Texas vs. ‘Bama: Smart Football in review

Apologies for not posting more about this game (and for lack of posting in general — factors beyond my control), but tonight’s matchup involves two teams that I’ve written much about.

On the one side you have Nick Saban’s Alabama squad. On offense, the run game that propelled Mark Ingram to the Heisman trophy involves basically five or six run plays: inside zone, outside zone, power, counter, and sometimes a draw and sometimes a toss play. But it’s the defense that makes ‘Bama go. Of course, I’ve previously written about Saban and his strategies and philosophy:

Saban has been coaching defense – and coaching it quite well – for decades. But there is no question that the defining period of his coaching career was 1991-1994, when he was Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns. Just knowing that tells you a great deal about Saban’s defense: he (primarily) uses the 3-4; he’s very aggressive, especially on passing downs; he wants to stop the run on first and second down; he’s not afraid to mix up schemes, coverages, blitzes, and looks of all kinds; and, most importantly, he is intense and attentive to detail, which is the hallmark of any great defensive coach.

…One thing that distinguishes Saban is that he uses pattern-reading in almost all of his coverages, including the traditional Cover 3, whereas many coaches only let certain defenders pattern read or only use it with certain defenses like Cover 4. Sounds a lot like Belichick, no?**

On the other side is Texas and their great quarterback, Colt McCoy. McCoy, who will deservedly be considered one of the great quarterbacks of all time, did not have an overly impressive year. He had some good games but few of those came against top flight opponents. He’ll have to carry the load for Texas, which is something I think a now relatively pressure free McCoy can do. I have previously written about McCoy’s pass game too:

Colt McCoy, University of Texas’s record-setting triggerman (and Heisman hopeful), is known for one thing above all else: his astounding accuracy. . . .

Texas’s favorite route concept, by far, is something known as the “two-man” game, known in some coaching circles as the “stick concept.” Texas runs their a little different, but they also use it a great deal; it’s their number one concept by far. . . .

This concept has been Texas’s go-to route since Mack Brown and Greg Davis arrived. Everyone from Major Applewhite, to Chris Simms, to Vince Young and now McCoy have been asked to master the play.

The concept itself is simple enough…. It can be run from really any formation — any set with at least two receivers to one side — but Texas favors it from sets with at least three receivers, as the diagram below shows. This way the outside receiver can run deep. He serves both as an option on the fade route against single-coverage, but primarily he draws the defense away. And, from a formation and personnel standpoint, he typically draws the other team’s cornerback, allowing the two inside receivers to work against inferior pass defenders — the linebackers, safeties, and nickel backs.

The “two-man” concept itself has one receiver run immediately to the flat, while another bursts upfield to a depth of about eight yards — slightly deeper than most other teams run the route. He can then turn inside or outside depending on where the coverage is pressuring him. He wants to find the crease in the zone and to find the window that gets created as the flat defender widens for the other receiver on the “shoot” route to the flat. Against man coverage, he can break back to the sideline….

…[I]n watching Colt, I see a lot of parrallels with another guy known for his accuracy: Drew Brees. Both have underrated athleticism, both are smart, and both can stick the ball on the receiver, exactly where they want to. That is something that cannot be taught, and it should continue to serve Colt well.

It will be fascinating to see who comes out on top tonight.

**FN: During the Big 12 title game Jesse Palmer kept saying that Nebraska was “pattern reading” Texas’s routes and therefore defeating them. Some bloggers picked up the trail, but although true that Bo Pellini uses some pattern reading, this was not the reason they lost. They lost because Nebraska could blow up pass and run plays with a couple of linemen (Suh!) and swarm everyone else. Texas’s pass game understands pattern reading and is as well prepared for it as you can reasonably be. There are criticisms of Greg Davis but I’m not sure this is one of them.

  • Jon E.

    A great post over at Burnt Orange about Nebraska v. Texas

    The best criticism of Texas’ offensive failures doesn’t come necessarily from pattern-reading, but largely from the Offensive line being over matched, even in max protection. That, combined with some pattern reading and poor decision-making by Colt McCoy combined for a dismal Texas game.

    I personally think that Colt McCoy is forgettable. Spread QBs lend themselves to being forgotten, maybe because of the system they play in and the massive stats that end up not being overwhelming because of the system, I don’t know.

  • Great write up, as usual, and ‘welcome back’, as well.

    This should be a great matchup. If Bama can extinguish the Texas run game (and contain McCoy to the pocket much like Nebraska did), I see them pulling away and winning this one. Roll Tide.

  • DrB

    Having seen Pelini and Saban’s teams in my time at LSU, I would say that Saban uses more pattern reading and teaches it better.

  • Just one guy’s view, but I find the whole “pattern-reading” argument making the Internet rounds for the past 3 months rather ridiculous. The is a difference between pattern-matching and ‘banjo’ coverage. The ‘pattern matching’ zone principle is just the method in which you teach it – its just zone coverage, and in many regards, taught the same way everywhere

  • John

    What can I say to add to the high level of discourse here except: Roll Tide and F**k Texas!

  • OldSouth

    It’s interested me to see that Texas hasn’t developed a strong rush attack the last couple years. They average 4.09 ypc with Colt as the leading rusher (even taking him and his sacks out only yields 4.59).

  • Jack Horner

    Why am I not surprised that an Alabama fan would make a comment like John made above. Take your trash talk somewhere else please.

  • j

    Oh Jack PA-LEASE! What are you, like twelve?

    Save your fained moral superiority for someone who cares.

  • Hollister

    Personally, i really like the “stick” concept. What type of pass protection would most guys run when calling a stick play? Would they tend to slide to the play-side or just go BOB?

  • djohnson

    Check out Coach Huey’s site for the slide or BOB responses. It is a great resource.

  • John

    Jack, my boy, don’t take what I said personally. I simply hate Texas, most especially Mack Brown. Never has a HC been less deserving the praise heaped upon him (…does he even coach?)and never has a team been less deserving a #2 ranking. I’m sure that, if he could, Mack would load his schedule with Sun Belt Conference teams every year but only if B12 officials called the game. Yep, nothing like padding your record with pansies. And, puhleeze, don’t get me started with Colt McCoy. Can’t wait to see his act on Sundays. I can’t believe he’s been compared to Joe Montana. I mean has ever thrown a pass over 20 yards? Let’s see what he does with the tight windows he’ll have to throw into in the NFL.

    Much love, bro, and good luck, but like I said: Roll Tide!

  • Reinhard

    Pattern reading… I have no idea what this means exactly! I guess it means being smart and understanding what the passing offense is trying to do to you. But my view is best illustrated through an example:

    lets say you are the OLB in a basic cover three. So you have Seam-Curl-Flat responsibilities.

    After the snap, the number 2 receiver, let’s say its the TE, right in front of you runs a route to the flats.

    Pattern reading says that, you should recognize they are running a flat-curl combination. So when you see the #2 run to the flat, you should retreat to the curl and look up the #1, sort of the opposite of what you would do instinctively: run to the flat with the TE

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  • It a shame that he’s going to miss the 1st game. Mark is such an awesome athlete.