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.

(more…)

Former Texas A&M Coach Mike Sherman’s letter to Texas High School coaches

Sometimes things don’t work out the way you hope they do; that’s certainly the case for any coach that gets fired. But sometimes there can be victory in defeat. In that vein, I enjoyed coach Sherman’s letter, which is reprinted below.

I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you for allowing my staff and me to come into your high schools, recruit your players and share ideas with you. I am forever grateful for the access and opportunity you’ve offered me over the last four years.

Other than going to practice every day and being on the field with my players, the one thing I am going to miss the most is visiting with high school coaches, listening to you talk about your kids and your programs, and watching practices and off-season workouts. Since this will be my last letter to high school coaches, besides thanking you for the opportunities to visit with you, I wanted to share with you some of the things I learned over the years that might be of help to you down the road. Sometimes I think as football coaches we are so competitive we are reluctant to share ideas. This profession has been good to me. I believe giving back when you can is important. These are my ideas – not suggesting they are for you. They are some of the things I came away with.

I. Core Values

If a player learns anything from me, he’ll learn that you have specific core values to live his life. These ‘core values’ are his guiding light in the decisions he makes not just as a football player, but as a man.

Our ‘core values’ for our team were simple.

(more…)

Smart Links – Conference Realignment, Pass Rushing, Jim Harbaugh on QBs, Madden, Derek Parfit, “Bob” – 1/19/2012

Beginner’s guide to conference realignment. Below is catlab’s take:

- Pass rush, thinking about the big picture.

- Jim Harbaugh on quarterbacking.

- Tom Bissell on Madden and the future of video game sports.

- Defensive line play in the 46 Nickel.

- “Bob,” R.I.P.

- Steve Spurrier’s coach hiring criteria: No smokers and no sloppy fatties.

(more…)

Get your option on: Air Force triple-option clips

A day without some option is not a day I want to have:

Shredding Cover Two with a “Delayed Slant” from the Smash Concept

The old “smash” concept — with an inside receiver on a corner route behind a quick hitch by an outside receiver — remains one of the most versatile pass plays in football. It’s simple enough that any team, whether they are a run-first team or a passing team, an NFL team or a junior varsity team, can get great use out of it.

smash

Base concept

It is, of course, best against Cover Two: The purpose is to get a “high/low” vertical stretch on the cornerback.

I’ve also discussed ways to make the concept more useful: One is to use a backside “seam-read” or “divide” routeto threaten the deep safeties.

The other way to get more juice out of the concept is to have the outside receiver run something more like an option route than simply a quick hitch.

Against any coverage, his job is to push to five yards (against soft coverage, it’s a five step route — three big and two quick jab steps to throttle down) and turn his numbers back to the quarterback. And against zones, he just wants to find an open window in the zone coverage, whether it is outside the linebackers towards the sideline or just inside the first zone defender.

smasher

Finding the open window

Finally, against man coverage some teams like to have the outside receiver run a “whip” or “pivot” route, where they angle inside for five yards and then “whip” back to the sideline. If you are sprinting out to the concept, I like that, but the receiver has to make that read early and as a result he may give away the intention to the corner. And in any event, it’s not an easy throw from a straight dropback. But most of all, to me, the whole point of the smash is to hit the outside unless the defense overplays it, in which case you want to then work back inside. That’s why my favorite adjustment for the outside receiver in smash against man coverage is for him to simply turn it into a delayed slant route.

(more…)

New Grantland Blog: The 49ers and the Quarterback Crack/Pull Sweep

My newest Grantland Blog is now up:

Indeed, as San Francisco 49ers legend Bill Walsh taught us, the best play callers do their play calling through preparation during the week, not so much on gameday as emotions soar. In other words, play calling is rarely the difference between a won and a loss.

But sometimes it is; sometimes a play call is so good — and takes such good advantage of a bad play call on the other side — that one can rightly say: That call might have won the game. So it was during the furious fourth quarter between the 49ers and the Saints last weekend. With two minutes and 11 seconds remaining, and the 49ers down 24-23, on third-and-7, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman made one of the best calls of the season: A crack/pull sweep with, not a running back, but quarterback Alex Smith as the blocker.

Read the whole thing.

The most popular Smart Football articles of 2011

The coming of each new year gives us a chance to look back, and 2011 was a productive year here at Smart Football. In addition to my pieces over at Grantland, I had a number of fresh pieces here on the site. Below are links to some of the most popular pieces of 2011, in no particular order.

- Dick LeBeau, Dom Capers, and the evolution of defense.

- Why every team should install its offense in three days (and other political theories on coaching offense).

- What is the inverted veer/Dash read?

- Buddy Ryan’s “Polish Goalline” Tactic.

- Bobby Petrino’s shallow cross concept.

- Snag, stick and the importance of triangles (yes, triangles) in the passing game

- The “Diamond” formation and other mult-back pistol sets.

- Teaching a quarterback where to throw the ball – Grass, leverage, and specific defenders

- Combining quick passes, run plays and screens in the same play.

(more…)

Smart Links – Concussions, BCS, Pizza, Ditka, Journey – 1/12/2012

Blutarsky on the realities of a playoff.

- Russell Wilson gives up his baseball career to pursue football.

- Jonah Lehrer on concussions and high school football.

- We finally have an answer: There is no such thing as “South Detroit.”

- Brian Phillips on the BCS, the end of the season, and, as always, Justin Blackmon and Brandon Weeden.

- A reading list for Law and Literature. I prefer this book.

- A history of breast implants.

- Tracking the “Pizza Princple.” I sincerely hope history doesn’t hold in this case.

- Waiting for Ditka.

- And I thought marketing had gotten salacious here.

Fantastic inside zone and “pin-and-pull” outside zone cut-ups

Under former coach Glen Mason, Minnesota, while not a great team, was one of the best rushing teams in the entire country during that time. And while they had some very good backs — including both Lawrence Maroney and Marion Barber III at the same time — they did it by being extremely simple: the inside zone and the outside zone, primarily with “pin and pull” blocking. Below are some great game film cut-ups of both:

Inside Zone:

Outside Zone:
(more…)

New Grantland Blog: Drawing Up the National Championship and A.J. McCarron’s Smash Concept

It’s up over at the Grantland blog:

Many of those downfield completions came on the “smash” concept, which involves an inside receiver running a 10- to 12-yard corner route and an outside receiver simply stopping at five yards. It’s a high/low concept: One wide receiver is deep while another is underneath, so the quarterback can read that defensive back. If he comes up for the five-yard hitch on the outside, the quarterback throws it to the corner route; if the defensive back hangs back, he drops it off short to the outside wide receiver. It’s a very basic concept, but still a great one. Indeed, even Southern Cal quarterback Matt Barkley pointed this out on Twitter, noting that Alabama’s success came on “smash routes all day.”

smash

Read the whole thing.