As the legend goes, back in the early 1990s, Bill Belichick and Nick Saban simply could not beat the Pittsburgh Steelers. As head coach and defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns, they had to reinvent the way they approached pass coverage. Now, the coverage principles they started way back then have permeated the entire league. Just about everyone is running some version of what was originally called “pattern matching.” Nick Saban is about to play in another college football championship and Bill Belichick just made the playoffs without Tom Brady. You guessed it, they’re still pattern matching.
There is still some pure zone deployed, and man-to-man coverage has a place in any defense. Pattern matching has taken over, however, because it attempts to get the best of both worlds. That’s unfortunate for laypeople like you and me, however. Match coverages are extraordinarily complicated and difficult to understand if you aren’t steeped in them already, like an NFL player would be.
We have some catching up to do if we want a true understanding of how man-match coverages work. The goal here isn’t to evaluate the merit of these coverages. Rather, it’s to learn how they work on the whole. You may already understand the broad strokes of man-match. In man-match, there are rules that determine who you cover. Once you’ve determined your guy, you cover that guy man-to-man. There are some adjustments from there, but it’s basically man coverage with a flow chart.
That might be all you need to generally keep up with coverages on a play-to-play level. If you want more detail, keep reading, or refer to the following resources which helped me dramatically: The Pass Coverage Glossary by Cameron Soran, the Match Quarters blog run by Coty Alexander (or just buy his book too), and if you’re an auditory learner, you can start to get a sense by studying this clinic from Vikings DB coach Karl Scott’s time at Alabama, or any number of clinics on CoachTube.com.
Learning a football scheme is like learning a new language, as described by so many newly arriving free agents that it’s a cliché. So to start we have to understand some of the vocabulary words. To make it more difficult, not everyone uses the same vocabulary. I’ll default to Cameron Soran’s nomenclature just to make it simple. Part of learning a new language is breaking the habits of your old one. To get an intuitive understanding, it’s easier to just forget things like “will linebacker” and “strong safety,” and just think in oversimplified terms.
The simplest way I know to determine man-match coverages is to divide the play in half. There is the “strong” side of the play, which is where there are more passing threats, and the back side or “weak” side of the play. Determining this is usually simple (are there more receivers on the left side or right side of the ball?). If you ever need a tiebreaker, wide receivers count for more than tight ends and running backs. This isn’t in pre-snap, either, which is the beauty of man-match. If someone crosses the formation, the coverage can switch sides. Note that this is different from rushing strong side and weak side, as it’s about pass catchers, not blockers.
Man-match defenses (and some offenses) label the offensive pass-catchers from outside to in. The outermost receiver is the No. 1, the next receiver in is the No. 2, and so on. Note that this does not distinguish between listed positions, only alignment. So there can be a strong No. 1 or a weak No. 1. The No. 2 can be a slot receiver, an inline tight end, or sometimes a running back.
To oversimplify, let’s divide all defensive coverage players into four types: the Corner, the Apex, the Hook, and the Safety. The outermost player is the Corner, the next in is the Apex, and inside him is the Hook. The Safety lines up behind them. So nickel cornerbacks will often, but not always, be the Apex. Middle linebackers will often be the hook, but not always, so let’s just call it by these names for now.
So here’s a two-high safety look and a one-high safety look with these positions drawn out. For the visual learners out there.
Hopefully, it’s not too complicated so far. Just in case, we’ll focus on the two-high versions today, and save things like Cover 3 match or other single-high coverages for another day. If you can get match-quarters coverages down, you can identify a huge portion of defensive plays called. If you can do that, you can better judge players on how they performed those assignments, knowing what they are and how coaches teach them.
The bad news about man-match coverage is how much memorization is involved. You’re just going to have to memorize some lists of things. But I can at least help you break it into parts. Soran’s Pass Coverage Glossary breaks these split safety coverages down into five categories: Triangle, Box, Backside, Poach, and Full Field. Some quick definitions for those should help you track a lot of the complexities in a given defensive play.
- Triangle: Three-defender coverages, typically deployed against a side of the field with two non-RB threats on it
- Box: Four-defender coverages, typically deployed against a side of the field with three non-RB threats on it
- Backside: Typically deployed with two defenders but not always, these are to be paired with a stronger coverage front-side
- Poach: Coverages that tell the back side safety to help the front side of the coverage (assuming he isn’t suddenly needed back side). Usually, that safety is trying to pick something off. Here’s an example that might make you happy.
- Full Field: Coverages that don’t split the field in half, instead having the front side and back side work in tandem.
“Poach” can also be “solo,” and there are a ton of other variants on the actual vocabulary, but if you can memorize those five categories you are much closer to an intuitive understanding of coverages than you were before. Think of those categories as the chapters to a playbook. Individual coverages are the pages. There are tons of these, which are way too many to memorize and way too many for any team to install.
Within these coverages, there are some common patterns. In a lot of Triangle coverages, for example, the Apex defender will have an instruction like “Wall No. 2.” That means playing man-to-man on the No. 2 receiver using a “Wall coverage technique. Wall coverage means man-to-man coverage except if that player runs a deep route. Then you give him a shove to re-route him and play zone defense in the flat. These defenses are great for teams like the Green Bay Packers that love to throw RPOs to the flat, or if you just don’t trust your Apex defender to cover their weapons vertically.
These instructions are the building blocks that make up a match coverage. Again, there are a ton of them to memorize, but once you do, you can easily navigate what may once have looked like gibberish. Here’s a handful of other such instructions that could make up a given coverage call.
- MEG: “Man Everywhere He Goes.” No adjustments, no reads, just man-to-man coverage.
- MOD: “Man Outside and Deep.” Take anything he does vertically, but if he goes shallow or runs an underneath route, adjust the coverage (we’ll get to those adjustments).
- Hammer: Cover him man-to-man unless he is fast to the flat, then adjust the coverage.
- Feather: Play hesitant off coverage. If anything is in the flat, drive on it, otherwise, turn with your man and play man-man from there.
There are a ton of these, far too many to expect you to memorize. These particular assignments all involve just one potential receiver. You play Hammer on the No. 3 and that’s it, nobody else is involved. Some other instructions involve reading from one player to another. For example, a safety may be instructed to play “2-1 Vertical.” That means they take any deep route from the No. 2. If there isn’t one, take any deep route by the No. 1. If there isn’t either, just play a deep zone.
Players will often be instructed to “match” their assigned receiver, hence the namesake of man-match coverage. That means releasing at the start of the play the way your opponent releases. If he releases inside, you release inside (sometimes called a zone turn, because it looks like zone to an unaware quarterback). If he goes outside, you release outside (a man turn). This might read something like “Match 2-1.” That means to match the No. 2. If he’s blocking, or otherwise uninvolved in the play call, work toward the No. 1.
Got all that? If not, don’t worry so much about the specifics. Just understand that these coverage calls are comprised of different kinds of assignments that work together to cover each other’s bases.
Are we ready to put this all together into a real play call? Hopefully by now you understand the building blocks that comprise a given match coverage. If not, just the understanding that there exist those instructions should expand your understanding of NFL passing defense. You don’t have to memorize every single coverage technique and call and assignment. NFL players don’t even have to do that.
Most teams will take a handful of coverages they think will be good for that week’s game plan and install them over the week. We’ll just go over a couple of examples so you understand how they tend to work. Triangle and Box coverages, the half-field coverages, are the cleanest examples, so we’ll focus there. But understand the rest of the coverage categories run the same style of flowchart-based reading and adjusting.
It should be noted that you can call different half-field coverages on different halves of the field. You can call the same one on both sides too. This is the beauty of man-match. It can dynamically shift over the course of a game and evolve with each offense you face each week. This is how Nick Saban appears to have a perfect counter for everything his CFB opponents throw at him.
So let’s stack one up and see if we can’t understand it. Stubbie is an extremely common Box coverage, meant for the three-receiver side of a 3×1 formation. Here are the four assignments:
- Corner: Play MEG on No. 1 in press
- Apex: Attack the heck out of any screens. If none and the No. 3 runs a quick out, then take that. If neither happens, play man-man on No. 2
- Safety: Read No. 3-No. 2 Vertical. Take any deep route from No. 3, if there is none, help with anything deep from No. 2. If neither, find anything else to help with
- Hook: Take any shallow crosser. If none, play man on No. 3, passing to Safety if he goes deep. If No. 3 runs a quick out, “Wall” No. 2
Got all that? Here’s a visual:
Here’s a video as well. This isn’t the exact same structure, as the Hook, Eric Kendricks, didn’t take the shallow cross, but that’s the sort of tweak that teams can make week-to-week for gameplan purposes.
The true test of all this knowledge is if we can apply it and diagnose an allowed completion. Here’s one from Vikings-Rams two weeks ago. Just focus on the near side players: Patrick Peterson (Corner), Xavier Woods (Safety), and Mackensie Alexander (Apex). Eric Kendricks (Hook) is relating to No. 3, who motions across the formation. We can ignore that side for now.
Since there are only two receivers (post-motion), we know this is a triangle coverage with three defenders over two receivers. Try to figure out what each player in the triangle is doing.
- Patrick Peterson is playing man-to-man against the No. 1 receiver, so that’s probably a MEG assignment. It could have been something else if that receiver ran something other than a deep post, but it ended up as a pure man assignment, so we’ll go with that.
- Mackensie Alexander is playing “Wall” technique. He re-routes the No. 2, Cooper Kupp, on his deep route. He then takes one step toward the running back, who sort of looks like he’s running a screen. Once Alexander realizes that’s not the case, he backs off to make himself useful elsewhere.
- Xavier Woods is on a No. 2 vertical assignment. As Kupp goes deep, Woods tries to play over the top of him. He could be reading No. 2-No. 1 or something else, but since No. 2 is deep, he goes for that.
These three add up to a Bronco assignment, pictured below.
So what went wrong here? McVay’s play design presented some challenges for Vikings players. For one, there’s some ambiguity inherent to match defenses. What counts as a Deep route? Kupp’s wheel route is unambiguously deep, but it’s more of an out-and-up wheel. It looked like an out for a moment, and that would have been shallow. At what point should Alexander have chosen Kupp as a man-to-man assignment?
Further, the play-action structure looked like a screen to begin with. This tricked Alexander and made him choose. Should he take Kupp’s fake out route, which hadn’t revealed itself as a wheel yet, or attack the screen? Alexander’s first instinct was the screen, which was correct. Kupp’s route was ultimately deep, making it Woods’ responsibility. Woods, however, thought Kupp was eliminating himself from the deep part of the field with an out route. That ambiguity got just a step of hesitation out of both Woods and Alexander, giving Matthew Stafford a bucket to throw into.
There is a lot going on in a singular coverage play. Never underestimate just how much there is to think about.
Every coverage has weaknesses. If there were a coverage that covers everything, every team would run it all the time. To cover those weaknesses, there are in-play adjustments the players can make. These are baked into the coverage call, but it’s up to the player to decide to push the button.
For example, take a typical “Cover 5” call. That’s Saban’s term for MEG across the board with two deep safeties, and you probably know it better as Cover 2 Man. That can be weak to a “smash” concept, where the No. 1 runs a quick hitch to keep the Corner shallow, and the No. 2 runs a deep corner against your Apex. That may be Anthony Barr on a corner route on Cooper Kupp, and we don’t want that. If the Corner sees a hitch from the No. 1, he can make a “Smash” call. That means he’ll back off into a deep zone, accounting for the route from No. 2. The Apex drives on the hitch from No. 1, and both players have a leverage advantage and fixing your matchup problem.
Here are some other adjustments, but as always, this is just a quick sampling.
- Under: For underneath routes like shallow crossers. This passes that route off to the man inside of you (usually the Apex picking up the route from the Corner), and you back into a Cover 4 zone assignment.
- Push: For the Hook player to make when the No. 3 (or anyone) is fast to the flat. Instead of trying to chase him down, pass him off to the Apex and rob something underneath (exactly what you rob will vary with the coverage).
- Out: For the Corner to make against #2 receivers that like to run quick outs. The Corner switches to the No. 2, passing the No. 1 off to the Apex. The Safety should be helping with the No. 1 over the top to make that easier.
All of these are only available in certain coverages. If you make an “out” call in a coverage that wasn’t set up to accommodate it, you may bust the whole coverage and leave someone unaccounted for downfield.
Hopefully, this can be something you reference over time to get familiar with NFL man-match coverages. If you want to go deeper, read the books and blogs linked above, they’re well worth your dollar, and some of them are free. Even if you don’t want to memorize all of the variations, you can understand these coverages as a flow chart. Players get individual assignments, those assignments stack into a more comprehensive coverage, and that coverage can be adjusted on the fly as needed as players read and react to the offense.