In this part of the NFL Fan School, I’ll go over a few of the more common defensive strategies that an American football team will use during a game. These strategies are just a general overall plan for the defense to work to with their sole purpose being to stop the offense. To do this, they have to be way more reactive to what the offense is doing than the offense has to be to what the defense is doing. Because of this, the defensive strategies are just broader plans for the players to follow with the main purpose being to get react and get to the ball carrier asap.
This strategy is exactly what it sounds like, it is where the defensive backs and linebackers are responsible for a certain offensive player on any given play. The cornerbacks will generally cover the wide receivers, the linebacker(s) and strong safety will cover the running back(s) or tight end(s) and the free safety would cover what’s left – in today’s game that would likely be another of the wide receivers.
Sometimes the free safety will play free, which means he isn’t responsible for covering anyone and instead has to read and react to where the ball is going and get there quickly.
Sometimes, if a defense is facing a team with a very good receiver, they will double-cover him. By this, I mean that they will assign two of their defenders to cover/mark this player so that he can’t get open and the QB has to throw to a receiver who isn’t regarded as being as much of a threat.
Zone coverage is the opposite of man-to-man coverage in that the defenders are responsible for covering an area of the field and the offensive player(s) who enter that area instead of following a certain player for the duration of the play.
Generally, the cornerbacks will cover out wide whilst the middle linebacker(s) cover the middle of the field whilst the outside linebackers cover the shorter zones outside the hash marks and the safeties cover the deep areas to either side of the hash marks.
A couple of ways to see if a defense is playing zone coverage is, firstly seeing where the safeties are lined up. Usually, you will see the free safety lined up fairly deep as he is always the last line of defense, but the strong safety playing up closer to the line of scrimmage as he is more responsible for covering tight ends and running backs going out for short passes as well as being more responsible for helping to stop the run. When they are in zone coverage you will see both the safeties lining up deep.
Another way to determine if a defense is playing man or zone coverage is to send a wide receiver, running back or tight end in motion before the play starts. This is when one of those players changes position before the ball is snapped. If a defender moves with him, they are playing man-to-man but if no-one goes with him they are more likely playing zone.
The Cover 2 defense refers to the number of defenders who are responsible for covering the deeper areas of the field whilst the other players usually play man-to-man coverage. In the Cover 2, it is the free safety and strong safety who cover the deep zones to either side of the field whilst the cornerbacks and linebackers man-to-man mark their assigned offensive player. This gives them the confidence that they are man-marking with cover if their player gets by them from the safeties.
There are many variants to the “Cover” defense with more players being assigned to cover rather than man-to-man roles. In the Cover 3, the free safety and two cornerbacks are the ones responsible for the deep coverage whilst the strong safety and linebackers man-to-man mark and look to be the first there to stop a run play.
The Cover 4 means that the two safeties and two cornerbacks are responsible for the deep zones and the linebackers look to cover the short zones and watch for the run. This is usually used in obvious deep passing situations.
Basically, the “Cover” plus number equals how many of the defenders are responsible for covering deeper downfield and these types of defensive schemes are used against more pass-oriented teams or in obvious passing situations.
The Tampa 2 is another form of defense that you might have heard of. This is a variant of the Cover 3 and looks to have three players covering the deeper zones. The difference here is that in the Cover 3 we have the two cornerbacks and the free safety covering deep whilst the strong safety walks up to the area close to the line of scrimmage and plays there. In the Tampa 2, the cornerbacks stay in man coverage instead of dropping back into deep coverage whilst the free safety and strong safety now split out to cover either side of the deep zones of the field and a middle linebacker drops back to cover the deep middle of the field. The middle linebacker playing in a Tampa 2 style defense should be quicker and agiler so that he can drop into coverage and be able to cover tight ends, receivers and running backs who may come into his zone.
An issue with the Tampa 2 is that it can leave a zone in front of the middle linebacker (the area he’s just vacated to drop into deeper coverage) open for a receiver to exploit. This is usually ok as it is designed to stop deep pass plays a the expense of shorter ones.
8 Men in the Box
Usually the defense is said to have a “front 7” with 4 defensive backs. This front seven is made up of either 4 down linemen and 3 linebackers or vice-versa. The “Box” is the are of the field that the defensive linemen and linebackers line up in.
What having “8 men in the box” means is that the strong safety (SS) starts off in or walks up into the box to add an extra defender to help stop the run. This defense is best employed against a run heavy offense or when your defense has very good cornerbacks and the free safety who can be relied upon to cover the receivers going out for a pass. Obviously, the strong safety and linebackers have to be ready to read and react to any pass play as well.
So there we have it, the basics of an American football defense. There are many slight variations to all of this but the basics are usually the same and all we need to know about to allow us to enjoy a game more as a spectator. For more on the actual formations the defenses line up in, check out this post and for more stuff that I hope will increase your enjoyment of the game of American football, be sure to check out the rest of the NFL Fan School and the Guide to the Game sections.