Welcome to Football 101 presented by The Painted Lines! In this ongoing offseason series, I will be breaking down football concepts to help you better understand what you are watching on Sundays. Each article will take a deep dive into a specific component of the game.  We will also be updating a cheat sheet throughout the series that you can bookmark or print out for quick reference on game days. You can also join our public discord to interact with our writers and podcasters and talk X’s and O’s.

If you have missed any of the previous articles of this series you can check them out below:

Without further ado, let’s dive in!  Today we are going to take a look at cover 2 zone defense.

The Basics


Cover 2 Zone is a MOFO (Middle of field open) zone coverage that relies on 2 safeties to cover the deep area of the field and 5 cornerbacks and linebackers to cover the underneath portion of the field. Because it does not walk the strong safety down into the box, it is often more susceptible to running plays, and thus play-action passes as well. The traditional rule of football is that if you have two safeties high you are at a disadvantage in run defense and if you have one safety high you are vulnerable to the pass.

In this deployment, cornerbacks typically press the outside wide receivers to disrupt the timing of their routes. Ideally, they will force an inside release from the receiver to funnel them into the middle of the defense. Once the receiver clears the zone, the corner rebounds to the flat to take away the short passing game. These corners can do a much better job of covering the flats compared to the linebacker and strong safety tandem that are tasked with covering the flats in cover 3 (more on that later in this series) both because of their athletic advantage and because they are already aligned in the flats at the snap of the ball.

The three linebackers cover the middle of the field in hook zones and allow short, underneath passes and then rally to tackle, while the safeties gain depth to each cover half of the field.

What is the Weakness of Cover 2?

C2 Weakness.jpg

As an astute reader of the Football 101 series, you already know that every defense has a vulnerability that the offense will attempt to exploit, which leads to defensive adjustments, which leads in turn to offensive adjustments and the never-ending game of chess that takes place on the sidelines of every NFL game. So let’s talk about some of the weaknesses and adjustments.

The biggest weakness of Cover 2 zone is the hole in the middle of the field. Each of the safeties is tasked with covering from the middle of the field to the sideline, and that leaves an area behind the middle linebacker that is often vulnerable to dig routes (deep ins) and post routes. The other major weakness is the boundary near each sideline. For similar reasons that it is hard for a safety to cover the hole, it is also difficult for them to get all the way to the sideline to make a play on the ball. This is why it is vitally important that the cornerbacks force an inside release from the wide receiver instead of letting them get up the sideline.

Here are some basic route combinations that are very difficult for Cover 2 zone to defend:


The smash concept works towards the sideline. The outside receiver runs a quick hitch that forces the cornerback to stay in the flat in coverage, while the inside receiver or tight end runs a corner route underneath the safety’s coverage. This forces the cornerback to play in no man’s land, trying to split the difference between the two receivers until the safety can get there. Most teams will attempt to counter this by telling the cornerback to play the deep receiver and then rally to the flat to tackle.



Dagger is a concept that attacks the hole in the middle of the field. In this concept, a slot receiver will run a vertical route to threaten the safety deep, forcing a reaction from the safety who must cover him, while the outside receiver will run a deep in route behind the linebackers and into the hole.



Divide is another concept to attack the hole and works very similarly to a Dagger concept. This time the outside receiver runs a vertical route to threaten the boundary and pull the safety away, while the slot receiver runs a post route into the hole. This is often paired with a receiver going vertical on the other side of the formation to pull the off-side safety away.  Offenses refer to this route combination as 9-7-9 (referring to the numbers on the receiver route tree for these routes).



When in doubt just send everyone deep. Verticals works against cover 2 for the same reason it works against cover 3: You send more receivers deep than the defense does defenders and it results in a numbers advantage. 

So what is a defense to do? How can they cover these concepts?

Defensive Coverage Checks

Tampa Two

Tampa Two is the most commonly used Cover 2 concept in the NFL today. It operates exactly like base cover 2 with one exception: the MLB sinks deeper into the middle of the field to cover the hole. This essentially makes cover 2 into a cover 3 concept but changes the responsibilities of the defenders. Rather than the deep portions of the field being covered by a pair of cornerbacks and a free safety they are now covered by a pair of safeties and a middle linebacker. This allows the defense to deal with both dagger concepts and divide concepts that target the hole, assuming the defense has an athletic linebacker that can handle the coverage assignment. The downside of Tampa Two is that the defense is now back in a 3 deep 4 underneath zone style of defense and thus more vulnerable to the short passing game.

The final concept the defense must deal with is four verticals. The defense handles this by having 2 rules for cornerbacks:

  1. If you can’t force the outside receiver into an inside release you must run with him
  2. If both receivers to your side go vertical you must run with the outside receiver

In this scenario your cornerback will convert to man coverage on the outside receiver, leaving your safety free to convert to man coverage on the inside receiver.

Red 2

Red 2 is a variation of cover 2 that is played in the RedZone. Since the defense no longer has to worry about being beat deep, the entire defense compresses towards the line of scrimmage and is much more aggressive.

Green 2

Green 2 is a variation of cover 2 that is played in long-yardage situations when the defense wants to “protect the sticks.” In this version, the linebackers and corners will make deeper drops towards the first down marker and allow the underneath passes before rallying and tackling the ball carrier to get off the field.

Cover 2 Trap

C2 trap.jpg

Cover 2 Trap attempts to confuse the offense by showing a coverage shell that doesn’t match the coverage that will ultimately be run. This alignment shows a MOFC (middle of field closed or single high safety) look that leads the offense to believe that the defense is in a cover 3 zone or cover 1 man deployment. Instead, at the snap of the ball, the safety rotates into a deep half zone and the offside cornerback bails deep into the other deep half. The problem with this is that the X receiver is now allowed a free release (no press from the cornerback) and can get vertical quickly.

Inverted Cover 2/Cover 2 Robber

C2 Robber.png

Similar to Cover 2 Trap, Inverted Cover 2/Cover 2 Robber presents as a MOFC look. In this check the single high safety comes forward at the snap of the ball and becomes the “robber” who defends the hole while both cornerbacks bail into deep zones. This is a great change-up for a defense but not one that you can base out of. If the offense knows that you are running this they can make you pay dearly over the top with a speedy wide receiver, but as a change-up, it can be highly effective at baiting the throws into the hole for interceptions.

That concludes our primer on cover 2 defenses. Don’t forget to go back and check out our article on coverage shells if you missed that and click on over to the cheat sheet if you want to review the strengths and weaknesses of different alignments. The links for both are at the top of the page.