Football Fundamentals: Cover 1 Defense Adjustments

Like all coverages, coaches have developed adjustments and checks to mitigate some of the weaknesses of a coverage, or to hinder some of the methods offenses use to attack the defense without switching up the coverage entirely. This is done for teams with certain strengths, against certain formations that look to exploit some aspect of coverage, or to take advantage of offensive tendencies in certain situations. These adjustments can be called in the huddle based or they can be checked based on the offensive look or motion pre-snap. In this piece, we’ll go over some of the things Cover 1 defenses do to adjust to offenses.

As a primer, here's your standard Cover 1

Teams that stack two receivers or bunch them tight (usually close to the line) will often see an In/Out called against them. The In/Out call prevents man defenders from chasing the receiver through potential picks and rubs, and works as a quasi-match-up zone. First man out is taken by the “out” defender, then anything vertical or in is taken by the other defender. Same can be said in the scenario that the first receiver goes inside and the second goes vertical, with the In defender taking the first receiver. These sorts of calls can make the defense look a bit like a zone, and can put the coverage in a position to jump routes that the QB thinks will be breaking open. To take advantage of this sort of adjustment, offenses can run option routes or double moves that appear to first step in or out before breaking back to the void left behind the first receiver through the “zone”.

Bunch In/Out
A trips or trey call can make a simple In/Out call more complex, and can add a lot more wash for defenders to fight through. From a bunch or stack set, it can become difficult to stay with a man. To simplify things, a Bunch In/Out call can be made, where the defender responsible for the receiver on the LOS will press, while the other two play off and play the remaining two receivers in an In/Out check similar to what they’d do against two receivers. The up receiver (on the LOS) is typically used to make the first rub and seal defenders away from their man, so pressing him can disrupt the timing of the play and make it difficult for the other receiver to get into their routes. However, if the receiver can get a clean release, this may be an opportunity to pick off multiple defenders and attack with things such as double slants before the In/Out behind it can pick up their coverage assignments.

Lock Bunch
This will be called if the coverage isn’t worried about being picked off from the receiver’s routes. In order to gain that comfort, they want to make sure that they are playing at various "levels" as coverage defenders, which is why this coverage is also called "Lock and Level". This can be done by pressing tight to the receivers, or playing the receivers at different depths from your DB compatriots. Obviously, this requires picking through the wash, but if done correctly maintains tight coverage throughout. Will often be called in a “bunch” set that isn’t as tight, ensuring there is no miscommunication between the defenders.

There are several means of running a match up man-to-man coverage against a trips coverage. You can run a triangle, for example. Below, you’ll see a version where the inside defender takes the first receiver that breaks outside, the next defender takes the next outside (or vertical route if the third receiver goes inside), and the third defender takes the third outside or first inside. It’s a fairly simple match up that keeps a defender as deep as the deepest while allowing the defense to jump routes and maintain leverage throughout the bunch. False stems (outside release only to run a slant back inside) can cause communication problems and must be addressed however.

Typically only a call made near the endzone, and typically between LB and SS. In the case below, you’ll see a TE and a Wing. In this case, the SS will take the receiver that goes vertical while the OLB remains shallow. If both go vertical, typically the SS will stay inside while the OLB takes the outside releasing receiver.

3x2 is the same thing that was discussed previously in the Underneath coverage portion of Cover 1 fundamentals. In this case, a call may be made if a second offensive player motions into the backfield. The OLB to the RB’s route will take the first man back that goes outside in his direction. The MIKE will take the 2nd man to that releases in that direction. The third LB will become the Rat defender. This is a fairly simple check that does well to match up in play action as well as take care of the boot.

Depending on the coaching branch, you will hear this version of Cover 1 called different things. Here, the SAM will match up on the TE, The MIKE/WILL will combo off the RB, and the two safeties will combo the FB or H-back.

In this way, your safeties are always rotating down in the direction the offense is inserting the FB/H-Back and dropping the opposite safety to Deep MOF. This allows you to start in a two-high shell while maintaining numbers for run fits and coverage.

Also known as Read/Rat, this can be a check for a single back look if a 2nd back motions out of the backfield. In this case, the LB toward the RB’s release will pick him up in coverage while the other defends the Hole.

“Omaha” as I’ve called it is a 6-man pressure check. Only run against single back formations, a LB will cover the most inside TE while the SS picks up the 2nd TE, H-back, or slot receiver. An OLB and the opposite DE will blitz off the edge and peal if the RB attempts to release their direction. If the RB stays into block, both will attack the QB. This puts a defender in every gap at the LOS and puts pressure on the QB quickly, while still picking up every receiver in coverage. The weakness is that any gap unsound play has no 2nd level defender to cover up mistakes, a wheel route could put a RB on a DE or LB in space, a traditional screen could see a RB leak through not picked up, and any quick inward breaking route doesn’t have to be concerned with underneath wash. This is a high risk/reward play.

Double Robber
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the three man rush game. Here, you combine the ideas of "Robber" ( a deep player moving forward in coverage and robbing a zone) with a rat (a front 7 player dropping into a second level zone, typically with man coverage around it). What you end up with is man coverage across the board, a deep MOF player, but two defenders managing both hook zones. 

Switches the DE and OLB responsibility, with the OLB pressuring and the DE dropping in coverage. A switch call can mess with a QB’s hot read and quickly changes the leverage that the TE sees, while also being difficult for offensive lines to pick up in pass protection. It’s a sort of cheap way of getting pressure on the QB, messing with the QB reads in the run game, or defending the edge against teams that like to run off the TE. The obvious weakness is any time the DE has to carry the TE downfield. Any sort of speed option play that isolates the OLB coming off the edge has little help behind him, making it difficult to defend.

Cross is help of bracket coverage that is going to go to help any LB/DB that’s forced to defend a receiver in space. Often seen in a nickel situation against 4 WRs, or against a trips set where a LB has to split out. The safety toward the LB  will play the center field, cheating over top of the LB to help over top if the receiver tries to streak past the LB. The “Cross” call comes from the far safety, who will take his eyes to the receiver covered by the LB (#2 or #3) and pick him up at any time when the receiver tries to cross the field. This allows the LB to leverage the receiver inside, knowing he has help over the top and inside of him. Offenses trying to get a receiver in space against a LB will find it more difficult, as the LB will be shaded toward any bubble screen or outward run route, and safeties will help out over the top and inside. Effectively, it takes a player playing in space and limits his space. The downside is any quick pass to the receiver breaking inside, and also the fact that it takes three sets of eyes to a single player on offense.

Invert (known as Funnel or Clue in Sabanese) is simply inverting the safety, and having the SS play deep center while the FS comes down. This can be done if the FS is a bit better in man coverage and the defense wants to say, cover a slot with the FS. It can also be done to put the 8th man in the box (the safety) away from strength, especially against teams that like to run to strength (it puts more muscle to the strong side of the formation) or teams that like to run to the outside to the weakside of the formation (the safety is coming down and is difficult to block on the weakside of the formation).

It also allows you to start in a two-high shell, but adjust box numbers post-snap; this has increased significance when playing Nickel/Dime against spread personnel (the FS and a LB will then play 2x1 on the RB in coverage). The downside is that the LB covering the TE no longer has direct help from the SS, and teams with good TEs can take advantage of the inverted coverage.

To be clear, Funnel and Clue are slightly different coverages in "Sabanese". In "Funnel", the safeties are rotating opposite a specific defender ($-LB), whereas in "Clue", the rotation is opposite passing strength. More often than note, both turn into an "Invert" coverage with the SS is MOF and the FS is dropping down into the box.

Jump is a bit like invert, but it sees the center field safety come down in man coverage and be replaced by either a CB or a SS covering a slot. This is an adjustment to teams that like to run jet sweeps, like to motion their slot, or like to run a lot of shallow crossing routes. In this way, the FS can come down and cut off the crossing route or set the edge against the jet sweep, while the CB or SS rotates back to the center field. Where the offense has an advantage here is in the case where a receiver starts off crossing the field, only to snag back toward the original side (where the CB rotating to center field has already vacated) and that it puts players in positions they are less accustomed to playing.

Auto is an adjustment that puts the LB locked onto the TE, and then runs a 3x2 with the SS and the remaining two LBs. In this case, you can align it (bring the safety down) based on TE alignment (over the TE) or based on the backfield alignment (bring the SS over the fastest backfield threat, for instance, or put the SS in the position he’s most likely to be the RAT). Obviously, this puts a LB on a TE, but if the TE isn’t a big pass threat, this also gets more speed taking care of the players in the backfield and allows you to leverage the TE different based on front.

12 Adjustment
This is a simple adjustment to 12 personnel, specifically, when the two TEs are lined up opposite of each other. The SAM, who is most likely your best coverage LB, will align over the nominal TE, or to strength. The SS will then follow wherever the other TE goes. This gives the defense the ability to have their better coverage defenders on the TEs and maintaining the outside leverage (where they’re less likely to have to take on blocks).

Nickel Adjustment
Cover 1 can be run against 3 WRs either from base personnel or nickel personnel. In nickel personnel, typically the NB will cover the slot and the SS the TE (or however you want to run the SS/LB coverage). Against four wide, the SS will often split out against one of the WRs, though vs trips, defenses may split out a LB, run a "Cross" check to the far side safety, and cover the TE with the CB and some safety help.

Tight Adjustment
Against a tight formation, the CB will tend to cover the TE with no WR to that side (away from strength). The SS will come down over top of the other TE. Vs 12 personnel and a twins look, the defense can rotate the CB to the twins set and cover the two TEs with the SS and SAM, or they put a safety over top of the slot and cover the wing and TE with the CB and SAM.

These decisions on how to defend these formations will depend on the skill set of the defensive personnel, the skill set of the offensive personnel, the offensive tendencies, and how it fits within the rest of the defensive playbook (you won't ask your defense to make an adjustment that's completely different than anything else and is difficult to get into if not immediately recognized).


There are obviously more things that can be done that are different checks or adjustments to mess with offensive keys, particularly in the blitz package portion of the playbook. Based on down and distance, offensive alignment, and tendencies in both cases, defenses will check into certain adjustments while maintaining the core element of being a Cover 1 defense. This is one way you can become really good at doing one high level thing (Cover 1) in terms of technique and understanding assignments while mixing it up at a more detail oriented level enough to not completely tip your hand.

And again, if you want to understand the basics of Cover 1, here's a link.


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