'Nole Fans Must Be Patient With Florida State's New Zone-Based Defense

Everyone knows how awful Florida State's defense was, and most everyone expects a turnaround given the impressive track record of Florida State's new defensive coaches, including Defensive Coordinator Mark Stoops who produced top-25 defenses with marginal talent at Arizona.  Stoops is installing a zone-coverage scheme that is a complete 180 from the man-coverage scheme run by the previous staff.

I found a very informative article on zone coverages from Mike Tanier, and have excerpted a particularly relevant portion.  If you know a lot about football this will probably not be anything new for you, but if you struggled with our recent explanation of Stoops' zone defense, you might need to read this. It is important that all of our readers have some basic understanding of zone defense before we break down the different coverages.

If you ever tried to play a zone defense in a pickup game, you probably realized right away that it's hard. In basketball, setting up a 2-3 zone is pretty simple: the space is limited, so it is pretty easy to pick up guys in your zone. In football, with all of that space, you may find yourself defending an empty patch of turf while receivers catch passes in front of you, next to you, and behind you.

Linebackers new to zone defense often have a difficult time with the intricacies of zone coverage, allowing lots and lots of receptions by tight ends and running backs. It is not that they aren't fast or smart enough to stick with their receivers. Rather, the problem is that they are too inexperienced and indecisive to read and attack pass routes.

This is largely a reason why teams transitioning from a man-heavy scheme to a zone-heavy scheme, or vice-a-versa, see the major improvements in the second year of the new scheme.  That's not to say Florida State fans should not expect significant improvement in year one.  They should, but that improvement is likely to come because FSU is moving from the worst defensive coaching staffs in the nation to one of the better groups of defensive coaches assembled in college ball.  Step one is knowing the assignment and getting to the assigned area.   That is easy.  Step two is reading and adjusting on the run while moving to the assigned zone.  And that is not easy, as Mike explains:

That brings us to the key element of zone coverage: defenders must break on the ball before the pass is thrown. Any defender who sits in his zone and waits for the quarterback to release the ball before making his move is a cooked goose. He must watch the quarterback and follow the progression of the pass routes in order to determine where the pass is going to be thrown, and he had better be moving when the ball is released.

Remember that zone coverage is not man coverage: a linebacker assigned to the "hook" zone (the region about 7-10 yards from the line of scrimmage just outside the tackles) cannot rush out to blanket a tight end who enters his territory. If he does, he'll be in no position to stop the running back executing an angle route into the same zone or the wide receiver running a slow drag from the other side of the field. All three players will be that linebacker's responsibility at some point in the play, so all he can do is drop into his zone and stay alert.

That means that the tight end could run an eight-yard pattern, curl to face the quarterback, and stand there with the linebacker six yards away. Essentially, the tight end is open, because the linebacker is on the lookout for other receivers. If the quarterback decides to throw to the tight end, the linebacker has to beat the ball there. That only can happen if he anticipates the pass.

It's not that FSU players did not play zone coverage before.  They did, but it was infrequent and more importantly not well taught.  FSU's former defensive staff (before 2007) did a great job teaching man coverage, but did not do a great job teaching zone coverage as it was just not a priority.  When the defensive staff went to hell a few years ago and the man coverage fell off... well, you can just imagine what happened with non-priority parts of the defense like zone.  FSU's guys are truly rookies of zone coverage.  So, how do they do it?  

But how can defenders perform these nearly psychic readings? They watch the drop of the quarterback, knowing that shorter drops lead to shorter passes. They read his eyes. They watch the cock of the shoulders: longer passes require the quarterback to dip his back shoulder. They learn the difference between a passer's pump-fake and his throwing motion, and they look for clues, like patting the ball, that indicate that the quarterback is ready to release.

The pass routes themselves provide further clues.  Offenses use routes in combination to beat zones. That eight-yard curl by the tight end is often accompanied by an angle route or flat route by a running back, with a deep post route by the receiver on that side of the field.  A savvy defender can figure out what the defense is up to and follow the same reads the quarterback makes.

All of this reading and reacting requires a lot of gray matter. It's an oversimplification to say that man coverage is all about athletic ability, while zones are all about intelligence. But there is more than a bit of truth in the statement. Excellent athletes have proven to be hopeless in zone coverage because they don't react quickly (Derrick Gibson of the Raiders is an example), while slower defenders with tons of experience can be very effective.

Please note that I did not edit or insert the Derrick Gibson example.  Yes, the example of an athletic safety struggling in zone coverage is a former Seminole coached under the previous staff.  That really couldn't be more fitting to show just how far this defense has to go. 

I explained FSU's predicament to my mom in terms of dancing with the stars.  You could have two dancers who learn the steps to a new dance.  They can practice the steps.  But it will take a while dancing with each other before they achieve that necessary synergy.  

But while FSU's defense does have a long way to go, there is a lot of hope for this unit.  FSU's offense is tremendous and faced with the pressure of matching an elite offense score for score, teams often will not maintain the patience and composure needed to move the ball against a zone defense.  And even very green zone defenses have a field day when opposing quarterbacks force balls instead of taking what the defense gives them.  Additionally, FSU has a ton of athleticism on this unit and to say that talent was poorly developed would be giving the previous staff far too much credit.  The great unknown is just how much the new coaches can improve the raw players on the defensive side of the ball.

In 2010, expect the defense to be competent.  In 2011, expect it to be really good based on the greater familiarity with the scheme.

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