Q. I’d like to start off talking a little bit about pass defense. When a defense decides between man-to-man coverage and zone coverage, is the decision based more on the opponent and what it wants to do or the secondary and its strengths?
A. I think the No. 1 priority is the present state of your group, and what its strong suits are. Who is available to you and what their strengths are probably is the first element of the equation, not only for pass defense but with anything you’re talking about when you take a fundamentalist approach to football. And then secondarily, the matchups from a personnel standpoint. Who can cover who and what are you comfortable with there. And then lastly, the schematic element of it. What does the opponent do schematically offensively, whether it’s pre-snap in terms of pre-snap shifts and motions, or post-snap that either make it inviting to play man-to-man or zone, or difficult to play man-to-man or zone. Those are the elements of the equation when you’re trying to decide between man or zone. What do your people do and what’s in their comfort zone; what are the matchups like from a personnel standpoint; and then lastly, what is the opponent doing schematically that either invites you to do one or the other, or make it difficult for you to execute one or the other.
Q. What are the advantages for a secondary that plays man-to-man?
A. It disrupts rhythm passing. You’re closer to receivers and so in terms of the quarterback hitting his back foot and getting the ball out in rhythm, there’s less likelihood of that because the receivers by the nature of the coverage are being disrupted from a timing standpoint.
Q. What are the advantages for a secondary that plays zone?
A. Quite simply, it’s eyes on the quarterback. In man-to-man, each individual guy has to have his eyes on his man, so there is less peripheral vision, there is less help if people get beat, there is less help if the quarterback escapes. Zone coverages provide seven sets of eyes on the guy with the ball, and you feel receivers. If you have a mobile quarterback, you close escape lanes quicker; you get multiple people to the party if you don’t like the personnel matchups so there are fewer one-on-ones; and if they throw a check-down to a dangerous back, it’s not just one person tackling him it’s multiple people tackling. The line of vision, the number of people with eyes on the person with the ball is the primary advantage of zone coverage.
Q. The concept for playing man-to-man is simple – one guy on defense covers one guy on offense. How would you explain the concept for playing zone?
A. Everyone has designated spots on the field, and you designate those spots based on minimizing where the ball goes. And players move within their areas based on where the quarterback takes them. Sometimes it’s specifically route-related. Sometimes you have some pre-snap physical clues – such as, if you get this personnel group and you get them in this formation. But most of the time it’s area-located, moving within that area based on what the opposing quarterback tells you to do based on his actions.
Q. What does a defender do if there’s no receiver in his zone?
A. They either work the inner-most part of their zone or the outer-most part of their zone based on where the quarterback is taking them. If the quarterback is reading the other side of the field, for example, that would take them to the inner-most part of their zone, whatever that may be. If the quarterback is looking outside of them, to the sideline, that would take them to the outer-most part of their zone. Almost in every scenario, if you work the inner-most or outer-most area of your zone based on where the quarterback’s looking, you’re going to run into an eligible receiver. Just from an offensive structure standpoint, a spacing standpoint, you’re going to run into an eligible receiver.
Q. How does a defender execute the concept of passing off a receiver from one zone to another?
A. It seems coordinated, but it’s not. As I move within my zone and I’m following the quarterback and that takes me to follow a receiver through the outer-most part of my zone, then he’s simply going to be picked up by the next defender in the inner-most part of his zone. It appears to be complex, but it’s simply guys playing within their space and doing what the quarterback tells them to do.
Q. Sometimes pass defense involves jamming a receiver coming off the line, and sometimes it doesn’t. What’s the purpose of each respective tactic?
A. Every zone has strengths and weaknesses – zones within that overall zone structure that people are trying to protect. If receivers are capable of getting into that area quickly, often times defenses re-route receivers or disrupt them. Often it’s used as a disguise to make it appear to be man coverage when it’s not. So the disruption is done for two reasons: to protect weak areas within zone, or to lead the offense to believe that maybe it’s man. Those are the primary reasons why you disrupt people at the line of scrimmage in zone coverage.
Q. Why would you allow a receiver to have a free release?
A. Because his position from an alignment standpoint doesn’t threaten the structure of the zone, or you’re not worried about him as a vertical threat.
Q. Now, let’s switch it over to pass offense. When a pass play is called, is the primary receiver pre-determined by the play call, or is it the quarterback’s choice based on the defense?
A. It’s the quarterback’s choice based on the defense he sees when the ball is snapped, but make no mistake, when you call a play there is a certain level of anticipation in terms of what it is you’re getting. So there’s a certain level of anticipation of who the primary receiver might be.
Q. For a typical pass play, are there deep, intermediate, and check-down options all available?
A. No. Some passes are vertical in nature, vertical in structure. Some are quick-game, where they’re horizontal in structure. Some passes have an element of both, where they’re three-level flooding a zone – high, medium, and low. It just depends on the nature of the structure, and not only the nature of the structure, but the nature of the action associated with it. Play-action passes are generally more vertical in orientation. When people spread you out, it’s most often rhythm passing, more horizontal in nature.
Q. Ben Roethlisberger is tied for second in the NFL in pass attempts after four weeks. What does that stat tell you about your offense, about your team, about how the first four games of this season have unfolded?
A. It tells you we’re 1-2-1 and we’ve been behind in some games. We’re completely comfortable with Ben throwing the ball, and throwing it a bunch if the circumstances are advantageous to do so. But the reality is we’ve been behind in some games, and we haven’t won enough games. And so that stat is not being reflected as a choice, that stat is being reflected as a circumstance. I’m not against it, but I’m for it when we do it by choice.
Q. You said the outcome of the Ravens game boiled down to a possession down game, where they converted their third down situations and the Steelers did not. Are the plays called on first and second downs ever called specifically to create manageable third down situations?
A. Certainly they are. Not always, but certainly they’re capable of being called that way. In essence, when you call plays on first and second downs, if you’re not getting 10 yards, you anticipate moving fluidly toward manageable third downs. So just in essence, I think every play you call on first and second downs has those intentions, but make no mistake, you can manage the game in a lot of ways to minimize negativity to make sure you’re moving toward manageable third downs in some instances. Some plays are more susceptible to penalties. Some plays are more susceptible to negativity. Usually high-reward plays come with a certain level of risk, and so that’s what you’re probably speaking to when you’re talking about whether your first and second down plays set up manageable third downs.
Q. Because if you call a pass play on first down and it’s incomplete, and if you call another pass play on second down, aren’t you looking at a situation where it could be third-and-long?
A. It depends on the nature of the pass play. In today’s NFL, some of the quick rhythm passing is completed at such a rate that it’s as good as a run. Some of these perimeter plays where you’re throwing them and catching them at a rate of 85 percent and so forth, in today’s spread football that’s an extended handoff. A lot of people don’t talk enough about that. That’s run-game alternative. That is the run game in a lot of football today. You see it in high school games. You see it in college games. They spread the field out, they have that short rhythm passing, they complete the ball at a high percentage, and that is run-game alternative. You’re going to end up with a third-and-5 if you spread people out and run two very short passes on first-and-10, and then if that’s incomplete, another on second-and-10. There’s a high likelihood you’re going to complete one of them. There’s a high likelihood you’re going to get a minimum of five yards, for example.