The Cover 5 defense is a hybrid between a man-to-man and a zone coverage scheme.
Unlike some of the other "Cover" defenses, the number 5 in this instance doesn't refer to the number of defenders covering deep.
Instead, it refers to the number of defenders who will play man-to-man against a specific receiver.
In the Cover 5, there are two deep defenders (the safeties) and five defenders who match up head-to-head with an eligible receiver.
Coaches call this defensive scheme oftentimes in long yardage situations for the offense.
With its two deep safety valves, the Cover 5 is often an effective scheme to call to prevent long plays.
Cover 5 is a defense that is pretty simple for coaches to teach their teams, which is why it's a good fit for a football team at any level.
But it's more of a situational defensive scheme, based around what the down-and-distance and game situation is for the offense.
Let's take a closer look at the Cover 5 defense, including who should run it, and how it's run.
Who Should Use the Cover 5?
Cover 5 can be run by any team at any level.
It's a pretty easy defense to teach to youth teams, because coaches can separate the coverage assignments by position.
Safeties can be taught zone coverage over the top, while everyone else can be taught man-to-man coverage.
When making a determination of whether Cover 5 is a good fit, a coach should look at the game situation, rather than the team itself.
Cover 5 is great at preventing longer passing plays, but there are some holes in it (as we will soon see). That's why it's best to be used when trying to stop the offense from gaining a lot of yards.
In other words, it's a great defense to be used strategically when the offense is facing a third-and-long situation, for example.
But it might not be good on a third-and-short.
Easy to Teach - There aren't a lot of complicated factors in a Cover 5 defense. All cornerbacks and outside linebackers match up man-to-man with a receiver. All defensive linemen rush the quarterback. The two safeties play zone coverage over top.
Prevents Big Plays - The two safeties over the top serve as an extra layer of protection for all coverage defenders. This makes it very difficult for offenses to complete deep passes -- even if they run four Fly patterns. The safeties can shadow their side of the field and wait to see where their extra help is needed before reacting.
Tough for the Quarterback to Find Open Receivers - There are three defenders essentially matched up against two receivers on each side of the field. That includes the cornerback, outside linebacker and safety against two wide receivers. This makes it difficult for the quarterback to find definitive open receivers.
Doesn't Create Pressure - Only the four defensive linemen will be rushing the quarterback in most Cover 5 plays. That gives the quarterback extra time to scan the field and find an open receiver.
Can Be Run On - With most defenders spread out wide by a four-receiver set, and with both safeties playing deep, there can be running room found up the middle. Running backs can easily gain five yards or more if they can break through the line of scrimmage before the safeties (or a linebacker) can even get to them.
Susceptible to Shorter Passes - With the safeties playing deep, and the linebackers spread out, the middle of the field will be open, at least in terms of shorter passing routes. That's why it's essential for all defenders to make sure tackles so the receivers can't get yards after the catch. And it's also essential for coaches to call the Cover 5 in only the right down-and-distance situations.
In our example above, the offense will be running a spread.
There will be four wide receivers split wide -- two on the left and two on the right, with one on each side on the line of scrimmage and one off.
The quarterback will be in shotgun with a running back lined up to his left.
The defense will counter this play with four down defensive linemen, three linebackers, two cornerbacks and two safeties.
How a Cover 5 Defense is Run
Stage 1: The Defensive Line
Defensive linemen have one very simple task in a Cover 5 defense -- put as much pressure as possible on the quarterback.
This will be a little extra challenging, as there will be four defensive linemen and five offensive linemen, and no other defender will be blitzing.
This is why it's imperative that the Cover 5 be run if your linemen can get a good push upfront.
The two defensive ends will line up out wide, trying to get some extra spacing between them and the offensive tackles.
This will hopefully give them a good angle to get in the backfield, while also preventing the offensive tackles from chipping in to help block the defensive tackles.
One defensive tackle will often line up on the outside shoulder of the offensive guard, again trying to get outside leverage on the guard.
By lining up this way, he'll be making sure he faces only a one-on-one blocking scheme.
The nose tackle, meanwhile, will often be the one defensive lineman who faces a double-team block.
He'll line up on the outside shoulder of the center, and will blitz through the A gap between the center and the other offensive guard.
This will leave both the A gap on one side and the B gap on the other side open, which is where a running back would often look to go through if he's handed the ball or if he's asked to run a middle screen.
Stage 2: The Linebackers
The two outside linebackers will be split out wide covering wide receivers on this play. This is again one of the potential weak points in the Cover 5 defense
If your outside linebackers aren't great in pass coverage, you can also sub in extra cornerbacks to make sure your coverage is solid.
The Sam (strong-side) linebacker will be flanked out on the same side of the field as the running back.
He'll have man-to-man coverage responsibilities over the Y wide receiver.
The Will (weak-side) linebacker will be flanked out to the other side, with man-to-man coverage responsibilities for the H wide receiver.
The Mike (middle) linebacker will line up about five yards off the line of scrimmage, and heads up on the center.
His man-to-man coverage responsibility will be on the running back. At the snap, he must shadow the running back to see what he's doing.
If the back runs a passing route, he must follow him.
If the running back takes a pitch or hand-off, he must quickly pursue him to make a strong tackle.
If the Mike recognizes that the back is staying in to help block, then he can adjust and decide to blitz the quarterback.
He'll most likely do this straight up the middle, or to the open A gap to the left side.
This would force the running back to cross the quarterback's face in order to pick up the blitzing Mike.
Stage 3: The Secondary
The two cornerbacks will be split out wide, with man-to-man coverage responsibilities on the offense's two best wide receivers -- the Z and the X.
These receivers will be lined up on the line of scrimmage.
The cornerbacks should give themselves a little depth, and shade to the inside shoulder of the receiver.
This will force the receivers to either run a route toward the sideline (where there isn't as much room), or run a shorter route if he wants to run over the middle.
The free safety and strong safety will provide the deep zone coverage help over the top. They should line up around the hash marks, and about 10-15 yards deep.
They are responsible for watching the quarterback and running back at the snap to identify whether the play is a run, pass or quick screen.
On a screen or run, the safeties must approach the ball carrier to try to help in tackling.
On a traditional pass play, the safeties need to identify where they need to provide extra help.
They'll do this by seeing if one receiver breaks free from his defender, or if they recognize where the quarterback is going to throw the football.
The safeties have one major responsibility -- making sure that no one gets behind them.
This means they need to make the sure tackle or knock a ball carrier out of bounds, and it also means they can't let anyone receiver run a route deeper than them.
If someone gets behind them, it can lead to a huge play for the offense.
The Cover 5 defense is a very easy scheme to teach youth football players.
Because of this, many coaches at all levels of the game will use some variations of their defense in their game plan.
The Cover 5 is a hybrid between a man-to-man and zone coverage scheme.
It provides man-to-man coverage for the five main underneath defenders (where the defense gets its name) along with over-the-top help provided by the safeties who are playing zone coverage.
There are plenty of strengths of the Cover 5 defense, including it helps prevent against a big play by the offense.
It is susceptible to running plays and shorter passes, though.
So, make sure that if you're going to use the Cover 5 scheme, you call it in the optimal down-and-distance situations.