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September 09, 2021
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WHAT IS ZONE DEFENSE?

THE BASICS

ZONE DEFENSE: a type of coverage scheme where at least one defensive player covers a predetermined zone of the field. Typically linebackers cover zones in the short and intermediate areas, while defensive backs (cornerbacks and safeties) cover the deeper area behind the linebackers.

TYPES OF ZONE DEFENSE

COVER ONE

COVER ONE ALIGNMENT

All defensive backs play man to man except one, the "one" is typically a free safety who covers a zone in the deep area of the field.

COVER ONE ANALYSIS

Cover One is a high risk / high reward scheme. The upside is that man coverage is generally tighter than zone coverage, the downside is that man coverage is hard to pull off and typically breaks down quicker than zone coverage does.

For this reason, defensive coordinators often blitz out of cover one - if the blitz does not get to the QB, the play will likely result in a completion and or big play. But if the blitz does get to the QB, the risk will pay off and the play will result in an incompletion, sack, or interception.

In order to have success with Cover One - personnel must include talented pass rushers and man to man corners.

COVER TWO

COVER TWO ALIGNMENT

All defensive backs play man to man except two, the "two" are typically the free safety and the strong safety. The free safety covers one half of the field, while the strong safety covers the other.

COVER TWO ANALYSIS

Cover Two limits big play risk when compared to Cover One, as the two deep safeties offer more theoretical protection against deep passes.

The drawback is that two safeties patrolling the deep part of the field creates openings underneath the zone, in the short and middle areas of the field. This makes the defense more vulnerable to the short passing game and can create issues with run defense.

From a personnel standpoint, talented linebackers are needed to cover the openings left by the retreating safeties.

COVER THREE

COVER THREE ALIGNMENT

Three defensive backs drop back and play zone defense - the two outside cornerbacks and the free safety. The cornerbacks are responsible for covering their respective sideline, while the free safety patrols deep center field. The strong safety moves down to the linebacker spot and plays closer to the line of scrimmage.

COVER THREE ANALYSIS

Cover three is generally used to protect against the run - as the strong safety is essentially lining up as an extra linebacker. This can be an especially important versus a running quarterback.

The drawback to Cover Three is that it opens up the short passing game (because the outside CBs drop back) and is also more vulnerable to the long ball, as only three defensive backs are in position to play deep (compared to four in Cover 2).

Personnel wise, a rangy free safety with good instincts is a necessity, as the free safety has to cover the entire center of the field without help.

COVER FOUR

COVER FOUR ALIGNMENT

Four defensive backs (two Cornerbacks and 2 Safeties or 3 Cornerbacks and 1 Safety) all drop back and play deep zone defense.

COVER FOUR ANALYSIS

Cover Four is very effective versus the deep passing game and is often employed in Hail Mary situations.

The drawback to Cover Four is that it leaves the short and middle area of the field open - which can be exploited by the running game and short to intermediate passing game.  
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