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.

Manny Diaz Gets It

From an excellent interview Texas’s defensive coordinator did with LonghornDigest.com:

But statistics were also changing for in-game analysis. Whereas it might once be considered an advanced metric to look at red zone efficiency, Diaz said Texas is focused on red zone touchdown efficiency.

“You can win a national championship by making people kick field goals in the red zone,” Diaz said. “And you can finish last, in theory, in red zone defense. It just doesn’t make sense.”

[...]

That phenomenon has given rise to statistics like Slow Grind — the number of plays a defense forces an offense to take to score — and the FootballOutsiders.com S&P+ Ratings, a play-by-play success rate that factors for situation and competition. Looking at the latter rating, you can see Diaz’s 2011 Texas defense come to life through the numbers. The Longhorns finished No. 4 nationally in the statistic, but were especially good on running plays — a major Diaz focus — and on winning passing situations (defined as second down with eight or more yards to go, or third or fourth down with five or more yards to go). Texas was third nationally in Rushing S&P+, and second only to national champion Alabama in Passing Downs S&P+.

“Those are the tenets of our defense,” said Diaz, who follows both S&P+ and Slow Grind. “We’ll show those kinds of things to our players during the season just to reinforce what we already know. There aren’t usually any ‘eureka’ moments, but it works more side-by-side with what we see on film.”

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The Monster Defense, Overload Blitzes and Angle Stunts

Coaches and quarterbacks nowadays are exceptional at identifying and exploiting defensive weaknesses. Defenses now, with the rise of spread offenses, often give away their soft spots by how they line up, and the myriad of reads, packaged plays and options make exploiting those weaknesses ever simpler stuff.

But football is a game of give and take, and defenses are responding. And they are reacting to the up-tempo read-on-the-run offenses of today in two main ways: By becoming more flexible, with more hybrid type defenders to deal with hybrid type offensive players, and doing increasingly more of their own attacking.

We're coming

The key for defenses then is to attack, but to attack intelligently. Offenses will exploit obvious weaknesses, so the best approach is for the defense to combine aggressive tactics with sound schemes and even to set traps for the offense. And one of the best — and oldest — methods for doing that is to combine an overload blitz with angle stunts that go the opposite direction. This tactic is increasingly popular at every level of football, particularly against nouveau spread attacks, but it has old, old roots.

Specifically, the combination of overload blitzes to one side with angle stunts going the other way was a feature of one of football’s most dominating defenses, the 5-2 “Monster.”

In the old 5-2 Monster defense, the defensive aligned with five defensive linemen, two linebackers, and a “Monster” defender who lined up either to the wide side of the field or to the strength of the offense, typically the latter. With a nose guard lined up directly over the center, the defense had three additional defenders lined up to the offense’s left and four additional one’s to the offense’s right. This gave the defense the chance to overpower offenses to their strength side, where they typically liked to run to.

But, as the defense evolved over time, this increasingly became a trap for the offense. Against the 5-2 Monster, offenses typically liked to either call plays to the weakside of their formation, or even let the quarterback audible to them at the line, just as pro-style and spread quarterbacks today check to runs away from the defense’s numbers. Indeed, much of the modern run game is simply about identifying where the extra defenders are and getting away from them, and running away from the Monster seemed as good of a plan as any.

Except it was exactly what the defense wanted the offense to do. The reason for this was because most of those 5-2 Monster teams, despite lining up with extra players to one side versus the other, used “angle stunts,” or defensive line movements, away from the Monster player. The net result was that the 5-2 Monster was a balanced defense.

Thus the Monster’s great success — and it was one of the most popular defenses in football for at least thirty-years — was as much about psychology as it was schematics; there were unbalanced defenses and there were balanced defenses, but the Monster was uncanny at trapping the unwary coach and quarterback into running into the strength of the defense: Against balanced defenses, the offense wants to run to its strength, or to the tight-end. Against unbalanced defenses, offenses want to run wherever they have a numbers advantage, typically to the weak side. The Monster wreaked havoc with that kind of calculus.

While the 5-2 Monster may no longer be the defense du jour, defensive coaches have not forgotten its lessons, and instead apply them every week across football. It’s just a matter of adaptation.

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Breakdown and preview of North Carolina’s offense and defense under new head coach Larry Fedora

You can find both here: offense and defense. North Carolina is an intriguing team, and will be extremely multiple on both sides of the ball. On offense, Fedora is going with an up-tempo, pro-style spread, while on defense Vic Koenning and Dan Disch will be using a hybrid 4-2-5/3-3-5 type package. Should be fun to watch.

Joe Paterno’s Penn State Defense

Joe Paterno has passed away.  I am not the right person to put his lengthy career, decorated career together with the tragedy at Penn State, and, ultimately, his death, in proper context. Others will assuredly do it and do it well. Below is instead a meager contribution to Joe’s legacy, however mixed it may ultimately be. Before the Jerry Sandusky scandal and all that went with it became public last fall, I wrote this simple strategic-focused piece on Penn State’s traditional but very effective approach to defense. I wrote it to be a part of a larger project to be published; once I learned what happened with Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno, and so on, the piece simply became an orphan.

So I offer this here not as any commentary on what Joe’s legacy should be; that question now is about a lot more than football. But I hope it is of some value — maybe not today, but at some point in the future — given that it was written in what can only be referred to as a more innocent time, even if that was only just a few months ago.

Penn State’s Defense - Written in August 2011

Once upon a time

Penn State will – and should – always be defined by its defense. Despite some glances in the direction of being “Spread HD,” the foundation of the program is its rugged yet simple defensive schemes. When that team, wearing those same, historic uniforms, led by that coach, shuts down a hapless opponent under a sea of blitzes and gang tackles, “Linebacker U” speaks to something primitive within each of us. When you think of Penn State, you think of linebackers with bloody knuckles and neck roll padding, and a camera close-up of the opposing coach and quarterback wearing that “I-just-got-screwed” face after being on the wrong end of a goal line stand – like Michael Douglas at the end of so many of his movies – and all is right with the world.

Joe Paterno must get primary credit for building the program in his tough, irascible image. It’s a legitimate question how involved Joe is on a day-to-day basis these days, but the foundation is his and he still coaches the coaches. And he’s had some great ones, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The defense has evolved in response to the revolutions that offenses have undergone, from option football to I-formation running to west coast passing and even the early rumblings of the spread in the late 1990s. Current de facto defensive coordinator Tom Bradley (in one of its many traditions, Penn State does not actually name its coaches “offensive coordinator” or “defensive coordinator”) and linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden are among the very best and most knowledgable guys in the game, while anyone who has heard defensive line coach Larry Johnson speak will no doubt remember it for years afterward. Bradley, who nearly left the program to become Pittsburgh’s head coach and was rumored for several other head coaching positions, in particular has kept the Penn State tradition intact, by keeping the framework that Penn State has used for decades while updating it for the newest waves of offensive evolution.

Penn State is nothing if not tradition, and that includes always being surrounded by the ghosts of those who came before you. Each linebacker is given a position name so he can make sense of the defensive calls: “Sam”, “Fritz” and “Backer.” Penn State’s linebackers are supposed to know which historical greats that made “Linebacker U” what it is were Fritzes, which were Sams, and which were Backers. Similarly, in many systems the strong safety is known as a “monster” player because he plays all over the field. For tradition rich, they keep the view Penn State of Rip Engle, who coached the Nittany Lions from 1950 to 1965: that “monster” is a derogatory, déclassé term, and thus the strong safety is known as “Hero.” For Penn State, the age of Eisenhower continues to be the model for present day battles.

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Grantland Blog: Evaluating Alabama’s defense

It’s up over at the Grantland Blog:

… Whether pro-style, Air raid, or spread-to-run, we’re living in offense-dominated times.

That is, except in the game that (rightly or wrongly) crowns the champion: LSU-Alabama. Indeed, that game features the country’s most dynamic and exciting defensive player in Tyrann Mathieu (who might end up no better than the third- or fourth-best NFL prospect in LSU’s secondary) and one of the most statistically dominating defenses of the past decade in Alabama.

There will be plenty to say about this matchup in the coming weeks. (Especially since the teams have already played — or hadn’t you heard?) But for now, despite all of the above evidence of offenses’ increasing dominance, because those offenses were in turn dominated by LSU’s and Alabama’s defenses there is no choice but to declare this season the year that, channeling William F. Buckley, those two teams stood athwart the march of history yelling, “Stop!” It was the year of defense.

Read the whole thing.

What coach said this about facing what team and quarterback?

Quiz time:

“Well. We have another big one ahead of us. This next one, I guess you’d say that every game is really really big, but I think this one will pose a real challenge to our defense because they’re like three offenses in one. They’re a power attack . . . . They go from that to being able to be an option attack with the quarterback. . . . You see where their offense is. It makes the defense have to be sound in all phases. You can’t load up and play the power because you may be getting optioned. You can’t go in there with an idea of being a finesse or assignment totally or you’re going the power run right at you. This is going to be a big test. And he can throw it. He’s put some yardage on people. The last thing they do that challenges your defense is they have a fast pace, so they do that to try to get your defense so they’re not in great alignments. Just to be a little sloppy because they hurry up and if you’re not a real disciplined defense, you don’t get set correctly, and you know as well as I do that we’re not good enough to not be perfect in our assignments and our alignments.”

The answer is after the jump.

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