Hopefully, this will jumpstart me a bit so that I can start fulfilling my obligations to this blog again.
Recently, on this site, as well as on others, the term “match zone” has gained a great deal of currency. There is good reason for this: without question, match zone is the defensive technique in pass coverage that is currently most in vogue throughout all levels of advanced football. No doubt because of the pioneering advances made by Nick Saban, Gary Patterson, and a few others in diagnosing the pattern combinations and route distributions that are the hallmark of every sophisticated passing game, match zone techniques and coverage concepts serve as the foundation of virtually every defensive structure. In a sense, match zone has breathed new life into the 1-Hi looks that for a while looked incapable of handling the vertical threats posed by today’s spread offenses. However, in another sense, and I will be the first to admit that I may be completely wrong here, match zone may simply be today’s Tampa 2, another knot in the tactical and strategic evolution of defensive football.
This will be short piece, and much to my chagrin, one bereft of the ever useful power-point diagrams of my colleagues on this site. My goal in writing is to play a little bit of devil’s advocate, to point out what I view as some structural deficiencies that undergird match zone concepts, and in so doing, suggest that perhaps the old way of defending space is not as antiquated and insufficient as the prevailing defensive orthodoxy of today seems to suggest.
Let’s begin by boiling away the fat of match zone. In layman’s terms, what is match zone? At its core, match zone is a man/quarters concept predicated on upon a 3 on 3 triangle with a linebacker. Now, if we pause to think about it for a second it is not difficult to see from what match zone as both a concept and technique and concept evolved, and here, I’m not simply repeating Brophy’s citation of Saban’s remarks on its historical evolution dating from his days with the Cleveland Browns. Match zone evolved out of the Banjo bracket concepts that dominated college football throughout most of the 1990s. I coached in the then Big 8 when Kansas State was making its rise in football and very well remember the aggressive Banjo concepts they used in the their under-coverage as a way of bracketing and walling off the shallow routes that were then gaining in popularity amongst college offenses. And I think we all know that Banjo is essentially a man technique played within a defined zone: defender plays his man until said man leaves his zone and is then passed off to the adjacent defender.
Match zone builds on banjo by adding a number of additional elements into the mix, the most important two being a hyper-developed concept of pattern reading, or pattern matching to be precise, and the RAT, about whom I will write in a future post. For now, I will focus primarily on pattern matching. I use the term “matching” and not “reading” here not simply to reinforce Saban’s language, but because pattern matching and pattern reading are not interchangeable concepts. To match a pattern, it is necessary to first read the pattern. A defender matches an offensive players route when he diagnoses his intention; he’s then matched on him in what amounts to man-to-man coverage. This here is what I see as the rub about the very term “match zone,” for it’s really a misleading coinage, because what it is in reality is not match zone, but really match-man. What distinguishes match-zone from pure man is the way in which “matching” as a technique is integrated within the schematic structure of the defense as a whole. This is where the pattern reading aspect of match zone comes into play, the aspect that enables it to diagnose threats and cover them not simply with a lone defender, as in pure man, but in coordinated collaboration with another defender whose action’s are predicated upon his ability to read, diagnose, and match the pattern in question.
Now, I think it should be pretty clear where I’m going with this. Because defenders are taught to match the route of the receiver they by default become chasers. In other words, when defenders match a route they are in effect chasing it; defenders thus are not covering space, but rather receivers. This is why I prefer the term match man to that of match zone. The term zone implies space and area; match zone teams do not cover space, but people.
Why am I making a big deal about this? I’m harping on this because I believe that there are some profound structural issues with this concept as a whole, especially versus spread offenses. The first problem should be self evident. Since everybody is chasing in match zone the concept is suspect versus any team that has a QB that can run. A good friend of mine who coached for a long time in the Big 12, a predominantly match zone conference, told me that if Vince Young played today he’d run for over 2,000 yards. I have no reason to doubt him. With the exception of Robert Griffin at Baylor the Big 12 today is quarterbacked by kids who can chuck the ball, but who are not much of a threat with their legs. Today, if I were still coaching, I’d be tempted versus a heavy match zone team to line up in Empty a lot and run a great deal of QB draw, as well as motion a back into the backfield from Empty in order to run zone read, and later Jet.
Another problem with Match Zone is its lack of physicality. How is it possible to blast a receiver if you’re always chasing him?
Now, I’m aware that the RAT, to a degree, functions as the punisher in most match concepts, but RAT is only one player and thus one that can be identified and schemed around. I know this sounds counterintuitive, man teams are rarely ones that punish receivers on a routine basis. Here, I’m drawing on my friends insights regarding the 2006 Colorado defense. CU was a 2 shell team that played a lot of quarters, 2, and Tampa 2. They did nothing fancy except squeeze down zones and tackle extremely well. All one needs to do is to watch their tape against Texas Tech and Kansas. Versus both teams, CU aligned in some type of a two shell or four across look and pretty spot dropped the entire game. What made their spot dropping effective, as opposed to, let’s say, what VaTech did versus Boise State earlier this year, was that CU’s people were dropping and reading at the same time; in a word, they a had a keen sense of what was developing behind them.
I will conclude my remarks with some words as to how I, as Run-N-Shoot guy, would treat match zone. To be totally honest with you, I would rather face a match zone team as a Run-N-Shoot coach than a pattern reading – spot drop team (more on this formulation in my next post). Why? Pure and simple: match zone teams, especially those that are heavy fire zone ones, by and large, always end up, regardless of shell, in a 1 Hi look. I can thus tell my people to disregard the other 6 generic shells we use to categorize coverage and instruct them to focus their attention on attacking the technique of the defender charged with matching them. So, for all intent purposes, match zone takes the thinking out of things for my receivers because for as far as they’re concerned all they’re facing is man.
What is interesting about this, historically speaking, is the fact that match zone as a both a technique and concept reinforces something that John Jenkins spoke about frequently during his days with the USFL Gamblers and later with the Houston Cougars: all zone coverage eventually becomes man at some point or another. Jenkins remark was particularly on point for his own offense, because the Run-N-Shoot is a vertical stem offense, especially his variation of it. Even back in the 1990s Jenkins was teaching his receivers, regardless of coverage, to attack the individual technique of the man against whom they were stemming their route; he was less concerned with the overall scheme of a coverage than with the individual technique of a defender. The explicit goal of every receiver, even versus soft looks was to collapse the cushion and the force the defender to play man. In a way, match zone does this, but in a more economically effective way; for, the receiver does not even have to collapse the technique in order to get the match man technique he desires.