The Evolution of Coverage
In the olden days, coverage was simple. There was man coverage, where you picked out a guy before the snap and then followed him all over the field after the snap. And there was zone coverage, where after the snap you ran to a spot on the field and waited for a throw to head your way.
Then offenses adapted with rub and timing routes to thwart man, and pattern concepts that broke open zones. Suddenly you couldn’t cover that guy like you used to, and you couldn’t wait for the throw to cue your break from zone. And sometimes you couldn’t do anything at all because no one came your way and you were stuck guarding grass. So defenses countered with rules for swapping man assignments, and spot defenders started covering receivers as soon as they entered their zones.
For their next evolution, offenses had their receivers read the defense while they were running routes. Are you a defender dropping into a zone? Tough luck, because the receiver is going to bait you into getting deep, then break his route off, make an easy catch, and leave you with a tough open-field tackle. Are you up on the line of scrimmage playing jam-man? Tougher luck, because the receiver is going to give you a shake step and streak past you for a deep catch.
So defenses turned the tables and instead of assigning their players particular men or zones to defend, they assigned their players with reading and defending certain routes. For example, a corner might be assigned with a cluster of deep routes, such as flys, posts, and corners. This was an NFL advancement, honed in the 70s and 80s by coaches like Bill Belichick and Nick Saban to beat quarterbacks like Dan Marino and Joe Montana. The result of a read-based coverage is that a defender can play man and zone at the same...
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