NFL News & Analysis

Week 4 Man and Zone Rates; Week 5 Coverage Predictions

East Rutherford, NJ, USA; Dallas Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs (7) defends the pass intended for New York Giants wide receiver Sterling Shepard (3) during the first quarter at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Whether to run man coverage or zone coverage is a big decision for each NFL team, and many factors influence their decisions during and in preparation for the game, including the talent level of the defense itself and the talent level of the offense they will be facing. Some teams’ schemes work better with man coverage, while others work better with zone, and PFF’s Arjun Menon and Judah Fortgang analyzed this in a previous article titled “Should NFL teams be playing more man or zone coverage?

Each week, we will detail how teams varied in the use of man and zone coverage, and how it may have differed from their previous week. As we get more data, we will eventually make predictions for each team’s man and zone coverage rates for the next week, and analyze those predictions.

This Week’s Man and Zone Rates

Playing man and zone coverage could depend on the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent the team faces. In Week 4, the league as a whole ran man coverage 30.4% of the time, slightly down from 32.3% last week. Highlighted in this week’s Coverage Update article, here are the teams that ran the most man and zone coverage in Week 4:

Most Man Coverage in Week 4

Miami Dolphins (56.8%) 

New England Patriots (52.6%)

Pittsburgh Steelers (50%)

Most Zone Coverage in Week 4

Dallas Cowboys (87.2%) 

Las Vegas Raiders (86.1%) 

Arizona Cardinals (85%)

Note: From 2019-2021, the league average for running man coverage was 33.9%, and zone was 66.1%.

The Dolphins ran the most man coverage this week, about 57% of the time against the Cincinnati Bengals. They, along with the Patriots, Steelers, and Lions continue to be man-heavy teams through the first four weeks of the season. Of those teams, the Patriots arguably have the strongest duo of cornerbacks in Jonathan Jones and rookie Jack Jones, who are more than capable of covering opposing pass-catchers in man coverage, unlike the Lions cornerbacks.

The Cowboys ran the most zone coverage this week. In fact, they’ve run more and more zone in each game this season. The Raiders and Cardinals mixed up their coverage scheme this week and ran a lot of zone, after running man coverage more than the league average through the first three weeks.

Evolving Defensive Man and Zone Rates

Some teams’ man and zone rates will vary by opponent, while some will stay steady throughout the season. So far, the league as a whole ran man coverage 29% of the time, therefore running zone on 71% of plays. From 2019-2021, the average man coverage percent was 33.9%, so the league is running about 5% more zone coverage this season. Below, we can see how each team’s percentage of running man and zone coverage evolves each week. 

As we expected, the Tennessee Titans kept their gameplan of running around 30% man coverage against the Indianapolis Colts. Each week, they’ve shown they won’t alter their man and zone rates, so look for them to do the same Sunday against the Washington Commanders offense. The Colts, New York Jets, and Los Angeles Rams also have fairly consistent man and zone coverage percentages across the first four weeks. 

On the other hand, some teams changed up their gameplans in Week 4, led by the Raiders, Buffalo Bills, San Francisco 49ers, and Seattle Seahawks. The Raiders ran an average of 40% man coverage the first three weeks, and they tailored their gameplan to the Denver Broncos offense and ran over 85% zone coverage against them. It paid off as they were able to hold off the Broncos enough to get the win.

The Bills, 49ers, and Seahawks were the three teams that ran almost entirely zone coverage through the first three weeks, but they all chose to run a good amount of man coverage this week. They all ended up winning their games, and although the Seahawks couldn’t contain the Detroit Lions offense, the Bills and 49ers were successful. 

Man and Zone Rates Each Offense Faced

Teams often base their defensive coverage play calling on the particular opponent they are facing. Let’s see how often each offense has faced man and zone coverage by the opposing defense, and how it’s differed by week. 

Through four weeks, the Baltimore Ravens offense continues to face the most man coverage. The Bengals faced the most man coverage in Week 4 against Miami — and they arguably had their best offensive showing of the season. Cincinnati's star receivers provided lots of mismatches against the man coverage from the Dolphins defensive backs.

The Atlanta Falcons offense also saw a lot of man coverage for the first time this season. They weren’t able to get much of an offense going, but they did get the win.

The Kansas City Chiefs offense is slowly facing less man coverage, a good decision by NFL defenses unequipped with strong defensive backs to combat the high-flying Chiefs offense. However, despite the Tampa Bay Buccaneers probably doing the right thing by running a lot of zone, they still got obliterated by the Chiefs passing attack.

 Some offenses that haven’t seen much variability from opposing defenses are the Buccaneers and Raiders, who have seen an average amount of man and zone coverage each of the four weeks. In Week 5, they face the Falcons and Chiefs, respectively, and both are teams that have ran an average amount of man and zone coverage, so don’t expect to see any major changes here.

Best and Worst CB Trios in Week 4

The Cardinals-Panthers was an absolute stinker of a game, but both team's cornerbacks played pretty well. Despite all the talk about the Cowboys defense potentially facing regression by not being able to force as many turnovers as last season, their cornerbacks have been performing exceptionally well — especially Trevon Diggs, who’s been one of the best in the league so far this season.

On the flip side, there were some pretty bad performances by the Chicago Bears CB corps missing Jaylon Johnson. Despite facing a pretty banged-up New York Giants WR room, they only perfectly covered 1 play out of the 12 that CB trio were on the field for. Once Xavien Howard left the Bengals game with injury, this absence was immediately felt as the Dolphins failed to cover the Cincinnati Bengals elite WR trio, giving up multiple big plays in the second half.

Week 5 Predictions and Matchups to Watch

• Will the Dolphins continue to run one of the NFL's highest man coverage rates vs. the Jets?

· Rookie WR Garrett Wilson leads the NFL in route success rate against man single coverage this year, per PFF analyst Timo Riske, so let's ee whether the Dolphins opt for a larger zone scheme.

• Will the Patriots defensive backs hold up vs. a Lions offense that has torn apart almost every defense it's faced this year, especially the Seahawks’ man-heavy ‘D' in Week 4?

· The upcoming Lions-Patriots game features the two teams that have run the most man coverage this season. The Patriots’ offense is fairly familiar with facing man coverage this season (fourth-most in NFL), while the Lions’ offense has faced a little more zone.

 

 

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