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Tutorial Thursday: A Primer on Pattern Matching Schemes

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Okay, it’s time to get into the nitty gritty.

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The purpose of these articles are to gain a greater understanding of not just the game of football itself, but also as windows into the schemes that new defensive coordinator Adam Fuller has brought with him to Tallahassee. If you have missed any of our previous entries, you can find them here.


Tomahawk Nation’s review of Adam Fuller’s defense keeps diving deeper. TN began with a look at Adam Fuller’s overall scheme. Then a primer on the blitzes and pressures Fuller uses to attack defenses.

The coverage of coverages began with a primer on the basic coverage families in defensive football. Man coverage was examined, as was how to stop the run game.

All of the above links are good refreshers on the basics, but the keys we are going to expand on today are based on split field coverages.

The next step of Tomahawk Nation’s spring install is explaining the concept of Pattern Matching. This is also referred to as pattern reading, zone match, man match, matchup zone, or some of the colloquial references to specific pattern matching rules like Palms or Rip/Liz. Football coaches love their jargon.

Pattern Matching is, at its core, a set of rules for defenders to follow in coverage based on how the offense’s eligible receivers distribute. This differs from traditional zone coverage, which is based on defending zones, and from man coverage in which defenders are assigned an eligible receiver to cover.

Traditional zone coverage is also called “spot drop” zone. Defenders are assigned a zone, and they drop to that spot. For example, in Cover 2 Zone, linebackers will occupy the hook/curl zones and cornerbacks cover the flats:

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Simple enough - basic zone gives a location-based assignment to all defenders in pass coverage.

The issue, of course, is that offenses have become complex enough to account for where a defender is expected to be. I discussed that in our recent Favorite Play Q&A - Jimbo Fisher’s Smash concept is a classic Cover 2 beater and features adjustments for coverage, defender alignment, and so on.

Nearly all modern college offenses have quarterbacks and receivers adjust for the defenders’ positioning based on what type of zone or man coverage is being faced. Certain pass concepts can overload zones or simply be overrun by pass concepts like Four Verticals and Flood.

Defenses must be able to respond in kind.

Pattern matching helps solve this problem. Instead of defenders waiting to engage an opponent entering their zone, or following receivers in man coverage, the determination on how defenders engage receivers is made based on what the receivers do.

A typical Cover 2 Zone facing a 2x2 alignment would simply be overwhelmed with multiple vertical routes to a two receiver side:

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Because the field side (right side of this diagram) corner and nickel ($) both drop to hook zones, only the field side free safety is deep to defend two receivers running vertical routes.

That math does not work. This really does not happen that often at the level of major college football, or even high schools - because of pattern matching schemes and rules. While the rulesets can be vastly different in implementation, strategy and complexity, one key goal is simple - use the distribution of the receivers to prevent being beaten deep by verticals.

Two Read is one of the more common pattern matching rulesets for middle of field open (MOFO) coverages. And it is used at all levels. TCU is arguably the defense best known for using this coverage, albeit at a level of complexity with a higher degree of difficulty. Two Read, also known as Palms coverage, will be discussed in further detail in the next installment of this series.

Below is an example of Cover 6 (also called quarter-quarter-half) and how pattern matching can be implemented:

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The base call for a traditional Cover 6 spot drop zone has the field side safety and corner dropping into deep quarter zones, but the triangle represents how the three field side defenders will work together as a unit. Based on the distributions of the two open receivers, the unit will change how it operates.

The terminology for pattern matching mimics that of traditional defensive jargon. Receivers are “numbered” from outside in. That is to say, the outside receiver is the #1, and the inside receiver is #2. If it were a Trips alignment or the back was to this side, the third would be #3, and so on.

In the above example, the defensive unit will be reading the distribution of #1 and #2 to determine how they will respond.

Under the TCU system, the field side cornerback will be reading the #2 receiver. If the corner sees #2 and #1 both run verticals, the corner will carry the #1 vertical and the safety will pick up the #2 - effectively acting as man coverage.

If the field corner sees the #2 breaking off his route as a hitch, corner, slant, or anything else short, this changes. The field corner will not carry #1 vertical, but stay home to defend the flat as the safety will defend the lone vertical.

Bear in mind, this is only one particular pattern matching ruleset, with an example of a two open receiver set. Defending trips or overload concepts becomes even more difficult. Other rulesets would have a defender assigned to take the first in-breaking receiver and another the first out-breaker. The complexities can pile up very quickly with pattern matching, but there is a constant.

Pattern matching allows defenses to more aggressively engage receivers based on rules and offensive movements rather than the more rudimentary spot drop zone or man schemes of the past.

The defensive part of this series will pick back up to examine more about Two Read, which Florida State will be using under Adam Fuller.