On Pattern Matching: Saban's Cover 3-Man Hybrid

On Pattern Matching: Saban's Cover 3-Man Hybrid

Submitted by Seth on April 29th, 2015 at 9:43 AM

Next time you see this you'll know what's going on

In previous layman's discussions on how fancy newfangled anti-spread defenses function I've talked about how Quarters works, and how MSU used aggressive alignments with it to dominate the run game at the cost of greater risk of getting beat over the top. Each time I alluded to the fact that Saban's defense is similar in concept except where Quarters is a Cover 2/Cover 4 hybrid, Saban's is a Cover 3/Cover 1 hybrid.

We will see it this year. Every defense uses some Cover 3 and Cover 1 as a changeup, but Saban's base system, now all over the SEC, has spread into various Michigan opponents. Penn State kept it around while transitioning to Bob Shoop's version of Quarters. Maryland had it last year; not sure if their 4-3 transition includes a coverage shift. I think BYU (which is going back to 3-3-5 with Bronco Mendenhall overseeing it personally) is expected to as well. Michigan State has played with it, since it's similar to what they do normally. Anyway I thought it'd be fun to get into it now, so we'll have it to reference later.

Resources/hat tips:

  1. Rufio of Cleveland Browns SBNation blog Dawgs by Nature.
  2. Matthew Brophy's incomparable series on Alabama's D: part i, part ii, part iii, and his "Rip/Liz" video.
  3. Eleven Warriors' Kyle Jones's film study
  4. Ricky Muncie of Crimson Tide SBNation blog Roll Bama Roll
  5. Chris Brown, of course. Of course.
  6. Pre-emptive thanks to actual football coaches who post in the comments and point out where I got something wrong or over-simplified.

I'm Not a Coach Disclaimer

I'm not a football coach. I'm a guy on the internet who read a lot about football.

Basics of One-High Defenses

Cover 3 is probably the most basic defense in existence. It is the defense you learn on Day 1 as a high school freshman, if not before. At that level it is a "go to this spot and then find work" scheme, past that there are techniques coaches teach to cover the gaps. Here are the two basic versions that Saban uses against standard 2x2 formations:

alabamacoverages

If you picked up on the fact that "Liz" and "Rip" begin with the same letters as "left" and "right" (or you know your port and starboard colors) you have my permission to eat a cookie.

Joe Paterno used variations of this (Rip is very close to his base defense*) since the Chatelperronian, and like Neanderthal toolkits it only looks crude until you see it in the hands of a master.**

Some things to know that we'll use later:

  • The receiver numbering system is the same as in Quarters: start from the sideline and work your way in until you're at the center. It's where they are at the snap, not before, in case motion messed with that.
  • The path you take to your zone matters a great deal. Note how guys running toward their zones are actually going through weak points in the coverage. This is for "routing" purposes: if you're there a receiver can't be.

The latter is true for all zone defenses, but it's a stress point for Cover 3 because the holes in the zone are places the offense can attack either quickly (7-9 yards downfield in the seam) or easily (deep downfield once the free safety has committed). Cover 3 coaches teach defenders to be in the way so receivers have to re-route to covered places.

The tradeoff is natural coverage strength to the middle of the field, to the detriment of the flats—if you've ever watched an NFL defense that seems to constantly be tackling fullbacks squirting out of the backfield, that's why.

The problem with Cover 3 is the same problem with Cover 2: those frikkity vertical routes:

cover3v4verts

cover3vpoles

The problem remains with pretty much any set of routes that stem from a vertical release.

The old-fashioned answer to this is play more man defense, and certainly Cover 1 (example diagram) is a complementary coverage to any Cover 3 team. In Cov1, aka "Man Free" defense, corners stay on the receivers, the erstwhile "curl/flat" guys stay on the #2's, and the middle linebacker over the RB takes the RB.

But if you're playing man-to-man defense, you'd better have men who can win their battles 97%+ of the time against theirs. If you need to activate that free safety to double up a dangerman, now you're giving up "front"—how many defenders are participating in your run fits, and once it's not an 8-man front anymore you're weak against the run. Offenses will also use rub routes, or exploit matchups, e.g. have a quick slot receiver sprint across the formation until he loses the linebacker trying to keep up.

These were problems for Saban to a much greater degree when he was dealing with the kind of talent the Cleveland Browns drafted during his DC days. By the time he got to MSU he already had his Rip and Liz and his Cov1 amalgamated into a hybrid scheme he called "pattern matching."

[After the jump]

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* The Paterno-era "Hero", and "Sam" in the linked diagram were early examples of hybrid space players, and the zone-blitzing 8-man front it spawned was the basis of Rocky Long's 3-3-5 defense.

** …who discovered children were being sexually abused in his locker room and didn't tell the police because football reasons.

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H4: Finding Ed Reed

H4: Finding Ed Reed

Submitted by Seth on January 27th, 2015 at 11:34 AM

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Five on five. [Upchurch]

When news broke recently that Jabrill Peppers was moving to safety, Brian threw up a quick explanatory post, Why Peppers Might Be A Safety, talking about how modern spread offenses dictate modern quarters defenses, which in turn dictate that the safety over the slot is the glamour position du jour.

An offensive innovation like the zone read will open up the entire book again as coaches figure out ways of running all the things they already like out of new looks, new play-action, etc. But defensive innovation, with a few notable exceptions, is much more reactive.

Often what we call a "new defense" is just rediscovering an old, unsound thing that takes away the thing offenses are doing these days. The 46 defense was bringing a safety down. The zone blitz was having a defensive end playing coverage. The Tampa 2 had a middle linebacker responsible for deep middle coverage. The 3-4 made three linemen responsible for six gaps. And the hybrid man/zones of today put your deep coverage into the middle of the run-stopping game.

The way a defensive innovation becomes a sustainably great defense is great players. Dantonio's quarters dominated college football with a string of NFL-bound defensive backs. The 3-4's proliferation through the NFL was accompanied by a rush on anything that looked like Vince Wilfork. The Steel Curtain (the first Tampa 2) was built around Jack Lambert. Miami (NFL Miami)'s "No Name" zone blitz defense had a 6'5/248 lb. track star named Bill Stanfill at WDE. And the '80s Bears could pull off this crap:46 defense

…because that "46" was the jersey number of one Doug Plank.

You don't need to be a football guru to see what made the 46 defense tough: there are eight dudes in the box, six of whom are just a few steps from the quarterback. Running into a stacked box is futile (DO YOU HEAR ME? DO YOU HEAR ME, AL?!?). You can try to identify who's blitzing and throw to holes in the coverage before they arrive, but you'd better have Dan Marino.

[After the jump: how to 46 a modern offense]

Upon Further Review 2014: Defense vs App State

Upon Further Review 2014: Defense vs App State

Submitted by Brian on September 3rd, 2014 at 3:22 PM

FORMATION NOTES: They promised it all offseason and they delivered on it:

M 30 slide 2

In your face bro. Note that this was an example of something I started calling "30 slide"*, as the linemen are basically head up on the tackles and center with Frank Clark as a sort of standup end/SAM.

*[The idea being this is a 30 front (three linemen head up on tackles and the center like a 3-4) with three linebackers slid as if they are in an under.]

Another example is even clearer:

M 30 slide

Note that in both of these shots, the three-tech is in fact to the bottom of the screen instead of between Clark and the nose as you might expect. I had not seen this before, because Michigan doesn't run it and they weren't spread enough last year for anyone to do it against them but since Appalachian State also ran it…

ASU 3-3-5 slide

this was in fact their base D probably

…and they are right in the heart of spread on spread warfare I figure it is the latest fad when you need to account for the QB in the run game. I'll get Adam to ask Mattison about it next week—unfortunately, they moved the coordinator pressers up a day so I was not educated on anything before that time came. I'll try to accelerate my UFRing process, something that is now feasible with fast downloads and the lack of TWIS on my plate.

They also of course ran a lot of standard nickel:

morgan-belly-1

Michigan also debuted a weird 3-3-5-ish package with Frank Clark at "MLB":

Clark 3-3-5

This happened twice. On  both plays Clark was running at the frontside guard on the snap, impacted him, blew him back, forced a cutback, and then no one was there. More on that later.

Michigan also played some bonafide dime snaps:

M-dime-press

These had three DL, two linebackers, and six DBs. Generally it was Delonte Holowell getting the extra nickel snaps but that's more in the…

PERSONNEL NOTES: Deep breath. On the line it was Beyer-Henry-Glasgow-Clark to start with copious substitution. Your nominal second string based on playing time was Charlton-Wormley-???-Ojemudia, with the NT ??? a combination of Pipkins, Mone, and Hurst. Pipkins looked by far the best of those guys; I expect that NT rotation to quickly settle down into Glasgow and Pip alternating with scattered snaps elsewhere. Godin got some real PT early at 3-tech.

At linebacker, Ryan, Bolden, and Morgan seemed to get about equivalent PT. Ross got a number of snaps as the game went along as an ILB. IIRC, Jenkins-Stone only saw snaps as a nickel DE late. Gedeon and McCray got in for the last drive.

Michigan played nickel on I think literally every snap they weren't playing dime. That was Peppers spotted by Hollowell and then Hollowell after Peppers got dinged. Taylor and Countess got starters' minutes at outside CB with Lewis coming in frequently; Stribling did not see time until heavy substitution began in the third quarter. Richardson got in there too.

Starting safeties were Wilson and Clark; Thomas got quite a lot of PT starting in the second quarter, with walk-on AJ Pearson seeing the field on ASU's interminable second scoring drive.

And hamburgers: I thought I was done calling people CGordon and TGordon and just realized we have two Clarks. I tried to clarify who was who below; I imagine you can figure it out if I missed a couple.

[After the JUMP: a big table! and some other stuff.]