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By Mark Theophel, Defensive Coordinator, Hartwick College (NY)

At Hartwick College (NY), three-deep and two-deep zone coverage has been most effective when it comes to making big plays on defense, particularly in the pass game. It accounted for about two-thirds of the Hawks interceptions and sacks the last three seasons. According to DC/DBs coach Mark Theophel, a big reason for this is getting zone defenders to understand how the proper landmarks correspond with the vision to relate to receivers. In this exclusive clinic report, Coach Theophel details his three-deep and two-deep coverage techniques against particular route structures.


By Mark Theophel
Defensive Coordinator 
Hartwick College (NY)



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Every year our defense utilizes a mixture of both man and zone coverage concepts. While both serve their purpose, zone coverage has consistently been most effective for us when it comes to making big plays on defense, particularly in the pass game. Plays where we are in zone coverage (namely 3-Deep and 2-Deep) account for about two-thirds of our interceptions and sacks in the last three seasons. A big reason for this is the way our teaching in zone coverage contrasts with man coverage.

Our zone defenders will cover an area of the field, rather than locking on to one receiver, and we apply landmarks to help our players get to their drops quickly while reading the QB. This is especially helpful when defending “hot” throws, which is a major point of emphasis for our defense, particularly because we are often playing zone coverage behind some form of pressure. A smart QB can neutralize the effectiveness of a stunt/blitz by throwing “hot” to an exposed zone, so defensively we spend a lot of practice time trying to counter this by coaching our players to anticipate those throws and break on the throw from the QB, creating opportunities for takeaways. In addition, denying these hot throws can create held balls and gives us more time to get to the QB with the pass rush.

Defining the Zones

It is important that our players first understand the different zones of the field in our 3-Deep and 2-Deep coverages. This will help them understand their landmarks better. Additionally, they must understand how to relate to WRs in their zone after the pattern distribution is finished. We will diagram these zones for both 3-Deep and 2-Deep coverages, separately, and term our drops for the underneath coverage defenders to fit those areas of the field.


3-Deep Zone Drops:

  • SCF (Seam-Curl-Flat)
    • Re-Route #2 in the seam, expand and play #1 curl-to-flat
    • Landmark is 2 yards outside the hash
  • Hook-to-Curl
    • Relate to #3 in the hook, #2 in the curl
    • Landmark is 2 yards inside the hash
  • Final 3 (used in zone pressures)
    • Defend the hook inside the #3 WR after all exchanges
    • Landmark is the goalpost


2-Deep Zone Drops:

  • Flat
    • Relate to #1 at the numbers
  • Seam/Curl
    • Re-route #2 in the seam, expand and play #1 in the curl
    • Landmark is the Hash+2 (2 yards inside or outside, depending on QB/routes)

Coaching Points:

It is important that our underneath droppers understand our principles of pass defense, applied specifically to zone coverage.

Principles of Zone Coverage:

  • See your coverage key or progression (eye discipline). In zone coverage, this means reading the QB/ball.
  • Disrupt the timing of routes (re-route). In zone coverage, we apply this principle based on which WRs threaten our zone once we’ve dropped to our landmark.
  • Read the front shoulder of the QB for the direction of the throw.
    • High shoulder = Deep ball
    • Low shoulder = Underneath
  • Underneath defenders should be more aggressive and willing to undercut routes.
  • Deep zone defenders should never break on “short-arm” action by the QB. Deep zone defenders should only break on “long-arm” action.
  • Deep zone defenders should keep all receivers in front of them.
  • Underneath defenders may be involved vs. inside run plays.
  • Deep zone defenders should never react to inside run fakes. Inside run equals pass for our deep zone defenders.

There are specific positional coaching points that we emphasize for our LBs, which will be major factors in our ability to make plays on hot throws.

LB Zone Coverage Progression:

  • Drop to your landmark with eyes on the QB.
  • Peripheral vision on the WRs in your zone (ID the threats).
  • Re-Route vertical routes in the seam (if applicable).
  • Play deep-to-short, break downhill on the throw by the QB. Hold off deeper routes with body positioning.
  • Flip hips (zone turn) when QB works away from your zone.
  • Look for work and defend the routes in your area. Maintain zone integrity, avoid chasing WRs across the formation.

Continue to the full-length version of this report…

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  • The drill work, including the V Cut Drill and Flash and Sink Drill that Coach Theophel uses to train his underneath defenders how to undercut routes and break on the ball in zone coverage.
  • How he differentiates the teaching for underneath defenders based on pure zone coverages and pressure coverages.
  • How he correlates these zone techniques and applies them to the three-deep and two-deep coverage concepts in his system.
  • How he adjusts three-deep and two-deep zone principles to defend 2x2, 3x1 and Empty formations.
  • Plus, narrated and raw game film of these coverage concepts.

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Zone coverage can be a very effective way of maximizing the potential of the secondary and the linebackers. Rather than having to require that our players be great man-to-man defenders for us to have success, we can create opportunities to make big plays by applying simple principles and techniques that are easy to understand. This also helps us be a heavy pressure team because it will not be an “all or nothing” situation every time we blitz, which can often be the case if we rely on man coverage. Put simply, if we can defend hot throws and capitalize on chances to get takeaways, we can use zone coverage to be an aggressive defense without exposing our players to bad match-ups.

Meet Coach Theophel: Mark Theopel joined the Hartwick coaching staff in 2014 as the DBs Coach and was promoted to Defensive Coordinator in 2015. Prior to coaching at Hartwick, he spent 4 years on the staff at Becker College, serving as Co-Defensive Coordinator in his last 2 years with the program. Theophel played four years as an outside linebacker at Hartwick College, and graduated in the spring of 2010.



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