NFL News & Analysis

PFF Rankings: Top-five defenses in man and zone coverage through Week 7

One of the interesting data points we track at PFF is the coverage call for every single pass play. While we track it in a little more detail than simply man and zone, those two buckets represent a pretty clear philosophical coverage distinction. With that in mind, let’s look at the teams around the league who have been the best at each through seven weeks of the regular season.

Man Coverage Ranks

1. New England Patriots

Are we surprised? The Pats are not only the man-heaviest team in the NFL, but they are also by far the best. They’re allowing only 5.1 yards per attempt on man targets so far this season and a 51.0 completion percentage. J.C. Jackson (36.8%), Stephon Gilmore (37.9%) and Jonathan Jones (46.2%) have all allowed sub-50.0 completion percentages against in man so far this season. Their cover-0 blitzes (no deep safeties) – which at 34 snaps they’ve run more than anyone else in the NFL – have resulted in an absurd 12.4 passer rating and -1.355 EPA per play from their opposition.

2. Chicago Bears

Chicago was known more as a zone team under Vic Fangio and has kept that intact so far this season under Chuck Pagano with only about 25% of their snaps being man coverage this year. That doesn’t mean they can’t be damn good when they dial it up. Both of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix’s interceptions this season came as a deep safety in man coverage. The former first-rounder has done his best to earn a bigger contract next offseason.

3. Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens just bolstered their back end last week with the addition of Marcus Peters and it paid off dividends immediately. Peters baited Russell Wilson into a pick-six the way he only could as he bluffed following the slot vertical before jumping the flat while the Ravens played man. 

4. Buffalo Bills

The Bills are another team known for their zone scheme, but they’ve been pretty damn good at sticking with opposing receivers this season, as well. On 59 targets with the Bills in man this year, Buffalo has allowed only 19 first downs. It’s been their linebackers who’ve been doing a good deal of that work, as both Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano have earned 75.0-plus coverage grades in man this season. 

5. New Orleans Saints

When looking at the Saints' man/zone splits, it’s not hard to think they should be playing far more man coverage than they currently are. Unlike the Bears and Bills, they haven’t been known as a zone-heavy team in the past, yet they currently play man at one of the lowest rates in the NFL. Fewer than 25%  of their snaps have been in man by our charting. On those plays, though, they’ve allowed the lowest completion percentage of any defense (44.2%) and the second-lowest EPA per play (-.583). Unsurprisingly, Marshon Lattimore has been a stud in man coverage this season with five forced incompletions and a pick on 17 targets.

Zone Coverage Ranks

1. New England Patriots

With how dominant this defense has been, it really hasn’t mattered what coverage they’ve played. Their numbers in zone are equally as absurd with only a 40.8 passer rating allowed. You can talk about the quarterbacks they’ve faced all you want, but the Pats also have the lowest missed tackle rate in zone coverage of any defense. They’ve missed only four tackles on 48 receptions in zone coverage so far this season. Last time I checked, that doesn’t have much to do with the quarterbacks they’ve faced.

2. San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers' defensive turnaround has been one of the more incredible storylines of the early season. After allowing the ninth-highest EPA per play (.127) in their zone coverages last season, they trail only the Pats this year at -.397. One of the biggest changes has been going from running cover-3 almost on over half their snaps last year to only around a third this season. You can thank the turnarounds from their cornerbacks K’Wuan Williams and Ahkello Witherspoon – both with grades over 80.0-plus in zone coverage this year – for this leap. 

3. New York Jets

No team has a bigger chasm between their zone and man coverages than the Jets this season. They’re one of only seven teams allowing a negative EPA per play in their zone coverages yet have allowed the eighth-highest EPA per play when playing man. Their problem has been the near-even split with which they’ve played both. They’re allowing only 7.1 yards per attempt against their zone coverages this year and a passer rating of 79.7.    

4. Minnesota Vikings

One of the biggest tenets of being a good zone coverage team is limiting yards after the catch. The Vikings personify that, as they’ve allowed a completion percentage against over 70 in zone coverage this year yet still graded very well. One of the biggest reasons why has been the play of linebacker Eric Kendricks. He’s currently the highest-graded zone coverage linebacker in the NFL. On 26 targets in zone coverage this season, only seven have resulted in first downs while he’s forced incompletions on eight others. 

5. Carolina Panthers

Zone coverage has been the Panthers' bread and butter for years now. This year, they’ve ran more plays in zone coverage than any other defense in the NFL, as they lead the league in both quarters (cover-4) and quarter-quarter-half (cover-6) snaps. They also happen to be tied for the most picks in zone coverage of any team in the NFL with six. Maybe surprisingly, their highest-graded zone defender isn’t linebacker Luke Kuechly but rather cornerback Donte Jackson, who’s allowed only 10-of-18 targets for 124 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in zone coverage.

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