Zone vs Man – What Are the Differences?
When it comes to evaluating corners in the NFL, the conversation often comes around to a guy being limited to zone schemes, or being at his best in man-coverage. That’s easy to say, but too few people ever elaborate on it and explain it any further. We’re all just expected to accept it.
Charles Tillman is one of the league’s best corners in a zone scheme, Darrelle Revis is one of the league’s best playing man-coverage, but what are the differences and why does it make such a big impact on the play of some players?
Guys like Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie or Nnandi Asomugha saw their play fall off a cliff when they were asked to move from one scheme to the other and the same has happened the other way around, too.
The Basic Premise
The difference between zone and man coverage at a very basic level when playing corner is where you have your eyes trained.
In zone schemes, the corner is usually playing the quarterback, watching his eyes for the signs that point to the pass location and using his peripheral vision to locate the threats in his zone and break on the ball accordingly.
In man-coverage schemes, a corner’s eyes are locked on the receiver, playing his movement with the added knowledge of route combinations, tendencies and down and distance to get a feel for what route he is running.
The bottom line is the same, you are trying to prevent the guy you’re covering from catching the ball and ideally pull it in yourself, but the mechanisms and fundamental techniques differ.
This can get a little more complex because most defenses will play a mixture of man and zone and even within certain zone concepts the team will be playing man coverage through that zone – ie you play man to man until that man clears your zone, then peel off and look for a secondary threat while the defender in the next zone picks him up.
So why are certain players scheme-specific?
The Task at Hand
This fundamental difference in approach to coverage is at the root of most of the differences between players best suited for each scheme.
Generally speaking, corners playing zone schemes don’t need the raw speed that their counterparts in man-coverage schemes do. That’s why corners that run a slow 40 before the draft are often referred to as perfect Cover-2 corners. In zone defenses you are rarely asking a corner to run 40 yards with a receiver and if so, you’re usually giving him a head-start in the form of a pre-snap alignment to cover for that.
By contrast, corners playing man coverage are often locked up one-on-one with speedy receivers running downfield and need to be able to match them for pace.
It used to be the case that bigger, stronger corners were automatically lumped into that Cover-2 category because they were usually the slower guys. As it happened that size and strength was a necessary component to that type of scheme anyway – because corners covering the flat often need to pass off the wide receiver and pick up a running back or tight end in the open field coming into their zone.
If you have your eyes toward the quarterback you can see routes develop and react to secondary threats and dump-off passes while a corner playing man coverage will have his back to the ball running with his man and has no hope of ever seeing that danger. The corners in zone schemes need to be able to man up against those bigger ball-carriers and bring them to the ground.
Corners playing man coverage didn’t need to have that size and strength for tackling underneath or against the run, but the Seahawks, among others, have shown that physicality on the outside is still a major plus point even in man coverage. Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis aren’t just the league’s best two corners, but they are two of the most physical and aggressive in coverage.
A ‘Feel’ for the Job
Each player has the strength to be able to aggressively contact receivers all the way through their coverage and disrupt their routes. Even if they aren’t required to be big and strong for tackling, the same attributes have been proven equally desirable in another role. Neither Sherman nor Brandon Browner run blistering 40 times, but if they are physical enough they never allow the receiver enough separation for it to matter. In this sense, the prototype attributes for each type of corner are getting closer together.
Though the physical attributes needed for each scheme may be growing closer, playing in each still requires a different approach to the position, and that is why some players find the transition so tough. Corners playing in man coverage have arguably the simplest task in football – “cover that guy, do not let him catch the football”. Corners playing in zone schemes need to be aware of peripheral threats, route combinations, when to pass a guy off, when to pick another guy up, and when the play has unfolded in a way that skews what the coverage looks like on the chalkboard.
This ‘feel’ for zone coverage is why some players just can’t perform in that scheme. When an offense has deployed a play that breaks the zones called by the defense, smart corners understand when to adjust and how much. They see that there is nothing keeping them underneath in their shallow zone so they can afford to sink and match the vertical that would otherwise be putting the safety in a catch-22 situation. Corners with no feel for zone coverage never make that connection and simply pass the guy off when they reach their regular drop depth, hanging the safety out to dry and blowing the play for the defense.
As different as the two approaches to the game are, they are both firmly ingrained in most NFL playbooks, which is why players like Revis and Sherman can excel at both. The Seahawks mix in man and zone schemes regularly, and Revis, despite being ‘trapped’ in a zone scheme in Tampa last season, was still our top-graded corner overall… just like he had been back in the Revis-Island, man-coverage days of New York.
The next time somebody tells you a player is suitable only for zone coverage, or can only play man – take a closer look at his game and ask yourself if that’s really true.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam