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 2 safeties and 2 cornerbacks to cover the deep zones. The three underneath zones are covered by the linebackers.
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.
Cover 4 Defense
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 defense to Cover 4.
The Cover 4 defense 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 the zone coverage known as Cover 4.
As with the other coverages, the number “4” in cover 4 means there are four deep defenders in the coverage. There are also three underneath zone defenders who cover short routes.
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.
The two safeties and the two corners are responsible for splitting the field into deep fourths. Their job is to make sure nobody gets behind them.
The 3 linebackers will play a three under zone defense. The Mike linebacker will cover the middle of the field (middle hook), and the two outside linebackers will cover the flats.
These three players are known as underneath defenders and are in charge of short routes or intermediate routes like the dig route.
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.
The coverage will dictate the front, so if the team wants to play a split field coverage, they will only play cover 4 to one side of the field.
However, if they want to play full field cover 4, it’s important that they have the linebackers, safeties and corners necessary to play the coverage effectively.
Cover 4 Match Quarters
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 free safety and strong safety will be responsible for the #2 receiver. If the #2 receiver does an in breaking route or an out breaking route, 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 the #2 slot receiver 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 in cover 4 match quarters.
Want to learn more about coverages? View our complete coverage guide here.
What Is The Weakness Of 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 in a few ways. Below, we will show you the two most common ways teams will beat Cover 4.
Cover 4 is beaten 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. This will help them better play the post in Cover 4.
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. This is a great concept to beat a cover 4 defense.
Cover 4 forces the quarterback to check the ball down to a short route, because the deep part of the field is covered.
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