Much of what is new in defending the spread involves giving different looks on the backside of all those “zone-read” and other read plays that spread teams are so fond of. For example, on the typical zone-read play, the line is responsible for blocking everyone but the backside defensive end; the quarterback “reads” him. If he crashes to take the runningback (or at least to eliminate the runningback’s cutback lane), the quarterback keeps it; if the defensive end is not in position to tackle the runner (either because he stays put or takes the quarterback, the QB simply hands the ball off to the runner.
Defenses began reacting by using a technique called a “scrape exchange” to mess up the read. With this defensive adjustment, the defensive end always crashes for the runningback, while the linebacker “scrapes” over to take the quarterback. If the quarterback doesn’t see this, he will pull the ball, thinking he will have an easy lane on the backside, and instead runs straight into the linebacker.
If the offense knows that the defense is shifting to this (a big if), what is the adjustment? Tell the tackle to block the defensive end, and the quarterback to read the linebacker. Often the linebacker will take himself out of the play, and with good blocking, the offense should be able to get a good run play, or a big play if the runner can cut back.
But let’s step back from scheme: what else can a defense do? One answer, is just to get more athletic. As TCU’s excellent coach Garry Patterson recently told the NY Times’s Pete Thamel:
Patterson’s base defense consists of four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs. Many teams have gone away from four-man defensive lines and have added a linebacker for a 3-4 alignment, but Patterson chooses to keep the front stout and the back end of the defense flexible.
It is a simple concept for a complicated challenge.
“You’ve got to spread out with them,” he said. “We try to coach defense like coaches coach offense.”
Patterson’s theories on slowing down the spread quickly come back to speed.
“If the defensive end is fast enough to be able to play the running back or the quarterback instead of some other person on your defense, that frees up a guy,” he said. “If nine guys out of your 11 can run somebody down, it always helps.”
This last quote is the most important. Reconsider the diagrams above. Now, let’s say (a) that the defensive end (or linebacker in a “scrape-exchange” scheme) is a real stud, and (b) that the quarterback is nothing special — not a Pat White or Vince Young. In that case, when the defense sees the zone read the defender being “read” can pretty much just wait until he knows whether the QB or RB is keeping it, and then attack accordingly. Unless the quarterback is a real athletic threat (think of Michigan’s motley quarterbacking crew from last season), that defender can play both the zone-read and not fear having the quarterback run by him; if the QB runs, he’ll get ‘em.
The obvious answer for the offense is to get more athletic at quarterback (like Michigan is trying to do), but there are other things, like amping up the options on the backside reads for the QB if he doesn’t give it to the back. But, as always, the chess match goes on and on . . . .