Teach Receivers To Recognize Man vs Zone Coverage

By FirstDown PlayBook on Feb 9, 2022

There is a lot going on with a pass play that is not always apparent to the fan watching the game. Quarterbacks and receivers must see if the coverage is man or zone. They also need to know if the middle of the field is open (2 safeties) or closed (1 safety).

You will see offensive coordinators use pre-snap shifts and motions to get an indicator on this. That is certainly a good idea. However, defenses know that these motions can hurt an offenses timing and spacing on a pass concept too. In college and NFL football defenses have also gotten good at disguising pre-snap man and zone. There is also the possibility that you are running a tempo offense. There is no time for pre-snap reads.

So let’s focus on how to read coverage after the ball is snapped. When the ball is snapped, there is no more deception. The offense is running routes and the defense better cover them. This is what we want to look at today. How do you teach your tight end and receivers to see man vs zone coverage? You hear a lot of talk about the quarterback doing this but what about the route runners?

The best passing teams have quarterbacks and receivers on the same page as the play is being run. This requires teaching your receivers to digest the coverage as they run the routes full speed. This is easier said than done because the first thing that usually happens when a player looks and thinks as they are playing, is that they slow down. This is why it is important to give your receivers one thing to look at for their man vs zone coverage key.

Your Receiver Must Know The Formation & Concept To See Man vs Zone Coverage

Right off the bat, this is going to require that your receivers know the formation and concept that you are running. If they understand that, they will be able to focus on one defender. This defender will give them a man vs zone key. Let’s use this 2×2 formation with a mesh or shallow cross concept as an example.

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In this drawing the Y is running a shallow route. As he runs the shallow, he has an option of staying on the move vs man coverage or sitting the route down in the hook curl area of the field vs zone. As the tight end is on the line of scrimmage, it is important to immediately identify the Will linebacker or Nickel defensive back. This will be the defender over the F slot receiver. This is who he will key on this play.

The Tight End Will Read The Defender Over The Slot On This Mesh Play

As the ball is snapped the tight end must keep his route discipline with the proper release and route depth. He should also be keying the defender over the slot. If that defender sinks into coverage, then this means it is zone coverage. If the defender runs with the slot on the basic cross route then it is likely man. Finally, and maybe most importantly, if that defender blitzes, then the tight end likely should be looking for a hot throw.

This is only one play. On another play there may be a different defender that you can teach as the man vs zone coverage key. There is also additional communication that should take place on this play between the quarterback and shallow route runner. More on that tomorrow.