A common criticism for the New England Patriots defense is that they didn’t play enough man coverage to start the season. That a lot of the miscommunications in the secondary stemmed from zone coverage and the team’s inability to do their jobs and cover the correct players.
The Patriots zone defense was certainly poorly executed. New England was also just really bad in man coverage, too.
Pro Football Focus has mapped every coverage decision during the 2017 season to see which teams utilize man coverage more than zone coverage, and the Patriots are towards the top of the list. In fact, only two teams rely on man coverage more than New England.
The Patriots deploy man coverage on 49% of snaps, suggesting a nearly perfect 50/50 split between man and zone. And when you think about it, that divide makes sense as head coach Bill Belichick wants to keep opposing offenses on their toes and to remain unaware about the Patriots coverage choices.
“The New England Patriots were among the leaders in man coverage a season ago and despite their defense leaking badly over the first portion of 2017, they remain an aggressive unit in terms of how much man coverage they play,” PFF writes. “They have allowed a league-leading 11 touchdowns while in man coverage, five more than any other side.”
Apparently the Patriots man coverage is responsible for 11 of the team’s 14 passing touchdowns allowed this season. That’s not a good look and it’s not like all of these touchdowns were in the red zone where it was a strategic decision. There have been breakdowns in man coverage all over the field.
Only the Kansas City Chiefs (63.5%) and Atlanta Falcons (49.5%) use man coverage more than the Patriots, with the Seattle Seahawks (47.9%) and Tennessee Titans (47.1%) rounding out the top five. The Chiefs, Falcons, and Seahawks have allowed 9 passing touchdowns in man coverage combined, two fewer than the Patriots have allowed on their own.
The Chiefs defense is the only one that uses more man coverage with any statistical significance and they’ve been excellent, “allowing just 50 percent of the passes thrown against their man coverage to be caught.”
The Patriots should stick with their usage of man coverage, but it can’t be viewed as the savior of the defense. Even the defense that relies the most heavily on man coverage still uses zone more than a third of the time. New England simply has to improve in every facet of coverage and the defenders have to clean up their mental errors.