Cover 4 in football is one of the most common 2-high (2 safety) coverages run among college and high school defenses. Its flexibility allows safeties to get into the run fits and play the pass. What exactly is cover 4, and how do teams run it?
Cover 4 is a zone defense with four deep defenders and three underneath defenders. Coaches can choose to zone drop these defenders or play match coverage.
In this article, we’re going to show you everything you need to know about cover 4 and how you can install it into your defense.
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Cover 4 is a simple zone defense that can be used in many different ways. Its popularity stems from the fact it can be used from multiple coverage schemes (zone quarters or match quarters). If you are running a 3-4 or 4-3 defense, you can easily adjust your zone to cover 4.
Cover 4 is typically a base coverage for most defenses utilizing the two high structures. Below, you can see how a 4-3 defense will utilize playing cover 4.
As with the other coverages, the number “4” in cover 4 means there are four deep defenders in the coverage.
The most common type of cover 4 is what we call zone dropping. This means that every play is responsible for a zone. Zone dropping is the easiest type of coverage to teach and allows for four deep defenders to cap any thrown deep routes.
Each player has a zone for which they are responsible. For example:
- The safeties and the corners are responsible for splitting the field into deep fourths. Their job is to make sure nobody gets behind them.
- The 3 linebackers will evenly distribute the underneath zones. The middle linebacker will cover the middle of the field, and the two outside linebackers will cover the flats
Most coaches will run the cover 4 zone drop in 3rd and long situations or even hail mary situations. This allows the defense to cover any deep routes the offense may throw at it.
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While teams may elect to zone drop their players, another style of cover 4 has emerged called “match quarters.”
Match quarters are essentially a style where the defensive players will pattern match what the offensive players are doing. Instead of dropping to a zone, every player has a set of rules they will follow based on what their key does.
When playing match quarters, teams will typically follow these rules:
- The safeties will be responsible for the #2 receiver. If the #2 receiver goes in or out, they will support the corner. If the #2 receiver goes vertical, the safety will cover them.
- The corners are playing a “MOD” technique, which essentially means if the #1 receiver goes deep, he will cover him. If he goes short or inside, he will zone off to his deep 4th.
- The linebackers are responsible for the #2 and #3 receivers underneath. If they do any short routes, they will try to collide and carry them.
Match quarters are popular because they allow safeties to fit in the run game. Defenses can have as many as nine players committing to the football on run plays. This read happens much quicker because they are reacting to what #2 does.
Instead of dropping into space, teams will use their safeties to get involved in the run fits.
If you’re looking for video examples of match quarters, we broke it down at a beginner level here:
If you’re looking for a more advanced version of match quarters, our good friend Cody Alexander, author of the book Match Quarters, can be seen explaining how he plays match quarters to different formations.
Here he breaks down bunch alerts, cut splits, and other formation checks.
Want to learn more about coverages? View our complete coverage guide here.
How To Beat Cover 4
Now that we’ve explained what cover 4 is, it’s good to understand what beats cover 4 so you can protect yourself from the offense.
Cover 4 zone and match coverage can be manipulated a few ways. Below, we will show you the two most common ways teams will beat cover 4.
Cover 4 is beat by occupying both safeties. Manipulating one of them to drive down or stop their feet will allow the ball to be thrown over their heads.
The two ways to beat cover 4 are the double posts concept and the shallow concept. These concepts occupy the safety and rely on the corners to cover the receiver one on one. Let’s learn more about these concepts.
The double posts concepts are when the #2 receiver and the #1 receiver run skinny posts. This concept forces the safety to take on the posts and leaves the corner to cover the skinny post of the #1 receiver.
This can be tough for the #1 receiver because of the leverage and belief that he has safety support on any post. In reality, they will have to take the post and chase him across the field.
To protect against this, have your corners play inside leverage on the #1 receiver.
The next concept is a popular passing concept in the air raid offense known as the shallow concept.
The shallow concept focuses on occupying the safety with the #2 receiver while the #1 receiver runs a post behind him. The safety needs to choose whether to drive the dig or stay deep on the post.
Again, the corner needs to support the post from the #1 receiver to cover both of the routes.
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Learn more about coverages in football below.
Cover 4 is one of many coverages that defenses can play. Whether it be zone drop or match quarters, coaches put their spin on each scheme to best fit their personnel.
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