“I think that the way people are going no-huddle right now, that at some point in time, we should look at how fast we allow the game to go in terms of player safety … I just think there’s got to be some sense of fairness in terms of asking is this what we want football to be?”
That was Alabama coach Nick Saban in October of 2012 after the Crimson Tide had faced an Ole Miss team that played an up-tempo, no-huddle style. The Supreme Commander of the Alabama Empire was not pleased to see The Game being co-opted by tomfoolery on offense.
It was soon after that Saban and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema tried to push through a rule change that would require a 10-second delay between plays to allow for substitutions. It was shot down. The spread-‘em-throw-it-snap-it-every-15-seconds offense is as popular as it was four years ago.
Since 2012, Alabama has won two national championships and qualified for the first College Football Playoff before losing in the semifinals.
After his team’s 52-6 dismantling of an out-manned USC team Saturday night, Saban was not generous with his praise, but he offered a glimpse into the secret sauce of how the Crimson Tide defense has coped with fancy-schmancy offensive styles.
“Look, when you play against no-huddle teams and your defense plays lot of plays, last year we had 15 to 17 guys that made a contribution in the front seven. They had some role, but they did something, on third down or whatever. We don’t have that many guys this year. And when you go through the season, can your defense sustain that kind of performance if you don’t get more guys who can contribute? Because they can’t play that many plays in the game, especially the big guys.
“You know, when you don’t have big guys rolling in there, because once their gas tank is out, it’s out. The little guys out there, they can run 100 yards and be tanked on the sidelines and two minutes later come back up and say, “Coach, I’m ready to go,” and run just as fast as they were before.
“But when the big guys run out of gas, that tank is not getting refilled until tomorrow. So you have to keep them fresh and you have to have enough guys that you can do that with, and you can’t let the season wear your players out, and it starts to affect their performance. So that’s why I keep talking about more guys being able to contribute and play.”
The spread offense was designed to negate superior defensive athletes by isolating them one-on-one against their equals – fast receivers with the advantage of knowing where they’re going. There aren’t enough All-American linemen to go around, so the spread calls for quick passes, requiring less-skilled blocking. Plus, the top teams and their D-line All-Americans … they get tired, as Saban said.
His solution is to have a three-deep for his defensive front seven to couple with top-notch defensive backs. Being able to rotate linemen and linebackers helps Alabama keep pressure on the offense.
Against USC, the key was the Alabama D-line, which dominated the line of scrimmage. Senior defensive lineman Jonathan Allen had for four solo tackles, two sacks, and two batted passes. He led the charge in reducing the Trojans’ blocking schemes to rubble.
“They couldn’t run the ball and we really weren’t loading the box to do it,” Saban said.
Ah, yes. The chess/numbers game. The spread isn’t all about passing; a defense defending width and depth can be gashed by an effective running game. In those cases, the defense has to keep its linebackers close to gaps or play fewer LBs and more DBs. It’s the pick-your-poison pressure point that offensive coordinators and savvy quarterbacks love to administer.
However, a defensive front four that can control the line of scrimmage, stuff the run and pressure the quarterback – see: Alabama – counters the spread offense. If the front four, along with one linebacker, can beat the five blockers, then the defense can drop six into coverage. That’s what the Tide did. They had two safeties playing deep and allowed just one big pass play on USC’s first possession.
Your Veteran Scribe remembers witnessing the 2003 BCS title game, when Ohio State shackled a Miami offense that featured quarterback Ken Dorsey, running back Willis McGahee, tight end Kellen Winslow, and several talented receivers. The Hurricanes appeared to have the talent and scheme to out-match defenses.
The Buckeyes’ front four, however, stuffed Miami’s running game and pressured Dorsey without the need of blitzes. That allowed Ohio State to drop more defenders into coverage to limit the passing game and hold Miami – averaging 40 points per game – to just two touchdowns in regulation.
For one game and one victory, Alabama again appears dominant. Saban hasn’t needed a rule change to keep the Tide flowing. What he needs, though, is a Seal Team Six of defensive linemen and linebackers. Alabama lost five of its front seven from last year’s title team. Of the 17 players listed on the depth chart in the front seven, just five are seniors.
“Those guys are going to have to grow up, all right. Because they’re going to be the depth of this team,” Saban said of the defensive reserves. “And, if we lose players, they’re going to have to play. So we’re going to need those guys to improve dramatically.”
Saban has figured out how to counter the spread. He hasn’t figured out how to clone players. For now, that’s apparently the only bright spot for the rest of college football.