Flag Football Defense: Using and Exploiting a Cover 3 Zone

This is the second installment of the 5 part Intro to Flag Football Defense Series.

In the first installment we introduced the widely popular cover 2 flag football defense.  We touched on the strengths, weaknesses, and the tendency for teams to stay in this scheme sometimes for the entirety of games or seasons.  We also revealed some attacking points for lighting up the scoreboard on cover 2 teams.

So you undoubtedly hit the field with your brand new knowledge about the cover 2, all your cover 2 beater plays were lined up, your team was ready to put a hurtin’ on somebody… but “Oh shit!  The cornerbacks aren’t sitting where they should be.  The safeties are moving around into other zones, defenders are everywhere like locusts!  What the fuck!?”

The Cover 3 Flag Football Defense

You might’ve been introduced to the cover 3, and then subsequently become it’s bitch.  Don’t feel bad, it happens to the best of us.

The Cover 3 is another zone defense that some flag football teams use to shut down the intermediate to deep passing game.  You’ll most often see this defensive play on obvious deep passing situations; 3rd and more than 15, 4th and more than 10, and other similar down and distance scenarios.

The most effective way to run this defensive play is to disguise it and make it look exactly like your base defense.  In this case, we’ll assume your base defense is a cover 2 zone, as discussed previously.  The cover 3 would look like this:

Flag Football Defense - Cover 3

Notice that the cornerbacks drop in coverage to take responsibility for the deep third zone.  This means that if the wideouts run streaks, the corners are responsible for staying on them until the play is broken up.  The safety (usually the free safety) takes the deep middle third, and the other safety (strong safety) sneaks up to take the middle underneath zone.  The linebackers will sprint out to the flats to take away the short slants, ins, and curls.

Again, this defense is designed to take away the intermediate and deep passing plays.  It’s a safe bet because there are always 3 defenders deep, and it gives the safety coming up to play the underneath middle a great opportunity to jump a route and snag an INT.

Coaching Points to Remember When Using Cover 3

Many of the same coaching points from cover 2 apply to cover 3 also.

  • Watch the receivers hips and not his head or shoulders.
  • The deep middle safety should stay as deep as the deepest receiver.  If a receiver gets behind you and the QB finds him, it’s going to be six.
  • Know your zone responsibility.  Do not chase a receiver into another zone because it leaves your zone wide open.
  • Communicate.  Instead of running with a receiver into another zone, yell out the route to your teammates.  Something simple like, “Out!” or “In!” works wonders.  Also let your teammates know when the ball is in the air.  Yell out “Ball!” as soon as the pass is thrown to let everyone know to turn and look for it, and make a play.  This is especially important on the deep balls.
  • Read the quarterback.  Some QBs tend to stare down their intended target.  Make sure you keep an eye on him, and break on the ball as soon as he throws.
  • Cornerbacks should be comfortable running with receivers and covering in 1 on 1 situations.
  • If your linebackers don’t have the speed to get out into the flats fast enough, have them adjust their alignment pre-snap to get a head start.
  • To really get the most out of the cover 3, have the safety to the strong side of the offensive formation come up to take the underneath middle zone.  For example, if the offense comes out with two receivers to the right and one to the left, the safety on the twins side should be the one to take the underneath middle.

Cover 3 Weaknesses

Every defense has weaknesses, and knowing those weaknesses are important for building championship caliber teams.  The cover 3 zone has several vulnerabilities, just like the hot girl in your chemistry class; the key is finding and exploiting them:

  1. The seam on the opposite side of the closing safety is an excellent place to attack cover 3.  The QB should be able to read which safety is coming up, and throw to the seam away from the creeping safety.  A deep weakside curl can also work quite well if thrown on time.
  2. Slot receiver deep outs also work very well vs a cover 3.  The corners are dropping to cover the deep third, which provides a huge hole for the slot to run the out route underneath them at about 12-14 yards.  To make sure the corners do indeed drop back, have the outside guy run a streak to clear out the zone.
  3. The flats are usually vulnerable in cover 3 because the linebackers have so far to run from their starting position.  Release a blocker into the flats, or have him go in motion pre-snap and deliver the ball to him as quickly as possible.
  4. Send 4 receivers vertical if there is enough time for the QB to throw a deep ball.  This puts the 3 deep defenders in a situation where they have to cover 4 receivers.  This is, of course, mathematically impossible.
  5. Spread sets and trips sets are good ways to get more 3 on 2 or 2 on 1 situations.

The key to consistently executing plays like this is practice.  With only the first two installments of this 5 part series, you should have plenty to work on, and should start seeing results in your games immediately.

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