Friday, November 27, 2009

Formation Matching: Bringing the Safety Down

Along with pursuit and tackling (fundamentals) of defense, is the rather academic application of adjusting your defense to the offensive threat you face. In most defenses the player that drastically alters what the defense actually is, the strong safety.

A lot has been discussed in the last 20 years ( in the wake of the evolution of 2-high defenses) about the role, prototype, and alignment of the “strong safety”. You likely hear this ad nauseum if you are forced to listen to any NFL broadcast, about “bringing a safety down”. Great, sure sounds awesome, but what does it mean and why?

This discussion will cover the ceaseless pendulum swing between offensive and defensive attacks and counterattacks that evolves each season. Back during your “daddy’s day” when receivers were in 3-point stances, everyone played with 2 backs and sometimes 3 backs in the backfield. To even the odds against this, defenses began stuffing more and more people in the box (1-high) to stop the run-heavy attacks.

To create more breathing room, offenses found a way to adjust by removing a back, forcing the defenses to expand with them (eliminating a defender from the box).

The more offenses expanded, the more defenses had to adjust and eventually relying on 2-high defenses to remain viable against the vertical passing game. The advent of 1-back looks (made popular by Dennis Erickson in the 80’s with WSU and Miami) became the (then) “spread”, even though Erickson admittedly says the entire point of going 1-back for him, was to RUN the ball. It may sound odd, but when we take a look at WHAT 1-back looks do to a defense, it becomes apparent what the offense is looking to exploit.

The fundamental element in defense is supporting all available run-gaps that an offense presents. If there is one gap not accounted for, then an offense has an immediate path for yardage. 2-high defenses became all the rage in the late 90’s into this current generation because of this 1-back adaptation. First things first, what is the offense presenting the defense? How many backs are in the ball game? How many tight ends?

“21” (2 backs, 1 tight end) typically gives you a 2-back, pro-formation look. With 2 in the backfield, you will likely be threatened by some type of 2x1 look. The extra man in the backfield (fullback / H-back) provides an extra gap for the defense to support (just like a second tight end). With 2-back looks, you are immediately threatened with lead runs (iso, power, sweep) that will put 1+ offensive player at the point of attack.

“11” (1 back, 1 tight end) will give you a single-back look. This immediately eliminates the threat of lead runs (unless you have to contend with the new [Rodriguez-type] spread, where the QB is a rushing threat). With only 1 back, you will end up with a 3x1 or 2x2 set that can stress a defense with 2 inside verticals (passing threat), but be without that extra (run fit) gap.

Although adjusting nicely and bottling up 1-back looks, the defense, through this expansion away from the ball, was opening the middle of the field. This became a void offenses would later exploit by turning shotgun ‘spread’ formations into run-heavy attacks.

The Next Step
Now to the current trend for defenses, how do they get an ‘extra hat’ at the point of attack (and beat the offense to the punch)? As outlined by people like Nick Saban, the MOFC defense allows a defense to put more defenders in the box and allocate the most people to stop the run, inside-out (protecting the middle of the field, first). To achieve both the security of covering the immediate threats of alignment (split) and also get the benefits of shutting of the middle of the field, defenses are finding ways to show 2-high, then bring a safety down late. From here, with pattern-matching principles, the sky is the limit for defenses and the way they attack the ball. With pattern-matching, you can now actually play “man”(to-man) as well as expand to match the passing threats. This arithmetic enables a defense to also bring 5+ man pressure, drop linemen in coverage, and or anything else you can dream up.

In the following clips below, you can see how personnel groupings essentially telegraph what formations you will see on a given play. In each example, the defense is going to play a 1-high MOFC coverage and bring the safety down for run-support/cover-down. The trick is, it typically is showing a 2-high look at the snap to play the traditional coverage-matchup-with-formation game that offenses are looking to exploit.
vs 21 personnel

vs 11 personnel

Then, you can get creative and not only protect the middle of the field, but also bring pressure (1-high fire zones).

This current trend of defenses gleaning the best attributes of schemes into some quasi-natural selection process creates a deadly and effective method for accounting for fundamental principles of good football. Defenses, with the usage of proper coverage support, pattern-matching principles, and multi-talented linemen (ability to drop to cover receiving threats), are able to open a maelstrom of disguised looks. Defenses can present one look at presnap and morph its use to fit any and all offensive threats after the snap. No longer are defenses limited by walking out on displaced receivers (in man) or staying cemented within the box to stop the run. With these principles of adaptation, the chalk can be held by defensive coordinators a while longer.


Anonymous said...

“The more offenses expanded, the more defenses had to adjust and eventually relying on 2-high defenses to remain viable against the vertical passing game.”

Didn’t you say in your article on minimizing liabilities that generally odd coverage’s go with odd formations and even coverage’s go with even formations?

If true, then wouldn’t expanding to 2-high only have to apply even formations by the offense?

Also with that article wouldn’t it just be a matter of 2 high safeties are better than 1 in the passing game and 1 high is better in the run game?

I ask because isn’t the Strong safety (or at least 1 safety) the counter part of the Running back? So in turn wouldn’t you ability to defend a play would be getting him into the box against a run and defending deep during a pass?

“Although adjusting nicely and bottling up 1-back looks, the defense, through this expansion away from the ball, was opening the middle of the field.”

I couldn’t truly understand how moving to 2 high safety bottled up the 1 back offense looks. Did you mean running or passing because wouldn’t it just be determined by a run or a passing play whether two high safety will help you?

I glad you are writing the article because it’s been something I’ve been trying to figure out for a while Thanks.

brophy said...

'bottle up' meaning - when you go 2-high against a 2 vertical (quick)threat formation to a side (1 back), you have taken away the immediate conflict (2 verts vs 1 FS), forcing them to do other things (and eliminate verticals). The shell can force (spread) offenses to run more.

Vis versa, an 8 man box and 1-high safety will influence an offense to pass more and run less.

You won't see many defenses defend 1-back spread with a 1-high defense because of this.

If you 'expand' the 2-back offense (2x1-odd) into a 1-back look (2x2) you now have an even formation.

And, no, I don't see the strong safety as the counterpart to the back - IMO that would be the linebackers, and such distinction (IMO) doesn't really matter, anyway.

Coach Vass said...

My question may be silly, but here it is nonetheless - when do you decide to bring down which safety. During our bye week, because of personnel and other considerations, we were gonna go to the Bobby Stoops system.

The other thing that irritated me was that LB fits changed dependent upon which Safety came down. The other thing was that if the Weak Safety comes down, and you are spilling with your 9 technique, the SILB has to become force.

I know this is a good defense and I really like it - I just may not be as comfortable with it as I am the G or the Bear.

brophy said...

well there you go - this really isn't a 'defense'. It is just the current trend in defenses today.

This actually further articulates the what and whys of the previous Charlie Strong articles on fire zones and pattern matching out of Cover 2.

This also plays into what TCU does by divorcing their front 6 from the coverage (almost) and adjust with the Nickel and Strong Safety.

The front doesn't much matter, what you do by altering the coverage(s) [and presnap shell] is what creates a different 'defense'.

You can call it a "Ford Mustang GT" or a "Chevy Camaro SS", it doens't much matter. What does matter is that engine, drive train, and fuel system. The rest is just aesthetics.

Coach Vass said...

True.. but I wanted to get in an 8-man front out of the Under... I was looking at the Man-Free stuff with pattern matching to make life easy, but couldn't figure out what I wanted to do? Do you have any insights for a HS defense - which way to go?

brophy said...

8 man front out of the under? C'mon, mang.............


loaded zone

Gator McKlusky