One of the key factors in utilizing man-to-man coverages is to keep the individual defenders matched up as close as possible from an ability standpoint. It is important that coaches do not ask defenders to cover receivers whose athletic skills are much greater than their own. Not only is such a situation unreasonable, it sets the stage for disaster.
If such a mismatch occurs, the coach has the responsibility to do something to aid the defender.
The first option available to every coach is to increase pressure on the quarterback, which can be accomplished by employing games or stunts or by rushing additional defenders.
Another option is to give the defender coverage help in the way of a free safety or another teammate in double coverage.
It makes no sense for coaches to be aware of coverage mismatches and yet to do nothing about them, thereby exposing their team to the probability of big plays in the passing game.
Adjustments built into a scheme can be an important factor in dealing with mismatches.
For example, when an offensive team lines up in a slot formation, placing both wide receivers on the same side, lining up both cornerbacks to cover them creates the best match-up situation from an athletic ability point of view.
It also forces the inside corner on the slot side to learn how to play the assignment of the strong safety against the run. In addition, it causes the outside player on the other side, the safety, to have to learn to play that cornerback position.
As a result, the decision whether or not to flip the corners depends on the basic pass defense philosophy of a team. Man-to-man teams should flip their corners, but zone teams should not.
Getting pressure on the passer is, indeed, a huge factor in determining success or failure in the utilization of man coverage. Accordingly, a viable option is to use any pass defender who is not needed to cover a specific man as a pass rusher, for example a linebacker without man coverage responsibilities.
Anything that increases the chances of putting pressure on the quarterback decreases the time receivers have to get open.
Another option for a defender who does not have a specific man responsibility is to use him as a free safety. This scenario, of course, is combining the deep middle defender aspect of zone defense with man-for-man defense.
I like this option because it provides some of the same safety features as three-deep zone defenses.
A man-to-man defense with a free safety not only provides tight coverage possibilities of challenging receivers, it offers the security of a free safety to prevent a deep completions down the middle. This factor is especially important when there is a threat of poor match-ups, such as a linebacker covering a fast back or athletic tight end.
If the quarterback reads this coverage and throws deep with no free safety help, it could be a touchdown. With a safety in the middle, even if the receiver beats his man deep, the passer will not throw the ball into free safety coverage.
The other option to employ the defender without specific man coverage is to use him to double cover with another defender on a specific receiver. This option is a good choice, especially when helping linebackers cover receivers who are superior to them from an athletic standpoint.
For example, if an outside linebacker is asked to force on running plays and cover a tight end man-for-man on passing plays, this is an unrealistic set of responsibilities. If, however, he is asked to do these things but is assured double-coverage help by another defender, he has a good chance to execute at a high level.
Another option is to use freed-up defenders to zone off areas of the field or to play a specific short zone in a man coverage. The underlying theory of this strategy is that the zone defender is available to help should a receiver get away from the man covering him. This approach is good in theory but the practicality of it is questionable.
In order for a man-to-man defender to feel that he can count on help, he has to know that it is there, it is constant and that he can count on it.
If this is the case, the man defender can adjust his alignment and modify his techniques accordingly. If, however, the man who is being counted on for help is forced to cover another receiver or misreads the quarterback or pattern, the potential for a big offensive play is great.
Erroneously believing that possible help on a receiver will be provided by another defender is worse than no help at all. Even a defender who is overmatched in man coverage will put all his efforts into the personal challenge the type of coverage demands – if he knows he is alone.
As a coach, mix and match all three elements to help your defenders in man coverage.
Play with a free safety to put someone in center field, someone available to both help and be there for a potential interception on overthrows.
Rush with additional linebackers to pressure the quarterback into mistakes. Combining this with change-ups that involve doubling specific receivers with freed-up cover defenders is the proper blend of variations.
I do not like the option of zoning off the defender who is free in man coverage. The uncertainties of this type of coverage make it high risk, and by using it, the defensive team compromises its margins.
Leonard Frank “Fritz” Shurmur served as the head football coach at the University of Wyoming from 1971-74 and was an assistant coach in the NFL with the Detroit Lions, New England Patriots, Los Angeles Rams, Phoenix Cardinals and Green Bay Packers. Sherman was the defensive coordinator for the Packers team that won Super Bowl XXXI.