Learn The Basics Of Cover 1 In Football

Written By: Chris Haddad
Updated: February 12, 2024

Cover 1 is coverage in football that helps the team cover all eligible receivers on offense. Teams will play cover 1 as a mix-up to other traditional coverages.

Cover 1 in football is a type of defense that includes man-to-man coverage with one safety in the middle of the field. The defensive backs and linebackers will play man coverage, and the safety will play zone coverage.

This article will show you what cover 1 is and why coaches may choose to play it.

Cover 1 In Football

Cover 1 in football
Cover 1 In Football

Cover 1 is a coverage played for coaches who want to play man coverage but want a zone player on the field.

The basics of Cover 1 in football are man coverage with a free safety in the middle of the field. Teams with four defensive linemen will use six defensive backs and linebackers to play man coverage against the offense’s five eligible receivers.

Often, coaches will sub in a nickel package when playing cover 1. That way, they can have more speed on the field to keep up with the offense’s speed.

This requires rolling the strong safety (R) to cover the slot receiver and the free safety to cover the middle of the field. The strong safety, also known as a slot corner, helps to play nickel coverage.

Cover 1 Man Coverage Rules

The rules of Cover 1 are simple. The defensive backs and linebackers will play man-to-man coverage on all eligible receivers.

Man coverage in football means they will follow them wherever the receivers go. The objective is to make it as hard as possible for the receivers to catch the football.

Football teams will play cover 1 because it stresses the quarterback to make a perfect throw. It’s hard to throw the ball in the perfect spot, especially when the man coverage is played perfectly.

As shown above, teams can choose to cover the running back with two linebackers, or more commonly; they will blitz one of the players.

Cover 1 blitz in football

Now the Mike or Sam linebacker is responsible for blitzing toward the quarterback. A 5 man pressure in football is often called a “dog” and can be used effectively against teams that only keep 5 to protect the quarterback.

Cover 1 can be a base defense for coaches, or they may sprinkle it to confuse the offense.

Free safety is one of the most important positions for teams that play cover 1. Coaches will often use the free safety in different roles, depending on their playing team.

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Free Safety

Depending on the coach’s game plan and philosophy, free safety may play multiple roles.

Deep Player

Deep player in cover 1

The first role the free safety may play, and the most common, is the deep middle player. Coaches often have this player in the center of the field to ensure no posts or deep middle-breaking routes occur. This protects the middle of the field and gives the defense a safety blanket for any deep throws.

The deep defender needs to be able to protect all post and seam routes that run through the middle of the field.

Cover 1 with a deep defender is shown above. This is the most common type of Cover 1 and the easiest to install for all players.

Strong Safety

The strong safety plays a crucial role when playing cover 1. There are multiple tasks that a coach will assign the strong safety, based on the defensive game plan.


Spy in cover 1

Coaches may use their deep cover safety as a spy for the quarterback. If the other team has a mobile quarterback, the coach may decide to put the free safety on him.

This means that wherever the quarterback goes, the free safety will go. In the NFL, players like Lamar Jackson and Cam Newton often need a spy because of their running ability. The dangers of playing cover 1 mean that all defensive backs will turn toward their man during the play. Quarterbacks often take advantage of this by rolling out and running. Defenses will counter this by having their free safety spy.


Another role for the free safety to play is the “rat.” This means that the single-high player will come down from the deep middle zone and essentially look to rob or “rat” any crossing routes. Coaches may use the rat in different ways.

Rats are commonly used to deny any crossing routes. This means that the free safety will deny crossing routes and essentially double-team any player that runs across the field. Coaches will use this to help nickel backs or linebackers forced to cover speedier players in the slot position or at wide receiver.

Low Hole

Low hole in cover 1

The low hole position is in the middle of the defense. However, the hole is found at linebacker depth instead of playing the deep middle. Due to the fact, that this area is going to be vacated by the linebackers, offenses may take advantage of it if they identify cover 1.

Coaches may have their free safety drop into the low hole to cover any underneath defenders. This means they are responsible for reading the quarterback’s eyes and dropping into the vacated spot left by the linebackers.

This is common for coaches going against teams who throw short underneath patterns to running backs or the tight end.

Double Team

Last is the double team coverage in cover 1. Teams will often use the double team if the offense has a dominant receiver in the slot or outside.

The free safety will shade over to the dominant receiver’s side and relieve the defensive back. This is the flexibility the free safety brings in the defense as they allow for two players to cover 1.

Double-teaming is any team’s best option when neutralizing a dominant wide receiver on the offense. This is to help eliminate big plays and force the offense to throw it to another wide receiver.

Keep Learning

It takes two athletic players with great ball skills to play free safety and strong safety. They must be able to cover bother slot and wide receivers.

Film breakdowns will determine what variations of Cover 1 teams will play each week.

Learn more about coverages in football below.

Defensive Coverages In Football – Complete Guide

What Are The Nickel Dime & Quarter Packages In Football?

What Is A Zone Blitz In Football? Explained

What Is Cover 5 In Football? 2-Man Explained

Cover 4 In Football: Coverage Guide

What Is Cover 0? Learn The Basics Of Man Coverage

Split Field Coverage In Football

What Is Cover 2 In Football? Explained

What Is Cover 3 In Football? Explained

Cover 1 means there is 1 single safety in the middle of the field while the other defensive backs and linebackers play man coverage. Cover 1 is common among teams that want to play man coverage but still have safety in the deep middle of the field.

Teams can also elect to change up to zone coverages, including cover 2, cover 3, and cover 4.

While man coverage is risky, it allows teams to be aggressive with a five-man pass rush. Teams who often play cover 1 will use their free safety in many roles. These roles include deep middle, spy, rat, hole, and double team. Cover 1 is a simple coverage and allows teams to do multiple things with the defensive lineman to confuse the offense.

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How do you play Cover 1? Do you have a different variety that you would like to share? Let us know by tweeting us on Twitter @vIQtorySports or sending us an email with a full explanation – we’d love to learn!

About the author 

Chris Haddad

Chris Haddad is the founder of vIQtory Sports & high school coach for over 12+ years. He has been featured as an authority on Hudl, Bleacher Report and countless other football-centric platforms. Chris continues to study and provide valuable content for those looking to learn more about the game of football.