“We’re playing against a lot more spread.”

Nick Saban, like rust, never sleeps.  I suspect he’s been chewing over the reasons behind Alabama’s two-game losing streak.  It sounds like his defensive philosophy is evolving in response to what happened last season.

Saban has said on multiple occasions recently how important it is for Alabama to adapt to the changing landscape of college football. His system has long relied on big, heavy bodies on the defensive line to clog running lanes and free up linebackers to play in space. And for a while, no one had an answer for it as his defenses at LSU and Alabama routinely dominated the point of attack. But as more and more mobile quarterbacks have begun moving the pocket and more and more hurry-up offenses have sped up the game, the size Saban so covets has been nullified. Three-hundred pound defensive linemen are too slow to catch quarterbacks like Johnny Manziel and Nick Marshall, and they’re too slow to catch someone like Trevor Knight when he’s getting rid of the ball in the blink of an eye.

The litany of personnel packages Saban was known for using have become outdated as well. It’s not that they’re no longer effective, they’re simply no longer applicable. With so many teams going without a huddle on offense, there’s no time to substitute players. So, in turn, Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart have had to simplify the defense and find players who can play multiple roles. That means no more lumbering defensive ends and no more linebackers who don’t have the speed to cover a slot receiver. Athleticism and versatility is now the name of the game.

I don’t think all that’s totally gone the way of the dinosaur, if for no other reason than that not every team Alabama plays runs some version of the HUNH.  Plus, beef still tends to come in handy inside the red zone, regardless of the opponent’s scheme.  And the idea that athleticism is all of a sudden the name of the game is silly, considering that you can go back to what Jimmy Johnson did at Miami to counter the powerhouse option offenses of the time to see that defensive minds have valued athleticism for some time now.

Versatility, however, is something that’s increasingly valuable in this new era.  (So are some other things, if you’ll recall.)  If Saban’s reached an adapt-or-perish point in coaching defense, he’s not the only one.  Recruiting the right kind of athletes and knowing how best to deploy those athletes once they get on campus will always be the name of the game, even as college offenses change.  It’ll be interesting to see if Saban’s defense can mutate successfully.  And Jeremy Pruitt’s.


Filed under Strategery And Mechanics

30 responses to ““We’re playing against a lot more spread.”

  1. Russ

    Yeah I’m more interested in how Pruitt’s defense adapts. With his stated goal of simplifying the defense, I think that will go a long way helping our defense to improve.

  2. I think Pruitt’s D is already a mutated version of Saban’s. It may actually be nothing like Saban, but his own from Hoover days with a little tweaks based on what he learned under Saban.

    • It’s been interesting hearing Pruitt talk about defending from the back to the front. Maybe that’s just a new way of saying the same old thing, but I’d never really heard it described that way prior to him coming along. I’ve always thought that everything starts with having a good front 7 and the secondary built off that, but his philosophy seems to be that everything starts with a good secondary, then the front 7 builds off that.

      Like I said, I don’t know if this is really revolutionary or anything, but from what I’ve always heard in the past, it seems like a new outlook.

      • hassan

        I have always thought that anytime you can shut down an aspect of the offense, then that takes some pressure off the other areas because they can key in easier. I don’t know if working from the front 7 back or from the secondary up really makes that much differnece. But then again, I am not a coach.

      • Macallanlover

        Like you Rev, I always thought front to back also (haven’t read all of Kama Sutra yet though, keep getting distracted, but always willing to experiment with new “approaches” to get to the primary objective.) I do feel our 2013 squad required a front to back given the weaknesses we had in the secondary, and the obvious relative strength we had on the front lines. I am more concerned in letting our down linemen loose for the always beneficial maximum penetration (there I go again). Certainly against power running teams like Bama, SC, and LSU, plus option teams like GT, we have to focus on the front group first. Using back to front may be a better way to “herd cats” when we face a wide-open spread team with the ability to both run and throw effectively.

        I am “all in” (love that) on a different philosophy than what we have seen recently, along with a stronger emphasis on fundamentals. It has to get better, particularly with the question marks we have on offense going into 2014.

  3. Scorpio Jones, III

    I’m not sure anybody but a DB could run with Nick Marshall, and not many of them…It appears the writer is saying Alabama’s defense is big and slow…funny, I thought they were big and fast.

    Saban has had two occaisions to stop an offense that was running up and down the field (well, two that stick in my mind) In the Georgia dome he escaped, against Awbun, he did not, but was that defense or a special teams mistake?

    Pruitt’s defense did pretty well against Clemson last year, and well enough against Awbun.

    Maybe its all about the Jimmies and Joes.

  4. Scorpio Jones, III

    And I gotta say this…the much-maligned Todd Grantham’s confused defense had the game won at Jordan Hare, you know?

  5. diving duck

    If you let them, Auburn would run right up the gut behind a power o-line every play. That made them much more effective than Oregon who was all in on putting the sprint team in pads. Being able to stop them from getting 4 yards every time that run that play, much like ga tech, significantly handicaps their offense. You saw how effective Tim Jernigan was against them in the championship game when he was fresh. So, I don’t think the answer is to move away from the dominant, line controlling nose guard.

  6. Always Someone Else's Fault

    You have to have two defenses on the field at the same time now: one that can beat the called play for seconds 1-3 and one that can beat improvisational chaos for seconds 4-6. Saban’s tweaking the athletic profile he puts on the field at outside LB and DE, but I don’t see anything there that represents a a complete overhaul.

  7. Will Trane

    BCS title game, again I’ll post. Thought Pruitt’s defense was the difference. Auburn could not run out the lead even though Mason had almost 200 yds rushing. And TG’s defense was solid in 2nd half against Auburn. Had it won, but so did Bama. Both gave up pass TDs in closing seconds on poor pass coverage.

  8. Paul

    You’re gonna see teams going to a 7-5 defense to stop Auburn like teams have done vs Oregon. The front 6 or 7 have to be able to run, so Pruitt’s tall and fast defensive line deal might be the answer. He did well vs Clemson.

    • Macallanlover

      You may have something there with a 7-5, I see one obvious advantage to any other defense I have seen employed by us. Like that Pruitt is bringing this in.🙂

      • Dawgfan Will

        Tennessee tried a 7-6 against LSU a couple of years ago didn’t they? I guess they were ahead of their time.🙂

  9. Bright Idea

    Recognizing the position of running QB is a good start regardless of how you scheme it. Grantham never seemed to acknowledge the running QB. I can still see the Buffalo QB gashing us.

  10. I think there is something to versatility, but most defenses are never going to be able to recruit the hybrid that can handle the line of scrimmage against a power running game and then turn and run with the talented receivers that get put in the slot. I thought that’s what we were getting with JHC in the “star” position. He delivered against the run but struggled in coverage against the slot. Slot receivers like Michael Bennett or Chris Conley are just nightmares for defensive coordinators because they find the soft spots in a zone to keep drives alive and then torment linebackers or safeties in man coverage with their ability to attack the center of the field on the seam route.

    • Good points. I think you have to do both in order to adapt, which means you need different type players in the Front 7. It also means you have to have more numbers since you have to play more people.

      That’s one of the things that drove me crazy about Grantham. He seemed to have his favorites and they stayed on the field regardless of the situation.

      The other thing is you can’t afford recruiting misses anymore. I’ve always maintained that anyway, because Georgia takes the high road on roster management, and we were missing on way too many. Now eval is more important than ever.

      That’s not a problem for Alabama, they’re not going to miss very often. And it may not be a problem for Georgia anymore, either, now that Pruitt’s here. Better not be, because now every defensive spot is super critical.

      And we’re already loaded with extra baggage, so there’s not room for more.

  11. Paul

    A lot of college coaches will be looking at NFL film on how the Chiefs, Cowboys and Giants dominated the Eagles spread offense.

    1 Turnovers help (chiefs had 4)
    2 Pressure on Qb is important (Cowboys had 5 or 6 sacks)
    3 Scheme is critical, all 3 used a lot of disguise, mixed it up, lots of presnap movement, overplayed the run and jammed the receivers at the line.

    • In today’s offense-dominated game (even the rules are favoring the offenses more and more), I think turnovers are going to become even more of premium. “Win the turnover battle” has always been one of the keys to victory, but it’s also becoming one of the only ways for a defense to get a stop nowadays. Either the offense puts itself in a hole with a bad penalty, or the defense creates a turnover. If one of those two doesn’t happen, the good offenses are at least getting down into FG territory.

      The number of interceptions you get on defense can be a bit fluky (though being able to pressure the QB should directly correlate to more opportunities for interceptions), but guys getting better at stripping the ball and creating fumbles has got to become a point of emphasis. Of course, that’s a fine line to walk, we’ve all seen it where 2 or 3 guys go for the strip, nobody actually makes the tackle, and suddenly the runner is 60 yards down the field.

      • hassan

        I agree with the above with the exception of your point on going for the strip. I would much rather see solid tackling. Wrap and roll boys!

        It would be interesting to see where we have ranked on allowing yards after contact. Is that on CFB stats (I just haven’t bothered to look yet)?

  12. mdcgtp

    Saban’s defense is designed to stop the run first and force passes to sidelines. Remember LSU 2004. In between LSU and Bama, he switched to the 3-4, but his point of emphasis was NOT pass rushing ILBs rather it was thick LBs in general that stuffed the run.

    Ultimately, the combination of tempo, no huddle, and QB mobility has reduced the effectiveness of his schemes. It would be easy for me to argue that somehow this fits the narrative of Bama decline that I believe is actually happening. If Saban’s comments are taken at face value over the past couple of weeks, it implies that the 5 stars he has recruited the past couple of years are entitled and poor fits for the scheme he intends to roll out. I think both those conclusions are a bit extreme, but I know there is uncertainty and risk in a program where consistency and risk aversion are the norm

    Of course, if Derrick Henry plays like he did in the Sugar Bowl, none of this will matter.

    • You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t buy into the decline of Saban just yet. That 2014 class he just signed is ridiculously talented.

      • I’m not in either. Alabama has WAY more talent than we do. Especially on OL and back 8 on defense. Probably double, anyway.

      • mdcgtp

        look at USC’s recruiting rankings from 05-08 and tell me that would have predicted 09 and 10? they had back to back classes with 5 and 6 5 star players. to be clear, they did not over sign like Bama. would you have projected the end of their dynasty after the 08 season? I don’t think so.

        that said, I think the notion that gets lost is a high percentage of 4 and 5 star players still don’t pan out. More don’t pan out than do. Yes, a higher percentage of 4 and 5 star players succeed than 3 star players, but again, there is plenty of room for coaching and luck to make a difference. further, there is a reasonable enough level of speculation around the way rivals evaluates prospects they are involved with. I have read a recent unbiased national account that suggested Hand (the 5 star DE from VA) is significantly over rated. Lo Carter had one bad game and lost his 5th star. Seems odd to me. recruiting is inexact enough to where simply stockpiling highly rated talent does not simply equate to sustained success. No doubt it beats the alternative (i.e., NOT getting talent), but again, it is one variable among many.

        Additionally, the exodus of juniors for them this year bears watching. if it is a trend, it suggests two things. First, they are going to start to lose guys “on the bubble” instead of having them come back. Second, the 5 star kids they are recruiting might be more focused on getting to the NFL than winning at bama. again, this is somewhat unique in that any 3rd year player would have won two titles in his first two years in tuscaloosa

      • Macallanlover

        Plus he gets “mulligans” in case the coaches and the many legions of consultants aren’t able to coach ’em up.

    • There are 3 programs in the SEC who can take the Oklahoma blueprint and beat Saban – Texas A&M, LSU and Georgia. All 3 have the athletes on the outside that can take Bama’s defense out of its element with the threat of a power running game. We’ll see with all 3 whether they can replace the trigger man under center to distribute the ball. Is it August yet?