If you want to improve your passing game, then you have to properly read defensive coverages. So we will teach you how to figure out if the defense is running man or zone coverage, and also how to tell the difference between specific zone coverages. Best of all, we will teach you how to do this before you even snap the ball.
This tip can be applied to any playbook and basically any play. In order to first tell if the defense is in man or zone, you will need to be in a spread (ex: Gun 4 WR) and a compressed (ex: Gun Snugs) formation in your playbook. I like to have one of each in my audibles because it makes for easy access at all times.
Objective 1: Is the defense in man or zone?
Step 1: Come out in any spread offensive set (ex: Gun 4 WR)
Step 2: Audible to any compressed offensive set (ex: Gun Snugs)
Once you complete step number two, just pay attention to the defense, specifically the defensive backs. If the defensive backs run with your wide receivers and line up directly across from them, it is clearly man coverage.
An example of man coverage
However, if they casually slide over to your wide receivers, and the outside guys are slightly shaded to the outside of the wide receivers, it is definitely zone.
Zone coverage example
Objective 2: Once I know the defense is in zone, how do I know if the defense is playing Cover 2, Cover 3 or Cover 4?
Once we know it is zone coverage, we must look for more signs to see what exact coverage the defense is in. The key is to pay close attention to the movement of the outside (or boundary) corners and the safeties. They will tell us exactly what we need to know.
There is no movement by either the safeties or the outer cornerbacks when a Cover 2 is called. This is the only zone with no movement, so it is very easy to recognize. After an audible is called, just remember to watch the corners as they move towards the interior. If they run with their assignments, it’s man coverage. If they pause for a second and sort of slide over, then it is a Cover-2 zone.
Notice how the safeties stay put in Cover 2
The key here is to watch the safeties. The strong safety will drop into the box, and the free safety will rotate towards the deep middle of the field. The SS is a dead giveaway, though, when he drops down into the box.
There's the SS giving away the zone coverage
They key here is to watch the outside cornerbacks. In Cover 4, they will slide up and to the outside. This is very easy to notice.
The outside CB's are a dead give away
Being able to determine exactly what coverage the defense is playing before you even snap the ball provides you with a huge advantage on the offensive end. You will be able to make your reads much quicker because you will know what WR is likely to be open in each type of coverage. This decreases the chance of the defense getting a sack or turnover, and increases the chance of you netting a positive play on offense.
If you are unfamiliar with the concept of spread and compressed offensive sets, let me clear it up for you. A spread set is any offensive set where the wide receivers are spread out. Each outside WR will be near each sideline. Gun Doubles, Gun 4 WR, Ace 4 WR, I-Form Pro, etc. are all examples spread sets.
Compressed sets can be identified when your wide receivers are bunched together. Gun Snugs, Gun Trips Bunch, Gun Bunch TE, and I-Form Tight Twins are all examples of compressed sets.
Although a picture may be worth a thousand words, a picture is not going to tell the whole story here -- especially when describing the manner in which the cornerbacks will react to the audible. In order to fully grasp this presnap concept, go into practice mode and practice doing an audible that takes your team from a spread set into a compressed set. Do this against different coverages, and you will see exactly what we have outlined here for you today.
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