Odds are that if you read a breakdown on pass coverage, you will hear about a defense running either man to man or zone. To oversimplify, man to man requires coverage defenders to defend another man. Zone requires coverage defenders to defend a spot on the field.
Both have their strengths and weaknesses.
In man coverage you know a defender will be assigned to each receiver no matter where that receiver goes on the field. It isn’t easy covering receivers for an entire play, however. Only one of five defenders in coverage needs to fail on his assignment for the results to be catastrophic.
Zone coverage tends to be easier for defenders. It tends to be much easier to cover a small part of the field than to cover another person all over the field. Additionally, with players more evenly dispersed across the field, odds are somebody will be near the play to make a tackle and avert catastrophe even if somebody fails at his assignment and allows a completion. Still you might end up with a bad matchup in zone coverage since players are assigned a part of the field rather than a specific man. When you get a receiver running to the middle of the field into a linebacker’s zone, you might have a problem.
Additionally, offenses might put defenders into an impossible position by sending two defenders into one zone or three defenders into two contiguous zones. In fact, that’s pretty much the goal of play design in the modern passing game.
The NFL is a league where scheme consistently evolves. Offenses figure out something that works. Defenses figure out a way to stop it. Offenses adjust to the defensive adjustments. Defenses adjust further.
Many coverages in the NFL are now more complex than simply man or zone.
Take this play. Dwayne Haskins of Washington looks to his left off the snap. Essentially the Jets defense has designed this coverage to have three defenders against two receivers on this side of the field.
If either receiver breaks inside, Tarrell Basham has him.
If either receiver breaks outside, Bless Austin has the flat.
Marcus Maye is over the top.
This half of the field looks like the Jets are playing what would be a Cover 2.
One of the vulnerabilities of this coverage, however, is when the offense sends two players deep on the same side of the field. This would leave Maye as the lone deep guy against two vertical receivers.
So what the Jets do is build a rule into the coverage. If one receiver on this side of the field goes deep, Maye has him.
If both receivers go deep, Austin continues to cover the outside receiver and follows him deep. It essentially morphs into a man to man coverage for him.
How do I know this isn’t just straight man to man? As always, I can’t say with 100% certainty. Nor can anybody who isn’t actually on the coaching staff or in the huddle. Still there are some signals.
Austin was looking at the inside receiver as the play developed. This is a possible indication that he was reading the route.
If that receiver broke to the sideline, he would be responsible for the coverage. The vertical running outside receiver would then become Maye’s man since Maye had the first deep guy.
Coverages like this are called pattern matching. A defender’s responsibility could look like zone or man. It is only determined after reading the route combination after the snap. It has less danger than playing pure man across the board but utilizes man to man principles in situations where pure zone coverage would be vulnerable.
What are the dangers? Many of the same dangers of man or zone are still present. Sometimes players will be asked to play man to man, which is difficult. Some of the issues with zone are there as well. This makes it impossible to dictate which matchups you get on the play.
The complexity of the coverage is also a double edged sword. On the one hand, the defense can morph its coverage to stop any sort of passing play. On the other hand, when something is more complex for the offense to read it is also more complex for the defensive players to execute.
Defenders need to be able to make quick reads and decisions. They also need to communicate. When they fail to do so, coverages bust.
Take this Ryan Griffin touchdown from the same game.
Three defenders are near Griffin, but nobody covers him.
Young secondaries with inexperienced players are especially prone to breakdowns on calls like this.
As with any concept, there are pros and cons. Football is a complex game and constantly evolving. When it comes to coverage, these days there is more to it than just playing man or zone.