The Many Variations of Cover 1

by Shawn Syed|August 3, 2023

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On 3rd down, the NFL is a Cover 1 league.

Every single season that Pro Football Focus has tracked coverages, Cover 1 has been the most frequently run 3rd down pass coverage. Cover 1, or man to man coverage with a player covering the deep middle of the field, tightens the open windows that zone coverage can present and gives the defense the ability to problem solve against specific offensive threats.

Assuming a four-player pass rush, one high safety after the snap, and five man to man defenders for each of the offense’s eligible receivers, there remains one defensive player without an assignment. This player can work to specific areas of the field where the offense is known to attack, double a receiver, or even spy the quarterback. Who this player is can depend on the game plan, offensive formation, or the yardage needed for a first down.

Despite its widespread usage, Cover 1 is not a perfect salve for the defense. As the game continues to favor offenses and receivers constantly improve, man to man coverage is made more difficult. Offenses get to their specific plays to beat man coverage (such as picks and rubs) while the quarterback scramble is also in play.

Still, Cover 1 is an item on every single NFL team’s 3rd down coverage menu. Below are diagrams, descriptions, and clips of the many variations of Cover 1. Understanding the differences, purposes, and how each variation can help some of the man coverage players is much more important than the naming conventions here.

1 Lurk

In 1 Lurk, the down safety will be covering an eligible receiver (often a tight end) while the other safety will be covering the deep middle of the field. Two linebackers will be leveraging the running back. If the running back releases to the defense’s right, the linebacker on the right side will take the running back while the other linebacker becomes the hole player. The same is true in the opposite direction.

The technique and name for the hole player can vary from defense to defense and from call to call. The hole area, as shown below, can feature a player cutting off routes or focusing on quarterback intentions before breaking on the ball. Some teams may have this dropper work to double a receiver instead.

1 Lurk helps the defense have extra help on shorter routes across the middle of the field. With help from the middle of the field safety deep and the hole player shallow, defensive backs may be able to funnel receivers to inside assistance.

1 Robber

In 1 Robber, the down safety will usually be coming away from the passing strength.

The passing strength is the side of the offensive formation that has the more or better receivers where a wide receiver is considered better than a tight end and a tight end is considered better than a running back.

1 Robber allows the defense to play deeper crossing routes with sound leverage or create brackets on shifty receivers. Offenses that put their best receiver at the inner most spot to a three-receiver side may be unpleasantly surprised by the defense’s late rotation to 1 Robber.

1 Robber is flexible by game plan and can be expressed in different ways. Some teams will have the down safety rob to a predetermined receiver’s side to bolster a matchup. This would mean the down safety could come to or away from the passing strength based on the offensive formation. Others will have their down safety drop to the first down marker like the Nick Saban tree’s 1 Cross.

1 Hole

In 1 Hole, the down safety will come from the passing strength side while the linebackers are locked in man coverage. This can help the defense deal with tough matchups or cover a specific area of the field.

Because of their potential similarities, 1 Robber and 1 Hole can be impossible to differentiate without being in the defensive meeting room. Further, some teams will just carry 1 Robber and adjust it week to week in a way that encompasses both calls.

Based on how the down safety is playing, both 1 Robber and 1 Hole can also resemble 1 Double.

1 Double Jersey #

Cover 1 Double is used by teams that are looking to ensure a double team against a specific receiver. Starting from a two high look, the safety opposite the targeted receiver will rotate to the middle of the field. The safety to the marked player’s side will be rotating into a double team wherever the formation dictates. The adjustability of the two high shell guarantees a double team regardless of where the receiver lines up or motions to.

1 Double Lurk

1 Double Lurk is a drop 8 variation that uses two low hole players. These players are usually linebackers who start at the line of scrimmage. This can be used as a changeup when the offense is expecting pressure based on the defensive presentation and may create two functional double teams.

The two low hole players can come from the edge or from mugged alignments. If the down safety was also a hole player playing off the running back’s release, this would be Bill Belichick’s 1 Mole.

1 Bandit

Closely related to 1 Double Lurk is 1 Bandit. 1 Bandit is a four-man rush that includes the nose tackle and middle linebacker attacking opposite A gaps. Both edge players will be playing off the running back. The edge defender to the side of the running back’s releases will pick up the back in man coverage while the opposite edge player becomes a hole dropper.

The blitzing linebacker may force the running back into protection which would give the defense seven players to cover only four eligible receivers.

This is slightly different than how some college teams run 1 Rat coverage. At the college level, 1 Rat generally involves two players (including at least one on the line of scrimmage) leveraging the running back.

One of the two players will become the hole player while the other player’s responsibility depends on what the running back does. This defender will either take the running back in man coverage if the back releases or become an add on hug rusher if the back stays in to protect.

This can end up looking like a delayed stunt and is a fantastic way to take advantage of the designed pressure path encouraging the running back to stay in protection.

The major difference between 1 Bandit and Belly 1 Rat is if the running back stays in to protect, 1 Bandit will have two hole droppers while Belly 1 Rat will have an added on fifth rusher.

1 Double Robber

1 Double Robber is another drop 8 variation. The deep middle of the field player will be a linebacker while the two high safeties will step down to control the seam area. This is sometimes used on third and long to cancel out the intermediate middle of the field.

5-man Rush

If a defense has six players in coverage (one deep middle of the field player plus five man to man coverage players for the five eligible receivers) with no hole player, there would be five remaining defenders to rush the quarterback. Defenses can position the rushers over the five offensive lineman, like the drawings of 1 Bandit and Bears 1 Rat above, to draw a 5-0 call.

A 5-0 call puts the offensive line into a type of man to man protection scheme. The 5 offensive linemen are tasked with handling the 5 players lined up over them (some teams will have players protect the individual gaps instead of being assigned directly to a defender); if the running back was involved in protection, then the running back would be responsible for the blitz from an off-ball defender.

This opens up the offensive line to stunts and picks as pass rushers must be passed off or carried at hyper speed. Getting an offensive line into a 5-0 call can also draw true 1 on 1 matchups for the defense’s best rusher.

Conclusion

Cover 1 is a versatile coverage that will likely lead the way against 3rd down passes once again this year. Starting from a two high alignment gives the defense flexibility in where to send an extra player while having a dominant five-man rush package can also cause strife for the offense. Defensive coordinators that know when to call certain variations of Cover 1 give their players a better chance by fighting back against an offense’s top method of attack. Understanding the different Cover 1 variations can highlight how a defense deals with the unenviable task of stopping the league’s top passing attacks.

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