How to Beat Cover 3 Defense

In the realm of football strategy, understanding and effectively countering defensive schemes is paramount to offensive success. Cover 3 defense, a staple in all levels of football, presents a unique challenge to offensive coordinators seeking to move the ball down the field. I’ll take you through the strengths and weaknesses of cover 3 defense and provide some popular and effective ways offensive coordinators are drawing up their favorite cover 3 beaters.

Understanding Cover 3 Defense

Cover 3 is a zone defense where the defense is divided into thirds, with each deep defender responsible for covering a deep third of the field. This defensive scheme typically involves four underneath defenders (usually linebackers or safeties) responsible for covering short and intermediate routes, while three deep defenders (usually cornerbacks and one safety) each cover a deep zone. The primary objective of Cover 3 is to prevent big plays downfield while also defending against intermediate passes and short routes in the flats.

structure of cover 3 defense

Strengths of Cover 3 Defense

Deep Coverage: Cover 3 is designed to defend against deep passing plays effectively. With three deep defenders splitting the field into thirds, this defense discourages quarterbacks from taking shots downfield, forcing them to either check down to shorter routes or attempt difficult throws into tight coverage.

Zone Flexibility: Cover 3 provides flexibility in defending different areas of the field. While the deep defenders cover their assigned zones, the underneath defenders have the freedom to adjust their positioning based on offensive routes, providing additional coverage support in intermediate areas.

Defending the Run: Unlike man-to-man coverage, where defenders are responsible for specific receivers, Cover 3 allows defenders to read and react to the play. This flexibility enables defenders to quickly adjust to running plays and swarm to the ball carrier, minimizing gains on the ground.

Weaknesses of Cover 3 Defense

Vulnerability to Horizontal Stretches: One of the inherent weaknesses of Cover 3 is its susceptibility to horizontal stretches. Offenses can exploit this by sending receivers to the flats and sideline areas, forcing the underneath defenders to cover a large horizontal area. This can create mismatches and opportunities for yards after the catch.

Seam Routes and Middle of the Field: While Cover 3 defends the deep thirds effectively, it leaves vulnerabilities in the seams and middle of the field. Offenses can attack these areas with seam routes by splitting the deep defenders or finding holes between zones where the underneath and deep defenders may not have coverage overlap.

Timing and Rhythm: Cover 3 relies on disciplined execution from defenders to maintain coverage integrity. Offenses can disrupt this rhythm by varying the timing of routes, using play-action passes to freeze defenders, and deploying route combinations that force defenders to make quick decisions and potentially create coverage breakdowns.

How to Beat Cover 3 Defense

Now, let’s take a look at some pass concepts that will help you beat cover 3 defense.

Attacking the Seams

Cover 3 defense often leaves openings in the seams between the deep defenders and underneath coverage. Offenses can exploit these vulnerabilities by utilizing seam routes and deep crossing patterns that attack the middle of the field. By stretching the defense vertically along the seams, offenses force deep defenders to choose between covering deep routes and defending against intermediate passes in the middle, creating potential mismatches and openings for big gains.

Example Play Concept: Four Verticals

Formation: Four verticals can either be ran out of 2×2, 3×1 or even empty sets with 3×2 formations.

Execution: Send outside receivers on deep vertical routes, aiming to stretch the deep thirds defenders vertically. Send the slot receivers vertically, attacking the seams and creating a dilemma for the deep safety to choose between covering the two vertical routes near his zone responsibility

Key Points: This concept forces the defense to defend multiple deep routes simultaneously, exploiting the seams and creating opportunities for explosive plays if the quarterback can identify and successfully throw it vertically down field.

four verticals cover 3 beater out of trey

Variations of How to Beat Cover 3 Defense with Flood Concepts:

inside go switch cover 3 beater four verticals

four verticals cover 3 beater

Go switch cover 3 beater

Outside Go Switch cover 3 beater

Hi / Low Defender’s Zone Responsibilities

As mentioned earlier, Cover 3 defense is susceptible to horizontal stretches that force underneath defenders to cover a large area of the field. Offenses can capitalize on this vulnerability by utilizing concepts that flood one side of the field with multiple receivers, including routes to the flats and sideline areas. By overwhelming the underneath defenders with multiple receiving options, offenses can create mismatches and exploit the open space created by the zone coverage.

Example Play Concept: Flood Concept

Formation: Flooding the field can happen out of a balanced 2×2 set or 3×1 formation.

Execution: #1 WR will run a Go route to clear out the CB responsible for the deep third. #2 WR will run a Sail route, which is an out route that can break at 10 yards and get to 12 yards. #3 WR will run an arrow route. Backside WR will run a 7 step post.

Key Points: This concept forces the defense to defend multiple levels of the field horizontally and vertically, stretching the zone coverage and creating opportunities for receivers to find openings in the zones. The quarterback reads the progression starting with the Go route, then Sail, then the Shallow/arrow route.

Beat Cover 3 Defense with Flood

Variations of How to Beat Cover 3 Defense with Flood Concepts:

Beat Cover 3 Defense with Burst Sail

Beat Cover 3 Defense with Curl Flood

Beat Cover 3 Defense with Bench Flood

Beat Cover 3 Defense with Burst Flood

Example Play Concept: Post, Dig, Shallow

Formation: Post, Dig, Shallow is a popular concept to beat multiple coverages. This concept also works to beat cover 3 and can be ran out of multiple formations

Execution: The purpose of this play is to attack the middle of the field in layers with the hopes of being able to throw it into the open windows that are created by the underneath defenders dropping into their zone responsibilities. The progression is typically Post, Dig, Shallow as the QB works down the field and then underneath.

Key Points: It’s important for QB’s to anticipate throwing the ball into the open windows. This can be a challenge for most HS QB’s because they will hold the ball until the WR is in the open window and at that time it’s too late.

Cover 3 beater Post Dig Shallow

Variations of How to Beat Cover 3 Defense with Post, Dig, Shallow Concepts:

Post Dig Shallow cover 3 beater

The bow concept as a cover 3 beater

The last concept above is a bit more like the Bow Concept, but it’s similar to Post, Dig, Shallow in terms of layering the middle of the field and putting the Hook/Curl defender (LB) in conflict with the Dig over the top and the Sit route underneath.

Simple Quick Pass Concepts for Cover 3 Beaters

Having quick passing concepts are effective ways to attack Cover 3 defense. By making quick throws to the perimeter, or throwing based off defender’s movement, offenses can force defenders to rally to the ball and create one-on-one tackling situations in space. The key for play callers is they must be disciplined in taking what the defense is willing to give up in their coverage responsibilities.

Example of Quick Pass Concepts for Cover 3 Beaters

Bubble cover 3 beater

Quick Cover 3 beater

Slant-Arrow cover 3 beater

Fade-Out cover 3 beater

Hitch Go cover 3 beater

Knowing How to Beat Cover 3 Defense

Mastering the art of beating Cover 3 defense requires a comprehensive understanding of its strengths, weaknesses, and effective strategies to exploit its vulnerabilities. By strategically attacking the seams, utilizing vertical and horizontal stretch concepts, and having a reliable quick pass game, offensive coordinators can create scoring opportunities against this popular defensive scheme. For offensive coordinators, it’s important to take what the defense is willing to give up. Many OC’s will try to force the issue and get too complicated in their passing attack rather than sticking with basic concepts that successfully attack open space on the field.

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