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The Perils of Complexity

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at New York Jets Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

It isn’t hard to see where things can go wrong when a defensive playcall is simple. Jets fans last year complained about how vanilla Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich’s scheme was in 2021.

With a new season, the returning players have a year under their respective belts. The Jets also added a number of new players in the offseason. Some are rookies, but many of them are more experienced players. This presumably can help the team make more complex calls on defense.

Complexity has its own issues, though, as Devin Duvernay’s second touchdown on Sunday shows.

The Jets ran a version of pattern matching coverage on the play.

What is pattern matching? It’s not quite man. It’s not quite zone. It’s a combination of the two. For the most part, the player takes the receiver who comes into his zone at the beginning of the play and then covers him man to man for the rest of the play.

It is an attempt to get the best of both worlds. In man coverage, a defender can be taken out of position by motion presnap or by traffic immediately after the snap. In zone coverage, a defense is vulnerable to a numbers game if the offense sends three receivers into two zones. Pattern matching helps to avoid these pitfalls.

The receiver each defender is assigned depends on the combination of routes.

Now let’s go to the play. I will begin with the caveat that I was not in the huddle so this is my best guess. Even if I am wrong about a few specifics, the general concepts I mention here apply.

Perhaps the most important aspect of pattern matching is that it allows the defense to match up against four vertical routes no matter the alignment. If four receivers run deep, the outside corners take the outside receiver. The safeties on the inside take the inside receivers. Defenses usually number the receivers and/or routes based on the side of the field they line up. The outside receivers might be the number one receivers, and the insider receivers might be the number two receivers. Their matchups are reflected in the picture.

Of course the offense might not run four receivers deep. This is a scenario where pattern matching can be really effective. In a pure zone built to defend four deep receivers, the underneath parts of the field are vulnerable.

However, since this defensive playcall only divides the deep part into quarters on a four vertical routes play, it can also protect the short part of the field.

DJ Reed in the red circle would likely have any shallow route to the outside on a play without four verticals. He has the number 1 receiver on the same side of the field in the event there are four verticals.

The teal circle has the second shallow receiver from the outside on Reed’s side (or the third receiver from the outside on the other side if the offense loads the other side of the field).

The purple circle has the further outside route receiver on his side, and the yellow circle has the second receiver from the outside.

And if there is no outside breaking route to his side, Reed can just play man coverage against the guy he is lined up against at the snap.

This is what happens. The Ravens load the other side of the field with receivers. The guy lined up against Reed breaks inside at the snap, and DJ follows him.

You’ll see Reed continue to follow his guy. I also noted the purple circle defender taking the shallow outside receiver and the two safeties who still have deep responsibility on the inside.

Reed just doesn’t have great leverage on the play. Remember, he’s responsible to defend deep first and then outside second. He isn’t equipped to handle a crosser so CJ Mosley in the yellow circle is there to help. Reed’s man is now the second furthest outside shallow receiver so he become’s CJ’s (yellow circle) responsibility.

There’s also a crosser who comes to the other side of the formation. With Reed having vacated the side of the field, Quincy Williams (teal circle) is the only defender left to take him.

Mosley and Williams being occupied leaves Mark Andrews open. Lamarcus Joyner, one of the deep safeties needs to drive on him.

However, Duvernay is cutting across the field. With Joyner driving on Andrews, Jordan Whitehead is left alone on Duvernay. He presumably was expecting help from Joyner.

One on one this isn’t the matchup you want.

It’s a touchdown.

Going back to some of our earlier points, being too simple can hurt a defense. But there are pitfalls to being complicated. You might confuse the offense, but you also might confuse your own players. Everybody needs to be on the same page.

And while this type of coverage can bring the best elements of man and zone, sometimes it can bring the worst. You might end up with safety like Whitehead one on one against a wide receiver like Duvernay.

Of course sometimes you just have to tip your hat to the opponent for calling the perfect play and executing it to perfection.