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Pattern Matching

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If you are a Longhorn fan, have the internet, and can read, you no doubt saw this article by CBS Sports columnperson Dennis Dodd. It is a shameless knob slobbering of an almost embarrassing degree, but goddamn if it doesn't get the blood racing. I dare you to read that and not openly weep.

Anyhow, once I was done head butting holes in my wall, I noticed that Dodd alluded to a coverage concept that we'll see under Muschamp without going into any great detail:

Part of Muschamp's allure is that he comes from the Bill Belichick-Nick Saban school of "pattern matching." The simple explanation is that the defense decides right before the snap whether to play man or zone.

The Longhorn nation responded: "Fuck yeah! Wait, what?"

Well, that's what I'm here for, because lord knows it isn't to give relationship advice. I bring the dots, and I bring them hard.

The quoted quote quotes Dodd as saying the defender makes the decision right before the snap. This means one of two things. Either Dodd misunderstood the explanation, or I'm about to kick you out of a metaphorical airplane with the cartoon anvil backpack. The concept as I know it happens right after the snap, so it could be that we're talking about two different things, or perhaps there's a step I'm missing. Regardless, I can shed a at least a little light on the basics of the concept, even if I'm woefully ignorant about certain specifics. This post will be like bad oral sex. Sorry ladies.

The term "pattern matching" comes from the latin exemplum compositus, which roughly translates to "pattern matching." Individual receivers run routes, and those routes collectively make the pattern. The defense, in turn, tries to "match" the "pattern" with an appropriate coverage based on reads of key players.

The concept itself was borne out of frustrations from trying to stop certain popular patterns by the offense, like the 13 year old who won't stop spamming the money plays in Madden. Take the extremely popular curl, which exists in every single modern offense. In olden times, when names on jerseys were written in Ye Olde English and every coach fancied a fedora and cigar, even in the shower, you had to defend the play one of two ways. Either man up:


Or play zone:


The methodology behind pattern matching is finding the threat to you and neutralizing it. In this case, the TE is not really a concern. All he's trying to to is create a gap in the defense to allow the primary receiver to get space. Since you know that no coherent offense will send two receivers to the same area, it's an extremely safe bet that the WR will either be going deep, or make an inside break somewhere. This is where the read comes in:


The corner will have the same responsibility regardless of what happens in this coverage. He is responsible for staying on top of the WR and not allowing anything deep, much like a soft corner in a cover 3. If he's good enough, you can try to have him close down on any out routes, but since the TE is already in the flat, it's assumed that the WR will not be breaking towards the sidelines, since it would create a situation where the LB could conceivably cover both guys.

The read here is the TE. If he runs to the flat, the OLB will cover him man to man. It's an easy route to cover, and it's a TE, so you don't expect a lot of trouble out of that route. The other half of the pattern matching here comes from the SS. He's reading the TE, too, and once the TE runs to the flat, the SS turns his attention to the WR. His job, now, is to "match" any inside break the WR makes. Everybody is essentially bottled in. We've found the threat and contained it.

Another troublesome pattern is an old Run & Shoot staple, the 4 verticals:


This patten puts a lot of pressure on the FS, so we are naturally desirous to keep him out of harm's way.


This is merely one example of many possible, but it shows very clearly the read that the OLB makes. This time the #2 receiver runs vertical, which is much more of a threat to the offense. Because of this, the DB with coverage skills is now responsible for covering him, while the OLB drops off in a zone. It's the exact same defensive call, but it's produced a totally different result.

The most handy thing pattern matching is that it gives you is a simple way to vary your underneath coverages. It can work with man or zone, or any combination coverages that you use, and it can give pause to any QB who is looking for a quick dump off.

The traditional man and zone have problems against short passing attacks. If you try to man underneath, it opens you up to problems with crossing routes, and can potentially put a LB in an impossible situation trying to cover someone with a big head start.

The Washington Holiday Bowl was a great example of how a well prepared team and abuse man coverage. LBs have run responsibilities that they have to respect, so on playaction they can get stuck waiting on a run while their man hauls ass across the field:


If that triggered anyone's PTSD, I'm terribly sorry.

Offenses can also abuse your alignment responsibilities:


Zone has it's issues, too. It's often way too easy to find a crease, turn, and just wait for the ball. If the timing is there, it's an easy pitch and catch, and a crucial staple to any quick hitting passing attack:


Pattern matching tries to eliminate both these problems by playing man, but waiting until after the snap to see who their man responsibility is. It starts out looking like a zone, but all the LBs are doing is dropping back and waiting to see who runs into their area. At that point, it's man coverage. If your guys blocks, then you just drop into a zone and play normal underneath coverage, based on the overall defensive call.




That last one there is possible because of the read scheme. The safety covers the TE, allowing the LBs to adjust to the flood.

The downside is that the offense can dictate matchups, but if you change up your coverages, or just have good athletes at LB, you can really minimize any impact these type of plays might otherwise have. And since it can be confusing to the QB, any extra beats he has to wait is just more time for the LB to close down on the receiver.

That's what this concept is all about. Create enough confusion to allow those crucial extra moments where the defense can make the play. If you don't disrupt the timing of an offense, pretty much anyone can beat you. If you do, it makes life difficult for even the best QBs.

It's just a very basic rundown, and parts may not apply Texas specifically, but that's the gist of what I understand this matchup zone to be. We've done a little of it before, but it sounds like Muschamp brings it to another level that I can't break down just yet. I'll have to watch us play more to really grasp what he's doing.

Based on guesses right now, I think you'll see a lot more coverage calls based on formation and what matchup we are looking at, instead of trying to be really good at doing one thing and doing it all the time. Variety is the spice of life, I say. Too bad that doesn't apply to offensive coordinators.

Yeah, I had to get a shot in.