In this weeks video we learn about pattern matching zones.
In short, a pattern matching zone is a type of zone defense where the defenders end up in either man or zone coverage depending on the rules of our zone and the combinations of receiver's routes. This kind of zone was specifically invented by Nick Saban while on Bill Belichek's staff on the Browns to help cover 3 combat four verticals. As we learned in the previous video, a normal cover 3 (with 3 deep defenders) has an impossible task defending four vertical receivers. In Saban's pattern matching cover 3, the defenders end up in man against multiple deep routes and the defense will look like cover 1 man against 4 verticals.
What does this have to do with the Bucs? From what it appears, the Bucs like to run a lot of Cover 4 which is usually a pattern matching zone by default.
This is a good image taken from a pretty good blog that explains in much deeper detail the different versions of cover 4. For our concerns, we will look at a version of cover 4 called "mod." Here, the three short defenders play normal zones with some responsibilities to wall off crossers or jam the seams. The four deep defenders will start by reading the receiver lined up in front of them. If their receiver goes deep they have him man-to-man. If the receiver doesn't go deep then the defender will double any other deep routes to his side of the field.
So what are the advantages of cover 4? First off, we have incredible run support from our safeties. By design, this defense gets the safeties heavily involved in run support. Some teams even run cover 4 with both of safeties extremely close to the box. Second, we should never have a receiver uncovered. A normal zone will often get stretched or flooded where there is not enough zones to cover the amount of receivers. In this situation, a defense may leave a receiver unaccounted for and wide open. With a pattern matching zone, this should never really happen because we are man-matching to receivers. Third, cover 4 is inherently strong at not giving up big passes.
The cons? Cover 4 can get abused short with the right route combinations. In addition to that, the Bucs like to play cover 4 with a big cushion to the outside. We have seen plenty of quick passes take advantage of that. Next, while every receiver may be covered it doesn't necessarily mean they are covered tight. There are times where the defense matches into man but does it out of an unfavorable position and the coverage ends up very loose. We often see that on crossing routes or sideline breaking routes. Also, if the offense knows your pattern matching rules then they can guarantee their match-ups.
To the untrained eye, a pattern matching zone can be extremely confusing. You will see combinations of man and zone on the same play and it all looks like a jumbled mess. However, a smart offense will know the match-up rules of the defense and will abuse them. For example, a common play against cover 4 is anchor/mills. On this play, a slot receiver will run a deep-in route just deep enough to grab the safeties responsibility. Remember, the safety takes his slot receiver man to man if he goes deep. The deep-in wants to be just deep enough by rule to get the safety man to man. Then, the wide receiver to the same side will run a post route behind this safety. The result is that the safety jumps the deep-in by rule and the post route gets leverage and separation from the man corner for a big play. Plays like these are devastating to pattern matching zones and they are also why changing and disguising coverages are important.
In summary, the Bucs like to run a decent amount of cover 4. It definitely fits their bend but don't break style. It also fits the defensive personnel a bit better than cover 3. This means that on early downs instead of bringing a safety in the box and playing cover 3 or cover 1 they can still play cover 4 and get good run support from the safeties. The biggest thing missing from this defense is a pass rush. The defense seems to be able to consistently force third downs only for them to be converted with no contest from the pass rush. While I'm not as big of a hater on Mike Smith and his scheme, I believe he hasn't adjusted properly to the lack of pass rush. No secondary can survive the amount of time we give quarterbacks. If you swapped the Buccaneers and Jaguars’s defensive lines the NFL would not be discussing Ramsey and Bouey as the best CB tandem in the league.
So can we draft some guys in the trench now?