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Stout Assessments: pattern matching coverages

Digging into pattern matching coverages and how they fit in the Chiefs secondary.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I wrote an article detailing the basic coverage shells the Kansas City Chiefs like to use, with some examples on how they were implemented in 2017.

It was pretty basic for some and served as a refresher for others who knew the general responsibilities and looks that each shell provided. In this article, we’re doing quite the opposite by digging deep into something most may know nothing about: pattern matching coverage schemes.

Quite simply, we’re not screwing around this week. Let’s do it:

In the coverage shells post from last week, I purposely found a very vanilla-looking Cover 3 shell to show some of the responsibilities at a very basic level. This week, we’re going to look much closer at what Bob Sutton and the Chiefs actually run most of the time they’re in their Cover 3-zone defense.

But first, some history...

Nick Saban is a football genius. Now the head coach of a dynasty program at the University of Alabama, his football teams are well known for their continued defensive prowess. However, before he got to where he is today, he was the defensive coordinator for the 1991-1994 Cleveland Browns under head coach Bill Belichick.

During this time period, the Browns were under .500, but as the years went along, the defense became quite good, leading to the ‘94 defense giving up the fifth-fewest points in the history of the league (at that point). During that timespan, Saban and Belichick preferred to play a Cover 3 defense (dropping the two outside cornerbacks into a deep zone with a safety in the middle, splitting it into thirds), but it was routinely beaten by the Pittsburgh Steelers by running “out” routes underneath the retreating cornerbacks. As Saban explained:

“So because we could not defend this, we could not play three deep, so when you can’t play zone, what do you do next? You play man (Cover 1), but if their mens are better than your mens, you can’t play Cover 1...We came up with this concept; how we can play Cover 1 and Cover 3 at the same time, so we can do both these things and one thing would complement the other.”

That’s correct, Saban went to the drawing board and created a new pattern-matching technique that took the best aspects of a Cover 1 man defense and combined them with his Cover 3 zone defense. What he came up with is a hybrid defense to try to fill the gaps left behind by each concept, leaving fewer areas of the field for offenses to attack against basic coverage shells.

In today’s game, it’s been wildely adopted and implemented, and Sutton is no stranger to implementing pattern-matching concepts into his coverage defense.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Before getting into some of the details, let’s touch up on some terminology.

When defining roles on the field in the secondary, it’s easier to separate the players into corner, apex and hook classifications to assign rules.

The “corner” is obviously the boundary cornerback on each side. The “apex” will refer to the first coverage defender inside each cornerback. The apex defender can be a slot cornerback, a safety or a linebacker. The “hook” will refer to the second coverage defender inside each cornerback. This is usually a linebacker, but it can be a safety. With these roles, think “outside in” to identify players (corner-apex-hook-hook-apex-corner) when assigning the coverage rules.

Saban typically utilizes two deep safeties and shifts one of them into the box with “rip/liz” coverage calls. These calls are simply in place to define the passing strength of the formation, and therefore which safety (“rip” = right, “liz” = left) will come down into the box as an “eight defender.”

The passing strength will vary depending on formation, hash, personnel, etc., but the point is that a single safety remains deep with another in the box.

Where the safety shifts into the box is dependent on the coverage call, of which there are many different permutations, one of which employed by the Chiefs is referred to as “buzz.” In a “buzz” call, the safety shifting into the box will become a second hook defender, typically sitting in a medium zone, keying off of the running back in coverage, as well as having gap responsibilities against the run.

In a standard rip/liz match call (without a “buzz” designation), the safety shifting into the box will become the apex defender for that side of the defense, with all the coverage responsibilities assigned to that apex position.

Okay, with some terminology out of the way, let’s dig into Saban’s rules and some examples versus a couple different offensive formations, starting with a 2x2 formation:

In a 2x2 formation, there are two receivers to each side of the quarterback in a balanced formation. If a Cover 3 pattern-match coverage scheme is called, their are rules for each player on the field. The cornerbacks are in man coverage against the No. 1 receiver (further outside) unless the receiver breaks inside and short in the first five yards of his route. In that instance, the cornerback will yell, “Under!” to signify to the hook defender that there will be a receiver entering their zone and will drop into a zone in the deep third of the field.

The apex defenders play man coverage on the No. 2 receiver unless the receiver breaks inside and short in the first five yards of their route. Similar to the cornerback, they will yell, “Under!” to signify to the hook defender that there will be a receiver entering their zone. If this occurs, the apex defender then drops into a medium zone toward the boundary, with his eye on any receivers coming out of the backfield to that side.

The hook defenders are really the only true “zone” defenders in this scheme, regardless of the routes ran by the receivers. They have responsibilities for any underneath routes, as identified by the corner or apex defenders. If no underneath routes exist, they are responsible for any receivers coming out of the backfield to their side of the field.

If there are no receivers coming out of the backfield to their side of the field, their job is to drop into a medium zone, protecting deep to front against any later developing crossing routes.

Let’s look at an example and put these rules in place:

Just before the half, it’s third-and-26 for the Houston Texans. The Chiefs are already showing a Cover 3 shell with both corners deep and safety Daniel Sorensen in the box as the weak hook. Both No. 1 receivers run vertical stems outside of the 5-yard buffer, meaning both corners are in man coverage. Both No. 2 receivers run vertical routes outside of the 5-yard buffer as well, meaning both apex players (in this instance, the slot cornerback Philip Gaines and safety Eric Murray) are in man coverage as well.

Derrick Johnson is the strong hook and he initially starts his drop, then closes on the receiver out of the backfield after identifying the verticals for the No. 1 and No. 2 receivers to his side of the field. Sorensen continues his drop, helping underneath with the deep crossing route.

Here’s another example of a pattern-matching scheme, this time out of the Chiefs 3-4 defense. Due to the “rip” call, Sorensen moves into the strong apex role against New York Giants tight end Evan Engram. Steven Nelson is the strong corner. Neither receiver is inside and under, so both the corner and the apex are in man coverage.

As this is the case, the strong hook (Kevin Pierre-Louis) identifies the receiver out of the backfield and closes. On the opposite side of the field, the weak No. 1 receiver is inside and under, so the weak corner calls, “Under!” signifying to the weak hook that there is a receiver headed his way, then drops into a deep third zone. And as for the weak apex, you guessed it—Justin Houston is forced into man coverage against a TE.

So that’s what the Chiefs do when facing a 2x2 formation from the offense, but what about an overloaded 3x1 formation?

Let’s look closer at Saban’s rules before some examples because they’re a little different than they are against 2x2 formations.

The strong corner (to the side with three receivers, naturally) has to bail to the deep third of the field against verticals. He’ll be in man coverage against vertical routes into his zone, with a primary responsibility against the No. 1 receiver verticals.

The strong apex will be in man coverage on the No. 2 for everything not inside and under, like in the 2x2, but unlike the 2x2, if the No. 2 goes under, the strong apex will shift to zone coverage in the flat.

The strong hook will be in man coverage against the No. 3 receiver for everything outside. If the No. 3 is inside, the strong hook will drop into medium zone toward the No. 2 receiver. Meanwhile, the weak hook is responsible for any inside (deep or under) routes from the No. 3 receiver. If there are no inside routes from the No. 3 receiver, the weak hook drops into a medium zone towards the center of the field.

The weak apex is responsible for any receivers out of the backfield to his side of the field. If there are none, the weak apex drops into a medium zone toward the weak No. 1 receiver.

And finally, the weak corner is Man Everywhere He Goes (MEG) against the weak No. 1 receiver. He doesn’t play zone in any scenario vs. a 3x1 formation.

Example time!

The Chiefs are in their 2-3 defense, with Sorensen rotated in the box as the weak apex in a dime linebacker role. Eric Murray will fill the weak hook role, making this a “buzz” call. Darrelle Revis is the weak corner, and is MEG against the weak No. 1 receiver. The running back comes out of the backfield to his side of the field, meaning Sorensen, as the weak apex picks him up in coverage.

Terrance Mitchell, as the strong corner, bails against the No. 1 receiver’s vertical route to the deep third of the field. The offensive players cross off the snap, swapping the No. 2 and No. 3 receivers, and the strong apex (Nelson) and strong hook (Johnson) defenders swap the receivers in a banjo concept (covered earlier this season by yours truly).

The strong apex is man against the (now) No. 2 receiver, as he is neither inside nor under. The strong hook carries the (now) No. 3 receiver to the weak hook on an inside route, and Murray picks him up.

While looking at Saban’s typical rules against this route distribution, it definitely looks like a pattern-matching scheme. However, the coverage responsibilities for this instance would look v-e-r-y similar to that of a Cover 1 Robber scheme with Eric Murray robbing the inside No. 3. That’s one of the reasons why pattern-matching schemes are so difficult for offenses to diagnose and try to beat.

The Chiefs use a ton of Cover 1 looks, so when they are able to throw in hybrid Cover 3 schemes that look like Cover 1, the offense can’t dial up a Cover 3-beater every time they see Cover 3 tendencies and vice-versa. It lends another element of unpredictability for which the offense has to account.

This is not a comprehensive list of rules for every scenario the Chiefs might use pattern-matching coverage schemes against.

It barely scratches the surface of all the permutations that could occur against various personnel and formations. I used the rules that Nick Saban uses, as they have been discussed and coached throughout the years, and are a good way to introduce the concepts. Sutton likely has his own set of rules against specific sets that may or may not align with Saban’s pattern-matching rules.

Pattern-matching coverage schemes really get the best out of the Chiefs preferred man and zone looks without tipping their hand to the offense. The ones highlighted above also stress an eighth defender in the box, making them good against the run as well as the pass, offering even more versatility.

It also requires quite a bit more mental processing of the offensive routes than a standard “man” or “zone” look, where the defender is tasked with a single coverage responsibility.

Next season, be on the lookout for some of these pattern-matching concepts by the Chiefs defense.

When the guy or girl next to you at Arrowhead Stadium is complaining about the simplicity of the coverage call, maybe you can point out some of the elements Sutton is implementing on the field and let him or her know it’s not as basic as it seems.

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