In other words, the zone blitz had come full circle. What began as a way to blitz without playing man coverage had started incorporating man coverage all over again, this time in an entirely new way.
Using pattern-match principles allowed defenses to overcome the deficiencies in both the manic, risk-heavy man-to-man blitzes and the easy-to-exploit soft spots in the zone-coverage scheme. There was now a way to keep the safety of the zone and the tighter coverage of man-to-man. Defenses had finally done for blitzing what Walsh had done for passing — keeping the reward but eliminating the risk.
Fitzgerald’s 37-yard touchdown on Sunday against the Eagles was a nice example. On first-and-10 in the second quarter, the Cardinals called a very basic pass combination — a post route by Fitzgerald behind a deep cross by Roberts, all off play-action. This has been one of coach Ken Whisenhunt’s favorite pass concepts over the years, and is one used by virtually every NFL team.
It’s not your father’s two-quarterback system. In their wild 47-45 shootout loss to Baylor, ULM brought out a rarely seen wrinkle, a two-quarterback zone-read-esque system. ULM coach Todd Berry put both of his quarterbacks in the game and had his right hander take the snap and flow to the right while his left hander take the mesh point and roll left. It was good for a couple of completions and a semi-frantic timeout by Baylor. (H/t BestCoastFootball.)
I’ve seen this before (and no, the so-called A-11 did not invent it and in fact those teams rarely if ever actually used two quarterbacks/potential throwers). Most ignominiously, I remember Purdue using it a few years ago when their top two or three quarterbacks all went down with injury (didn’t work as well then). It’s a fun wrinkle; I’d be curious to hear from anyone that has used this and about their success.
One of them is a play Newton made famous at Auburn — the “inverted veer” or “dash read” play. Unlike a typical zone read where the quarterback reads a back-side defender, the inverted veer reads a player on the front side — the quarterback and running back head in the same direction. Coupled with “power” run blocking with a pulling guard, the defense is outnumbered to the play side, and blocking lines up nicely.
Against the Saints, Panthers offensive coordinator Rod Chudzinski took Cam’s old inverted veer one step further by running an outside run coupled with a read of an interior defender — a “sweep read.” Carolina ran this play several times against the Saints, but the best example came in the third quarter and resulted in DeAngelo Williams bursting around the left end for a 27-yard gain.
University of Wisconsin-Whitewater had won 46 straight games and three straight Division III championships. Last weekend, however, Buffalo State pulled out a hook-and-double lateral on 4th and 19 to help them topple UW-Whitewater for a 7-6 upset. Via CoachingSearch:
“That’s a play we practice every week, because it’s our last play type of play,” head coach Jerry Boyes said. “The kids executed it to perfection. It was a huge time, but something like that just doesn’t happen. You’ve got to practice those things. Through that, you give yourself a chance.”
Boyes called it the biggest win in the history of the program. Asked about his expectations coming into the game, Boyes wanted a measuring stick for his team. Surely, they passed the test.
“If you want to be the best, then you’ve got to play the best,” he said. “The opportunity came and we jumped at it. Win or lose, you’ve got to find out where you’re at. What better yardstick than going to play the No. 1 team in the land? Never afraid of a challenge.”
Coaching is about putting players in positions to succeed. Griffin’s potential is nearly limitless, but as a rookie playing his first game, he’s not Tom Brady just yet, and asking him to throw 40 or 50 traditional drop-back passes was not going to give Washington its best chance to win. Shanahan has clearly gone into this year with an open mind — something many otherwise excellent pro coaches don’t do often enough — and he’s blended his tried-and-true West Coast/zone-blocking offense with some of the best andsimplest principles Griffin executed so well at Baylor.
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.
Although something very important is happening soon — the start of football season — something even more important is happening for me: I’m getting married. Aside from my general good fortune, this also means that I’ll be out of the country on my honeymoon for the next few weeks, until the second half of September. So if you’re wondering why I’m not updating or writing for Grantland despite the start of football season, this is why. Both of those things will resume once I get back.
So keep the seat warm for me. In the meantime, the best way to get your Smart Football fix is through the book, The Essential Smart Football, available in paperback from Amazon and B&N and on Kindle, each at this link. If you have an iPad, iPhone or Android device, the Kindle application is free. It won’t be available for Nook until sometime after I return.
Lastly, I ask a favor of you, my readers: If during the first few weeks of the season you see anything that might be of interest — some strategy trend, scheme, tactic, communication method or anything at all — please mention it in the comments to this post. It’ll be the first thing I check when I return, as I try to figure out how things have evolved from last season and where they might go.
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