When Mike Leach brought the Air Raid offense to the Big 12 in the 2000's it brought Texas Tech a great deal of attention for their ability to produce 4k yard passers every season and to drop massive point totals on opponents, but it wasn't enough to allow them to overcome Oklahoma and Texas' subsequent runs in that decade.
Against the two powerhouse teams of the decade, Leach's Raiders were only 5-15 over 10 seasons.
The problem for Leach's Air Raid was that the Longhorn and Sooner rosters were deep enough at defensive back to allow those teams to play nickel and dime packages that could match up with the Raiders' spread alignments and play man or tight zone coverage that would bring Tech's offensive efficiency too low to allow them to outscore the juggernaut OU and Texas offenses.
Since then, Air Raid programs have developed ways to attempt to punish teams for playing anti-pass defenses when they come into town but this tactic remains a viable option for the major programs and that's becoming apparent around the nation as spread offenses proliferate into all of the major conferences.
Last Saturday the Alabama Crimson Tide drove another stake into the heart of the narrative that Saban's defense doesn't work against the spread with a second consecutive shellacking of the Texas A&M offense. This time the Tide maintained their dominance over the A&M run game, allowing only 3.6 yards per carry and 69 rushing yards (removing sack yardage), while also yielding only 6.3 yards per pass attempt, picking off four passes, and returning three of them for defensive touchdowns.
At this point it's safe to say that Alabama has figured out how to defend A&M and the spread well, the question is how are they doing it? And can it be matched by other blueblood programs around the country?
Saban's prescription for A&M
There are two major differences between how Saban's Tide defended A&M this season and how they've defended spread offenses in year's past. The first is greater simplicity on defense and the second is a roster overhaul that has made the Tide more adept at fielding anti-spread defenders.
In the past, Saban would carry multiple defensive calls and packages into a given game, each designed to squeeze the life out of a given offense. He'd use his full-loaded roster, perpetually stocked with four and five-star athletes at every position, to build specialized packages that could be rotated on and off the field to handle a given offensive formation or situation.
But the up-tempo stylings of A&M and other spread offenses in the conference ruined this advantage for Saban as he was no longer able to get his specific packages on the field as easily, although that tactic still plays a not-insignificant role in the Alabama strategy.
Now Saban instead uses his roster depth to allow the Tide to build personnel packages that can stay on the field together and he subs DL in and out of the game to allow the pass rush and run defense to remain fresh and stout against a relentless pace by opposing teams.
The Tide will play multiple fronts and schemes against A&M, but they prefer to rely on a 3-2-6 personnel package which they'll use to build 4-2-5 nickel over and under fronts usually backed by two-deep/cover 4 coverages that look to take away the deep passing game.
They rotated multiple players into the game, but here's how the starting line-up looked against the Aggies:
|Defensive end||Jonathan Allen||6-3, 272|
|Nose tackle||Jarran Reed||6-4, 313|
|Defensive tackle||A'Shawn Robinson||
|Joker (OLB/DE)||Denzell Devall||6-2, 252|
|Middle linebacker||Reggie Ragland||6-2, 252|
|Dimeback||Ronnie Harrison||6-3, 218|
|Nickelback||Minkah Fitzpatrick||6-1, 195|
|Right cornerback||Marlon Humphrey||6-1, 192|
|Strong safety||Eddie Jackson||6-0, 194|
|Free safety||Geno Mattias-Smith||6-0, 196|
|Left cornerback||Cyrus Jones||5-10, 196|
And here's how they were typically deployed: the free safety would line up in the boundary while the strong safety would be aligned to the wider field side. The nickel would cover the outermost slot receiver and the dimeback would line up as a linebacker but be positioned across from the second slot receiver while the only true linebacker on the field (not counting the OLB/DE hybrid) would stay in the box.
Alabama would utilize a few different fronts, particularly on third down, but they mostly played over-shifted fronts with three true DL on the field and then outside backers like Devall or Ryan Anderson as stand-up defensive ends on the edge.
Perhaps the key personnel here are the strong safety and the dimeback. Alabama moved former corner Eddie Jackson to strong safety this season which allows them to utilize their nickel in different ways while still having a rangy defensive back who can handle all of the space to the field side and who can play man coverage on vertical routes. It was going to be difficult for the Tide to find a player that could cover ground like Landon Collins did in this position in 2015 but they did so with Jackson, who already has five interceptions on the year.
The next crucial spot is the dimeback, who is basically a coverage linebacker that needs to be able to play the run in tight spaces at times but also play tight coverage on a slot receiver. As offenses continue to spread defenses more and more, this position is basically becoming what the nickel or box safety position used to be just in the last decade.
Here the Tide utilized true freshman Ronnie Harrison, a former four-star Florida safety, who has the classic attributes of a box safety at 218 pounds.
From these formations, the Tide were mostly content to sit back with two deep safeties, rush four, and force the Aggies to execute their way down the field. They'd even do so while playing a great deal of true cover 2 to the boundary with their boundary corner as a force defenders and Mattias-Smith playing deep zone over the top in a "bend don't break" fashion.
The Tide never seem to have a dominant edge-rushers (Courtney Upshaw came the closest) and seem to instead rely on a a mixture of collapsing the pocket with their defensive tackles and strongside ends, or blitzing. In the dime package this approach becomes totally feasible since the coverage is good enough to either buy time for a defensive tackle like Jonathan Allen to get pressure up the middle (two sacks vs A&M) and the personnel is diverse enough to allow DC Kirby Smart to bring blitzes from all different angles (five different Tide players had sacks vs A&M).
Alabama has had fully stocked defensive rosters before and this isn't the first time they've brought a dime package into this game to try and stifle A&M's spread, but with the Tide having an increasingly strong stable of defensive backs and greater comfort with how to utilize their depth against the spread, this might be their best anti-spread defense yet.
Dime packages around the country
Alabama isn't the only top defense in the country that is utilizing their depth to build dime packages that can handle being spread out without getting gashed or isolated at some point on the field. The Michigan Wolverines also have a dominant dime defense that has some overlapping similarities with what the Tide are doing and a few key differences.
Both teams make use of having absurdly deep stables of big defensive linemen that can line up as ends or tackles and collapse the pocket and both have exceptional inside linebackers that can patrol the box with part-time assistance from the defensive backs surrounding them (Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster for Alabama, Desmond Morgan and Joe Bolden for Michigan) but one key difference is the approach to coverage.
Nick Saban wants to be able to play "barely bend and never break" defense that can build walls and bring numbers to every part of the field from a two-deep shell and he finds dime packages with sturdy nickel and dime defenders and rangy safeties to be a fantastic way to do this.
They'll give you about two to three yards to work with and then they are going to converge on you with a fury.
Michigan approaches coverage differently and will play press coverage to deny any breathing room while dropping a box safety down into the box to be an extra defender against the run. One way to conceptualize the difference is that the Wolverines are lining up their box safety deep before the snap and dropping him in different places while Alabama is starting him off closer to the line of scrimmage.
The Michigan approach is arguably riskier, as it requires them having multiple DBs that can play man coverage without facing a match-up that could see them get ripped, but it also allows Michigan to easily outnumber and match up to anything their opponent is trying to do.
As it happens, these are probably the two best defenses in college football this season. As you'll notice, it takes some serious roster depth to be able to rotate multiple 270+ pound DL that can rush the passer or to flood the field with versatile DBs that can perform like full-time starters, call it blueblood privilege.
The key is having enough "all-purpose" DBs on campus that can play the run, play deep zone, blitz, or play man coverage as the situation requires.
What about Willie and the poor boys?
Obviously not every team can build a roster with enough high quality players to field a normal base defense and a dime package that can both stifle the types of offense they'll face in a given week.
Most smaller programs will instead try and craft a base nickel defense that can handle any type of offense with the same personnel on the field simply utilizing different tactics for each situation. However, injuries have driven Gary Patterson's TCU defense to employ what I like to call the "quantitative easing package" as their base defense, which is essentially a 4-0-7 defense devoid of true linebackers.
The Frogs still play their same 4-2-5 defensive structure, but with injuries and off the field issues devastating their roster they've opted to plug in safeties at all five positions between the cornerbacks and defensive line. Their new "linebackers" still play like linebackers but the personnel staffing the positions looks like this:
|Strong safety||Denzel Johnson||6-2, 205|
|Middle linebacker||Travin Howard||6-1, 190|
|Strongside linebacker||Montrel Wilson||6-3, 208|
|Weak safety||Ridwan Issahaku||6-1, 180|
|Free safety||Derrick Kindred||5-10, 210|
The biggest player in the Frogs' defensive backfield, Derrick Kindred, is the player who lines up the furthest away from the line of scrimmage. This is hardly the optimal situation for TCU, yet they've been able to make it work. One of the very valuable traits that comes from this grouping is that any one of five Frogs in the middle of the field could conceivably play in a large number of different roles.
This means that their disguises have legitimacy and Patterson can play all kinds of games with opposing quarterbacks as they try to guess where TCU will bring numbers and strength and where it will be possible to isolate and attack one of their small defenders.
Want to run iso against diminutive linebacker Travin Howard? Well look out because the Frogs might sneak Kindred up tight as a box safety who can erase your runs before you get much out of it. Now you want to make Denzel Johnson hold up in man coverage? Too bad, this time Kindred is dropping into deep zone over the top and you're outnumbered again. Now you dial up a play to attack a different part of the line of scrimmage...and Denzel Johnson is there while Kindred has replaced him in man coverage over the slot!
This is just an emergency fix for the Frogs, but it's possible that this will become a strategy in the future for non-blueblood defenses that want to have the flexibility that comes from a dime package.
In the meantime, big programs are figuring out how to leverage their advantages to stay on top in a spread world.