Why some corners can’t play zone coverage

| June 19, 2013

The trash talk had been going all week, but when Roddy White got open deep and hauled in a 47-yard touchdown, leaving Richard Sherman in a heap on the floor as he stumbled late in the play, it boiled over. White got right in Sherman’s face and started jawing as if to say “who’s talking now?” — this was playoff football, baby.

Outside of that play though, Sherman was targeted seven times by the Falcons and they completed just one pass, while he got his hands to three others. But people remember the play where he ate turf as White caught his deep touchdown and conclude that he was shown up, embarrassed by the trash talk coming back to haunt him. That was far from the case. On that play however he was beaten, but why? Was that play even his responsibility at all?

Kam Chancellor, who should have been playing free safety in the middle of the field, had taken himself out of the play by biting on the multiple play fakes, leaving himself late coming across to cut it out. I have seen people suggest that Sherman should be entirely blameless because of Chancellor’s mistake, but that just doesn’t wash given the Cover-3 defense the Seahawks were running on that particular play.

When you watch tape of corners there is a clear divide between those that understand the shifting nature of zone coverages and those that don’t, but rather see them as invisible divisions on the field from which they shouldn’t stray. In this case the ball may well have been caught in Chancellor’s zone, but circumstances dictated it was very much in Sherman’s wheelhouse too, and he knew it.

With only one receiver to his side of the field running a vertical pattern, Sherman had nothing to keep him shallow or out wide. His zone, that on paper was an even deep third of the field, quickly became something else entirely. He essentially began playing man coverage on White with outside leverage, expecting the safety to come over the top and help out. The trouble was that Chancellor wasn’t there, and Sherman had been lulled to sleep by White’s lazy release, faking a run play before breaking into a sprint and getting beyond Sherman.

To his credit, the Seahawks corner recovered well, closed the distance and wasn’t in bad position before White veered across his path late in the route and sent him tumbling to the turf.

He had been beaten, no doubt about that, but simply being in the position he ended up demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of zone concepts that seems completely lost on some corners.

I can tell you know where this is going… Nnamdi Asomugha.

At one stage in his career Asomugha was seen as such a good player that teams gave up testing him. That was made easier by the fact the Raiders would play him at RCB – the side less targeted anyway – and the rest of that secondary was a far more appealing prospect when it came to putting the ball in the air. Nonetheless, I think it’s safe to say that playing in a man-cover scheme Asomugha was a pretty good corner. Whether he ever deserved the Revis comparisons that some people were throwing around is another matter entirely. He appears, however, to have little to no feel for zone coverage, demonstrating a consistent lack of understanding for the subtle differences and changes that zone coverage requires.

This play is similar to the deep touchdown over Sherman in that the safety help Asomugha was expecting went AWOL, and he was hung out to dry to a degree. Where it differs, however, is in how each player reacted. Sherman knew instantly that there was nothing keeping him from sticking to his receiver and that his presence only made the completion harder to make. Asomugha stuck with the route until it was leaving his zone as it was drawn up, and then even though there was nothing to keep him from playing it, he throttled down, looked around for the help that never came, and basically put it down to the mistake of a teammate.

His Eagles tenure was littered with plays like this. Unlike Sherman, Asomugha never seemed to understand how route combinations, formations and coverages could change how his zone would look on paper, or when it was actually beneficial to ignore how it was drawn up and play what he was seeing. In this particular instance he was never likely to be able to make much of a play on a well thrown ball, but on anything less he could have been in position to make a play, rather than giving up because it was no longer in his zone.

As if to prove the point, the next play comes in similar circumstances, but this time the play is made by a player who had no right to be anywhere near it. The Falcons line up with just a single wide out, split to the left. As Matt Bowen pointed out to me on twitter, when he was playing and teams would do that his defenses would break out all kinds of funky coverages to try and take away that single receiver, or at least confuse the quarterback out of targeting him. Oakland looked to bracket Julio Jones, and on the other side of the field they had Tony Gonzalez taken care of over the middle as well.  That left Michael Huff, playing LCB with practically nothing to do on the play.

Instead of switching off and watching the action unfold, he kept gaining depth and looked for work. He recognized the potential of a deep crossing route and his quick thinking and hustle paid off to the tune of an interception that Matt Ryan cannot possibly have been expected to see coming.

Zone coverage might in theory seem like a much easier defense to play than man coverage, because you’re watching the quarterback most of the time, but these plays show there is more to it than that. Corners need to be able to understand route combinations, alignment, and tendencies, and have to learn when zones change from how they’re drawn up on the chalkboard.

It may be physically less challenging at times, but zone schemes can be far more mentally demanding than simply sticking to your receiver like glue and preventing the catch. Some players have that ability to think quickly on their feet and adjust or modify their assignment on the fly, others just don’t.

 

Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam


 

  • Ajit

    Sam – in your opinion – if you could have fluid zone cover corners or great man corners – which is better? Conventional wisdom keeps saying the way to beat great receivers is to jam and play press man.

    • PFFSamMonson

      It depends entirely on your scheme imo. Revis allows you to do so much because he can lock a guy down and follow him all over the field. On the other hand Charles Tillman is an absolute beast of a C2 corner and has had as much success against really elite WRs as anybody, including Revis

  • Mr. Lewis

    Great Article Sam, I think you guys should actually track how often a team/player is in man or zone and have stats behind it, but… that would be pretty difficult i suppose.

    On a side note the Michael Huff interception you displayed was one of 3 INTs that you guys attributed to Matt Ryan targeting Julio Jones for the year, another of the three was from the Arizona game where William Gay picked off a tipped ball, the only problem is that Matt Ryan was targeting Harry Douglas, it’s not a huge issue but it messes up Julio Jones QB rating when the ball is thrown to him a bit.

    • PFFSamMonson

      Good spot, we’ll look at changing that.

      • Mr. Lewis

        Yeah I was actually looking at Roddy White and Julio Jones tape a few weeks ago, I was trying to compare all the interceptions Matt Ryan threw to Julio Jones vs the ones thrown to Roddy White. When I seen that Micheal Huff interception I literally jumped outta my seat because that’s pretty impressive zone awareness for him to come back gain enough depth and rob the deep crosser.

        But this article kind of brings me back to the discussion about Revis vs Sherman. Hey, I really like the idea of one corner that can lock a guy down and follow him all over the field but…. pre-snap it pretty much reveals to the offenses that the defense is in man coverage either Cover 0, cover 1 or 2 man, if (and this is a pretty big if) a team could create mismatches vs the #2 corner or the #3 Corner or especially if they have an All-Pro tight end who is a virtual mismatch vs any linebacker or safety in man coverage than Revis’ talents (Or Asoughma’s) just goes to waste. My main point is I just think when a team plays 90% man coverage all game and the soul purpose is to accommodate the talents of 1 corner it hurts the team more than it helps it.

        When you play a scheme similar to the Seahawks where 1 corner stays on the left side and the other corner on the right side as well as pre-snap the corners are showing off coverage or showing press it could get confusing for an offense, the Bengals also used to do this with Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph back in 09. Then you throw in the fact that the safeties pre-snap show a lot of single high looks as well as some 2 high looks and they’re swapping sides, they’ll sit in single high (8 man front) looks on early downs to stuff the run and the QB doesn’t know if its Cover 1 Press or Cover 3. It just creates confusion for the QB and more things to read post snap. Even in the Seahawks play you diagramed in this article its hard to tell the coverage pre-snap, it kinda looked like Quarters with the safeties both sitting high 12 yards deep or maybe even 2 man the way Brandon Browner is pressed up on Julio Jones like that, I think the pass protection and the multiple play-actions is really what helped Ryan make that read.

        I’m more a fan of how the Bears scheme works where not only do the two safeties swap sides and show different pre-snap looks but also the two Pro Bowl corners will swap sides to create favorable match ups for the defense and then they’ll pretty much play 50/50 man or zone and well….you really don’t have too much advantages as an offense even if you guess right and know the coverage. See when you do stuff like show press pre-snap and drop into deep zones it now only messes up the QB but it messes up WR too, it can throw off a hot read for a blitz or have your WR thinking one thing on an option route and the QB thinking the WR is running a completely different option.

        But .. I’d say about 12-16 teams in the league really don’t have the #2 or #3 options offensively to attack a team like the 09-11 Jets so if Revis is taking away your #1 and they could stuff the opponents run game they’re going to win a lot of football games. And you still do need 2 really good corners to play the 2 schemes I just referenced, that can both play man and zone at a high level, yeah I understand they don’t grow on trees, but when you guys did your Top101 list you really favored guys like Antonio Cromartie and Patrick Peterson for their ability to track a teams #1 and play all that man coverage but I’d rather have a Tim Jennings who can play man and zone equally as well get a whole heap of ints as well as play the run at a high level, Peterson did get a lot of picks too but most of them where incredibly athletic/acrobatic int’s when he was in man coverage and he does play a lot of off man which gives him a better chance of jumping routes unlike Revis, Cromartie and Asoughma who really only want to play press man, but I can’t just ignore the fact that Peterson did give up more TDs than Jennings and had less Ints than Jennings only because he followed around a teams #1 in man coverage all day.

        But back to Sherman vs Revis.. I’d just say I feel better about Sherman’s ability to play in Revis’ scheme: follow a guy all over the field and play 90% man coverage (especially press man), I’m a little shaky about his ability to go in the slot because he’s so tall but we see him dominate right now in man to man whenever the Seahawks call man coverage. And I’m just really not sure how good Revis is in zone coverage because well…he doesn’t do it that often (like Nnamdi in Oakland), I’m not sure he would make that play Michael Huff did vs Julio Jones, see 6 of Sherman’s 8 Ints came while in zone coverage this year, all 3 of Peanut Tillman’s picks (sixes) came in zone coverage (7 of Tim Jennings 9)…. I’ve seen a season in 2010 where Revis and Nnamdi were both first team All-Pro and they combined for 0 interceptions, because they both played press man all game every game and turned their back to the QB….you just make bigger plays when you play more zone coverage and it gives the QB harder reads when you mix up your man and zone. This is how I’d argue Sherman over Revis.

        Just trying to make good conversation, love your site.

        • PFFSamMonson

          Great post. The thing with Revis though is that he allows you to get creative with coverages and do things that aren’t in most people’s playbooks.

          The Jets in the past would run a lot of split coverages. Rather than simply playing C1 or 2-man under they would play man coverage on Revis’ side but then C2 or Quarters the other side of the field with the #2 or #3 options.

          They’ve also had plays where they’ll just Iso Revis entirely on his side of the field playing C0 and run whatever they want on the other side.

          Having a guy like Revis who you can trust to play man on any snap on his own doesn’t force you into playing man across the board, and I think that’s a key thing – in order to maximize the talents of a guy like Revis you need a DC who is prepared to change things elsewhere across the D, warp the defense to take advantage of what he allows you to do, essentially cheat elsewhere in a way you can’t get away with if you have another corner.

          Those split coverages are also a nightmare for QBs to read because they look slightly different from regular coverages given how Revis’ presence and difference shifts things on the field and the regular zones. People aren’t quite where QBs are used to seeing them

          • Mr. Lewis

            Very great points, I’d agree with you in the fact that a really creative DC combined with the talents of a Darrelle Revis could really cause chaos for opposing offenses, there was a play in week 1 of 2012 where the bills came out in a shotgun 3 by 1 set with the trips to the left and Stevie Johnson split to the right by himself with Revis on him, Revis & Cromartie both showed press pre-snap on the outside, Revis was pretty much in cover 0 on his side and the entire rest of the defense was in C2 on the other side, I’m gonna assume Fitzpatrick thought it was 2-man and tried to throw an out route to David Nelson, Cromartie was sitting in a flat zone and took it for six, these kind of plays are possible because Revis makes you look away from your top target and because the Jets play so much man coverage that whenever they run these funky hybrid coverages it throws the QB completely off.

            As a counter argument though I’d say you can’t run these split coverages all game, it’s nice on key third and long downs or maybe you could dial it up against a certain formation they’ve studied all week, but if the whole defense is in Quarters or C2 and 1 guy is in press man it leaves big time seams in the zones. Now of course the Jets don’t play those split coverages all game, i’d argue that they run an insane amount of man coverage on the outside, especially on early downs, which has it’s pro and cons.

            Another counter argument would be that when your corners are playing that much press man and turning their backs to the QB it gives them pretty much zero run defense responsibilities, there was a game early in the 2012 season where Darren Mcfadden ran wild on the Jets, more specifically a play where Cromartie had his back turned running 40 yards downfield chasing a WR and Mcfadden was running behind him with the ball.

            I will say that maybe I’m not giving Revis enough credit as a zone corner though, in that same Jets/Bills game from week 1 Revis made one of the most incredible interceptions I seen all year, the Jets where in Cover 3, pre snap they showed single high so Fitzpatrick’s eyes must have lit up when he dropped back and seen it was actually Cover 3. He thought he could sneak in a deep out route to Stevie Johnson and technically Revis should’ve have been playing a deep zone and been out of position to make a play, but either he gambled the heck out of that route or he was actually in off man the whole time by himself while the rest of the defense was in Cover 3 and made the play, it’s really hard to say how the heck he made that play.

            If you study enough Jets film it feels like literally every single time they play any kind of zone defense it such a curve ball to the opposing offense that the jets generate a big play out of it. Like in Week 1 of the 2011 season when Revis picked off Romo late in the game, they disguised a cover 6 and made it look like a cover zero pre-snap, Romo thought he could fit in a back shoulder to Dez Bryant and Revis was actually in a zone. Classic Rex Ryan disguise there.

            I’m just gonna stay with my belief that as an OC it would be a lot easier on tuesday and wednesday when I’m drawing up my gameplan to work on man beaters all week as opposed to going up against a defense that is so multiple with their coverages you have to draw up play actions and fake WR screens like the Falcons did in the playoffs in hopes of freeing up Roddy White.

            But anyways… who would you say is your Top 5 Zone Coverage corners in football? My list would probably be: Sherman, Peanut, WInfield, Leon Hall & Asante Samuel.

  • Josh Doan

    Great piece. I had to send this to my friend as we had this exact argument about Nnamdi Asomugha. Many big plays last year were play fake deep passes vs. aggressive safeties. I love the chess match when it comes to strategy on this. Curious to see the adjustments by NFL DC’s

  • Not_Wayne_Rooney

    Boning up for the Broncos vs Seahawks Superbowl and found this. Good stuff. I expect the Seahawks cover 3 to work better against the Broncos pick plays than teams, who run more man to man coverage. Still, the key is probably moving Peyton off his launch point combined with successful press coverage. If those two things happen then you’ll see fumbles and interceptions. Big “if”, but running press cover 3 might be your best bet against Peyton.