NFL News & Analysis

Week 7 Man and Zone rates: New England Patriots' puzzling defensive decision

Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields (1) rushes for a touchdown during the first half against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

• After entering Week 7 playing the second-most man coverage in the NFL, the Patriots puzzled by playing their highest zone rate vs the Bears, who had easily their best performance on offense.

• With a rate of nearly 65% in their Week 7 win against the Jaguars, the Giants now lead the NFL in deploying man coverage (51.3%).

4 out of the top 5 man-coverage-style defenses opted for more of a zone scheme against their opponents in Week 7. The 49ers did the opposite, continuing a curious trend across the NFL of playing zone against the Chiefs.

Last updated: Oct. 27, 7:30 p.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 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 7, the league as a whole ran man coverage 30.6% of the time, down from 32.5% last week. Highlighted in this week’s Coverage Update article, here are the teams that ran the most man and zone coverage in Week 7:

Top 3 Man Coverage Rates in Week 7

New York Giants (63.8%)

Green Bay Packers (47.2%)

Jacksonville Jaguars (41.9%)

Top 3 Zone Coverage Rates in Week 7

Houston Texans (96.6%)

Las Vegas Raiders (88.1%)

Seattle Seahawks (86.4%) 

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

The Giants are running more and more man coverage each week, highlighted by this week’s man coverage rate of nearly 65%, which was over 15% more than the next team. They seem to be finding that man coverage is more successful for them, so look to see if they keep running lots of it in future weeks. 

The Seahawks are back to their old ways and have been opting for almost an entirely zone coverage scheme the past 2 weeks. The Los Angeles Chargers put up 23 points on Seattle with a bunch of backup receivers, but the Seahawks were able to hold them off enough to get the win. 

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 29.7% of the time, therefore running zone on 70.3% of plays. From 2019-2021, the average man coverage percent was 33.9%, so the league is running about 4% more zone coverage this season. Below, we can see how each team’s percentage of running man and zone coverage evolves each week. 

4 out of the top 5 man-coverage-style defenses opted for more of a zone scheme against their opponents this week. Of those teams, the most surprising was the Lions, who run a gigantic amount of man coverage normally, but they only ran it a little over 20% of the time against the Dallas Cowboys. They held Dak Prescott and Co. to only 207 passing yards, so it might have been beneficial, but they are going to need their offense to pick up the slack if they want to be competitive. 

The Raiders have been all over the place in their man and zone coverage rates, and they played their highest rate of zone coverage all season. The Bears are another team that entirely switches up their defensive gameplan for the team they are facing. 

The San Francisco 49ers continued the trend and ran a large amount of man coverage against the Kansas City Chiefs, a team that has easily faced the most man coverage this season. The 49ers have played a lot of zone coverage this season, and they changed their whole scheme this week. 

One interesting change came from the Patriots, who played their least amount of man coverage this season in their game against the Chicago Bears. They played almost all of their coverage defenders, from starters to third-string players, and they only had one player who had more than 25 coverage snaps (Devin McCourty, 28). It might have been the better choice to use zone here given the constant change in their rotation, but the Bears are one of the worst teams against man coverage, so they took advantage of the zone coverage run by the Patriots.

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. 

Last week, the Jaguars faced the most man coverage of their season, courtesy of the Giants. It wasn’t much of a change for their productivity — their offense has struggled against both. 

The Raiders played almost exclusively against a zone defense this past week, which was probably the better choice for the Texans’ defense, given that the Raiders have the second-best EPA per play against man coverage in the NFL. However, the Raiders had by far their best game against zone, accumulating over 0.4 EPA per play.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers faced a lot of zone coverage this week after facing a steady amount of man coverage the first 6 weeks. It didn’t really change their offensive productivity in terms of EPA and yards gained, but they were held to just 3 points by the Carolina Panthers. 

Week 8 Predictions and Matchups to Watch

Running the 2nd-most man coverage entering Week 8, the Lions take on a Miami Dolphins team that has faced the least amount of man coverage.

Will the Lions change their normal scheme and run mostly zone?

The Dolphins have the third-highest EPA against man coverage, so it might be beneficial.

The New York Jets are the 4th-worst team against man coverage in terms of EPA, so will the Patriots decide to take advantage after a puzzling choice of running mostly zone against the Bears (who are even worse than the Jets against man coverage)?

 

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