What separates Peyton Manning from other quarterbacks? I would argue that there are other quarterbacks more physically gifted. Don’t get me wrong, he’s still physically gifted. But what is it that makes him standout? Since the suspense is killing you I am just going tell you. He can read defenses, and he can read them very well. Once Peyton reads the defense, he knows actually where to attack the defense.
If you are going to be an effective quarterback, it is important to be a student of the game. Of course, you have to know yourself and your job. You also have to know your opposition, and identify their strengths and weaknesses. When you know your opposition’s weakness, you can use that weakness to create an advantage for you and your offense. As a quarterback, it all starts by first identifying the coverage the defense is running. Being able to identify the coverages, will allow you to avoid the defense’s strengths and attack their weaknesses.
When a defense tries to create strength, they also create their own weakness. For example, when a defense plays Cover One, they create a strength versus the run. If you are able to spot this strength/what they are trying to do, you will also notice what the defense is giving up to take way your run. In the case of Cover One, the defense is putting their corners on islands. What’s that mean? It means the defensive backs have limited underneath help, making them susceptible to crossing routes, breaking routes, pick routes, etc.
Now we are going to cover five basic coverages. First the strengths of the defense will be discussed and then the weakness of the defense. Followed up by how to spot the coverage. Your ability to recognize the defense allows you avoid running plays to the defense’s strength and to exploit the weaknesses of the defense.
“Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.” – Sun Tzu
Every coverage, whether it be zone based or man based, has its strengths and weaknesses. The strength of Cover One starts with the defense’s ability to create a eight man front by bringing the strong safety into the box. The strong safety can provide good run support from here, and the defense can easily rush five defenders to create more pressure on passing situations. In coverage, the corners are able to play hard and tight man to man. This easily positions them to cover passes in the flats. The free safety is positioned in the deep middle of the field help against deep middle passes.
Now that you know the strengths of the defense, how can you use the strengths to find the weaknesses? Let’s start with the coverage. Since the defense is using so many men to take way the run, they are leaving their corners all alone. This forces their corners to play hard and tight man to man coverage. The corners are on islands where they are only paying attention to their man. This leaves the defender susceptible to your pick and rub crossing routes. With the lack of underneath help in coverage, your receiver’s breaking routes will also be very effective. This is especially the case if the receiver is good at creating separation. Running good breaking routes can also setup double moves. Versus Cover One, a double move can result in a big play since there are fewer defenders deep for safety purposes.
Since the strong safety has an upgraded run responsibility, he can be more easily fooled with play action passes. This may leave his pass responsibility wide open. Also, don’t be afraid to call four or five receiver sets. This will force linebackers to cover receivers, leaving you with a mismatch. Lastly, if you drop back and find that no one is open, you can often scramble to the flats and gain large chunks of yards due to the fact the defenders are locked into their receivers down field.
Spotting Cover One:
Cover One Strengths:
Cover One Weaknesses:
There are several kinds of Cover Two. If you are playing a defense that runs Cover Two Man Under, two deep safeties and man coverage underneath, look to use some of the same strategies you use to beat Cover One. With that being said, we are going to spend time on beating the zone concepts of Cover Two.
A zone concept Cover Two gives the defense strong underneath coverage. This strength is setup by the defense’s ability to drop seven defenders into coverage. The five underneath defenders match the five eligible receivers and throw off your receiver’s timing through jams. The corners take away the flats, while the linebackers take away the hook and curl areas. At the same time, there are two deep safeties to aid versus the deep passes.
When a defense plays Cover Two, they strengthen themselves to defend against the pass. So when they are in this seven man front, the defense weakens themselves against the run. You can take advantage of this by running the football. When you pass, the easiest points to attack are the deep zones. By attacking the deep zones you avoid the strength of the defense’s underneath coverage. When you are attacking the deep zones, there are three zones to strike. They are at the edges of the safeties’ range, two holes are along the two sidelines and one is in the middle of the field. To attack these holes, run three vertical routes with one route in each area.
If you want to attack underneath, high-low the corner. You can high-low the corner by running a two receiver combination route of a corner route with a five yard hitch under it. Against this combination route, the corner is forced to defend one route or the other. After the corner chooses, you are left with an open receiver.
You can also create problems for the coverage by going five wide. With two receivers on one side and three on the other, you increase the distance between the linebackers. Increased distance equals more area to throw the ball. A talented receiver can take advantage of this space and slip into the open area between the Mike and Will linebackers.
Spotting Cover Two:
Cover Two Strengths:
Cover Two Weaknesses:
Cover Three is an eight man front that is a strong defense. When reading Cover Three, you can notice the defense brings down a safety into the box. Based on this alignment, the defense now has three deep defenders for pass coverage and four defenders underneath. Three deep defenders provide more strength versus throws down the field. Underneath, the defenders protect from the inside out. This takes away your easier/shorter passes over the ball.
With the three deep defender’s responsibilities of playing over the top in their third, they are less likely to get beat deep versus superior wide receivers. At the same time, the deep defenders underplay shallower routes. Joining the underplaying by deep defenders and the underneath playing inside out, the defense gives up the area to the side of the field known as the flats. You should have an easy time throwing now passes, quick out breaking routes, screens, and hitches. Also, with only four underneath defenders and your five eligible receivers, you have a chance to flood a zone with more receivers than defenders. If you do choose to attack deep, the defense is most susceptible at the seams.
Spotting Cover Three:
Cover Three Strengths:
Cover Three Weaknesses:
Defenses that run Cover Four like to have the strength and ability to play four defenders deep and at the same time increase the safeties’ ability to play the run. The safeties are closer to the line of scrimmage, which basically gives the defense nine men in the box to stop the the run. In Cover Four defenses, the deep coverage responsibilities are divided into “if-then” scenarios. An example of the “if-then” scenario is when a receiver is not running a vertical route (-8 yards), the defender will leave the receiver to be covered by underneath linebackers and go double team the next vertical route by a receiver. On the other hand, if the receiver is vertical (+8 yards), the defender plays man to man coverage on the receiver. Typically the corners cover the #1′s receivers and the safeties cover the #2 receivers to their respective sides. This zone style of play can be very effective.
The best way for you to attack Cover Four through the air is to make throws underneath against the three linebackers. Since the underneath linebackers protect from the inside out, throws to the flats are most likely to be open. This will give your receivers plenty of room to catch and run. Though easier, you can find ways of exploiting underneath coverage similarly to how you attack Cover Two underneath. Due to the fact that the safeties are so active versus the run, play action pass may deceive them.
If you are really wanting to throw the ball deep, it important to increase your chances by throwing to one on one coverage. To avoid bracket coverages, have your #2 receiver run a vertical route to occupy the safety. This will setup one on one coverage down the field with your #1 receiver on the corner. This is a great way to take advantage of a superior receiver. The second way to get down field man to man coverage is to isolate a receiver on a linebacker. If your #2 receiver runs a five yard out, the safety will leave to cover another vertical route. At this point, your receiver runs an out and up. The route will leave you with a one on one mismatch down the field.
Spotting Cover Four:
Cover Four Strengths:
Cover Four Weaknesses:
In Cover Zero, the defense makes it a priority to increase pressure. The defense accomplishes this by rushing more players than your offense keeps in to block. This places all defensive backs in man to man coverage. With their increased pass rush, the defense hopes to sack you or hurry your throw.
Since the defense brings everything but the kitchen sink at you, there is a huge weakness in the secondary. If you have enough time, any routes you run against Cover One will equally be as effective versus Cover Zero. Take advantage of the defense having absolutely no underneath help by having your receivers run pick routes or quick breaking routes. These quick developing routes will help you to get rid of the ball before the pass rush can reach you. Also, the corners have no deep help, and a quick fade route is a good way to attack this weakness.
Spotting Cover Zero:
Cover Zero Strengths:
Cover Zero Weaknesses:
As you progress and develop your ability to read defenses, ask yourself “Is the defense trying to take away the run or pass? Are they trying to takeaway underneath passes or protect against the long ball?”. Once you realize what the defense is trying to take away, you can see the flip side of what they are giving up.
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