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Five Plays that Beat Cover 3 (Diagrams and Video)

Posted by Throw Deep Publishing Staff on

The cover 3 defense still has a prominent role in creating advantages for defenses looking to put a stop to big plays downfield, while also having a strong presence in stopping the run. 

Pass-heavy attacks at both the college and professional levels have seen a rise in 2-high, split-field coverages in response from defenses over recent years. Still, Cover 3 remains a big part of defenses at every level.

Reads for offenses in the passing game depend heavily on safety structure, and the use of cover 3 allows defenses to disguise their alignment pre-snap, forcing QBs to remain mentally sharp, while possessing the ability to add defenders to the run fit with ease throughout a game.

With knowledge of an opponent's cover 3 scheme, offenses have the same benefits with multiple strategies at hand to defeat the coverage. 

Continue reading below to see how offenses attack cover 3 with success. 

How does Cover 3 Work?

Cover 3 consists of 4 underneath droppers, along with 3 defenders responsible for their deep zones. 

With the FS being responsible for the middle of the field, offenses refer to this as a MOFC (middle of the field closed) coverage. Offenses have to find alternate ways to push the ball downfield, as the FS can take away post routes by alignment, and CBs are taught to bail in to take away vertical routes downfield.

Cover 3 Beaters - Cover 3 Diagram 

It’s a bend, don’t break style of defense, as the coverage forces quarterbacks to make long throws out to the flats, as well as timely throws over the middle. Along with this, teams are able to add an extra defender to the box, putting themselves in a position to rally to stop opposing rushing attacks. 

Click the link to learn more advanced details about Cover 3

How to Beat Cover 3

While the cover 3 defense does a nice job of containing offenses vertically, there are still options for offenses in formulating an explosive passing attack. The seams and flats are the weakness of the coverage, and offenses will incorporate plenty of quick game throws, RPOs, and flood concepts into their game plan to defeat the coverage. 

Quick-game/dropback passing concepts are a great way to take advantage of the outside linebacker’s assignment of defending the run, while also being responsible for the flats in the passing game. 

With both CBs in bail technique, quarterbacks can take easy access throws such as outs and hitches, while also being able to read the flat defender with route combinations such as slant/flat, or dig/whip. 

It’s the same thought process in RPOs, as it’s the job of the QB to read the flat defender's movement post-snap. If the flat defender fits the run, the QB will pull and throw the football to a receiver in space. Vice versa applies if he honors the threat of the pass, as the QB will hand the football off and figuratively create a numbers advantage for the offense in the box. 

Cover 3 Beaters - 4 Verts

As mentioned, with the seams being a vulnerable part of a cover 3 defense, 4 verticals is a common answer for offenses looking to push the ball downfield. With cushion from the CBs on the edge, receivers will often convert their go routes into a comeback route on the edge to become available for the QB. Most often, the QB will look off the FS with his eyes, controlling his movement before finding space to a WR over LB level. 

Lastly, flood concepts are a way to stress the defense at all 3 levels, as overloading one side of the field stresses defenders in zone coverage. The sail concept is a great example of this, as the go route from the #1 WR clears the CB, as the QB proceeds to high-low the flat defender with an out-breaking sail route at 14-16 yards, and an eligible receiver stretching the flat to that same side. 

#1 Dagger Concept

This play was taken from 101 Plays from the Ole Miss Offense

Cover 2 Beaters - Dagger

Dagger is a well-known concept that puts a high-low on the flat defender in cover 3. Here, the #3 WR runs the seam, an option for the QB if he looks to hold the FS with his eyes. Otherwise, it’s Matt Corral’s job to read the nickel and throw off of him. 

With Louisville playing soft on 3rd and 10, there’s not much there as his pass to the X WR is batted down.

Watch the play in the video below: 

#2 Boot TB Flat X Quick Out

This play was taken from 101 Plays from the Michigan Offense

Cover 2 Beaters - Boot TB Flat X Quick Out

In this sprint-out design, the QB can take the boundary speed out if he has open access before proceeding to the field. Meanwhile, the RB has a head start out to the flat, a great option versus a bailing cover 3 corner. 

Michigan QB JJ McCarthy opts to take his X WR pre-snap, and the throw is unable to be gathered in. 

Watch the play in the video below:

#3 Square Out-Seam

This play was taken from 101 Plays from the Oklahoma Offense.

Cover 2 Beaters - Square Out-Seam

This design combines attacking both the seams, as well as the outer edges of the field with out cuts. 

Beating the flat defender with the throw to either out route, or looking off the FS to find a seam void is a great option for the QB against cover 3. 

There’s not much there for Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler against Iowa State’s exotic 3-high defense, eventually picking up 1-yard on the play with his feet. 

Watch the play in the video below:

#4 PA Power Y Cross Z Curl

This play was taken from 101 Plays from the Oklahoma Offense.

Cover 2 Beaters - PA Power Y Cross Z Curl


Y-Cross is a staple play in college football today, possessing reliable options versus many coverages, including cover 3.

The crossing route over LB level is option A, with the curl-flat combination being a reliable outlet in this design from Oklahoma. 

The CB and FS bail with the post route, as the TE comes open over the middle for a big pickup. 

Watch the play in the video below:

#5 Z Orbit Pump Fake Bubble Post-Wheel

This play was taken from 101 Plays from the BYU Offense.

Cover 2 Beaters - Z Orbit Pump Fake Bubble Post-Wheel

Post-wheel stresses the CB responsible for the deep 1/3 in cover 3. If the flat defender is held low, the CB is put in a bind immediately with 2 vertical routes. 

While this 1-high look turns into cover 1, the play works just as well as BYU finds the slot receiver for a score.

Watch the play in the video below:

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