As explained in a previous post, Denver usually plays in a 3-4 defense (click here); however, as explained in another post (click here), Denver uses a LOT of formations. Based on that, we’re going to stick with the simple and start at the basics. We’re also only focusing on the secondary formations/concepts. Cornerbacks and Safeties. The No Fly Zone.
Zone vs Man. This is a term you will hear frequently when watching games. What does it mean? A zone is when a coach designates certain spaces of the field and assigns a player to cover it, sorta like a real estate developer turning a 10 acre parcel into multiple lots. Man coverage is where the coach designates a defender to cover a receiver. Think of Aqib Talib lining up and mirroring Demaryius Thomas in a Broncos vs. Broncos scrimmage with Chris Harris Jr. lining up on Emmanuel Sanders.
No matter what type of play the offense is running, that DB is responsible for his zone and/or his man depending on the call. Like in a doubles tennis match, each player only worries about his section and keeps the eye on the ball and the court across from him to be prepared for what comes next. Another comparison would man on man defense in basketball vs. the ole 2-3 zone.
Playing zone takes discipline, trust and good communication between the DB’s. If Aqib Talib lets his receiver leave his zone, he has to trust that strong safety TJ Ward will pick him up and keep his eyes on him.
Communication comes in because all four need to know they’re playing zone, and that certain receivers will be allowed to pass through the bottom zones. We’ll explain more later.
Straight Man coverage is when Talib and Chris Harris, Jr. line up on the line of scrimmage (LOS) across from the wide outs. When their receivers take off, they will stick to them like glue no matter where they go. Free safety Darian Stewart will be tasked with the slot (if there is one) or a third WR or a TE. Ward will be assigned to a running back or tight end. There are many variations. Sometimes a safety and a corner will blanket the same man like Rob Gronkowski.
Once the ball leaves the quarterback, in both Man and Zone, the other DBs will release their guys/zone and go where the ball is for extra help.
Sometimes, Denver will play both Man and Zone. The CB’s play man, while the S’s play Zone. As an added wrinkle, the CB’s could also line up as Man, but it’s a fake out for zone. Why? As we talked about in the WR Route article, the CB may think a screen is coming and doesn’t want to leave his spot, or turn his back to the play, so he stays in the area. This is where trust really comes into play. It’s one reason they call it a chess match. The offense will design a play on what they think they defense might do with any given down and distance, and the defensive coordinators are designing defensive plays and calls based on the tendencies of the offense.
If you ever played the old Tecmo Bowl video game (very primitive when compared to the Madden series), you were given four whole plays to run on offense and defense was given the same plays to guess that you would run. When you both selected the same play, then it got stopped automatically. NFL offenses and defense have far more than 4 plays to choose from and that’s what makes the game a beautiful thing.
Denver’s secondary is the best in the business because a) Talib and Harris are fantastic cover corners who have the physical ability to stick with any WR b) they are incredibly smart at reading offenses c) both can tackle pretty well d) Ward and Stewart besides being good tacklers, also are good in coverage. The Cherry and whip cream is their communication and familiarity with each other. Like identical quadruplets.
A team decides to play man or zone based a few factors. Some defenses don’t have a lot of choice, they don’t have corners who can play man, or safeties good enough to play zone. If they aren’t dreadful, they decide on the following.
Case A: During film study, they determine a quarterback isn’t great. Like Blake Bortles. Or he’s an Alex Smith type and he forgets there are deep routes besides the go. Zone is most likely. It uses less energy and is better against the short passes or ones off of feet.
Case B: they’re playing Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson. Man. Rodgers can fit balls into tiny windows, and he’s damn good at not telegraphing where he’s going with the ball, so you can’t give him the space or he will serve you up with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.
Case C: they’re playing Atlanta. Man and Zone and call the Marines because not only do they have a good QB and WR’s, but a great catching RB, too. They use every play in the book.
Above is based on film study and what base defense they think will work best for most plays. Some defensive coaches throw the kitchen sink at an offense, and some times those sinks, hurt. Other times, the offense dodges it and lights the defense up time and time again. Scouting and tracking tendencies can be a very important concept to football.
During the game, they will change for certain plays based on down and distance and on how the offense is lined up. This will decide Man vs Zone as well as coverage.
The bottom line is, when you have a secondary (and linebackers) as good as ours, it gives the Defensive Coordinator a lot choices. They can play man, zone or both. They can play different coverages without losing a beat. The beauty is when you’re so versatile, because you have fantastic talent, there’s little an offense can do against a secondary like Denver’s.