The changing face of pass defense and what it means for the future of the Steeler secondary

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Many analysts noted both before and after the NFL combine that Darqueze Dennard would struggle playing off man coverage in the NFL. That analysis seems to be missing the point as more and more teams no longer see the utility of playing off receivers.

A couple of disclaimers before we get too far into the weeds of the article. First, this article is not an argument that the Steelers should draft Dennard in the first round of the draft. I have only seen one Michigan State game in 2013. I am in no position to judge his talents, especially in comparison to other athletes that could be available at 15. However, what I am arguing is that the justification that many are giving as to why Dennard should not be the pick is wrong.

The second disclaimer involves what a lot of people are assuming about Michigan State. Michigan State is not a man to man defense. While I am not familiar with Dennard as a player, I am familiar with the scheme that Pat Narduzzi employs at Michigan State. The concepts are very similar to what Seattle did with its defense this year.

It is also very similar to what the Steelers have done with Ike Taylor. The concept is playing regular Cover 3 or Cover 4 (Cover 4 is what Michigan State does) but taking away the easy throws that these defenses normally give up. It is another evolution of the pattern-reading defenses that make the argument of man vs. zone very antiquated. A little history before we discuss how these defenses are played now.

Traditional Zone Defense

We have all seen football games when an announcer has referenced a soft spot in a zone. To an extent, that notion is correct. For a long time, zone defense was taught as illustrated in the following diagram:


You will notice the no cover zone listed in the illustration. The thought process behind the no cover zone was simple. Defenders were taught to drop to the curl area and react to the flat. With the corner bailing deep, and (using the diagram) and the strong safety in the no cover zone, there is a huge void left for that 15 yard out or curl route that every team throws.

For years, defensive coordinators taught their defenders to give up the 5 yard dump pass. Make the tackle, and play second down. Defensive coordinators believed that play callers are so enamored with those ridiculous looking call sheets, that they would never just throw hitch routes down the field. And, for a very long time, they were right.

Finally, offensive coordinators got smart. Not the pro ones, mind you, but the college ones. In one of the most under-appreciated aspects of the modern day spread offense, spread coaches finally started to take advantage of the no cover zone. They did this out of necessity. In the early days of the spread, defensive coordinators would still load the box and not respect the pass threat. So, they refused to play into the offense's hands; essentially, they refused to spread themselves out. They would try to have a defender still in the box against the run while still cheating somewhat to play the pass.


With the above illustration, you see how spread coaches put that defender in conflict. But here was the key point that took some time to catch on: As a play caller, you had to ignore your fancy play sheet and call this play if it was getting 5 yards every play. If the defense was going to allow itself to be out-leveraged, as it is in the diagram, you had to call a play to exploit that fact. Finally, offensive coordinators wrapped their heads around this concept: If you were calling a run play and it gained 5 yards, would you stop calling it? Of course not. Therefore, if a bubble screen, or a hitch route, or whatever is consistently gaining 5 yards, then keep calling the play! This realization brought the end of the no cover zone.

Defenses had to defend the flats. They could no longer just give offenses the opportunity to take 5 yards any time they wanted to. It took a while, but defenses finally started to catch up. This brings us back to the original point of the article: To those that say Dennard cannot play off coverage, I say, so what? Why would you want to play off? Why would you want to give the offense an easy throw?

A real difference maker in all of this has been defensive coaches doing exactly what Narduzzi did at Michigan State with Dennard: play zone with press technique from the corners. Take away the easy throw while still maintaining the concepts of zone coverage.

No one has done this better than the Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks.

This play is a great example of what is being described. The presnap alignment takes away any quick throws. Keep in mind, it is 3rd and 5 on this play. Pre snap, Denver is given a 2 high look. At the snap, one safety drops down to play the hook. He sits and waits for the for the receiver to come to his area while running the mesh. At the bottom of the screen, the slot receiver runs a curl, flat and deep concept. The flat defender runs with him since no one else is threatening his zone.

The linebacker at the top of the screen, who is playing the hook, is also waiting for the crossing route, as is the flat defender. Here, you see the beauty of zone coverage. The defenders are looking at the QB and waiting for the routes to develop. When the ball is thrown, they are able to converge and force 4th down.

When playing press, there is always the threat of being beaten deep. But remember, this is zone, not man. Therefore, there is still help deep.

To play cover 3, you have to have a safety with enough speed to break on the ball like you see Earl Thomas do in the clip. Most teams don't, which is why they play cover 4.

The thing that you see with the corner's technique is that he does not have to be a speed demon. The corner wants to be underneath and inside of the receiver. He does not want to be on the receiver's top shoulder, and then give up the deep out. He wants to force the receiver to his help.

In the next installment, we will take a look at how the Steelers have also used this technique in their defense.

For more game breakdowns, click on our Steelers Film Room hub.

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