The Moron’s Guide to Football – Episode 4: Man vs. Zone Defensive Coverages

1. The Basics

This is a topic that has been covered many times by many different sources in the past, but I hope this breakdown will be both more clear, more detailed, and more timely than most of them. It also, of course, will have that absolutely gorgeous purple and gold sheen that the other entries of this series have had.

At its most basic, the difference between man and zone coverage is exactly what it says on the tin: whether the defensive back (DB) is responsible for an opposing player (a man) or a part of the field (a zone). Ted Nguyen over at The Athletic recently wrote a similar piece, and in it he quoted heavily from Dante Bartee, and I think he describes man and zone as succinctly as I’ve seen it put. Man coverage? “You got this man all over the field.” Zone? “Spot drop orientated. You’re going to an area.” That’s it. Now you’re an expert on man vs. zone coverages. Oh, if only it were that easy.

Like many things in the NFL – and football in general – the basic premise is simple, but the way it proliferates and plays out in the league today adds various wrinkles, complications, and often blends the two philosophies together. As Fritz Shurmur puts it in Coaching Team Defense:1 “The simplest, but least effective, way to play zone coverages is to defend areas or spots on the field, with little regard for other factors.” This often leads to gaps between coverage zones or “soft spots” and good QBs and receivers will find them and exploit them all day long. Shurmur elaborates that effectively running a zone scheme means incorporating other factors into each and every play, “such as down and distance; formations, including splits by receivers; and the pass patterns being run, as well as the vertical position of the ball on the field, are all important, specific factors that determine how zone defenses should be played.”

Man coverage is equally complex in its implementation, especially now around the NFL. Again, looking to Shurmur’s book, he writes that “Man-to-man coverage really does require matching athletic ability and skill […] Games, stunts, additional linebackers committed to the rush are all ways that teams that employ man-for-man coverages try to get additional pressure on the quarterback.”

Also, unless you’re Gregg Williams, most teams don’t employ true man coverage, or Cover-0 (meaning there is no safety help) and instead have a safety (or 2 or 3) “over the top,” except in extraordinary situations. That means that even though a play may be predominantly man coverage, the cornerbacks know that there is a safety – or safeties – deep down field who can help if they get beat over the top.

In today’s NFL, no team plays strictly man or zone coverage. In fact, not only do teams often switch back and forth between plays (even on the same drive), but most teams have several plays or packages that use a combination of man and zone. The easiest way to tell the difference? I think Pat Kirwan put it best in his excellent Take Your Eye off the Ball 2.0:2 “It’s easy enough for a fan in the stands or at home to identify which coverage a corner is playing before the ball is even snapped. Just look at the hips of the cornerback: if his ass is toward the sideline, he’s playing zone.”

The reason for this is also quite simple: in man coverage the cornerback (CB) generally tries to force the receiver to the outside of the field, while they try to force them inside in zone coverage. In man coverage CBs will use the sideline essentially as an additional defender and will try to force the receiver to run as close to the boundary as possible, forcing the QB into a difficult or risky throw. In zone, in contrast, the CB is most often responsible for guarding the outside of the field and instead tries to funnel the receiver inside and away from their zone where they’ll be picked up and covered by either a safety or linebacker who have the same goal (make sure the receiver isn’t open while they’re in their zone).

2. The NFL Today

The top 5 defenses in the NFL this year, per Football Outsiders DVOA, were (in order): the Pittsburgh Steelers, the New Orleans Saints, the Washington Football Team, the Los Angeles Rams, and the Tompa Bay Buccaneers. All of these teams rely heavily on zone coverage schemes, but will play man in specific situations (in New Orleans, for example, they trust Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins to play man while the rest of the defense is in a zone coverage scheme). What all these teams have in common is a ferocious front seven, which you can read more about in an earlier piece in this series.

What about shutdown corners? Well, like dominant 3-4 nose tackles, they’re great if you can find one. Standout corners like Lattimore, Jalen Ramsey, and Stephon Gilmore often play man coverage and shadow the opposing team’s best receiver all game, but this practice is fading in popularity, not least because it requires an incredibly talented CB to be effective. If you have a CB with the athletic, technical, and intellectual tools to be a true shutdown corner you usually just let them do that.

As a bit of an aside, this is where the football version of “being on an island” comes from, most notably in reference to Darrelle Revis’s Revis Island. True shutdown corners often follow a receiver one-on-one with no help over the top, stranding them (like on a deserted island), but also, ideally, stranding the receiver with no footballs to catch and no touchdown dances to dance. Corners with these qualities are hard to find, and so fewer and fewer teams rely strictly on the island approach these days, instead mixing up their defensive looks, using feints and stunts, as well as other forms of trickery and zone coverages to confuse opposing QBs and negate their best offensive weapons.

The most common wrinkle that’s being employed widely across the NFL right now is what is called Zone Match. Once more, I’ll let Bartee break it down: “When someone enters my zone, I’m going to take him man-to-man.” What this allows teams to do is have the tighter coverage afforded by man schemes, while not being nearly as risky as true man coverage. There are two other major reasons for the rise in Zone Match coverage around the league. First, even before the recent explosion of pre-snap motions, teams have moved a receiver across the formation before the snap to try and get the defense to show their hand.

Let’s take a look at this Rams play from this past season as an example. Robert Woods comes across the formation here in what is called Jet Motion. Traditionally, a movement like this across the formation would cause the defense to reveal whether they were in a man or zone coverage because if they were in man then a defender would follow the player across the field. This takes the defense’s biggest advantage, uncertainty, away from them before the play has even begun. Playing zone match allows for teams to account for the motion without sending a defender to follow the receiver.

The other reason for the rise of zone match is that teams have just gotten so good at stacking routes, running pick plays, and using the slant to beat zone coverage. Traditional zone coverages could be beat by “overloading the zone” or having multiple receivers run routes into the area being covered by a single CB. This would cause the CB to have to make a decision on who to cover and could create those much sought after numbers mismatches I’m always going on about.

Zone match essentially means that defenders still line up and drop as though they’re playing a traditional zone coverage, but that the zones are able to ebb and flow based on the routes the receivers are running.

Let’s take a look at this play Football Outsiders used in their excellent breakdown of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ nickel blitz. The Steelers predominantly run zone looks out of a “Cover-2 shell” meaning that their base defense usually has 2 defenders over the top in the form of two deep safeties. Before the play the Steelers hint that they’re in a zone coverage simply based on how far off the receivers their defensive backs are playing (and look at those butts, all pointed toward the sideline and all eyes on the QB). But, when the Bengals motion a receiver over to the other side of the formation, the linebacker (I believe it’s Mark Barron, #26) shifts over as if he’s going to drop into coverage. Ryan Finley doesn’t even question it and as soon as the ball is snapped (even before actually), Barron is rushing the QB. Nobody picks him up, Finley is obliterated and that’s a safety.

Minkah Fitzpatrick (#39), who initially lines up behind Barron makes it look like this is a fairly standard 2-deep zone coverage. It’s not, as the plan was for Barron to blitz the whole time – and I honestly think his sell job on following the receiver and lining up like he is going to drop into coverage is one of the best I’ve ever seen – and now instead of playing a deep zone to protect over the top, Fitzpatrick is covering the underneath zone on the wide side of the field while the CB (Joe Haden, #23) is covering the intermediate zone on the same side of the field. This looks like man coverage because Fitzpatrick follows his receiver who runs a quick out route all the way to the boundary and the CB follows his receiver as he runs a drag route into the middle of the field.

Watch closely when the ball is snapped. If the receiver Fitzpatrick is covering at the snap begins to run up field, Fitzpatrick is going to switch receivers with Haden. The CB back pedals at the snap to make sure that he can run with whichever receiver runs farther up field. Neither one runs particularly deep and Haden covers his man into the intermediate zone. Fitzpatrick, likewise, is always going to be responsible for whichever of the two receivers runs the shallower route. Both Haden and Fitzpatrick are excellent players so it looks like they’re glued to their man from the get-go, but if you slow the footage down you can see they don’t break hard on their receiver until after their receiver shows what route they’re running. Perfect example of the zone match concept: whichever receiver runs his route into my zone is my guy.

3. Skol!

This is probably not a surprise to any TVG readers, but the Vikings defense this year was, uh, not great. In their defense (heh), they were absolutely ravaged by injuries this year, and on top of that a lot of the guys who were on the field were playing hurt. The sky is not falling (contrary to what you may have heard on Twitter), but let’s take a look into the abyss that was the Vikings defense this past season before looking at the specific coverages they play.

According to Football Outsiders, the Vikings defense was the 18th ranked defense by DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) in the NFL last year. Even worse, and this backs up the claim that a lot of the issues were caused by injury, in weighted DVOA (which puts more emphasis on games later in the season as injuries piled up) the Vikings were the 24th ranked defense in the league last year.

Looking at the data from Sharp Football Stats makes these numbers look even worse. They rank defences based on how often they allow the opposing team to run a successful play and according to their metrics the Vikings were the worst team in the league this year at stopping the run, allowing successful runs on 60% of their opponent’s running attempts. They also sported the 27th ranked passing defense, allowing their opponents success on over half of their attempted passing plays.

Last year, however, the Vikings had a top-10 defense according to DVOA. So what happened? Well, even before injuries decimated the roster, there was a considerable drain on the defensive side of the ball in terms of established players. Zimmer himself admitted that he miscalculated how effectively the new pieces would slot into the system and replicate the production they lost. Add to that the fact that they lost over 130 games to IR on the defensive side of the ball and it starts to make sense why the Vikings defense took such a nosedive this year. Without the production from their LBs and D-line (largely due to injury), the young corners were put in tough spots and were exploited early and often throughout the season.

Like all NFL teams, Zimmer and the Vikings run a mixture of zone and man. And, as is becoming a very common refrain in these pieces, Zimmers’ defense is built around creating uncertainty for the other team. What this means is that out of their base 4-3 front, they try and make their man and zone coverage schemes look the same to keep the offense guessing. They predominantly run a “Cover-2 shell” (like I discussed with the Steelers above), and they mix up their man, zone, and man-zone hybrid concepts out of that base.

A few years ago, Bill Belichick – who seems like a smart guy, I bet he’ll have success as a coach – had this to say about Zimmer’s defensive philosophy:

“They disguise well, including the linebackers […] all those guys do a good job of blitzing and covering and faking and man, zone- that’s really the scheme that Coach Zimmer runs. They do a good job with it. They’re all part of it.

I’d say that’s one of their real strengths is they give you a bunch of, not so much different looks but different combinations off similar looks. You have to be ready for everybody… sometimes it’s strong side, sometimes it’s weak side, sometimes it’s up the middle, sometimes it’s man, sometimes it’s zone, sometimes it’s blitz zone, sometimes it’s all-out blitz, sometimes it’s just max coverage and they drop everybody off – but off that same look.”

As I mentioned in the Moron’s Guide to Defensive Fronts, the Vikes like to line up their corners in press man-coverage at the line of scrimmage and will often bring in a 3rd CB if the opposing offense brings in a 3rd WR (this is called a nickel defense since the additional CB means there are 5 defensive backs on the field for the defense). Press man-coverage puts a lot of pressure on a CB and few CBs can effectively play true man-on-man coverage for an entire game on their own.

For the Vikes this season, the defensive front, and particularly the linebackers (LBs), were expected to provide a lot of help for the young Vikings corners, but due to injury this never materialized and having their most experienced corners (Mike Hughes and Holton Hill) on IR left the Vikings with 3 rookie CBs (Cameron Dantzler, Jeff Gladney, and Harrison Hand) playing a ton, as well as a third year player in Chris Jones and a second year player in Dylan Mabin. Sophomore CB Kris Boyd would have received more snaps, but he also got injured.

They were simply too raw and inexperienced and by the end of the season you could tell they were playing scared which caused their technique to really, really suffer as a result. I’m not in the habit of trashing players, particularly young players in a tough situation, so I won’t break down their poor technique in detail, but take a look at how Robert Tonyan for the Packers just gets completely lost between zones on this play:

The Vikes are intentionally double-teaming Davante Adams on this play (which is just smart football), but aside from the double-team this should be some version of a zone match look. Nobody ends up taking the deep zone on the near-side of the field, however, and due to a communication error the Vikes end up with 3 players covering Davante Adams and nobody covering Tonyan who is more wide open than any player should ever be in the NFL on this play.

Take a look at Eric Kendricks on this play, who on any given play I’m willing to trust as knowing what the coverage is supposed to be. He watches the receiver in motion and when he goes to the outside Kendricks passes him off to the corner and then covers the intermediate middle part of the field while keeping his eyes on Rodgers the whole time.

After correctly passing off his man, Kendricks backpedals and sees Adams coming towards his zone so he covers the underneath throw to Adams. So far so good. The other Vikes defenders lose their nerve however, and they both think they’ve given Adams too big of a cushion and break on him, rather than correctly covering their zone, which allows Tonyan to waltz into a completely open spot on the field.

Don’t worry, Vikings faithful, I’m not going to leave you on the downer of a completed pass by A-A-Ron “Voldemort” Rodgers.

Despite their struggles this year the Vikes still showed a lot of fight on defense. In the red zone, where the field shrinks and assignments are more clear, the Vikes really stepped up. Their run defense in the red zone, according to Sharp Football Stats, was the 19th ranked in the league (not great, but not dead last!) and their pass defense was the 6th ranked in the league, allowing opponents to complete positive passing plays on only 39% of their attempts in the red zone. To me this indicates that their players can play, but that the game is still too fast and too complex for some of the pieces on defense. Hopefully with another year in the system, and with a lot of their veterans and stalwarts back in the lineup next season, the Vikes can bounce back to a top 10 defense.

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  1. Fritz Shurmer does a really nice job in his books. Those looking for a good overview of defensive football should read Shurmur’s Coaching Team Defense.
  2. Pat Kirwan’s book is excellent. It’s worth the read.