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:


  • 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.

    This concept has variations, but basically the various linemen know who is working up to the middle linebacker and who to the strongside linebacker and so on, and pointing him out helps identify how that will work. Note that there are no “tells” with this because offenses tend to point out the middle linebacker before every play, including pass plays, so this is no different. Saban credits Eddie Lacy with reading the defensive linemen, which is key in any zone play. And finally, “stretching the guard area” simply refers to how zone plays work: the lateral steps of the offensive linemen helps get displacement of the defensive front, which Lacy exploits when he explodes up the middle.

Goal line touchdown pass. This one is a little more straightforward, as Saban highlights a specific weakness they identified in Notre Dame’s goal line pass coverage. The big takeaway here is that this defensive response from Notre Dame is only against a very run-heavy formation from Alabama, one with zero wide receivers in a very specific goal line situation.As a result, it may have been something Notre Dame only did a couple of times all season, and yet Saban’s staff at Alabama’s staff picked up on it and exploited it.


  • S: “We picked up on the fact that they weren’t real sound in coverage here. Their inside linebacker has to flow over and take the tight-end but he actually has a run/pass conflict when we fake the ball at him.”Translation: Notre Dame has eight defenders lined up with their hand in the ground on the goal line, with only three players at the second level, including Manti Te’o, the “inside linebacker” Saban refers to. At its simplest, the purpose of the play was to pull Te’o up with a run fake and then throw behind him. Saban makes clear that it was the coverage scheme that was an issue as much with Te’o’s play here — it’s just a tough assignment — and he says that when they face play-action teams they try not to put their linebackers in positions like this. He then gets a little more specific about specifically how they attacked Te’o.
  • S: “They don’t have anybody at the end of the line — they don’t have a defensive back over there to cover — the linebacker has to scrape on flow, and he’s got to take the first guy outside and deep, basically because you send the outside guy to the flat.”Translation: Here Saban gets a bit more specific. When Saban says the linebacker has to “scrape on flow,” what he means is when that linebacker sees an off-tackle run action to his left he needs to “scrape” over to force the run back to all of those interior defensive players. As I wrote before the game:

    “When the run comes to Te’o’s side, the offensive guard will likely block “down,” and Te’os job now requires him to “scrape” over the top, fly around the end, and blow up any blocker coming around from the backside. This cuts off the running lane to the outside and leads the runner right back into the mass of bodies that is Louis Nix III and the other Irish defenders.”


    The problem is Te’o was also responsible for Williams down the seam, while Alabama sent #31 Kelly Johnson to the flat to isolate Te’o. The result was an easy touchdown pass for AJ McCarron.

Ha Ha Clinton Dix’s Interception. Saban clearly would’ve loved to talk about this one for a bit longer, but what he says is still very interesting. In just a few sentences he describes the coverage, along with the special adjustment they make, and how the pressure concept tied to the secondary play to produce a big play for the defense.



  • S“This is a fire zone that we play…”Translation: A fire zone is a type of zone blitz, where the defense rushes five defensive players and then play six players in zone pass coverage. Specifically, in a “fire zone” the defense plays a “three-deep, three-under” concept where three defensive players play “three-deep” in the deep part of the field, while three others play underneath. What makes Saban’s brand work particularly well is his defensive players use a “pattern matching” concept, so unlike a traditional zone where defenders just drop to a spot and then try to read the quarterback’s eyes, Saban’s coverage players play a type of man-to-man within the zone depending on the ultimate route concept. I wrote about this in detail here.
  • S “… but we play a ‘man’ call with it.”Translation: Not only do Saban’s defenders play man coverage concepts within a zone, here the cornerbacks, particularly Dee Milliner at the top of the screen, actually play straight up man-to-man coverage because of a specific call made as part of the defensive play. They can do this because the cornerbacks are typically responsible for the outside receivers anyway; this lets them play press man and take away easy throws, forcing the difficult fade throw to the outside. The interior defenders appear to be playing traditional fire zone pattern matching coverage. Note that this is a very common adjustment. For example, Jim Schwartz of the Detroit Lions has his corners play straight man coverage on almost all fire zone blitzes.
  • S: “You see the pressure by 32 and 33 on the cross blitz”Translation: As can be seen from the image above, on this particular blitz CJ Mosley and Trey DePriest criss-cross at the snap as they blitz inside, creating fast inside pressure on the quarterback.

That’s all the time Saban is given for scheme talk, but it’s his summation of why the interception happened that is the biggest clue into his team’s success:

“[The inside pressure] makes the quarterback feel like he has to throw the ball, [and] Dee Milliner does a good job of cutting the receiver off. [T]he quarterback shows where he’s going to throw the ball because of the pressure, the middle of the field safety, Ha Ha, gets a great break on the ball, [so] we get a tip and an interception which was a big play and a stop for us.”

In other words, Saban thinks of his defense as a single interconnected unit. He cites all of those factors — the inside pressure, Milliner’s coverage, Clinton-Dix’s read of where the quarterback was going to throw — as not only important but necessary factors for the interception to happen. Saban coaches some talented players, but what makes Alabama so lethal is how all of it — talent, technique and scheme — all fits together.

  • DB

    Chris doesn’t mention the obvious (because it is obvious) that successful play action (vis a vis the TD pass in this group of examples) is very much dependent on successfully pounding the rock!

  • Mr.Murder

    The outside release tells Milliner to squeeze the wideout in man coverage? Within six and a half yards of sideline(bordering field numbers) play press man technique(your Brophy piece on Saban scheme). They go where there is less field to cover it allows you to play tighter.

  • IrishBarrister

    There’s so many cool things Saban didn’t get to talk about with the fire zone play. Alabama was running out of their nickel package lined up in their Flex formation, and the play they are running is called “Carolina Adjust,” I believe.

    The Money player (Mosley) will hit the A-Gap first, and the Mike (DePriest) will hit the B-Gap right after him, resulting in a cross blitz. Alabama’s coverage adjusts to trips so that the Star (over the slot WR) and strong safety will be covering the inside zones on the field side. The short side defensive end does a great job of faking the rush before dropping into the short-hook/flat area, as does the field side tackle who gets all the way across the center’s face, opening the A and B gaps. It is rare for an offense to line up in trips to the short side of the field when they are on the far hash, so Saban has the short side corner (Milliner) in press-man. As Chris, Brophy, and several others have discussed, Milliner’s job is to squeeze the receiver to the sideline when he breaks outside (into the numbers) while running with him. One look a the wide receiver’s position as the ball is thrown will tell how good of a job Milliner has done.

    Alabama’s execution of this play was great, but I don’t think Golson ever saw the slot receiver, who eventually came open against the Star player on his vertical route (throw it a little bit inside or short and the receiver will adjust to catch it). It looked like he just starred down one receiver and Clinton-Dix just read him all the way.

  • Mr.Murder

    The most effective thing in a cross blitz is that you can only slide the coverage one way, one of the blitzers should come open on a half slide because he will go to the side without the slide help. Capers did it commonly with the Packers their last Super Bowl season. Since people usually focused extra help on the edge rushers like Matthews, the middle blitz(or stunt) might get to that set up point for throwing. The cross blitz is both of those, a stunt with players trading gaps/rush lanes, and a blitz to bring numbers at that point.