Football has always been a game of cat & mouse. Offensive coordinators develop offenses that try to exploit the weaknesses of recent trends in defensive philosophy, and then defensive coordinators adjust and tweak their schemes. Those changes then cause offensive coordinators to make modifications, and so on, and so on...
Right now one of the hottest trends in college football is the spread offense, and if your team isn’t running one, it’s still very likely that they’re using elements of one.
In its most basic form, a spread offense utilizes one back and at least three wide receivers, although sometimes you’ll see one that employs two tailbacks and the quarterback in the shotgun formation. The truth is, there are really all sorts of variations of the spread, but all versions share the same basic philosophy:
2. "Spread” the field to create easier pre-snap coverage reads for the quarterback.
3. Use your offensive personnel to establish mismatches; WRs defended by safeties, RBs defended by LBs, and even WRs defended by LBs.
4. Based upon the number of defenders in the box, a run or pass can be audibled at the line of scrimmage.
Last year’s Notre Dame defense was ripe to be exploited by offenses that utilized some of these concepts. In short, the safeties couldn’t be depended upon to defend the deep pass, so in order to avoid giving up big gains, they primarily used a Cover 4 coverage (fig. 1), also known as "Quarters". The four defensive backs each had one-fourth of the field to cover behind them, and that left any underneath routes or zones to be picked up by the linebackers.
Obviously, this places a lot of responsibility upon the linebackers, and Kent Baer's thinking with this strategy was that by forcing the offense to drive the length of the field, eventually they’ll either throw a string of incomplete passes or force a turnover. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that early in the season last year we heard from Baer that they were placing a heavy emphasis on creating turnovers in practice. Ultimately, however, because our linebackers were fantastic run-stuffers but not very fluid in pass coverage, opposing quarterbacks were able to pick us apart, especially down the stretch last year when more game film showed our weaknesses for every offensive coordinator to dissect. A certain Leinart-to-Bush pass with Hoyte covering (in theory) comes to mind.
One way defensive coordinators have responded to modern pass-oriented attacks is by altering the traditional roles of linebackers, and a popular method to do this has been to create a hybrid linebacker/defensive back, a player who is big enough to provide solid run support, but quick enough to cover TEs, RBs and even WRs. As Coach Weis said in a recent BGI article, "The one thing you have to be cognizant of in college football...is how wide the field is when the ball is on the boundary, and how wide the field (side) is...having a (linebacker) who can play the run but also cover a lot of ground (with the pass) is a necessity."
Last year at South Carolina, Coach Minter utilized an Apache LB position. The year before that, Charlie Strong was the defensive coordinator at South Carolina and he used a 4-2-5 scheme that employed a Spur. For those who are unfamiliar with a 4-2-5 defense, it’s a defense that replaced the third linebacker in a 4-3 scheme with an extra safety. There is a SS and FS like the 4-3, but then there is also a Weak Safety (WS) position that often has a distinct name like Rover, Eagle, etc.
When Coach Minter took over at South Carolina, he and several of the players said in interviews that the Apache position was identical to the Spur position in Strong’s defense. The Daily Gamecock reported last April 9th:
“A new move this season will be the removal of the "spur" position on defense, usually held by a linebacker in situations like a nickel package. Minter's defensive playbook included an "apache" position that was identical to the spur, and Minter said it would be too much of a hassle to change the playbook and the other steps that would have to be taken, so the name of the position was changed.”In a 4-2-5 defense, both the SS and WS are generally (but not always) playing in the box, giving the look of an 8 man front. At the same time, they’re also playing a little bit more outside than you’re probably accustomed to seeing a linebacker play, although they can obviously move around. The FS is aligned in the center of the field. This alignment primarily makes the QB think the defense may be playing either a zone, Cover 3 (fig. 2), or a man defense, Cover 1, depending upon the CBs' alignment.
Cover 1 has a variety of looks, and if the extra defender not covering a receiver isn't blitzing, it's often referred to as Cover 1 Man Free (fig. 3).
Further, in Minter's system, the Apache backer will always be on the wide side of the field, where his athleticism will be needed most. (By the way, early practice reports have Minter looking strongly at Chinedum Ndukwe for the Apache position).
What this defense allows you to do is threefold:
2. With the Apache and SS aligned near symmetrically, you essentially have the nickel defensive back in the game to take care of a team’s third WR. Additionally, if that WR motions from one side to the other, your symmetry allows you to stay within the same defense; no one is flip-flopping assignments and there is less confusion before the snap (see Purdue's 97-yard TD in the 2004 game);
3. Similarly to #2, if a running back shifts out of the backfield, you no longer have a linebacker covering him.
If I were a betting man, however, I don’t think we’ll run a strict 4-2-5 defense. I actually think it’ll be a hybrid of 4-3 and 4-2-5 defenses, depending upon the situation. Consider these scenarios...
• It’s 1st & 10, and Michigan comes out with 2 backs, a tight end and two wide receivers. Against this, Coach Minter could do any number of things. He could bring Zbikowski into the box and have an eight man front that looks like a 4-2-5, or he could go with a straight-up 4-3. He can "show" different blitzes from either front, and he could show a variety of coverages. For instance, we might show a Cover 2 look until right before the snap, when Zbikowski could slide into the box and the FS would shade back to the middle of the field for a Cover 1 or Cover 3 look (fig. 4).
• It’s 2nd & 6, and Stanford comes out with one back, a tight end and three wide receivers. This could very likely be a run or a pass. In the past, the Irish defense would stay in their base 4-3, and many times this is a situation where offenses would throw on us; there’d be mismatches on the field that they could exploit, particularly at linebacker. In the new defense, Coach Minter has personnel on the field that can play the run or pass equally well, and he doesn’t have to rely upon substitutions.
• It’s 3rd & 3, and Southern Cal comes out with two backs, a tight end and two wide receivers. This is a crucial play and we’re still in our base defense. Reggie Bush leaves the backfield in motion and goes to the slot. In the past, we’ve been screwed. With the new defense, whether it’s the Apache or the strong safety covering Bush, we’re in much better shape (fig. 5).
Are you noticing the trend in these situations? We have flexibility and multiplicity. Essentially what Coach Minter will be able to do is adjust on the fly to offensive packages without needing to make substitutions. That’s what makes the Apache – if you have a player with those physical attributes – such a terrific concept in today’s game.
So generally speaking, what can we expect in 2005? Let me give that a shot. Based upon Coach Weis’ experience with Bill Belichick, I would fathom a guess that he came away with two main defensive concepts (among many others I’m sure).
First off, deception. Belichick is noted for confusing even the most high-powered offenses, and I’m confident that Coach Weis and Coach Minter will figure out ways to better disguise their coverages and fronts. We'll probably also have our athletes in better places to do that this year. As an offensive coordinator whose job it’s been to train quarterbacks to break down and recognize these coverages (and subsequently, to attack their weaknesses) as quickly as possible, I’m certain that Coach Weis recognizes its importance for the other side of the ball.
Second, flexibility. Belichick utilizes athletes who are multi-faceted, and can do a number of things well: cornerbacks who can tackle, and safeties who can cover. The greater the flexibility of your personnel, the better you can disguise your coverages and fronts, and the more blitzes you have available to you.
As a result, I think we’re going to see a lot of multiplicity in our defense. We’ll mix and match the 4-3 with some kind of 4-2-5 whenever we want. We’ll put eight in the box, we’ll show Cover 3, Cover 1, Cover 2 and even man-zone combinations. What I mean by this is that, because of the boundary/field designations we’ve seen thus far at certain positions, we may play zone to the field side and man to the boundary side (since the sideline can act as an extra defender). We'll be dialing up a lot of different looks. This may seem complex, but again, it’ll be simplified somewhat by sticking with simple field/boundary calls for the safeties and linebackers. They don’t have to know their responsibilities based upon the strength of the formation (where the TE is, or which side has more WRs); they only need to know responsibilities for boundary or field side.
It's too early to tell how successful this strategy will be, and I think a lot may depend upon who emerges at FS. If we can find a solid centerfielder, I think we’ll be able to scheme our way to a solid defense; if not, then problems at cornerback, where we have a lot of inexperience, may only be accentuated. Ultimately, though, the addition of converted defensive back Chinedum Ndukwe as the Apache backer, and more importantly, the physical skills he possesses that will enable us to be a very multiple defense, will go a long way toward helping to defend the underneath patterns that decimated us in 2004. Unless it’s third and long, the "Quarters" coverage that Baer relied upon down the stretch may end up a dusty relic of the Willingham regime.