cover 4 defense

Understanding The Cover 4 Defense In Football

Looking to learn more about defense coverages? Teams in the NFL deploy different defense coverages. A common coverage defense with a focus on eliminating the deep area of the field is the cover 4 defense.

Most people refer to it as the quarters’ coverage. This is because each member of the secondary takes a quarter of the field.

The cover 4 defense features four deep zones hence the name cover four defense. It comprises two safeties and two corners. Each position takes a fourth of the deep field, which is split four times. The corners take the sides of the field while the safeties take the middle.

Why is the defense so popular? Below, I’ll dig deep into the cover 4 defense and what makes it popular for all levels of the defense.

Keep reading.

What is Cover 4 Defense in Football

A cover 4 defense in football is a four-deep defense with a three-under zone. The defense runs on a man-to-man basis creating opportunities for the free and strong safeties.

Here is a simple breakdown of a cover 4 defense to give you a much better understanding.

Think of two cornerbacks 7-8 yards from the ball and two safeties 10-12 yards. There is also a linebacker who defends off any inside breaking playing as a middle hook, and 2 underneath flat defenders.

The cover 4 defense is a common zone coverage defense that eliminates the deep field portion. It is also known as the quarters’ defense since it splits the deep part of the field into four quarters. 

The two quarters to the sides are taken by the corners, while the middle quarters are occupied by the safeties.

Depending on the play the offense runs, the safeties and corners will have varying roles. Safeties read the pass and run plays. However, they are tasked with reading the release of the second closest receiver. I’ll cover more about the assignments for the four positions.

Overall, the cover 4 defense is a common defense run by several teams on all football levels. It is a versatile defense that allows the running of different packages and coverages.

The defense is easy to teach, consisting of four deep defenders and three underneath linebackers. What’s more, the defense is versatile, giving coaches the option of play match coverage or zone drop.

The popularity of the defense arises from the fact that teams can use several coverage schemes. Both the 4-3 and 3-4 defenses can easily switch into a cover 4 defense. For most defenses, cover 4 is a base defense with two high structures.

A good example of the easiest form of the cover 2 defense is the zone dropping, where every player takes a quarter zone of the backfield.

Who Should Use Cover 4 Defense

Any team can run a cover 4 defense no matter their level. It is a very simple defense and a great one to teach defense basics at youth levels.

american football youth players in position

The defense provides new learners with great skills in zone responsibilities. The defense needs to be taught more as players move through the ladders.

Players need more experience from high school and college to higher leagues about the cover 4 defense. This is because the defense helps higher teams implement different wrinkles and play calls.

Different play calls and wrinkles are difficult to implement when players lack the basic knowledge of the cover 4 defense.

Simply put, the cover 4 defense is a versatile defense that can be used on all football levels and leagues. More NFL teams are using the cover 4 defense regularly.

Strengths Of The Cover 4 Defense

The cover 4 defense has some strength areas that make it popular. First, it’s quite simple to teach and implement. The defense alignment doesn’t give very specific and strict responsibilities to defenders. Simply put, defenders have little to worry about.

Defenders in the quarters are tasked to cover their zones on any given play. They just need to deal with any offensive play entering their zones.

It’s also versatile and can easily be modified for blitzes or extra wrinkles. Teams at different levels can easily modify their defense to match their opponents.

Depending on the opponents or game situations, the defense can easily change and fit the situation.

What’s more, the cover 4 defense provides excellent zone coverage. It divides the deep area of the field into four zones and provides excellent zone coverage.

It works perfectly against short and long passes. The cover 4 defense ensures a blanket cover on the back prevents short passes. You only need the defense to be alert and be able to read and react to situations accordingly.

Lastly, the cover four defense provides excellent support for each other. Ideally, no player is on their own in their positions.

While this is a zone coverage defense, no player is really left alone. Different positions can support each other depending on the offense the opposition is running.

Weakness Of The Cover 4 Defense

While the cover 4 defense is versatile and easy to understand, it does have some weaknesses.

First, the defense is susceptible to speed. It is easy for offenses with very speedy tight ends, wide receivers, and running backs to find mismatches in the alignments.

This is possible since the defense heavily relies on linebackers to cover wide receivers. Linebackers must act fast and cover the outside; otherwise, the defense is susceptible to speed.

It’s also susceptible to short passes as secondary defenders lie deep in the backfield. In the middle, the offense can run short passes and routes easily, beating the cover 4 defense.

Short passes are hard to defend since cornerbacks in the cover 4 defense align at the scrimmage line. Consequently, this leaves a lot of space on the underneath routes.

player in white jersey running with the football

The offensive can spot such routes and exploit them with short passes.

Lastly, the cover 4 defense is susceptible to play action. Play-action passes can easily find space deep in the field. This is possible since the main role of safeties is to read the game and then react.

However, when teams run play-action passes, safeties will not have time to read and react in time.

How To Run The Cover 4 Defense

Teams can run a cover 4 defense through three stages of setting up the defensive line, linebackers, and the secondary.

Here is a breakdown of how to run a cover 4 defense:

Stage 1: Set Up the Defensive Line

First, you need to set up the defensive line. In the cover 4 defense, the defensive line alignment is similar to all defense bases.

You need defensive linemen that will put pressure in the backfield. In this formation, you need four defensive linemen tasked with applying pressure at the scrimmage line.

The four defensive linemen have the main responsibilities of running forward and disrupting the offensive linemen. This happens in every single play.

As opposed to the cover 2 defense or the cover 3 defense, blitzes are very common in this defense. Teams implement different wrinkles in the cover 4 defense. Some of the wrinkles sub out an outside linebacker for a Nickelback.

Unlike other cover defenses, the defensive line is the only player to put pressure on the line of scrimmage.

Between the center and the offensive tackle, you can have two defensive linemen there. The nose tackle is the bigger defensive player of the two. He positions between a guard and a tackle. You’ll have the other defensive tackle lining up on the shoulder of the offensive tackle.

You’ll also have the two defensive ends lined up on either side of the field. That’s over the tight ends or on the shoulder of the outside offensive tackle.

In a few instances, the defensive linemen can run stunts and curls. However, their main responsibility is to cause disruption at the scrimmage line.

Stage 2: Set Up the Linebackers

You need to set up the linebackers with the defensive linemen in place. Like most defensive formations, three linebackers are in the cover 4 defense.

  • The middle linebacker Mike
  • Strong-side linebacker Sam and
  • Weak-side linebacker Will

Linebackers in the cover 4 defense provide underneath the zone coverage. They stretch sideline-to-sideline about 10 yards from the line of scrimmage.

The middle part of the field, known as the middle hook, is occupied by the middle linebacker Mike.

With three linebackers in the underneath zone, each linebacker covers a third of the width of the field. He is responsible for countering wide receivers running crossing routes. They cover the middle third of the field, stopping runs and hook routes.

Next, we have the strong side and weak side linebackers. They have the main responsibility of a flat. This covers the two areas left by the cornerbacks at a snap of the ball.

young american football players

In most plays, Sam and Will face running backs and tight ends on their routes. They need to stop the running routes and hook routes over the middle of the field.

Depending on the opponent’s setup, you can change your linebacker formation accordingly. The Sam linebacker can be substituted with a Nickelback or extra cornerback. 

This substitute helps provide extra coverage on the outside of the underneath zone. This is important, especially when the offensive team brings four wide receivers into the field.

Stage 3: Set Up the Secondary

Lastly, you must set up the secondary to run a cover 4 defense. I’ve already discussed the four zones in the backfield.

Each of the four defenders will cover a quarter of the backfield. The secondary coverage is at least 10 yards from the line of scrimmage to the zone each defender is covering.

In the clover four defense, the four defenders should ensure no wide receiver or tight end goes beyond them. They are the last line of defense.

At the snap, there is a need to drop deep. Therefore, the cornerbacks will line up 4-5 yards from the line of scrimmage. However, cornerbacks lining up closer to the line of scrimmage is something you’ll see in advanced leagues.

On the other hand, the free and strong safety line up in the middle 10 yards from the line of scrimmage. They must get out of their stance at a snap and read the game before reacting.

In a few instances, safeties can shade forward and provide coverage assistance. However, it’s important that they don’t misread the game. When they make such mistakes, receivers can easily get behind them and score a simple touchdown.

Cover 4 Position Assignments

Let’s look at the precise assignments for the cover 4 defense.


  • Containing the outside gap run
  • Man coverage when the other safety goes more than 10 yards vertically
  • Reading the game and reacting accordingly


  • Provide man coverage when one runs vertically for more than 10 yards
  • No run responsibility
  • Get eyes when one goes short or inside

Middle Linebackers

  • Play as wall crossers
  • Sinking and collecting vertical threats in the middle
  • Provide support for inside run gaps
  • Get under deep crosses

Outside linebackers/nickel

  • Sinking and pursuing the flat
  • Provide inside gap run support
  • Provide funneling support from the inside

How Do You Beat a Cover 4 Defense?

You can beat a cover 4 defense by creating holes in the cover 4 defense scheme. Below are four ways you can beat a cover 4 defense.

players in possession of the ball wearing blue jersey

Run a spread mesh: A spread mesh involves having multiple receivers run routes. This causes the defense to read and react, leaving spaces.

Play inside out and through reserve routes: You can also beat the cover 4 defense by playing above and reverse routes. Play involves a wide receiver faking a slant so as to entice safeties. When safeties move, space is left for cornerbacks.

Run a deep H slant option: This is a play that targets the safeties. It features two outside wide receivers running deep in the middle. Mike will be drawn to cover, leaving enough space for other offensive players.

Football Cover 4 Defense FAQ

When Should You Use Cover 4 Defense?

You can use a cover 4 defense on all football levels and when football teams are running long passes. The cover 4 defense should be used when the offensive team sends four vertical threats. The cover-four defense can easily cover the four wide receivers easily.

What Do Linebackers Do in Cover 4?

Linebackers in the cover 4 defense evenly distribute in the underneath zone, ensuring nobody gets behind them. The middle linebacker Mike covers the middle part, while the two side linebackers cover the flats.

What Is the difference between Cover 2 and Cover 4?

The difference in the cover 2 and cover 4 defense is the corners. In the cover 2 defense, corners are closer to the line of scrimmage and more outside of the wide receivers.

In the cover 4 defense, corners are deeper on a snap to avoid being beaten on the deep.


Overall, the cover 4 defense should be in every team’s playbook. It’s something they will need and use from time to time.

The defense formation is easy to teach and one that players should learn from youth levels to college and advanced leagues. It provides excellent zone coverage skills, with players taking a quarter zone in the field.

In more advanced levels, teams can deploy different wrinkles of the cover 4 defense. Learning and understanding the cover 4 defense is crucial no matter what play the offense is running. It’s a defense that keeps the ball in front of you and helps you make yards.

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