When you turn on the pregame shows or click open an article discussing the NBA playoffs and Finals, you find a great deal of concern about rotations and five-man lineups.
"How will the Spurs respond if Miami goes small and plays James at power forward?"
"Should the Memphis Grizzlies add shooters to their starting lineup to create more spacing on the floor for ZBo?"
"Why does Scott Brooks insist on playing Kendrick Perkins so many freaking minutes?"
A team's ability to find and exploit matchup advantages is crucial to getting its offense in a rhythm that can score enough to win. Of course, defenses are always scheming to minimize the impact of matchup disadvantages and keep uniquely talented people like LeBron James from destroying them with his entirely original skill set.
Within this dance you tend to find teams that are built around systems which create matchup advantages, like the San Antonio Spurs with their fluid combinations of frequent motion, spacing, and endless pick-n-rolls. Or you've got teams like Miami, which builds its system around maximizing the talent of LeBron James.
Due to the rise of fast tempo and spread concepts, football is heading in the same direction. Offensive coordinators have uncovered ways in which tempo and spacing allow them to create mismatches for individual stars. They have even created entire systems based on comprehensive tactics to create mismatches.
But in football, the offense has an enormous advantage not shared on the hardwood: Tavon Austin doesn't have to guard anyone on defense. While the offense has free reign to dictate matchups and attacks for the defense to respond to, the defenders don't have a great deal of recourse for punishing personnel decisions by the offense.
The only potentially helpful rule for defense is that if the offense substitutes personnel, it isn't allowed to snap the ball until the defense has had the chance to substitute as well. Of course, if an offense can use quick-tempo and be multiple without substituting, the defense is in a bind that worries even the likes of Nick Saban.
Offenses have typically exploited personnel matchup issues in one of two ways: with packaging or versatility.
At Boise State, Chris Peterson's offenses have put talent on the field far beyond what you would expect from a squad located in Idaho, in large part due to the way the Broncos package their personnel groupings. In a strategy I call "total roster," the Boise State coaches find strengths and qualities in players across their roster, then create individual packages to maximize those qualities.
An explosive freshman receiver might come into the game in five different packages that allow him to use his blazing speed on sweeps, screens, and a handful of passing plays, and that's it. The sophomore receiver with sticky hands but iffy run blocking may have a series of packages that take advantage of his receiving skills without putting him in a position where his blocking is essential.
You'd expect this style to result in defenses keying on the packages for clues about what's about to happen, but preparing for the enormous variety of formations, plays, trick plays, and packages that Boise brings into games is a nightmare for defenses. You can spend hours of limited practice time teaching your players formations and plays they may not even see on Saturday. Then at kickoff you might be unpracticed in the necessary techniques and fundamentals of actually stopping them, or perhaps you even wasted time on particular formations and plays when the Boise offensive staff has already cooked up a dozen new ideas just for you.
The only way in which Boise relies on continuity and overall mastery is at QB, OL, and TE/HB. The Boise offense puts a lot on the ancillary TE's to function in many of the packages and provide the straw that stirs the drink in tying together dozens of different kinds of motion and packaging. This proved to be a limiting factor that prevented former Boise St OC Bryan Harsin from fully realizing a dominant offense at Texas, as the Longhorn roster was devoid of quality tight ends.
But ideally the "total roster" approach confounds a defense by bringing in a million different looks and daring defenses to either have a package ready in response to each facet of the Boise offense, or play them straight and try to overcome the inevitable mismatches. There's little chance of a defense being better at stopping each unique package than the Boise offense is at executing it. After all, many of the featured players in the package practice little else while the defense has to train to stop everything.
The other end of the pendulum is relying on players with tremendous versatility. If a player can succeed in multiple roles, like LeBron James with the Heat, a team can move that player around as a part of base personnel packages and then ask the defense how they want to be exploited.
Truly versatile tight ends in particular offer terrifying possibilities for a defense. Do you match the TE with a coverage-minded defensive back to keep them covered up? What happens if it's a run play and Rob Gronkowski then blows up your nickel back on an outside run?
Do you match the tight end with a sturdy linebacker? Now you're watching Vernon Davis catch a pass wide open down the middle of your defense.
There are other positions that can offer this versatility and package-busting potential as well. Tavon Austin's ability to play running back, Oklahoma fullback Trey Millard's combination of blocking, receiving, and running skills, or running backs who can be counted on as receivers out of the backfield all present worrying possibilities.
Sometimes these players aren't even particularly conspicuous, as the ability of a player to block as a TE, FB, or H-back while still presenting a credible threat as a receiver can open up a defense for other skill players to take great advantage. Everyone's looking for these players to build their offense around.
In between these approaches, we find tactics that virtually everyone employs. Facing a season without a dependable tight end, normally a stalwart in their offense, the 2012 Oklahoma offense instead employed fullback-heavy formations and four-WR sets in order to ensure that matchups were favorable for the players they did have.
Against the Texas defense, which had dramatically bad linebacker play, Oklahoma brought one or two fullbacks into the backfield to create different running lanes and blocking combos that confused and abused the Texas front for a 343-yard day on the ground.
Against a West Virginia defense that was absolutely dreadful against the pass, Oklahoma relied on its four-WR spread sets to set Landry Jones up for a day with 554 passing yards and six touchdowns.
While Trent Dilfer may have found the Oklahoma playbook not so conducive to maximizing QB play or running good offense, the teams that had to stop Landry Jones and the Sooner diverse attack may have had some other thoughts on how well Oklahoma utilized its players with its formations. Tell us more about that vaunted 2000 Baltimore offense Trent; how can teams today match that proficiency?
There's only so much a defense can do in response, as again, the rules aren't set up in their favor. If the opposing offense has inflexible or deficient players, it's obviously possible to take advantage. Additionally, if a team can find early success against an up-tempo offense, it can bury the team early with three-and-outs and set its own offense up to build a quick lead. For that reason, teams like Oklahoma often wait for a first down or successful play before flipping the switch into ludicrous speed while the defense is on its heels.
As an inverse to Boise State's "total roster" attack, some schools often simplify in response to these trends. Kansas State relied on the versatility of Arthur Brown and the fantastic chemistry of its base 4-2-5 personnel grouping to stop roughly every offensive look it encountered in 2012.
Conference opponent TCU also looks for versatile players to man hybrid positions like its Strong Safety spot, then drills its base 4-2-5 defense on how to be sound and effective against any given offensive formation or concept.
This isn't a particularly aggressive or dominating way to play defense, but it can have the effect of creating a unit that doesn't allow the tempo and matchup tactics to dictate how it plays. Consequently, it becomes difficult sustain drives against this type of defense. The weaknesses come if a unit faces injuries, is susceptible to certain playing styles or concepts, or doesn't have anyone on the squad with talent around which to build.
To play the same base personnel against every offense means that a corner needs to be able to play on an island so the safeties can help somewhere else, and the linebackers need to be able to cover ground, and a particular defensive lineman needs to disruptive enough that offenses have to take him into account with everything they do. Without such versatile players, the defense will be fatally flawed somewhere.
Bigger programs like Alabama are more comfortable with grouping their personnel into different situational packages because they often have 13-17 kids on the roster who can be counted on to play defense at a high level. So long as the offense can't repeatedly catch them in bad groupings, these teams have a chance to maintain their energy against the rapid pace and avoid the mismatch pitfalls.
If the packaged defense has a major deficiency or lacks any versatile players who can play different roles, they will inevitably be trapped.
To use the 2012 Texas defense as an example again, defensive coordinator Manny Diaz quickly realized that his linebackers were utterly lost in stopping the run. So he tried to match spread teams like West Virginia and Baylor with dime personnel to stop their passing games. Against Baylor, Diaz played his starting safeties at outside linebacker and played his lightest, fastest linebacker in the middle. The result was arguably the fastest defense that has ever seen the field in Big 12 history.
However, both of those opponents had a fullback or tight end that allowed them to pummel the undersized Texas squad and draw the poor linebackers back onto the field.
If a team only has one good personnel package, then opposing teams will not allow it to see the field. They'll simply hammer something else so that your stud third safety or fourth linebacker can't harm them.
Like with most of the trends in football today, the pendulum has swung to the offense due to rules and strategies designed to take advantage of those rules. We'll have to wait and see if 2013 brings defensive innovation that can tilt the scales back to a balance that Nick Saban is more comfortable with.