Defending “hybrid space weapons”

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?



Filed under Strategery And Mechanics

30 responses to “Defending “hybrid space weapons”

  1. We did the exact same thing when we got Mecole 1 on 1 in the Fech game on that linebacker.

    I love the pistol with 3 wide and a tight end. You don’t telegraph the run direction into a favorable box and make people pay when they leave someone in a mismatch on a linebacker or safety.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hey! That’s my bit. And agree. That formation allows you to do all kinds of things but does not tip your hat to anything. And if you have a running quarterback he can read the edge and keep the ball. Or roll and throw. That’s what I wanted to do with Fields.


      • I love the formation. In 2012 & 2013, we absolutely torched people with the pistol.

        You can RPO with a triple option … read option or throw to the slot.
        You can run tailback power like we would do with Gurley.
        You can run traditional zone read with the QB reading the edge defender.
        You can easily move the running back into the right spot for pass protection.
        You can man or zone block depending on what your guys do best.
        With good skill guys, you have plenty of options in the passing game.

        Most importantly, you practically force a defense to take a linebacker or defensive tackle off the field. If they can’t defend you with the front 7 (or 6 in 4-2-5 or 3-3-5) without dropping a safety down, the offense feeds off it.


  2. Clayton Davis

    The problem of taking the lesson of the 2018 Rose Bowl that a run-first team can keep up is typically a run-first team playing against a sound defense should not have 1 to 3 play scoring drives, even if the defense is playing to stop the pass. OU didn’t have a very good pass defense either.


  3. MGW

    Having a hybrid guy like Roquan (linebacker who can actually cover) or Minkah (safety who can actually tackle) is a huge deal these days. Not the dime a dozen “tweener,” but the rare ones who can, for real, do both very well.


  4. Granthams replacement

    The key is to have LBs/Safties)that can cover (Roquan, Boss Bailey, Sean Jones, Ben Smith, etc) and defend the run. Roquan erased any other teams slot guy if needed, Bamas Fitzpatrick did the same. Both defenses were built around those players ability to stay on the field every snap.


    • BMan

      You and MGW both said it a helluva lot more succinctly than I did below.


      • Granthams replacement

        The same applies to offense. A TE like Gronk that can block/catch/run routes or RB like Swift who has power running skill and a real receiving threat. The ability for to call power downhill plays or 5 wide spread plays without substituting presents huge mismatches for defenses. When the patriots had Gronk and Hernandez in at TE it was a personal nightmare for defenses.


        • Hernandez was a personal nightmare for anyone he came in contact with.


          • Rocketdawg

            One of my biggest gripes with Cheney was not using our personnel to create mismatches by formation. If I were the OC for a day I would have a package where Nauta, Woerner, Swift were on the field and depending on what the defense showed, that dictated the offensive formation/playcall. Defense comes out in base 3-4/4-3 then flex out the TE’s and put Swift in the slot. You get 3 LB’s in man coverage with bigger and/or faster guys. Defense goes nickel or dime. Motion Nauta into an H-Back and run the ball down their throat. If you run this in HUNH it is unstoppable.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Tony Barnfart



            • The other Doug

              I was going to post something like this, but simpler. We should have motioned Swift outside with a package of quick timing routes depending on the matchup he draws. Swift catching a quick slant in stride is a DCs nightmare. Add in that we could leave Holyfield in the backfield to pound it if they adjust poorly.

              Hopefully we see some of these changes.


              • The other Doug

                btw this the quote from the article that caught my eye:

                “The problem has been that pattern-matching rules were developed under the old system where offenses could be trusted to play their TE or RB as the inside WRs and the outside WRs would stay outside. The spread offense changed that and teams will no longer honor the traditional rules of engagement.”

                We have the personnel that leads a DC to want to go traditional, but we can shift to penalize them for it.


  5. Will (the other one)

    I think the thing that’s left out here is Clemson was a run-first (or run-heavy anyway) team against the ACC this year (and in general under Bryant last year). They knew that wasn’t going to work vs Bama and trusted the passing game to pour it on and win those matchups. What we need from Coley is getting Fromm and and his WRs to the point that if they have to, they can win a game for us passing.


  6. BMan

    You’ve posted here previously about coaches saying balance (offensively) is not running and passing the ball an equal amount of times, but about being able to exploit what the defensive weakness is giving you. And Georgia seems to strive for that, though skewing toward the run more lately. Defensively, I think teams will have to seek balance in a similar way. The teams that recruit best and coach that talent well will get richer, because they will need almost two talent sets to play the LB position in any given game.

    New England’s offense exploits things brilliantly (sorry for the NFL talk). In the playoffs, when the Chargers went with safeties at LB to stop Lamar Jackson of the Ravens, it worked well, but the same personnel cost them the next week. The Patriots scouted that, and hit them with a gameplan that was very taxing on linebacker play (crossing routes, WR/TE down-blocking on the end, and power runs. The safeties-turned-LB of the Chargers couldn’t handle it. The Pats had two 100-yard rushers and beat the crap out of them. From that perspective, I think UGA’s offense will be in good shape to exploit such a transition in philosophy. I only hope the defense has enough flexibility to handle both duties as needed.


  7. Yurdle

    I think the emphasis on passing is really just an emphasis on big plays. Making a team collect first downs can be a winning strategy because it’s hard not to make a mistake. Big plays may be easier to get throwing the ball, but that’s usually because your guy gets the ball downfield with more defenders behind him. Chaney, to his credit, really gets this.

    Especially in college, a defense has to make scoring hard. The rules tilt towards the offense, so the offense will usually win its share. The D just has to stop the cheap score or easy play. This whole matchup thing could work, but it really is risky against the run—and what do you do with hybrid players like Nauta, who can block and run? If you go coverage, he’ll have an easy block for a run. If you go LB, he can run right by.

    As between the guy preaching a brave new world and the applied wisdom of the generations, I still side with the old guys on this one.

    And the Roquans and Minkahs of the World sure help.


    • Tony Barnfart

      But Ian, what if 12 of the 15 lineman on the team are all NFL caliber ? So wide receiver may have a larger pool of capable players for a position group that needs a few less bodies than O-Line in order to be “dominate.” But if I can pick one or the other and dominate, I’m going to go with the one that doesn’t leave me throwing the ball up for grabs.

      People migrate to these air raid type attacks because they’ve given up on being able to do what we do. I’d rather be the contrarian going forward that nobody is built to defend.


  8. Bright Idea

    Regardless of body types (LBers, Safetys, etc.) and skill sets deployed I see UGA and most defenses outnumbered in the box on first downs leaving a lot of second and third downs and short to defend. Sticking with a 2-deep come hell or high water makes defending the run and/or the running QB very difficult. Your 2 inside down linemen and inside LBers really need to be boy dogs or you better have them twisting, slanting, stunting, etc. to gain some kind of advantage.Vanilla defense can be as bad as a simple offense.


    • Bright Idea

      And may I add that MLB abandoning the box in man coverage against an empty backfield is an open invitation to a QB run right up the gut. See Franks and Hurts against UGA. They were 10 yards into the secondary before the 2-deep safeties could flinch. The last man with the crayon can always create fundamental issues for any defense.


  9. Derek

    There’s no formula that is going to save you from mismatch problems.

    I think what we saw this year from us: two-deep safeties, man under coverage, and a zero front is the best way to limit RPO’s and teams that want to throw first.

    What we used to see is one deep safety with the other cheating up for run support. That just opens you up to RPOs.

    Trying to match up guys can be used effectively in isolation: see what NE did to Tyreek. But you can’t do that every week. Too much variation for a 20 hr work week.


    • Anonymous

      I mostly agree. I also think we will see the elimination of the Strong Safety position. The body type / skill set that was the “Box Safety” version of the SS (e.g. Greg Blue or Thomas Davis) has now become the Will LB. I think the current SS types will be replaced with players that are interchange with your Free Safety. Who plays weak vs strong side will be based on personnel matchups for man coverage instead of run strength. Kirby has already changed weak / strong declaration to be via pass strength. I see that designation eventually being meaningless against experimental offenses.

      What I think will be different is that cover 1 will still be quite common. That was our solution to Oklahoma exploiting our pattern matching / killing us with their gap play.


  10. Spur 21

    The clock – control the clock – win most games.


  11. ASEF

    The combination of holding interpretations, a 3 yard blocking window on RPOs, and pick routes makes defense against equivalent athletes impossible. You just have to hope that you get more stops. Which means the best defense is a great offense. That’s college football right now.

    Alabama at one point in the 3rd quarter was about +15 in time of possession and +150 in rushing. They trailed by 22. The two turnovers were huge, and they created a situation where Bama had to get 7s instead of 3s. Take away the pick 6 and add 4 field goals, and it’s 31-28 Clemson heading into the 4th.

    Which is not to say the “game was closer than it appeared.” Clemson’s defense surrendered a boat load of yards and 1st downs but got two huge havoc plays and won red zone downs when their safeties and LBs had fewer things to worry about. Which seems to be what Ian is talking about.

    I guess the odd thing to me is how Clemson’s offense lost so many 1st and 2nd downs in quarters 1-3 but won 3rd down decisively, averaging something insane like 20 yards a play on it. If Clemson’s offense was that much a challenge, why was it only so on 3rd down? Why not run those plays on 1st and 2nd down?

    The days where an elite defense can shut down an elite offense are pretty much over, and when teams like Bama and Ohio State, with their recruiting rankings, are among the NCAA’s worst at surrendering explosive plays, it definitely makes you wonder wbat’s going on.


  12. 69Dawg

    The biggest trouble for the D now seems to be the total lack of a holding rule. As long as you are holding inside the silhouette you will never be called (except for UGA). This has made a 3 or 4 man pass rush nearly a thing of the past. Bama couldn’t pressure Lawrence enough to make him have happy feet. It seems to me that the day of the exotic blitz has got to return. Jam the heck out of the WR’s and knock them down if possible. The defense has got to cause chaos to get any advantage.


  13. End of game stats don’t lie……UGA at the end of the game (2018) appeared to be a 50-50 run/pass offense (more/less) once UGA would get to a point differential of 17-30 (UGA favor), offense plan went to run heavy, so, up to that point UGA offense was possibly pass heavy, mixed with well timed run offense….plus timely special teams play and above average defensive play (turnovers)…..


  14. Ant123

    This is the reason that for Georgia the first down play action pass is the wisest play call they can make most of the time.
    On D having/getting two NT’s like Jordon Davis is critical to being able to contain the run with only a three main front enabling the rest of the D to play pass first.


  15. UGA '97

    Stopping not just “the pass” but the spread and spread concepts, which is the challenge. Also ever evolving rules of the game such as targeting, have inherently allowed more passing. TV wants scoring.


  16. Greg

    The game is not that hard/complicated, but some try to make it that way. It is still about the “Jimmies and Joes”…..always has been and always will be.


  17. Junkyardawg41

    SMH. This is a perspective article. Look, if Bama has crushed Clemson by running for 350 yds and winning by 3 TDs, then everyone would point to the opinion the spread is dead. We will see how the spread of KC and the Rams works next year and the outcome of a season for Defense to adjust. College teams can’t adjust as fast as NFL teams —— although you may start to see acceleration with the transfers going on. I.e. looking for scheme players vice best players.
    As for Clemson’s domination, I think the bigger takeaway is the importance of staff continuity, team cohesion and senior leadership.