A Worthy Rival: The Kirby Smart Defense

By Cameron Soran

Plato and Aristotle. Pompey and Caesar. Obi-Wan and Anakin. Hayes and Schembechler. The motif of the student-turned-rival is as old and recurring as any in human history. It is one of those rare tropes of fiction and themes of history that never quite seems to lose its luster no matter how many times we see it played out. And for the foreseeable future, the rivalry between Nick Saban and Kirby Smart promises to be another great chapter of this millennia-long refrain.

My primary reason for studying Kirby Smart’s defense was in finding out how much he would keep from his near decade-long boss, and how much he would truly carve out on his own. Would he be simply Saban 2.0 – now with improved media relations? Or would he deliver a distinct defensive philosophy that was entirely his own? The answer, of course, is somewhat in between.

In many ways, defensive coaches are molded by the offenses they face. Saban, for example, spent a lifetime facing a litany of offensive schemes at both the collegiate and NFL levels, which in turn has led him to his near omnivorous approach to defense. There is almost no front, coverage, or blitz missing in Saban’s mental library, and he is thoroughly prepared to use them all if the situation demands it.

Smart’s defense, by contrast, appears more molded by the proliferation of the spread offense that coincides with his coaching career. His defense is more condensed, more streamlined, more focused. In short, Smart’s defense appears to have fewer individual play calls, but with more checks and adjustments built-in. When Smart calls a double outside blitz, for example, he isn’t particularly tied to which two guys are coming – he lets the offensive formation dictate that. So when Smart sends in a one-word play call (it doesn’t take long watching the TV broadcast to figure out that Georgia uses one-word calls versus tempo, but that’s hardly a surprise given that Smart told a room full of Texas high school coaches this offseason that he’d be doing that: https://matchquarters.com/2018/07/27/thsca-football-lecture-kirby-smart-2018/), he really isn’t sending in one play: he’s sending in four to five plays depending on how the offense lines up. So no, it is not any less complicated than Saban’s defense. But it is structured quite differently.

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Jim Leavitt’s Oregon Defense

By Cameron Soran

Being that I live in Oregon (though not a Duck fan myself), I’ve had a sort of voyeur interest in watching both the collapse and rise of Oregon’s defense in recent years.  For a decade and a half, the Ducks defense was guided by the adaptive hand of Nick Aliotti.  Following his departure, Oregon enjoyed one more good year on defense before one of the most dramatic collapses I’ve ever seen in college ball.  With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that Aliotti’s presence was more critical than likely anyone – perhaps even Oregon’s own coaching staff – had previously believed.

Following the defensive disaster that was the 2016 season, Oregon snagged one of the better defensive coordinators in the Pac-12 in Jim Leavitt from Colorado.  After his hire, the Ducks bounced back in a big way on defense, going from atrocious to fairly solid.  But what intrigued me was the high-level of secrecy that surrounded Leavitt’s defense: beyond the fact that it was a 3-4, no one knew much of anything regarding the details of his scheme.  And to the best of my knowledge, that has remained the case.

So I decided to take the opportunity to analyze a defense that didn’t already have a lot written about it previously.

Basic Structure

Jim Leavitt’s defense, at bottom, is disguised simplicity.  Operating on a 3-4 structure, Leavitt uses his ability to rush either, both, or neither outside linebacker to hide his intentions before the snap.  This flexibility allows Leavitt to disguise what is an otherwise fairly straightforward coverage scheme.  Leavitt’s central idea is to limit the information a quarterback can glean pre-snap and force them to make reads and decisions on the fly.  And for the most part, it that works.  But a well-coached quarterback (e.g., Chryst) can, at times, see through the disguise and capitalize on the built-in simplicity.

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Two-Point Study

By Noah Riley

In the 2017 NFL season, there were 96 two-point conversion attempts, many of those coming in key situations which decided the outcome of the game. There were also several 3rd/4th and goal plays that had a critical impacts on the outcome of games. In the past two super bowls alone, there were four 2-point conversions attempted. Without converting on both of their attempts in Super Bowl LI, the Patriots don’t beat the Falcons. In that same game, the game winning touchdown was on the 3rd 2-point play the Patriots had in their game plan. Also, the famous “Philly special” that helped the Eagles win last year’s Super Bowl was run on 4th and goal (which is a similar situation to a 2 point play). Since many games are won and lost on 2-point conversion type plays, it is important for a coach to have a great plan to convert. 

Using NFL Game Pass, I was able to view all 506 2-point conversion attempts from the past 7 seasons. I then labeled each play 3 different ways (run/pass, play-type, and exact play), and kept track of whether or not the play converted. Screen Shot 2018-06-28 at 3.20.50 PM.png

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The Chip Kelly/Mark Helfrich/Scott Frost Pin-Pull Sweep

By Taylor Kolste

In 2011, when Chip Kelly was the head coach, Mark Helfrich the offensive coordinator, and Scott Frost the WR coach, Oregon first debuted their pin and pull sweep play. This play, known as “Outside Zone” in their system (they called what most people would consider Outside Zone “Mid Zone”), quickly became one of the best plays in their offense. In 2011, Oregon averaged 9.8 yards per play as they ran this play 36 times for 353 yards and 2 touchdowns. The next season in 2012, they ran their pin-pull play 42 times for 382 yards and 5 touchdowns, good for a 9.1 yard per play average. This play remained a staple of the Oregon offense as Kelly left and Helfrich and Frost became the head coach and coordinator. Chip Kelly brought this play with him to the NFL and Scott Frost brought it to UCF with all 3 of these coaches running it with success. In the 2015 season, Chip Kelly’s last with the Eagles, Philadelphia had a down year running the ball averaging only 3.9 yards per carry but still managed to average 5.7 yards per carry on this play.

This play is always ran to a 3-man surface. The frontside of the line (PSG through Tight End) would utilize pin and pull blocking rules meaning that if a defender is inside of you, you pin, if not, you pull. The center would always pull versus a 4-man front, and would only not pull if there was a nose tackle lined up directly over him. The backside of the line would zone block as if they were on the backside of any regular outside zone play. This is a somewhat oversimplification of the scheme so we’ll look through a few different examples of how the play is blocked before looking at different variations/window-dressings of the blocking scheme.

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Clemson’s Brent Venables’ Base Defense

By Cameron Soran

If you were to poll members of the college football cognesceti who the best non-head coach defensive coordinators are in the game right now, you’d see a fairly short list. They would include guys like Bud Foster, Don Brown, and Dave Aranda. But probably the name that would come up most often is Brent Venables, Clemson’s defensive coordinator since 2012.

Since taking up his post at Clemson, Venables’ defenses have ranked 34th, 12th, 1st, 6th, 6th, and 2nd in Bill Connelly’s Defensive S&P+ rankings. And he’s done that while losing about half of his starters every year – many to the NFL. This upcoming 2018 season will be the first several seasons where Venables returns nearly all of his key pieces on defense. So we’re going to be breaking down what I think will probably be the college football’s best defense in 2018.

An intriguing part of Venables base defense is that it is simultaneously complex yet straightforward. (I use the term base defense here to mean non- blitz calls.) He runs essentially five main split safety and nine main single-high play calls (and four of the single-high calls are essentially the same). So at first glance, Venables defense is relatively simple. But each individual play call is intricate and complex, particularly his split safety run fits. Venables schematic philosophy might be best summarized as, “depth over width.”

Perhaps equally interesting was that even though Venables has a reputation as a quarters coverage advocate, split safety coverages comprise only about half of his non-pressure calls. The other half: he’s in single high. Even in the spread-heavy ACC, Venables is dropping a defensive back into the box 50% of the time – and that’s only counting the plays where he isn’t bringing a blitz. Venables is a man firmly committed to stopping the run, and isn’t afraid put his guys in one-on-one coverage to do it.

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WR Play: The Art of Route Running

By Taylor Kolste

Clemson Head Football Coach, Dabo Swinney, once said that wide receiver was the worst coached position in all of football. This is because of how technical the position can be, yet how little coached some receivers are. Although route running isn’t the only component of WR Play, I believe it is the aspect that is most technical and should be coached the most. There is an art to route running, great receivers are intentional with their technique throughout the entirety of the route. This article will aim at creating a system for route running that will create a common language between coaches and players and help walk coaches and receivers through route running versus different defensive techniques. There are plenty of different terms out there for the techniques discussed in this article, but the important thing is that they are defined by the coach so that the players and coaches are operating under the same language.

We will breakdown route running into 4 phases:

  1. Stance
  2. Release/Start
  3. Stem
  4. Breakpoint

First of all, the receiver must understand the coverage and defender they are attacking. The receiver must always have a plan of attack that will be determined by the route and the defender that they are attacking. We will start by defining 5 different types of defenders:

  • Press
    • Quick-Jam
  • Soft-Press
  • Squat Defender
  • Off Defender
  • Bail Defender

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Nick Saban’s Alabama Pass Coverages

By Cameron Soran

Nick Saban’s success as defensively-minded head coach at Alabama is almost unparalleled. An official record of 218-62-1. Eleven SEC West titles. And, of course, six national championships. But perhaps what is equally impressive about his tenure at Alabama that his defenses have been consistently regarded as, if not the best, then at least top-5 in the country for ten straight seasons. It seems that no matter how many of players he loses to the draft or graduation, there is almost no drop off for the Alabama defense from one season to the next. And by all accounts, his defensive system has essentially remained unchanged during that time. So, I think it is a worthwhile measure to at least figure out what they are doing down in Tuscaloosa.

Before we begin, I want to make a few notes. First, I will not be covering every coverage or check Nick Saban has at his disposal in this article. For one thing, many of his individual coverage concepts are for highly specialized situations, such as calls for when the offense lines up with 3 wide receivers to one side and 1 tight end to the other. I may cover those at another time, but this article is intended about 90% of what you will see Alabama run on Saturdays. For another, Saban runs certain coverage checks depending on his game plan that will vary from week to week. Not being affiliated with – let alone a member of – Alabama’s defensive staff, there is simply no way for me to gain access to all of that information.

Next, I should define a few terms that I will be using when breaking down pass coverages.

First is the term Apex, which is the first underneath defender inside the cornerback. This can be the nickel, a linebacker, safety that has rotated down, etc. The point is that the Apex is generally responsible for the #2 receiver (second eligible receiver – TE or WR – from the outside in). I use the term Apex[1] because a lot of the same coverages will be the same regardless of who is playing the Apex position, whether it be a linebacker, safety, Star, or Money[2].

[1] I should acknowledge that many coaches use the term Alley for what I will be describing as Apex. The term Alley, however, confers a run fit responsibility that may or may not apply depending on the coverage called. This will lead to situations where the coach explains, for example, that the Alley player is force-contain and the safety is the Alley. To avoid this “Who’s On First?” type confusion, therefore, I will instead be calling this individual the Apex.

[2] Star is Saban’s term for the nickel player who will replace the Sam and align over the slot receiver. If there are two slot receivers, then the Star will align to the one on the wide side of the field in 2×2. Saban is big on word association, and since he’s replacing the Sam, his name starts with the same letter (i.e., “S”). The Money is Saban’s term for his dime player who will take one of the linebacker spots. The Money will align in a linebacker spot to the #4, which will be: (i) to the 3-man side in all 3×1 sets; (ii) to the tight end when offense is in a 2×2 set and 11 personnel; and (iii) to the boundary slot receiver when the offense is in a 2×2 set and 10 personnel. This means that unlike most linebacker-type roles, which tend to send the Mike to the strength of the offense, the Money will rotate to both the strong and weak sides: wherever the #4 is aligned.

Continue reading Nick Saban’s Alabama Pass Coverages