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Tee's Corner: Man, I Zoned Out

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The Saints secondary has experienced some troubled times this season. Communication has been a key factor in the teams' sub-par performance versus the pass. Today we take a deeper look at zone coverage and how it applies to this team.

Jordan & Byrd, the NFL version!
Jordan & Byrd, the NFL version!
Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

Hello Who Dats and welcome to Tee's Corner! Today we will take a closer look at zone coverage defense. Understanding how zone coverage works is not only important to the players and defensive coordinator, but also to the observers of the game to be able to follow the action. In the first three games of the 2014 season, the New Orleans Saints secondary has shown confusion on many occasions and this almost always leads to big plays and blown coverages. In my own opinion, the Saints run too much zone coverage to have a healthy pass defense.

Matt Ryan looked Brees-like while dissecting the Saints secondary and Brian Hoyer managed his way to a win, aided by missed assignments in zone coverage. Fortunately for the Saints, a vast majority of the issues were cleaned up against the Vikings but don't fool yourself into believing it was all because the defense. Facing a rookie QB in Teddy Bridgewater, making his pro debut on the road, helped the cause quite a bit. The NFL is filled with QBs who can make a defense pay if they are constantly out of position, so this issue needs to be cleaned up quickly. Now let's talk about what should be happening in the secondary versus what is actually happening.

Zone defense can be a quarterback's nightmare! While facing zone coverage, many factors can impact whether a QB will find an open receiver or not. A requirement for success versus zone is time in the pocket. So constant blitzing or consistent pressure/pass rush without blitzing will cause the QB to make hurried throws or quick decisions that end with bad results for the offense, like interceptions and incompletions. By comparison, man defense is very vulnerable to timing routes as a QB can use his chemistry with a receiver to throw to a spot that will be open. In zone, that spot may appear open, then quickly become occupied by a defender. The failure here is the same with any defense, too much of the same look makes it easier for the offense to pick up on what you're doing and exploit it. This is killing Rob Ryan's defense right now!

Pro Tip: NFL QBs in the passing era are being groomed to diagnose defenses and are more adept than ever at picking out weaknesses in a defense. it is important to at least attempt to confuse them by changing the coverage and mixing in combo coverage.

As of the week 3, the Saints starting secondary consists of Keenan Lewis and Corey White at CB and Kenny Vaccaro and Jairus Byrd at S. We have also seen Brian Dixon at nickel CB and Rafael Bush as a third safety. On paper, any variation of these players should be successful versus most QBs, but that has not been the case. As we discussed in the previous entry in Tee's Corner, successful zone defense is predicated on chemistry. The passing of a player from one zone to the next, or hand-off, must be a seamless exchange for the defense to play zone effectively.

The PRob-lem wasn't just Prob: Exchange depth is where the most flaws show up in the 2014 saints defense. An example of this was very clear in the Falcons and Browns games and to a lesser degree in the Vikings game. The Saints did the right thing by playing the safety deep against the explosive Atlanta receivers, however Byrd was too deep to respond to the play until after the receivers had catches for decent gains and drive-extending first downs. Byrd and Vaccaro (sometimes Bush) have been documented as lining up 17-20 yards from the line of scrimmage, the LB were about 5-6 yards from the LOS, and the CBs were somewhere between 7-8 yards off the line.

On a given play when zone is the call from a base formation you have 3 LBs, plus Galette (OLB/DE), 2 CBs and 2 Ss. The CBs drop with the WRs to about a 12 yard depth, the LBs drop to about a 9-10 yard depth, and the Ss hold at 20 yards or so. The WR to the left of the defensive formation runs a skinny post, which knifes through the defense, holding at least one safety at home. The TE on the same side of the formation runs a deep corner pattern, which is now wide open between two zones. (This would be true if there were a slot WR instead of a TE as well) The LBs arrive at a 9 yard depth, the CB has the intermediate outside at 12 yards, and the safety is keeping the play in front of him. A deep corner or even a fade with some touch on the throw will get the receiver wide open in front of the safety for 15 yards and a first down.

Resolution through Evolution: The most promising thing about this Saints defense is that it can get better and has gotten better. Apparently Rob Ryan has parried down his defense to a simpler, more effective adaptation of what they ran last year. Less window dressing and more substance. I believe the playbook adjustment was not the cause for the improvement in week 3, it is familiarity in the secondary. The team is developing the chemistry that is needed to work as one unit. The next adjustment, which we should see in the future is safety depth. Byrd, Vaccaro, and Bush must align themselves within 15 yards of the LOS to be most effective in coverage and run support. The CBs, which we should see three of them often going forward, need to provide more man to man on the outside. Force QBs to exploit them one on one and rely on the talent they have as individuals.

If I were able to advise Rob Ryan, I would tell him to disguise the blitz and run less zone. Call him a space cadet because he's zoned out. If the pass rush was slightly more effective, the zone would be great for creating turnovers. Unfortunately, the pass rush is middle of the road and the secondary is paying the price. Hey RR, unchain the secondary and let them fly!

As always, thanks for reading and be cool Who Dats!