Category Archives: Strategery And Mechanics

Is the opener Nick Chubb’s game to lose?

If you want to do a little pondering about Georgia’s opener, Ian Boyd has a nice piece up you might want to read about two key matchups.  In his mind, they are:

  1. How will Trubisky fare against a Nick Saban-style defense?
  2. Can Chubb break Gene Chizik’s defense?

On point one, it’s hard to judge.  By most accounts I’ve read, Trubisky has an excellent arm and good grasp of Fedora’s offense, but isn’t a runner.  So I can’t say how much he’ll be able to sell being a true run threat.  The video clips Boyd includes show Trubisky operating in blow out situations against second-string defenses — hey, that’s the life of the backup quarterback, right? — so it’s difficult to translate those performances over to what we might expect against a defense that Boyd characterizes as one that “will be more talented than any non-Clemson unit the Tar Heels faced last year, and it’ll also be harder to read and attack…”

But if I’m Fedora, knowing what I know from watching Smart’s defenses struggling to cope with handling Auburn’s running QBs and Deshaun Watson, I’ve gotta try at least.

On the flip side, if I’m Kirby Smart, I’m gonna try to mask the state of Chubb’s health as long as I can, and if he’s healthy, let the big dog eat on a run defense that left a lot to be desired last season.

In the former Auburn coach’s first year as the defensive coordinator, North Carolina didn’t do well. The Heels finished 67th in the nation in Defensive S&P+ and concluded the year with an embarrassing performance against Baylor in a bowl game, when they yielded 645 rushing yards.

If reading between the lines you assume that the play of both of Georgia’s fronts will have a big impact on the game’s outcome, you and I are on the same page… not that that’s a really deep insight.  But the funny thing is that you read Boyd’s post and realize afterwards that he only mentions Georgia’s quarterback situation in passing.

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Kirby Smart’s chicken soup for the Bulldog soul

Damn, do I love hearing this.

“The biggest goal coming into camp was to improve third-down play defensively and offensively. A big part of that offensively is the vertical passing game so we’ve tried to focus on that with drills and situations in practices and scrimmages,” Smart said.

Amen, brother.  I like this kind of talk, too.

“To be honest, I’ve seen Terry up and down,” Smart said after Tuesday’s practice, when asked assess Godwin’s camp. “I know the athlete that Terry is, I know the athlete that Terry can be. But Terry needs to get a little more consistency. And I tell him that every day.”

“He has to block with the same vigor that he runs a route with,” Smart said.

Now, Emerson’s right when he goes on to observe that Godwin’s size likely precludes him from being a dominant blocker, but he’s also right to point out that Malcolm Mitchell, also not a large receiver, was Georgia’s best blocking receiver last year.

Frankly, I thought the decline in downfield blocking from the receiving corps was an under-acknowledged deficiency last season that contributed to the offensive constipation we saw frequently.  Losing Bennett and Conley hurt a lot in that department.  Fix that to any extent, and you likely have a big impact on Georgia’s third-down efficiency.  As a bonus, you also free up the tight ends to have more involvement in the receiving game.

Let’s hope Kirby can translate talk into action.

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Jim Chaney is my new coaching hero.

If there’s one coaching philosophy I appreciate more than “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, it’s “keep it simple, stupid”.  And this may be the best distillation of KISS I’ve ever seen.

“I tell the kids all the time, at quarterback, your job is one job: You’ve got to get the ball and deliver it to the playmakers, either hand it to them or throw it to them,” Chaney said. “That’s it. Don’t overthink this thing. Don’t think you have got to do something outside of the system or you’ve got to do all that craziness. Just do your job and do it the best you can daily.”

Hell, after you read that, you can start to believe that going with Lambert or Ramsey might actually work.

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Monday morning buffet

More for the chafing dishes…

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Defense under Smart – what to expect?

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:

  1. A “two-gap” responsibility in its front seven.
  2. Great technique in defeating blocks.
  3. The inside linebackers responsibility in run defense.
  4. 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.”

On the bright side, another hallmark of Alabama’s defense has been the ability of Saban and Smart to adapt. (h/t)

 

  • … 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.

 

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Moar 3-4

And here’s a terrific article in the Baton Rouge Advocate about what new LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda brings to the table, scheme-wise.

Everyone’s 3-4 is different. Each coach has his wrinkles and tweaks.

Aranda’s scheme isn’t the same as the 3-4 Saban employs in Tuscaloosa. Players and coaches said Aranda’s system is bent on deception and movement. One player, for example, isn’t limited to one position. Neal is playing three: defensive end in the base 3-4, outside linebacker on passing downs and a defensive tackle role in other formations.

“Dave does some things that are really different,” said Ron Roberts, the head coach at Southeastern Louisiana who worked with Aranda at Delta State. “He’s on the cutting edge in what he’s doing.”

Roberts, a defensive-minded coach, said he and Aranda share about 80 percent of the same defense. Roberts began running the 3-4 nearly 20 years ago because of a lack of big defensive linemen while at tiny Tusculum College.

“We could not get the personnel to compete, so we had to play guerrilla warfare,” he said. “I couldn’t get a dominant (defensive end), couldn’t out-recruit people in my conference, so how am I going to beat them?”

His answer was “guerrilla warfare,” a term Aranda also uses to describe a defense that’s not normal or regular — one that’s shifting, a unit with different shapes and sizes.

What is interesting to me, first of all, is that there isn’t one dominant offensive style in the conference anymore.  There are the spread offenses that come out of the Air Raid school, like Texas A&M’s, Auburn’s smash-mouth version of the spread, and then there are the more traditional pro-style power offenses run at Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU.  Is the 3-4 a one-size fits all approach, then?

There’s one more thing.  Dellinger notes that “LSU is set to join Kentucky, Georgia, Vanderbilt and Alabama in employing the 3-4 as its base defense.”  That’s five conference schools chasing the same defensive talent pool, three of whom are heavy hitters in the recruiting game.  If the trend continues, at some point in time, how easy is it going to be for Kirby Smart to find the kids he needs to fit his system?

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“The challenge of conservative offense”

Another nice Ian Boyd piece about Minnesota’s offense last season here.  Key graphs:

Bill Connelly’s “five factors” make it pretty clear that without explosive plays it’s very difficult to score. Programs like the one utilized by Minnesota tend to make explosiveness a later priority for the offense after beefing up the defense, avoiding negative plays or turnovers, and winning the field position battle.

The only problem with this approach is that it’s actually fairly difficult to build an offense that’s really good at avoiding negative plays or turnovers. These teams face heavy roster turnover every season and are plugging in 20-year old college students, after all.

Moving down the field with steady gains is difficult and mastering a run game system AND a timing-based, West Coast passing system for accomplishing that aim just raises the difficulty level of playing mistake-free football. This is why many schools with less resources have had more success with systems built around the constraint theory of offense where every component of the system directly builds off other parts.

The West Coast passing game and power run game are both designed to do the same thing and neither are specifically designed to punish defenses for scheming to stop the other on a given play. Executing either well enough to stay ahead of the chains, much less regularly generate explosive plays, requires developed skill and cohesion across the offense. So a team that features both is forced to spend a lot of time on each to develop the necessary mastery.

Maintaining an efficiency-based approach in the run game requires either fielding five massive linemen that can cover up opposing defensive linemen and prevent penetration, which requires recruiting big bodies and honing technique over years of development OR putting a major emphasis on double teams to ensure that the offense can clear the first level. Either way, you usually need seasoned veterans to do it well.

The needed execution in the passing game is dependent on receivers and quarterbacks that are in sync, on time, accurate, and have reliable hands. If you have those traits the receivers don’t have to be great athletes and the quarterback doesn’t have to have a cannon arm, the design of the concepts will do the heavy lifting. If you have those traits and then some speed, then you’re cooking with gas.

As I’ve mentioned before, Georgia’s offense went from averaging 6.79 yards per play in 2014, which was the seventh-best number posted in college football that season, to 6.03 yards per play last season, and dropped to fortieth nationally.  The offensive scheme didn’t change, so to what can we attribute the decline?  I can point to several factors:

I know that some of you like to harp on Chubb’s injury as the key, and no doubt it was a serious set back.  But let’s not forget that Georgia lost the services of Todd Gurley for much of the 2014 season, too.

Georgia didn’t have a deep passing game in either of the last two seasons, but managed to have a far more productive offense in 2014 because it was more efficient.  That was because Mason had a higher completion percentage than Lambert, because the offense was able to take care of business on third-down and because Georgia took advantage of all the little things that go into having the best starting field position rating in the nation.  Richt had his management flaws that season, but his overall game plan for the season did a good job of recognizing his team’s strengths and weaknesses and working them both to maximum effect.

That wasn’t the case last year, and it took an embarrassing loss in Jacksonville to make Richt realize that the 2014 formula wasn’t working.  I would argue the seeds for that lie in the above quote:  “The needed execution in the passing game is dependent on receivers and quarterbacks that are in sync, on time, accurate, and have reliable hands.”

There wasn’t a lot of returning talent in the receiving corps in 2015 and there wasn’t a starting quarterback who knew the new coordinator’s system ready to step in.  Add in the uncertainty in August about the coaches being unable to settle on a starter until late in camp, and it’s easy to see why things didn’t turn out as smoothly.

Fast forward to today.  The concern I have is one of history repeating.  A lot of the conditions that existed in August, 2015 exist again in August, 2016.  Are Chaney and Smart better able to recognize that and game plan accordingly?  We’ll start finding out in about a month.

 

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