In a few of my recent scouting reports, I have abstractly referred to something called “pattern reading coverage,” while not explaining it claiming it would take too much time to explain. Pattern reading coverage is the most important aspect of NFL defenses that most fans don’t know about. Almost all fans think that all coverage is either man or zone, but pattern reading coverage is not as simple as either covering a specific area of the field or a specific person. It’s very unique, and is used by all NFL defenses in some form or capacity.
Before I explain pattern reading coverage, I would like to explain why very few people know what it is. It’s actually pretty simple. Pattern reading coverage isn’t in Madden. Madden and other video games have changed the way people see football. Fans now want a little bit of commentary, some Xs and Os from announcers, rather than a summation of what happened, because they have some semblance of what an NFL play looks like. But pattern reading coverage cannot exist in a video game, because it cannot be drawn like one would see in a video game. It’s not as simple as certain players covering a particular area of the field or a specific person. Many announcers don’t know what pattern reading coverage is, and even if they did, they couldn’t offer commentary on a play that had pattern reading coverage because the people watching would have no idea what they are talking about.
Madden makes a weak attempt at creating a game with the plays that typically use pattern reading coverage with its versions of zone blitzes. The fire zone blitz is the most common usage of pattern read coverage, but it looks absolutely nothing like the way it is depicted in Madden. There are at least 7 zones on the football field that must be covered. You can’t just send someone on a blitz and leave one of the zones completely uncovered. But that is the way it works in Madden. A madden play may involve someone covering the flat on one side of the field, but completely ignore it on the other side of the field. An NFL defensive play is never designed to leave a part of the field completely vacated. Option routes would completely tear it apart. Pattern reading coverage doesn’t leave holes in the field like that.
It’s very difficult to explain pattern reading coverage. Most consider it a form of zone coverage, but I feel like it falls into its own category. When the play is over, the defender is usually covering a specific man. But it isn’t man coverage, because the defender doesn’t know who that man will be until the play starts. The defender is assigned to a specific zone, but, depending on the routes run by the offense, the defender may not be anywhere near that zone when the play ends. The “flat” defender might end up covering a guy in between the hash marks depending on the routes that are run. It really falls under neither category.
I won’t give you a football history lesson, but most agree pattern reading coverage was introduced to the NFL by Dick LeBeau, as a means to get “safe pressure” on the quarterback. First of all, there are inherent problems associated with traditional zone coverage. There are at least 7 zones that must be covered on a football field, but there are only 5 eligible receivers that must be covered. No matter what, traditional zone coverage involves usually 2 defenders as dead weight when the play ends. They are covering air when the ball is thrown. Pattern reading coverage has a way of solving this problem, preventing defenders from covering air, and using any player whose zone is not involved to double cover another receiver.
To help explain, I will start off with a very basic, very flawed version of pattern reading coverage. Before an offensive play, in order to execute pattern read coverage, the 5 eligible receivers must be identified and numbered based on horizontal position. Let’s say from left to right number 1 is a wide receiver, number 2 is a slot receiver, number 3 is a running back, number 4 is a tight end (on the side of the formation away from the two receivers), and number 5 is another wide receiver on the same side of the field as the tight end. In this hypothetical play (and this doesn’t happen), the defense uses a 6 man rush and puts the 5 defenders in pattern read coverage. In this play, the leftmost player (probably a corner) will cover the leftmost offensive player, aka No. 1. The next leftmost player would cover No. 2, etc. This sounds like traditional man coverage. The difference is that, in pattern read, the player who is No. 1 before the play starts may or may not be No. 1. when the play ends. The person whose responsibility is No. 1 has the assignment of covering the man who is the furthest to the left after all the routes have declared themselves. For example, let’s say the wide receiver who is No. 1 before the play starts runs an in route, and the running back, who is No. 3, runs into the flat toward the left side of the field (No. 2 runs a seam route, more on that in a bit). No. 1 and No. 3, cross paths. Because the running back, who was No. 3, is now furthest to the left among all receivers, he is now No. 1, and the defender whose responsibility is No. 1 covers man to man. Again, he covers man to man, but he didn’t know he would be covering the running back before the play began. He doesn’t start covering the running back until the running back and wide receiver cross. Since we are assuming No. 2 runs a seam route, the running back goes crosses him from the right when he runs the flat, but the receiver crosses him from the left when he runs an in route. The slot receiver remains No. 2, but the wide receiver, who was No. 1, becomes No. 3, since he crossed both the player that was No. 2 and the player who was No. 3. So the defender who was assigned to No. 3 covers the player who was originally No. 1 but became No. 3 when the routes crossed.
It sounds logical in theory, but there are problems with the example I laid out. Namely, how do the defenders know which player is theirs? Do they have to watch all 5 receivers at the same time and see if they cross? It’s complicated, but it’s not that bad. The defender whose assignment is No. 3 would yell some sort of call to the defender covering No. 2 that No. 3 is running horizontally into the flat. The defender who is assigned to No. 3 would assume that the wide receiver, who was No. 1, will now be his responsibility, since No. 3 is going to cross No. 1, which would turn No. 1 into No. 2. and No. 2 into No. 3. However, he would look at No. 1 first and notice that he is running an in route, so he will cross No. 2. The guy defending No. 2 would yell out a call to No. 3 that would basically mean “No. 1 is coming your way,” although the defender who is responsible for No. 3 would probably already know that, since as soon as the running back darted into the flat, he would look to his left and check where No. 1 and No. 2 were going.
There are still problems with the example I laid out, namely, what would happen if the wide receiver who was No. 1 ran a fly route. As soon as No. 3 ran into the flat and crossed No. 1, No. 1 becomes No. 2, and the guy whose job was to defend No. 2 is in no position to try to defend the guy running a fly route along the sideline. How is this solved? Simple: you don’t use a 6 man rush with pattern read coverage. There’s almost always some form of help over the top, and let’s say there was a guy to help over the top, he would cover the fly route and the guy whose responsibility was No. 2 would just cover the guy who is now No. 3 because he is in good position to cover him, plus, in the scenario I laid out, the defender who was supposed to cover No. 3 is probably a linebacker who is now supposed to cover a seam route by a slot receiver. So everything works.
So why use pattern reading coverage? When done correctly, it’s more effective than any defense on the planet. The main benefit of zone coverage is that it lends itself to interceptions, as quarterbacks have to make more difficult reads of the defense and the defenders are facing the quarterback/the football. The other benefit of zone coverage is it can work when you are physically inferior to the team your facing. For example, let’s say you don’t have anyone fast enough to cover DeSean Jackson man to man. Well, in zone coverage, it doesn’t matter how fast DeSean Jackson is much of the time, since he will run to you. If Jackson runs an in route, he will run into a guy covering a middle zone, and his speed means nothing. The only thing that matters is where he runs. Pattern reading coverage offers all of these benefits. The quarterback has to make difficult reads and the defense gets more interceptions. And, if your team is physically inferior, it still helps you. In the example I made, let’s say DeSean Jackson is No. 1 and he runs and in route, he will run right into No. 3, who is right there waiting for him. If you are running toward a guy, you can’t outrun him. But there are drawbacks to zone coverage. As I said earlier, it inherently involves some defenders covering air. This doesn’t really happen with pattern reading coverage. In the hypothetical play I gave, the guy running the seam route ends up being double covered, so no one is wasted. But more importantly, properly executed pattern reading coverage gives you all the benefits of zone coverage… and a 5 man rush, if you want it. That’s a defensive coordinators dream. It just seems way too good to be true.
So why not use pattern reading coverage? It’s as complicated as hell. It’s just incredible when executed correctly, but doing so is hard. Each defender is usually trying to keep track of the location of 3 receivers at once, maybe not knowing where all three are but having some idea. Think about this: what if the offense puts someone in motion? Say, that in my example, the slot receiver, who was No. 2, moves across the formation and becomes the slot receiver on the right side of the formation, crossing the running back and tight end on the way, becoming No. 4, while the tight end becomes No. 3 and the running back No. 2. Defenders have a lot of adjustments to make, plus the guy who was defending the slot receiver was probably a nickel back, who will now cover the running back if no receivers cross, while the slot receiver is probably being covered by the Sam linebacker, who would have been covering the tight end if the slot receiver hadn’t been put in motion. The only way a linebacker doesn’t end up covering a receiver is if the slot receiver runs a dig route and ends the play as the No. 2 receiver. Defenses can try to move the nickelback with him, and change his assignment from No. 2 to No. 4, but the amount of communication necessary for that is really difficult. You aren’t going to find many college defenses with players smart enough to handle the complicated assignments they receive, so, if you are a young team, you probably don’t have any players with experience in pattern read coverage. Players get some experience in pattern read coverage when they are in quarters coverage at the collegiate level (safeties at least get a challenge), but very few schools give their players experience in pattern reading coverage (Alabama and Georgia Tech stand out as exceptions, C.J. Mosley is incredible). Moreover, as I said previously, it’s heavily reliant on defensive communication. If you’re playing the Seahawks on the road, it’s a terrible idea. CenturyLink field is too loud for the defensive communication necessary to execute pattern reading coverage possible.
I hope you come away from this article with a basic understanding of pattern reading coverage. There are many variations and specifics that I didn’t delve into, but I believe I provided a reasonable example that can give one a basic understanding of the function of the coverage. It’s quite fascinating, and serves as proof that the game of football is more complicated than many assume.