Cover 4 uses four deep defenders and three defenders underneath. Typically, Cover 4 uses match principles which involves man-coverage techniques while running zone. The goal of the coverage is to prevent the deep ball while still having safeties close enough to the line of scrimmage to contribute in the run game and help to bracket receivers.
Cover 4 Philosophy
Cover 4 blends man coverage principles into zone coverage. Defenses will typically play their safeties closer to the line of scrimmage at 10-14 yards. That’s because those safeties have to be able to contribute in the run game and help with the alley or outside run gaps. As a result, the coverage is heavily reliant on safeties that can make quick decisions, cover ground, and are also solid tacklers.
While there are only three underneath defenders, Cover 4 has become more and more popular with its versatility against multiple formations, ability to disguise and get to other coverages, and prevent the growing popularity of the pass game.
Cover 4 Assignments
- No run responsibility
- If #1 goes vertical further than 10 yards in your zone, match in man coverage
- If #1 goes short or inside, get eyes on #2
- Outside gap run contain
- If #2 goes vertical further than 10 yards in your zone, match in man coverage
- If #2 goes short or to the flats, get eyes on #1
Nickel / Outside Linebackers:
- Inside gap run support
- Hands on #2 funneling them outside
- Sink and pursue to flat
- Inside gap run support
- Wall crossers
- Sink and collect vertical threats down the middle or get under deep crossers
Notre Dame is running match Cover 4 here against Alabama and do a good job of switching receivers. The safety to the bottom of the screen is reading the #2 receiver that’s lined up on the wing. When he goes to the flats, the safety flips his eyes to #1 outside to help the corner bracket in case of an in-breaking route. Meanwhile, the outside linebacker has picked up #2 in the flats. To the top of the screen, the safety and corner do a good job of transferring the switching routes. Both are going over 10 yards, but when they switch, the corner picks up #2 and the safety picks up #1. The linebacker to that side carries the dig underneath to close the window and the quarterback has nowhere to go with the ball.
The Bengals are disguising their Cover 4 here. They’re running a zone blitz with the end and outside linebacker dropping to the flats and the Mike linebacker coming on the blitz. Behind that, they’re running Cover 4. The Bengals match the vertical routes and the defensive end is able to jam the #2 receiver to the top of the screen to disrupt their release. The Dolphins miss the blitz pickup, and the Bengals get the sack with their secondary staying on top of their routes and their linebackers sinking under the quick throw windows.
Finally, we have a quick example of the safeties coming down to contribute in the run game. Remember that they have outside gap run contain and must fill the alley. However, the Eagles’ defensive end doesn’t pinch the play down, so the safety has to fill inside the offensive tackle.
Cover 4 Beaters
Cover 4 is versatile in its ability to transfer routes and prevent deep shots. When safeties play closer to the line of scrimmage, it can also be a viable base coverage against the run. More and more teams are using it to disguise, force the offense to take short throws down the field, and allow their deep players to make plays on the ball.