In Week 7 against the Arizona Cardinals, New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones dropped back to pass on third and 13 from his own 35-yard line. Faced with a four-man rush and seven defenders in coverage, Jones waited patiently — perhaps too patiently — for his receivers to complete their routes past the first-down marker. Feeling pressure on his left, Jones stepped up in the pocket and fired the ball downfield — right into the arms of Cardinals linebacker Jordan Hicks. Hicks was playing zone coverage in the hook/curl area of the field, and he was in the perfect position to step in front of intended receiver Golden Tate.
While it might be tempting to dismiss the mistakes of a rookie QB as growing pains, the interception wasn’t an isolated case of a young quarterback making a questionable decision. It turns out that zone coverage has been a problem for Jones since he took over the Giants starting job in Week 3. Six of Jones’s eight interceptions on the year have come against zone, and he’s averaging just 5.6 yards per attempt against the coverage — worst in the league. Jones has completed passes 1.7 percentage points under what we would expect of a league-average QB against zone, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, and his QBR is an anemic 27.5. More surprising, given generational talent Saquon Barkley at running back, is Jones’s QBR of 24.9 on play-action passes against zone, which places him 30th out of 32 qualifying quarterbacks.
Jones’s poor performance on play-action is a little strange because we might expect that teams would play more Cover 1 (a form of man coverage with a single high safety) against the Giants with Barkley in the backfield, a defensive formation that allows them to bring a safety down from deep coverage to help out against the run. Through Week 12, however, that hasn’t been the case. New York opponents are playing 50.4 percent man coverage vs. 49.1 percent zone, which is almost exactly league average. The team would likely benefit from opponents playing more man coverage to match up against Barkley, as Jones is completing passes 1.9 percentage points over expected against man, with a more respectable QBR of 71.5.
Interestingly, Jones’s coverage splits are the inverse of league trends. At nearly every depth of target from zero to 30 yards, quarterbacks’ completion percentages are higher against zone coverage than against man in 2019.
The gap between zone and man is particularly pronounced on throws of 10 air yards or less. This makes intuitive sense: Defenses playing zone are typically happy to allow the short completion and rally for a tackle. But the success of man versus zone on deeper passes is more of a surprise. Zone seeks to take away the deep ball in favor of short, manageable gains. But in 2019, passers are completing a higher percentage of attempts against zone of up to at least 28 yards.
Meanwhile, play-action across the league has been quite successful against man coverage, which might come as a surprise to some NFL coaches.
Man is still the more effective coverage, but the gap between play-action and other passes is wider against man coverage than zone, making it a preferred tactic on intermediate throws.
Yet these leaguewide base rates don’t fit Jones’s statistics. Jones is an enigma — bad at things that most QBs excel at, like completing passes on play-action, yet good at some aspects of the game that many quarterbacks find extremely challenging. Against disguised coverages, for instance — coverages that start out looking like man or zone but then switch mid-play — Jones has the highest completion percentage over expected in the league1 at 10.8 percent. It’s pure zone coverage that’s his kryptonite.
Jones’s struggles against zone coverage likely explain at least some of the Giants’ disappointing year. He’ll need to show progress before next season if New York has any hope of competing with the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East. But there are some signs that he may be improving: Jones’s lone TD against zone coverage came in last week’s Week 12 loss to Chicago. A strong finish to the season might be enough for the Giants to find a reason for optimism heading into 2020.
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