I'll be the first to say it: Bubble screens.
But seriously, who have we played recently that uses a similar defense? Virginia Tech?
Chris Brown of the website "Smart Football" (smartfootball.com) recently published a book called "The Essential Smart Football." In it, Brown compiles a set of previously written website articles that cover a broad range of topics. He organizes the chapters into four parts -- Characters, History, Theory, and Concepts.
In part four Brown offers a chapter titled, "Nick Saban's Defense School."
Given the upcoming game against Alabama I thought it might be interesting to summarize some of the points Brown makes in this chapter and offer a framework for discussion of what Michigan must do to effectively attack this defense and win.
DISCLAIMERS AND STARTING COMMENTS
SABAN'S PHILOSOPHY OF DEFENSE
The opening few pages of this chapter outlines the essence of Saban and his approach to defense:
Throughout this chapter, Chris Brown makes it clear none of this is particularly revolutionary or "tricky" in any way. At its core it is a relatively simple defensive approach that relies on execution and athletic ability. Alabama clearly gets good athletes. As to execution, Brown ends the chapter with, "Saban demands perfection and has no qualms about spending the grinding hours working on the finer details to make it happen."
"COVER 1 ROBBER" DEFENSE
The basic "Cover 1" defense (sans "Robber") is, as Brown writes, "...quite simple: the '1' refers to a deep safety who aligns in the middle while the offense's potential receivers are covered man-to-man, often with a press or bump-and-run technique. The defense needs a great center fielder at free safety who can stop the deep ball and cover sideline to sideline."
That's the basic "Cover 1." Brown writes that "once you've locked in five guys in man coverage along with a deep free safety, you can do whatever you want with the other five defenders." Further, "with just one free safety deep, the defense can get in a lot of eight-man fronts."
Recall Saban's approach -- stop the run, defend inside first.
The "'Cover 1 Robber' works in a similar manner, except there are only four rushers ... one drops back into an intermediate zone and pays close attention to the QB's eyes to try to 'rob' any pass routes over the middle." Brown writes: "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."
Here's what I think is a very relevant quote from the book -- "Cover 1 Robber is useful -- not perfect -- against spread offense teams with mobile quarterbacks because the floater may not only read the quarterback's eyes on passing downs but also to watch him for scrambles and to mirror him on run plays."
In a different chapter on Al Borges, Brown seeks to compare Borges to Rodriguez in terms of approach. Brown writes: "Under Rodriguez, Robinson was Michigan's offense, which began to eschew even the 'read' part of zone reads in favor of simply having Robinson keep it himself on an outside zone play, time and time again."
I bring this up not to stir that pot again, but to raise a question ... if we stipulate Brown's point, and we factor in another comment by Brown that the Cover 1 Robber is probably the most prevelant defense in the SEC, I wonder if this helps explain (at least in part) the Gator Bowl against Mississippi State?
Without effective constraint plays (see next) the Robber is free to cheat up and (maybe) the free safety as well. For all Denard's skills as a runner, I'm not sure even those skills can overcome two talented defensive players expecting QB runs and shadowing Robinson's playmaking.
Let's get back to Cover 1 Robber. As stated earlier, Saban tends to play zone with his corners, safeties and his "Robber." Brown then differentiates "pattern reading" versus "spot drops" within the zones. In essence, "spot drops" have defenders go to a particular spot within the zone, then react to the QB's eyes and the flight of the ball. In contrast, Brown writes: "Pattern reading, on the other hand, is much like matchup zone in basketball. Defenders are responsible for zones, but they play tight to the receivers who come through those zones." Pattern reading requires defenders who can, as the name implies, recognize passing patterns and react appropriately. And perhaps more importantly it requires well-executed passing-off of receivers to other defenders as receivers run their routes.
Saban likes to run Cover 1 Robber with pattern reading zone coverage. Again, to run this really well (which Alabama tends to do), it requires: (a) very good athletes that (b) understand and execute well.
Now ... there's little doubt Saban has all manner of variations to this, with different looks and adjustments. The point is that this appears to be Saban's favorite defense, or so says Chris Brown in that chapter of the book.
"Essential Smart Football" has a chapter titled, "The Constraint Theory of Offense." The basic idea is that over time a defense will "cheat" defenders up (or back) to attempt an advantage against the offense's base plays. A "constraint" play is one designed to strike at the weakness created by the defense's cheating. Thus an offense with a set of effective constraint plays can make a defense pay for, as Chris Brown writes, "their impatience."
So, for example, if the Robber tends to cheat up on run plays, a "constraint" play would be to hit a crossing receiver in that vacated zone. Do that enough and the cheating defender learns not to cheat up. This puts the defense back into what the offense can (it hopes) attack with its strength.
This brings up two questions I myself can't answer:
With all this on the table, now comes my attempt to put a framework around the upcoming game against Alabama.
MICHIGAN'S OFFENSE vs. ALABAMA'S DEFENSE
I reiterate my disclaimer earlier -- I'm only a novice at this X's and O's stuff. I eagerly invite more expert insight ... seriously ... help me :-)
It's almost cliche to write that the key to the game is "execution" and "avoiding mistakes." But just because it's cliche does not make it untrue.
Let's just stipulate that the team that plays sloppy, mistake-filled football loses the game. Or said another way, let's assume a reasonable level of execution and go from there. (Given it's the first game of the season that assumption is a bit of a stretch ... but still, we'll start there.)
I'll offer five thoughts as to Michigan's offense against this Cover 1 Robber:
(1) Offensive Line -- in the absence of specific blitz packages, the Cover 1 Robber has only four rushing. The other seven defenders are back in zone or covering potential receivers or runners. So can Michigan's offensive line provide adequate protection against that defensive front? I'm of the thinking that defensive penetration into the backfield is the cornerstone of defeat for an offense. Can Michigan's line, playing reasonably well, keep Alabama's line at bay?
(2) Denard Robinson -- specifically, has his decision making improved such that he can pass against this zone defense loaded with really talented athletes? Further, how well can Denard disguise what his eyes are looking at? In a video of Al Borges a few months back Borges commented how he likes the winged helmets because they allow him (Borges), when reviewing film, to see where the quarterback was looking. It seems reasonable it would also help a defender see where Robinson is looking. If Robinson stares down his receivers too much, that might give Alabama zone defenders enough to read and react.
(3) Receivers -- can they find seams in the Alabama zones and stay open enough for Robinson to reach them? This is predicated the success of item 1 above. Not many teams were successful in that last year. But of course Alabama lost a great deal of last year's talent.
(4) Touissant+Robinson -- meaning, the run game. Alabama is famously tough up the middle. As stated earlier, Saban's philosophy is to defend inside first, then outside. To the extent the run is available at all it may be outside ... and then can Touissant and Robinson exploit? My knowledge of offensive football really falls down here ... I do not know enough about running offense to begin to speculate on how this part of the game might be attacked. Any insights?
(5) Constraint Plays -- what does Borges have up his sleeves to keep the Alabama offense honest? And will whatever he has be effective? One of the things Brown mentions in the book is that the West Coast philosophy as espoused by Bill Walsh was to attack with passing on first and second down precisely because defenses are stacking against the run on first and second. Saban has said as much. Can Borges and Michigan make any hay here? Should they even try?
As I wrap this up I'll confess I'm left with no solid answers. I really don't know what will happen. I have oodles of hope about what will happen, however.
So we're back to cliche -- it's about execution ... first on the line, then in effective play selection and execution against what Alabama offers on defense. From there it becomes which is the better team on the field on that day.
I'll be the first to say it: Bubble screens.
But seriously, who have we played recently that uses a similar defense? Virginia Tech?
Well, according to Brown in his chapter on the Virginia Tech defense (written in 2009), they run a Cover 4 ... but he goes on to say, "But don't confuse this with prevent coverage: it's a whirl of contradictions -- a zone defense with man-to-man principles, and a defense with four secondary players that can still present a nine-man front against the run."
He goes on to say: "... the Hokies' safeties play extremely aggressively against the run from Cover 4 -- each safety has specific run-game responsibilities and provides run support to both the frontside and the backside.
So not exactly Cover 1 Robber ... though I'm sure there are points of overlap conceptually.
good stuff, thx for posting this.
...one potential constraint play is ironically out of RR's playbook: The quick slant to the slot receiver. Anyone cheating up will be burned.
Denard throws that 15-yard slant pass with great accuracy. How many times did we see that play work a few years back? A LOT.
I was thinking this throughout my reading. Cover 1 is how quick slants turn into gashes in defenses. I'm concerned about our recievers abilty to quickly get off the los if bama is bumping tho.
My first take on Brown's "Book" was not good, if only because it's a compilation of his previous work from his website. Posts don't add up to a book. Several of the posts/chapters could have been slightly or greatly reworked to contemporize the themes and material. Older chapters end with a one to two sentence rundown of what took place since that work was posted with no update to content. The chapter on Borges was written prior to 2011 - there is no effort to read in the the importance of Fitz' impact in the coming year or the denouement of DR's interception rate learnings from 2011.
Anyone can tag together the W/L records of the last five years and glorify the coaches and strategies of the Ws vs. those of the Ls. Saban coached at MSU and was beatable. Brown himself admits in every interview for this book that Bama just pummels people with talent.
That all said... great post. Pattern reading is a big deal. Coverage becomes 1 on 1 in the base defense that Brown discusses when the pattern read is executed. That can be used against the D as well. WR matchups are a concern. DG as a WR makes sense to me in this game at least if only because he's so talented. DR needs to not telegraph his throws. That is going to do no favors for our guys downfield.
Outside zone is not going away this year.
The over signing issue and rebuilding on the Michigan side can't be overstated. We are still in the limelight (hopefully twilight) of that period. Our first team can match up, but the depth is not there. We could have 9+ freshmen in the 3 deep rotation. But it's 11 on 11 so execution is key. I'm hoping the exchange between Barnum and DR is solid come game time. After that it's the matchups that concern me more than the strategies.
Getting Michigan in position for victory here is a challenge. The margins for success are challenging. Fortunately the players who are going to have to step up are mostly seniors for Michigan. The most important of which is DR and dare I say BWC. No more injuries please (I was sorry to read about Poole - I hope that resolves soon and well.)
I saw an interview with Malzhan talking about Alambama's D and he said it was pointless for them to run between the tackles unless they were "pacing" Alabama (meaning with the no huddle at full throttle) because of Saban's focus on stopping the run in the middle. He also said running outside on the field side was hard because Saban tends to blitz from that side or walk the safety down into run coverage. That leaves outside running to the boundary side. Auburn was able to get some big plays over there because of the lack of a flat defender.
Clearly, you can't limit yourself to running only outside to the boundary but it will be interesting to see how much or if Borges tries to run between the tackles early.
The blocking of the boundry wr on the corner is key here.
From what I've seen of the Alabama defense I'll personally be terrified if we come out trying to run it right at them. While our inside run game has been an offensive strength since the emergence of Toussaint and even beforehand by using the RB (usually Smith) as a lead blocker for Robinson, I just don't think it's the first thing we should turn to in this game. I'm not expert but from what I've seen, even out of stocked teams like LSU is that the middle is a killing field for Bama. Especially early in games.
I hope we come out passing, but not looking for home-runs unless they're handing them to us. Lots of quick slants, high-lows on the corners, FB and RB passes - leaking out into the flats, and outside run/pass options that allow the offense to get some yards (5-7 hopefully, 3-5 realistially) per play, move the chains, and punish Bama's defensive tendencies. A shotgun play-action pass on the very first play from scrimmage seems incredibly wise. Probably followed by some-kind of quick outside run/pass option, preferably to the boundary side.
As the game wears on we should be able to start attacking the middle more and more frequently if we can force Bama to respect the outside game; keeping them to 7 (or less) in the box.
The biggest key to winning against Alabama will be keep them away from the inside of our defensive line as much as possible. Keeping their offensive off the field (and ours on it) and striking at key times to get ahead and force them away from the inside run game should give us a solid chance. ^_^
We're underdogs, for sure, but I believe we can pull this one off.
Let's magnetize them so they always point north.
Good thing about 2012 is that I believe Alabama loses not only both NTs in the 2 deep, but both the starting robbing playmakers on defence from last year. Unless I'm mistaken they return a starting corner, a Will linebacker, and an End, everybody else graduated, or was drafted. Thank God they also lost Richardson.
1. As a coach I can say "The Essential Smart Football" is a great book if you are a serious football fan in general.
2. Saban is unique in the sense he is one of the few college coaches who implements a pro-style defensive strategy in college football. Although this is mostly due to the fact he has the talent to do so.
3. I have a question. You say he favors a cover 1 robber scheme. I am familiar with this. However you then state he likes to use zone coverage in the secondary. Cover 1 is a man to man scheme with the FS being the one deep, and one of the LB's being the "robber" playing a hook curl or spy zone underneath. So I guess it's kind of a contradictory statement. Although, in a 3-4 normally cover 1 is the most common non-blitz man to man coverage, and basically most of the other defensive coverages used are zone because of alignment issues.
He calls it "pattern reading", I've heard it called other things. But his analogy to a matchup zone is accurate. It's essentially a mix of man and zone that Saban runs. When the defense gets good at it, it is very difficult to beat because they start to take away those "man" plays/routes that you have, but it still has a lot of advantages that a typical zone doesn't. For instance, if you run 4 verts, the coverage will look like man, but if you try running "pick" plays, the defense is essentially in a zone and won't get beat from it. It's very difficult to nail down for a defense, but very difficult to beat when run well. Most college coaches can't get the athletes or have the coaching know-how to nail it down so successfully.
This is one thing that could potentially really help Michigan. Saban has his defense run things that aren't always spectacular in scheme, but are done nearly flawlessly. This is because he teaches the fundamentals so well and reps it millions of times. The hope is that, it being the first game of the season and the Alabama D being young, that running this type of defense can lead to big breaks when run incorrectly.
I'm grateful Sky Coyote came to my rescue on this ... so thank you, Sky.
A lot of this diary really was just a distillation of the longer chapter from the book ... there's a lot I don't know. But Chris Brown seemed to stress the zone qualities of the secondary, and later in the chapter he detailed the "pattern matching" vs. "spot drops." Pattern matching being more difficult to teach and requires good and smart athletes to follow and pass off. Again, it seems Alabama has the luxury of both.
@Ron Utah -- I wondered about overloading zones as well. I have to think other teams have thought of this ... I wonder what Saban's adjustment is? Brown in his book does not seem to address this in his book.
Borges has a weapon in his arsenal that I haven't seen discussed here, not used much at Michigan yet: "Bunch" formations. By lining up multiple receivers in a small area and having them all attack one column or row of the defense's match-up zones, you can overload and force the defense to leave one player open, or force them to stack one area of the field with defenders, leaving other areas open for 1-on-1 matchups.
We have, I believe, two athletes in our offense that can compete with the talent level of the 'Bama defenders: DR and Fitz. I'd like to believe Roundtree will be able to exploit 1-on-1 coverage, but I'm just not sure. That said, if we can overload zones from either bunch or other formations and have success, it should open space for our QB and RB to have 1 vs. 1 opportunities, which we must capitalize on.
Running outside to the boundary side of the field is just really, really difficult. You are shrinking your own space and making it a contest of athletes--exactly what 'Bama wants. It is doable, but will require flawless execution to be successful.
Getting Fitz an Robinson into areas of the field where the defenders don't outnumber us is the ultimate goal; bunch formations and overload routes are a good way to do this...but a very difficult way to do it.
IMO, this is exactly what will be constraint plays in Borgess' attack. They ran multiple Bunch plays last year against overly aggressive defenses and liked running screen plays to Gallon out of that as well as quick slants to the inside guy. This forces the defense to become "unbalanced" which completely opens up the weak side to a rolling screen thrown to the opposite side of the field, AKA Smith TD against Notre Dame. One play that works extremely well with Pattern read Cover 1 defenses is the fade to the weakside TE out of this package. The FS tends to fade over to the Bunch pattern leaving one on one coverage for the LB on the TE without Safety help. LBs have to read the screen or Robinson so a moments hesitation could lead to a wide open TE running downfield.
So what -- if any -- counter-constraint strategy can Alabama employ?
Not run cover 1 in a bunch formation
They would need to "check" to let's say an over cover 3 with the linebackers floating to the flats or the strong side corner running up to prevent the screen. The problem with bunch is that you limit yourself and do not spread the defense.
If the noun it is modifying begins with a vowel, the possessive pronoun of thee is "thine" - not "thy"
See for example this year's edition of Hail to the Victors:
Know thy grammar nazi...give to him not thine excrement.
I wondered about that when I composed the original post. But grammar is not my strong suit.
I am nothing if not obedient to coaching ... fixed! :-)
thank you. Great diary! And this can't really be called an error anyway since thee forms are dead in english.
So, does that make you a zombie grammar Nazi?
And I agree: it is a great diary.
Anyone but Seth and I might have taken some offense to the grammar police action ... but I've read his stuff and I like what he writes ... so I'm inclined to nod my head in agreement and correct.
I've used the word "thy" precisely once in 52 years ... and I'm called on it. What are the odds? :-)
I am a little too interested in grammatical corrections. After beating the dead horse of "decimate" a few times I settled on my own limiting principles. If the error results in something unintendedly funny I will risk a correction. For instance, recently someone used the word "wraith" instead of "wrath" for Herm. If it was a typo, I thought it was funny.
The other type of error I like to point out is when someone pointing out an error makes an error. At least once, someone pointing out an error of someone making an error made an error. I could not resist that triple whammy.
In this case an error in a diary title diminished the whole site a little, but I stayed in my foxhole.
Great blog thanks for posting this. Saban is a meticulous coach and I think that's what sticks out to me more than anything about his defenses. It can be missed because he never seems to be doing anything that revolutionary like stop the run in the middle...no duh.
When you have the athletes that Saban has been able to recruit however it just makes his defense even more daunting. They can play the run in the middle but even if you try to bounce it outside against them most teams don't have the speed to get away from their pursuing defenders.
Great diary. It kind of confirms what I've always suspected but never paid close enough attention to Saban's D to confirm: If you've got the pro-level athletes to run it, a D that depends upon athletic ability, pattern reading, and combines some of the best elements of man and zone D is nearly unbeatable. If he didn't have the players capable of running this, it wouldn't work nearly as well (duh). Perhaps as oversigning slows over the next few years, we'll see this defense return from unbelievable back to just plain great.
I look at this at the 6 minute mark and I can see what the OP is describing. I mean if Denard has this spacing, he maybe gets a first down. One thing to notice though is there are WRs open under neath, you just can't make an awful decision like this.