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Film room: What is Pattern Match Zone? (Part 1)

How Nick Saban helped add another element to pass defense.

Robert E. Klein/Icon SMI

I’m sure a lot of you already know the basics about the base pass coverages from things like Madden and TV announcers/analysts: cover 0, 1, 2, Tampa 2, cover 3, 4, etc. Something a lot of people bring up, however, but don’t really explain that much is pattern match zone. It’s a very integral part of pass defense at all levels, but is something that doesn’t get covered too often, so I wanted to give you guys a basic guide to this concept of pattern match zone.

For this first post, I’m just going to do a simple breakdown of the two, basic, single high safety pattern match concepts: cover 3 match (rip/liz) and cover 3 mable. Here’s the story behind them:

Basically, Nick Saban had a big problem to solve while working in Cleveland under Bill Belichick in 1994. In football, playing with two high (split) safeties generally helps against the pass and playing with one high safety helps against the run. This is because with one safety high and one safety down, you can get an extra guy in the box.

To deal with units like the Steelers’ run game, Saban had to play single high safety defenses to get that extra safety in the box. That meant that Saban had two main options for pass coverage: cover 3 and cover 1. However, he didn’t have the personnel with the Browns to play man to man cover 1, so he tried cover 3.

“But if their mens are better than your mens, you can’t play cover 1.” — Nick Saban

That didn’t work either because the offense would just gash them with four verticals; four deep routes vs three deep defenders is mathematically a bad situation. As a result, the Browns couldn’t play a single high safety defense, so they couldn’t stop the run.

“So now we can’t play an 8 man front. The 1994 Browns went 13-5, we lost to Steelers three times, lost five games total (twice in the regular season, once in the playoffs). We gave up the fifth fewest points in the history of the NFL, and lost to Steelers because we could not play eight-man fronts to stop the run because they would wear us out throwing it.” — Nick Saban

Sometimes football is just that simple: play single high safety defenses and get beat through the air; play with two high safeties defenses and get beat on the ground. So Saban, Belichick and the Browns had to find out how to stop the run with one high safety, but still be able to play zone, due to their lack of personnel, and still somehow stop four verticals. The result was rip/liz match.

“We came up with this concept; how we can play cover 1 and cover 3 at the same time, so we can do both these things and one thing would complement the other. We came up with the concept ‘rip/liz match.’” -Nick Saban

The concept is pretty simple:

  1. The Flat defender has the #2 receiver (Slot or Tight end) man to man IF he goes vertical
  2. The Cornerback has the #1 (Outside receiver) receiver man to man IF he goes vertical
  3. If both #1 and #2 go vertical, the hook defender will cover #3 (the remaining receiver to that side)

It’s basically a cover 3 defense, unless they run verticals. Here it is drawn up:

This way, the defense can play zone coverage, but adjust to cover 1 if the offense runs verticals. Here’s an example where Rip/Liz Cover 3 turns into just straight, spot drop cover 3:

As you can see here, #2 on both sides are not vertical, so the coverage turns to traditional cover 3. This is because if #2 is not vertical, the offense can’t run four verticals and get the mathematical advantage vs three deep, so there’s no need to adjust to cover 1.

Here’s a good example from the AFC Championship game last year, where Jacksonville ran Rip/Liz cover 3 match. On the strong side (top of the screen), New England runs two verticals, so Jacksonville plays it like cover 1. On the weak side (bottom of the screen), #2 is under (not vertical), so Jacksonville plays regular cover 3.

Here’s Nick Saban breaking down the Rip/Liz Cover 3 match concept in more detail:

So we just covered how Saban defended four verticals from a 2x2 set (2 receivers on each side). But what about four verticals from a 3x1 set?

Saban had a check created for that called Mable. Mable means man coverage to the single receiver side and cover 3 to the three-receiver side.

As you can see, the weak side linebacker and cornerback take the single receiver and running back man to man, while the rest of the defenders play zone.

If the offense ran that four-verticals concept from 3x1, the Mike linebacker would carry #3 vertical and the free safety would stay on top of #2 vertical, while the corner took #1 vertical.

A common offensive counter to this cover 3 mable coverage is to put a fast receiver at the #3 receiver spot to beat that Mike linebacker one-on-one deep. Here’s an example:

Defenses can counter back by replacing that Mike linebacker with a safety robbing down, as a safety is much better suited to turn and run with a receiver than a linebacker is.

As you can see, the coverage is still the same. The only difference is the players’ responsibilities have swapped around.

If you guys enjoyed this, let me know and I can continue this series and go deeper into pattern match zone concepts! I have more information on these single high safety pattern match concepts and on quarters and other two high safety coverages, but it can get a lot more complicated than this!

Next post though, I will be talking about Saban’s rules for cover 1 (what he calls the best coverage in ball).