Ian Boyd thinks the national championship game was clear evidence that Nick Saban’s beloved pattern matching defensive scheme is on the ropes.
Alabama’s 2017 national championship was keyed by one of their best defenses yet, a “matchup-proof” unit that spent much of the playoffs in nickel or dime packages. With versatile players like DB Minkah Fitzpatrick and OLB Rashaan Evans the Tide could downsize and play small in the defensive backfield to avoid getting abused by spread teams attacking their pattern-matching rules that can leave LBs on WRs in the middle of the field.
It’s been a largely overlooked reality that the Tide, famous for featuring a revolving door of NFL talent at inside linebacker, have had to lean heavily in recent years on subbing one out for a safety. They followed the same strategy against Clemson in 2018, only to be taken apart when their DBs couldn’t hold up in isolation against the Tiger wideouts. That’s a harder problem to solve but the direction of defense is clearing up somewhat around the game.
If you’ll recall, Gary Danielson said something along similar lines during the SECCG broadcast, that to be successful, an offense had to attack Alabama’s corners. (Indeed, it appeared to me that Clemson’s staff took several lessons away from Chaney’s game plan against ‘Bama.)
Anyways, back to Boyd’s premise, he thinks the larger issue is that college offenses are steadily, maybe even rapidly, moving away from a run the ball first mindset.
These tactics were all developed under a “first we gotta stop the run” paradigm that is losing relevance. The college game is still defined more by the run game than the passing attack with many of the more futuristic pass game battles taking place on passing downs, but that’s changing more and more every year.
Pattern-matching coverages and “blitz the formation” tactics were designed to preserve defensive tactics developed to stop run-centric offenses. They are helpful patches on old styles to keep them current against improving passing attacks. But we’re getting to the point now where defensive tactics need to be reconfigured to first stop the pass.
Hmm. Now, he’s a Texas fan, so I can see where that’s a fair assessment of offensive tactics in the Big 12. And there are certain teams across the country, including the SEC, where that isn’t an unwise approach. I’m not sure I’m ready to accept it as a one size fits all take, at least when it comes to Georgia. There are still plenty of teams on the schedule that are run-oriented; more significantly, there are still plenty of teams on the schedule that don’t have enough depth at wide receiver to mount a 60-minute challenge to a pass defense.
That being said, I can see where this is something to consider.
One development that could help flip the script back in favor of the defense is play alignments that match personnel rather than formations. Choose the matchups and then have DBs follow WRs wherever they go rather than allowing the offense to dictate the matchup with unconventional formations. Move your speedy 5-9 CB around to shadow the other team’s burning fast slot receiver, don’t put yourself into a situation where you can’t help your CBs because the safeties have to help the LBs bracket the burning fast slot on the hash mark.
New England followed that prescription against Kansas City while also shading their deep safety to different areas of the field rather than leaving him in the deep middle. Those adjustments helped some but they still had trouble when the Chiefs flared out their RBs against New England’s big, slow linebackers.
There’s a “but” coming, though. What if you’re defending a team like Georgia, one that continues to take a run first approach?
That adjustment can face some problems on standard downs against teams that can run the ball. The reason teams would prefer to leave LBs on the field and over the inside slots is because the LBs know how to stop the run. But we’re moving into a pass-first paradigm now where the main concern is to prevent the offense from getting easy pitch and catch setups to matchup problems in space. It’s the matchup problem and quick throws to skill players in space that allow an offense to regularly drop 40-50 points. It’s much harder to score that much with a rushing attack even when running for 200 yards a game.
Eh, maybe. By that reasoning, Georgia never should have had a chance in the second half against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl. But it did, in large part because Oklahoma’s defensive fundamentals against the run were poor.
I guess I’m saying I’m not entirely convinced by this. Your thoughts?