As defenses adapted through the 90s and offenses began finding more and more success passing the football, zone defenses were forced to evolve to pattern-matching routes. Matching out of zone with six defenders would leave an extra hole player against five receivers. The natural progression from this was the fire-zone, adding a zone defender to an overloaded pressure while accounting for all receivers. Fire-zoning became (and continues to be) a catch-all solution with static pre-snap defensive looks. The only issue would be the ability to retain alignment leverage without giving away your intentions For this reason, fire-zones are largely packaged by field and boundary rather than strength of formation.
So what would be the next step for defenses to get a jump on playing a variety of routes while providing the capability of overloaded pressure? In the perfect world, the defense that could ensure it:
- retained its pre-snap coverage shell (consistent look)
- got the favorable personnel matchup
- was able to generate an overload pressure on the passer
A defense that could do that would be able to hold the chalk last in this new age of offensive football. "Catch Man" or "off-man" coverage means exactly that; the defensive backs catch the route as it develops. Because this 'catch' won't happen until well into the route, the overall defense can assume any shape/structure (1-high / 2-high) it wants without giving many pre-snap clues to the offense. From basic pre-snap zone looks, the defense could be fire-zoning or playing man and very likely will be bringing pressure, but from where?
This ‘answer’ kind of becomes a full-circle evolution, where many successful defenses are returning to a formula that was relied upon 30 years ago. It isn’t surprising that the leaders of catch-man defenses are protégés of the Buddy Ryan school of defense (Gregg Williams, Rex Ryan, Rob Ryan, Dom Capers) of the 80s. Many of the more advanced elements of Buddy Ryan's late 80's-era 46 defenses (catch man, loaded coverage, fire-zones, swipe/thumb coverage, and a reliance on man-free) are what is now en vogue in today's game. This wide array of skill sets also begets a need to include multi-functional personnel on the field, where a 3-man fronts (or less) are preferred (see psycho posts).
In this post, we’ll try to provide some coaching insight into developing the skills for effective catch-man coverage. This concept was admittedly difficult for me to get comfortable with many years ago, as I really believed in the old bump-and-run technique of man coverage. I felt that you had to immediately disrupt routes and out-leverage a receiver before he even began his release. While there are benefits to holding up receiver stems and immediate reroutes, there is limited flexibility in adapting to formations using this technique. The effectiveness of press can be diminished with pre-snap movement from the offense. With catch-man, you can get the best of both worlds because the coverage structure remains consistent, you can effectively play quick and deep passing game, while still disrupting receiver stems.
Added for illustration purposes, this Revis 1-on-1 footage highlights how to leverage a receiver from many different alignments (some off, some press but they all essentially turn into the same type of coverage by the time the receiver makes his break).
With the help of video, I hope to illustrate some of the techniques and methods of leveraging routes from an “off” alignment. The skill sets used for catch-man are also helpful in other coverage (press man / pattern-match) techniques, so using these drills will have carry-over (high ROI) for your secondary. The depth of alignment for the defensive back usually starts at 8 yards. From this depth, a defender could essentially stay put and the receiver would likely make his break in front of the defender. As the player gains more confidence (athletic ability allowing), this pre-snap cushion can be shortened and stemmed in and out of. The beauty of this is that just aligning in the path of a receiver’s stem, the defender has already re-routed the receiver; either the receiver runs over the defender (not conducive to actually running the route) or he is forced to make his break early, declaring how the defender will play the route.
Just like pattern-matching in zone, secondary defenders will play routes based on the drop of the passer, then anticipating route breaks based on a process of elimination. Once the route is identified/confirmed, the defender can jump the interception point or secure the tackle.
Catch-man is best delivered to players by staging teaching into depths of the quarterback drop. Just like pattern-matching, you will get specific routes based on the depth of the drop.
- With quick-step or 3-step (quicks 0-5 yards), a receiver could really only run one of the following routes: Screen, slant, hitch, speed out
- With 5-step routes (intermediate 10-15 yards), the receiver would likely run: out, curl, hook, dig, comeback
- With deeper routes (15+ yards off of 5-7 step drops / sprint out and play-action) you could expect: post, corner, fade wheel
While eyeing the quarterback, the corner will slowly come out of his stance in a crossover step (or backpedal). The key here is for him to remain in control of his body with an arched back with the intent to be able to mirror the receiver perpendicular to the line of scrimmage (inside/outside break under 6 yards). If the receiver stems inside, the corner should laterally step inside to mirror him. Again, it should be stressed that the corner should walk out of his stance, reading the quarterback in slow motion, keeping horizontal leverage on the receiver (mirror him). By using this horizontal leverage, he can easily recognize where the quarterback is going with the ball (based on the angle) and attack the interception point.
If the corners are consistently aligning with 8 yards depth, they will likely see a lot of quick game to attack the cushion. When the receiver breaks under 8 yards, the corner shouldn’t attempt to come underneath the receiver for the interception unless he is certain he can get two hands on the ball. Otherwise, he should look to secure the tackle by coming in low, with arms clubbing up and expanding the receiver’s noose. It should be acknowledged that playing 3-step is difficult. The important thing is that the defender doesn’t give up a double-move or lose the 1-on-1 tackle if the ball is caught. In the event the DB gets beat here, he should cut his loses by collisioning the receiver or actually pulling him down (preventing a sure touchdown).
Once the defender sees the drop is greater than 3-step, he accelerates his pace and immediately snaps to the receiver, keying the inside hip. The defender will then fight for control of the receiver with leverage (either hip-to-hip or at least be at arm’s length). If he loses this control (out-of-phase), the priority is just to catch up to the receiver and never look back. To help against false stepping or getting beat on double-moves, its important to rep receiver jukes, that a cut can only be made when the receiver’s shoulders rise up. Once the DB recognizes the drop is greater than 3-step his thinking is to “slowly absorb the route” and close any air that exists between the receiver and defender. With the accelerated pace of this deeper route, the defender’s concentration should be solely on the receiver’s inside hip. From this point, there is little that differentiates itself from traditional (press) man coverage. The defender should work for total control of the receiver with the progression of “receiver – recognition point (break) – ball”. Only until the receiver is controlled with leverage and the route break is identified, should the defender actually play the ball for the interception. Always finish – play the man, THEN the ball.
Like I said, this will likely be a defensive flavor we’ll see more of in the future and your thoughts and experiences on the matter are certainly welcome. For an added bonus, some more video on leveraging receivers (from a press position, but its all relative). Key points to take note of are the solid base and stuttering of the corner's feet until the receiver truly commits to a release and then the flipping of the hips (and footwork) to maintain the in-phase relationship….