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The difference between zone and man is a very simple concept, really. In man coverage, your players are assigned to cover a specific man. Wherever the man goes, player X goes.
Example: You choose a defensive play, and on that play's assignments, linebacker Patrick Willis is assigned to cover tight end Jason Witten. Wherever Witten goes, Willis goes. If Witten becomes the man in motion before the snap, Willis will move around and follow him to whatever side he moves to before the snap. This is man coverage.
Zone coverage: You choose a defensive play and your players are assigned to cover a specific AREA on the field, as opposed to covering a man.
Example: you choose a defensive play, and linebacker Patrick Willis is assigned to drop back in coverage over the middle of the field. Regardless of who catches the ball or where they run prior to the throw, Willis has to defend the middle of the field. Regardless of who runs across the middle of the field (TE, RB, whoever), Willis has to defend passes over the middle on this play.
Man/zone is not just limited to your linebackers, either. You can have your defensive line dropping back in zone coverage if you wish to do that as opposed to having them rush the passer. Your secondary is also bound by their assignments of man or zone coverage.
If you play strictly man coverage and you give the passer the time he needs to make a play, then his playmakers will get open (especially if they're excellent route runners). Always playing in man coverage can also result in mismatches that will backfire on you.
If you play strictly zone coverage and you give the passer the time to make the play, he will look at the field and see what his best options are to do the most damage with his pass. Also, always using zone coverage can be a bad idea. If you call a play where all of your defensive players are in zone coverage and it is a short zone coverage, then you are likely to be beat by the deep ball. Also, zone coverage can be prone to giving up yards on quick-developing plays (three-step drops with slant routes and drag routes).
Basically, the goal is to figure out what kind of plays your opponent likes to call offensively. Once you feel like you are inside your opponents' head, then you know what type of plays to call defensively. It is always a good idea to mix up your defensive plays and use a combination of blitz packages, zone coverages and man coverages until you get a feel for the other team's playcalling.
If you are able to do well enough to force a third and long, you KNOW they are going to pass the ball and you do anything you can to prevent the first down and the long touchdown. The game is all about limiting the possibilities and using the powers of deduction to figure out what the opposition is going to do.
One other thing: be sure to understand your players' abilities. If you are the Philadelphia Eagles, you can likely get away with calling man coverage more often than zone coverage due to the talent the Eagles' secondary has.
If you are blitzing with a cornerback, make sure it is a corner who can actually tackle. Regardless of what his OVR is, you want a corner who can tackle the QB or RB. You do not want to be blitzing with somebody like Deion Sanders.
Also, be sure to use this knowledge to your advantage. For example, let's say the other team has a 3-4 defense on the field and you have at least 3 potential receivers on the line of scrimmage (2 WRs and a TE or perhaps 3 WRs). Either put your slot WR in motion, or your TE in motion. Watch the outside linebackers near your TE and your slot receivers. If they are not moving with your receiver while your receiver is in motion, then those OLBs are likely either blitzing or dropping back in zone coverage somewhere on the field.
If the OLB indeed blitzes, then you can likely throw a quick strike to the receiver on that side of the field. If the OLB does not blitz, then you need to be careful about throwing towards him at all until you know what part of the field he is defending.
If the OLB DOES move with your man in motion before the snap, then you know he is assigned to cover that man. If you think he cannot keep up with your man deep down the field, then do not be afraid to hot-route that man to go deep down the field for a potentially easy score (assuming nobody else was assigned to help double-cover him).
^Yea, all of what Dugger is saying is pretty spot on.
But don't just assume it's man because the defender followed your receiver. If I'm playing zone coverage and my opponent motions a man, sometimes I control a LB to move with that man to have my opponent thinking it's man coverage and usually they hot route their receiver to his doom :)
If Witten becomes the man in motion before the snap, Willis will move around and follow him to whatever side he moves to before the snap. This is man coverage.
Not always true. Sometimes a WR in motion will get "passed" between defenders so they don't have to move out of position. --- I'm all that and then some, y'all cats have been bums That's pocket change, you call that an income?- Fabolous