The Extra Point

Which NFL teams mix up defensive coverages the most week-to-week

Prior to joining the Los Angeles Chargers as head coach, Brandon Staley’s defensive scheme with the Los Angeles Rams was lauded as adaptable, aggressive, and accustomed to diverse coverage schemes

There are several reasons why a coach may mix up schemes. Among them, flexibility in scheme allows teams to surprise opponents with matchups they have not prepared for. In 2020, Staley’s Rams defense stood out for having the most unique schemes on its way to leading the NFL by allowing the fewest yards per game.

More than halfway through the 2021 season — his first as head coach — data collected confirm that Staley’s scheme has picked up right where it left off.

Using data from PFF, the chart below shows weekly distributions of coverage schemes. Teams are organized from least consistent (top left, Los Angeles Chargers) to most consistent (bottom right, New Orleans Saints), where consistency is defined by week-to-week fluctuations in coverage. 

As the model of inconsistency, the Chargers ran Cover 1 Man on 70% of Week 3 plays against the Kansas City Chiefs, only to run the same coverage just 15% of the time during a Week 4 matchup against the Las Vegas Raiders. 

Teams that are more consistent from week-to-week tend to stick to the same script. For example, the Saints ran a Cover 1 Man scheme between 16-39% of the time in each of their games.

In addition to weekly shifts in strategies, these anecdotes stick out from the chart above: 

  • Cover 0 Man is one of the riskiest strategies to deploy, as no safeties are left to help on deep routes. So far during the 2021 season, teams have run Cover 0 Man in different ways. The Miami Dolphins ran Cover 0 Man in each of its first 12 games, including 24 times against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 10. The Las Vegas Raiders have run Cover 0 Man only five plays all season.
  • Eight games this season have featured a team that ran the same coverage scheme on at least 70% of defensive snaps. The Raiders’ Cover 3 Zone accounts for six of those eight games. Against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 7, the Raiders ran Cover 3 Zone on 95% of defensive snaps.
  • The New England Patriots ran a zone-based coverage scheme on about 40% of snaps from Weeks 1-6. From Week 7 onwards, they have been in zone coverage on about 70% of defensive snaps.

Coverage schemes are also relevant for measuring what defensive coordinators think about their opponent’s offenses. Some quarterbacks may be more difficult to prepare for and could force opponents to try new strategies for defending the pass.  

The chart below shows what coverages each team’s offense faces.

Second-year Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts has faced unique coverages. Teams have deployed both zone heavy (Weeks 9 and 10) and man heavy (Weeks 7, 11, and 12) approaches to slowing down the Eagles offense.

The Eagles offense has also faced the second-most Cover 0 Man defenses (65 snaps, behind the Baltimore Ravens’ 87 snaps) with Hurts and Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson among the NFL’s most mobile signal-callers. In comparison, the Chiefs and quarterback Patrick Mahomes, a traditional pocket passer, have only seen Cover 0 Man on seven snaps, fewest in the league.

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