All credit to Smart Football for this excellent post, which is a must read for gamecock fans today b/c you will be witness to it tonight when the Gamecocks take on 'Bama.
Repost: Preview of Nick Saban's Alabama defense (6/29/2009)
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.)