Breaking Down the Different Coverage's a College Football Fan Should Know

Ian Berg@@ShugJordanPkwyCorrespondent IMarch 29, 2013

This fall you will sit down with your cold, tasty beverage and a bag of Frito Lay’s finest waiting for your team to take the field for the first time. Questions always surround a new season, but one that rarely is answered is “what exactly is our defense doing?”

Not every college football fan has played the game, and there are those that haven’t picked up the latest edition of NCAA from EA Sports.

This is for you guys. The fans that wonder why teams use a prevent defense when it never seems to work, and why you think your team runs a 4-3, but always has five defensive backs on the field.

We will talk about the basic principles of coverage, the basics of base defenses, explain what cover numbers mean and describe why teams run nickel and the hated prevent.


The Zone

Zone coverage is very simple.

Think of the field broken into bubbles, and the defender plays inside his bubble. If a receiver’s pattern crosses his zone he follows, and when he reaches his marker he resets for the play. If the play turns into a run, the defender attacks the football.

A benefit to the zone is that players are always facing the offense. This is a forward looking defense that relies on a defenders ability to read and react.

In this screenshot the LSU safety (marked by purple circle) is stepping up in support from a zone position. Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel is getting pressure and rolling out to the right receiver smothered in tight man coverage. 

The safety is breaking on the play in expectation of the throw. 

A lot of speed defenses implement zone to defend the run and keep the short passing game at bay.

Almost every defensive call has at least one player in a zone coverage, most often the safety.

Man Coverage

Man coverage is in reference to the secondary and linebackers relationship to receivers.

The coverage description is as simple as the name. The defender has an offensive player that he is locked to for the entirety of the play. The defender sticks to the hip, breaks up the pass or makes the tackle if it is caught. He should be playing in the pocket of the opponent.

This is a look at North Carolina playing man defense. 

Linebackers are matched in man against tight ends, h-backs and running backs.

Corners have numerous options to play in man coverage and there are a lot of corner blitzes that are affiliated with the scheme.

When a cornerback steps in to play press-man or bump coverage—that is where he engages the receiver in the first five yards beyond the line of scrimmage—he is trying to keep the receiver from taking the inside position on a slant route.

Cornerbacks will also play off the ball and play man coverage.

Safeties are locked in against running backs or slot receivers when a linebacker is thrown in to blitz. Otherwise safeties are roaming a zone.


Base Defense

Right now in college football there are three main base defenses. Teams run the 3-4, 4-3 and the adapted 4-2-5.

Popular programs that run the 3-4 are Alabama and Notre Dame. 4-3 schemes are in place at Penn State and Ohio State and the 4-2-5 has been adapted by programs at North Carolina and South Carolina to name a few.

Different programs run different defenses to meet changing needs. This is a look at the  basics to the defenses and why a team may chose them.



The 3-4 has taken hold of the college game recently with the NFL flavor of defense sifting into the game.

Linebacker is the key to success in the 3-4. You have to have strong linebacker play to survive in this formation. There are three down linemen, four linebackers and four defensive backs.

Here is the Georgia defense with three down lineman (marked with yellow arrows).

The outside linebackers serve as additional pass-rushers, but they must be athletic enough to drop into coverage when needed.

Tall, athletic corners that can survive on islands are needed to make this defense work fluidly.

Alabama is one of the most popular teams to run the scheme, and they are known for running it extremely well.



The 4-3 defense has a number of options to the looks it can provide an offense.

A strong middle linebacker presence is needed to make this defense tick, and solid safety play is a must. The safeties are often called upon to serve in deep zones on an island, and the strong safety must be able to crash and play the run consistently.

There are four down linemen, three linebackers and four defensive backs in this scheme. This is the basic defense that is run by a number of programs. It allows for the best of all worlds.

This is a look at the 4-3 from the Texas A&M defense in 2012. 


There are four big bodies to assist in run support, three linebackers with two being coverage types, and strong safety play.

Tampa-2 (we will explain later) is one of the most famous schemes played in the 4-3 and is utilized by a number of programs around the country.



The 4-2-5 defense was first used as a base defense in college during the mid-2000s when Ellis Johnson was at Mississippi State and Vic Koenning was at Troy. Both coaches began to run a base defense modeled after the nickel formation.

There are four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs that are put into action.

In the 4-2-5 the 'Star' position is the key to the defense. The ‘Star’ is a hybrid safety type that could play outside linebacker in most 4-3 schemes.

Take a look at the pre-snap screenshot of the 4-2-5 by the South Carolina Gamecocks. Notice the five defensive backs (marked by yellow arrows). This is a cover 2 look from the Gamecocks. 

Currently North Carolina, South Carolina and Auburn are using this formation as their base defense.

It was designed to help keep the defense on the field against spread offenses, and help limit substitutions. The third safety is talented enough to be a coverage guy, but his strength is against the run.


Cover 1

Cover 1 refers to one deep safety.

This is typically played when there is double coverage or blitzes being applied.

Cover 1 is utilized in the 4-2-5 with much success because of the additional defensive back playing in man coverage or a short zone.

Here is an example of a short cover 2 by the Alabama defense.

Notice the two linebackers (marked by red arrows), and the short field safety tightening up in man coverage (marked by yellow circle). 

There is only one deep safety. 

In this next screen he comes into view to make the interception on Aaron Murray. The Tide was playing man coverage with the cover 1. The cover corners are marked in black with the free safety marked in yellow. 

Using only one deep man puts a lot of pressure on the free safety, but the offense is usually held in front of him long enough to read the flow of the play.


Cover 2

Cover 2 is seen a lot in the 4-3. The Tampa-2 is a famous cover 2 scheme that is built on deep safeties and a quick linebacker unit.

The cover 2 dumps two safeties into deep zone coverage, and leaves the middle of the field to be covered by the linebackers.

There are a lot of blitz packages that can be schemed out of the cover 2 as well with a safety coming free to the ball and another defender falling into the zone.

This is a coverage that is relied upon by a number of defenses as it provides a solid deep coverage asset for the defense and keeps enough players in the box to fight the run.


Cover 3

Cover 3 is a balanced defense that brings up the strong safety for run support. At this point the defense is usually playing a complete zone scheme, and cutting off every lane possible is the goal of the defense. 

In this screenshot the LSU defensive backfield (marked by purple circles) is lined up in a cover 3 pre-snap.

This can be implemented in a number of ways, but the most common is to drop the free safety deep, and add two cornerbacks to the deep corners of pass coverage.

At this point the strong safety is either playing a short zone, or manning up on the slot receiver.

This is a “maximize the coverage” type effort.


Cover 4

Cover 4 can have multiple variations. The most common thought of formation is to help stop a final score in a prevent scheme.

This can be a prevent or dime package look for the defense that puts both safeties and both cornerbacks in deep coverage. 

Cover 4 is also used as a solid run support defense as both safeties can help crash into the box and help in run support, or cover deep in event of a pass. 

There is one linebacker present and two other defensive backs in coverage. Cover 4 is a “can’t let them score” type scenario. The defense is set to keep the offense from the end zone.



The nickel formation has become a more regular piece of defenses across the country over the past few years. As teams move to spread formations with regularity, adding defensive backs to the field has become a goal.

Speed is more of a necessity than ever before, and this scheme allows for teams to apply a number of defensive backs to the field and help in coverage.

Here is a shot of Auburn in the nickel against Clemson in 2011 with the nickel back on the far side of the field (marked by a blue circle) and the blitzing safety (marked with an orange circle).

Nickel carries two linebackers, four down linemen and five defensive backs. The nickel is a cornerback or safety that is better than average against the run.

The nickel is the base that the 4-2-5 defense was built from.



The dime or prevent defense is one of the most hated formations in all of college football. For some reason teams will lineup in the prevent with a minutes time remaining on the clock, only to see the opponent pick apart the deep zone coverage for small yardage and big gains.

Here is a prevent defense. You notice only two down linemen (marked by red arrows) and both safeties completely out of the screen. The corners are playing 10 yards off the receiver and will drop into a deep zone once the ball is snapped. 

This defense is six to seven defensive backs with four typically playing in a deep cover 4. The other two to three defensive backs and one linebacker play middle to deep zone.

There is usually a three man rush employed with this scheme.

In the final seconds of a game this is a very effective defense. Against a team that has speedy skill players and a little time to burn it is a death trap.



Each scheme discussed has moving parts that help mask coverages and blitzes that go well beyond this simple explanation.

At the end of it all, you should understand what you see on the field, and those yellow circles all over the television screen should start to make sense before commercial breaks and during replay timeouts.

Knowing the basics of defense will help you understand why your team is good at one thing, and bad at another. It will also help you understand what went wrong in a play, and who dropped the ball for the squad.


Note: All screen shots pulled from YouTube videos uploaded by users Jmpasqfullgame,GameDayESPN, maj0915, DHart, DHart


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