Cover 3 Defense In Football Explained

Written By: Chris Haddad
Updated: February 12, 2024

Cover 3 in football is one of the most balanced coverages to play against the run and the pass. Teams will use Cover 3 to cover both short and deep routes. There are two types of cover 3 that you should know.

Cover 3 in football is when the defense has three deep defenders and four underneath defenders. It’s a balanced coverage that helps against both the run and the pass.

This article will show you the two types of coverages in Cover 3 and how you can implement them in your team.

Cover 3 Defense In Football

Cover 3 in football

Cover 3 defense is a zone coverage that has players in both underneath zones, deep outside zone, and deep middle zones. The “3” in Cover 3 means that 3 deep defenders will cover the deep passing routes and 4 underneath zone defenders.

The cornerbacks and free safety are the deep coverage defenders. They will split the field into deep thirds and they are in charge of the deep pass. This includes deep posts and any routes that run to the outside third of the coverage.

The underneath coverage is responsible for covering any crossing routes from the slot receiver.

Cover 3 is a very balanced coverage that can be used effectively against the pass and run.

It’s terrific against strong-running teams because it allows the defensive team to play eight men at the line of scrimmage against the run – which helps stop opposing teams from getting past your defenses and into your secondary.

As mentioned, teams will elect to play Cover 3 because they can stop the run and be well-balanced in the passing game.

Two Types Of Cover 3 Defense

There are two types of cover 3. The first is called spot drop cover 3, where all defenders are responsible for defending their particular zones.

The diagram above divides the field into thirds using hash marks. Now, pay attention to the shaded area: this is where the three deep defenders play.

Their job is to drop back and defend any passes to their part of the field. The other four underneath defenders have different responsibilities: they’re in charge of stopping runs between those white lines.

Spot Drop Cover 3

Cover 3 in football

The first type of Cover 3 is what is known as spot drop zone defense.

The term “spot drop” is exactly what it sounds like. The players will all have an area of the field to cover, in which they will drop in a spot. This means whatever area they are assigned to, they will have to drop into that area and play zone defense.

These defensive players will drop into the area and then cover any offensive player that enters it. This type of coverage is super easy to teach, but it does have some weaknesses.

Pattern Matching Cover 3

The second type of cover 3 is pattern match defense.

Pattern matching is exactly how it sounds. It means the player will match the route pattern of the receiver based on the set of rules set by the coach.

For instance, the outside linebacker in the picture below is responsible for anything out-breaking and vertical. So they will run with the #2 receiver if he runs any routes that follow those rules.

Pattern matching cover 3 in football

If the receiver runs any in-breaking routes, they will pass them off and fade into their zone.

This concept was made famous by Bill Belichick and Nick Saban when they coached for the Cleveland Browns. They took a look at all of the route concepts that were being run against them, and they created a set of rules that their outside linebackers would follow.

This helped protect the weaknesses of Cover 3 and ensure that every player was covered rather than covering a patch of grass.

Pattern matching cover 3 is common among high school and college teams, as quarterbacks sometimes have difficulty deciphering if it’s a zone or man coverage.

This can confuse younger quarterbacks who anticipate certain parts of the field being open when they’re not.

Uncover your opponent’s offensive and defensive tendencies so you can easily build a game plan.

Inside You’ll Find:

  • Strategies to pick apart defenses
  • How to identify player weaknesses
  • How to save time in your weekly breakdowns

The Strengths Of Cover 3 Defense

The strengths of Cover 3 are its spacing and the ability to stop the run.

It’s very balanced and good against both the pass and the run. It allows you to get pressure with only four defensive linemen and excellent coverage on short and deep routes.

Cover 3 is good against strong running teams because it allows you to play eight men run fits at the line of scrimmage. These players can space out the field properly while still committing to any run between the tackles.

8 man run fits in cover 3

Cover 3 is also great against the deep ball, especially for teams who like to throw the deep post. If teams like to run play action, where the tight end runs to the curl flat, the defense has a player waiting to cover them. These four underneath defenders (including the strong safety rolling down if the team is 4-3 structured), are in the perfect position to cover any mesh or shallow concepts.

The Weaknesses Of Cover 3 Defense

The weaknesses of Cover 3 in football are the flats and right up the seams. Seams are the vertical track up the hash marks.

The seam route stresses Cover 3 because it requires three defensive players to cover four offensive players on vertical routes. This is tough for any player to do, as they must react quickly to the player running the route.

weakness of cover 3 in football

Teams can also manipulate Cover 3 by flooding a zone and putting defensive players in conflict on who they should cover. This includes flood concepts, snag concepts, and more!

Cover 3 Defense Vs. Cover 1 Defense

Many confuse Cover 3 and Cover 1 because of their similar structures. First, let’s look at the similarities between Cover 3 and Cover 1, and then we’ll look at the differences and how you can identify them.

Cover 3 and Cover 1 are similar because of their single high-safety structure. This means that only 1 safety is in the middle of the field to cover seam and post routes.

This free safety is often stressed in Cover 3, while in Cover 1, it plays as more of a support player.

The difference between Cover 3 and Cover 1 is how the defense plays after the ball is snapped. In cover 1, the corners and linebackers play man coverage. In Cover 3, the corners and linebackers cover a zone.

The best way to identify Cover 3 vs. Cover 1 is to look at the cornerbacks. If they are pressed up, it is Cover 1. If the corners are playing from depth, it is cover 3.

Keep Learning

Cover 3 is a zone coverage that is great against both the deep pass and stopping the run. Offensive coaches who face Cover 3 may have a tough time against it if they don’t have a quarterback who can throw it effectively.

As a defensive coach, it’s common to have Cover 3 as a base defense. It allows your middle linebacker to play a bit more freely in the run game, especially against teams that use a tight end.

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

Learn The Basics Of Cover 1 In Football

Split Field Coverage In Football

What Is Cover 2 In Football? Explained

Cover 3 is a great coverage scheme that can be run on any down and distance. It’s perfect in the nickel and dime packages because it allows you to play more defensive backs and uses players to their strengths.

The most important thing about Cover 3 in football is that there are two main variations: pattern matching cover 3 and spot drop Cover 3.

Pattern matching is a great option for high school and collegiate teams and younger quarterbacks, while spot drop is sought after by teams with coaches who are aware of the system and players who can execute. It’s up to you as the coach to choose which best suits your team.

Let’s keep learning! Our learning center is packed with information regarding techniques, schemes, and more!

If you’re looking for more in-depth breakdowns & coaching resources, visit our coaching resource page here.

What kind of Cover 3 do you play? Tweet at us on Twitter and let us know what version you play to best put your players in a position to play fast.

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.