Know Thine Enemy - Alabama's Defense

Know Thine Enemy - Alabama's Defense

Submitted by DonAZ on June 9th, 2012 at 3:57 PM

Chris Brown of the website "Smart Football" ( 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.


  1. I strongly encourage people to pick up a copy of "The Essential Smart Football."  It's a very good book.
  2. The article on Saban was originally written in 2008.  I trust it's still relevant, otherwise Brown would not have included it in the book.
  3. I am by no means an expert in the X's and O's of football.  I am, however, trying to learn more.
  4. I welcome any and all feedback that might help me and others understand further the tactical and strategic nuances of this wonderful game called Football.

The opening few pages of this chapter outlines the essence of Saban and his approach to defense:

  • He's a disciple of Belichick ... he was a defensive backs coach under Belichick
  • He tends to favor a 3-4, though he'll often go 4-3
  • His stated goal is to stop the run on first and second downs
  • He focuses on defending inside first, then outside
  • He is very aggressive on passing downs
  • He is attentive to technique and details
  • His favorite defense is a variation on a "Cover 1" which Saban calls a "Cover 1 Robber"
  • He tends to play zone with his secondary

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."

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."

<Side Note>
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.
</Side Note>

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:

  • Q1 -- Can Michigan's base offensive strengths match up and gain advantage against Alabama's base defensive play?
  • Q2 -- What "constraint" plays does Borges have in mind to counter Alabama "cheating" on defense?

With all this on the table, now comes my attempt to put a framework around the upcoming game against Alabama.

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.