Gone are the dozens of bone-crunching, facemask-breaking, and head-busting carries per game that dated back to the leather-helmet days of football. Nowadays, football is seen as ‘finesse’ by some, with a plethora of dazzling throws out of spread formations being made by the likes of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. With passing records being erased like the seconds of a play clock, many football fanatics would have you believe that the NFL is becoming a passing league, and that may be true. Maybe it is a passing league; it would certainly explain why every GM is banking on college prospects to turn their fortunes around.
But perhaps that’s not an important argument, because at the end of the day, defensive coordinators are still determining how they are going to play their fronts, which defender is accountable for the alley, and who their spill player will be. The responsibility of these players is tied into their coverage assignments, and one of the better ways to play the run while having the ability to execute coverage assignments is through Cover 1, which is also known as Man-Free.
Cover 1 is a man to man-based coverage with a single safety in the middle of the field in zone coverage. The pass defenders in man coverage–specifically the cornerbacks (C), linebacker (W for WILL or weak side) and safety (SS for strong safety)–are all responsible for the receiving threat across from them. Note that the strong safety is often replaced by a nickel cornerback nowadays, as many teams turn to various personnel packages to counter offensive weapons. Any of these man coverage defenders can be seen either on the line of scrimmage in position to press the pass catcher, at the line to show press before bailing (press-bail) or in off coverage as the image shows.
They align head up or inside the pass catcher, with the main goal of eventually getting inside position on the receiver and/or tight end. The reason for this is to pin the offensive player on the sideline, using the sideline as an extra defender and simultaneously taking away any inside breaking routes such as slants or posts.
Meanwhile, the two linebackers, MIKE (middle) and SAM (strong side), are responsible for the single running back in the backfield. With Cover 1 typically blitzing one of the two linebackers, it results in a single linebacker being responsible for the running back.
A recent example of an effective use of Cover 1 was by the recently crowned AFC South division champion Houston Texans. The Texans have had one of the best defenses in the NFL this year, and they went to this coverage against the Falcons ‘Empty’ (no back) set in week 13.
In the image below, the coverage is as described: the three cornerbacks, two outside and a nickel in the slot to the right of the image, are aligned inside of their assignments while the WILL (weakside; W) is aligned across from the Falcons running back, Michael Turner (33), on the left. On the strong side, the right side, flexed (thee-yard split) Falcon Tony Gonzalez is matched up with the SAM (strong side) linebacker. The SAM ‘backer is seen with an outside alignment because his job is to jam the outside shoulder of Gonzalez to re-route him and then work his way back inside of the route.
Lastly, the free safety, who is circled, is in a zone taking away the middle of the field. He is responsible for backpedaling at the snap of the ball with his shoulders square and getting over the top of any vertical passes thrown, as well as driving on any passes in front of him.
At the snap of the ball, the coverage plays out as man defenders run with their assignments, and the free safety in the middle backpedals with his shoulders squared toward the line of scrimmage.
As noted earlier, the Texans are effective while running this coverage, and they were again this week, as they were able to snatch the intended pass for Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones and turn it into an interception. Texans cornerback Jason Allen is seen jumping the route and coming up with the grab.
As most coverages do, Cover 1 has a sibling: Cover 1 Robber, a coverage that’s very similar to Cover 1, with a slight difference. Another defender is in the zone underneath supporting the linebacker’s man coverage.
The zone defender underneath in Robber is a safety (can be either strong or free), and he’s responsible for undercutting or jumping any underneath routes.
Instead of a nickel/slot cornerback or safety being responsible for the tight end, it is the MIKE (middle) linebacker while the WILL (W) is assigned to the running back. This can vary, as the responsibilities can be swapped, but generally speaking, the linebackers will be assigned to one of those two offensive threats.
As mentioned, there are very few differences between the two coverages, and the Cincinnati Bengals showed this against the Houston Texans last week late in the fourth quarter.
The two cornerbacks outside are aligned inside of their assignments while the nickel/slot cornerback (second from the bottom) is aligned head up on the receiver. Meanwhile, the two linebackers are labeled by their responsibilities, as the WILL (weakside) is assigned to the tight end and the MIKE (middle) linebacker to the running back. The strong safety is the ‘Robber’ in zone coverage underneath along with the free safety in deep zone coverage in the middle of the field.
As the play develops, the Bengal defenders attempt to get in position to make a play.
As one can see, Cover 1 and Cover 1 Robber are two of the coverages that NFL teams turn to to defend both the run and pass. Defenses have evolved and adapted these coverages to the ever-changing offenses throughout the years. The two will continue to make an impact on today’s defenses as teams turn to them more often in a league that’s using more man coverage.