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Film Room: Why do the Colts not play more man coverage?

The Colts are primarily a zone defense but exactly why is that?

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at New York Jets Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Colts’ defense has had a rough couple of weeks. After only allowing an average of 19 points per game in the first three games of the season, the Colts have allowed a whopping 39 points per game in their last three. The Colts run a zone heavy defense and with the recent struggles fans have been calling for more man coverage in the coming weeks. I’m going to show you why that is not the ideal solution.

The Colts run primarily zone defense for a multitude of reasons, with the main one being that Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus came from a zone heavy system in Dallas. As a result, Eberflus has brought over familiar ideas and schemes to the Colts defense. Regardless, the amount of zone defense the Colts play is rather unprecedented. I counted roughly 7-10 pass plays — I was unsure about a few of the plays due to disguised coverage— from Sunday’s game that the Colts played man defense. Considering that Darnold threw the ball 30 times, that’s a very low number.

Why the call for the low percentage of man coverage?

I’ve come up with two reasons. One is that the Colts’ cornerbacks are simply not talented enough to play consistently in man coverage. The other reason is that the defense is way too aggressive to play man all game.

Let’s jump into a few plays from last game to prove my points here.

Corners Not Talented Enough

The Colts’ cornerback group is just not that talented. They have played better than expected this but are still well below the league average. The team’s top three corners are Nate Hairston, Kenny Moore, and Pierre Desir. All three have played significant snaps and each have made their fair share of plays. That being said, all three have been in zone coverage for a majority of the season.

According to The Quant Edge, Hairston has played in zone coverage 68.2% of the time while Moore has been in zone 56.2% and Desir in zone 47.4%. Why are they playing so much zone? Let’s look at the film.

Our first clip we have Nate Hairston lined up at the top of the screen in press man coverage. Hairston has rarely played press man this season, and it is fairly obvious here. The first— and biggest— mistake that Hairston makes here is that he doesn’t get a hand on the receiver. As a result, the receiver gets a free release off of the line en route to an easy catch.

Hairston fails to jam the receiver, does not disrupt the route at all, and reacts late to the throw.

The next clip is another example of Hairston getting beat in press man coverage, this time in the slot on the bottom of the screen. Hairston— learning from his earlier miscue— attempts to get a hand on the receiver early in the play. It is a poor attempt as he does not maintain proper balance in his stance. As a result, the receiver gets separation off of the line of scrimmage and picks up the first down.

Hairston has to commit to the jam or more plays like this will result. The receiver gets a relatively clean release and quarterback Sam Darnold is able to hit him in stride.

Switching our focus, we see Kenny Moore get beat from the slot on this route. Moore makes the same mistake as Hairston by not getting a hand up on the receiver. The result is a clean release and a lot of separation. Moore needs to be more aggressive instead of bouncing on his back feet, waiting for the receiver to engage him. He needs to set his feet, disrupt the route, and throw off the quarterback’s timing.

Our final clip focuses on corner Pierre Desir. Desir is presumably in off-man coverage here as he sits five yards off the ball as it is snapped. He makes the mistake of opening up his hips way too early here and doesn’t initiate contact with the receiver at the top of his route. With the receiver getting a clean cut inside, Darnold has an easy completion over the middle.

Desir is the team’s best man corner and this is still a difficult rep. He should have been more patient with this route rather than turning to run, expecially when he has safety help over the top.

These clips show that the Colts cornerbacks are simply outmatched in man coverage. Whether its due to mental mistakes or a lack of talent, the Jets’ receivers took advantage of the Colts’ when the defense went to man coverage on Sunday. Most of these clips also came on third down and intended to make the throwing lanes tighter. Instead, Darnold had an easier time finding targets against man and that led to bigger plays and more points.

Too Undisciplined

This is to be expected from the Colts cornerbacks as they are extremely young and aggressive. With youth and aggressiveness comes a lot of mistakes. The Colts are 4th in the NFL in terms of yards per rush allowed — an excellent stat. However, when the team over-commits to run defense, they tend to make mistakes against the pass — particularly in man coverage situations. Mistakes have plagued the secondary but the zone scheme has hidden some of them. Here’s what some other experts have to say about some of the mistakes Colts’ players make in pass coverage.

In zone coverage though, this over-committing to the run game can be masked with safeties still making plays. If the middle of the field is left open in zone, the safety is typically right there to make a play. In man coverage? Not as much.

One clip that provides and example of this against the Jets is the big touchdown pass to Chris Herndon to start the second half. The Jets notice that the Colts came out in the second half playing man coverage. To counter and take advantage of the Colts’ overaggressiveness, the Jets drew up a fake WR screen- wheel route. This works to perfection as almost every defender bites on the fake.

These types of mistakes are fatal in man coverage and often lead to touchdowns like this play below. In zone, the damage likely would’ve been more manageable.

Final Thoughts

What can we take away from the tape?

I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised with the play of Kenny Moore, Pierre Desir, and Nate Hairston this season. Each has filled in nicely as starters and are executing well in Eberflus’ zone scheme. However, at this point, this is what they are.

None of these guys will be number one corners in the NFL and don’t have the ability or skill set to match up well in man defense. They can sit back and play zone but when tasked with matching one-on-one, they are horribly over matched.

This defense is very young— and promising— but it has many holes. A heavy zone scheme can hide those flaws and direct a lot of the traffic to the Colts’ play makers like Darius Leonard and Malik Hooker. The defense is definitely struggling with injuries and allowing way too many chunk plays but I fully believe that if they continue to stick with zone coverage, they will turn it around.

I do like that Matt Eberflus tried to mix things up in order to confuse Darnold but I’d rather see this team stick with its identity. The best way to utilize the players on the Colts’ defense is to mitigate the weak players on the team and play bend don’t break football. I hope Eberflus and Reich saw the same after reviewing the film.

Once key players like Denico Autry and Clayton Geathers are healthy, I expect the defense to improve.