Film Room: Pattern Matching Made Easy


Kicking off this week with another Film Room. Know you guys have been asking for more of this and I love you all for it. My favorite topics to write about.

Keith Butler had a lengthy conversation with the media during last week’s minicamp. Much of it revolved around schematic changes in the secondary. Playing more man, which is easy for anyone to understand, but he also spent a minute talking about pattern matching, or a “matchup zone,” as he referred to it.

Here’s what he said, via Matthew Marczi’s article on the subject.

“We just need to enhance our matchup zones. Matchups zones to me is like a man-to-man coverage”, Butler told reporters. “You match the guy when you figure out whether he’s one, two, or three. We count from the outside in whoever becomes one, two, or three. Those type of things we’re matching on”.

We’ve written about the concept a lot. Including recently. Then, we discussed perhaps his most common match, Palms, with the outside corner trapping the #2 (slot) receiver on any out-breaking route.


There are times where the team matches without it even looking like it. Today, we’re going to look at a simple example.

Here is one of the Steelers’ pattern matches out of an inverted Cover 2 look. You probably know the basics of Cover 2; the corners sit in the flats, two high look, the MIKE ‘backer getting depth. That is part of what we see on this play against the Indianapolis Colts. But pattern matching tweaks the look.

Here’s the pre-snap look. 11 personnel, 2×2 look against the Steelers nickel defense.

Pittsburgh is trying to disguise their look as best they can. It looks like Cover 1 pre-snap. Perhaps a safety blitz by Mike Mitchell, something you see against a lot of 2×2 sets. But the secondary rotates on the snap of the ball. Sean Davis moves to his Cover 2 landmark, two yards to the inside of the numbers and Ross Cockrell gets depth, becoming the inverted safety. A sky look, the safety (Mitchell) with less depth than Cockrell, the corner.

You see the pattern match to the bottom. Cover 2 and Cover 3 are vulnerable to four verticals. In a spot dropping Cover 2, the corner would funnel the #1 receiver inside to his safety help and sit in the flat. It’s vulnerable though to vertical concepts. Because if both #1 and #2 release vertically, as they do on this play, who will pick both up? It’d be two receivers versus one safety, big trouble for the defense.

If #2 would have jumped out, then yes, Artie Burns would have trapped him, passing off #1 to the safety. That’s the essence of pattern matching. You’re playing a man. You just don’t know who until the receivers declare.

But they both go up, so Burns takes all of #1 vert.

Now check the top of the screen. Mitchell rolls into the box as the sky safety, playing the flat. As #1 sits inside on the curl, Mitchell’s football IQ comes into play. With #1 on a curl, you have to be alert for common route combinations off it. What is one of the most common with #1 sitting? Smash, #2 running a corner. So Mitchell immediately begins to get depth and look to squeeze any potential corner route off.

Of course, no corner route ever comes. Dwayne Allen runs a dig instead. Lawrence Timmons, in his usual MIKE depth, is able to keep vision on the route and the QB, driving on the ball.

It’s slightly off target anyway and falls incomplete. Steelers get off the field on 3rd down (Colts would convert on a 4th down fake but ehh, let’s pretend that didn’t happen).

On paper, it might look like just straight Cover 2. Or even Cover 6. But pattern matching, and any sophisticated NFL coverage – which they almost have to be at this point – has a ton of moving parts on each play.

Ideally, this is what the Steelers defense will look like in 2017. Clearly, they want to run a lot of Cover 2. They did more of that than any other team last year. But a straight Cover 2 is tough to run in the league present day because of its simple, obvious vulnerabilities. Marrying this coverage with something more exotic like pattern matching is what this defense needs. When it all works together, it’s a beautiful thing.

About the Author

Alex Kozora
Full-time blogger from mom's basement. Marrying tape and statistics. Chidi Iwuoma is my favorite Steeler of all-time.
  • Boots

    I know you’ve shown some examples out of cover 2 here, but doesn’t matchup zones lend itself better to more cover 3 where you don’t potentially have posts and such covered with a LB…especially if it’s VW?

  • Alex Kozora

    It works for any zone coverage. In Cover 3, you’ll get Rip/Liz Match, a Nick Saban concept, to protect vs 4 verts.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    but when you switch to that you have to have linebackers that can actually move.

  • Alex Kozora

    I don’t see it as being a huge issue. It isn’t a dramatic shift for those guys.

  • Michael Conrad

    Lets look at this play . Four receivers going down field. Seven players defending four. The match up was loose and two players were open. Four man rush did not get close. I think the most players dropping should be six if you could play more real man. I would like to see more pressure on the QB this year. The play looked well executed and receivers looked covered at first. I don’t think you trick teams any more its a passing league and all QB’s have seen all the D formations many times . The answer is better coverage with man and more pressure on the QB.

  • Alan Tman

    What happens when people use bunch groupings like we do?

  • WreckIess

    Butler used a lot of different coverages last season and I’m hoping this gets used a lot more, but the biggest issue I’m seeing is how ineffective the pass rush was. The blitz wasn’t very effective and there was no real pressure on the QB. Luckily, Tolzien isn’t good enough to make the throw, but a better QB completes that and gets the first with that clean of a pocket.

    I’d love to see more of this type of coverage, but if the pass rush in front of it remains that way, the concept is going to end up getting scrapped for something safer, again.

  • WreckIess

    I don’t have the luxury of All-22 film, but I assume they would’ve just bracketed it. Burns would’ve had whoever goes , Davis gets whoever goes deep and Will Gay passes whoever goes inside off to the ILBs.

  • Alex Kozora

    It might not change things. You just wait for the receivers to declare. You could also use a box call, 4 defenders over 3 receivers. Players will be asked to take the first in, the first out-breaking route, which is another idea of pattern matching, in a sense.

  • Craig M

    It takes seconds to adjust and only milliseconds for the QB to change from primary receiver thought to secondary receiver becoming main target so I still believe that even w/ the positive of camouflage of your secondary protection rushing/ disrupting the QB timing is paramount. Just for discussion sake- the best Defense alignment I ever saw the Steelers run was when a rookie QB came into the game, was over center looked up and saw 10 Steelers on the line- immediately wasted a Time Out call, laughed my butt off.

  • Mark

    Hate this coverage, it is hard to disguise and the bood teams automatically run 4 verticals against it. What happens, touchdown or big play

  • Shane Mitchell

    This is in essence what Tomlin was talking about with their inability to play man coverages after the Patriots game. Fans took that and jumped to conclusions that he was talking about straight man coverages, and we need a bunch of man cover CBs that can play press man coverage . That wasnt what he was talking about at all. We did try to play some match up zone against the Patriots and failed, because the DBs were not always on the same page. The key to the coverage is communication and route recognition, that is the weakness we had that prevented us from running the coverage effectively last season. Its a bit more complicated than just figuring out who to cover at the snap, If you give smart teams like the Patriots time in the pocket they can run deep option routes down the seam and put pressure on your secondary to communicate and hand off coverage.

    With man coverages a lot of people assume its all about the CBs physical abilities and thats why we couldnt play more man coverages or match up zones. Its about communication skills and making reads and the position where it puts additional pressure on versus a Cover-2 zone are the safety positions. If you have a rookie safety on the field, spot dropping into a cover-2 zone is about as simple as it gets for him, but if you want to play matchup zone or 2-man coverages suddenly it requires the safeties to make reads on each play and not just spot drop.

    Fans seemingly want to cut every veteran DB on the team and insert rookies that they think can play man coverages better, because they think it is simple and all about pure cover skill, thats far from the truth this isnt pop warner football, no team in the NFL has CBs that can line up and play straight man coverage all over the field on NFL wide receivers. NFL WRs and QBs will kick your ass with big play after big play if you try that in the NFL. If you dont know that watching how our own offense operates and what they do as soon as they recognize straight man coverage then you arent paying attention. It makes a QBs job pretty easy it doesnt take Tom Brady to beat man coverage, Tim Tebow is good enough as was the case when we lost to the Broncos in the playoffs trying to play a bunch of straight man coverage, all he had to do was throw the ball deep and let his receiver make a play.

    If you look at what they liked about Cameron Sutton it was his communication and football IQ, thats his strength, he isnt a great tackler, and isnt a great press man cover corner, but he showed the ability to communicate well in the secondary while in college, whether or not that translate to the NFL is yet to be determined.

  • Alex Kozora

    You hate it? Sure ended well here. They disguised it as well.

  • Alex Kozora

    I generally agree Shane, though I do believe we’ll see an increase in straight man coverage this year. Especially if they want to throw in new ways to slow down some of the top TEs they faced. Against KC last year, with Gilbert on him, they ran C1 for all seven snaps.

  • Shane Mitchell

    Yeah, against certain offenses and QBs its makes sense to play more cover-1 KC being a good example, but I dont like the idea of seeing what happens trying to play a bunch of straight man coverage against the likes of Mike Wallace, John Ross and Brandin Cooks its just asking for it.

  • Alex Kozora

    Sure, like I said, only for certain teams. You want coverages to be flexible and tipping your hand by having that specialty player in the game doesn’t help you. It’s not a one-size-fits-all coverage.