The days of strong safeties lining up receivers over the middle and delivering knockout hits are over. But that’s not the only reason why zone concepts are being replaced by man coverage. The AFC Championship Game is a case study of how NFL defenses are evolving
Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Broncos coach John Fox (as well as Fox’s defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio) have been leading acolytes of zone-based defenses for most of their combined 56 years as either NFL head coaches or coordinators. But over the past two years, both teams have employed predominantly man-based defenses.
The shift is largely a reflection of how they feel about their personnel. Both teams have a true No. 1 cover artist—Aqib Talib in New England and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in Denver (pictured above)—plus a stable of nimble corners who can play either inside or outside. Not to be overlooked, both teams also have athletic linebackers who can cover running backs and tight ends all over the field. But why now?
Before 2012, the Patriots and Broncos employed plenty of traditional zone concepts with personnel similar to what they have now. Their recent uptick in man concepts isn’t unique; it’s a reflection of a league-wide trend that also includes the 49ers and Seahawks. Let’s examine why.
First, it’s important to understand something that most fans—and, believe it or not, even some players—fail to grasp: Almost every zone coverage has matchup principles. Good zone schemes don’t task players with defending a certain area; they task them with defending receivers who enter a certain area. Catches and touchdowns are made by human beings, not slabs of field.
We say more clubs are featuring man-based concepts because defenses don’t have to call man coverage in order to play man coverage. A lot of man-to-man situations derive from zone. Defenses play zone for a variety of reasons, and the ones that become proficient in it operate at a faster tempo and learn to disguise their intentions.
This is one reason we’re seeing more offenses spread out; a way to negate disguises is to widen the defense. Many spread offenses feature quick-strike passes because undisguised coverages allow a quarterback to predetermine where he throws. Quarterbacks are also throwing against isolated defenders, as the widened zones mean larger swaths of field for each man to patrol. Hence, a lot of zone coverages are morphing into man-to-man. Those that don’t get exploited.
Instead of asking defenders to fruitlessly defend an oversize area of field, defenses are copying Seattle’s approach by playing press-man with their corners outside. Or, more often, they’re copying New England and Denver by instituting more straight man-to-man coverages, with a safety patrolling the deep middle. This often leaves one free defender, which the Patriots generally employ as a lurker underneath, while the Broncos use him as a blitzer. (Lately, with its secondary ravaged by injuries to corners Chris Harris, Kayvon Webster and safety Rahim Moore, Denver has gone with more three-man rushes and eight-man coverages, which often allow for zone concepts to be mixed in with the man-to-man, creating a hybrid coverage).
There are other reasons man coverage works in today’s NFL, such as tempo. Offenses are playing faster from snap to snap, on the logic that more plays equals more chances to score (and more chances to establish a game-controlling rhythm and wear down the defense). With less time between snaps, defenses aren’t able to coordinate their spacing and assignments in zone. So they just line up and say, “I’ve got him, you’ve got that guy.” Offenses will keep playing fast because it’s also a great way to simplify things for the quarterback. A defense that doesn’t have enough time to coordinate spacing and assignments also doesn’t have enough time to organize blitzes or feigned pressure packages.
This leads to another reason why man coverage is on the rise. When the defense does have time between snaps—which still occurs frequently against no-huddle, especially on 3rd-and-long—chances are good it will employ some form of exotic pass rush out of an amorphous look. (Football isn’t becoming more sophisticated only on offense.) Most pressure packages require man coverage on the back end because, seeing as how they’re likely to force the quarterback into a quick throw, it’s prudent for defenders to challenge receivers immediately. Quarterbacks are adept at throwing quickly through tight windows, which is yet another reason to replace zone with man.
Then there are the NFL’s new safety measures. One of the greatest advantages of playing zone is that it allows defenders to see all the action unfold in front of them, meaning they can wind up and deliver big hits, especially over the middle. Belichick understood this as well as anyone back when he had strong safety Lawyer Milloy and, later, Rodney Harrison. But a lot of the hits that once made a zone defense so feared now draw a 15-yard penalty.
The downside of man coverage is that it can be exploited with pick routes and crossing patterns. That’s something we’ll see on Sunday afternoon, as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning conduct offenses that have mastered this art. Man coverage can also be vulnerable if your secondary has a conspicuous weak link. The Patriots are devoid of any, but the Broncos have one in 34-year-old Quentin Jammer, who came in last week after starting corner Chris Harris tore his ACL. The ex-Charger floundered against his former team. (It’s hard to say why the significantly more athletic Tony Carter, who in recent years has mostly prospered in extended action off the bench, hasn’t been serving as Denver’s fill-in third corner.)
Injuries in the Broncos’ secondary—and to linebacker Von Miller, which diminishes their pass rush—might actually compel Fox and Del Rio to play more zone on Sunday. That would be a tacit admission that they’re just hoping their defense can survive. After all, the way to thrive is to man up.