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New England Patriots

Beating Cover 3



Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Old foes meet again in the AFC Championship Game. No, I’m not talking about Bill Belichick and Doug Marrone necessarily, or even Belichick and Tom Coughlin. Instead I’m talking about Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady facing off against a defense rooted in the Seattle Seahawks and their Cover 3 coverage schemes.

Looking forward to Sunday, it’s time to dust off come of the Cover 3 beaters in anticipation. Some of these were discussed in detail on a recent episode of the Locked On Patriots podcast. Looking back through New England’s 2017 season, you can see how the offense has attacked this coverage scheme this year. Here are some of the designs you can expect to see Sunday against Jacksonville.


This route combination, a two-receiver concept consisting of a hitch from an outside receiver and a seam route from the inside receiver, has been a staple of New England’s offense for years. This concept has been covered at length by football minds much smarter than me, including the great Matt Bowen this week:

Zach Dunn also broke it down in this piece, which I would highly recommend. If you really want to be super nerdy, you can watch former Patriots’ offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien break it down in this video.

Here is an example of the Patriots’ running the HOSS concept to one side of the field in 2017, against the Carolina Panthers. New England empties the backfield with Brady (#12) in the shotgun, and Rob Gronkowski (#87) is the middle receiver in the trips formation to the left. He runs the seam route. The Patriots catch Carolina in a Cover 3 Buzz look, and as one safety jumps the sit route over the middle, Gronkowski finds space up the seam:

Inside seam routes are a perfect way to attack Cover 3 looks in the secondary, for many of the reasons broken down in this previous piece examining how the Patriots might square off against the Pittsburgh Steelers and their Cover 3 look. Another way the Patriots have done this in 2017 is by showing the defense a bubble screen, and then releasing a receiver up the seam. Here is that look against the Panthers from Week 4:

The Patriots bring Philip Dorsett (#13) in motion from right to left, and fake the bubble screen to him. That draws the attention of the underneath linebackers in their hook zones, and allows Chris Hogan (#15) to release up the seam from the slot. Easy throw, easy catch and a first down for the Patriots.

Attacking the Outside Cornerback

One of the ways to attack Cover 3 is to stress the outside cornerback and put him into conflict between two potential receivers, forcing him to make a decision on which player to cover. Here are some of the ways the Patriots accomplished this task in 2017.

The Slot-Fade design was one of the newer schemes that took hold of NFL offenses in 2017, most notably in Philadelphia where the Eagles and Carson Wentz rode it to an MVP-type season for the second year quarterback. New England used this design at times in 2017, but when they paired it with a shallower route on the outside, like a hitch or a quick in-cut, it set up a Smash Concept look, which could high-low the defender on that side of the field. Here is that look in action against a Cover 3 scheme from the Panthers in Week 4:

Gronkowski aligns in a wing to the right, and Dorsett is split outside of him. The TE runs the fade route, aiming for the numbers before then breaking upfield vertically, while Dorsett runs a hitch route. What this does is draw both the safety who is rotating down into an underneath zone, as well as the outside cornerback, to the tight end.  The safety has to carry that route until he can pass it off to the CB, who has to get depth in his zone as Gronkowski bends to the outside. That puts two defenders on the TE, and leaves Dorsett alone in the flat:

It’s a beautiful design, and perfect to attack Cover 3 schemes like the Patriots see on this play. The outside CB has to respect the vertical route from Gronkowski, and the safety also needs to stick with it for a while. That frees up the underneath route for an easy throw and potential yardage after the catch.

A similar is something called Oregon in the Patriots’ playbook. In this design, the outside receiver releases vertically while an inside receiver runs a read route, with the option to break to the flat. The outside receiver, however, does not run a straight go route, but after releasing vertically he breaks off on a comeback route. Given that the cornerback needs to carry that vertical route, he vacates the flat and sets up the inside receiver for an easy route. Unless the underneath defender is quick and athletic enough to carry that flat route, the inside receiver should be in position for a reception. However, that comeback route is a great pass pattern to run against a Cover 3 corner, given that the defender needs to respect the deep route and is susceptible to a quick break from the receiver. In essence, both receivers could be open for the QB.

That’s exactly what happens against Carolina’s Cover 3 coverage on this next play:

Gronkowski runs the read route from the wing, which Hogan runs the comeback route on the outside. As discussed, both receivers are open, Brady just takes the shorter throw:

These two designs put pressure on that outside defender and put him into conflict, and are great ways to scheme receiver open along the boundary of a Cover 3 defense.


So far we have attacked the seams of a Cover 3 scheme, as well as the outside by putting the cornerback into conflict. Now we can attack underneath with spacing concepts. At its core, Cover 3 is a three-deep, four-under defensive coverage scheme. Offenses can find grass between the underneath defenders on some route designs. The Patriots do just that on this play against the New York Jets:


To the right side of the formation, the Patriots run Gronkowski on a crossing route, which draws the attention of the underneath linebackers and the safety dropping down into Buzz technique. The running back releases to the flat. Between them, Dorsett runs a curl pattern and because of the attention paid to Gronkowski, the wide receiver finds space underneath. Also of note, look at the backside of the play, a post/wheel combination. This is another Cover 3 beater as well. The post route from the outside receiver occupies both the free safety and the cornerback, which opens the boundary for the wheel route from the slot receiver. This is a beautiful design all around, and one that should be at the top of McDaniels’ call sheet on Sunday.

This next concept, Shout in New England’s playbook, is a three receiver combination that incorporates some of the designs already covered. The outside receiver runs a go route while the middle receiver runs a quick out pattern. The inside receiver runs a deeper out pattern, at a depth of about eight to ten yards. That sets up both the stress along the boundary, with the go/out combination, as well as the spacing design between the two inside receivers. The flat defender will have to widen to cover the middle trips receiver on his out pattern, which should open up space for the inside receiver on his out pattern, working against in all likelihood a linebacker.

Here’s how that looks in action:


To this point we have attacked every area of a Cover 3 scheme save one: The free safety. That’s where the Yankee Concept comes in. This is a design already covered in detail here on Locked On Patriots, a two-receiver, max protection concept that attacks the free safety with a post route, and a dig route.

For a quick refresher, here it is in action against the Houston Texans:

For our purposes here, this example against the Panthers shows how it can work against a Cover 3 scheme. The free safety on this play stays deep to take away the post route, so the middle of the field is open for Cooks underneath on the dig:


The Jaguars enter Sunday with one of the best pass defenses in recent history. But Brady and McDaniels should be ready for the test. By using the designs outlined in this piece, the Patriots can answer that challenge.

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield


Mark is a former college quarterback and attorney, who now focuses on writing and talking about football. He is a Head Writer at Inside the Pylon, he contributes to RotoGrinders and The Gopher Report, hosts Breaking the Plane and Locked On Patriots, and is the quarterback scout for the Bleacher Report NFL1000 project.

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