The Football Cover 2 Defense Explained

The Cover Two defense has served as a classic formation for football defenses since the late 70s. 

Teams across all football levels have used this zonal marking play to help protect their end-zone against long throwing offenses. 

From the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 90s to the New York Giants in 2020, various NFL teams have used the formation to successfully shut down some of the games’ best offenses

The strategy has evolved over time, with teams building on the formation, adding variations, and new defensive strategies to improve the classic Cover 2 zone defense.

In this guide, we’ll be walking you through when and how to set up your defense in a Cover 2 formation as well as looking at the strengths and weaknesses of the play

First, let’s look back to where this strategy was invented. 

What is the Cover 2 defense?

As quarterbacks (QB) started to improve their throwing accuracy in the 70s and 80s, defenses were forced to sit deeper in the field to defend against long balls coming over the top of the scrimmage. 

Coaches started to use zone defenses to counter these advances. These formations required players to cover a specific area of the pitch instead of marking a particular offensive player

Thinking strategically to block up the backfield, defensive coaches started to build formations that would play two defensive lines behind the scrimmage that would ultimately rely on a group of safeties to cover the backfield. 

Thus the Cover 2 defense was invented. 

Why is it called the Cover 2 defense?

With a line of cornerbacks and line backs covering the underneath zone in the center of the pitch, coaches saw that they were exposed deep. A good QB could use a strong arm to throw long darts over the top of the play and capitalize on all the space in the backfield

They decided that it was necessary to play multiple secondaries as final coverage to pick up any long balls or defenders breaking through on the end-zone. 

The strategy became aptly named the Cover 2 defense because coaches would typically play two covering players in the safety position to hold the backfield

This formation has become a staple of modern football defenses and was made famous by the Tampa Bay Buccanneers, who adapted the formation into their famous Tampa 2 formation

I’ll cover this variation on the classic Cover 2 formation in a moment, but let’s first examine how teams typically line up in a Cover 2 formation

How to line up in a Cover 2 formation

At its base level, the Cover 2 formation relies on players covering specific zones on the pitch. It’s a very free-flowing and flexible formation that only works if all players correctly perform their respective duties. If one player fails to cover a zone in the underbelly of the pitch, a good QB could exploit that open space and gain valuable yards. 

In this defensive strategy, the pitch is divided into five underneath zones and two deep zones. That means coaches will usually play five secondaries and two linebackers, each covering their own zones. 

Here are the players a coach would typically play in a Cover 2 defense: 

  • x2 defensive tackles; 
  • x2 defensive ends;
  • x2 cornerbacks;
  • x3 linebackers; and
  • x2 safeties. 

Defensive line

As always, the defensive line has to cause chaos

On this play, they need to run hard and straight at the QB. Ultimately we want them to create as much disruption as possible to stop the QB from throwing a long ball at the start of the play. If we can stop the QB from getting their a throw off, then we’ve saved our secondaries a job. 

One strategy many college teams adopt is to use the larger of the two defensive tackle’s to suck in multiple offensive linemen to allow his teammates to get a shot at the QB. This player is the nose tackle, and ideally, we want them to occupy the opposition center and the offensive tackle, to leave a gap that can allow the other defensive tackler to get at the QB.

Meanwhile, our defensive ends will line up on their flanks and will try to skirt around the offensive line to get at the QB. 

Linebackers

These guys are perhaps the most essential part of this formation. Without three linebackers sweeping the underbelly of the midfield, your team will leave the center of the park exposed to short passes coming through the middle. 

There are multiple ways you can play your linebackers. Some coaches like to push one forward to put additional pressure on the attacking QB while the other two linebackers sit deep and cover the midfield. 

Generally, most coaches will push all three linebackers to zonal marking positions to about 10 yards back off the scrimmage. 

They will each cover a third of the pitch behind the snap and will track receivers and running backs coming through behind the play. 

But they will also provide support to safeties in the backfield. Safeties will usually have to cover a lot of ground and can be burdened by players running through the middle of the pitch. Therefore, linebackers need to provide good underbelly coverage to support teammates at the back, so they can stay open to track wide receivers going deep. 

Over the years, teams have adapted the linebacker’s role in the Cover 2 formation to help them give more support to safeties in the backfield. Tampa Bay Buccanneers head coach Tony Dungy developed the Tampa 2 variation in the 90s to help his secondaries cover the backfield. 

Dungy’s idea was to keep two linebackers stationed in the center of the field to cover short passes and runners coming through while pushing the middle linebacker deep to help the safeties split the deep area into thirds and increase coverage against teams looking to throw long. 

If your safeties are struggling to control wide receivers and long, over-the-top passes, the Tampa 2 formation is a great variation to use to shore up your defense.

Secondaries

With three linebackers shutting down the middle of the pitch, coaches will then look to play two fast-running cornerbacks to police the wide channels. Cornerbacks will directly support their safeties to block off wide receivers attacking from far-reaching positions. 

My top tip for cornerbacks is to press wide receivers into the middle of the pitch after the snap. If corners let their wide receivers take them on the outside, a covering safety will be stretched, having to make up the ground between them and the attacking wide receiver on the touchline. 

The aim is to protect the safeties as much as possible, to ensure they don’t have to cover too much ground across the pitch. And although the Cover 2 formation is a zone defense football strategy, cornerbacks do need to mark runners, depending on what routes their opposition are running. 

The less support safeties receive, the more pitch they’ll have to cover, meaning they’ll find it increasingly hard to shut down defenders coming through onto the end-zone. 

With that added support, safeties can comfortably cover the backfield and usually split the pitch into two deep halves. That allows them to challenge big interceptions and act as a last line of defense for those players breaking through to score. 

In the Tampa 2 formation, the addition of an extra linebacker to the deep coverage roles allows safeties a little more flexibility, knowing they each only have to cover one-third of the pitch as opposed to a half. 

When and how should it be played?

As I have previously mentioned, this play should be used to defend against teams who look to throw the ball long

The formation is most effective against teams on their third-down looking to secure their next suite of plays by throwing ten yards. Likewise, it’s also a great show stopper to prevent teams from launching Hail Mary’s into your end-zone

On that basis, it’s crucial to play smaller yet faster secondaries to cover and spoil plays attacking your end-zone. Likewise, don’t play bulky linebackers either. A strong linebacker is a good linebacker, but mobility is key in the Cover 2 formation, and I would advise you to play fast linebackers of bulky ones. 

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Cover 2 variations

Here are a couple of variations on the classic Cover 2 football formation that can help your team stifle attacks from your opposition. Remember, these plays can all be adapted to suit your team’s style, so be mindful of the type of players you have at your disposal and look to optimize their best attributes at each down.

Man Under

Man Under sets players up in the same way as a standard Cover two zonal offense, except on the snap, players will mark their opposite man instead of policing designated zones

The play is designed to confuse offenses who think you’ll be playing a zonal system, which would typically give their runners a little more space between defensive secondaries. 

With your offense now looking to mark players, you have a greater chance of ramping more pressure on teams looking to secure the next down. On that basis, I recommend using this play to force an error from teams who are under the kosh

2-Buzz

This is a rotational play where a safety, a linebacker, and one of the two cornerbacks will rotate positions on the snap. 

The corner will move into a central position at the back of the field and mark the position left by the safety at the back of the pitch. The linebacker will then move into the cornerback’s starting position and mark oncoming wide receivers advancing on the back of the pitch. The safety will move higher up the pitch and protect against throws coming into the underbelly zone.  

2-Trap

If you’re having problems defending against vertical throws, try running the 2-Trap defense. This places more responsibility on the linebacker, who will have to take up a broader stretch of the pitch. 

The cornerback will move up higher to cover the shallow channels of the pitch, while your linebacker will sit deep to add extra coverage in the midfield. That allows the safety to mark advancing wide receivers on fly routes and helps defenses better anticipate oncoming runs. 

Strengths and weaknesses of the Cover 2 defense

This defensive formation does have many benefits, but it also can leave you exposed in certain areas of the pitch. Here are some strengths and weaknesses of the Cover 2 defense.

Strengths

Stops big yardage plays
The Cover 2 play is designed to suppress teams looking to gain big yards. By playing multiple secondaries deep in the backfield, teams can control the play and keep the ball in the underbelly of the pitch to stop offenses from breaking through into the backfield. 

Covers all attacking routes
This play is a formidable answer to any attacking route an offensive runner tries to put past you. Using multiple linebackers to clog up the middle of the pitch, runners are extremely limited on where they can go to find space

Simple
Ultimately this is one of the simplest and easiest plays to coach and run on the field. Its simplicity means it’s an excellent play for junior teams but is also effective at the highest levels of football as a comprehensive defensive strategy. 

Causes turnovers
This is a high-pressure play that can be used to initiate turnovers. Teams looking to throw the ball long on their third down, QBs will be under pressure to make the pass, and wide receivers will be well marked by the Cover 2 defense. That allows defenders a free shot to press against opposition players and try to steal the ball or grab an interception.

Weaknesses

Relies heavily on speed
Speed is everything in this play, and that means you need a quick suite of linebackers and secondaries at your disposal. For most amateur sides, fast linebackers can sometimes be hard to come by. Plus, because it requires this speed, this play can also be very fatiguing for your linebackers and safeties.

Doesn’t provide great coverage against rushing plays
With your linebackers standing back from the scrimmage, rushing teams can easily exploit the large hole between the scrimmage and your first line of defense. However, you can coach your linebackers to use their intuition to step up closer to the snap if they anticipate the QB offloading to a running back. 

Exposure to your safeties
Safeties have considerable responsibility in this play. And although the ball should not reach them, with your linebackers providing extensive coverage in the underbelly of the pitch, Cover 2 plays can expose safeties under challenging positions as they try to scramble to get to vast areas of the pitch. If you’re expecting Hail Mary’s, I advise you to add another safety at the back or play a Tampa 2 formation for that extra security. 

Cornerbacks have to balance their duties
Cornerbacks will typically run man-marking routes in most defensive plays. But the Cover 2 requires them to fulfill a different responsibility to police certain zones on the pitch. This means they can quickly get stuck between tracking oncoming runners and covering the area they’re supposed to. Good running backs will exploit this and can cause problems for teams employing the Cover 2 defense.  

The final quarter

The Cover 2 defense is one of the best formations a coach can use to suppress long throwing attackers

It is an effective yet simple defensive strategy that teams of all abilities can use to quell attacks from some of the most prolific offenses in football

My top tip for coaches is to adapt this formation to incorporate the strengths of the players they have in their roster. For example, if you have fast linebackers, perhaps play a Tampa 2 formation and give your midfielders a little more flexibility to get around the pitch. 

But in the situation where you have a bulkier suite of linebackers, you might want to employ a 2-Buzz formation, where your linebacker will cover the shallow areas of the pitch, and your cornerback and safeties can use their speed to defend the backfield.

With that in mind, though, don’t forget to keep things simple. Instruct your players to ensure their designated zones are covered before they stray from their position. This is imperative as if one player does not fill in their defined gap on the field, a good offense could exploit this hole and punish ill-disciplined teams

For more information on American football formations, make sure to check out the Champlair’s American football guides, and be sure to share this post on Facebook and Twitter!

Ed Carruthers
Ed Carruthers
Ed is a writer from London. He loves traveling and is a bit of a sports fanatic. When he’s not at his desk, he’s either kicking a footy around with his mates, watching his beloved football team Everton or is hacking around the golf course.