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Smart Football is here to explain the nuts and bolts of what's actually happening on the field--or what should happen--in the biggest game in week one, Clemson versus Alabama at the Georgia Dome. Warning: long, brilliant, and extremely informative, meaning it should be a jolt to regular readers' senses given the usual fare here. Enjoy.--O/S.

This article presents my own Smart Football brand of review for the upcoming Clemson-Alabama game, which is great for me because I’m not actually going to predict who wins the game at all, thus saving me the humiliation of being wrong and preventing this article from becoming irrelevant a week after having been written.

Saban brings the Belichick-brain to the game. Spence brings the refab'd Run 'n Shoot. NERD JAM GO!

The reason I'm not making such a prediction is because I’m talking today about schemes, and who actually wins this game probably will have done so less because they outschemed their opponent (since both coaches will have great schemes), but instead because of some combination of talent, execution, and luck, and these are things I don’t have any particular insight into.

So I'm just going to analyze one of the better coaching matchups of this season.

Both Saban and Spence are great coaches, and writing about their schemes is difficult because both are quite flexible and aren’t beholden to just one thing. And both have prove quite adept at implanting their complex schemes into the brains of the 18-20 year olds they coach, since what a coach knows but his players don't is irrelevant when it comes to winning games.

A further caveat regarding my discussion of their schemes is that since they both do so many different things so well, it’s difficult for me to say with any certainty what exactly they will do (and would be in any event impossible for me to summarize all that here, anyway). So here I will just address their styles by hitting the highlights and pick out a few things they have done in the past as examples.

The other thing that makes these guys particularly interesting are their influences: Saban has always been a pro-style defensive guy, but he will always be defined by the years he spent with Bill Belichick. And while many now look at Rob Spence as a guy who coaches a multiple-set pro-style offense that combines a high percentage passing game with a dynamic running attack, for most of his career he was a tried and true Run & Shoot guy. So in this article I’ll talk a little about some of these guys' influences, what they now currently do and how those influences might have shaped them, and then I’ll just touch on how they might prepare for each other.

Nick Saban: Still Billy’s Boy

Saban has been coaching defense – and coaching it quite well – for decades. But there is no question that the defining period of his coaching career was 1991-1994, when he was Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns. Just knowing that tells you a great deal about Saban’s defense: he (primarily) uses the 3-4; he’s very aggressive, especially on passing downs; he wants to stop the run on first and second down; he’s not afraid to mix up schemes, coverages, blitzes, and looks of all kinds; and, most importantly, he is intense and attentive to detail, which is the hallmark of any great defensive coach.

Let's allow Saban to explain his defensive philosophy in his own words. From one of his LSU defensive playbooks:

“[Our] philosophy on first and second down is to stop the run and play good zone pass defense. We will occasionally play man-to-man and blitz in this situation. On third down, we will primarily play man-to-man and mix-in some zone and blitzes. We will rush four or more players versus the pass about ninety-percent of the time.

“In all situations, we will defend the inside or middle of the field first – defend inside to outside. Against the run, we will not allow the ball to be run inside. We want to force the ball outside. Against the pass, we will not allow the ball to be thrown deep down the middle or inside. We want to force the ball to be thrown short and/or outside.

“… Finally, our job is to take the ball away from the opponents’ offense and score or set up good field position for our offense. We must knock the ball loose, force mistakes, and cause turnovers. Turnovers and making big plays win games. We will be alert and aggressive and take advantage of every opportunity to come up with the ball . . . . The trademark of our defense will be effort, toughness, and no mental mistakes regarding score or situation in any game.”

None of this is revolutionary and much of it is coach-patois (there is another section in his playbook where every position is required to put in “super human effort” or else they are deemed to have failed), but it’s a good place to start. Most good defenses begin with the premise that, to be successful, they must stop the run on first and second down to force known passing situations on 3rd down. (Which is one reason why Bill Walsh – in words far too often unheeded – advocated doing much of your dropback passing on first down.)

Indeed, the book on Bob Stoops’s defense is known to everyone: first and second down expect an eight-man front and on third down you will see some kind of base or nickel personnel zone-blitz. No mystery there. A final brief prefatory note is that while Saban bases out of a 3-4, he quite commonly has one of his linebackers put their hand down and line up as would a 4-3 defensive end.

So let’s get a bit more specific. First I’ll discuss what is maybe Saban’s most common defense, Cover 1 Robber. Second, when Saban does use zones on known passing situations he likes the overload blitz and the common 3-3 zone blitz behind it, so I’ll show a basic example of what this might look like. And finally, I’ll discuss a couple coverage techniques that Saban likes to use.

Cover 1 “Robber”

Cover 1 is maybe the most common defense in the SEC. (Though “Cover 2” is close if you lump together all its variants.) Base Cover 1 is quite simple: the “1” refers to a deep safety who aligns down the middle, while all the offense’s skill guys are covered man to man. This doesn’t necessarily mean it is bump and run – it could be loose coverage – but it often is bump and run. The defense needs a great centerfielder back at Free Safety who can stop the deep ball and cover sideline to sideline.

The nice thing about this defense is it is simple and, once you’ve locked in five guys in man and a free safety, you can do whatever you want with the other five. And, maybe most importantly, with just one free-safety deep, the defense can get in a lot of eight-man fronts. On passing downs, the defense can find ways to creatively blitz five guys, have a deep safety, and all the while still account for all five of the offense’s receivers. The defense cannot really outnumber the pass protectors, but it can still collapse the pocket. That’s base Cover 1.

Cover 1 “Robber” works the same, except there are only four rushers and, along with the deep middle safety, another defender comes down to an intermediate level to read the QB’s eyes and “rob” any pass routes over the middle, like curls, in routes, and crossing routes. “Robber” is the most popular term for this technique but Saban’s is “Rat.” (I was always partial to Homer Smith’s term, “floaters,” which is the most descriptive.)

There’s nothing magic about this coverage; every NFL team and most BCS college teams use it. Indeed, despite all the bluster about the Indianapolis Colts being a “Cover 2 team,” on first and second down you see lots of Cover 1 and Cover 1 robber from them, except they use their strong safety, Bob Sanders, as the “floater.” The key is for the floater to be able to read run, screen, or pass, and to use his eyes to get to the receiver and the ball.

It’s particularly effective nowadays with the increased use of spread formations which most offenses use to open up passing lanes over the middle. Floaters or rat players can stop these inside passes and make game-changing interceptions. Below are some diagrams, and I expect to see Saban use this coverage a lot this season. (As a final note, Cover 1 Robber is useful against spread offense teams with mobile QB’s because the floater’s job becomes to not only read the QB’s eyes on passing downs but also to watch him for scrambles and to simply mirror the him on run plays like the option and the zone read.)

Base Zone Blitz

I won’t say too much because I’ve written extensively on pass protection and the zone-blitz here. But Saban will go to the zone-blitz in some passing situations and also when he feels like he can use the blitz in a way to attack an expected run and still play zone behind it. For example, if a team likes to run off tackle to the TE side on a particular down and distance, he might call a blitz that attacks that area and the zone blitz lets him still play sound coverage behind it. And like most modern defenses, Saban’s most common coverage behind a zone-blitz is a 3-3 or three-deep and three-intermediate defense with five rushers. Cover two behind a zone blitz is often dangerous because of the added uncovered deep seams, but most defenses feel comfortable with the 3-3. Below is a good example of an overload zone-blitz Saban uses to the open side of a one-back formation.

The thing to remember is that for years, when a team blitzed it was playing either Cover 1 or Cover 0 man (or simply left holes in its zone), and quarterbacks were coached to throw the ball where the blitzer had come from. Nowadays, there’s a common perception that a zone-blitz works because a defensive linemen gets in the throwing lane – no. What the dropping defensive end in the diagram above does is allow the defense as a whole to stay in zone coverage, and further notice who is covering the area where the blitzers came from: the strong safety, who is usually an effective pass defender, certainly moreso than a defensive end. That is how zone-blitzes cause confusion.

Other Techniques - Cornerback Leverage and Pattern Reading

Finally, let’s discuss some coverage techniques. The first is that Saban likes to have his cornerbacks adjust their “leverage” on a receiver based on the receiver’s split from the tackle and sideline. The theory is that if the wide receiver has cut his split down he has done one of two things: (a) given himself more room to run an out breaking route, or (b) cheated in to run a crossing or deep in-breaking route. So if the receiver cheats his split in, Saban has his cornerbacks align outside the receiver to defend the out-breaking route, because if he runs the in-breaking route the corner has help from the linebackers and safeties. Similarly, if the receiver lines up very wide (bottom of the numbers, let’s say), he has given himself room to run an in-breaking route like a slant. So the cornerback will align inside the receiver to take that route away and on the belief that an out-cut from that wide will be very difficult for the quarterback. To coach this Saban uses a “divider” line where they believe the receiver’s tendencies change to reflect one of the above two strategies. Nevertheless, the defensive back still must defend the route the receiver actually runs and maintain proper technique, but this is an important starting point.

More significant, however, is that Saban heavily coaches up “pattern reading” within his zone drops. The two zone-dropping schools of thought are to teach “spot-drops” or “pattern-reading.” One can overemphasize the distinction, but generally spot-dropping is easier to teach and was the traditional approach. For example, if your outside linebacker is responsible for the weak-flat, he will take his read steps and, upon reading pass, will drop to a spot and then react to the QB’s eyes. A big advantage with spot-dropping is simply that it is easy to teach to, say, a run-stuffing inside linebacker who spends most of his time on run game pursuit and shedding blocks. But the weakness is that well coached receivers – who have enough time – can become excellent at settling in the “zone holes” between defenders. And, with good receivers and good QBs, offenses have become more and more adept and finding and exploiting these zone holes.

Pattern-reading, on the other hand, is much like a matchup-zone in basketball. Defenders are responsible for zones but they basically play man on the receivers who come into their zones. Moreover, pattern-read teams begin by immediately coaching their defenders on how to recognize popular pass combinations (and indeed, the very concept of pass-combinations themselves), and each week zero in on the 5-15 most common pass concepts they will see from that opponent. When done correctly, pattern-reading defenders know exactly how to cover receivers in their zones and seamlessly (in a quite literal sense) pass the receivers onto other defenders as they run their routes.

One thing that distinguishes Saban is that he uses pattern-reading in almost all of his coverages, including the traditional Cover 3, whereas many coaches only let certain defenders pattern read or only use it with certain defenses like Cover 4. Sounds a lot like Belichick, no?

Rob Spence: From the Run and Shoot to the Pitch, Pull, and Scoot

Background and Influences

Rob Spence’s influences are difficult to pin down because his current approach is so ecumenical. But, to my mind, he is another data-point in the argument that, while many of the game’s best offensive minds cut their teeth in the infamous Run & Shoot, the stigma of the offense – both in the media and within coaching circles – caused many of those minds to abandon the pure ‘Shoot to avoid media vilification and to keep their career options open. Kevin Gilbride, the New York Giants’s offensive coordinator, has a similar pedigree.

At around the same time that Saban was coaching under Belichick and later establishing his own brand of Billy-ball at Michigan State in the 1990s, Spence spent nearly a decade coaching in the Run & Shoot. Spence coached under Mark Duffner at Holy Cross in 1991 (where they went 11-0) and then at Maryland from 1992-1996, where they set numerous school records but had only one winning season. Then Spence went to Hofstra as the offensive coordinator (and quarterback coach) from 1997 to 1999, where they also ran the ‘Shoot. During this time Spence was steeped in the Run and Shoot and was seen as a rising star within that community.

Right now many of you Clemson fans might be having a heart attack thinking about Spence abandoning the beloved Davis-Spiller one-two rushing attack in favor of some kind of defunct chuck ‘n duck, but that's not going to happen and I assure you, this pedigree is a good thing.

Even back in the ‘Shoot days, Spence’s offenses have always been successful, and in particular his quarterbacks. In Kevin Gilbride’s case sportswriters and commentators like to say that he is now successful only because he abandoned the obscure and bizarre gimmickry of the Run & Shoot. These people don’t know they are talking about, as I have discussed previously that while the ‘Shoot “died” in one sense, in another it lives on, and its tenets, concepts, and principles have been assimilated across college and in the NFL.

In any event, I have no idea whether Gilbride would say he abandoned the ‘Shoot because of the stigma or because of a genuine evolution in his thinking, but I’d bet the former. And I am certain that if Gilbride was still 100% committed to the ‘Shoot he would not be an NFL offensive coordinator. I would also wager that Spence made a similar calculation, figuring that so long as he was committed to the ‘Shoot, he wouldn’t be able to coach at a level much higher than Hofstra.

So in 2000 Spence made a seemingly lateral step to run Louisiana Tech’s spread offense under Jack Bicknell. To the untrained eye, the difference in the schemes used at Hofstra and LaTech likely would appear infinitesimal – both spread it out and threw the ball quite a bit – yet the difference in schemes was quite real. LaTech for years had been an established spread team, going back to Gary Crowton (including the 500+ yards passing from Tim Rattay and 400+ receiving from Troy Edwards against Nebraska), but had never been a Run & Shoot squad, and they did not become one under Spence. Spence discarded the the base ‘Shoot concepts like the Go, the Switch, and the Choice routes that he had been around for years, and instead went with the traditional spread and west coast concepts – like the shallow, the all-curl, the smash, and other “Pro-Style” concepts run from three, four, and five receiver sets. And the run scheme was also different.

In spite of these differences, Spence successfully coached freshman Luke McCown to conference freshman of the year honors. Spence’s next coaching stop – at Toledo – is more widely known. At Toledo Spence ran an offense basically similar to what he currently runs at Clemson: he has converted what was essentially a true-spread into a kind of multiple-power spread that, by using so many two-tightend and tightend-wing formations, isn’t really a spread at all. Spence has assimilated lots of concepts into this generation of his offense.

(As an aside, I think this evolution, which involves lots of multiple tight-end sets, is one of the natural progressions for a spread coach who must react to the fact that the “spread” in its various forms has become so ubiquitous across college football.)

Spence’s Current Schemes

Generally, Spence wants to put structural and numerical stress on the defense. He does this in a variety of ways, from spreading out receivers to ganging up tight-ends and fullbacks. By doing this he forces the defense to make choices regarding how it is going to defend the run and the pass in terms of leverage, technique, and just where to line their guys up. If Spence and his QB are on the same page, they can force the defense to choose between the Scylla of high-percentage passes and the Charybdis of obvious running lanes from Spence having stretched a three- or four-man defensive front across five linemen and two tight-ends.

To tie this in with the ‘Shoot, most Run & Shoot teams use basically two formations: a balanced doubles set (two-receivers to each side) and an unbalanced trips set (three receivers to one side, single receiver to the other). R&S teams will see how the defense lines up against these two sets and take advantage of any structural weaknesses in the defense, such as a singled up backside receiver or not enough defenders lined up over the three split receivers. Spence has extrapolated this principle to a multitude of sets.

For a particularly quirky example of football as a counting game, in the final drive against South Carolina last season, on fourth and absolutely necessary, Spence ran a formation known in some coaching circles as the “Hanover Bunch.” (Named after Hanover College in Indiana which has been a well-coached spread team for years.) I don’t expect to see this formation against Saban – though you never know – but what it demonstrates is Spence’s willingness to “go there.” He pulled it out on fourth down on the final drive against Clemson’s primary rival, and with his Head Coach’s job on the line (as it perennially is.)

The Hanover Bunch formation involves a single split receiver backside, a traditional “bunch” set to one side, with another receiver outside the bunch. The offense then just plays a numbers and personnel game. The numbers tell you which side you are working, and often the other team’s cornerback (their best pass defender) will usually line up on the outside receiver, so the QB can work the three-man bunch all against weaker interior pass defenders. Against South Carolina, Spence went to this set and ran a slant with the singled-up split end and ran the “spacing” concept (which is sort of like a miniature all-curl route from a 3-step drop) to the bunch side.

In the game, the quarterback saw a good matchup to the single-receiver side and hit him on the slant for a first down. See the video below at around the 4:30 mark.

From the run-game perspective, Clemson is at base a zone-blocking team. Now is not the time to try to explain zone blocking in detail, but I want to make one point to correct a common misunderstanding regarding zone blocking.

The common misperception is that everyone “zones.” No. For linemen who are covered – i.e. there is a defender lined up over them – they block the man across from them. Simple as that. (Well, almost that simple.) The “zone” part comes from the guys who are uncovered. They try to combination block the defender to the playside. For example, if the zone play goes to the right, the center is covered, and the left guard is uncovered, the center will block man on and the left guard will try – but won’t always succeed – in combo blocking the man over the center. The one of them will move up to the “second level” to block the linebacker.

This is important because, as I said before, Saban likes to use three or sometimes four man fronts, while Spence likes to put extra tight ends on the field to create more opportunities for uncovered linemen to get combination blocks.

But what makes Spence’s run game a bit different is that he, in conjunction with the zone running game, runs a number of traps and counter plays. These are excellent complements to the zone running game because they can be used to counteract aggressive defenders by trapping and countering them and they rely often on misdirection and a numerical advantage rather than simply finding running lanes and getting double teams. Below is an example of the kind of common counter play to a two-tight end set that Spence favors.

When Spence throws downfield he tries to put his QB in position to succeed, and to do that he effectively uses play-action passing. Below is an example of the kind of simple play-action route with big play potential that Clemson has effectively used in the past. It is a double skinny-post or “glance” play where the QB fakes a run play (the zone, counter, or draw) and then reads the rotation of the free safety. If the Free Safety stays weak he will work to the Z’s side and if the Free Safety works strong he will work to the weak side.

A good QB will manipulate this player with his eyes. From there he just works a simple 1-2-3 progression. (Here I didn’t draw it up but the idea is to get the flat defender to widen to open up a throwing lane for the skinny post while holding the inside linebackers with the play-action fake.)

Moreover, Spence still knows how to spread it out. See below for a clip of some of Clemson's five-wide routes and protections from a five-wide look.

Finally, the other thing that makes Spence unique is his willingness to try gadgets and tricks. Clemson runs lots of reverses, fake reverses, jet sweeps, and the like. The thing to realize is that very often all Spence is doing is telling a receiver to come around on a fake reverse while the rest of the offense simply executes the counter play I diagrammed above. Then the next time they will hand it to the guy on the reverse, but Spence makes it simple on his guys by telling his linemen to block the same as on a sweep or outside option play.

There’s no doubt that Spence has been successful in showing lots of things while keeping it simple: he must be, or else his kids wouldn’t be able to execute it.

The Matchup

So what will the matchup look like? That’s hard to say. It’s both teams’ first game, so I wouldn’t expect an extensive opponent-specific gameplan. And, as I’ve indicated, neither Spence nor Saban are easy to prepare for. I would expect Saban to follow along with the philosophy outlined in the statement quoted above: he’ll try to stop the run on first and second down and force Clemson into known passing situations, where he can more readily spring his traps. The tests for Alabama will be whether they can stop the run on first and second down and second whether Alabama’s pass defenders can play man like Saban wants them to.

Spence will do a lot of probing of the fronts early to try look for weak spots and to spring his runners, and he will try to avoid having his QB have do a lot of pure five-step dropback throws in known passing situations. To avoid Alabama’s pressure he’ll have to do the usual assortment of screens, quicks, action passes, and draws and traps to deter and defeat the pressure
Who wins will likely depend on who executes these schemes the best, rather than simply who outfoxes the other. Nonetheless, it should be a good cat and mouse game.

(Postscript: I want to thank and acknowledge Hemlock for some valuable insights on Rob Spence and Spence’s offense.)

Smart Football is brilliant, and reminds you that your "spatial logic" scores are shameful.