We’ve reached the last of our basic defensive coverage schemes: Cover 6. Hopefully, these 101-level introductions have given you a foundation to build from if you’re interested in learning more about how NFL teams defend the pass. These articles are both simple and foundational conceptually so that you can reference back to them years later: these aren’t fads, they’re instructional building blocks.
We’ll break down Cover 6 below, but let’s start with how the Buffalo Bills utilize it.
According to Sports Info Solutions, the Bills used Cover 6 against 14 pass attempts, which ranked seventeenth in number of attempts. The Bills’ defensive statistics (and ranks) when using Cover 6 against pass attempts are pictured below. This number from SIS may differ from what you might find elsewhere because it’s based on whether or not there was a pass attempt. For instance, if the offense used a running play while Buffalo had set up in Cover 6, it would not show up here.
To put these into perspective, the highest total attempts faced while using Cover 6 was the Vikings with 48, and the lowest was Miami with four. We are not talking about an every-down scheme – at least not as far as the analytics can tell us (any time we’re looking at stats based on scheme type, remember that’s being determined by people interpreting the film). Considering how little they implemented Cover 6 according to SIS, the Bills’ rates were solid. They forced a below-average completion percentage and were top ten in total EPA and EPA/Play.
Cover 6 Zones
Cover 6 does not get its name by dividing the field’s deep portion into a nominal number of sections like Cover 2 and Cover 4. Cover 6 is a blend of Cover 2 and Cover 4, and hence – in a mathematical achievement believable even for the limited capacity of football meatheads – Cover 6. Typical Cover 6 starts with two Cover 4 quarter-field zones to the strength of the offensive formation, referred to as quarter, quarter, and then a half-field Cover 2 zone on the weak side, called half, so you get the term quarter-quarter-half to refer to Cover 6. Current defensive mastermind Vic Fangio’s version of Cover 6 flips that structure and puts the Cover 2 half on the strong side and the Cover 4 side to the weak. There are a variety of interesting reasons why he does so, and if you’re interested in learning more about that system, check out Cody Alexander’s Match Quarters YouTube episode.
Cover 2 Side
Coverage on the Cover 2 side will generally incorporate the Free Safety, a CB, and the weakside linebacker (Will).
Safeties: The Free Safety will start 15-20 yards downfield from the line of scrimmage, a couple of yards in from the numbers. His job is to pick up any receivers on deep, explosive play-type routes. He has to keep the play in front of them for as long as possible and see the routes develop. He wants to cheat a little based on the quarterback’s eyes. He won’t want to get too wide too soon and leave the middle open to a post route.
Cornerbacks: For Cover 2, the weak outside CB plays high to low and starts with a Jam/Funnel/Sink. His first job is to jam the receiver as he comes off the line. Try to disrupt the timing of the play for the offense by forcing the receiver to take extra steps or not quite hit his mark on the route. The jam should coordinate with the leverage the CB plays to. Using outside leverage is meant to funnel the receiver toward the middle of the field. If the cornerback can help shrink the width of the field for the Free Safety, his job becomes significantly easier. Routes that stay under 15 yards are funneled to the weakside linebacker. Next, the CB must sink to help cover the out zone. By sinking, the CB at least forces the QB to have to throw over his head. If the pass goes under him to the flat, the CB needs to quickly come up from their sunk position and tackle.
Linebackers: The Will is watching the QB’s eyes, dropping slightly in a backpedal, looking to disrupt timing, and trying to funnel the number two receiver on their side. For the defense, receivers are numbered from the outside of the field on both sides. From the right, Z=1 and S=2. The Will is looking to funnel the number two receiver while paying attention to how the outside cornerbacks are reacting to the ones. The Will also can’t go chasing receivers into the out zone and leave the middle of the field wide open.
Cover 4 Side
The Cover 4 side includes the Strong Safety, strong outside CB, the SAM or Nickel CB (Nickel in the Bills’ case), and MLB. This alignment makes Cover 6 effective against 3×1 sets because it gives the defense four defenders over three receivers.
Safeties: The Strong Safety starts with reading the run to be prepared to come up from a position that starts 9-12 yards deep. His read starts with reading the QB for run/pass and move to No. 2. If it’s a pass and No. 2 goes vertical, the SS must respect his Cover 4 zone. If No. 2 stays shallow, the Safeties can shift their read to the No. 1 on their side and bracket.
Cornerbacks: The strong outside CB can start in either press or off position, and his read begins with the No.1 receiver, looking to maintain outside leverage. If No. 1 goes vertical, the CB carries him into his deep quarter. The CB also must read and react to how the S on his side plays the run. If there is a play-action fake, and the S bites too hard, the CB has to adapt his coverage responsibilities, paying attention to the potential of the No. 2 going deep, where the S should have had him. The CB is now essentially playing a deep half.
Communication on corner and post routes is critical on the Cover 4 side. If the No. 1 runs a 10-yard post, he will be picked up by the CB on his side and then must be transferred to the S, and vice versa for a corner route from No. 2
Nickel CB: The NCB will start his read with the Guards for pass/run. On a pass read, they are working from the inside hook area out to the flat. They also need to try to create a collision with underneath crossing routes or a deep route from No. 2. While the collision doesn’t really offer coverage, it disrupts the timing and location of the route.
Mike LB: The Mike is reading the QB through the IOL for run/pass, and on a pass read is responsible for the hook area and to interfere with any crossing routes.
This is the last in the basic coverages series, but I think by now you can see how adaptations on these can give defenders and defensive coordinators virtually endless possibilities. After the offensive boom of the last few years, the 2022 season saw a significant decrease in scoring – in part because defenses are catching up…just in time for the offense to change it up again. Time is a flat circle.
My hope is that you have a better understanding of these coverages and will maybe even return to these whenever you need a refresher. I know I will be.