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Summer of Spags: understanding the basics of pattern-matching coverages

The Summer of Spags continues with an introduction to the concepts of pattern-matching coverages

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to another day in the Summer of Spags!

The NFL is constantly evolving. Offensive and defensive coordinators spend the entire year trying to identify trends — and ways to exploit them. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the increasingly more-dominant passing game.

Offenses have figured out ways to carve up static zone defenses through their seams, and ways to beat man coverage through pick plays and exploiting inferior defenders. So as the passing game has become more refined, defenses have turned to zone/man hybrid coverages, which are called pattern-matching coverages.

By taking the beneficial components of man coverage and limiting its exposure to better athletes or rub routes by incorporating some zone techniques, defenses have been able to protect themselves on multiple fronts. Over the last decade, collegiate defenses have adopted pattern-matching coverages, and pro defenses have started to implement them more and more frequently.

The defenses of Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo have been no exception. As he puts it, “If you’re static, you’re dead.”

For those read my piece last summer on Bob Sutton’s pattern-matching Cover 3 looks, some of this may be familiar to you. For those who haven’t, let’s take today to dive into some of the basics of pattern-matching coverages.

The basics

In pattern-matching coverages, it’s important to understand is how the two schemes come together. This happens when defenders read the receiver’s route stem — that is, the first five yards of the route.

Depending on the coverage call, coverage defenders are trained to read specific receivers and react to their route stem according to the coverage rules for that play. Those coverage rules tell the defender if they’re in man coverage on a specific receiver, pushing a receiver to a specific zone or bailing to a deep area of the field.

This five-yard route stem — I like the term linebacker depth because it’s more versatile on later downs — determines the majority of how the coverage call will shake out on a given play. For this reason, the coverage defenders must process reads very quickly and correctly and then react immediately upon identifying the route.

This example shows an aspect of this identification — and a quick reaction to it.

With the offense in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers), the defense is in their 4-2-5 nickel. The offense has a 3x1 alignment (three eligible receivers to one side and one eligible receiver to the other), and the defense has split safeties deep.

Off the snap, the two boundary cornerbacks open up in a zone turn and bail to the deep quarter of the field against the vertical routes of the number one wide receivers. The nickel cornerback is the strong apex defender — the first coverage defender inside the boundary cornerback — and he reads the pre-snap number two receiver. That receiver takes an in-step and runs his stem diagonally — inside of the pre-snap number three receiver.

The MIKE has coverage responsibility on the pre-snap number three receiver’s vertical, and the apex helps him carry the receiver to safety depth. Meanwhile, as the pre-snap number two receiver releases underneath, the apex yells an UNDER call, which signifies to the WILL linebacker that the receiver is coming across to his side of the formation. The WILL picks up the receiver and helps take away a potential throw.

This initial recognition, reaction and communication help to shut down a route concept that would have had a speedy wide receiver with space run underneath. In man coverage, the apex defender could have been trailing the number two receiver all the way across the field. In a static zone coverage, the number three receiver could have found the seam where the MIKE, apex and safety couldn’t get to the ball.

While many are worried about the coverage abilities of Chiefs linebackers after 2018, these match zone schemes offer some help from some better coverage defenders. Even though the WILL linebacker — who would likely be Darron Lee or Dorian O’Daniel in this nickel formation — ends up on a wide receiver near the end of the play, he’s not being tasked with it for long enough for the receiver to get the best of him. Well before the point where the linebacker’s coverage skills could become worrisome, the pass rush should be forcing the ball out of the quarterback’s hands — especially in Spagnuolo’s blitz-heavy scheme.

There are a plethora of permutations in pattern-matching.

Nick Saban implements modular calls that separate the field into halves depending on offensive alignment, the quality of receiver, and the health of his own players. Other coaches rely on full-field calls to dictate the secondary coverage, gaining some extra back side help against some route combinations.

No matter what the coaching staff calls, the basic tenets stay the same: read the route stem of the receiver and communicate what you see on the field. It seems basic — and when you break it down, it is. I’ve heard many coaches — including Steve Spagnuolo — tell players, “If you can count to three, you can play this coverage.”

Today is merely an introduction to the basic concepts of pattern-matching coverages. These concepts aren’t that difficult, but I didn’t want it to get lost amongst all the coverage rules and responsibilities we’ll cover in future articles. Those will tie into the techniques that we have covered so far, and help better explain the end goals of Spagnuolo’s scheme.

So stay tuned! We’re going to flip back around quickly and hit 2-read — or Palms coverage — very soon as the Summer of Spags continues!

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