Setting the Front in Match Coverage: Man Free with Zone Principles

By Rob Everett | Posted 6/5/2019

Being a primarily zone coverage defensive coach my entire career, I found match coverage to be exactly what we needed when looking for a man free coverage. Match coverage is similar to the popular Rip/Liz concept with a few important distinctions. This article will focus on the finer coaching points of this coverage as well as address common ways offenses attack it. In part two, we will investigate the front structure paired with the coverage in the even as well as run fits.

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Match Purpose:

Match coverage is an all-down call for us. It will be called on first and second down in normal territory. It gives the defense clear switch rules for man defenders and will still have one or two defenders with their eyes on the quarterback to protect the hole. Match coverage gives a defense a strong six-man box (no matter even or odd) with multiple second-level players keying the running back, a force player inside of the No. 2 receiver reducing the field and a post player closing the middle of the field. It is paired with a four-man rush and is adaptable to every formation with easy tweaks, including the increasingly popular Y-off offensive sets and empty. The goal with all defensive calls is to get your players aligning quickly and reacting fast. Match coverage keeps the same player in the post no matter the offensive alignment and asks the linebackers to adjust while giving them support. Every defense has vulnerabilities and match coverage forces offenses to look for favorable match ups because the scheme is balanced and sound.

Here are the base alignments against one back 2 by 2 and 3 by 1 sets.


Align 2 by 2


Align 3 by 1

Key Adjustments and Coaching Points

Tight Dividers: Against 3 by 1 alignments, match coverage leverages inside of No. 3 and outside of No. 2, which makes a natural switch situation for those defenders. This call is “buddy” and it is automatic for the Mike and OLB in 3 by 1. Bunches, stacks and tight splits are common weapons offenses use against man free concepts. This version of match aligns and fits against these route combinations in the base rules. Communication is key for defenders who want to buddy against No. 1 and No. 2 receivers (including if No. 2 is in the backfield), as the leverage will be changed for the inside defender. Any stem away from the defenders leverage before 3 yards will be passed off and switched. Anything beyond 3 yards will be locked. If a running back is involved in a buddy, the other defender responsible for the running back will hear an “alert push” call, which says he will take anything inside fast.

Tight Slot


Weak Tight

Against the tight dividers on both sides of the center, the defense should make a “tight, tight” call, which alerts everyone to the threat of the mesh concept. Offenses are making this concept even more stressful by sending the running back on a wheel route. Tight splits on both sides will make a three-way between the two outside leverage players on the No. 2s and the inside linebackers relating to the running back (No. 3). Essentially, the outside leverage players will take first out or first vertical, passing anything fast inside. Because the running back is involved in the buddy, there will be an alert push, which will tell the inside linebackers to pass the shallow drag starting from his side.

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Vertical Stem by No. 3:

Putting the Mike on No. 3 with inside leverage is the matchup most offenses will look to exploit in the pass game. The immediate inside is protected by the hole player (other inside linebacker or weak safety) and the immediate outside is protected by the buddy (rules outlined above). It is the vertical corner route by No. 3 that presents the biggest challenge for this linebacker. Superior technique to funnel will help make this throw difficult for even the best quarterbacks. The Mike begins playing with inside leverage, but when No. 3 threatens vertical, the Mike should slice to the outside hip and trail the route. This will provide body presence and force a higher throw allowing the help to arrive.


If you are really concerned about No. 3, spinning the safeties and keeping the linebackers in the box is a good adjustment. The free safety plays the same rules as the Mike, inside leverage on No. 3 with automatic buddy. We avoid this is possible because of wanting to keep the post player the same and adjusting on the second level.


Weak No. 1 Help:

It is not lost on a hardened defensive coach that in man free coverage, the weak-side receiver in a 3 by 1 alignment is left one-on-one. Any quality defensive coach will say that the best cover corner is placed into the boundary and that he will be able to hold up. Even so, match coverage has an answer to “remove” the weak No. 1 should the situation arise. As previously stated, the coverage is paired with a four-man rush and therefore has an extra defender deployed in the short hole. With a “double” call, the extra defender addresses the weak-side receiver, leaving the inside linebacker solo on the running back. While the call is double, the coverage is not true double coverage, which would be redundant because of the post player. Rather, the weak safety plays (and carries) the fast inside slant allowing the boundary corner to play with outside leverage to remove the fast out. This adjustment removes the underneath routes that this personnel matchup may be vulnerable to in man free. Once the receiver declares vertical, the weak safety gets eyes back to the quarterback.  


Y-Off Adjustment:

The Y-off alignment out of 11 personnel has been becoming more frequent at all levels of football. It gives the offense the power of a three-man surface while having the threat of adding that gap to the other side center by slicing the Y-across. When we make the match call against these sets (either 2 by 2 or 3 by 1), we merge rat principles with two high safeties relating to the offline tight end. The two safeties are responsible for the tight end and the post depending on the release. If the Y goes away from you as a safety, you dig to the post. Every other player on the defense remains consistent in assignment, including the two inside linebackers.

2x2 Y-Off

2x2 Y-Off

3x1 Y-Off

3x1 Y-Off


The best advantage for man free concepts is that assignments are easy, which allows the defense to play fast. In addition, defenders know where the weaknesses are. Pairing zone principles to man free concepts with match coverage allows you to have answers for the vulnerabilities inherent in man free. In part two, we will discuss setting the 3-technique in an even front to remain sound in the option game.


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