If there was only 1 concept that I could teach to help most people become better at Madden 23, it would without a doubt be how to read the defense.
Since reading the defense is rooted in football knowledge, it doesn’t change much between Madden games. You learn it once and you have it forever.
At first, it can be a little complicated and that’s why it is by far our longest video every year. Don’t let that intimidate you though, I promise you that it is worth the watch.
We’ll also go over the concepts shown in the video in more depth using a written breakdown and screenshots below the video and if you have any questions at the end, feel free to leave a comment.
Let’s dive into it!
Welcome to the most comprehensive guide to reading the defense in Madden that you will ever see. The tips and techniques in this guide are taken from our 15 years of running Madden School and our goal with it is to help you become a much better Madden player.
Remember, nothing is perfect and at the highest levels of Madden good players know what information their defense is showing you and can use it against you. That being said, if you really study and follow this guide, it will work against 90%+ of people you play against.
Note: When we talk about beating certain coverages like Cover 2 or Cover 3, that includes all variations of those coverages. That means everything, regardless of whether your opponent has zone depths set or they call a zone blitz with a Cover 2 or Cover 3 shell behind it, or are just using hard flats.
We use a 3 step process for reading defenses.
Step 1: Take Note Of Previous Plays
In most game modes, Madden will tell you what defense your opponent called in the previous play. Take note of this. It is incredibly important. If you don’t know what exactly you are looking for, at the end of every play, you will see something like the screenshot below.
Most people you play will fall into 1 of 3 camps:
- They call the same defensive coverage all game
- They have favorite coverages in specific situations like 1st and 10 or 3rd and long
- The coverage that Madden tells you they called is very different than the actual coverage they have on the field.
The vast majority of your opponents will fall into either category 1 or category 2 and that makes things easy. Even the best Madden players who fall into category 3 have tells and things that they can’t hide but even against these players, it is good to know that you can’t really trust the “previous play” information.
We should be monitoring this information all game as it can and will change. Once you start destroying your opponent’s coverages, they will try to mix it up and start calling defenses they aren’t as comfortable in.
This is such a basic step that can give you so much information but many players overlook it. Now lets dive into the next step.
There are a few terms we should define before we get into the pre-snap process. As you progress through the article, we will often reference these 3 questions, so let’s get on the same page early on.
- How many safeties are deep? 1 or 2?
- How are the cornerbacks’ aligned?
- How much depth do the corners have?
How Many Safeties Deep?
How many safeties are deep is a pretty straightfoward concept, it is generally either 1 or 2.
How Are The CBs Aligned (Horizontally)
How are the cornerbacks’ aligned is the hardest one for beginners to diagnose so we will spend a little more time on it.
Defensive backs will be aligned in 1 of 3 ways: Outside, Inside, or Even. Alignment refers to where they are standing in relation to the wide receiver they are over.
These alignments are often very subtle but once you know what you are looking for, they jump out at you. I’ll use press coverage with every alignment to keep it simple and because we haven’t got to cornerback depth yet.
I’ll first go over the broad overview then we’ll drill down in order to understand alignments better. For most coverages, we’ll want to check the alignment of the outside cornerbacks. In this example we’ll just focus on the outside cornerback on the left side of the screen.
Let’s start with an example of outside alignment.
It can be a bit hard to tell from the zoomed out camera but the cornerbacks over the outside receivers are lined up slightly to the outside shoulder of the receiver he is over.
Next up, we have even alignment.
Notice how in this screenshot the outside cornerbacks are lined up directly to the center of their receivers.
And finally, here is an example of inside alignment.
Again, it can be hard to tell to the untrained eye, but the cornerback over the outside receivers are lined up slightly to the inside should of his receiver. This is an example of inside alignment.
It may be a little bit easier to tell from a zoomed in look, so let’s do that.
Note: We are zooming in on the receiver on the left side of the screen in this example. The receiver is to our quarterback’s left.
You probably won’t be able to zoom in on a receiver like that in an actual game. If you still can’t really tell the difference between the 3 alignments, my suggestion is to temporarily put an outside receiver on a streak route and see where it goes in relation to the cornerback.
I’ll show you what I mean and again don’t pay attention to the cornerback depth just yet, only look at his positioning horizontally.
We hot route either of our outside receivers to a streak route (in this case both). Basically what that does is it draws a straight line from our receiver down the field.
In the screenshot below that the cornerbacks are standing to the outside streak route which means they have outside alignment.
Next, we have an example of even alignment. We’ll see that the straight line goes right between the cornerbacks’ legs.
And then finally we have inside alignment. We’ll see in the screenshot below that the cornerbacks are standing to the inside of the streak routes which mean they have inside alignment.
Once you’ve gathered the information you need, you can reset your play to take your receivers off their streak routes.
This is very subtle stuff but it is incredibly helpful in reading defenses.
How Much Depth Do The Outside CBs Have?
The other tell we want to look for pre-snap is still relate to how the outside cornerbacks line up, but this time we are looking at their depth instead of their horizontal alignment.
This is a much easier and obvious concept. You will generally see the outside cornerbacks line up at 1 of 3 different depths.
- 0-1 yards off the line of scrimmage
- 4-5 yards off the line of scrimmage
- 7-8 yards off the line of scrimmage
This will also give you some ideas of what coverage your opponent is in.
First, here is a look at the 0-1 yards off the line of scrimmage.
Next up, we’ll look at a depth of about 4-5 yards.
And then finally 7-8 yard depth.
Now that we’ve got all the basic’s out of the way, let’s get into it.
Step 2: Pre-Snap Reads
We always start our pre-snap reads starting with the safeties and working our way up.
How Many Safeties Are Deep? (1 or 2 High)
If 1 there is 1 high safety then you can be confident it is either a Cover 3 or Cover 1. Remember, 1 high safety looks like this:
If there are 2 high safeties then theoretically it could be any defense so you go to the next check. Remember, 2 high safties looks like this:
Ask yourself this question:
That person is trying to disguise there defense and you will have to move on to the next checks we’ll get to later.
However, if you are playing against someone who has 1 deep safety on the field when they call Cover 3 or Cover 1, then your opponent isn’t someone who is disguising their defense and you will know they are likely in a Cover 2, Cover 2 Man, or Cover 4 defense.
1 High Safety
Let’s assume you see the 1 high safety look. You can be pretty confident it is either Cover 3 or Cover 1.
Now, for the vast majority of the coverage beaters that we teach, anything that beats Cover 3 will also beat Cover 1 but if you still want to diagnose further, we have 3 techniques that you can use (and I’ll list them in order of effectiveness).
- Check the alignment of the slot corner. If he has even alignment then it is a Cover 1. If he has outside alignment then it is a Cover 3.
- Call or audible to a formation like Gun Trips TE. Are there 3 defensive backs (including safeties) on the side of the 3 wide receivers? If so then it is a Cover 1. If there are only 2 or fewer, it is a Cover 3.
- Use Pre-Snap Motion. This is my least favorite check but it can sometimes be helpful. Does a defensive back follow the receiver in motion to the other side of the field? If so it is a Cover 1, If not it is a Cover 3.
Further Information: Cover 3 Vs. Cover 1
Slot Cornerback Alignment Test
Here is an example of even alignment (for the slot cornerback)
When you see the 1 high safety and the even alignment from the slot cornerback, you can have a pretty good sense that your opponent is in a Cover 1 man defense.
Contract that with the outside alignment that the slot cornerback takes in a Cover 3 Zone defense.
Using a Trips Formation Test
Another way to decipher whether your opponent is in a Cover 3 or Cover 1 defense once you see that 1 high safety is to audible or call a formation like Gun Trips TE.
The screenshots below highlight the difference between how a typical defense will line up in a Cover 1 vs. a Cover 3.
Using this test, in a Cover 1 defense, a defensive back will line up over your inner most slot receiver. Contrast that with a Cover 3.
In a Cover 3 defense, either a linebacker will kick out over your inner most slot receiver or no one will be lined up over him.
The last and probably my least favorite test to diagnose between Cover 3 and Cover 1 defenses is using pre-snap motion and seeing if the defender follows him.
If the defender doesn’t follow him across the formation, it can often be a sign of man to man defense. If the defender doesn’t, it can often be a sign of zone defense.
This is probably the least reliable of the 3 tests but it can help give you more information.
Using these techniques, you should now be able to have a very good idea of whether your opponent is in a Cover 3 or a Cover 1 defense. So now we can move on to what to do if you see 2 high safeties.
2 High Safeties
The alternative to the defense having 1 high safety pre-snap is them having 2 high safeties.
If there are 2 high safeties pre-snap, remember it could still be a cover 3 or cover 1 defense that is disguised but for simplicities sake, for now we will rule those defenses out.
When you see 2 high safeties, it will likely either be a Cover 2 Zone, Cover 2 Man, Or Cover 4. This is especially true if when your opponent calls Cover 3 or Cover 1, you only see 1 high safety. This means your opponent is not disguising his coverages.
All 3 of these coverages: Cover 2 Zone, Cover 2 Man, and Cover 4 have some pretty easy tells regardless of whether or not your opponent is trying to disguise their coverage.
After you have diagnosed the 2 high safeties, the next step in our process is to look to 1 of the 2 outside cornerbacks’ alignment.
Remember from before that defensive back can be lined up in 1 of 3 alignments: Inside, Outside, or Even.
If you are more of a beginner and have trouble diagnosing, you can just put one of your outside receivers on a streak route and see where his route goes in relation to the cornerback.
- In a Cover 2 Zone, the outside cornerbacks will have outside alignment
- In a Cover 2 Man, the outside cornerbacks will have inside alignment
- In a Cover 4, the outside cornerbacks will have even alignment
You should attempt this check as soon as you can because when the defense is in a man to man coverage, they can shift their alignment.
Let’s quickly take a look at screenshots of the different alignments for each of those defenses.
A Cover 2 zone defense has the outside cornerbacks in outside alignment.
A Cover 2 Man defense has the outside cornerbacks in inside alignment.
And in a Cover 4 defense, the outside cornerbacks are in even alignment.
Note: If they are in zone coverage, they can’t shift their alignment so if you see cornerbacks shifting the leverage they have on a receiver before you snap the ball, that’s a pretty good tell that your opponent is in man to man defense.
Another check that you will want to make right when you break the huddle is the depth that the outside cornerbacks have.
It is important to do this as quickly as possible since your opponent can manually press cover or back off coverage which will invalidate this particular check.
If your opponent doesn’t immediately make a change in the first second or so, you can get some really valuable information.
- In a Cover 2 Zone, the outside cornerbacks will have 4-5 yards of depth
- In a Cover 2 Man, the outside cornerbacks will have 0-1 yards of depth
- In a Cover 4, the outside cornerbacks will have 7-8 yards of depth.
This is pretty self explanatory but let’s quickly take a look at the different outside cornerback depths for each coverage.
Note: In a disguised Cover 3 or Cover 1 (via Base Align), the outside cornerbacks will also have 7-8 yards of depth and they will have even alignment (looking very similar to a Cover 4 pre-snap).
Other Common Coverages
While Cover 2 Zone, Cover 3, Cover 4, Cover 2 Man, and Cover 1 will make up the vast majority of any coverage you see, there are a couple others you may see which we will quickly touch on below.
Cover 0 is one of the easiest coverages to diagnose based on how the safeties line up. Both safeties will be about 9-10 yards off the line of scrimmage and lined up over the slot receivers.
Notice how the safeties are lined up very differently than they ususally are in any other defense.
Cover 3 Cloud and Cover 6
Cover 3 Cloud and Cover 6 are typically coverages you see at a much higher level of Madden but they are both common enough to make this guide.
A Cover 3 Cloud and Cover 6 defense both look a little different than any coverage we have described above.
They also look pretty similar to each other pre-snap but there are a few giveaways that you will be able to recognize by looking at both outside cornerback depth and cornerback alignment.
In a Cover 3 Cloud, 1 outside cornerback will have about 7-8 yards of depth, while the other is in press coverage. Both of these corners will have even alignment.
Here is what that looks like:
In a Cover 6, 1 outside cornerback will have 7-8 yards of depth, while the other is backed up about 4-5 yards off the line of scrimmage. The cornerback closer in depth to the line of scrimmage will have outside alignment.
Here is what that looks like:
These are subtle differences but they are dead giveaways to the trained eye.
Now Call The Correct Play
At this point, we’ve covered our first 2 steps in our 3 step process of reading the defense. You should have the vast majority of the information you will need to properly diagnose the coverage.
Using all the information you’ve received from both your opponent’s play call history and the pre-snap giveaways, you should make your best educated guess as to what defense you think your opponent is in.
You will want to call or audible to a play that you know will beat this coverage.
Note: In all of our Coverage Beaters, we have our primary target (usually our big play receiver), a secondary target (in case our opponent user defends our primary target), and our checkdown option (usually a shallow route like a drag) in case we encounter immediate pressure or if our pre-snap educated guess was wrong.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with going to your secondary or checkdown receiving option. The chances that your opponent can consistently fool you with his defensive coverage is incredibly low. Just don’t force anything and you’ll be fine.
That leads us to our final step of reading the defense which is making post snap reads.
Step 3: Post Snap Reads
The best Madden players can fool you with both the “Previous Play Art” as well as in your pre-snap reads. But the way a defense moves after the snap will conclusively tell you what defense they are in and the best part is, it can’t be disguised.
By the time you get to the post snap reads, unfortunately you are stuck with whatever play you’ve already chosen so you’ll either want to quickly confirm that you diagnosed the defense correctly, or realize that you messed up and make the most of a situation that isn’t perfect.
All of your post snap reads should be done within 1 second of you snapping the ball. Taking any more time than that will likely lead you to getting sacked or being late on your throw to a receiver so our process has to be quick.
Safeties First Step
Right when we snap the ball, our eyes are always on the deep safeties. We want to watch their first 1-2 steps. That will give us most of the information we need.
You want to train your eyes to see 1 of 3 different things.
- If both safeties take steps back and toward the sidelines, it is either a Cover 2 Man or Cover 2 Zone
- If 1 safety takes a step toward the middle of the field, it is either a Cover 3 or a Cover 1
- If both safeties take steps directly back but not really toward the sideline, it is a Cover 4 Drop
The .gifs below provide a good reference point for the first steps of each coverage look like from the safeties.
The Cover 4 and Cover 2 can look fairly similiar to each other but notice how in the Cover 4, the first few steps are backwards and not really to the sideline while in a Cover 2, the steps are backward and to the sideline.
Remember, any of the Madden School coverage beaters that beat Cover 3 will also usually beat Cover 1, and the same thing holds true for any play that beats Cover 2 man, will also beat Cover 2 zone.
So you might have enough information at this point to know that the play you called will work but if you need to diagnose it even further, you can move on to the next step.
Are The CBs Facing The QB?/Heading To The Middle
There are 2 tells that we look for.
Cornerbacks in man to man coverage turn their backs to the quarterback so they can watch the receiver they are matched up against.
The screenshot below is an example of man to man coverage.
You can see how the underneath defenders all have their backs turned to the QB and are watching their man.
Cornerbacks in zone will always face the quarterback. The screenshot below is an example of the same play but against zone coverage.
Notice how all of the underneath defenders are facing the quarterback and don’t have their backs turned. That happens when it is zone coverage.
You can put an outside receiver on a shallow in-breaking route like a drag, slant, or in route. If the outside cornerback follows that receiver, you know it is man to man defense.
Here is an example of what that looks like:
If the outside cornerback doesn’t immediately follow the receiver, you know it is zone defense.
Here is an example of what that looks like:
Well there you go, you are now all set to go out and start reading coverages like you are Tom Brady. The next step is to go into practice mode and come up with some plays that beat each coverage, or just go into our Coverage beaters section of Madden School Unlimited where we have done all the work for you.
Questions on reading the defense in Madden 23? Leave a comment below!