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Reading Football Defenses – Know What’s Coming Before You Snap the Ball

Reading Football Defenses – Know What’s Coming Before You Snap the Ball

Man or Zone?

Use motion to figure whether a defense is playing man to man coverage or zone. If you motion a receiver all the way across the field and one player from the defense runs all the way across with him then they are playing man coverage. If the defense just shifts and no one follows the motion man they are playing zone coverage. You should do this early in the game even on running plays on various down and distances to see if the defense is staying consistent in their coverage or see if they are mixing coverages. It is important to know whether the coverage is man or zone even if you are running the football. If the defense is playing man to man then the WR should be running off the defenders instead of blocking them.

Cover 1, 2, 3 or 4?

Once you have determined whether it’s man or zone now you need to know specifically whether it’s cover 1, 2, 3, or 4. Cover 1 is man to man coverage with a free safety in the middle of the field (also known as man free). Cover 2 is a zone coverage with 2 deep safeties that are responsible for half of the field each with the corners being responsible for the flats. Cover 2 is the most common coverage in the NFL and college right now. Cover 3 is a zone coverage

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with one deep safety in the middle of the field responsible for the deep middle 3rd and the cornerbacks are responsible for their respective deep thirds. In cover 3 the outside linebackers will be responsible for the flats. Cover 4 is a zone coverage with 2 deep safeties and 2 deep corners all being responsible for 1/4th of the field. Again, outside linebackers would be responsible for the flats. Those are the four basic coverages but keep in mind that in complex defenses those coverages can be combined by playing one coverage on one side and a different coverage on the other. For this article we won’t go into that. In the next section we will talk about how to decide which of those coverages the defense is playing.

Read Corner’s Alignment

Let’s say through motion you have decided they are playing zone. We now need to know if it’s cover 2, 3, or 4. Our pre-snap read is to determine whether they have one safety in the middle of the field or two safeties splitting the field in half. If there are 2 safeties then observe how the corners are lined up. If their butt is to the sideline and they are only about 5 yards off the ball then they are playing cover 2. If they are 8 to 10 yards deep with the butt to the end zone then most likely they are playing cover 4 but it is possible that one of their safeties will drop to the middle and the other will move to the flats on the wide side of the field and they will play cover 3. It is important to determine the coverage because if you know what zone each man has you’ll know exactly where to attack them.

Attacking Cover 2

Cover 2 defenses do a great job of covering the flats since their corners are the ones covering them. The best routes against cover 2 are corner routes or fades. . You want to try and hit the sweet spot behind the corner near the sideline before the safey has a chance to get there. Attacking the middle of the field right behind the linebackers is also good.

Attacking Cover 3

The flats are vulnerable to a cover 3 defense. They are depending on linebackers to get out there but they are run first players. They are willing to give up the short pass and keep you in front then make the tackle. Four verticals are tough on a cover 3 defense because the corners have to split two receivers and the safety has to pick one side. Usually that is the side the QB is looking so a savy QB and look off a safety and hit the number 2 receiver down the hash.

Attacking Cover 4

Again as with the cover 3 you are going to want to attack the flats. Defenses playing cover 4 are not going to let

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you beat them deep. Don’t get greedy just take what they give you.

Attacking Man Coverage

Crossing routes are great against man coverage. It’s tough for a defender to stay with a receiver all the way across the field. Slant routes are also good. Bunching receivers together or stacking them pre-snap also makes it tougher for the defense because they can’t jam receivers at that snap which is what most cover corners want to do. By bunching receivers you can also run pick plays to block defenders. If you have have a really fast receiver you need to consistently take shots against man coverage because it is so tough on the defense to cover one on one. At the very least you may get a pass interference call. It is important to look off the safety during man coverage because he is free and he will follow the QB’s eyes. In conclusion, this was a basic foundation on reading defenses. You need to know what the defense is doing and where they are going to be to effectively beat them. There are a lot of advanced concepts we didn’t touch on but hopefully there is enough information here to create discussion and give you a basic understanding of reading defenses. We also just focused on the passing game. You need to read defenses for the running game also and maybe that will be a future article. Links Reading Football Defenses - Know What's Coming Before You Snap the Ball Billy J Brown, EzineArticles Basic PLUS Author

Best Defensive Scheme For a Youth Football Team to Run

Best Defensive Scheme For a Youth Football Team to Run

Best Defensive Scheme For a Youth Football Team to Run

4-4 Defense

I believe the best defense to run for youth football is a 4-4 defense. That means four defensive lineman with four linebackers and three secondary players. I would play a cover-3 look behind that with two corners and one safety. The most important thing to teach youth players is how to line up and then run to the football and tackle. So keep it as simple as possible so they can focus on those two things and not complicated schemes. It is a great defense to stop the run because you start with 8 men in the box. Against a pass heavy team you can easily adjust one of your OLB’s to move back and play 2 safeties.

How to Personnel

Defensive Line (Tackles and Ends)

Your are going to want to put your bigger players at defensive tackles. Their job is to control their gap and keep the offensive lineman off of the inside linebackers allowing them to run free and make plays. A lot of times a defensive tackle doesn’t have to make the tackle to be successful. Sometimes just getting penetration and making the running back adjust his course is enough to mess up the offensive’s plans. I like to put taller, faster kids at defensive end. In a 4-4 the ends jobs are to get to the QB or at the very least get their hands up and knock down passes. The ends have to be tough guys too because a lot of teams run counter plays where they are pulling the backside guard to block the end out. He also need to be disciplined with all the teams running zone reads with the QB now. The offensive reads the end on those plays. He must be able to read his keys and do his job. All defensive lineman are run first players.

Inside Linebackers

We call these the Mike (middle) and Will (weak side). The Mike is the QB of the defense. This is what Ray Lewis played. He makes the strength calls and makes sure everyone knows what we are running. He needs to be your best tackler and tough enough to take on lead blockers and still make tackles. The Mike and Will are the same positon basically only difference is the side they line up on and that the Mike is making all of the calls. Both of these guys are run first, downhill players.

Outside Linebackers

We call these the Sam (strong) and Rover. The Sam may be your best overall defensive player. A lot of youth teams run a lot of sweeps and they run them to the wide side. This is where the Sam will be lined up. He should be fast and tough and obviously a good tackler. Your Rover can be a hybrid linebacker slash safety type. He will be doing a lot of blitzing and sometimes will also drop back and play safety. In our base defense the outside line backers are reponsible for turning the play inside on a sweep. They cannot lose containment and let a running back get outside of them. They must turn them in to the inside linbackers. They should take on all blockers with their inside shoulder on the outside shoulder of the blocker. These guys are run first, downhill players also.


These guys should be excellent cover guys and should be the fastest kids on your team. They are pass first players.


The safety is the centerfielder of the defense. He is pass first and keeps everyone on the field in front of him. He should also be a good tackler because he will be unblocked on running plays and has a good angle to come up and make tackles.


We always call our strength to the wide side of the field. We do this as soon as the play is over because so many teams no huddle now. Our Sam and Mike always go to the strength. Our inside linebackers line up 5 yards off the ball over the offensive guards. Our outside linebackers line up 4 yards out and 4 yards off the ends. We will widen between 2nd and 3rd receivers if the offense lines up in trips to one side. Our corners and safety are 8-10 yards off the ball.

Pass Responsibilites

Once it is determined that it is a pass play the defensive line’s job is to rush the QB and hopefully get a sack. Our base coverage is cover 3 meaning the corners and safety and the deep thirds of the field. Outside linebackers drop to the flats 10-12 yards and collision any receiver they encounter. The inside linebackers will drop 10-12 yards to the hook zone and work out to curl.


In summary, I think the most important thing for youth players to learn is tackling and running to the football so you should keep your defensive scheme simple. If kids are thinking about where to line up or are confused on where they go after the snap they are going to have a hard time reacting to the football and making a tackle. If you can get your kids running as a unit to the ball and making plays you won’t have to come up with elaborate schemes and blitzes to stop the opposing offense. You can add some simple blitzes with the linebackers as you go along. I will talk about those in another article.


Usa Football 4-4 defense

Wikipedia 4-4 defense