Friday, January 10, 2014

Some General Thoughts on Defending Spread Tempo Offenses

Well, now that the bowl season is finally over, and I have almost completely overdosed on watching games, I must say I do have some thoughts on what I have seen defensively.  Now mind you, this is purely observational, and not stitch of what I'm talking about or illustrating has been confirmed with film, so basically this post is me bullshitting with you over a couple of beers at the local pub.  Now that we got that out of the way, let's look at my thoughts on what I viewed over the bowl season.

  1. There is no, and will never be any, substitute for fundamentals.  The teams that did the best job on defense not only tackled well, but tackled well in space.  They fought off blocks, reacted well to schemes, made reads and utilized very good footwork and technique.  The biggest skills by far is coverage footwork and transition and tackling.  
    1. Tackling- The spread schemes have an inordinate amount of ways to get players out-leveraged, out-flanked, and just generally in a bad position to defend whatever play is being run at them.  The packaged plays concept, along with multiple formations, reads and options being utilized has made many a great athlete look silly whiffing at air.  Good teams tackle, but great teams tackle with a purpose...EVEN IN JANUARY.  I don't give a damn what time of year it is, you must tackle.  I do tackling drills everyday during the season up until about games five or six, then I taper off, but even if I'm in the playoffs we are tackling once a week and still doing form/fit drills everyday.  The hardest thing to recreate as a defensive coach is open field tackling, but it MUST be done if facing these types of offenses on a regular basis.
    2. Coverage footwork- The good teams have not just had spectacular athletes in the secondary, they've had great technicians in the secondary.  A DB has got to be a master at his craft.  This was no more evident in the BCS National Championship Game where Chris Davis in the beginning of the game used poor footwork on underneath routes to allow a couple of easy first downs.  Later, Davis (yes, I'm being critical of him) made huge error in the way he played the ball, receiver and the route on the pass interference call that led to him making the most critical error of the game (which had nothing to do with fundamentals).  On the goal line, playing in man coverage Davis aligns head up, yes HEAD UP on Kelvin Benjamin and allowed the big 6'5" receiver to body him up on a slant route in the end zone for the game winning touchdown.  Facing spread attacks requires that DB's have meticulous footwork and they must be able to play the ball in the air well.  This was never more evident than vs. one of the best defensive back coaches in the country than Nick Saban himself.  Saban's DB's time and time again found themselves in poor position because of poor technique.  Now, I will agree, there were some mismatches.  As one person put it, some teams just don't match up well against others.  May not mean one is better than the other, but the end result is the same.  The match up issues led to technique breakdown, and well, you see what you got.  The same could be said of Texas A&M's DB's or Baylor's.  
  2. Schematically, I honestly feel man to man coverage HAS to make a major return to college football.  I know "living" in man, is not for the faint of heart, but even the match up zone coverage gurus are going the way of pure man on even their zone pressures.  Three-by-three zone blitzes are going back to the old grass roots man free blitzes of yesteryear, but with better eye control and leverage setup in the general attack of the blitz itself (blitzes must really be option centered now or spread option offenses can seriously gash your defense).  Man free and Cover Two Man have to make a comeback, at least until the time being.  I mean, hell, let's be honest, even Saban's version of Cover 3 (Rip/Liz) is basically man free.  Man to man cuts down on the amount of open grass receivers are allowed to attack, and not going pure cover zero all-out man allows you to have a match up problem with help over the top or trailing help underneath.  
  3. Zone coverage is not dead however, but must be disguised, which leads me to my next point that the defenses intentions MUST be disguised.  From blitzes to stunts, to coverages, EVERYTHING must not appear as it seems.  The QB is not the only cat you have to fool either, the offensive lineman are the keys you must really fool.  I'm really surprised at the lack of amount of stemming you see defenses doing these days.  Stemming is easy and can be added to any call.  Regardless of tempo, most offenses at least take a second to look over the defense pre-snap, this is when you shift, then shift again.  Build in good hard fast rules too for when caught in a shift.  I always tell my guys when caught, keep working to your gap, don't stop and smell the roses and more importantly DON'T PANIC!!!  Disguise is a must because offenses have become so successful at reading a defenses' intentions and then changing the play, gashing the defense, aligning quickly and doing it again.  This disguise can help slow down the up-tempo schemes of today by making the offense have to reset or "re-audible".  
That moment when you realize this was a poor disguise...

    1. More to elaborate on disguise, one thing I liked was how Missouri would show 1 high coverage, then rotate pre-snap to 2 deep, or even, rotate the deep safety down and down safety deep.  I was amazed watching a defender, aligned 5-6 yards off the ball, bailing before the snap to become the MOF defender.  Some of the coverages looked like zone, but some were also man free as well.  I thought the idea very ingenious because you rarely see one high, MOFC coverages morphing to two high, or better yet, rotating much in the way a four-spoke secondary would.  These types of adjustments must be made.  In other words, make the unordianry, ordinary.
  1. Obviously pressure must be a consideration when facing these types of offenses.  I think pressure for pressure's sake is not a good mantra however.  I think you have to the standard stuff of evaluating protection schemes, QB strengths when pressured versus when not pressured, run pressures versus both gap and zone schemes etc.  The no huddle presents some issues with pressures in that they must be simple, so they can be signaled in quickly.  These pressure packages must be dynamic so they can adapt to the myriad of formations, shifts and motions that your players may see.  Making your pressure packages multiple, but simple is key.  A backside twist added to a field dog blitz is an easy adjustment, but must be communicated and taught as such.  I think being able to "tweak" a pressure with such nuances is very important in being able to give an offense multiple pressure looks throughout the course of the game.
  2. Anti-pressure is another schematic theme that I think defensive coordinators, especially at the high school level should embrace.  Several years back I was facing a very good running QB, with some highly talented receivers (one is entering this year's NFL draft).  We had no answer in our base 4-3 package.  I stole an idea from good ol' Gus Malzahn and utilized a three man front where I simply changed out our 3 technique for another linebacker and played my traditional Mike linebacker about 8 yards deep so he could drop down the middle in a Tampa 2 look.  We went into that game with 4 pressures, 3 zone and 1 man.  We were a 24 point underdog and only lost by 11, confusing the hell out of our opponent with this look.  Now we ended up down by 21 at the half, because as the score got further out of hand, I kept bringing more and more pressure, which led to mistakes, and our players feeling like they needed to press.  In the second half, I called a man blitz, our safety slipped covering a dig route and we were down by 28.  After that I simply quit blitzing and dropped eight into coverage.  On the first possession they threw a pick that led to us scoring.  Second possession we forced the first punt of the night.  The less we pressured, the worse their QB played.  What was happening was we were reducing the size and number of windows this young man had to throw through.  What he began to do then was tuck and run when he got nervous about throwing a pick.  So we quit rushing our Nose, and let him and the stacked Tackle spy the QB.  This made things more and more frustrating leading to two more second half turnovers.  My point is this, don't always think you have to put the pressure on the QB by rushing him.  Sometimes it's better to put the pressure in front of him with coverage and a minimal rush.  I've actually done this more than once, and had it work quite well on more than one occasion.  I think DC's don't need to get caught up in drawing up these wide arrays of blitzes that send safeties and drop tackles etc. just for the sake of trying to sack the QB.  If you are having trouble getting to him, my answer would be, then make him have trouble finding anyone who is open.  What bigger waste of a player than having five offensive linemen blocking two or three defensive linemen, while the other eight or nine players are in coverage, confusing the QB?  I know it's contrarian, but think about it, once I made the leap, the dropping eight or nine has been a part of my spread defense package ever since.
3 man front 4-3 personnel Tampa 2 coverage

    1. Also to note, this past season, because we had kids that were so new to doing what I was asking them to do, I kept it quite simple.  If we added a "drop" call to any coverage call, that told the tackle (three technique) to drop on passing plays to the low hole zone.  Allowed us to play coverage with our Mike linebacker a bit different, and also allowed us to play our quarters scheme with an extra underneath zone defender allowing the outside linebackers to get to the flats quicker.  Again, just thoughts on paper, but knowing some body's tried them and had success with them sure helps.  
Drop call given to 3 technique

  1. Brophy had mentioned this before, but developing simple defensive concepts that can be communicated effectively and quickly are going to become more and more the norm in at least college football.  I think high school coaches have a bit of time on their side before we see the tempo of the college game, but it looms in the very near future.  None of this was more evident than when Alabama played Oklahoma.  Oklahoma, who throughout the year had done some tempo, wasn't anywhere near the Oregon's or Texas A&M's in terms of playing speed or number of plays, however with the break, and what Stoops knew about Saban's defense, they obviously worked on it and exploited it.  I may make a bold prediction here, but Saban's days may be numbered due to his inability to adapt.  He's had two years now of dealing with both Texas A&M and Ole Miss, both of which operate at high speeds and he's had trouble with these.  That's because Saban, like all of us, likes to be right.  Many a master craftsman wants his hands in everything, and it takes those of us who pride on using our minds to stop our opponent to a dark place when we have to rely only on fundamentals.  However, that is where the game is headed.  Fundamentals, who at some point in the collegiate game had taken a back seat to scheme, will now prevail (as it should).  If Saban doesn't adapt, as other college coaches, it could get ugly for them and ugly in a hurry (no pun intended).  Saban himself, along with Will Muschamp have already talked about scrapping their time eating offenses for the more glamorous no huddle, speed-in-space, up-tempo offenses.  
    1. Where this takes defenses is they are going to have to educate the signal callers on the field even more so than before.  The signal callers are going to have to work in a way that they are essentially the coordinator on the field and get the defense in the right front and coverage in a very short amount of time.  The problem with this, as with defensive football in general is that it is reactive, where the offense is proactive.  Sure they have to snap the ball, but even if they aren't right all the time, a short throw to a great athlete that's well covered can still turn into six points.  The defense has this to worry about, and then having said short throw (could be a run, just using the short throw as an example), NOT be covered due to a bad pre-snap read, and it also turns into six.  This is where the teaching responsibility lies with the coordinators and their ability to put their scheme inside the head of a 20 year old.  In the case of high school, sometimes that guy may only be 15!  
What I drew on a napkin from Missouri game, no DVR, so may not be 100% accurate, but you get the gist.  

These are just some of my general notes I've basically jotted down in my phone, or on a napkin as bowl season unraveled before our eyes this season.  I think we could easily be five to six years off before defenses really "catch up", and I use that term lightly because defensive football is behind the eight ball already as the game is designed to be entertaining, and a nine to seven ballgame isn't really appealing to the average fan.  I also agree with Brophy on his new standards of measuring what a good defensive outing will be in the near future.  I think the time is gone where you see shutouts, or very low scoring affairs.  For those of us who are "defensive minded" this may be an issue, but it's like anything else, you either adapt, or you die.  

I'm thinking very seriously about working on a collaborative effort to look at this more closely.  I have contacted a couple of other bloggers about this, as I think it was our readers would want, and could greatly use.  If you have any suggestions or comments, shoot me an email or hit me up on Twitter @FootballIsLifeBlog.  Hope everyone had a great holiday, and is ready to hit the off-season in full stride!