The NFL is undoubtedly filled with very smart football coaches. Many of the guys in the league have forgotten more than I know. What I’ve really become interested in is trying to understand why it is that even the best in the business, our very own Bill Belichick, is struggling to hold teams under 30 points per game.
It’s easy to pass this off on the new rules and that the league has put these rules in place to ensure higher scoring, more “fan friendly” games. I do believe there is some validity to this theory. Quarterbacks are basically playing flag football. Receivers can’t get touched anymore. Defenders, in general, are afraid to have an intimidating presence as fines are handed out on a weekly basis.
However, to place the blame squarely on the league, to me, would be ignoring the fact that offensive schemes have simply evolved quicker than defensive scheme.
In accepting this, I believe it might be best to go to the top and look at our New England Patriots and some of the offensive schemes that have given them problems in their man free (single deep safety, man coverage underneath) scheme.
Before we look at the Patriots specifically, I think it’s important to have some baseline understanding of defensive coverage and some of the terminology that I will use in examining the Pats.
To me, coverage trumps everything in defensive schemes. What I mean by this is that the coverage you play determines the type of personnel you have on the field, it determines your run fits, it dictates what your strengths and weaknesses are, and it limits you as to adjustments that can be made to various offensive schemes.
Coverages nowadays can be classified in two different categories. Are they a spot-drop coverage or are they match/man type coverage.
Spot dropping is the old school drop to a zone — keep your eyes on the quarterback and secure your zone.
Match/man coverage puts the defender's eyes on receivers or running backs and they adjust their coverage based on the route progression.
When I initially look at a defense on film the first thing I look at is the contour of the secondary. I want to know whether it’s an odd or even coverage. The safeties dictate this.
This is as simple as the following:
Even coverage = two safeties back deep
Odd coverage = one safety back deep
After I look at the safeties, then I go to the corners. What I want to know is are the corners bailing and playing a quarter? Are they bailing and playing a third? Are they sitting and playing the flat, are they driving to the half field and playing invert two, are they reading Receiver #2 and playing some sort of match/read coverage? Or are they playing man-to-man coverage and go wherever their guy goes?
Offensive coordinators and quarterbacks go through the exact same progression. Offensive plays are called and designed specifically for the coverage that is expected. Every coverage has a weakness. That weakness could be exploited via a run, pass, draw, or screen.
In general here are some of the weaknesses based on a few commonly played coverages:
Cover 2/Tampa 2
Sideline holeshot, middle hole, play-action middle third, flat/corner (AKA Smash Route), run/pass option (RPO).
Versions of four verticals, immediate flat, curl/flat combination, RPO.
Digs, post/dig, immediate flat, option routes, deep clear/outs, RPO.
Crossing routes, pick routes, compressed formations, jet motion, running back matchup routes.
In the run game, how your defense fits is also dictated by the coverage. Every coverage has a force defender. This force defender starts the run support for the defense.
Understanding gap responsibility is critical in recognizing weaknesses.
For example... consider this simple formation, in this example, I am just looking at the box (tackle to tackle area):
With just that look alone, you have six gaps, thus you need six defenders to handle any direct run play in this “box” example.
When you insert an offensive player, you add a gap, thus you need an extra defender.
This part is generally manageable, as long as your defense is designed to relate to offensive players.
The challenge is, how do you want to relate and, oops, ... don’t forget the QB!
Defenses in odd coverage are typically gapped out versus the run. What this means is that the defenders are basically aligned in the gap that they are responsible for. It allows the players to play straight ahead and fast verse the run.
The simplicity of this scheme certainly has its strengths. However, it absolutely has its weaknesses. Unless it’s man free, you have no chance verse an RPO team. The problem with man free is that you are now short-gapped against a QB run! This is predominantly how NFL defenses play. NFL offenses, up until recently, have been relatively generic in the run game and RPO’s didn’t really exist.
The other option is to fit behind or fall back based on flow. This scheme allows you to get your numbers right versus QB run and RPOs. The weakness is that it is not a direct fit, so you can’t be as downhill verse the run. This is largely
how college defenses play. The spread, read-zone and RPO’s have left no choice.
There’s a lot packed into everything above. Let’s take some of it and apply it to a couple examples from the Patriots defense this season so far (BSJ member content and videos):