cover 1 defense

The Ultimate Guide: Cover 1 Defense In Football

If you have ever played football, the first defense formation you just learned is the cover 1 defense. Well, this is because this is the simplest form of coverage defense.

It’s a simple man-to-man zone coverage where players are assigned specific players to mark. The cover 1 defense features a single free safety in the third level of the field.

Zone coverages are named based on the number of defensive backs covering the third level in the field. For example, in a cover 2 defense, there are two defensive backs on the third level of the field.

Ideally, this is the simplest form of defense and the easiest to teach. How easy can a player in your team cover a specific player in the opponent’s team?

This is by far the most flexible defense and one that can be used from youth football to advanced football in the NFL.

Join me below as I discuss more the cover 1 defense in football.

What is the Cover 1 Defense in Football

A cover 1 defense is a man-to-man coverage defense. Apart from one, all defensive backs in the formation provide man coverage. The single player not providing coverage is usually a safety who stays deep and reacts to play.

In most cover-one defense formations, the free safety stays deep and provides pass coverage. He can also guard the middle and react to completed passes or runs. A traditional cover 1 defense sees the free safety locked deep. This leaves the other defensive backs locked in the secondary providing man coverage.

It’s a pretty versatile defense that provides teams with options. It’s an effective defensive formation with lasting power. A coach or player at any level can easily understand and deal with the defense.’

In some instances, teams can play a variant of the cover 1 defense called the cover 7. Both have a free safety staying deep.

However, the roles of the remaining defensive backs underneath have much more flexible coverage. They have the freedom to change roles to improve the defense. For example, you can see two defensive ends covering a single receiver.

Why Is it Called Cover 1 Defense?

It’s called a cover 1 defense because the formation leaves a single defensive end deep in the backfield. 

Defense coverages are usually given universal names. The name comes with the number of defensive ends in the third level of the field.

In the cover 1 defense, there’s one defensive end in the third level of the field, hence the name cover one. The one refers to the third defensive end in the backfield.

Positions Needed In Cover 1 Defense

The defense formation sees one pone defensive end lining up deep. He provides both passes and runs coverage depending on how the play goes. Below are the positions needed in the cover 1 defense formation.

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Defensive tackle: There are two defensive tackles. One tackle is a nose tackle, whole lines closer to the ball. A nose tackle is strong and bigger than the two defensive tackles.

The second defensive tackle will line up on the other side of the field over the offensive guard.

Defensive ends: A cover 1 defense also features two defensive ends. The two split out wider in alignment. Both players are tasked with plugging any gaps in the defensive line.

Linebackers: There are three linebackers in this defense formation. The formation features the traditional middle linebacker Mike, strong-side linebacker Sam, and weak-side linebacker Will.

Mike linebacker lines in the middle of the field, covering the A and B gaps.

Sam’s linebacker lines on the side facing the tight ends from the opposite team.

Will linebacker lines on the weak side and covers gaps B and C.

Two cornerbacks: In the secondary, there are two cornerbacks. The two cornerbacks line up on either side of the field, covering the wide receivers.

Two safeties: There are also two safeties in the secondary. These are free safety and strong safety. A stronger safety line closer to the line of scrimmage helps cover the tight ends.

A free safety line deep and provides over-the-top protection for the defense. He shades to either side to oppose the offense.

Who Should Use the Cover 1 Defense?

A cover 1 defense is very flexible and easy to use by any team. Any team, no matter the makeup and skill, can effectively use the cover 1 defense.

This is possible because it’s a simple man-to-man coverage defense. Unlike most defense formations, players don’t need specific skills in this type of defense.

The defense formation is flexible and can be used in different fashions. Teams can apply it for the running and passing plays.

Simply put, every football team needs the have the cover 1 defense in their arsenal.

How teams apply the cover 1 defense can easily change depending on the situation.


Simplicity: The cover 1 defense is quite simple and easy to teach. Teams at any level from the youth can easily learn and play the defense. It’s a simple match-up defense where man-marking is done.

Easy to implement without relying on specific personnel: The defense doesn’t rely on specific personnel. This makes it easier to apply by just any team. Different defense formations require players to have certain skills and attributes.

But the cover 1 defense doesn’t need specific personnel. Players with any physicality can play.

Good against the run and pass plays: Since it’s a match-up defense, it’s effective against both the run and pass plays. Unlike certain defenses that are good against a single play, the cover 1 defense has no obvious weakness against the running or passing defense.

Deceptive: The cover 1 defense can be deceptive as teams can add as many wrinkles as possible. In the defense formation, pressure on the offensive line comes from different parts. This makes it pretty hard for the offense as they don’t know what to expect.

player defenses in a football game match

Flexible: The defense is also very flexible providing wrinkles all over the field. Pressure can easily be applied from the secondary to all the linebackers. It’s a defensive formation that accounts for every player on the field.


Easy to scheme against: The defense is quite familiar to most offenses. This is because many teams widely use it. Teams can see the defense with ease and prepare a scheme against it.

Susceptible to spread offense: The cover one defense is susceptible to the spread offense. Teams with a spread offense can easily overrun the cover 1 defense.

The defense is effective against teams with two running backs, two tight ends, and one tight end. When offenses alter their formation and add more wide receivers, they can easily overrun the cover 1 defense.

Requires linebackers to cover: Linebackers have to cover in the defense formation. In the formation, linebackers need to be smart and know when to go for coverage and fill holes against the run and when to cover receivers.

Can Throw or Run against it: Big plays can happen against the cover 1 defense in both running and passing plays. A cover 1 defense doesn’t always force the offense to run or pass. It can suffer against big plays.

When Should Use Cover 1?

You should use the cover 1 defense when teams are playing two wide receivers, two running backs, and a tight end on the field. The defense formation works best with such an offensive formation.

However, when teams run a spread offense, then the cover 1 defense becomes susceptible.

How To Run The Cover 1 Defense

The cover 1 defense is pretty easy to set up and run. As mentioned earlier, it’s a defensive formation that matches players on the field. Here are the stages of running it.

Stage 1: Set up the defensive line

First, you need the defensive line set up and running. You need to employ two defensive ends and two defensive tackles.

Of the two tackles, one is a nose tackle. He’s usually the stronger and bigger one who lines up closer to the ball. A nose tackle lines anywhere between a center and an offensive guard.

Depending on the pre-snap alignment, a nose tackle covers either line A or B. The other defensive tackle lines over the offensive guard on the other side of the field.

He also covers gaps A or B depending on the offensive alignment. Generally, the defensive line in the cover 1 defense helps plug holes.

There can be different wrinkles in this alignment. But in most cases, the defensive line will attack forward or take a slant to the left or right.

Stage 2: Set up the Linebackers

With the defensive line ready, you need to have the linebackers in place. The defense formation features three linebackers like the traditional 5-3 defensive alignment.

Here, you’ll have the middle linebacker Mike. Mike lines in the middle of the field, taking a wide role of coverage in the defense. On run plays, Mike takes either side of the center covering gaps A and B.

On passing plays, Mike can change roles by either dropping back to zone coverage, covering the tight end, or picking up a running back. In other instances, he can even blitz.

football player running with the football guarded by teammate

The other two linebackers are the strong-side linebacker Sam and the weak-side linebacker Will.

The strong side linebacker Sam takes the side of the field with a wide receiver or tight end. Sam takes run-stop roles plugging gaps B and C.

He can also cover a running back. But this is possible on a passing play without a blitz.

But what if there’s no running back running his route? If Sam doesn’t have any running back on his route, then he quickly drops back and provides zone coverage.

Sam linebacker has a wide range of roles. Depending on the play, he can be asked to blitz. If Mike’s linebacker blitzes, Sam can drop into the middle and cover the void left by Mike.

Lastly, we have Will, the weak-side linebacker who is tasked with covering gaps B and C on running plays. On passing plays, Will becomes the second running back running the route.

He is also versatile and can run a normal or delayed blitz. This usually happens when the second running back stays in a block. Will can also be asked to slide into coverage in the middle during passing plays and cover Mike during blitzes.

Read Also: What is a blitz in football? Find out what it is and why it remains the most popular defensive strategy in football.

Stage 3: Set up the Secondary

The last stage when running a cover 1 defense is setting the secondary. These are the players deep in the backfield.

On the secondary, you need two safeties and two cornerbacks. Let’s start with the alignment of the two cornerbacks.

Their roles are pretty simple. On every single play in the cover 1 defense, the cornerbacks line up over the wide receivers. This can be on the outside or inside. You’ll find them on the outside of the wide receiver’s shoulder or inside on the wide receiver’s shoulder.

They are tasked with funneling play to the inside during running plays for tackling support. But on passing plays, they match up wide receivers man-to-man.

You’ll see them follow up with the receiver wherever he moves on every route. But things are a little different for the safeties.

In the cover 1 defense formation, there are two safeties every time on the field. We have strong safety and free safety.

The stronger safety matches a tight end or wide receiver, depending on who the offense sets up. He lines at some depth between the free safety and the linebacker.

When the expected play is a run, the stronger safety moves closer to the scrimmage line to tackle. He can also blitz on certain plays.

But on passing plays, the stronger safety helps cover the tight end. You need strong and speedy strong safety to perform these responsibilities. He needs to keep up with the tight end, who is the biggest and strongest player in the secondary.

Lastly, we have the free safety who plays deep and serves as the over-the-top protection for the defense. The free safety aligns in the middle about 5-7 yards behind the middle linebacker.

Depending on how the play goes, he can shade to either side of the field. On running plays, the free safety helps cover the ball carrier. He must ensure the ball carrier doesn’t pass him since he’s the last defense.

The role remains the same in passing plays. Nobody should get past him. The free safety must provide extra support for the cornerbacks and linebackers. No receiver should get past a free safety, as it can lead to a big play.

They are the only player in the cover 1 defense without a specific man-to-man coverage. But at times, they can be asked to blitz.

Which NFL Teams Use Cover 1 the Most?

Teams in the NFL use the cover 1 defense. Most of the teams running the cover 1 defense in the NFL have players in the secondary with pretty good athleticism.

football player i blue jersey positioned at the back of the field

The first team that runs the cover 1 defense in the NFL is the Dolphins. They are effective, with the defensive coordinator enjoying the team’s brilliant schemes. In the 2022 Match Up Preview Series, the Dolphins ran a cover 1 defense in most of their plays.

Other teams that play the cover 1 defense in the NFL are the Cowboys and the Patriots. You’ll notice all three teams feature very athletic cornerbacks.

They are teams that load up the secondary with athletic players to match up the offense. In the total league points acquired by teams in the NFL, the three teams rank top 11.

Football Cover 1 Defense FAQs

What is the Difference Between Cover 1 and Cover 3 Defense?

The cover 1 defense differs from a cover 3 defense with a single safety lying in the deep zone as opposed to a cover 3 with three deep zones. The two defenses are usually confused because the quarterback only sees a single deep safety.

But as you’ve seen, cover three has three deep zones, while cover one is a single deep zone filled with free safety. In cover 3, the three zones are each guarded by a defender.

Who Got the Best Defense in the NFL in 2022?

The San Francisco 49ers hold the best defense in the NFL 2022. They are followed in second place by the Buffalo Bills.

Is Cover 1 a Zone Defense?

Cover defense is a zone coverage defense with players in the defensive line matching players in the offense. The safety stays in the middle and is the only player without man coverage.


As you’ve seen, a cover 1 defense is an excellent defense formation to run. It’s a flexible, simple defense formation that works against running and passing plays. 

Every team at the youth level or in advanced leagues like the NFL must have the defense in their arsenal. The defense alignment works effectively against teams with two running backs, one tight end, and two wide receivers.

It is the easiest defense formation to learn with a simple man-to-man marking. What’s more, the defense personnel doesn’t require a specific skill set. 

Players don’t need certain physicality or speed to play the cover-one defense. It’s a pretty versatile defense that works again run and pass plays.

But the defense does have a few weaknesses. First, it’s susceptible to a spread offense. It’s also easy for offenses to notice it since most teams run it. 

However, it’s one defense formation that can be used any time and one every team, player, and coach must try.

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