COVERAGE 101 SESSIONS: Teaching System Helps Defenders Understand The Intricacies Of Various Coverages

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By Dave Adams, Defensive Backs Coach & Special Teams Coordinator, New Life Academy/St. Croix Preparatory Academy Football, Woodbury, Minn.

One summer, during a 7-on-7 session, I invited a coaching friend who was a mentor of mine to attend, watch our players and share any coaching thoughts or observations he might have.

(Do any of you coaches have one of those coaching friends in your lives who you KNOW you need to spend as much time with as possible because they have so much knowledge?  Yeah, me too … and this guy was one of those people.)

After 7-on-7 concluded, I met up with my coaching friend to hear his thoughts on what he had just seen. He asked me a few questions and then said, “You should really think about teaching your defensive players the ins-and-outs of each coverage. It really helps. If your players know why you run a particular coverage, what you want to take away from the offense by using that coverage and what you’re willing to give up in each coverage (I.e. where you’re vulnerable in a particular coverage), then your players will execute all of your coverages better. And best of all, they’ll run them the exact way you want.”

His advice really hit home and resonated with me. So I decided to implement a coaching and teaching program to educate our defensive players about our various defensive coverages. Early in training camp we scheduled these lessons, which I dubbed, “Coverage 101 Sessions.”

In addition to our defensive personnel, we also invited the entire offensive staff and our quarterback to these sessions (which, one year paid huge dividends, as our QB ended up becoming a critically important fill-in player as a defensive back when injuries ravaged our secondary).

Primarily, our defensive staff wanted our offensive coaches to sit in on these Coverage 101 Sessions so they could understand what we were willing to give up within each coverage, as well what we refused to let the opponents do versus each call.

Most of all, however, we wanted to give our offensive coaches a chance to break us down critically and attack our schemes during practices – thereby exposing any gaps or potential problems that we may not have anticipated and allowing us to be ahead of the competition on Friday nights.

The results were so successful, it’s almost a certainty that Coverage 101 Sessions will become a mainstay of our football program for the foreseeable future.

In Coverage 101 Sessions, we give each attending player individual handouts that are similar to the information shown below, only with key words or groups of words removed from the description – necessitating that the players take notes, fill in the blanks and actively participate.

We plan each lesson carefully to make sure that this isn’t a “death-by-PowerPoint” lecture, but rather, we keep all Coverage 101 Sessions a back-and-forth, guided discussion about each coverage that our defense uses.

Positive Byproducts Of Preparation

Looking back, the fact that we sent these handouts home with our players and force them to fill in the verbiage blanks, turned out to be extremely important components of these Coaching 101 Sessions – as we faced immediate adversity in a subsequent season – when we lost our four starting defensive backs during that year, including three DBs who were lost within the first two weeks. (Talk about a season with a lot of lost sleep for a DB Coach!)

We preach early and often during Coverage 101 Sessions that whenever it is a player’s time to play – whether they are a reserve or it’s a change-of-position – it is each player’s responsibility to jump in and pick up where the previous player left off. They must understand that once the season begins, there isn’t any time available to slow down the train and let everyone get up to speed.

This philosophy of teaching and preaching that player “always be prepared” has paid serious dividend for our program and it cannot be undersold. This became especially apparent during the aforementioned injury-riddled season, as we dressed under 30 players most of the year and had most of our young athletes playing both ways, including several of our defensive backs who were forced to play multiple defensive positions weekly, depending on the opponent or the personnel that we had healthy and available.

Somehow, despite all of the injuries we sustained that year, we still had a special season. The character, work ethic and skill of our players – combined with a plan for great preparation and the leadership of our coaching staff – led our program to its first-ever appearance in a sectional championship game that season. The season ended before we would have liked, but even though we lost to the top-ranked team in the state, it marked a huge step forward for our football program.

COVERAGE 101: Session Examples And Essentials

DIAGRAM: Cover-3 Visual.

Why Use Cover-3?  Used when we want eight defenders in the box to stuff the run AND three good pass-defenders playing deep defending against deep passes. Cover-3 is probably the most flexible coverage package in football. If we had to choose only ONE defense we could run, it would be Cover-3.

Cover-3 Strengths:

  • Allows eight defenders in the box to stop the run.
  • Three deep defensive backs limit the ability for the offense to throw deep.
  • Executed correctly, this is a highly flexible coverage that forces the offense to be patient and consistently make short throws.

Cover-3 Weaknesses:

  • Short passes can be completed all-day long against Cover-3. We do not cover (or jump) routes under 5 yards (except the bubble).
  • The flats are extremely hard to defend with Cover-3. Essentially, other than the bubble, we give the offense throws to the flat and short passes along the line of scrimmage (LOS) when calling Cover-3. We understand this, however, and call Cover-2 when we decide it’s time to take away the flat and short throws.

***This is also why it is CRITICAL we start every defensive play from the same alignment pre-snap. We want to look like Cover-2 prior to every snap in order to confuse the opponent’s quarterback (and run blocking scheme).


  • Good passing teams can have success throwing “skinny posts” just inside the cornerbacks, placing the free safety in a bind.

DIAGRAM: Cover-2 Visual.

Why Use Cover-2?  Used when we want to take away short passes by jumping short routes under 5 yards. It increases our chances for takeaways and places us in position to put big hits on receivers. Cover-2 offers GREAT chance for interceptions if the offense is used to us playing in Cover-3 and we surprise them with a disguised Cover-2.  Also gives safe flexibility against the pass versus most offensive formations.

***See the previous note about beginning every play from the same pre-snap look.

Cover-2 Strengths:

  • Offers aggressive underneath coverage.  Opponents will not beat us with short passes consistently against Cover-2.
  • Flexibility against the pass. This coverage is really a “match-up zone” or “pattern read coverage”. Cover-2 gives us tremendous flexibility to react to the offensive pass routes being run. While the cornerbacks are aligned closer to the LOS to play aggressively, defensive coaches always feel safe calling Cover-2 in many pass situations due to its built-in flexibility.

Cover-2 Weaknesses:

  • Lack of run support from our safeties. With only seven defenders “in the box,” Cover-2 is weak against an offense with either one RB and two TEs (a “12 personnel”) or two RBs and one TE (a “21 personnel”).
  • “The Hole” along the sideline at about 15-yards. Being in Cover-2, makes it difficult to cover this sudden hole if our CB passes off a vertical receiver to the safety.
  • A third good vertical receiver running straight up the middle of the field can present a challenge.

DIAGRAM: Roll-Coverage Visual.

Why Use Roll Coverage? Using Roll Coverage allows us to cover “Trips” (sometimes called “Trey”) formations safely and maintains flexibility to adjust to routes.  This is another “pattern read” zone coverage for us.

Roll-Coverage Strengths:

  • Limits big play opportunities by the opponent. It does this by giving us four pass defenders over the 3-receiver side of the formation and two pass defenders over the 1-receiver side.
  • Provides flexibility in dealing with very good receivers. By using Roll Coverage, we can play a lot of games within this coverage, if necessary.

Roll-Coverage Weaknesses:

  • Slightly limits our blitz package without spending additional time preparing.
  • Limited against a team with a pass catching running back AND a mobile quarterback.  But, in this situation, we’ll also have other options that we can use.

DIAGRAM: Cover-1 Visual.

Why Use Cover-1?  Allows us to play aggressive man-to-man defense and blitz an extra player (total of five rushers potentially) while giving the protection and flexibility of one deep, zone defender.

Cover-1 Strengths:

  • Provides the flexibility to blitz or double-team a good receiver with one deep, zone player over the top (usually a safety).

Cover-1 Weaknesses:  

  • Opposing offense has a higher big-play potential due to all the man coverage. Unless  we’re calling a run blitz, Cover-1 is also weaker against the run than zone against a spread team due to defenders turning and running with spread out offensive players.

DIAGRAM: Cover-0 Visual.

Why Use Cover-0? Used as an aggressively Blitz against either the run or to rush the quarterback.

Cover-0 Strengths:

  • Pass Rush. Cover-0 allows us to commit 6 or more players to attack the offensive blocking scheme.
  • Creativity. Cover-0 also allows us to have some fun in the blitz game, putting stress on the offensive line and offensive staff.

Cover-0 Weaknesses:

  • Opposing offense has the potential for big plays. With five men in coverage – the Cover-0 leaves us vulnerable to big plays if we miss an assignment and the offense finds our mistake.
  • Less run support from the secondary. Unless run blitzing, it is also weaker against the run then zone versus a spread team due to defenders turning and running with spread out offensive players.

***Special thanks and a shout-out to my friend and mentor, Bill Burke, who is the Former University of Saint Thomas Defensive Coordinator and 2016 State Champion Defensive Coach at Benilde-St. Margaret HS.

Dave Adams is the Defensive Backs Coach & Special Teams Coordinator at New Life Academy/St. Croix Preparatory Academy Football, Woodbury (MN). He is also the Former Defensive Coordinator Rochester Community & Tech. College (MN) and Robbinsdale-Armstrong HS (MN), and Former Head Coach Wabasha-Kellogg High School (MN).

Follow Dave Adams on Twitter: @MNWorldWide

Email Dave Adams at: adamsd@augsburg.edu

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