But Saban isn’t content to merely have his most productive defender on Johnny Football duty. Thursday night, he pulled a page from Texas A&M’s playbook and tried to recruit a 12th Man to help eliminate one of Sumlin’s most effective schemes. “There is one aspect of this game that nobody has said anything about,” Saban said. “These guys have a hard count, and they’ve gotten the other team to jump offsides an average of at least four times a game. One time at Houston, they had [an opponent] jump offsides 11 times in a game. Now, they don’t just get you to jump offsides. When you jump offsides, they do what Sam Wyche used to do at Cincinnati. Everybody runs a takeoff. So they throw the flag. The defense is offsides. The defensive players stop. Everybody takes off. Free play. And they throw it up. Three or four times a game. … These guys have to communicate some kind of way. They can use hand signals. We can make it difficult for them. Those kind of things affect them as well create a lot of passion and enthusiasm for our players with the kind of atmosphere we create in that stadium Saturday. I’m telling you, this is the most important one of the year from that standpoint.”
That’s from an excellent piece on this weekend’s matchup between Alabama and Texas A&M, from Andy Staples. Make sure to read the whole thing. Also, how do we think Saban knows about the game when Sumlin and Kingsbury were at Houston? Was that part of their game prep?
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.
This is from a few months back, but is one of the best one of these such segments I’ve ever seen. Malzahn does a really good job explaining exactly what his thought process was and would be in attacking Saban (and Kirby Smart)’s great Alabama defense:
That is, except in the game that (rightly or wrongly) crowns the champion: LSU-Alabama. Indeed, that game features the country’s most dynamic and exciting defensive player in Tyrann Mathieu (who might end up no better than the third- or fourth-best NFL prospect in LSU’s secondary) and one of the most statistically dominating defenses of the past decade in Alabama.
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.
Wild thought. Here’s a question for discussion. The Dolphins this season have taken to using a very interesting personnel package for their wildcat looks: two tight-ends and four runningbacks (Ronnie Brown at the “wildcat QB” spot, Ricky Williams as a split receiver/motion back, and then a fullback next to Brown and the other flanker has been a runningback as well). My friend Jerry Gordon speculated that this might be particularly taxing on NFL teams because of the strict 53 man roster limits. Indeed, the Dolphins had a lot of success against the Jets, and Rex Ryan uses a number of six, seven, and occasionally more defensive backs on the field at the same time to bring pressure with. Plus, add to that the fact that the typical NFL “cover” cornerback is not excited about being blocked in the run game, and the extra runningback out there can be a key linchpin for making the jet sweep go, and the personnel in general for opening up creases. Anyone have any thoughts on this?
- Brophy, delivering. My man Broph has some great stuff up from the past couple of weeks, especially his in depth look at Nick Saban’s defense. I’ve discussed an overview of some of what Saban does, but Brophy provides a nice summary of a DVD series Saban did, with primary focus on single safety or “one-high” defenses — Saban’s favorite. Brophy has broken the articles into three parts:
It’s best to read all of it, but a couple of good Saban quotes to whet the appetites:
If you’re not matching the pattern and cheating the receiver, you’re never going to make it. You’re going to be watching completions all night long. You’re never going to make it [to the ball].
The simplest and best defense in football is man-free coverage. It covers everything, it stuffs the run, and it defends the middle of the field. It’s the #1 coverage in pro ball . . . basically because you can’t get away with playing Cover 3.
And then this explanation of the “RAT” call from Cover 1 from Brophy:
The main nuance of this coverage has to do with a challenging/conflicting assignments for the backers. Because the main thrust of the defense is to stop the run from the inside out and [to] keep the defenders playing fast, the premise is to keep the linebackers focused on the backs and TE. Saban uses an alert code (RAT) to prevent a potentially ‘coverage breaking’ route.
“RAT” is used to alert inside backers [that the] strong safety [is] passing off his responsibility ([i.e., the] tight end) to the inside linebackers. When the second receiver (tight end) stems inside ([i.e., like on a shallow cross]), the strong safety, [if he] ran with him, would be immediately vacating the perimeter ([i.e.] where the run game would likely be attacking) as well as [getting in the way] of the (run game) pursuing linebackers. To [avoid] this hazard, when the tight end stems inside [as on a shallow cross], the strong safety will declares/yells “RAT!”. “Rat” means a guy is coming into the funnel (is being funneled) and the remaining defender in the hole should cut/reroute and jump this receiver as he approaches.
This call accomplishes two things. First, it alerts the next backer over (Sam) that the strong safety will take his assigned man (first back out), and he should now adjust to the second back out strong. Secondly, it tells the Mike, who is the “rat in the hole” that he is going to have company soon (crossing tight end) and can jump this route as it comes.
As I see this, it is Saban’s way of getting a “floater” or “robber” player while keeping exactly who he wants on the various backs, tight-ends, and inside receivers — i.e. controlling the matchups. As a bonus, again courtesy of Brophy, is a video of ‘Bama in Cover 1 looks. And, of course for more, you must read the “holy grail” of defensive playbooks, Saban’s 2001 LSU book.
- Pellini, (un)-interrupted. Tough week for Bo coming off a big and disappointing loss to Texas Tech. But Brophy came through again with audio of a clinic talk Pellini gave while still at LSU on his defense. It’s well worth the listen.
- The testing of Mike Leach. Speaking of Tech, I have previously noted that Mike Leach is particularly adept at producing one prolific passer after another, and credited much of that to his system of drills and pass-happy practices whereby all his QBs get lots of reps. That theory will be challenged this week, as the Captain will likely be forced to start third-string redshirt freshman quarterback Seth Doege, due to injuries to his first two quarterbacks, Taylor Potts and Steven (“Sticks”) Sheffield.
Is Bill Belichick moving the Patriots away from the 3-4 defense? The buzz in Boston is that they are. Here’s a video clip of Richard Seymour talking about it and excerpts of a Q&A Seymour did with the Boston Globe’s Reiss’s Pieces blog:
To 4-3, or not to 4-3?
4-3 vs. 3-4 defense
“. . . .We have the versatility to play in a lot of different fronts, a lot of different packages, whatever is going to give our team the edge. You know, the offense always knows where the play is going and the snap count, so if we can do some different things on defense to help us out in that process, whether it’s the 3-4 or the 4-3, whatever can give us the best chance to win.” . . . .
Does the 4-3 allow him to stand out as a pass rusher?
“It depends on what we’re executing. It isn’t always about sacks, [that)] can be overrated. It’s about getting pressure on the passer, taking care of your responsibilities first. There’s a time and a place for everything. If it calls for us to penetrate, get in the backfield, then that’s what we’ll do. But sometimes we’ll 2-gap, when playing 4-3 front as well. Some teams have different philosophies, where it’s a 1-gap defense, but we still 2-gap and everybody is responsible for two gaps.”
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