The zone in football is a defensive coverage strategy where players on the defense are assigned specific areas on the field called zones to defend. Whenever an offensive player enters the zone the defensive player is there to stop them on both running plays and passing plays.
Pros and Cons of Zone Coverage
Zone coverage allows the defensive backs to read the quarterback and focus on the play as a whole rather than following their man around the field. This typically results in more interceptions than man to man defense because defensive backs have more time to read and react to a pass. Playing a zone defense is also usually less exhausting for a defense because it involves staying in one area. Finally, zone defense minimizes big plays because of the safeties automatically occupying deep areas.
The downside to a zone defense is that it is easier to pick apart with an experienced quarterback. Zone coverage allows for easy throws underneath and between the zones, and offenses are often armed with many plays specifically designed to work against zone defenses. Playing zone means your defensive backs need to be able to recognize and thwart offensive patterns quicker than they happen, which is no easy task.
Types of Zone Coverage
In a Cover 2 scheme, two safeties drop back into deep coverage while the remaining defensive backs (usually five) mark the areas in between.
In the Cover 2, it is key for the cornerbacks to force the outermost wide receivers inside towards the linebackers. The receivers may try to get past the cornerbacks along the sideline in order to draw the attention of a safety and open up the middle of the field.
The Cover 3 is a defensive play in which three defensive backs will drop back into deep coverage and four will cover shorter passes. It is often viewed as an easily-solvable defense, but it has many variations that are used at higher levels of competition.
Cover 4 drops four defenders back and is usually only for long-yardage situations.
A "prevent" play on defense is when every single defensive back drops deep to prevent a touchdown. This play is usually reserved for use against a Hail Mary when the offense is in a do-or-die situation.
Usages of Zone Coverage
Zone coverages are slightly more popular than man to man ones at high levels of play, although a good defense will be able to run either. Zone defenses can be popular on late downs because defenses are less concerned with giving up short-yardage plays.