NFL News & Analysis

Week 8 Man and Zone Rates: Rams' unwillingness to adapt has been detrimental

Inglewood, California, USA; San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk (11) runs the ball against the Los Angeles Rams during the second half at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Opposing teams keep taking advantage of the Rams' unwillingness to change their defensive play style, and it’s contributed to the 3-4 record for the reigning Super Bowl champions, who've played the NFL's least man coverage. 

As we expected, the Patriots smartly went back to a man-heavy defense against the New York Jets in Week 9, when New England won its 13th consecutive game over Gang Green.

The Titans run an average of 30% man coverage per game, and the Chiefs face the most man coverage in the league, so Tennessee's gameplan Sunday night will be fascinating as it brings five-game win streak into Arrowhead.

Last updated: Nov. 3, 10:45 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 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 8, the league as a whole ran man coverage 28.1% of the time, down from 30.6% last week. Highlighted in this week’s Coverage Update article, here are the teams that ran the most man and zone coverage in Week 8:

Most Man Coverage in Week 8

Pittsburgh Steelers (63.9%)

New York Giants (58.5%)

Cincinnati Bengals (44%)

Most Zone Coverage in Week 8

Los Angeles Rams (93.1%)

Seattle Seahawks (90%)

Denver Broncos (87.2%)

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

 The Steelers ran the most man coverage this week in their game against the Philadelphia Eagles, an interesting choice given that A.J. Brown consistently beat their one-on-one defender, scoring 3 touchdowns in the process. The Giants chose to run a lot of man coverage against the Seahawks, which was surprising given that before Week 8, the Seahawks were the No. 1 team in terms of EPA against man. However, the Giants’ man defenders locked down the Seahawks pass catchers, who averaged -0.44 EPA per play, their second-lowest mark of the season.

The Rams don’t like deploying man coverage at all, and they had yet another game where they ran only zone. Opposing teams keep taking advantage of the Rams' unwillingness to change their defensive play style, and it’s contributed to the 3-4 record for the reigning Super Bowl champions. 

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 Detroit Lions have tried changing up their defensive game plan the past 2 weeks, running a lot of zone coverage after being a man-heavy team in their first five games. Their coverage players have consistently been beaten in man coverage, so it makes sense why they just fired their defensive backs coach, which was much needed given their poor performances. However, it was the better choice to run more zone coverage against the Miami Dolphins, given they have the third-best offense against man. The Lions, as usual, just couldn’t capitalize.

As we expected, the New England Patriots smartly went back to a man-heavy defense against the New York Jets this past week. The Jets were one of the worst teams against man coverage in previous weeks, and they struggled again against the Patriots.

After running entirely zone schemes in their previous two games, the Houston Texans ran more man in their game against the Tennessee Titans, and their scheme worked great against the weak Titans passing attack with Malik Willis behind center. The Texans' coverage defenders only committed 12 negative grades and allowed Willis to complete only 6 passes. Their run defense, however, is another story. 

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. 

The Las Vegas Raiders faced the most man coverage of their season this past week, about 40%, courtesy of the New Orleans Saints defense. They clearly weren’t prepared for it, unable to get anything going on offense. They averaged a negative EPA per play against both man and zone coverage, the first time that happened this season. It even resulted in Derek Carr‘s benching and ultimately 0 offensive points. With all their offensive weapons, they’re going to need to change something quick if they want any shot of making the playoffs. 

Aside from their game against the Broncos, the Jets have been facing more man coverage each week. Early in the season, rookie wide receiver Garrett Wilson was the highest graded receiver against man coverage, but the Jets’ offense has dropped off significantly since then. However, they might see more zone next week, as the Buffalo Bills have been a zone-heavy defense.

Week 9 Predictions and Matchups to Watch

Following a season of poor defensive coverage performances, the Lions fired their defensive backs coach, and safeties coach Brian Duker will take over. This week, they take on a Green Bay Packers offense that averages negative EPA per play against both man and zone coverage, so can the Lions’ defense finally get it together? 

Will the Titans run more man coverage against the Kansas City Chiefs this week? The Titans run an average of 30% man coverage per game, and the Chiefs face the most man coverage in the league. This game will be the real test for a Titans team that has won 5 in a row with one of the strongest secondaries lately, so is their coverage unit ready for the challenge?

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