What Is: A Covered Tight End/Receiver

Submitted by Seth on September 21st, 2016 at 10:01 AM

This drove us nuts against UCF:

This drove us nuts against Colorado:

This shouldn’t be happening. To understand why we have to go back to the rules of football.

Ends and Backs

Football evolved from a rugby-like game, with forward passing added almost a generation later. The running sport and the passing sport never perfectly coalesced into one—even today there are offenses that treat their quarterback as a primary rusher or primarily a passer. You can also trace the problem of linemen blocking downfield on passing plays back to this awkward marriage of two games. So they had to make rules: You can block here but not there. The rule that matters to us is this guy is an eligible receiver and that guy isn’t.


[After THE JUMP: What’s a legal formation, why teams do this, and a jazzy snazzy video]

A legal formation has four guys in the backfield and seven who must be on the line of scrimmage (to outlaw the brutal wedge formations that literally got players killed).

Of these eligible receivers are:

  • Anyone lined up 1 yard or more in the backfield
  • Whoever the last guy is of those on the line of scrimmage
  • Anyone in position to receive the snap (i.e. the quarterback)

And there are limits.

  • You can only have five eligible receivers plus a quarterback.
  • Non-eligible receivers (i.e. linemen) can’t go downfield more than 3 yards (college) or 1 yard (pro) from the line of scrimmage on a pass play.
  • Eligible receivers must wear an eligible receiver number: 1-49 or 80-99.

This was all sensible given the typical formation of the day looked like 1904 Michigan here:


[courtesy of UM Bentley Library]

However, today the typical offense lines up more like this:


As the passing game evolved, offenses started to use any eligible receiver and put him “wide” to take advantage of their athletic abilities and drag defenders away from the run action. Ends split out (“split end”) or remained tight to the formation, and various backs also lined up in ways that made their horizontal position (the “slot” or “flanker” etc.) more apparent than how far they lined up from scrimmage.

And so position names today bare little relation to the actual positions. And confusingly, we regularly assign the position names that are meant to denote alignment to players regularly assigned that position, e.g. we call this guy a “Tight End in Motion”image

Despite that phrase being an oxymoron. Still, all offenses must observe the basic rules.

Covering: When an End is Not an End

The rules don’t care where you are horizontally. If somebody is lined up outside the guy you think of as an end, no matter how far, the inside guy isn’t an end anymore.


I made the guard gray to denote the middle guy on the line of scrimmage. Our modern terms and minds are trained to call the covered guy a tight end, and certainly the guy standing there is a “tight end” on the roster. But the rules of football still see these guys thusly:


The “tight end” is thus “covered” by having the slot receiver standing around outside of him.

Let’s go back to the Colorado play.



The covered tight end doesn’t totally act like he’s covered. He takes two steps out like he’s going into a pattern after all, and carefully stays juuuuust inside the 3-yards from the line of scrimmage he’s allowed to be in (this is never called anyway), so he can block McCray.

After some play-action to bring the linebackers down, Colorado is going to put Peppers in a pickle, since he has to respect the bubble action of that H-back on the top hash, and will thus let the (blue route) slot receiver cut behind him for big yards before the safety to that side (Delano Hill) can react and come down. How is Michigan supposed to deal with this when there are so many receivers on that side?

Well Jeremy Clark and Dymonte Thomas might help. Clark is the guy at the bottom-left, hanging out at the top of the “B” of B1G. Dymonte Thomas is also on that side, guarding the edge from between the “1” and “G”. Whom do they wind up covering? NOOOOOOOOBODY!

Don’t hold me to that coverage—as Ace pointed out in Slack today, people who know way more about football than I do have trouble ID’ing coverages even after they’re on tape:

Why Teams Do This

The disadvantage of one fewer receivers for the defense to worry about has to be overcome by something, or else why would you do that to yourself? There are reasons.

First of all because it sows confusion, and that’s especially true for when you’re a tempo team that uses practice time to get defenders lined up incorrectly or in bad matchups. You may catch them off guard, as Colorado and UCF did in the above examples. Plus now the defense has to check for covered receivers in addition to all the other stuff you’re throwing at them before the snap.

Another reason is to get back what the rules of football take away by forcing one receiver to always be on the backside. Lots of coaches (Harbaugh is certainly one of them) like to put as many receivers to one side of the formation as possible. All those passing targets to one side are tough for defenders to keep track of, and all of those help defenders are now missing from the other side. Remember how one of the troubles with outside runs is cornerbacks out there to force it inside? Imagine if that guy isn’t even out there!

Ross Fulton of Buckeyegrove wrote an excellent piece on the games OSU played with Oklahoma’s defense last Saturday and one of them was covering a receiver on one side for this purpose:

The Buckeyes next featured an unbalanced formation to free Mike Weber on tight zone and power. Meyer aligned three wide receivers and the tight end to the field – including covering up one wide receiver.


This pulled Oklahoma to the unbalanced side – leaving the Sooners with only three defenders past the centerline and removing the weak side force support. Ohio State then ran split zone and power to the boundary. Weber could bounce runs outside, which he maximized with his quick feet in the hole.


It’s one more way to keep a defense guessing instead of attacking, and to put your players into matchups they can win. Covering has a cost, but a good offense will make it worthwhile, and a good defense will be ready to make them pay.



September 21st, 2016 at 10:11 AM ^

Question that I am unsure of, but can an 'ineligable' receiver catch a ball behind the LOS, like on a screen or a swing pass?  I've got to think that there's enough brain power in the coaches room and enough offenses do this (hell, Borges did it), that the coaches can ID it and teach some quick checks to the D to move formation and coverage to adjust to losing a man to nothing.

Space Coyote

September 21st, 2016 at 11:04 AM ^

Just like you can't ignore OL. In the run game, you have to account for him and the gaps he adds just like anything else. But in the pass game, it's very rare he will catch the ball, even on a screen, because he has to get behind the QB in order to do so (just like the throwback to the OL).


September 21st, 2016 at 2:26 PM ^

I take it that is the nature of the "quick screen" you sometimes see when a QB is under center. Covered receiver immediately starts retreating 4-5 steps at the snap and the QB immediately stands up and fires out slightly behind himself without taking a drop. That brings the covered receiver in play as a receiving threat very quickly while the TE and outside receiver get in blocking position. 

Space Coyote

September 21st, 2016 at 11:01 AM ^

Most will treat him just like an OL.

The standard method of adjusting to unbalanced formations is just to shift the defense. If the TE is covered, that means the tackle on the other side should be treated like a TE (he's not eligible immediately, but he can be if he declares himself such). This then means that, to the defense, the "center" is no longer the center. Instead, the defense will slide over a gap, and treat the guard as the center and align off of that (such that the NT will cover the guard toward the covered TE and treat that guard as if he was the center, and the rest remains the same).

I don't see in the video above how Michigan failed to react to the unbalanced formation. They shifted their formation, they didn't immediately cover the covered TE with a defender. The bigger issue is that McCray needs to slide into the throwing lane and gain depth immediately once he realizes that it isn't run. He doesn't, because he's essentially getting blocked by a TE where it is technically illegal to be blocking down field. Depending on the coverage (and the adjustment to trips), either the outside CB is in lock with no deep help and Hill needs to crash down on the slant faster to take reduce that void, or Clark needs to start cheating playside as Seth indicated to pick up #3 in the event he goes vertical (that slant receiver becomes #3 as soon as the initial slot goes into a bubble route, this switch adds to the confusion for the defense, as does the TE seemingly going into a route, because even if you mentally know he isn't eligible, you often react to the way things normally are).

The unbalanced formation helps the run game similar to what OSU did to OU. If also holds the playside ILB because there is an extra blocker to the strong side. So all these things add to a tough cover. But in the end, it's not really the unbalanced formation that does Michigan in, it's the poor execution of the zone defense. They adjusted to this later in the game by playing more man coverage on first and second down, which reduces the run/pass conflict a lot of defenders have in zone coverage, and takes away these voids (because guys are just in coverage). This is something I expect more of going forward, because this is an areas where Michigan has been prone to busts on early downs  where they are good enough the majority of the time to just play man and win.


September 21st, 2016 at 11:11 AM ^

"If the TE is covered, that means the tackle on the other side should be treated like a TE (he's not eligible immediately, but he can be if he declares himself such)."




A tackle cannot declare himself eligible in college. He has to physically change his jersey number to one outside 50-79.




September 21st, 2016 at 11:20 AM ^

Maybe it's just me but is McCray really getting blocked by the TE?  It almost looks like McCray runs into the TE/TE's space and the TE just extends his arms to get McCray away from him.  I guess it could be considered a block but it doesn't really look like the TE was targeting McCray for a block.

Space Coyote

September 21st, 2016 at 11:26 AM ^

He's releasing down field. His job is essentially to get down field and block (if possible, get to the safety level after the ball is released) to allow for a run after catch. But he extends to McCray and blocks him, which is offensive PA.

Space Coyote

September 21st, 2016 at 2:34 PM ^

So technically it's within the rules. It's also technically why I don't like the college rule, because even if he's at 3.5 yards, it makes it too difficult to call. That's why I like the NFL rule better in this case (in contrast, I like the college rule of allowing blockers to go down field immediately on passes behind the LOS).


September 21st, 2016 at 3:16 PM ^

So McCray could have simply made the mistake of being to close to the line of scrimmage. Had he been running at a 4-5 yard depth then the TE would not have been able to knock him out of position.

LB's getting depth on their drops could be just as much about cutting off angles and lanes as it is avoiding getting blocked.


September 21st, 2016 at 11:27 AM ^

I feel like watching Michigan play more zone/cover 2 this year is like watching the first year they tried to play press man. They rolled it out, got immediately lit up, then dialed it back to what they were more used to doing. Hopefully this year it's more a mental thing that gets cleaned up vs just plain not having guys that are suited to press coverage before. 


September 21st, 2016 at 10:34 AM ^

No he's treated like lineman.

There are several ways to deal with it. What it seems Michigan is doing (but not doing) is setting up in a normal Cov2, which is fine since you're still set up against the run. But when Clark reads it's a pass I think he needs to slam down into the high hole because there's no threat on his side and his buddies could use some help.


September 21st, 2016 at 10:18 AM ^

Is there any rule that prevents you from giving your tackles eligible receiver numbers? Like if your tackle is just always #82 so in the above lineup he is still technically eligible for that one time the defense over adjusts and he leaks out for a pass with nobody over there?


September 21st, 2016 at 10:42 AM ^

my football understanding is at a high school level, but....

why can't Dymonte stay as a force player, and have Clark shift over to the strong side a bunch. since all receivers are on the defense left side, Clark should have been in line with the Center, or even more!

it is clear the bigger threat is to that side anyway. if it ends up being trickeration to the weak side, Clark screams to the right to help Dymonte in case he biffs it.

IMO we have both Clark and Dymonte out of position here, we played 9 v 11.

Space Coyote

September 21st, 2016 at 11:11 AM ^

So you generally tend to have basic rules for how to treat things. In the case of an unbalanced line, you slide everyone over (in this case, the RG is treated as the Center) and play the defense the same. You may include a check to a certain blitz in certain situations, but it will be situational.

In the case of Clark, he can't slide over too far because he still has responsibilities in the run game. He still has a gap he's required to fill to the weakside of the formation. The coverage should treat the 3 eligible receivers to the wide side of the field just like they do trips, and the coverage should be fine. If that involves Clark taking #3 to the field then he needs to come over the top quicker. If it involves Hill crashing down to take away the quick slant (which he needs to be aware of because there is no way Clark can make that play from the far side), then that needs to happen. This is a zone coverage bust because Michigan isn't great at playing zone yet. They haven't played Cover 2 much if at all in their time at Michigan (Durkin and Mattison ran Cover 4 and Cover 6, I don't think they ever ran any varient of Cover 2 besides maybe Mattison in the red zone). So they need to get better at executing their assignments given different circumstances post-snap.


September 21st, 2016 at 11:56 AM ^

I guess that makes sense.  I don't know how accurate Seth's diagram is, but it just looks visually like if Clark was on the right hash, he could still fill the run gaps on the right side of the defense (the gap between G and T appears to be "open", but he could fill any gap from there, and we still have Dymonte for contain.

Those few steps to the left is all Clark needed to stop the pass.  He go tin position after the catch and missed the tackle.  I think if he had a couple steps less he could have closed the window enough to make the QB second guess this throw, but at least stop it from going for so many yards.

Is lining up 3 steps to the left really going to impact his run support that much from the depth he's at?

Space Coyote

September 21st, 2016 at 12:00 PM ^

Lining him closer to the center of the field does a couple things

1) It tips off what you are doing in coverage presnap, which allows CU to get into a better play and take advantage of some of the weaknesses you may have to the weakside of the field.

2) It can have an impact in filling run gaps. Specifically, think of a speed option to the short side of the field. Lining up further inside allows for a better angle to block him. Option off Thomas and get Clark blocked and suddenly it's up to Hill to chase the play down from the backside to prevent a TD.

So three yards one way or another can make a significant difference.


September 21st, 2016 at 7:57 PM ^

I know the QB released the ball quickly so a blitz wouldn't have got home but....

If Thomas has the outside gap for a run (well it'd be an alley if there was a WR out to the left), why not blitz? If Colorado runs outside the tackle he'd be there. If they run away from the tackle, he'd kill any cutbacks immediately and possibly track down the RB sooner. If it's a pass he either gets to the QB or forces the RB to pick him up. If a WR from the right runs across the whole field to his zone then 1) it's a long play and the rush may get to the QB or 2) Clark is sitting behind Thomas anyway. The only issue I could see is if the RB runs past you to your zone but then you can turn and follow. 

It seems to me, if you're the outside contain and have no TE/WR to your side of the field, you should also blitz with the idea of run contain being the first goal. 



September 21st, 2016 at 10:43 AM ^

Isn't Dymonte the force player and therefore has to be on that side specifically to prevent what happened on the Ohio vs OU play? Clark's alignment, on the other hand, I can't figure out. Did he just biff his assignment?


September 21st, 2016 at 10:58 AM ^

because with the camera angle you can't see all 22 players on the field but it looks like Hill has deep coverage on the top of the screen (can't tell if CU's wr who was wide is doing deep pattern down the sideline or a short route on the sideline) and Clark has deep coverage on he bottom of the screen (but there are no wr's on that side of the field).

Space Coyote

September 21st, 2016 at 11:15 AM ^

What isn't clear is how Michigan has adjusted to trips. It's clear that Clark has some sort of responsibility to the field side, because he's square with the TE presnap. That likely means he takes #3 if he goes vertical (Stribling takes #1 vertical, Hill takes #2 vertical). #3 and #2 swap with the bubble action, depending on the trips coverage check, Hill likely needs to crash down quicker on this route (#2 isn't a vertical threat and Clark can't get across the formation that fast), but both Hill and Clark can play this better.


September 21st, 2016 at 11:18 AM ^

"A legal formation has four guys in the backfield and seven who must be on the line of scrimmage"


A legal formation has AT LEAST seven guys on the line of scrimmage and NO MORE than four guys in the backfield.


Seven guys on the line of scrimmage and one in the backfield? Legal

11 guys on the line of scrimmage? Legal.


Space Coyote

September 21st, 2016 at 11:35 AM ^

First, you're arguing semantics. For the most part, teams are going to maximize the number of eligible receivers, so they will have 7 guys on the LOS and 4 guys off the LOS. 

Second, he's correct. A legal formation does have 7 guys on the LOS and 4 in the backfield. There are other legal formations, that is one of them. So Seth is correct.

Third, but if you're arguing semantics, the rule is that there may be no more than 4 backs. 6 guys on the LOS and 4 guys off the LOS: legal. 10 guys on the LOS, 1 guy in the backfield: legal. 7 on the LOS, 4 off the LOS: legal. This change was made to make it easier for refs to identify legal vs. illegal formations.


September 21st, 2016 at 11:33 AM ^

A covered player ending up with the ball in his hand by design is so rare that I can not remember the last time I have seen it. The play design would have to be a throwback where you wanted the cover guy to make anther pass.
For instance, a pitch to the rb away from trip wr with one of them covered. Then the covered wr would have to sprint back ten yards and hope no one goes with. The hb stops and heaves it to said wr who now tries to pass to one of the wr on that side who would act like they are blocking to make it look like a screen, then go in a route.
Making yards off a play like this, or an actual screen to a covered guy is so improbable that any action covered guys make in the passing game is in hopes that the defense does not realize he is covered.

Space Coyote

September 21st, 2016 at 11:38 AM ^

Throwback to Long went high. MSU ran it in their spring game a couple years ago. So it happens, but it generally requires a setup and is a longer developing throwback screen and can generally be somewhat covered naturally by the play of the defense (because remember, the guy has to catch a backward thrown ball and he generally isn't the fleatest of foot).