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CFP National Championship presented by AT&T - Alabama v Georgia
Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

The offseason is a good time to brush up on fundamentals. This is a fancy way of saying “It’s time to read up on things that you don’t understand, but were too embarrassed to ask anyone about, because I’m supposed to know football but only sort of do.”

That’s fine! Everyone has something they only pretend to know about. For instance, take Cover 3. Cover 3 is a common defensive coverage, and an especially common one if you happen to be an Alabama fan. Nick Saban runs the hell out of his own particular variation of it, a variation with rules upon rules upon rules to follow, and one he’s perfected over many, many years.

How many years? It goes at least as far back to his tenure with the Cleveland Browns under Bill Belichick in the early 1990s. How many rules? All of them, depending on the offense’s formation shown, run vs. pass, and then the routes run out of that formation. A quick read through even a very clear, very simple explanation of the basics of the pattern-matching Cover 3 will leave a reader’s head spinning.

Do not worry about this. No one is expecting you to install it tomorrow, or even next week. This is not valid if you have just been hired to coach the Louisville defense. (Brian Van Gorder, if you’re reading this: FIND BETTER COACHING MATERIALS IMMEDIATELY.)

Still, if the average viewer can’t get the entire system in their head, they can get a few basics out of at least looking at it.

One: The defense Alabama (and now a few other teams like Georgia) uses can be complex as hell, takes time to coach, and relies a lot on NFL level concepts. Nick Saban happens to be really good at teaching it, but it is still insanely time intensive on the front end (film prep) and on the back end (teaching it.) It is resource intensive, as anyone who’s bothered to

Two: It can be man-to-man or zone, depending on the situation and what the defense sees. This sounds confusing, and should because that’s part of the point for the observer. Please imagine what it might look like to the poor quarterback trying to read it in real time.

Three: As Mike Felder points out, Nick Saban never really has to adjust his rules or system that much.

Because Alabama has the ability to recruit precisely what it needs to the positions required, and because the scheme is so fundamentally sound and flexible, there’s really not a lot of structural variation. It really is plug-and-play in Tuscaloosa, defensively speaking. (That whole thread is great, even if your eyes start to fog over a little when specific assignments and adjustments start getting thrown around a bit.)

Four: If it sometimes looks like Alabama is running the routes for the receivers, well, this coverage—and the pattern-matching involved— is why.

Five, which is also the most mind-boggling point here: Nick Saban’s version of the defense is actually more complex than Bill Belichick’s.

From Jenny Vrentas’s extremely good piece on Saban and Belichick’s relationship:

In the end, each took something from the other. Belichick was more conservative, and he watched how Saban paired pressure packages with his front to bring blitzers from different spots on the field. And Saban learned from the ways Belichick brought pressure without putting stress on the back end. Their contrasting styles mirrored the yin and yang of their personalities—the subtle but sarcastic Belichick vs. the fiery Saban—and they often clashed while game-planning. Saban wanted every call at his disposal for a given game situation; Belichick would force his staff to pick one (this is still true today).

In other words: Nick Saban wants the entire garbage can to throw at offenses in a game situation, while Bill Belichick insists his staff choose one very special banana peel for a scenario.