• Unlike the Chiefs, who curiously continue to face the NFL's highest rate of man coverage, the Miami Dolphins offense is facing the third-most zone this season, which can be a testament to their strong WR duo Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle.
• The Texans ran only one play in man coverage in Week 5—the least out of any team this season—as they entirely changed their gameplan in the upset of the Jaguars.
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Last updated: Thurs. Oct. 13, 9:30 a.m.
Estimated reading time: 6 mins
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 and the talent level of the offense it 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. We also will make predictions for teams' 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 5, the league as a whole ran man coverage 31.7% of the time, slightly up from 30.4% last week. Highlighted in this week’s Coverage Update article, here are the teams that ran the most man and zone coverage in Week 5:
Most Man Coverage in Week 5
• Detroit Lions (68%)
• New England Patriots (66%)
• Las Vegas Raiders (64.7%)
Most Zone Coverage in Week 5
• Houston Texans (98%)
• Arizona Cardinals (90.2%)
• New York Jets (87.8%)
Note: From 2019-2021, the league average for running man coverage was 33.9%, and zone was 66.1%.
The Raiders decided to change their usual gameplan and run man coverage more than zone this week against the Kansas City Chiefs, which worked for the first couple of drives, then fell apart as the Chiefs tore apart their defense later in the game. The Chiefs’ offense has proven time and time again that they will destroy man coverage, and it was interesting to see the Raiders use a ton of man in their scheme.
On the other hand, the Texans, Cardinals, and Jets ran almost entirely zone coverage this week. The Texans and Jets were able to contain the opposing offenses extremely well, and the Cardinals were able to perfectly cover over 60% of their defensive snaps against the Philadelphia Eagles.
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 29.4% of the time, therefore running zone on 70.6% of plays. From 2019-2021, the average man coverage percent was 33.9%, so the league is running about 4.5% more zone coverage this season. Below, we can see how each team’s percentage of running man and zone coverage evolves each week.
The Texans ran only one play in man coverage this week, the least out of any team this season. They entirely changed their gameplan against the Jaguars’ offense, and the Jaguars defense also did the same. The Jaguars ran a smaller amount of man coverage through Weeks 1-4, and chose to run almost double that this week. The Tennessee Titans also finally tailored their gameplan to their specific opponent, running a little more zone coverage than they’re used to.
The Seattle Seahawks are learning that both man and zone coverage schemes can’t fix their defensive struggles, but running zone is the safer option. After having a hard time stopping opposing offenses while running almost entirely zone coverage in Weeks 1-3, they tried running a large amount of man coverage the past two weeks, and it worked out even worse for them. Sticking with mostly zone coverage is the safer option for the Seahawks, especially given their young secondary and rookie cornerbacks.
No surprise here, but in the battle of man coverage between the Lions and Patriots (the two teams that have used the most man coverage), both teams used even more man coverage, over 65% of the time. As we suspected, the Lions offense struggled as they haven’t faced a lot of man coverage this season, while the Patriots offense was very familiar with facing man coverage (they faced the 4th most through Week 4).
Man and Zone Rates Each Offense Faced
Teams often base their defensive coverage play calling based on the particular opponent they are facing. Let’s see how often each offense had faced man and zone coverage by the opposing defense, and how it’s differed by week.
After facing extremely high man coverage percentages this past week, the Chiefs and Patriots now occupy the top 2 spots in facing the most man coverage this season. In the Chiefs' case, this is again super surprising. As PFF’s Judah Fortgang and Arjun Menon previously researched, the Chiefs' offensive play style with Patrick Mahomes consistently beats man coverage, so it continues to be baffling why defenses insist on running the most man coverage against them.
Unlike what the Chiefs offense is facing, the Miami Dolphins offense is facing the third-most zone coverage this season, which can be a testament to their strong duo of receivers in Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. Teams are not taking the risk of running man coverage against these receivers, which is the smart decision given how great they are at beating one-on-one coverage.
The New Orleans Saints offense is a weird one. They’ve played with entirely different offensive groupings this year so far and dealt with many injuries to their playmakers. However, both of the games they won were against teams that ran heavy man coverage against them, and they lost the games that were played against mostly zone schemes. Next week, they face a Cincinnati Bengals team that runs man coverage more than the league average, so will the Saints continue the trend?
Week 6 Predictions and Matchups to Watch
Will the Seahawks switch back to the safer zone coverage defense this week against the Cardinals?
• So far, the Cardinals’ offense has done slightly worse (and put up fewer points) against zone defenses, so that scheme for the Seahawks would give them the best shot at containing Kyler Murray and Co.
In what might be the biggest game of the year to far, will the Buffalo Bills continue the trend of running a ton of man coverage against the Chiefs?
• Buffalo, being a primarily zone defense, hasn't run more than 25% man coverage in a game yet, while the Chiefs’ offense has faced an average of more than 40% man coverage. The Bills still have a decent amount of injuries in their secondary, and running zone coverage with their younger players will look to be the safer and more effective option.