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.

  • Quick question for your expertise: on the play where the Alabama DB pushes Roundtree out of bounds and intercepts Robinson, how is that not a penalty? My understanding was that in college football, defenders are permitted to make contact as long as the receiver is in front of them. Once the receiver draws even with the defensive player, contact is not permitted. (This leaves aside the question of whether the ball was in the air when the contact occurred, which would be pass interference.)

  • smartfootball

    That is not the correct rule. In college football you can make contact with a receiver until the ball is in the air, anywhere on the field. It’s a close call in this case when Milliner sticks his arm out, but he gives the receiver a forearm and the receiver cannot let that little shiver send him out of bounds. I personally think it was clean, though it wouldn’t have been a shock to see a penalty.

  • Don’t overlook the amount of time it takes to teach proper back pedaling. Check out most high school DBs, they have a really sloppy back pedal. Same goes for a lot of Division 1 corners, but they get away with it because of their superior athleticism. We cut a lot of wasted DB practice time by going to Open Slide technique instead (a few still do back pedal because they’re comfortable, we reserve the right to make them stop).

  • smartfootball

    Thanks Joe. Good stuff. Do you have any more detailed info on your open slide technique? Would love to put it up.

  • The 5:00 mark on the TD score replay Dee is looking at the under route, who opens up looking back for the ball.
    Maybe he was pattern reading. Once he come off his route thinking the UM man was opening for a thrown pass and realized it was by him to his cover Dee simply fell off balance.
    Lots of press man around here, everyone does it without being square off the line. Have been trying those wideouts to go over their forward leg on the press man so he has to really commit his weight back across his forward foot, leaves them going to the LOS and you are running upfield. Might change it vs. better coverage techniques.
    For the defense, tell guys to shuffle laterally and get under that WR hips so when he steps to try going over your foot you can drive him to help on the jam. A low shuffle leaves you in place to get under their pad level and find a good press contact point. Contact while they have one foot on the ground, usually gets the off balance or uses their own emphasis to get them off a route.
    As for backpedaling, if their feet are close it is doing you a favor they always come out leggy. Need a balanced base to accelerate from. If their feet are together and you shove back or pull as you go past them they end up off balance instead.

  • Ryan Fullen

    I own a Alabama DB drill tape which is excellent. In it there are some great drills, especially pertaining to open field tackling. They do backpedal throughout the video, which has cutups from the 2009 championship year. Alabama does play some quarters and cover 2, beyond the match 3 and man coverage that are their staples, which would lend them to pedal at least with with their safeties.

  • According to the Miami Dolphins Saban may not teach backpedaling but he sure does practice it.

  • James Johnson

    What are you coverages and what technique do you teach your safeties?

  • Michael Terry

    Maybe he’s referring to the 3 step shuffle, since your hips are open and you’re doing a slide shuffle.

  • Pingback: ITP Glossary: Backpedal - Inside The Pylon()