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Stopping players, not formations: The next shift in defensive strategy

Spread offenses are breaking all the normal rules of engagement in order to create favorable matchups for their top receivers. To adjust, defenses are going to have to throw out the rules as well and embrace the matchup game.

NCAA Football: Akron at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama’s 2017 national championship was keyed by one of their best defenses yet, a “matchup-proof” unit that spent much of the playoffs in nickel or dime packages. With versatile players like DB Minkah Fitzpatrick and OLB Rashaan Evans the Tide could downsize and play small in the defensive backfield to avoid getting abused by spread teams attacking their pattern-matching rules that can leave LBs on WRs in the middle of the field.

It’s been a largely overlooked reality that the Tide, famous for featuring a revolving door of NFL talent at inside linebacker, have had to lean heavily in recent years on subbing one out for a safety. They followed the same strategy against Clemson in 2018, only to be taken apart when their DBs couldn’t hold up in isolation against the Tiger wideouts. That’s a harder problem to solve but the direction of defense is clearing up somewhat around the game. Alabama’s adjustments are really only the beginning.

Pattern-matching meets its match

The goal with pattern-matching coverage rules was to get the best of both man coverage and zone coverage, allowing defenders to take on the normal rules of zone while playing familiar matchups. Saban’s initial “rip/liz” cover 3 pattern matching scheme essentially matched the skill players on offense while keeping defenders in their comfort zones in familiar parts of the field:

In their dime defense the Tide will sub their best cover safety in for an inside-backer, usually the strong safety and Xavier McKinney this season, to play the “money-backer” position which is essentially the middle linebacker spot. If the #3 receiver he’s matched up on were to break outside or sharply in then the money-backer might find himself with a new player to match, ultimately they defend patterns and not players after all.Saban has had to downsize the defensive backfield and create this money-backer position to avoid the problems of pattern matching.

The problem has been that pattern-matching rules were developed under the old system where offenses could be trusted to play their TE or RB as the inside WRs and the outside WRs would stay outside. The spread offense changed that and teams will no longer honor the traditional rules of engagement.

For instance, Texas’ flex tight end Lil’Jordan Humphrey, who aligned in every single conceivable skill player alignment over the course of the season. Texas moved him into the backfield, played him in every slot position, and moved him outside at times to run fade routes. In the NFL things often get even crazier with teams creating “Y-iso” formations to really maximize the matchup issues that a good receiving TE can create. Here’s an example of what that can look like:

There are two problem areas here for the defense. The first is whether or not the CB who matches up with #1 on the boundary can stop a big flex TE from beating them for a jump ball on a fade. In the college game teams don’t tend to make as much use of this formation but many of them don’t need to as there’s an abundance these days of 6-4+ outside WRs that can cause enough problems outmuscling smaller CBs without needing to teach a TE to play there. The other problem is inside when the defense inevitably spins the weak safety down and leaves the guy on the #3 receiver to defend in a lot of space. If that H receiver here is a real burner with route adjustment choices he can make that’s a very tough cover even for one of Saban’s “money-backers.”

The alignment and match rules of Saban’s pattern-matching coverages eventually becomes a trap that allows offenses to change up the rules in order to generate favorable matchups and easy reads for their QB. Other spread tricks like flexing out RBs or moving top receivers inside while playing the weaker receivers outside can also muck up these pattern matching rules. Some teams like 2018 West Virginia simply move their best deep target around until he is lined up 1-on-1 with someone that can’t cover him and then throw a fade. It’s a lawless world out there facing modern spread offenses.

Blitzing the formation

One of Rex Ryan’s big contributions to the modern game nearly on par with Saban’s pattern-matching is the “blitz the formation” tactic. The idea here is that the defense utilizes a certain style of blitz but then determines the pass-rushers and droppers based on the formation of the offense. For instance, if the blitz is to overload the field edge with an extra blitzer, the defense may have the following two versions of the same blitz based on the offensive formation:

In the first blitz the offense wants to send a guy over the field edge and then follow that up with a scraping LB to clean up the scraps. The first blitzer tends to pick up any help the offense is sending in protection and then the second can come free. However, this blitz needs to have reasonable matchups on the various receivers or else the QB might recognize it quickly and hit a hot route on a bad matchup for a big play.

The first example drops down a safety to cover one slot, guards the other with the will linebacker, and then drops the DE to cover the RB. In the second example those matchups don’t work anymore because the offense has an extra WR to the field side where the blitz is coming from. So an adjustment could be to change the roles and have the nickel stay on a slot, the safety still dropping down to cover the other, and then hitting the edge and then overlap path with the two LBs.

The goal is to keep box players in the box and coverage players in coverage. Any outrageously bad matchups are just asking for trouble. Spread formations combined with motion and problem-causing skill players can clear up the picture for the QB and make it very easy for them to find the easy pitch and catch, even against a well-disguised blitz.

This style was initially a good response for the spread but it’s running into the same problems as pattern-matching. Namely, hybrid skill personnel that can line up in different spots and either force the defense to give away the game or else generate matchups so bad that it’s not enough for the defense to play DBs on every WR and hope for the best. The offense is getting 1-on-1s in the blitz above and if any of those DBs in coverage can’t keep up or else the RB is running a quick route on the DE, then the ball can still get out quickly and do extra damage because there isn’t much help save for the deep safety.

Some defenses will consequently drop that deep safety shallower so that he can offer immediate help rather than a hopeful “maybe he can prevent a TD” angle. That still runs into the problem of jump ball threats outside, out-breaking routes by the slots, etc. It’s a band-aid.

The problem is run-first defensive strategies

These tactics were all developed under a “first we gotta stop the run” paradigm that is losing relevance. The college game is still defined more by the run game than the passing attack with many of the more futuristic pass game battles taking place on passing downs, but that’s changing more and more every year.

Pattern-matching coverages and “blitz the formation” tactics were designed to preserve defensive tactics developed to stop run-centric offenses. They are helpful patches on old styles to keep them current against improving passing attacks. But we’re getting to the point now where defensive tactics need to be reconfigured to first stop the pass.

One development that could help flip the script back in favor of the defense is play alignments that match personnel rather than formations. Choose the matchups and then have DBs follow WRs wherever they go rather than allowing the offense to dictate the matchup with unconventional formations. Move your speedy 5-9 CB around to shadow the other team’s burning fast slot receiver, don’t put yourself into a situation where you can’t help your CBs because the safeties have to help the LBs bracket the burning fast slot on the hash mark.

New England followed that prescription against Kansas City while also shading their deep safety to different areas of the field rather than leaving him in the deep middle. Those adjustments helped some but they still had trouble when the Chiefs flared out their RBs against New England’s big, slow linebackers.

That adjustment can face some problems on standard downs against teams that can run the ball. The reason teams would prefer to leave LBs on the field and over the inside slots is because the LBs know how to stop the run. But we’re moving into a pass-first paradigm now where the main concern is to prevent the offense from getting easy pitch and catch setups to matchup problems in space. It’s the matchup problem and quick throws to skill players in space that allow an offense to regularly drop 40-50 points. It’s much harder to score that much with a rushing attack even when running for 200 yards a game.

This adjustment though will require that most every defender understands how to make run fits from a variety of different positions and do a credible job. The likely adjustment will be defenses using bigger DL and fronts like the “tite front” that shields LBs from having to play blocks or make difficult reads. Simplification of run defenses is the future, making them easier to play for the defenders that find themselves in the box.

The upshot of that will be several teams that try to take advantage by getting big personnel on the field and trying to run the ball down the throats of the team designed to stop the pass.

The problem with that adjustment is comparable to the challenge faced by the NBA team that tries to punish small ball with post-ups to big centers. Running the ball is simply far less efficient than throwing it if the goal is to score lots of points. The team playing a pass-first paradigm on both sides of the ball would happily embrace a game in which their opponent tries to outscore them by running the ball 40-50 times. As the Patriots found out against the Chiefs, holding the ball and limiting their opponents’ possessions didn’t really work until overtime rules came to their rescue.

So while we’re still aways from this, defenses of the future are going to have to start building their defenses around coverage roles rather than traditional positions. They need guys that can match up with bigger targets and fight over jump balls. The big, 6-0+ CB that everyone is looking for shouldn’t be wasted at CB, he should be played wherever he needs to be in order to prevent the offense from throwing fades and jump balls to big receivers and tight ends. It’s the simplest adjustment in the world for an offense to move a big WR inside and run a slot fade with even more room to operate in.

Defenses will either have to play specialists and move them around while savvy, good tackling safeties play behind them and fill in as needed or else just play highly versatile safeties at nearly every position to lend flexibility in who gets coverage help. Offenses across the country are already loading up with hybrid space weapons so a future in which defenses defend personnel rather than formations may be closer than you’d think.