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Why Jaguars coverages present a huge test to Sam Darnold

Indianapolis Colts v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Logan Bowles/Getty Images

Man coverage. Zone coverage.

Like every other NFL team, the Jacksonville Jaguars run both man and zone in their defensive system.

What might present a challenge to a rookie quarterback like Sam Darnold is the third type of coverage Jacksonville runs. When reviewing their defense, I noticed the Jaguars mix in pattern matching principles to some of their coverages.

I have heard pattern matching described a number of ways through the years. Some people describe it as a man coverage that morphs into zone after the snap. Others describe it the opposite way, as a zone coverage that morphs into man after the snap. Still others equate it to a matchup zone in basketball where you guard somebody who comes into your zone as though you are playing him man to man.

I think of it this way. Every player in coverage has to read the route combinations. Each defender is assigned a route (or routes) to cover based on where he is lined up and the route combination the offense runs.

Here’s a play from Jacksonville’s Week 1 win against the Giants that shows you some of the advantages of this type of coverage.

Presnap it looks like the Jaguars are aligned in a basic Cover 3 zone.

Many describe the Jaguars as a Cover 3 team frequently since their defensive system was installed under former head coach Gus Bradley. Before he was in Jacksonville, Bradley was defensive coordinator in Seattle as the Legion of Boom’s emerged. The Seahawks were also known as a Cover 3 team.

Offenses beat zone defenses by flooding those zones with receivers. If you put two receivers into the zone of one defender, somebody is going to be open.

A play with a vertical route on the outside and a corner route out of the slot is a Cover 3 beater.

The deep corner at the top of the picture is going to have to go deep with the vertical receiver on the outside. If the guy running the corner route out of the slot goes under that vertical route, he is going to be open. The cornerback will be run out of the play by the vertical route.

But there is a way for the defense to counter it if the coverage is not straight zone. What if that corner at the top of the picture is assigned the vertical route for the outside receiver, and a linebacker is responsible covering a corner route out of the slot?

What appeared to be zone really isn’t, and there isn’t the anticipated open receiver.

At this point you might be asking, “How do you know this wasn’t just man to man? Couldn’t the slot receiver have been the linebacker’s man?

Well, Odell Beckham, Jr. was running a shallow cross on this play. He ended up matching up on linebackers and safeties. Call me crazy, but I don’t think a defense is going to draw up a man to man coverage on Odell against those types of players. Those guys were simply responsible for shallow crossing routes.

Another example came during Jacksonville’s Week 2 win over the Patriots. New England had a slant/flat to the top of the picture.

Even though he is initially lined up on the outside on Rob Gronkowski, Jalen Ramsey (red) is responsible for a flat route, and that is where he has his eyes. When he sees James White running to the flat, he takes off and releases Gronkowski because Barry Church (deep yellow) is responsible for deep routes, while Telvin Smith (shallow yellow) is responsible for shallow routes over the middle like slants.

The coverage morphs depending on the route combination. Had both White and Gronkowski run vertical routes, Rasmey would have been responsible for carrying Gronkowski down the field, while Church would have had White.

This shows one of the big advantages of this type of coverage. Because the coverage assignments changes depending on the route combinations, the defense is always in a position to take away what the offense wants to do. The first play against the Giants is an example. The defense prevented a hole against a zone from opening. This example shows another benefit. The defense will always have something built into the play to prevent being outnumbered down the field such as three verticals against a Cover 2 with a pair of deep defenders or four verticals against three deep defenders playing Cover 3. The first responsibility will always be defending against a vertical deep route.

Just as there are advantages, there also are disadvantages built into these coverages. The first is the complexity. On the plus side, this complexity makes the coverages more difficult for the quarterback to read. But if a concept is complex to the offensive players facing it, it is also going to be complex to the defensive players running it. Defenders have to read routes quickly. A defender’s assignment on any given play can vary wildly depending on the routes the offense calls, and the defender won’t know which assignment is his until after the ball is snapped. One bad read by one defender can lead to a bust in coverage and a big play.

Another problem is familiar to more traditional zone coverage. Since defenders are assigned routes to cover instead of specific receivers, it is easy to run into mismatches such as Odell Beckham, Jr. against a linebacker.

The Jaguars have certain elements built into their defense to combat that.

Take this play. Will Fuller goes into motion. Against a more traditional zone, A.J. Bouye would not follow him. That would leave Fuller against a safety. Wide receiver vs. safety matchups are not good for the defense.

In this instance, however, Bouye does follow Fuller.

This offers the offense the illusion of man to man coverage. Usually when a receiver in motion is followed by a corner, that corner is doing so because he has that receiver in man. What the Jaguars do, however, is shift their safeties. As a result, a safety takes Bouye’s original spot and his original routes. Bouye takes over the assignment of a safety after he follows Fuller in motion and ends up where that safety originally was. He is better equipped to handle this assignment than the safety since a wide receiver is now running those routes after the motion.

On this play, both receivers at the top of the picture run vertical routes so both cornerbacks are responsible for carrying them deep.

After the motion and this initial movement off the snap, it looks like man coverage. It isn’t though. Bouye is positioned deep and to the outside of the receiver because a linebacker is responsible for any route that breaks over the middle.

And there is a safety there to take away a deep middle route like a post.

On the other side of the field is the safety who replaced Bouye to take away a vertical route and a linebacker to undercut anything shallower.

On the first play, you saw a coverage that initially looked like zone and morphed into something resembling man. On this play, it initially looks like man and morphs into something resembling zone.

This isn’t easy for a rookie quarterback to face. Is he facing zone? Is he facing man? The fact the Jaguars also run traditional zone and man coverages adds even more doubt.

These coverages render presnap reads useless because defensive assignments are only determined after the snap once receivers get into their routes. When you add a ferocious four man pass rush as the Jaguars have, it leaves the quarterback little time to decipher a complex coverage, find a window, and make an accurate throw. Adding in that type of pass rush also increases the odds of a big mistake.

Such is Sam Darnold’s dilemma on Sunday.