with man coverage underneath. Each of the underneath defenders will utilize inside leverage.
3-Seam Coverage: A variation of Cover 3; calling on matchup-zone principles, the curl-flat defenders key on the No. 2 receiver when going outside or vertical.
Ace Personnel: Also referred to as 12 personnel; offensive personnel package consisting of one RB, two TEs, and two WRs.
Air Raid: Any offensive alignment variation consisting of one RB, four WRs, and the QB in the shotgun formation.
Backside: From the viewpoint of the offense, the side of the field away from the play.
Banjo Technique: Used by secondaries to counter stacked, bunched receiver formations, and spread offenses, allowing a pair of defensive backs to switch coverage responsibility to avoid scrape exchanges that can potentially result in coverage busts.
Boundary Side: The short side of the field, relative to the placement of the ball and the hashes.
Bootleg: Play design calling for the QB to roll out to either sideline, behind the Line of Scrimmage (LoS), to either run or throw.
Bracket Coverage: A variation of Quarters coverage (Cover 4) with a pair of split-field, high safeties keying from the No. 2 to No. 1 receiver, and using inside leverage. With the Cornerbacks utilizing Outside leverage, the defense is able to double-cover receivers.
Breakpoint: The location in a pattern when a receiver slightly decelerates, sticks his foot into the ground, and reaccelerates at an altered angle.
Bump-and-Run Coverage: Also referred to as press coverage; when a CB lines up in the face of the receiver, attempting to jam/disrupt, delay, and/or redirect his get-off from the LoS before heading into his designed route.
Bunched Formation: Aligning three receivers tightly together on one side of the field in order to discourage press attempts, and create mismatches.
Buzz Defender: Found within a Cover 3 variant where the defense attempts pre-snap disguises as a two-deep or quarters scheme. At the snap, the strong safety (SS) will drop down inside the numbers to his role as a Curl-Hook defender.
Chair Route: Also referred to as an Out-and-Up; a combo pattern from a single receiver, showing as an Out before breaking downfield into a Go.
Click-and-Close: A reference to a coverage defender quickly reading, attacking the play design.
Closed MOF: Used to describe the deep middle of the field in coverage schemes with either a single-high safety (Cover 1), or a three-high (Cover 3) since the MOF is occupied by the free safety (FS).
Cloud Coverage: A Cover 3 variant with one outside CB and two safeties covering the three deep zones. The other outside CB will redirect the outside receiver — a Cover 2 technique.
Combo Coverage: A schematic mixture of man and zone principles on the same play (i.e., 2-Man).
Conflict Defender: A defender stationed on the LoS, left unblocked by design on RPOs. If he splashes down on the mesh point, the QB will pull the handoff back to pass. If he hesitates or drops into coverage, the QB releases the ball to the RB. Also used to refer to coverage defenders who must choose to defend one of two options in three-level reads. In both scenarios, the conflict defender is “wrong” no matter what decision he makes.
Cover 1-Double: A variation of Cover 1; a scheme designed to double-cover a single receiver.
Coverage Bust: Not to be confused with a defender who overcommits to a combo route; describes a defender failing to pick up his coverage responsibility.
Dagger Concept: Offensive strategy utilizing a trio of receivers to counter zone coverage. After an interior receiver runs a vertical pattern and a RB/TE draws LB attention on a Drag route, an outside receiver attacks the opening between the LBs and safeties on a deep Dig route.
Defensive Technique: Numerical nomenclature for identifying the exact alignment of defenders stationed within the box. A single number is applied for defenders on the LoS, while two numbers are used for those positioned off the LoS.
Dig Route: Also referred to as an In; a pattern with a hard-breaking, 90° angled-stem that drives to the MOF.
Dino Stem: Reference to a slight outward stutter prior to a Post or inward stutter prior to a Corner pattern.
Double-Cloud Coverage: A Cover 3 variant where you’ll see both outside CBs redirect the outside receivers — a Cover 2 technique. Both safeties still cover the two of the three deep zones, but a third defensive back or LB — a Tampa 2 technique — drops to cover the deep middle zone.
Double Move: Technique used by a receiver chaining together multiple route patterns in an attempt to throw off the momentum of the secondary.
Drag Route: Also referred to as a Crosser; a swift pattern to cross the MOF.
Drift Route: A deep Drag pattern that works off play action and/or RPOs, running behind the LBs after they are drawn forward to defend the run. Common strategy of Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers.
Escape Route: Also referred to as a Pivot or Whip route; a pattern initially showing as either a Quick Out (Escape-In) or Slant (Escape-Out), but broken off in the opposite direction in order to shake off a man coverage defender.
Fake Screen Blockthrough: When a receiver stutter steps to the second level as if he’ll set a screen block, but sprints forward with sights set on throwing off his coverage’s momentum for a splash gain.
Field Side: The long side of the field, relative to the placement of the ball and the hashes.
Fire Zone Blitz: Typically involves a five-man pass rush. By having one of the defenders initially on the LoS drop into zone coverage, the technique attempts to confuse the QB as to which defenders with blitz.
Flat: The open area outside of the tackle box on both sides of the field.
Flat Defender: Underneath responsibility held in all zone shells on both sides of the field. The typical responsibility range is from the LoS to 10-13 yards deep, and two yards outside of the hash.
Flat Route: Any pattern directed away from the LoS, targeted to either flat (i.e., Speed Out, Ghost, Swing, or Slide Route).
Frontside: From the viewpoint of the offense, the side of the field away from the play.
Funnel Technique: A defensive strategy using three defenders to cover two RBs. Depending on the path of each back, the three defenders will coordinate which of the two man-up on the RBs, and the third will drop into the hole to cover any route crossing his face.
Gap: The area between each pair of offensive linemen described using the appropriate alphabetical nomenclature.
Ghost Route: A pattern where a receiver either runs in between the Center and QB or behind the QB, and who is targeted while working to the flat.
Green Dog Blitz: A reference simply used to describe a defender that attacks the pocket after his coverage assignment stays in to pass protect.
Goal-to-Go Situation (G2G): The subsequent play after the offense gains a first down within 10 yards from the end zone.
High-to-Low Coverage: Describes the coverage responsibility of a zone defender, taking away the deep routes through his zone in order to force targets underneath.
Honey Hole: A reference to potential openings in a Cover 2 defense along the both sidelines, between the deep safety and Flat defender. The first steps from the deep safeties are always backwards in order to close off the third level, but the Curl-Flat defenders must leverage receivers into, and out of their zone with proper depth in support of this vulnerability.
Hook-Curl Defender: Usually an inside LB who keys his zone progressions from the No. 2 to the No. 1 receiver. Following a zone drop, this defender’s zone comprises the area at a depth of 12 yards deep, and from two yards outside of the hash to the MOF. His main priority is to protect the seam. He looks for the Hook route first, then expands in anticipation of a Curl route.
Hot Route: A pattern where a receiver presents himself to his QB early in his route as a by design adjustment in response to an all-out blitz (Cover 0), or coverage bust.
Inverted Coverage: Dropping one or both safeties into the box at the snap.
Jailbreak Route: Also referred to as a Tunnel Screen, a pattern run behind the LoS that’s flattened toward the QB.
Jet Route: A pattern where a receiver runs in between the Center and QB, collecting a quick flip.
Kill Call: Another reference for an audible by the QB adjusting to the defense.
Leverage from a Defensive Back: An inside or outside shade (leverage) utilized by defensive backs in an attempt to prevent either in- or out-breaking routes, respectively.
Line of Scrimmage (LoS): An imaginary line between the offense and defense determined by the spot of the ball.
Looper: The second defender on a stunt, working behind to attack the gap shown by the first defender.
Man-Match Concept: Man coverage matchups where defenders employ clear switch rules based on release, depth, and route. One of the ingrained principles of Bracket coverage.
Matchup Zone Concept: Derived from matchup zone principles in basketball. It’s a coverage used to fool offenses into thinking the zone is actually man coverage. If the receiver runs a vertical route, the closest zone defender locks into the pattern. If it’s not a vertical route, the receiver is passed off to another defender based on release, depth, and particular route.
Mesh Concept: Two receivers from opposite sides of the field crossing one another on Drag routes.
Mesh Point: The point on the handoff between the QB and RB where the QB reads the conflict defender to decide whether to hand the ball off or pull it back to target a receiver.
Middle of the Field (MOF): The obvious center of the field, but a key acronym for describing the optimal method of attack for each coverage shell.
“Mills” Concept: A popular approach for defeating a Cover 4 scheme. The No. 2 receiver (slot) runs a Dig route, drawing the FS down, and the No. 1 receiver on the same side of the field runs a Post behind that FS. It leaves the CB on that side of the field on an island without safety help over the top.
Off Man Coverage: Respecting vertical patterns, this type of coverage creates a depth of around seven yards from the LoS.
Open MOF: Used to describe the deep middle of the field in coverage schemes with either two-deep defenders (Cover 2), or four-high (Cover 4) since the MOF is split open by two defenders.
Option Route: A pattern where the receiver reads the coverage, making designed adjustments on the fly.
Palms Coverage: Also referred to as 2-Trap, this is a variant of Cover 2. It begins with both safeties reading the boundary-side release of the No. 2 receiver. A vertical release will push the defense into Cover 2, where the Mike LB attempts to “trap” a Hitch by the No. 2 receiver. The SS will respect a vertical from the No. 2 on his side, and the boundary CB redirects No. 1 before defending against a Corner route by the No. 2. If the No. 2 takes an inside release, he becomes the responsibility of the Will LB. If he breaks out, the boundary CB will “trap” the route, or the No. 2 becomes the responsibility of the SS if he goes vertical.
Personnel Groupings: An identification process used defenses to classify the skill position sets on the field on any given play.
Play Action: A fake handoff to the RB to lure the defense into surrendering depth, but where the O-line is pass blocking all of the way. Not to be confused with an RPO.
Pocket Roll: When the O-line slides to the same side of the field as the QB working off a play action bootleg, repositioning the pocket.
Posse Personnel: Also referred to as 11 personnel; offensive personnel package consisting of one RB, one TEs, and three WRs.
Pre-Snap RPO Read: A Run-Pass Option (RPO) decision made by the QB prior to the snap based upon the defensive front, ratio of defensive backs to receivers, and the depth of the secondary.
Post-Snap RPO Read: A Run-Pass Option (RPO) decision made by the QB after the snap based upon the actions of the conflict defender. The identity of that conflict defender is based upon the run concept.
QB Contain Defender: A player on the LoS who holds-up on his pass rush in order to box-in the QB from escaping the pocket.
QB Spy: Defender who neither rushes the pocket or drops into coverage, but is assigned to “spy”/mirror an athletic QB from sideline-to-sideline.
Quick Out: An out-breaking pattern without an angled downfield stem.
Run Off: When a receiver carries a defensive back in man coverage on a deep vertical to draw him away from a run play.
Radar Defense: Devised by former Detroit Lion and high-school HC Jules Yakapovic in the 1970s; stations all defensive linemen into two-point stances (standing) at the snap, with their first move lateral in order to confuse the offense.
Read Defender: Typically one or both safeties (Cover 4) will “read” their coverage assignment’s intentions. If they stay in to block, these defenders will attack the run.
Read Route: Also referred to as a Choice route; when the receiver chooses from a designed set of pattern options based on the coverage.
Redirect Technique: Used by defensive backs to alter the path of a receiver’s pattern. A common technique seen by Flat defenders in a Cover 2, and outside corners in a Cover 3-Cloud/Double Cloud.
Robber Technique: In some schemes, the boundary safety, who was stationed high pre-snap, drops into the intermediate level hole to “rob” a frontside receiver on an inward-breaking pattern. In others, he is used to spy on an athletic QB, or to introduce a ninth defender into the box in defense of the run.
Roll Coverage: A term referencing the defense masking their coverage scheme by shifting the secondary to a shell different from that shown pre-snap.
Run-Pass Option (RPO): An offensive design allowing the QB to read elements of the defense to decide whether to hand the ball off to the RB, or pull it back to throw. The O-line will always genuinely run block, there will always be a mesh point between the QB and RB, and at least one receiver will always run a receiving pattern on true RPOs. RPOs come in two forms: pre-snap and post-snap reads by the QB.
Sail Concept: A trio of patterns used to attack Cover 3 schemes by attacking all three levels of the defense. An outside receiver will run a vertical-type route to draw the attention of the CB — and possibly the FS, the slot receiver runs a deep Out, and a TE or RB runs a short Out pattern. The goal is to create conflict in the decision making of the Curl-Flat defender on whether to carry the slot receiver, or drop onto the TE/RB in the flat. He is wrong no matter which he decides.
Scissors Concept: While not as popular as the “Mills” concept, the Scissors concept is another strategy toward defeating a Cover 4. A Cover 4 defense schemes both safeties with “read” responsibilities, dropping into run defense when their initial reads stay in to block. The technique calls for a Post from the outside receiver, and a Corner route from the slot on the same side of the field. Even if the defense remains honest, both the CB and FS are left in one-on-one coverage. If the FS to that side of the field surrenders depth anticipating the run, a splash play can result.
Scramble Drill: The description for receivers breaking off their designed routes to provide their QB a target after he is moved from his spot by the pass rush.
Seam Route: Describes vertical-breaking patterns run between the hashes (seam), but can also include those inside the numbers.
Second Level: The area of the defense from the LoS up to a depth of 10 yards. When recording RPOs, second-level blocks — an O-lineman setting a block at least 2-to-3 yards beyond the LoS — must be present.
Skinny Post Route: A slight variation of the traditional Post pattern, designed with a decreased angle at the break point to swiftly gain inside position on two-high safety schemes.
Sky Coverage: Another name for a Cover 3.
Slide Route: A pattern run by a stationed H-back, working behind the O-line before taking a Quick Out to the flat.
Slot Wheel: A pattern run by a receiver lined up in the slot, showing a Quick Out before breaking downfield into a Go.
Sluggo Route: Also referred to as a Slant-and-Go; a combo pattern from one receiver, showing as a Slant before breaking downfield into a Go.
Smash Concept: A strategy for defeating Cover 2, Cover 4, or even Cover 3 that’s similar to the Sail concept in attacking the Curl-Flat as a conflict defender. Placing a high-low stretch on the deep safety and Flat defender on both sides of the field, the name is drawn from the option route for the No. 1 receiver on the backside of the formation to either Sit/Hitch, or spin into a vertical “smash” pattern down the sideline. The Flat defender must decide between gaining depth on the vertical-breaking route by the No. 2 receiver (slot) — leaving the flat vulnerable, or dropping down on the Hitch by the No. 1 — surrendering an zone hole behind his coverage.
Smoke Route: Reference to a simple quick hitter to a receiver defended in Off Man coverage to pick up “free” yardage.
Speed Turn: Whether in man or zone coverage, the speed turn is a technique used by defensive backs to flip their hips 180° without surrendering speed after making first contact with a receiver.
Spot Concept: Also referred to as a Snag concept; another high-low stretch using trips to one side of the field. One slot receiver runs a quick out to the flat that provides a horizontal stretch, a deep Corner from a second receiver to stretch vertically, and a quick Slant-Hitch by the third receiver that settles into a hole in the zone. Think of the route combination as the one that the New England Patriots used to feed Wes Welker and Julian Edelman with PPR-monster seasons.
Spot Route: Also referred to as a Slant-and-Hitch; a combo pattern from one receiver, showing as a Slant before turning into a Hitch.
Stacked Formation: A common component of Spread offenses, using four receivers wide, two on each side of the field, and one stacked behind the other. The QB will usually zero in on the side provided with the most depth. The front receiver will screen block for the other, sometimes turning the anticipated block into a blockthrough.
Stop Route: Also referred to as a Hitch or Curl; a pattern where a receiver cuts off his stem to turn to face his QB at the break point.
Stop-and-Go Route: Also referred to as a Hitch-and-Go; a combo pattern from one receiver, showing as a Hitch before breaking downfield into a Go.
Straight Zone Drop: A simple descriptor for a defender backpedaling to his zone landmark rather than turning the body sideways while shuffling the feet.
Strongside: The same side of the offensive formation as the TE.
Stunt: Where one defender uses a looping motion to work around the back of another defender at the LoS, attempting to force O-linemen to blow their blocking assignments.
Swing Route: Also referred to as a Bubble Screen, a pattern run behind the LoS that’s flattened away from the QB.
Tampa 2: Technically still considered a Cover 2 shell, a Tampa 2 shifts an inside LB back to a deep depth — closing off the MOF that is a Cover 2 vulnerability. Originally invented by the Buccaneers utilizing Hardy Nickerson the LB on the deep drop.
Tare Concept: Many variations of the route combination are used, usually involving a RB, and an inline TE. The essential idea is another take on a high-low stretch, sending one-to-two receiver/s vertical to stretch the defense, the RB on a quick flare, the TE on an Out to the same side as the RB, and a backside receiver on a slant.
Third Level: The area of the field 20 yards from the LoS and beyond.
Three-Level Read: Offensive strategy utilizing multiple receivers, on intersecting routes in order to manufacture zone conflict that can result in mismatches, and possible coverage busts.
Tosser Concept: Two receivers on the same side running Slant patterns at different depths, and a receiver on the other side running a Quick Out. A popular concept in the Madden video game, during Tom Brady’s days in Foxboro. Utilizing 00 personnel (referred to as the Y-Hook), Brady terrorized Cover 2 shells while peppering targets to Rob Gronkowski.
Travel Motion: A staple of Air Raid offenses; a pre-snap RPO read, motioning the RB outside to see if a defender follows. If he does, the read is a run, and if he doesn’t, it’s a pass.
Trips: Three receivers lined up on the same side of the field.
Underneath Zone: The area of every defensive zone coverage ranging from the LoS to a depth of between 10-13 yards, split into three zone pairs: the Flat, Hook, and Curl.
Weakside: The opposite side of the offensive formation as the TE.
Whip LB: A 3-4 LB, nickel CB hybrid.
Y-Cross Concept: Another fundamental component of the Air Raid offense; the modern interpretation uses the scheme to defeat Cover 2. With four wide, three receivers run option routes that look for zone coverages. If they see a zone, they’ll cut their route short, and sit in an available hole. The fourth receiver (No. 1) is the primary target on a vertical but, as the name suggests, the “Y” receiver (No. 2 on the opposite side) carries a deep Drag across the field.
YY Combination: Two TEs attached to the same side of the line, with the interior on the LoS, and the exterior in a two-point stance off the LoS.
Yankee Concept: While the play action scheme can be run from multiple formations, it’s a common component of run-heavy offenses to keep Cover 1 and Cover 3 defenses honest. With the “X” receiver running deep Post and the “Z” receiver on a deep Crosser, the QB will key on the actions of the FS. If he drops down to defend the run or tracks the Z, the throw is to the X. If the FS follows the X on the Post, the QB targets the Z.
Zone Turn: When a defensive back is in man coverage, he will turn his back to the QB at the break point. However, when defending in a zone, he will turn his back to the receiver at the break point. It allows him the benefit to see the QB, route concepts. The defensive back knows that when a receiver leaves his zone, another is most likely to enter.
Most Common Coverage Schemes
Cover 1 (Man Free): is man-on-man coverage on every eligible receiver with single-high FS help over the top. The SS will cover the “H” slot receiver, the Sam ‘backer defends the “Y” TE. Provides one additional box defender than the offense = Good vs. the run.
Cover 2 (Two-Deep, Five Under): A very strong coverage in defending routes at a depth between 8-10 yards. The Will LB moves to cover the No. 2 receiver, the SS drops back to split the deep zones with the FS. Without the benefit of the SS in the box, the most significant weakness lies in containing the run.
Cover 3 (Three-Deep, Four-Under): Provides one additional box defender than the offense = Good vs. the run. But the benefit of three deep defenders makes attempts to attack the secondary over the top difficult. However, this scheme surrenders two underneath zones entirely uncovered. An old coaching adage: catch short, run long.
Cover 4 (Quarters, Four-Deep, Three-Under): Allows both safeties to “read” their coverage responsibilities. If they see those players stay in to block, they attack the run. With those two additional defenders adding to the six already in the box, Cover 4 becomes the top run defending zone. That said, if those safeties bite read expecting run when it’s a pass, they leave both corners on an island. Considered the riskiest defense in all of football.
Cover 6 (Quarter-Quarter-Half): With Spread offenses revolutionizing the game, the risk surrendered by fielding a Cover 4 has been replaced by combining its qualities with those of the Cover 2 (4 + 2 = 6). The result is a scheme that has given some of the best QBs in NFL history (i.e., Brady) absolute fits when played at an elite level by defensive backs such as Jalen Ramsey and Jaire Alexander.
Other Important Coverage Shells:
Cover 0 (Man Zero)
Most Common Defensive Fronts
Eagle: Both Edge rushers will be stationed inside the offensive tackles (OTs) and the outside LBs are head-up on the TEs on the LoS.
Okie: 0-technique Nose Tackle with a pair of 5-technique (outside the OTs) Edge rushers.
Stack: Three LBs stacked directly behind the D-linemen.
Over: An extremely common front. The fastest classification is looking for a 3-technique (shaded on the outside shoulder of one offensive guard [OG]) Nose Guard on the strongside of the offensive formation. You’ll also see either the Sam LB or Slot CB slightly offset, placing them outside of the offense’s box count.
Under: Most significant tell is the 1-technique (in between the Center and OG) DT is on the strongside — the only front where you’ll see a 1-tech DT stationed on the strongside of the offensive formation.
Pro: Aims to place a defender in every gap. Very similar to the Over front. The easiest way to differentiate the two is that the Pro front will have the Mike LB head-up on the Center (00-technique).
At the Goal Line
Bear: Commonly utilized in Goal Line situations; the goal is for the D-line to completely cover the O-linemen (either with a shade or head-up).