Football Fundamentals: Cover 2 Defense

Cover 2 is often one of the first zone defenses taught in football. This is because it requires minimal movement, allowing defenders to focus on the “zone” aspect of the coverage. Just as important, because of the minimal movement and design of the coverage, it lends naturally to being a great run defense as all eyes are often focused on the backfield. Once seen as the go-to defense in football, it has fallen out of favor in the past few decades with the development of more advanced and complicated vertical passing attacks. However, recently it has seen somewhat of a resurgence with the “trap” concept, and it remains a favorite near the goal line.

For completeness, man under will be treated in a different article.

The Basics (Zone)

StrengthsWeaknessHow to Attack
Strong run defense (eyes in backfield)Safeties must cover groundFour verts
Underneath Coverage (5 of 6 zones covered)Fast vertical routes into hole/cornerFlood concepts
Easily adapts to 4 or 5 man rushWide splits create lanesSideline Levels (ex smash)
Quick routes coveredInside numbers vs run (vs Tampa 2)"Hole" area between safeties
Route disruptionCorner Routes
Strong vs TE

Cover 2
We’re going to start where it all started, with the basic cover 2 shell. The Cover 2 named because of the two deep defenders playing “halves”, splitting the field into two. The safeties will generally align at about 10-14 yards depth just outside the EMOL, though some teams will like to line up with the strong safety safety tighter to the LOS, getting as close as 7 yards, in order to help support the run and help the LB in coverage on the TE. Ultimately, both deep players will end up playing at a depth of about 15-25 yards, depending on the game situation and other factors.

Then there are five underneath defenders. In this case, the CB is assigned to cover the flat/out, typically starting with an outside shade on the outer most receiver so that he can see through the receiver and into the backfield. The CB can either play a “hang” technique (typically 3-5 yards off and outside shoulder to two yards outside) or an outside “press”/”jam” technique, forcing an inside release to inside help (both on short routes and deep routes there is inside help). If all routes go vertical, you will see the CBs continue to sink to help protect the safeties.

The OLBs will play the hook/curl zones, depending on where the most immediate threat is. Preferably, the OLB will never let someone through his zone without rerouting him and throwing off the timing of the play.

The MIKE will play the hook/hole zone, depending on the call and the depth he is able to get. In a basic Cover 2, the MIKE is going to generally be closer to the LOS, and therefore will be more likely to defend the hook zones. He generally will open up to strength looking for crossers coming into his zone from that side.

Tampa 2
Tampa 2 is very similar to your basic cover 2, with the obvious difference being the depth of the MIKE. The MIKE is going to sink – which often means turn and run – to gain depth in the middle of the field to cover what is known as the “hole”, which is the void between the halves safeties and the underneath zone. Of course, the MIKE typically isn’t as good in coverage as a safety, so the safeties still must cover “halves” and not thirds, like in a Cover 3, but they can cheat a bit further outside, which provides more over the top help for the CBs. On the downside, the two OLBs now need to cover a bit more area underneath, very similar to the underneath coverage in a Cover 3. The rules remain generally the same for the CB, who still generally align outside the receiver, looking to force an inside release toward help.

Trap (2-Trap) has been around for a while, but it’s really starting to come into vogue relatively recently. In trap coverage, the CB is going to read the #2 receiver to the #1 receiver. In this way, it acts as a “pattern matching” version of Cover 2, and a bit of a hybrid between Cover 2 and Cover 4.
Here, the CBs are generally (though not always) going to align off the WR, because they need to be able to diagnose the route of the #2. They are going to use a technique called “soft squat” where they’ll sink, clue inside on the #2, and squat on any outside route. Or in simple terms, the CB’s job is to read the #2, and if the #2 runs an outward breaking route, the CB is going to jump the route. Or to wrap it all in a nice bow, the #2 is going to run right into the trap set by the CB. If this happens, the safety needs to get over the top fast, because he has coverage responsibility on the #1.

Matt Bowen - Note this is Cover 6, more about this later
Now, if the #2 goes vertical, the CB is going to continue to sink before breaking on any underneath throw, while the Safety continues to play his standard Cover 2 rules.

Cat Scratcher Reader
Matt Bowen - Note the CB dropping into 1/2, more about later

Robber is going to see a safety responsible for the hook/curl zone as he tries to mess with the QB’s read. Because the safety is coming down to the LOS, the outside CB is going to be responsible for the deep half. Because of the CB’s outside alignment and deep drop, along with the safety moving forward at the snap, this can often look initially like Cover 3 to a QB, and the QB may be tempted to attack underneath. However, the defense maintains 5 underneath defenders, and that likely isn’t a winning proposition for the QB. Overall, it’s a nice way to tease a single high coverage pre-snap and even immediately post snap, while maintaining the benefits of a two-high look.
This coverage also has the added benefit of adding a safety to the run defense while dropping a CB back, and often times shifting a nickel further towards the edge.

Invert (CB Deep 1/2, Safety Buzz)
In this case, we are simply inverting the coverage responsibilities of the safety and CB without showing that pre-snap (see Flip for switching the responsibilities by alignment). Similar to “Robber” this will tease a single high safety look, as often times the safety will begin to drop down pre-snap while the CB starts retreating. But by inverting the coverage, you’ve moved a safety closer to the LOS and run responsibilities and potentially gotten more speed on the backend. This is a nice way to disguise what you want to do against a twins or trips set and can allow the defense to better react to the WR screen game (a safety is buzzing down on the snap while the CB maintains his pre-snap outside leverage, making it easier to defend outside gaps quicker against the quick WR screen).

Note that most will check out of this call if there are two vertical threats to one side. If you choose not to, make sure your OLBs are prepared to carry any vertical route from the #2 if both #1 and #2 work vertical.

Invert doesn't have to be limited to a single side either. Many teams will run "Cover 2 Invert" on both sides, particularly against heavier personnel (12, 21, 22 personnel) to get the safeties involved in the run and allow the CBs to do what they do best: cover.

Gridiron Strategies
Or you can do a Tampa 2 invert where the safety is the hole defender.

Shakin the Southland
This similarly works well from a nickel package, where the nickel can drop to deep half and the outside CB can stay locked on the WR.

Flip (Knob Formation, Safety Down)
“Flip” is simply going to put a safety where the CB typically is and a CB where the safety typically is. Often times, CBs don’t like to get mixed up in the run game. Against a knob formation, where there is no split end or flanker, that often makes the flat defender an essential force defender against the run. In order to get a guy better suited for that skill, teams will simply flip the CB and safety pre-snap and allow the safety to play the flat and the CB to play the deep half.

Green 2
Green 2 is generally reserved for obvious pass situations. It allows the defense to “put a tent” on top of the defense while having the CBs sink and protect the safeties more. Generally the safeties will align a bit deeper presnap, as will the MIKE so that he can better cover the hole. The CBs may press or jam the initial release to disrupt the timing of the route, however, after that they will go into more of a trail coverage underneath the receiver (if the receiver releases inside, the CB will just continue to sink into his zone). Rather than the CB’s zone being the flat, it will be more of an out, or right at the sticks. This gives up the flat, but allows the defense to take away over the top routes and rally around any pass short of the first down.

Bleacher Report
Red 2
Red 2 is a redzone variant of Cover 2. Because there is less of a threat of being beaten over the top, the safeties can play more flat footed and play a shuffle technique rather than sinking immediately at the snap. This allows them to be more involved in the run game and helps take away quick inward routes like slants and digs.

The CBs will generally play a soft squat technique so that they can carry and defend the fade route, much like they would in Cover 4.

The LBs must be able to play their zones quicker than usual, as many play designs in this area will be quicker. This means that the OLBs may need to widen so they can better defend the hook and seam throws. It also means the MIKE needs to react immediately to any threat moving inside the hook/seam defender and carry that receiver all the way through his route to avoid getting caught hitting a seam against a safety that is looking slant, for instance.

Blitz Shell
A lot of teams like to bring pressure but have concerns about having to overhaul their coverage in order to do so (or simply doing things they are incapable of, such as tight man). Cover 2 allows you to bring up to a 5 man pressure and still maintain a two-high look with the coverage of 4 underneath defenders. The CBs maintain their flat responsibilities, while the OLBs cover the curl/hook zones. Obviously, this can be a bit weaker up the middle, but if pressure gets home, the offense won’t have time to react, and the coverage on the backend remains consistent, allowing for a high level of execution if this is your base D.

Blitz Rotate
Another option off of the blitz is to simply rotate the coverage to the blitz. This is often the case when DB gets involved in the pressure package. For instance, if a CB is coming from the boundary, you can buzz the boundary safety to cover the flat to that side, while the field safety rotates over the top and the far CB or nickel drops into a deep half. The remaining defender to the far side will then cover the flat zone, as seen below.

Combination Coverage
One of the benefits of a two high coverage is that it allows you to split the field in half and run essentially any combination of two high coverage (Cover 0, Cover 2, and Cover 4). This means you might run trap to the boundary and a standard Cover 2 to the field.

It may mean you run Cover 2 to the boundary and Cover 4 MOD to the field in what is often referred to as Cover 6.

If you want more of a man-to-man look that maintains two-high principles, you can run MEG on one side and trap on the other.

It could mean you send the CB on a blitz the edge and play Cover 4 behind that (treat the TE as #2 and peal either with the CB or a DE on any RB release in that direction).

This allows you to mix up coverage based on down and distance, splits, alignment, personnel, scouting, or whatever else.

Bleacher Report Cover 2 Primer
Matt Bowen on Trap Coverage
Shakin' in Southland Cover 2 Pattern Matching


  1. This is great stuff..what situations..down/ distance it best called?

    1. For the most part they can be used regardless of down/distance with the exception of Red 2 (redzone defense) and Green 2 (and long situations). Tampa 2 and Cover 2 were used as base defenses for years, and trap works as a sort of Cover 4/2 hybrid in many ways, so can be used regularly.

      One thing to always be weary of with Cover 2 though is that it's difficult to handle verts. The more moving parts you add, the more difficult it is to get guys to sink into coverage and cover those verts. So coverages like Invert 2 and Robber 2 you may want to use in "3rd and short/medium" type situations where you expect the offense to try to attack the sticks or possibly even run (you are getting better run defenders near the football, so it's good for that as well).


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