You can use man-to-man pass coverage. I strongly recommend that you do. “Cover 1 man under” actually. That means you have a middle linebacker who watches the quarterback’s eyes and goes to the ball. He's the “1” in “Cover 1.” He has a zone, which is the entire field.

All your other defensive backs and linebackers have a man they stay with. “Man under” means the other defenders under (closer to the line of scrimmage than) the cover 1 guy are in man coverage. If the offense is in a no-back, your middle linebacker will also have a man to cover. Man-to-man pass coverage is simple. No less an expert than former NFL defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger told me he thought that's what youth coaches should use. Indeed, my experience has shown that it works great at the youth level.

Or you can use zone pass coverage, IF YOU'RE OUT OF YOUR FLIPPIN’ MIND!!!

If you use zone, your defenders will stand there like blind men while receivers run past them. You can tell them, “Don’t let anyone get behind you,” all day, every day, and spend fifteen minutes a night working on it all season, but they will still let those receivers run by them until the final game of the season as if you never said a word to them about it and as if they were idiots when it comes to recognizing the damage that is done by a receiver getting behind them and catching a pass. They are mesmerized by the action in the offensive backfield.

If a receiver runs across their zone and into another zone, they will go with him. This guy they can see, unlike receivers running streaks, posts, or corners, who are invisible to youth DBs. It does not matter how many times you tell them not to, or how much time you spend practicing staying in their zone. They behave as if they have been assimilated by The Borg of Star Trek fame. “Receiver beckons me to follow him. I must comply. Resistance is futile. Coaching is futile.” If your opponent puts a guy out wide on each side and has them run to the middle, your DBs will hold a convention in the middle of the field, leaving the side zones unoccupied, on every play.

This is discussed at some length in my flag football book because I used zone there all season in 1998. I did that because there were only nine men on each team and seven were eligible receivers. I wanted more than two to rush. If I had it to do over, I would find a way to use man coverage. Some of my opponents used it to great effect.

A reader of this page told me I was wrong, that zone is appropriate when your defensive backs do not match up athletically with the receivers. That is certainly true at the college and pro levels, and in many high-school situations. But those teams platoon, that is, their defensive backs only practice being defensive backs for the entire practice. They also have excellent athletes and a professional position coach dedicated just to defensive backs. At the youth level, practice time is limited and the best players typically are on offense, defense, and special teams. The typical youth team only spends about 30 to 40 minutes a night on all aspects of defense—stopping various running plays, tackling technique, pursuit angles, etc.—and the defensive-backs position coach on a youth team, if any, is often just a guy who played defensive back or a similar position in high school or college.

When I coached high-school varsity receivers, our defense put in man coverage first. Once, when I wanted my receivers to see zone so they could learn how to find its seams, the defensive coordinator said, “I haven’t taught them zone yet. Ask me again later in the season.” Zone is far harder to teach than man and is arguably impossible to teach if you only get 30 to 40 minutes a night, three nights a week, for all aspects of youth defense.

Here’s an email I received from a visitor to this Web page:

“I wish I would have found your webpage about 2 years ago John. It would have saved me SOOOOOOO MUCH trouble and grief. I coach/qb a 4-on-4 flag football team in Vallejo, CA and the biggest problem I had (still have to an extent) was teaching my guys coverage. They are young and have never played any type of organized football so they are totally inexperienced. I experimented with zone, zone-man, etc. (I have them play strictly man now) and it turned out EXACTLY like you said it would. Reading your take on coverage was so precise I couldn't stop laughing at the fact. Thanks for giving me something to validate what I have been teaching my guys the past few years. I hope to be able to purchase some of your books soon (even the tackle ones) and begin learning from your coaching ideas and experiences. Once again, thanks” Barry Mitchell

One caution: against an option team, man is unsound. Defending against option teams requires zone pass defense, no blitzing (other than zone blitzing which is not a true blitz). Actually, it appears to me that defending against an option team requires 7 in the box and cover 4. That is, either a 5-2 or a 4-3 defense with two safeties and two cornerbacks.

Good luck,
John T. Reed