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Man Crush

Offenses love it when opponents choose man-on-man coverage over zone in goal-to-go situations

Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers must have been giddy when he saw man-to-man coverage on wide receiver Malcom Floyd on first-and-goal from the nine late in the first half of Sunday's AFC West showdown with the Chiefs. Floyd is 6' 5", has good speed and leaps as if he has helium in his Nikes. Rivers is always glad when he gets Floyd singled up. What made this matchup even more exciting was that Rivers was facing man coverage in a goal-to-go passing situation, something he says that he sees only 10% of the time.

Most defenses these days prefer to play zone in "tight red," the area between their own 10-yard line and the end zone. "Man coverage makes it cleaner for you as a quarterback," says Rivers, who found Floyd for the second of their two scoring connections in a 31--0 win, which pushed the Chargers to within a game of first place. "It's awfully crowded when you get to that part of the field, so when you know it's stone cold 'man,' you can lock in and be a little more aggressive. When it's zone, the receiver may pop open, but you may be running him right into another defender that's floating around."

A survey of a half dozen play-callers revealed the widespread preference for man-to-man over zone coverage in passing situations inside the opposing 10. In addition to the advantages Rivers listed, it's also easier for teams with tall, athletic wideouts to use their physical skills on fade routes, back-shoulder throws and jump balls—Floyd stretched to beat 5'9" rookie cornerback Javier Arenas for the TD catch on a corner route from the slot position. That helps explain why more defenses are going with "quarters" coverages, in which the field is divided into fourths and a defensive back is responsible for each zone. They are also using more combination defenses, mixing man and zone, as well as bracketing and layering coverages against receivers.

It's not uncommon to see a D rush three and drop eight, as the Chiefs did on the play in question. Defenses feel that zones put the burden on the quarterback to be precise, increasing the chances of an incompletion or an interception. And those schemes can also force the QB to hold the ball a fraction of a second longer to read the coverage, potentially leading to a sack.

"It's tough," Rivers said of picking apart zones inside the 10. "You have to make yourself know you're going to have time to throw. You have a tendency to rush, just because what you've worked on is boom, boom, boom, throw it or it's a sack. But when they're only rushing three, you can go through the progression and almost keep working it. Somebody may flash in the back of the end zone for you."

Or in Sunday's case, the defense will make your life easier by giving you man coverage on a wideout who is eight inches taller and 28 pounds heavier than the cornerback opposite him. That will make any quarterback happy.

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FOR THE TAKING Rivers (inset) saw Arenas alone on Floyd (left) and hit his man for a nine-yard TD in San Diego's 31--0 blowout.