Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Defensive Forecast

I just wanted to drop a line and document a trend within football, though I don’t have a particular conclusion in mind, but one you should be able to witness as it takes place during your favorite game. This is no profound Michael Lewis “Lawrence Taylor skill set arcing to the deliverance of a Michael Oher”, merely just a broad capture of a recent trend that could possibly lend itself to a forecast of things to come.

In back-and-forths I’ve been having with football guys I esteem greatly (some are contributors here) for the past year, and touched on a little in comments at smartfootball.com, my assertion is that the growing trend in football will see a defensive adaption featuring more off-man match from 1-high (or zero ) coverage [with a majority of this played out of untraditional nickel/dime packages].

As detailed previously in the Charlie Strong Orange/Tan package, Nick Saban Cover 1/9 Rat, Bo Pelini’s Spinner/Nickel Bomb – the off-man coverage (from primarily a 2-high shell) allows for efficient disguise, protecting against 4-verticals, while accommodating superior numbers against the run and maximum pressure on the passer. If I can ever get around to articulating my thoughts (with sexy powerpoints), we would also have these trends noted from Gregg Williams, Dom Capers, and Rex Ryan.

It all essentially boils down to the pattern-match concept and how it has/is being used as an adaptation method. “Pattern match” really is just man-match (by the time you get 1.5 seconds after the snap it all ends up being the same thing). As detailed in the Saban series last year, man coverage married to zone coverage with ‘pattern match’ is not all that much different; the response will be nearly identical. The growing trend in playing “pro-style” catch man coverage technique is what accommodates the “untraditional” personnel matchups and the deep 1-high safety with pressure. This is a look that will become increasingly more familiar as you watch football this season.

The thing is, in the 80s and before, the game primarily was founded on exclusive man-to-man, 1-high defenses (because the traditional offense didn't align for a vertical/horizontal stretch). These defenses were WYSIWYG and ‘primitive’, usually with bump-and-run and 8-man fronts to match the standard 2-back offenses. As the trend shifted from 1-high MOFC to 2-high MOFO zone defenses, offenses counteracted with multi-faceted 1-back run games (with running quarterbacks). We arrive to where we are now, where the old ‘bump-and-run’ coverage is considered a barbaric dinosaur and press-man is welcomed by pass-first offenses.
Doing my best Ron Jaworski impersonation here, lets go to the tape….

A few of the elements I believe that are contributing to this paradigm are as follows:

Rule Changes – With continued rule enforcement (for player safety) at the higher levels of the game, defenses become hamstrung in their ability to be physical. Whether it is limiting receiver reroutes/leverage, horse-collaring, helmet-to-helmet hits, hitting near the sideline, or touching a quarterback’s head, defenses are being painted into a corner where they have little recourse against offensive plays. You can sit back and let offenses run their routes and try to respond to it after the fact (ala Tampa 2), or you can choose to play the percentages and 1) neutralize the running game with a numbers advantage and 2) force a quarterback out of his hitch with +1 pressure and/or 3) leverage receivers out of throws down the field. The trend we are seeing favors the latter choice and time will tell just how the offense will counteract this approach as it catches on.

Professional Control Group – The pro game isn’t the end-all of game development. The borrowing/learning of concepts between BCS college programs and the NFL resembles more of symbiotic relationship rather than that of the linear trickle-down that is widely believed. As with all elements of evolution, the strong (concepts) survive and those that don’t adapt become part of a dying breed. The method of the higher levels of the game boils down to surviving as many downs/snaps as possible. The more downs you win; the more games you’re likely going to win – the greater likelihood you still have a job in the morning. This cut-throat (survival) approach is what necessitates the 60 minute game be reduced to isolated situations. EVERY snap is its own war, its own unique opportunity to swing the tide of the game. Dial up the perfect play and you have the potential to break the game wide open.

This concept should be quite foreign to most people because we’re all accustomed to seeing the same 11 starters on the field throughout a game, so nothing really is changing. Especially in high school, where your best LB is also your best Safety and he may also be your best defensive end. Substituting this player would only make your chances worse on a down, not better; you don’t have an endless supply of specialists and are lucky to have 11 full-time starters. Consequently, you can sit in one personnel grouping (or two) all game and just play the odds because, quite frankly, it beats the alternative.
Example of special personnel grouping
What we’re talking about now is specialization. You have players who can specialize in certain functions (down and distance, play types, etc) and excel in those personnel packages. It used to be where the defense just matched offenses based on personnel. If the offense had 21/12 personnel in the huddle, your based defense was on the field. If the offense had 11/10 personnel, your nickel package came in the game. Anymore, we’re seeing defenses using personnel not so much to match the offensive players, but the specific situation within a game (though offensive personnel will mirror the situation). This was touched on previously when introducing the study of ‘untraditional use’ of nickel/dime uses in the NFL. Even though dime personnel is not warranted to match an offensive formation, it is used anyway (despite possible physical liability in matchups) for coverage/pressure. The trend was noted with Pelini’s Spinner package, but is also gaining popularity with Dom Caper’s “Psycho” groupings. As a side note, “Psycho” was introduced with the justification to the media that Capers simply didn’t have defensive linemen because of injuries late in the season. Even after the injury bug subsided, he continues to use it heavily between the 30’s primarily for 1-high, off-man pressure.

Roster Limitations – The trend outlined above, of maximizing the use of the entire roster with multiple personnel groupings dove-tails into the equalizer more distinct in the NFL (but affects the NCAA by way of recruiting classes); roster limitations. Since there is a finite level of talent on both teams in a game, you have to figure out how you can do MORE with less (than your opponent). The team that can win a war of personnel attrition either through prolonged exertion (wearing the opponent out) or by utilizing a deeper portion of the roster (is your #4 receiver better than our dime/money defensive back?). If your team simply cannot match the personnel groupings they are faced with, you will likely get the short end of the stick on that snap (which could prove to be a turning point in the game).

It, again, reduces the individual situation down to one-on-one personnel matchups and improving the likelihood of winning those battles. This is where the “Wildcat” trend comes in. Especially in the NFL, where the 53-man roster is stretched so thin, your roster has to be able to (counter) match the roster of all your opponents. If you are equal on 47 of 48 roster spots, but your opponent has a “quarterback/receiver/running back/punt returner” as their 48th man, how are you going to account for that? This is where a stockpiling of safety/corner hybrids comes into play and then leads to their gratuitous use on downs not warranted previously. You no longer end up with full-time offensive / defensive players. The result is you have a situational offense/defense that tactically specializes in specific scenarios.

Attacking protection – Because defenses will be compelled to use these multi-position athletes, you can now begin opening the door to a myriad of pressures and coverage-matching. You not only have a defender able to cover receivers man-to-man, but also have a better matchup against backs (than a linebacker would). This also blurs the front identification needed for protection (as well as bringing considerably more speed to the pressure than most offensive linemen are able to match) – is that #33 nickel on the edge now considered the “Mike” do you adjust protection to the bandit(s)? What happens when any one of a handful of guys near the box can be considered a potential rusher? This goes beyond the basic premise of nickel/dime packages – because the offensive personnel in the protection will not be accustomed to seeing these types of looks (7 man protections typically employ a TE. If there is a TE, you usually have at least 2 or 3 linebackers. If those 2 linebackers aren’t there now, how exactly are we going to handle this front and WHO should the offense expect to match the receivers?).

This is just a thought that has been keeping me up at nights and something I’ve been seeing a lot of for the past 18 months. It used to be that defenses were crazy to try man-coverage on pass happy spread teams, especially with a runner at quarterback. However, more and more, I’m seeing this old look adjusted to fit the current game. I’m not even a “man” guy, but I have seen the benefits from doing things differently and now even prefer the ‘catch-man’ technique and how it opens up a world of defensive possibilities.
Now, I'm not suggesting that defenses will be playing a ton of man-coverage exclusively, just that you can expect to see more untraditional personnel groupings on the field and the way more and more teams will go to acheive pressure will be from off-man coverage (moving away from fire zones).
Feel free to rip me a new one in the comments section…..


salt_bagel said...

Just discovered your blog; very excellent reading. Regarding these specialist personnel groupings, my first thought was video games. I know it's a strained comparison, but in video game football, you always bring pressure from dime personnel on long down and distance. It's been done for as long as video games have had the option of picking personnel groupings. In some games, it's so effective that it's considered "cheesing" and unethical. It can be countered with heavy running personnel, but when the defense wins first down, these types of defense are hard to beat on the next play and the next. I know the real game is far more complicated, but to me it's interesting to see the places where the real and the virtual come together. It also makes me wonder what it is that keeps this type of strategic move from getting popular sooner.

Paul said...

I have also been thinking a lot about the use of speed to improve matchups -- but how much will this be affected by the offense deciding to run at the smaller defense with their big guys?