Cover 3 Defense Explained

The 3-5-3 Defense primarily relies on a zone pass coverage.  This pass coverage is called “Cover 3.” Cover 3 simply means that we will have 3 Defensive Backs backpedaling away from the line of scrimmage and protecting us against deep passes or to save touchdowns verses long runs.

3-5-3 Defense: Cover 3

The remaining 8 players will read the play and determine if the offense is trying to run or pass.  If it is a pass, 3-5 other defenders will drop into underneath zones to stop short to medium distance pass attempts.

Cover 3 Pass Coverage Zones

8 Zones we must defend when playing Cover 3

The Zones we recognize in our Cover 3 shell are:

  • The Hole:  1-12 yards from the line of scrimmage, in between the Offensive Tackles.
  • The Hook/Curl: 1-12 yards from the line of scrimmage, outside the tackles, halfway to the near sideline.
  • The Flats: 1-12 yards from the line of scrimmage, from the hook/curl to the sideline.
  • The Deep 1/3rds:  12 yards form the line of scrimmage to the back of the endzone.  Dividing the field into 3 equal parts.
  • Anything behind the line of scrimmage is considered a screen or checkdown route and is not honored until the ball is in the air.

Cover 3 Pass Defense – Procedure

The 3 Defensive Backs will backpedal at the snap and defend the deep 1/3rds first.  The 5 Linebackers will step forward and check for a run first.  If they read run they will advance, close windows and stop the run.  If it is a fake run / play-action pass the linebackers who made it to the line of scrimmage will continue forward and stop the pass with pressure.

Cover 3 Defense

Cover 3 Defense – Zone Pass Drops

If the 5 Linebackers get a pass read before reaching the line of scrimmage, they will drop into specific zones according to the the blitz that was called.

At least 1 Linebacker will blitz 95% of the time in the 3-5-3 defense.

The 2 Outside Linebackers are responsible for the Flats.  The two Inside Linebackers that did not blitz are responsible for the Hook / Curls.  In a normal 4-man pass rush, we do not put a defender in the Hole.  This area is protected by the linemen (the Quarterback cannot easily throw short routes in the Hole because he must throw over the Offensive and Defensive Linemen) and is surrounded by the two Hook/Curl players and the Free Safety in the deep 1/3rd.

Zone Replacement for Outside Linebacker Blitz

If an Outside Linebacker were to blitz, the nearest inside linebacker will be responsible for the flats to his side in the event of a pass play.

The Mike Linebacker will then replace the Inside Linebacker in the Hook/Curl.  In effect, this causes the Inside Linebackers to “bump” over 1 zone.

All other players drop as normal

Cover 3 Zone Blitz Replacement

Outside Linebacker Blitz in the Cover 3 Defense


Zone Replacement for 2-man blitz (5-man pressure)

If we blitz 2 Linebackers with the 3 Defensive Linemen, the 3 remaining linebackers will cover the 5 underneath zones.

The Middle Linebacker (or remaining Inside Linebacker) will drop to the Hole.  The other 2 Linebackers will drop just outside the hashes and buzz the spot where the Hook / Curl and Flats meet.

The Middle Linebacker is responsible for the Hole and both Hook / Curls.  The 2 other linebackers are each responsible for the Hook / Curl and the flat to their side.  This can be very confusing for Quarterbacks because they are not used to us having defenders in these areas (which are often the soft spots in a normal Cover 3 defense).

Cover 3 Pass Drops 2-man blitz

Send 5, Drop to the normal soft spots

Zone replacement for 3-man Blitzes (6-Man Pressure)

When 3 Linebackers blitz, the remaining two Linebackers will drop to the near hashes in order to cover as much field as possible.  We only send 6 when we are trying to get a Quarterback Sack.

Cover 3 Zone Blitz

Drop to the Hashes


  • If we ever send 7, we rely on the Defensive Backs to save any touchdowns thrown to underneath receivers.
  • All players must look at the Quarterback while dropping to their zones.
  • If a man passes through your zone, he must  be HIT.
  • If a man is in your zone, buzz feet toward him and be ready to cover him if the ball is thrown.
  • Never chase receivers out of your zone.
  • Communication is critical.  If a player is leaving a zone towards the sideline, yell “out.”  if a man is leaving a zone low and inside yell “Cross.”  If a Man is leaving a zone high and in yell “Post.”  This alerts other defenders they are about to have a man enter into their zone.

Activity Forums Cover 3 Defense Explained

This topic contains 3 replies, has 2 voices, and was last updated by  burkee 11 months, 1 week ago.

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  • #3314
    Profile photo of coachxo

    The 3-5-3 Defense primarily relies on a zone pass coverage.  This pass coverage is called “Cover 3.” Cover 3 simply means that we will have 3 Defensiv
    [See the full post at:]

  • #3315


    Coach we have had some issues aligning to trips set, out of this they all run vertical routes. which leaves us in conflict on role out. We also face a lot of wing T teams that have posed some issues any thoughts would be great.

  • #3316
    Profile photo of coachxo

    Coach, I’m confused. Are you asking about sprint out or trips? Are they rolling out on you toward the trips? We teach our Free and Corner to “Surround the Tips” Playing the innermost and outermost route and breaking TOGETHER on anything in between them. That should handle the vertical routes. If you are having problems with sprintout the key is keeping your OLB in the flats, tell him to DROP to the flats on rollout ignoring any route under five yards (break up on that) and have the Inside Backer to the Trips side ATTACK the lead blocker on the sprint out. The Next INSIDE backer BUMPS to replace that attacking Ilb in the hook curl. He may get there late but if he gets there at all he should be able to help / hit the curl route. Also, if they have sprint out to the trips, do the same thing and ignore low routes. Defend the deepest and middle route on floods, and rally to the low route. They can’t beat you throwing low all day. Make sense hope that helps!

  • #3317
    Profile photo of rfputah

    We were beaten more times than I would like in the flat or swing area this year. Can I get a little more input concerning coverage of the flats.

    Thanks, Coach

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