Football Fundamentals: Cover 1 Defense

The Cover 1 defense: probably the first defense you learned, whether you knew you learned it or not, whether it was in youth football or in your backyard. Man vs man. Mono y mono. You vs me. Let’s see who can out athlete who. And of course, then there’s the one person playing center field, looking to pick off any pass with a little too much air or smash anyone who dares come over the middle without fear. Yup, good ol’ fashioned Cover 1. It’s as simple as that, right? Well, actually, yeah, pretty much. Relative to other coverages employed in modern football, Cover 1 is about as intuitive and instinctive as it gets. But, that’s relative to other defenses. That doesn't mean that there isn't technique that is required to be successful to run this defense, there is always more to a coverage than that.

The Basics
[Green = Man-to-Man Match-up, Yellow = Deep zone, Purple = Short zone, Red = Defensive movement, Blue = Offensive movement]

How to Attack
Every receiver accounted for
Limited underneath help
Bunch/Stack Sets
5-man rush pressure
Play Action passes
Pick Routes
Deep middle help
Out routes from inside receivers
Inward Breaking Routes from outside receivers
Over the top help
Poor run support from DBs
Crossing/Mesh Routes
Good against zone beaters
Easily identified by motion
WR fades
Tight Coverage

TE in alley
Box Defenders in Fast Read/React Run Support

Run Weak
Run support from SS

Looking off FS
Athlete vs Athlete

Out Routes from inside receivers

Cover 1, at its essence, is a man coverage. Also known as “Man Free” because of the free safety covering the center field zone. There are several options for the LB and SS coverage. Each of these subsections below could have articles for themselves. To keep this somewhat manageable, a summary of each will be provided, with the goal of adding new articles specifically for many of these things at a later date.

Underneath Options
To bring some multiplicity to a fairly straight forward coverage, there are some different things you can do to mix things up and force the QB to account for a few more things. The pre-snap read (more later) for the QB tend to give away Cover 1 fairly easily at times, but by mixing up pressure and coverage types can incorporate some confusion for the QB and provide varying levels of help in run support.

In a 3x2, the SS will pick up the TE in man coverage while the three LBs work to pick up the 2 RBs. In this case, the first RB that releases in a certain direction will be picked up by the OLB, while the 2nd (if there is a 2nd RB leaking in a direction) will be picked up by the MIKE. The remaining LB can either drop into the “Hole” (“Rat” defender), delay blitz, or spy based on his reads and/or how he’s coached.

Dropping into the hole, defenders covering inside receivers will work with outside leverage and try to force their receiver back to his help. In this way, the Rat defender will read the QB’s eyes and crash on any receiver trying to cross his face or sink into any receiver coming into his area behind him. This takes away the easiest throws for a QB to make, while receivers are picked up with personnel that best matches their defensive counterparts (WRs with CBs, TEs with safety, RBs with LBs).

If the third LB is tasked with coming on a delayed blitz, the remaining LBs may prevent an inside release (the RBs rarely threaten vertically, so they do not have help to the inside from the FS) and force the more difficult throw (shallow throw to the outside is a tough angle for the QB to complete). The advantage here is that the blitz always comes from the area away from RB releases. Offenses tend to want to throw to the area where the blitz is coming from, which won’t be the case here. Likewise, offenses will define their pass protection by this time, allowing the LB to shoot the weakness of the protection or confuse the protection keys for the offense.

A spy will tend to pick up the QB regardless of what’s going on around him. Initially, it may appear as if he’s dropping into the hole, but at the heart of his defense, he must maintain a clear path between him in the QB. If he can attack, he will, if he can’t, he’ll contain and force the QB to remain inside the pocket. On any option play (particularly zone read plays), he’ll account for the QB. Inside help to the other receivers may be there as an artifact of the play, but won’t necessarily be there.

Lastly, the three LBs can work in underneath zones. While this has the threat of the LBs being overloaded from the LBs leaking out, this mixes some of the advantages of zone coverage vs some of the quick inside hitting routes and mesh concepts, and many of the other quick man-to-man beaters. Every vertical threat in this case is still accounted for.

Another option is to have the SAM pick up the TE in coverage and the other two LBs to “Funnel” on the two RBs. This leaves the SS available to help out in coverage, either over the most dangerous receiver, or more often than not, on the biggest match-up issue. Typically, that means that the SS will help over the top with the TE. Depending on the alignment of the front and desired leverage responsibilities (“Backer” or “Sky”) this allows the SAM to prevent the TE from releasing outside and forcing him inside to the SS, or it shields the TE from crossing the formation and forces him back to the SS to the outside. In general, this also allows the SAM to focus a bit more on the run game and be a little more aggressive in run support, and maintains the box defenders to take care of the run, while eventually bringing an 8th man down by means of the SS.

A large advantage of Cover 1 is that every eligible receiver is accounted for in coverage, with the potential of having tight coverage (no soft zones, particularly underneath, making hot reads more difficult to complete) on the outside and still sending 5 man in pressure. The blitz can come from any of the three LBs (the other two will “Funnel”) or the SS.

At the same time, you can also overload blitz, though at some risk of getting caught out of position. By overload, I mean overloading a side, or even the interior with a double-A gap blitz. By dropping a DE into a “Funnel” assignment, you can still pick up in coverage while bringing to LBs to pressure the QB. Watch out for teams that will leak both RBs to the same side, especially if that is toward the blitz, as it will be difficult for the DE to help in coverage.

Lastly, even a CB can come on a blitz, either the NB in the slot or an outside CB. This will be tipped a bit, as the SS will be responsible for sliding over and covering the receiver left in coverage. This is a bit of a difficult assignment for many strong safeties, not only are they forced to typically cover a WR in man coverage, but they also have to tend to do it from an “out of position” start to the play. But if you feel the offense lacks adjustments based on the blitz, has a simplified or well defined route structure, or the offensive player is a limited threat, you can bring a lot of variety to the 5-man blitz package.

And heck, you can even combine them at points.

The Robber (some verbalize any short middle zone as a Robber, instead of a LB dropping into the hole; in this case, the Robber comes from a DB). One of the main advantages of this coverage is that you don’t necessarily tip a single-high defense pre-snap. It’s easy to start from a two-high look and have a safety track down into his underneath zone. QBs not properly reading post-snap may look at it like a Man-Under defense and try to attack the quick middle. They may also think the safety is coming down to cover a TE in man coverage, and believe the SS could be run off by a TE route. Lastly, this naturally brings an eighth man in the box, and with his eyes in the backfield, provides run support coming from deep, helping sniff out screens, draws, cutbacks, and reverses.

There are two fundamental concepts for the coverage on the outside: Leverage and cushion. From a leverage standpoint, it will depend on a couple things, including receiver split from the line and where the coverage help is. A defender can align inside, heads up, or outside of a receiver based on these things.

From a cushion standpoint, you can play off man or press man. Both have built in advantages and disadvantages, and both require tweaks in technique. Without getting into the nitty gritty here, we’ll try to give a general overview of what’s what.

Leverage will depend on the split of the receiver and where your coverage help is. The backfield coverage leverage was discussed briefly above, so we’ll maintain our focus on the outside here. Typically, receivers are lined up in what is called a “plus” position, loosely defined as outside the numbers, a “minus” position aligned inside the numbers, and a zero position (standard split) on the numbers. For a minus alignment squeezed or close to the line, the defender will have help inside. Whether that’s help from the FS, help from a Rat or Robber, or simply help from the fact that the LBs contribute to the wash and confusion underneath. Because of this, the defender will align somewhere between over the outside shoulder to over the outside eye of the receiver and maintain outside leverage. This is known as "Divider Rules."

Likewise, if the receiver is aligned outside the numbers, the defender will maintain inside leverage. In this case, the help is too far inside to truly help on inward cutting routes (slants, digs, skinny posts) and the biggest help for the defender is the sideline. In this way the defender will attempt to jump or take away any inside going route and squeeze the receiver into the sideline.

If the receiver is aligned in a standard split, the defender may align heads up on the receiver. In this case, whether in press or off man, he will force the receiver to define his release either inside or outside and then utilize his leverage accordingly. In this way, if the receiver stems inside, the CB may jump any quick throws, but cannot allow the receiver to then work back outside and force the receiver to continue into the help. If the receiver stems outside, the coverage will force him into the sideline and not let him work back inside.
There are a couple options here, and the entire defense doesn’t necessarily need to be consistent with the other side of the field. Defenses can play press, aligning as close to the receiver as possible, or they can play off man, anywhere from 4-8 yards off the receiver.

Press coverage will utilize press technique to force leverage onto the receiver, disrupt timing on quick throws, and be physical at the line of scrimmage. Along with that, the tight coverage makes it difficult for receivers to get breathing room and makes it more difficult for play calls to pick off defenders. The downside is that if the receiver can get a clean release the defender is immediately put in a trail technique, and the defender’s back is turned to the football, making run support or route recognition more difficult, making post-snap adjustments harder.

Off man is typically misnomered as a soft coverage. While it isn’t physical at the LOS, if done correctly, it should still be tight. Within his leverage alignment, one of the first reads the defender will make in off-man is called the “Flat-foot” read. This means that the defenders will not backpedal until the receiver has closed the gap or cushion between himself and the defender. Before that, the defender can look through the man to the football, stay square, and drive on any three-step quick passes. Once the gap is closed, the defender will then maintain their leverage, turn and run and maintain their standard man coverage. The downside here is that double moves can get defenders in trouble that break hard on the quick game (they can be baited). They also can be picked off by other receivers and don’t change the timing of quick plays off the LOS. The upside is that they too can bait throws, while reading both their man (and the route combinations around them) and the QB. In this way, it can also be beneficial in run support as well, though you never want your CBs to leave their man until a run is 100% defined.

Vs. the Run
Below, we’ll look at Cover 1 responsibility against the run. This is very much dependent on the front, so here’s an example from a 4-3 Under with a walk down SS (Eagle) front.

Run To
Run Away
7 (Ghost)
OT to Ball
C-gap to Spill
Chase Counter, Check Boot/Reverse
Contain Rush
OT to Ball
2 Gap B-C
B-Gap to
Chase Contain
Contain Rush
OG/OT to Ball
Squeeze A-B
B-Gap Rush
OC to Ball
2 Gap A-A
2 Gap A-A
A-Gap to TE
TE to Backs
D-Gap, Constrict
Slow Fold,
3 on 2 Flow Rules
B-Gap Spill
Fast Flow
3 on 2 Flow Rules
Slow Flow
3 on 2 Flow Rules
Deep Half/60
TE to Backs
Outside C,
Fit off Sam
TE to Ball
TE Man O/S Release Rules
1. Secondary Matched
2. Check Funnel to all Single Back sets
3. Check other adjustments based on looks, tendency
4. Great Run and Pass D for team who runs ball to TE side or throws to TE side


Like any defense, there are strengths and weaknesses to this coverage. This coverage can be run from any front, 4-3 Over, Under, 3-4, Nickel, Dime, etc. It is a fairly straight forward coverage that pins athletes vs athletes and often lets the better man win. In much the same ways, it allows defenses to play tight and fast without forcing them to over think. That isn’t to say there are not necessarily adjustments, reads, and keys that must be made. In the next piece, we will go over some of the possible adjustments that can be made against certain looks or against teams with certain tendencies.

To get more in depth, take a look at some adjustments that can be made within the Cover 1 architecture to take advantage of team strengths, mitigate coverage weaknesses, and confuse the offense's keys. LINK


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