Mastering the Sack

I recently stumbled across some pretty nifty cut-up videos of NFL sacks, which highlight the effort, techniques and schemes that result in losses for offenses. It’s an understudied area, as sacks and pressures that move the QB off the spot and force bad throws or decisions are often seen as results rather than processes: it happened or didn’t, but how and why remains hidden. And it’s hidden because (1) it’s an extremely technical, delicate ballet of footwork, leverage and hand placement and (2) it’s also a total melee in there.

This excellent post from Shakinthesouthland lays out some of the basic pass rush moves, and most others you may see are just variations of these:

There are several we’re going to cover here but all start with the proper stance, with weight over their feet and not the down hand, and correct alignment. The initial step is always important. Every man has a pass rush lane that he shouldn’t deviate from until he has to do so. Every man must constantly be moving his feet and his hands, no matter what. Every pass rusher will start with one or two in high school and progress from there, and some in the NFL may only use 3 or 4 different techniques with variants off of those. Here I’ll cover the basic pass rush techniques

  • Bull Rush
  • Speed Rush
  • Swim
  • Grab
  • Rip/Inside
  • Spin
  • Under
  • Counter/Club

Of course, the beauty of these moves is that, over the course of a game, a defensive lineman or even a rush linebacker can vary and set up moves for down the line: the bull rush works when the offensive lineman isn’t expecting it after dealing with a steady dose of speed rushes; the rip inside and the spin work well against a lineman who is well coached to handle the speed or bull rush; and so on.

And understanding these moves helps us in appreciating the really special players. J.J. Watt breaks countless “rules” in the moves he uses because he studies, because he plays psychology versus his opponents and because, well, he can:

When [Wade] Phillips first saw Watt try the maneuver, 35 years of NFL practices set off alarms in his head. “The first time you see it, you think about the old coaching adage, ‘You never go around the block,’” Phillips says. “Well, you do when you can make the play.” Coaches refer to these plays as calculated risks, and what Phillips and defensive line coach Bill Kollar soon realized is that Watt’s were more calculated than most. Because Watt watches so much film, he has an ironclad grasp on what plays to expect out of formations. Because he was quicker, he could recover faster. Because he has the best hands in the league, he could shed blockers more easily.

Here is a link to a PDF analyzing J.J. Watt’s moves, and here is Ben Muth on stopping pass rush moves from an offensive lineman’s perspective. After the jump are a few more video clips on pass rush techniques.

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Pete Carroll explains how his Seattle Seahawks team tackles better and with reduced risk of head injury

I don’t think I need to explain how crucial tackling is to football, nor do I need the explain the serious concerns our developing knowledge about brain and head injuries poses to the future of football. Recently, the USA Football, with the support of the NFL, has begun putting out a series of videos and other materials about “Heads Up” or “safe tackling” — though the reality is there can never truly be such a thing — but the method they propose is not much different than what has traditionally been taught and the head is still front and center in the tackle. And it’s not necessarily the easiest way to get a moving target to the ground, so defenders end up resorting to more haphazard methods just to get the tackle made.

Pete Carroll, one of the best coaches in all of football, has a video with HUDL explaining his team’s tackling techniques, which is based on a rugby style “shoulder-to-thigh” approach. You can watch the video below using the password “dominate“. (Hat tip to Brophy.)

There are good coaches who aren’t big fans of the “Hawk” tackle, particularly for the secondary, though the “Profile” tackle included here more or less covers the remaining bases. But there’s no doubt about the effectiveness of the techniques Carroll shows in this video, and while the tackling isn’t “safe” per se he is right that these techniques put less stress on the head (and neck) than some other tackling techniques. This is just a tremendous video on tackling technique, and an important one as well.

Translating Nick Saban: Three Plays from the BCS Championship

Nick Saban did the full ESPN car wash today, and ESPN, to their credit, fit in a brief bit of actual football talk as they looked at three plays from the BCS Championship game against Notre Dame. The segment is definitely worth watching:

Although there was good information here, the segment was also a bit rushed and the hosts didn’t do much to get Saban to more clearly explain some of his technical football jargon. So let’s do that right now.

Eddie Lacy’s Run. This is the most jumbled presentation as they appeared to want to be able to freeze the footage and were unable to, but Saban still gives some insight:

Lacy13

  • Saban: “You picked one of our basic plays, which is a zone play.”Translation: The play is inside zone to the left, which is one of Alabama’s bread and butter plays. I’ve written about the inside zone extensively and Don Kausler had a very good story on this very play before the BCS title game.
  • S: “We’re in an overloaded Y-Y Wing type situation here.”Translation: The formation has two tight-end type players, or “Y” players,” to the same side, which can also be referred to as a a “tight-wing” formation. Remember, Saban is a defensive coach so even when he describes his own team’s offensive concepts, he’s often thinking about them in terms defensive coaches use. Here he ends up using three different descriptions (“Y-Y”, “wing” and “overload”) to describe the same idea: a tight-end with another tight-end or “wing” player to the same side, which presents an “overload” formation which the defense must react to.
  • S: “[It’s] a zone cut play where 31 is going to go back.”Translation: It’s very common on zone running plays to leave the backside defensive end unblocked — teams used to control him with the threat of a bootleg, but nowadays many do it with the zone read — but it’s also common to simply bring another offensive player to the backside to block that defender. The primary purpose is to seal that backside defender to help create a cutback lane, but it also gives a traditional zone play a bit of a misdirection element. Here 31 refers to tight-end Kelly Johnson, who acts as the “block back” player, also known as the “sealer” or “kicker”.
  • S: “Now we point out the MAC… Eddie Lacy does a fantastic job of pressing downhill and making a zone cut… we’re stretching the guard area….”Translation: The video can’t be paused and Saban ends up saying three non-sequiturs and isn’t really able to finish his thoughts, but there’s still real football here. “Pointing out the MAC,” which is another term for the middle linebacker, is something most zone teams do before every snap. The reason is that once the middle linebacker has been identified, all of them linemen will know who they are responsible for, both for defensive linemen and linebackers, typically through a “count” method which counts out from the nose guard or middle linebacker out.

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Bear Bryant’s 6-5 Goal Line Defense

Courtesy of Kleph (click to make larger):

Nick Saban Doesn’t Teach Backpedaling?

Former Alabama and current Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick caused something of a stir when he told the media that he “never backpedaled at Alabama.” Apparently, this is something Bengals coaches value, as Kirkpatrick had to learn to backpedal. Some fairly questioned whether this was hyperbole — How do you not teach defensive backs to backpedal? — but, although he does teach backpedaling, Saban very specifically focuses on other techniques.

Seems to work pretty well

As Saban tells it, he used to teach backpedaling until he was with the Cleveland Browns with Bill Belichick. The ownership signed the legendary Everson Walls, who, much to the dismay of the young defensive backs coach, Saban, ran about a 4.8 forty yard dash and simply could not, under any circumstances, backpedal. He was awkward, couldn’t accelerate, and there were other guys on the roster much better at backpedaling.

Walls also, however, was being paid significantly more than his coach, and it was clear from the ownership that Walls would be starting. He also, it must be said, was still a great player, and just happens to still rank 10th on the all time list of most interceptions in NFL history. So Saban began teaching his now famous “shuffle” technique, rather than the traditional backpedal. There’s a good deal to it, and it can adjust depending on the receiver’s exact release, but essentially it is a three-step shuffle technique, at which point the defensive back may break on a short route or can turn and run and play the receiver down the field.

Complementing this is that Alabama’s cornerbacks spend about 90% of the game in a press coverage position, from which they either stay in press or can bail to a zone or off-man position. They do this because it threatens the offense and helps take away screens and quick passes, and they feel that if a defense doesn’t press it’s a huge advantage to the offense who is simply throwing routes on air. I have to say that having excellent corners like Saban has had at Alabama helps, but, as more of an offensive guy, I would much prefer my corners to show a lot of press (even if they bail a lot) and use the shuffle technique as opposed to the backpedal. There’s nothing easier than seeing a bunch of corners lined up at seven yards backpedaling at the snap; you can run just about anything at that, and they simply will not be able to react quickly enough.

I was reminded of this as I have spent a little time catching up on the games from the past few weeks. Of special note was the tremendous job Alabama’s Dee Milliner did against Michigan in week one. Other than a few extremely poor throws/reads, for the most part Denard Robinson’s throws were on the money, but Alabama and Milliner in particular shut down Michigan’s receivers, who were simply not up to the challenge. Watch and judge for yourself.

And next time you hear someone talk about defensive backs backpedaling, you can tell them you know of what is, at least in the view of many (though certainly not all) coaches, a better way.

Greg Schiano on recovering fumbles: “Squeeze your butt cheeks”

From an old clinic lecture by former Rutgers and current Tampa Bay Bucs head coach, Greg Schiano. I think I prefer “scooping and scoring.”

You’ll thank me later


We also have our players perform the recover drill. In this drill, we stress three aspects: covering the points by surrounding the football; covering the ball in a fetal position so none of the brown part of the football shows; and, when they recover a fumble, we also ask our players to close their eyes, close their mouths, and squeeze their buttock cheeks.

What happens at the bottom of the pile on a fumble? One thing that may occur is that the opponents may stick a finger in the eye of the man with the ball. What do you do when someone sticks a finger in your eye? In all likelihood, you may take one hand off the ball. The second thing the opponents do is fishhook you with a finger in your mouth, and then rip your mouth with that finger. Again, this action may lead you to take one hand off the ball.

Another thing the opponents might do is to grab you in the testicular area. At this point, you may have no hands on the football, which is why we tell our players who recover a fumble to close their eyes and mouths, and to squeeze their butt cheeks.

Nick Saban on Bill Belichick’s Hybrid/Subpackage Defenders: “Star” and “Money”

Good stuff from Saban on the history of Belichick’s hybrid or subpackage defenders, “Star” and “Money”:

If the video doesn’t start there automatically, jump to the 5:30 mark. Hat tip to reader Corey.

New Grantland: The Evolution of the Hybrid Defender

It’s now up over at Grantland:

More recent is the rise of the true hybrid safety/linebacker, players seemingly designed to provide answers for players like Gronkowski and Graham. This is the next logical step from Johnson’s method for building Miami and the Cowboys. Instead of taking high school safeties and making them linebackers, coaches are taking athletes who can hit and play pass coverage, and simply letting them make plays. That means everything from blitzing the quarterback or stuffing a running back in the backfield to running step-for-step with a tight end or slot receiver. NFL coaches have begun referring to this as their “big nickel” package, which is a bit misleading because “nickel” is a term invented to describe some smaller part of a team’s overall defensive game plan. The reality is that just as NFL offenses rarely line up with two true running backs, NFL defenses rarely line up with three true linebackers. Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu were the two best safeties of the last decade or so, but their successors — in body type, athleticism, and playmaking ability — may not play safety at all. Regardless of the position at which he’s listed, he’ll likely be a linebacker in a safety’s body.

Read the whole thing.

Only four plays in football?

While reading through some old defensive materials, I came across this quote:

Not sure which one this was

There are only four plays in football and they happen in this order:

  1. Perimeter Run
  2. 3-Step Pass
  3. Pass
  4. Inside Run

Agree or disagree? Is that helpful to think of things in that way, particularly as a defensive coach or player?

Grantland: Charlie Strong, Joe Lee Dunn, and the Birth of the 3-3-5 Defense — An excerpt from The Essential Smart Football

An excerpt from my new book, The Essential Smart Football, is now up over at Grantland:

Even with his success, Dunn’s career can also be a warning about the 3-3-5. He’s held down jobs with good schools, but he never was able to break out beyond schools like Memphis, Mississippi State, and Ole Miss. While at their best, his defenses were suffocating and hard to plan for; when the talent dropped off, the aggressiveness once viewed as a virtue seemed to bleed over into a lack of discipline and a penchant for giving up big plays. Since then, he has coached at Ridgeway High School, New Mexico State, and now Division III McMurry. In football, pragmatism rules, and inflexibility — even if it’s with a great idea — leads to the rest of the landscape passing you by.

His legacy is nevertheless secure. Dunn is essentially the father of the 3-3-5, and the coaches that now use it, even if only in certain situations, are his descendants. The original “30 stack” 3-3-5 is no longer the defense of the future. As with most schemes, age has exposed many of its weaknesses, and many of its leading practitioners, like Charlie Strong, have moved on to other fronts and use it as only a subpackage. But in the age of pass-first and spread offenses, the principles underlying it — movement, disguise, aggressiveness, and an extreme focus on speed — are more important than ever.

Read the whole thing, and the book can be purchased here.