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Florida vs. Alabama: The evolution of the Crimson Tide defense under Nick Saban

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Florida's greatest challenge on Saturday? Alabama's defense. But college football's structural shifts have left that defense struggling to stay great.

Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Florida’s schedule rolls on (Ha, get it, like Roll Tide? Rolls on? You’ll get it) with Alabama this week in Tuscaloosa. In recent years, the thought of playing against Alabama has filled opposing teams’ fans with hopelessness and despair. However, this is not the Alabama of 2011 – even ‘Bama fans will tell you that.

So I sat down with Roll Bama Roll’s Benjamin Litvin and Josh Chatham to uncover the absolute truths and dispel the mythological folk tales of Nick Saban’s defense. But to understand what Alabama’s defense is now, you have to understand what it was.

What It Was Then

During the early 2000s, Nick Saban built up and solidified a reputation as one of the best defensive minds in all of college football. His defenses, grounded by the big, mean and talented players he could not only recruit but teach to play, were immovable objects when it came to defending pro-style offenses.

Saban’s defenses have always been based out of a standard 3-4 look, but his specific scheme has to achieve three points of emphasis:

  1. Three bigger defensive lineman who each play two-gap assignments

  2. A reliable, athletic safety who can play single-high zone coverage by himself

  3. Two smart, athletic, instinctual linebackers in the middle

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In the great years of his ‘Bama defenses, Saban would establish dominance against the run with all three of his defensive lineman playing two-gap assignments. His linemen would line-up in either a 0-technique, 3-technique or 4-technique position to maximize gap control.

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Saban would rotate players like Terrance Cody and Jesse Williams at all three spots on the line during their careers, essentially having three nose tackles in on every play. These massive human beings were what made it possible for Alabama to be so effective against the traditional power run sets. The great ones could take up two blockers and still get push, turning running back gaps into easy lanes to fill for the read-and-react linebackers at the next level.

You know how offenses open holes for backs? Alabama's defense opened holes for its linebackers.

Cover1

The second component requires a very talented safety in the single-high zone, something which is hard to come by in college football. Single-high simply means the defense is playing in a Cover 1 or Cover 3 look where the free safety must cover all deep routes. A perfect recent example of this role? Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.

One reason Alabama was able to have so much success in their 2012 national title run was its ability to play Saban’s Cover 1 or Cover 3 without worry at all. It takes a special talent to be able to leave a player alone in the deep zone and know he has the range to cover what’s necessary. Clinton-Dix’s range gave Alabama the option to bring its strong safety down into the box (which Saban and Kirby Smart love to do) to help in run support. When Saban has a player like Clinton-Dix on his roster, penetrating ‘Bama’s defense gets much more difficult, because of how freely the Tide can use their SS in run support or in zone against short passes at the line.

The final component to success in ‘Bama’s scheme is soundness at the inside linebacker positions – and it is probably the most essential of the three. Anyone can stop the run by selling out against it; that’s not that hard. But it’s being able to show the same personnel against the run and the pass that make a defense great.

Alabama had much of its success against pro-style offenses based on this principle: The Tide could afford to keep all of their linebackers on the field against run plays and most passing plays. It helps to have talent at middle linebacker like they did: Players like Rolando McClain, Dont’a Hightower and C.J. Mosley all played major roles in Saban’s ability to stay one step ahead of offenses of old, but the way they did it is more complex than a single assignment or explanation.

In a two-part article from SB Nation’s Cleveland Browns blog Dawgs by Nature, the writers try to break down the complexity of the defense Saban developed when he was a coach in Cleveland. In it, they break down what’s known as pattern (sometimes pattern-match) coverage within a traditional Cover 1. But calling what ‘Bama runs a Cover 1 or Cover 3 isn’t that simple — technically, it’s both. The type of coverage Alabama will play doesn’t depend on the formation; it depends on the routes each receiver will run.

The reason for this development? Back in the early '90s, while he was working as the Browns' defensive coordinator, Saban’s bigger, stronger defenses were getting torched by – what was then called – spread offenses, when all four receivers just ran straight down the field on vertical routes. From Saban’s mouth itself, this was his dilemma:

We got to the point where, [...] when everybody started going spread we couldn't play 3 deep zone. This started with the Cleveland Browns, I was the defensive coordinator in the early 90s and Pittsburgh would run 'Seattle' on us, four streaks. Then they would run two streaks and two out routes, what I call ‘pole' route from 2x2. So we got to where we could NOT play 3-deep zone because we rerouted the seams and played zone, and what I call "Country Cover 3" (you have to) drop to your spot, reroute the seams, break on the ball. Well, when Marino is throwing it, that old break on the ball sh*t don't work.

So because we could not defend this, we could not play 3 deep. So when you can't play zone, what do you do next? You play Man, but if their mens are better than your mens, you can't play cover 1.

We got to where we couldn't run cover 1 - So now we can't play an 8 man front.
The 1994 Browns went 13-5, we lost to Steelers 3 times, (twice in the regular season, once in the playoffs) lost 5 games total. We gave up the 5th fewest points in the history of the NFL, and lost to Steelers because we could not play 8-man fronts to stop the run because they would wear us out throwing it."

This forced an adjustment, but Saban knew it wouldn’t be a secondary fix. He would have to expand the coverage and reaction roles of the inside linebackers.

The middle linebackers then became the base of what would be Saban's pattern coverage. The WILL and the MIKE backers would be required to defend tight ends and slot receivers if they were running vertical routes down the field, and if they weren't, the two LBs would go back into their basic zone assignments/run support. Against four verts, the linebackers would drop (as would the corners), following their men all the way down the field. This still allowed for the single-high safety to roam and assist in coverage instead of having to pick up one of the two streaking inside routes, while also allowing the strong safety to assist in the run.

Here's an example of how C.J. Mosley helped make that happen.

Right from the snap, Mosley watches the tight end, when he sees him running past his zone at full speed, he immediately breaks to follow on the deep route.

This angle gives you a great look at how intelligence and the athleticism allows Mosley to not only make the correct read, but impact the play and force a turnover.

But, for Saban LBs, it's not just about recognizing the route — it's also about changing the route. Once the linebacker realizes he's going to have to drop back and cover a deep route, it becomes his job to try and push the inside receiver either farther to the outside of the field or more to the center of the field, depending on where the scheme allows help. In Saban's case, most seam routes (deep routes) will be funneled toward the inside of the field, leaving the corners to handle their assignments one-on-one outside and giving linebackers help from the deep safety.


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(Image from Dawgs by Nature)

That is how Saban was able to counter what used to be a spread set out of a Pro Style offense.

Great recruiting and great coaching is what Saban was able to do to develop the kind of players he needed to execute his perfect defense. But that was then...

What It Is Now

It’s amazing how the concept of evolution can be found in so many things. What I just explained was an Alabama defensive strategy that just three years ago produced almost certainly the greatest defense in all of college football — and maybe one of the greatest defenses in college football history.

Now, just three years later, Saban is having to change how he is approaching offenses for 2014.

The hurry-up no-huddle offense has thrown a giant wrench in the success and build of Saban’s unique 3-4 look, because it doesn’t allow him to switch out his bigger players as much as he’d like. A few years ago, he could get away with a defense dependent on getting a full complement of subs in, because teams were still running out of the pro-style offense, taking the full play clock to change out their personnel and set up a play.

Today, teams can’t survive off pro-style slowness, as the spread offense has taken over the college football landscape. Offenses will send three or four pass-catchers out for what seems to be entire series, and can snap the ball within 20-25 seconds of the down whistle ... or fewer. That’s not just a narrative to knock Alabama’s 2014 defense, just a very real component of the 2014 landscape in college football — and there are ways to exploit Saban’s current defensive strategies in Kurt Roper’s spread offense.

We’ll work our way back around Saban’s three points of emphasis starting with the defensive linemen. If you remember from earlier, Saban loved to use all three of his lineman as gap-stuffing run support players taking up as many blocks as possible. Though these players would get push and ultimately aim to disrupt the quarterback, their main priority was never to rush the passer.

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Now, Saban is using his JACK linebacker, a role played this year by Xzavier Dickson, as more of a speed rusher than in years past. Look how the linemen are positioned in Alabama's first game versus WVU. It's almost like a power 4-3 look, with the first defensive tackle playing a NT technique. This gives the look of an emphasized outside rush, something 'Bama never used to use as a focal point. Saban still has the players on the roster to go back to a bigger 3-front set if need be, but most of the time you’ll see him and Smart try to get faster, more athletic players at both the outside rusher and inside defense ends. Why? They can't make those substitutions whenever they want, and thus can't afford to get caught with too much size on the field as an offense follows a first-down run with a quick throw on second down. Faster edge players help combat the speed of some of these new-age players both at running back and at quarterback, too. It's not an adjustment Saban would prefer, but it's one he's certainly having to make.

What used to be a realistic goal of literally stopping an offense cold has now been shifted to much more of a hope for containment. Alabama’s front seven (or eight, really, since Saban plays his SS in the box whenever he can) used to aim for a zero-yard gain on every running play. In the spread/read-option age, that’s not realistic: The defensive linemen who used to be integral to that approach don’t last over the course of a drive, and they can’t contain if plays break down. All Saban is trying to do now is contain runs to short gains, the minimal stuff that still keeps an offense off schedule.

When Alabama plays in a look like the one pictured above, it limits what Saban and Smart can do with disguised blitzes. What gave Kentucky's defense unprecedented success against Florida was their ability to send a linebacker from all different areas of the box out of the 3-3-5 formation, which gave Florida's line fits, and resulted in a number of solid shots on Driskel.

Litvin and Chatham told me that 'Bama has rarely blitzed this season, outside of their usual corner blitzes. They're not sure if Saban is saving those plays for Florida or what ... but if Alabama doesn't throw some kind of mystery into their pass rush, Florida's offensive line might well have a good chance to create a consistent clean pocket for Driskel.

The next missing piece is at single-high safety. Normally, that role would've been played by Nick Perry (who isn't the best athlete Alabama's had at the position), but he'll be suspended for the first half of this game for a targeting penalty. That will leave junior Geno Smith to play the free safety spot. Smith is a corner by trade, and has played nickel back in Saban's system. Going back to 2011, ideally, Saban wants to play a Cover 1 or Cover 3 with the free safety alone in deep coverage, but, in theory, there's no way they can leave a first-time starter at such a spot all by himself. That will force Saban to play more Cover 2 than he'd prefer — which will, in turn, take Landon Collins — one of the best strong safeties in college football, if not the best — away from the line of scrimmage.

Finally, the core component to Saban's 3-4, the modified linebacker role. Senior Trey DePriest is the best and most reliable linebacker Alabama has on the roster, but he's not as gifted athletically as, say, Mosley or Hightower were. DePriest is good at recognizing coverages, but even if he fills his role, when teams run four deeper routes, second inside linebacker Reggie Ragland has been suspect in recognizing his patterns on the fly. Defenses only work if every piece of the unit is on the same page.

Against West Virginia, with DePriest serving a suspension, Ragland and sophomore Rueben Foster were the men in the middle. The two are very gifted athletically, but they've shown weakness in play recognition. With poorer instincts and coverage from linebackers, and Clinton-Dix as a single-high sniper, this 'Bama defense has a few areas of exploitation.

The first is in mid-range routes. Florida can take advantage of poor zone recognition by running routes to end between eight and 15 yards — and, if you'll recall, Driskel spent about the entire second half against Kentucky finding Demarcus Robinson against soft zone coverage.

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Patterns like a curl route with an outside receiver combined with a deeper out route for a near slot receiver could cause good space in coverage if 'Bama's linebackers aren't quick to recognize the look. This will force some kind of adjustment between the safety on the linebackers. I've been told Saban won't stick a single cornerback to spy Robninson the entire game; he'll play his defense as is, regardless of where D-Rob lines up. The concept above could have good success with Robinson as the slot player — something we've seen Roper's not afraid to try.

The next is in the power running game. If Florida can manage to keep most of their personnel in the game when adjusting between the spread and the wing formation (as we've seen is their go-to), Florida could have favorable odds to use those pulling guards to create bigger holes. The longer Alabama's linebackers wait for the run play to develop, the more time a guard has to come in for the blindside block, creating a lane you couldn't see before; fewer defenders in the box, if Alabama is forced to respect the pass, also affords Florida more opportunities to win hat-on-hat battles up front and create traction. I honestly don't see Alabama holding Florida under 200 yards rushing.

All of that is to say: Alabama and Nick Saban still have one of the most talented defensive rosters in college football this year, but it's not the 2011 vintage — not even close, really. Saban will try to do what he always does because it's in his DNA, but when you combine the way offenses are being run with the quick snap and Alabama's current "transition period" of developing more athletic players in the front seven, this is certainly any team in the SEC's best chance to dictate offense against the Tide. It's worth noting that Alabama has only forced one turnover so far this season. If Jeff Driskel can turn his missed opportunities against Kentucky into conversions, and not turnovers, this game might be closer than 'Bama fans would care to see, even in Tuscaloosa.

Chatham ended our conversation predicting a 'Bama win, high-20's to high teens, while Litvin predicted UF in the low-20's but 'Bama still coming away with more points — either in the high-20's or low-30's.

Each expressed their concerns but rested their case: Though this is not the Alabama of old, both insisted it's still Nick Saban's defense, and it's still, in fact, Alabama.

The crux of the matter for Saturday's showdown is whether that will be enough.