This post has been a long time in the making. I first thought about putting together something about the overall scheme on defense Kirby was likely to install right after he was hired and I have been knitting together bits and pieces since then. Speaking of which, I’d like to give a special nod to C.J. Schexnayder, who used to write at Roll Bama Roll, for providing me with a great deal of insight about what Smart directed at Alabama.
Which, naturally, is where this discussion has to start. Remember when everyone used to dismiss Kirby’s work as mere puppetry, boiling down to “running Saban’s defense”? Good times. As Smart points out in this video clip (starting just before the 1:35 mark), though, running a defense is more involving than that.
Smart’s always been upfront about what he’s learned from Saban, as he explained in this interview he gave after meeting about the head coaching position at Auburn:
Smart says his years as an assistant coach under head coach Nick Saban have better prepared him for his future than if he had worked for someone else.
“My development to become a head coach will be much better working for Coach Saban than necessarily going somewhere else because you learn every day that you’re in there,” Smart said. “He does a great job of quality control of the entire organization, what could we have done differently, and I think sometimes when you go other places that don’t have the same support structure, you don’t get those — you don’t get that same experience.”
Smart says Saban is always challenging him and other coaches.
“Every day we do two-minute against each other, we come in, talk about clock management, what could we have done here? What should we have done there? He’s questioning not only us why we did this in this situation, but he questions himself.”
Smart says the biggest change he has seen in Saban during the past few years has been Saban’s emphasis on the mental side of coaching.
“He goes deep into the mental side,” Smart said. “He spends as much time on that as he does defensively now, and I think that is where he’s grown as a coach, because I can remember being at LSU, I didn’t remember the mental side being so great. And now six, seven years later, it’s extended so far.
So, while he’s been informed by a number of years of brainstorming and planning with Nick Saban on defense — which isn’t exactly a bad thing, is it? — he’s spent enough time directing defenses to feel it’s necessary to continue to be involved in that now. And that involvement is going to be on the level of installing and deploying what worked for him at Alabama, albeit with a few changes he deems satisfactory.
It makes sense, then, to begin by looking at what he and Saban ran at Alabama over the last decade. For starters, go with the quintessential concept that Schexnayder describes in this 2012 post about Chris Brown’s The Essential Smart Football:
If you are specifically interested in Coach Saban’s strategies, when you pick up The Essential Smart Football the best place to start is, logically enough, the first chapter. That said, “The Evolution of Urban Meyer and The Spread Option Offense” doesn’t talk much about the 2009 SEC Championship game. Instead it provides a synopsis of how the spread offense blossomed at the college level through the prism of Meyer’s progression as a coach.
Brown explains that Meyer’s offense is focused around a refinement of the option designed to capitalize on the fact the offense has a mathematical advantage at the line of scrimmage if you use the quarterback correctly. The defense finds itself making tough decisions every time the ball is snapped.
You have to have safety-type players who can play the quarterback but also can, if it is a pass play, race back and play as either an intermediate defender or as a deep safety. The defense must be able to play man coverage, and it must have the ability to blitz and attack both the quarterback and any other backfield player. Finally, the defense must have the ability to zone blitz to put pressure on the quarterback but still take away the short slants and quick passes, or at least threaten to do so.
In other words you have to play defense like Alabama head coach Nick Saban.
There are several other chapters in the book that discuss this type of offensive development (notably the one on Steve Spurrier’s career arc) but the point is the same — Alabama’s defense was designed to handle the growing dynamism of offenses at the college level. Now you can flip back to page 95 and feast upon the chapter you really bought the book for, “Nick Saban’s Defense School.”
This piece is actually revision of a post that appeared on Smart Football prior to Alabama’s 2008 season opener against Clemson (and re-posted a year later). In it Brown starts with an excerpt from Saban’s playbook that states his core defensive philosophy — stop the run on first and second down and play solid zone pass defense on third. Simple enough but then Brown breaks down how Saban goes about doing that and it gets hairy real quick.
In a nutshell: to handle dynamic offenses you want to use Cover 1 (a single safety deep) in order to load the box against the running game but then you are vulnerable to the pass. So you go to the Cover 3 (three deep defensive backs) but give the offense better odds with short passes and the run.
Saban’s solution is to customize these schemes to meet the specific threats by using a system of pattern reading. That puts players in position to match what the offense throws at them. Once the ball is snapped, they are in place to react accordingly. Brown explains:
Pattern reading… is much like a matchup zone in basketball. Defenders are responsible for zones, but they play tight to receivers who come through those zones. Moreover, pattern-read teams begin by immediately coaching their defenders on how to recognize popular pass route combinations (and indeed, the very concept of pass combinations themselves).
Pattern reading is Saban’s trademark contribution to defensive tactics. As is explained in this post at Saturday Down South, pattern reading was something Saban and Bill Belichick developed out of necessity when both were coaching the Cleveland Browns.
Four receivers deep, to three defensive backs deep meant the Browns couldn’t compete. Pittsburgh shredded them again and again attacking the weakest part of the defense — the seams — and causing Saban an untold number of headaches. The NFL was yet to become a spread based league, but this one team, using spread concepts, knew how to attack his near impenetrable defense. Saban couldn’t commit more defensive backs to the problem, as that would make Cleveland too light in the box and Pittsburgh would run all over them (they needed an eight-man front).
One obvious answer was to switch to man-to-man defense when the Steelers showed spread sets. The issue with man-to-man coverage is that it becomes a horse race; have inferior horses and you lose, traditionally giving up a big play.
Saban attempted to build in more man-to-man looks, playing a variety of cover-1 defenses. But they were ineffective. Saban calls cover-1 defense “cat” coverage; you’ve got your cat, and you’ve got your cat. “Cat” coverage only works if your five cats are good enough to stop their five-eligible cats.
“We got to where we couldn’t run cover-1 . So now we can’t play an 8-man front. The 1994 Browns went 13–5 , we lost to Steelers 3 times, lost 5 games total (twice in the regular season, once in the playoffs). We gave up the fifth fewest points in the history of the NFL, and lost to Steelers because we could not play 8-man fronts to stop the run” Saban told a high school coaching clinic in 2010.
Two of the best minds in all of football history — Saban and Belichick — had to find a way to stop Pittsburgh’s passing attack, while being flexible enough to stop the run — remember, they used to do that thing back then — the result was a hybrid defense that would morph on the fly, post-snap, depending on what the offense was running.
And there’s two of your big keys: stud defensive backs and the ability to adjust to what the offense is doing after the snap. (Keep that in mind when you hear Smart talk about Georgia’s secondary.)
That’s only half the story, of course. Because what Alabama’s defense under Smart has been known for more than anything, is its prowess in stopping the run. What’s gone into making that is discussed in this post at Pro Football Focus. The author details four factors:
- A “two-gap” responsibility in its front seven.
- Great technique in defeating blocks.
- The inside linebackers responsibility in run defense.
- Safety support against the run.
Again, it all starts with having great athletes at every level of the defense and coaching them up from there, which is why you keep hearing Smart harp on recruiting. But it’s also worth keeping in mind that if Smart is committed to making this a transition year on the defensive side of the ball, the personnel he has on hand are probably not completely suited to what he wants to be able to do. Remember what Jeremy Pruitt said this past week about last year’s defense:
“When I went to Georgia, they had lost a lot of guys, so we had to play with some young guys and find ways to kind of cover up in the back end. We had some good pass-rushers, but the big thing defensively is just knowing what to do and how to do it and why it’s important to do it that way.
“You can’t let the offense create explosive plays. You’ve got to stay on top of your guys, and we kind of covered up some guys there.”
Pruitt coached against Alabama last October, when the Crimson Tide won 38-10 at Athens. Derrick Henry rushed 26 times for 148 yards and Calvin Ridley had five receptions for 120 yards to lead the rout, which left Pruitt with an even larger impression of Alabama football.
“Being on the other side, the one thing that stood out was just how big the offense was compared to us,” Pruitt said. “A lot of people can have success running the football, but you have to be able to do it over and over. Being on the other side and playing against Alabama, the commitment to run and having to stop it play after play, which we didn’t do — they can change the way you think a little bit.”
… Saban and Smart had to make a dedicated effort to want to change. In other words, they had to be willing to adapt or mold their philosophy. One change I saw, was in the secondary. They both were more willing to drop the larger, run stuffing style of safety Saban has typically employed over the years at that position, for more “cornerback” types there. Saban and Smart finally realized getting more speed on the field was paramount. One area that is very difficult to run in sub packages is the secondary. You need consistency there, and those two found a way to keep the same four guys on the field at all times.
They practiced subbing in their various packages against themselves. Saban hasn’t fully washed his hands of personnel groups. What they have done is figure out a way to use the substitution rule to their advantage. I read one article where a player said it was “organized chaos” on the sidelines. What he later went on to say, is that when he first arrived at Alabama…it was just “chaos”. This means there has been improvement in the sideline management of getting the right players on the field at the right time. The other element, is the size of the sub package. When watching the National Championship game this past Monday night, I would see no more than three guys at a time run on the field, and usually it was just one player. This means that they are recruiting players who can stay on the field and help in any situation, something I also think is very key in defending these type of tempo, spread offenses.
What is this “sideline management” he speaks of? Um… focus, Blutarsky… sorry.
Yeah, there are soft spots in any defense, Alabama’s included. For example,
Trying to spot weaknesses in Alabama’s run defense is no easy task. But while analyzing film, one simple mistake I found some college offenses fall into is leaving Alabama players unblocked. While these errors may not be as costly against some defensive teams, Alabama’s discipline and talent on defense simply do not allow for flawed blocking schemes or missed blocking assignments that leave defenders near the line of scrimmage unblocked.
The run plays I viewed that had the most success against Alabama’s run defense usually involved some sort of option or misdirection that caused Alabama’s defenders to be slow in reaction and not rely on their preparation and talent to diagnose plays quickly. Option or misdirection plays that involve the ball on the perimeter is also usually a much better bet than power run plays into the interior of the defense.
However, the best way to run the ball against Alabama’s run defense may be to have success throwing the ball first. Alabama‘s secondary presses often, and its aggressive run defense can lead to opportunities for offenses in the passing game. Teams that have spread Alabama out and been successful passing the ball have been able to successfully mix in running the ball at times, as well.
Ole Miss comes to mind immediately. Tennessee, too. Those will probably be good early season indicators of whether Smart’s and Tucker’s installation is successfully taking root.
Speaking of implementation, there’s an X-factor worth mentioning: new inside linebackers coach Glenn Schumann. If you’ll recall, he wasn’t on the coaching staff at Alabama last season, but the Tide’s support staff. Yet he was the first guy Smart grabbed in his transition to Georgia. Why? Perhaps because of this.
When head coach Kirby Smart was first asked about Schumann’s addition to Georgia, Smart called him his “right-hand man.” Schumann, who will coach inside linebackers at Georgia, held a player development/player personnel title at Alabama and helped Crimson Tide players learn the ropes of the college game.
That included assisting inside linebacker Reggie Ragland, projected to be a high NFL draft pick, with grasping Smart’s defense early in his career.
“He was one of the ones who helped me learn the playbook when I first got there,” Ragland said. “Schumann is the man behind the scenes.”
Ragland, one of the highest-profile players at this week’s Senior Bowl, said he wasn’t surprised to see Schumann leave and receive a promotion to an on-field assistant role at Georgia.
Cornerback Cyrus Jones said he enjoyed Schumann’s approach at Alabama and believes he’ll do well in his new role at Georgia. Jones noted Schumann’s ability to connect with players early on, with his knowledge of defense being a big strength of his.
“Coach Glenn, he knows it better than some of the coaches do,” Jones said. “Just being around a long time, he’s very smart. He’s very patient with us players, especially when we come in as young guys. Just taking the time out to help us learn as quickly as possible. He was a great asset at Alabama and I know he’ll do great things at Georgia as well.”
Judging from what Roquan Smith had to say about Schumann this week, it appears he’s living up to his billing.
He’s very smart and knows his stuff like the back of his hand so he’s pretty good with it… Just overall knowledge of the defense and just knowing stuff before it happens and different things like that.
You can’t play flexibly on the field if you don’t know what you’re doing.
So, to sum things up, play with great talent, play with great fundamentals, play within a scheme designed to shut the run down, adapt to what the opponent’s passing game is showing you and do all of that smartly (no pun intended). Easy, right?
This is going to be a process. (Okay, that was a pun intended.) It would be surprising indeed if there weren’t a few bumps in the road along the way. One plus is Smart isn’t looking at having to make wholesale changes schemewise from what Pruitt ran. The minus is that the talent on hand likely isn’t optimized for where Smart wants to go. How he and Tucker manage that transition in 2016 will be fun to watch. At least I hope so.