Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Pattern Reading vs Spot Dropping

This is a debate I deal with on a regular basis. What type of zone coverage is more effective for high school athletes. Most (if not all) colleges employ some form of pattern-match coverage. However, many high school coaches believe that this type of coverage is difficult for high school athletes to preform. In this post I will explore the pro's and con's of each.

Spot Dropping Defined

Spot dropping is just what it sounds like. On a pass read, pass defenders begin to drop back toward landmarks on the field. Terms like "Top of the numbers" "hash" , and "middle of the field" are used as horizontal markers. Then a depth is usually assigned. For example, a hook to curl linebacker could have a landmark 12-14 yards deep.

While on their landmark and in the process of dropping there, players have their head on a "swivel" reading the QB's eyes while they get to their landmark. In this scheme coaches emphasize two main things:

1. Break on the Ball
2. Gain depth

  • Simple to teach
  • Simple to execute
  • More eyes are on the ball
  • Better pursuit
  • Poor throws can easily be intercepted
  • Defenders can be stuck covering grass
  • There are many windows in the defense
  • Requires a better than average pass rush
  • A proficient passing team can slice you apart
  • Very susceptible to Intermediate routes.

Pattern Matching Defined

Rather than take your drop to a spot and wait for receivers to arrive, pattern-match coverage involves taking coverage to the most dangerous threat a defender recognizes in his zone. In this coverage defenders are taught to key certain receivers when they read pass. Usually, it is the #2 WR to their side. From the receivers action, they can diagnose whom the most likely threat to their zone is.

After a certain point, pattern-match coverage turns into man coverage. The aim of this coverage is to get the best of both worlds. Zone offers defenders the advantage of having their eyes in the backfield playing the run before the have to commit to the pass. On the other hand, man coverage puts defenders in the dark as far as the run goes, they are dialed in on the WR that they have in coverage. Pattern-reading uses zone principals early, and man principals late.

  • Fewer windows
  • Fewer completions
  • Ability to play run and cover intermediate routes
  • Defender aren't stuck covering grass
  • confusing for the quarterback
  • QB scrambles could hurt
  • Takes more time to teach initially
  • Fewer interceptions
  • more susceptible to the big play
  • more potential mismatches.

Are the Two Coverages Mutually Exclusive?

Is there a team that is purely a spot drop team or purely a pattern match team? I don't think so. In today's game of spread out offenses, no team will survive with traditional spot dropping. Conversely, in pattern matching the defenders know the general area that their coverage will be in.

In spot-dropping the underneath defenders are taught to see the QB as well as the WR's that could cross their zones. There are times the defenders are told to collision or re-route receivers. This is a principals at the heart of pattern matching.

My Position

These modern offense requires defenses to adjust. The same old style of defense is not gonna work the same way. As one side evolves the other side must as well. I am a firm believer in pattern reading. It just make sense in today's game.

The main argument against pattern-matching is difficulty. Many coaches argue that it is too difficult and that typical high school athletes cannot handle it. They reason along these lines. "Spot dropping is easier than pattern-matching. Our players are making mistakes spot dropping. So how can they begin to understand pattern reading?" The other line of reasoning involves the capability of high school athletes. Many critics question a players ability to see all these routes. I agree that at time it may appear like a lot, but like anything in football, it can be taught if you perfect the way you are going to teach it.

Training the Eyes

When making any type of "reads" in football, it all boils down to the eyes. There needs to be methodology to where a players eyes are supposed to be looking and how they respond to what they see. The more clear we can be with the progression of a players eyes, their ability to diagnose a situation, and trigger the appropriate response; the better we can all be at coaching defense. In the analysis below, the focus will be on underneath droppers, not the deep defenders.

Eyes in Spot Dropping

First, eyes begin on the run/pass key. The most common keys are linemen and running back. Regardless of the key, the player should be able to diagnose run/pass and then move on to the next action. If the defender reads pass, the player should open to his landmark and begin dropping. The eyes should go to the QB second to diagnose the drop type. (On sprint out flow rules usually trigger) On straight drop back plays the linebacker continues towards his landmark reading the QB back to his landmark on the "swivel". This is the basic way of spot dropping. Most coaches have tried to incorporate reads into their drops. However, this is where problems have occurred. The problem is usually a rules conflict.

This conflict stems from two primary goals of spot dropping. First, is the ability to see the QB so the defender can break on the ball. Second, is to gain depth. This is done to prevent an intermediate route from getting wide open. The philosophy is that if the player can accomplish goal #1 and goal#2 then the only open passes should be shallow routes. Shallow routes are not a big concern, because the underneath defenders will be able to see the QB release the ball. This allows the players to break forward and keep the play to a minimal gain. However it usually does not work this way.

Intermediate routes become open anyway. The defenders are so busy focusing their eyes on the landmark and QB that they don't know where the intermediate receiver is going to be. By the time they "break on the ball" they are usually out of position to make a play on it. Coaches begin adjusting their drop rules and involve pattern read concepts. They try to train their players to see these routes developing. Many times these players learn how to do this. However, the rules conflict rears its ugly head. When you begin to involve reads two things usually happen. First, the defenders do not see the QB as well and the "break on the ball" is not as good. Second, depth suffers because droppers will stop and delay more when reading routes.

This angers the traditional spot-drop coaches, because they have always emphasized breaking on the ball and gaining depth. They have the habit of emphasizing these top two goals. The main problem is there is no clear process of where a players eyes go. In traditional spot-dropping the eyes are simple: swivel from the QB to the landmark. If you begin to involve reads into this system and emphasize these two goals the same way, then conflicts will be present. Spot-dropping will become more difficult and frustrating then before. I am not saying all spot-dropping coaches go through this. I am noting this because it is a trap that is easy to fall into.

Whenever you begin integrating route-read concepts into a spot drop philosophy, players will not drop to depth as consistently nor break on the ball as quickly.

Eyes in Pattern Reading

Similarly to spot dropping, eyes begin on run/pass keys. Once reading pass, the eyes go to a completely different place than their spot-drop counter parts. The body begins dropping in a predetermined direction, but the eyes flash to a particular receiver. Depending on what that receiver does the eyes could move somewhere else and/or the direction of the drop can alter quite a bit. Players are usually given a 3/2 drop or 2/1 drop. These are forms of "Hook to Curl" and "Curl to Flat". Here is an example

A 3/2 drop is usually an inside linebacker. On pass he opens at 45* and reads #3 (usually the RB) if he releases vertical he has him man to man. This is simple, on pass look at #3 if he goes deep you run with him. If #2 blocks or releases outside, the backer expands his eyes to #2. If #2 is running vertical, the backer walls him off and gets his eyes on #1. In this step he is anticipating #1 to make an inside cut (curl or dig route). If #1 continues vertical past 15 yards his final read is the QB, his technique to break down and rob the QB's eyes. This is not an exhaustive list, just a simple example of eye progression in pattern-matching. To Recap the linebackers eyes:

3/2 Pattern-Drop Eye Progression

1. Run/Pass Key
2. #3
3. #2
5. Rob the quarterback's eyes

This is an example of cover 3 rules. In Cover 3, it is difficult for the inside linebacker to get underneath curl routes in a spot-drop scheme. But, in pattern reading the reads take the backer to the curl, to the point that he is anticipating the route. It is easier to get coverage on the route because the backer will have his eyes on the receiver.

At first this may seem like a lot to someone unfamiliar with this type of coverage. With enough time and understanding it becomes easy to coach. The key is emphasizing the progression of the players eyes and the recognition of what to do. This only requires simple terminology and efficient drills.

In this philosophy, you don't have to talk about routes in the general sense. Terms like slant, hitch, dig, and arrow can confuse the process. You only need to talk about receivers and their movements. If a player makes a mistake on his reads, the process is simple to correct. Questions are the key. Using the example of the 3/2 drop discussed above: if a player failed to cover #1 on a curl, what was the problem. He probably never got his eyes on #1. Ask him, "what did #1 do?" He won't know. Players will gain confidence in this system, because through repetition, reading a route progression will become second nature.

One major drawback to pattern-matching is that there will be fewer interceptions. Turnovers are a big key on defense. You have to weigh it with the benefits. The increased coverage will lower receptions and scoring. As a coach you have to decide what best fits you.


As the game changes so must we. High school teams have become more effective at passing the balls. If you try to play the same old keep the ball in front of you and break on the philosophy, you are going to get exploited. Spot dropping has its merits, but when you play in a league with proficient passing teams, you are gonna have trouble. Offensive coaches have done a great job.

Pattern-matching can make a tremondous difference for your team, if you commit to installing it. High School athletes can handle it. I once worked with 8th graders in the offseason, and showed them how to read routes. After a week it became easy for them. They would play 7on7 and have the routes covered. They even would talk to eachother with the proper terminology. The 2/1 dropper would yell at the 3/2 guy and say "Why did he catch the ball? #3 released out and #2 came in at you."

If spot dropping works for you and you are having success with, then by all means commit to it. A scheme is as good as its effectiveness. As coaches it helps to understand the different things teams are trying to do. Down the road coverage will probably take another evolution, because offenses will begin adjusting to pattern matching even more at the high school level.

1 comment:

  1. Great blog post. What are some other resources for a cover 3 pattern match read system?