49ers Playbook, Week 14: The Cover 6 and Cover 3 cloud coverages

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 10: DeAndrew White #11 of the Houston Texans is unable to hold on to the ball as Adrian Colbert #38 of the San Francisco 49ers defends at NRG Stadium on December 10, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 10: DeAndrew White #11 of the Houston Texans is unable to hold on to the ball as Adrian Colbert #38 of the San Francisco 49ers defends at NRG Stadium on December 10, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images) /

This week’s installment of 49ers film room breaks down the Cover 6 coverage and Cover 3 cloud coverage the 49ers used to successfully, and unsuccessfully, defend Houston Texans wideout DeAndre Hopkins in Week 14.

Just over a week ago in Week 14, the San Francisco 49ers defeated the Houston Texans 26-16, but not before wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins recorded 11 receptions for 149 yards and two touchdowns.

The 49ers employed a variety of coverages to try to limit him, including the Cover 6 coverage and Cover 3 cloud coverage defenses.

I covered the base 49ers coverages they were likely to employ here, and expanded on them again later in the season here. Today we’ll break down the Cover 6 and Cover 3 cloud coverages, and how they were successful or unsuccessful.

Early in the game, it was evident the 49ers were doing everything they could to limit the effectiveness of Hopkins. The defense employed a variety of tweaks to their base coverages and played a bit more two-high safety coverages than normal.

One of Hopkins’ bigger plays came in the second quarter, as the 49ers attempted to give cornerback Dontae Johnson some help over the top by employing the Cover 6 defense, shown below:

Cover 6 is a coverage that blends Cover 2 and Cover 4 (2+4 = 6, get it?) principles, or quarter, quarter, half.

The Cover 4/quarters side of the defense is just that, the defense plays quarters coverage and matches the vertical routes (anything past about eight yards is considered “vertical”) or drop into deep quarters on the wide side of the field.

The Cover 2 side of the defense is played from the near hash to the sideline and employs a deep-half safety and a corner, who plays the flat or sinks on a vertical with the No. 1 receiver if no threat enters the flat:

Early in the second quarter, the Texans line up in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers), with trips to the right and Hopkins to the single receiver side. The 49ers are in a nickel defense showing Cover 2.

At the snap, Johnson, on the single-receiver side covering Hopkins, funnels Hopkins inside on his release and then drops into a trail technique underneath the receiver. Johnson has help on the Cover 2 side provided by Leon Hall over the top.

Hopkins runs a post-corner route between Hall and Johnson, as Texans quarterback Tom Savage drops in a perfect pass on the sideline.

Early on in the third quarter, the 49ers revert back to a basic Cover 3 with some slight differences:

In a traditional Cover 3 shell, the free safety is coached to play more of the middle of the field between the hashes. However, against Hopkins, the defensive plan was to main that leverage over the side Hopkins was lined up on.

The Texans are running a three-level vertical-stretch concept, similar to a variation of the Yankee concept, where the deep-post receiver breaks toward the corner instead of the deep post.

At the snap, the play action draws Johnson’s eye’s into the backfield as Hopkins releases downfield. This hesitation by Johnson allows Hopkins to get in between him and the safety again as he breaks toward the corner.

Johnson also gets caught looking at the intermediate sideline/flat route, but the 49ers shifted the curl/flat defender’s responsibility to take a more deep drop into that zone covering that route, another wrinkle they used frequently throughout the game.

Quarterback T.J. Yates — who replaced Savage (concussion) — drops in a perfect dime to Hopkins in the back corner of the end zone for the touchdown.

After that touchdown pass, the 49ers benched Johnson and sent in corner Greg Mabin. Hopkins was limited to one reception for four yards and a fumble after that second touchdown pass, due to being more heavily bracketed by the defense.

On this play late in the third, the 49ers went back to Cover 6 but didn’t blitz to the side Hopkins was on as they did in the previous diagram above.

Hopkins, again, runs that inside release to the post and breaks out to the corner, but this time a flat defender drops underneath him, while Mabin stays over the top of his route with Adrian Colbert as the safety valve.

The pass rush flushes Yates from the pocket as he throws an incomplete pass away from the double-covered Hopkins.

Finally, to seal the game, late in the fourth quarter, the 49ers shade into a Cover 3 cloud from their pre-snap look:

The Cover 3 cloud is a variant of the Cover 3 shell, but is often used out of a pre-snap Cover 2 shell. The defensive backs drop into their deep third zones on the sidelines and in the middle of the field, while one corner drops and plays into the flat.

To bracket Hopkins again, the 49ers drop cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon into the flat to defend against Hopkins, with Colbert over the top on that side of the field.

The Texans run a bubble screen the 49ers defense sniffs out perfectly with Witherspoon already playing the force defender to force Hopkins back inside after he catches the ball.

Colbert is by flowing downhill toward Hopkins and jars the ball loose with a crushing hit.

Next: Week 16 NFL Power Rankings from Niner Noise

The 49ers would recover and seal the game from that point on against Houston..