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Film Room: Defense 2020 Part Three—Cover One

Ryan Walters is back, and he’s bringing his man-free coverage with him.

NCAA Football: Memphis at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

In the previous segments of this series on the Missouri defense, we focused on the defensive front. Today we turn our attention to the secondary, looking at defensive coordinator Ryan Walters’ favorite coverage—Cover 1.

Mizzou is a Cover 1 team under Walters. The Tigers played some form of Cover 1 on more than half of 2019’s defensive snaps. Cover 1 is, essentially, Walters’ identity as a coordinator.

Cover 1

Cover 1 is a man-to-man coverage with a deep-middle free safety playing over the top. For this reason it is also called Man-Free coverage. There is an aggressive nature to this pass defense— defenders challenge the receivers they face to beat them mano a mano. The free safety can be seen as a concession to eliminate big plays, but he also allows the man-defenders to be more assertive than they might otherwise, knowing they have some help in the deep middle.

Here is a diagram of Cover 1 in its simplest form, showing the alignment and pass responsibilities of the defensive backs.

What this diagram does not address how the running back is covered, though. There are several ways he might be accounted for, and we will see Walters employ several of these strategies in our examples. Here are some possibilities.

  • Cover 1 requires six men available to cover, so the scheme can include a five-man blitz with a linebacker or safety responsible for the back.
  • Two players might be assigned to one back. Which defender ends up in coverage depends on how the back releases into his route.
  • Two players may be assigned to two backs, each responsible for the first out to his side.
The Will and the boundary safety both look for first back out on their side.
  • In a six-man blitz, an edge rusher can peel off to cover a releasing back.
  • When a back stays in to protect, the defender responsible for him can add himself to the blitz...
  • ...or become a free low defender, looking for crossers, dropping under intermediate routes, or spying the quarterback. For our purposes, we’ll call Cover 1 with the addition of this defender in the low hole Cover 1 Low.

Let’s look at some examples of Cover 1 in its variations from Mizzou’s 2019 season.

Cover 1 Mike Low

The empty formation makes it very easy to see the coverage assignments of the defenders. Notice that the RB is split out as the #1 receiver on the offense’s left. Will linebacker Nick Bolton (#32) covers him rather than the cornerback.

Boundary safety Joshuah Bledsoe (#18) funnels his man inside to the free safety, Tyree Gillespie (#9), but the Rebel quarterback does a good job looking off Gillespie before delivering the ball.

Cover 1 Mike Low SS Peel

The Tigers are in their Tite front here.

Boundary safety Bledsoe ends up as the deep free player here, and covers a lot of ground.

Given Bledsoe’s struggles in man coverage—he was picked on a bit over the course of the season— I’ve sometimes wondered if he would do better at free safety. He certainly does a fine job here. This is assuming, of course, that Tyree Gillespie would be better in man coverage, which I don’t know to be the case.

Cover 1 Mike Low

Here Mike LB Jamal Brooks fools the quarterback, dropping from his alignment on the line of scrimmage into the low zone underneath the inside Slant.

Cover 1 Will Low

Bolton is the low player here.

Bolton reads the QB’s eyes which pull him all the way under the outside Slant. He almost comes up with the pick-six.

Cover 1 Will Low

Bolton is again the low player. The running back releases to the offense’s left and is picked up by the strong safety. If the RB had released to the other side he would have been defended by Mike linebacker Devin Nicholson (#58).

This is something I saw several times in my research. On third-and-long, teams would isolate a single receiver to the field, taking advantage of the fact that Cover 1 offers the corner no help underneath. Here Tennessee converts a first down on a Post Corner route. We will see other examples of this in upcoming Film Room pieces.

Safety Blitz Cover 1 Mike Low

On third-and-seven, the Tigers are in Dime personnel, with Adam Sparks (#14) replacing one of the linemen. Boundary safety Bledsoe blitzes the edge, and free safety Gillespie covers Bledsoe’s man. Strong safety Khalil Oliver (#20) plays the deep middle.

Notice in the tight shot how the man-defenders on the condensed side of the formation—Sparks and Christian Holmes (#21)—keep outside leverage to funnel their men in to the free players, Nicholson and Oliver.

Cover 1 Mike Low SS Peel

Strong safety Khahlil Oliver (#20) blitzes the edge, then peels off to cover the running back on a Swing route.

Mike linebacker Devin Nicholson (#58) is the low zone player, but he chases the Swing that is already covered by Oliver, taking him out of position to help on the throw.

SS Blitz Cover 1 DE Low

Mizzou is in Dime personnel and a Tight front. Strong safety Oliver blitzes the B gap.

Gillepsie drops to the deep middle and defensive end Jatorian Hansford (#28) drops to the low zone position.

Safety Blitz Cover 1

This is one of Walters’ favorite third-and-long fronts—an even front with stand-up players in both A gaps.

One of the A gap players is free safety Gillespie who hustles to the deep middle at the snap.

With boundary safety Bledsoe blitzing off the weak edge, the coverage is straight Cover 1, no low defender, with defensive end Hansford responsible for the running back.

There’s that third-and-long throw to an isolated single receiver to the field again.

Double LB Blitz Cover 1

Mizzou is in an Even front with both ends in two-point stances.

This is a six-man blitz with the boundary safety in the deep middle and the rest of the secondary in man-to-man on the four receivers.

Presumably, if the back released weak, the defensive end to that side, Hansford, would peel off with him.

The play is a Draw which Bolton sniffs out.


Cover 1 is Walters’ choice coverage, but he also employs other man-to-man and zone coverages. In Film Room’s next segment we will look at Walters’ other main man-to-man coverages.