NCF Nation: spread defense 072109
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
As you might have noticed, ESPN.com is all about the spread offense today, and one of the best coaches in the ACC to talk to about it is Virginia coach Al Groh. With the addition of Gregg Brandon as offensive coordinator, the Cavaliers have made the spread offense their project this offseason. Also, Virginia was one of the teams able to defeat Georgia Tech last year when Paul Johnson unveiled his spread option offense. Groh has a sharp defensive mind and experience coaching NFL defenses, which is why he's also Virginia's defensive coordinator. Groh was kind enough to answer some questions about the spread offense and how to defend it. Here's Groh's take on the spread offense:
|Ned Dishman/Getty Images|
|Virginia coach Al Groh knows how to prepare his team against the spread offense.|
Al Groh: We have not had the dealings with it that coaches in other areas have. It's prevalent throughout the Big 12. We certainly see phases of it here during the course of a game, but this conference has not adopted it to the same degree that other conferences have. We want to try to be proactive in being prepared for it for when it does occur during the course of a game if it comes up. We've done a lot of research on it here during the offseason. It's been one of our projects. It appears that one of the keys to it is, things run in cycles. The offense grabs the momentum, and the defense counters with something ... That's been the trend throughout the years. When one side always had the upper hand the other side is back on its heels. One side controls the table so to speak. That appears to be what's going on right now. The offense is controlling the play at the table.
One of the things we have observed is that defensive teams have to be willing to take some risks in order to take the initiative back. When you're so spread out, and one of the features of the spread, and the spread offense is just a formation. Having been in conversations with people, the two things I noticed is, last year Missouri finished fourth in the country in passing and Oregon finished fourth in running. Both are called spread offenses. The word spread is no longer associated with specific plays. It's simply a formation that spreads the defense from sideline to sideline and in doing so creates some natural spaces in the defense. It's harder to go from far away to attack the offense and you leave yourself vulnerable to certain things. By the same token, what we're observing is defenses are afraid to take any risks. They just stand there and they're a standing target.
What we do like about being in the 3-4 defense is the flexibility it provides because defense, so much these days, that fourth linebacker as opposed to a fourth defensive lineman in the 4-3, gives us significantly more options. What defensive coaching is now, no matter what the system, you have to find some ways to adapt to what the other team is doing. We think this gives us the ability to adapt and react. You'd like to be on the attack defensively and set the tone, but to a degree the offensive will always control that. You have to be able to adjust and adapt.
How different is what Georgia Tech does? It's the spread option. How does that make it a little more difficult to prepare for, or does it?
AG: They are in their own way, yes, they fall under that umbrella because while the plays are different, it's out of sync with what teams face on a repetitive basis. That's the only time that most teams see that offense every year. There's no accumulated familiarity by the coaches or players going against it. That's a big part of the difficulty of playing against that or any offense that isn't common to what the defenses generally see. There's different plays, but it accomplishes similar things.
You guys beat them last year. As a coach, you get it. But how do you get your players prepared for it in what, five days, when they never see it?
AG: You're exactly right. One of the things we thought that was very important in the presentation of it was to demystify it for the players. In some cases, players can get frustrated. For example, this Wildcat formation that's gaining some notoriety. Really, in a lot of ways, it's a reduced down spread. It's spread out, but a lot of times it's with a player back there getting the direct snap who's a real good runner, but is not a passer. Actually, in talking with the Patriots last year, and all of a sudden it got sprung on them by Miami. In doing so, the unfamiliarity of it really threw them off during the course of the game and they could never quite get it back and in talking with the coaches there, they had issues during the game with getting the players settled down because there was still a mystique to what they were up against. From that point on, they had a detailed plan, and the next time they played against it from other teams as well as the second time they played Miami, they fared much better. You've got to demystify these unique offenses for the defensive players.
How much has it helped you as a defensive coach to understand it and scheme for it because Gregg is on your staff now and that's the way he's thinking?
AG: Very much so. It's helped us to establish a significant period of experimentation. We put some things out there and run them, and we really haven't tried to defend our team so much as let's just run our stuff and see what we like and what we don't like. It has certainly been helpful to us in that degree.
Who in the ACC runs the spread besides Clemson, a little bit ...
AG: A number of teams will show up on some downs, but in this conference, at least through last year, we still have a considerable amount of two-back plays. Or let's just say formations that only have two wide receivers in the game. I talked to Mack Brown during the offseason and he said their team only played something like 180 plays of regular defense. Most of the year they were in substituted defenses because they played against this every week. It helped us in getting an idea of what are the things within our system that seem to be appropriate and what's not appropriate.
Do you think there's any benefit to preparing the guys for the NFL to run one particular offensive scheme or another?
AG: Not really. I think that if the players are well-trained fundamentally, those are the things that carry over from league to league. The fundamental skills of how to execute their job, how to defeat the player across from them. It's highly unlikely that most players are going to go - with only 32 teams in the NFL - it's highly unlikely they're going to go to a system that's exactly like the one they came from. They're going to have to make some adjustments system-wise. The big thing is they have the fundamental background that can translate to any system. If you can block guys in one system, you can block them in another. If you can beat blocks in the 3-4, you can beat blocks in the 4-3. If you get blocked in the 3-4, you're going to get blocked in the 4-3.
Makes sense. Why do you think more ACC teams haven't
caught on to this?
AG: It gets trendy within leagues. What you have to go against, whether it's offense or defense, you have to prepare for those things. You kind of become influenced and spend more time looking at those things and become influenced by those things. And of course a lot of it has to do with the philosophical backgrounds and beliefs that coaches bring with them. And really your background, too. At a point, sometimes what you know how to teach best, what you know how to utilize during the course of a game is the best for a particular team as opposed to something that is intriguing, but when certain things happen during a game maybe you just don't have the wherewithal to make those in-game decisions because you don't have enough familiarity with the system. Therefore, a team would be better off with something they're really fluent in.
Do you think your players will be more comfortable playing Georgia Tech the second time around?
AG: They should have a certain element of confidence. Their circumstances should be a lot more positive than if we would have given up 40 points. Then you have to come back the next year and convince the players we can really do this. 'Well wait a second, last year we were completely bamboozled by it and we haven't played against it since.' Yeah, I think we don't have to overcome that type of situation to start with, but no matter what, they run those plays every day. Their opponents, and this is the value of being a little bit out of the norm, whether it's with your offense or defense, their opponents only practice against those plays for a week.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Texas Tech defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill has been tangling with Mike Leach's spread offense in practice since his arrival in Lubbock with Leach's original staff before the 2000 season.
McNeill says the challenge of competing against the Red Raiders' potent offensive attack makes his defense more acclimated to the travails it faces in the Big 12, where spread offenses have become predominant.
Here are some of McNeill's thoughts on the challenges he faces on a daily basis from trying to stop Leach's offense.
Do you feel like your defense is better able to defend some of the Big 12's spreads because of what you face in your daily team practices against Texas Tech's offense?
Ruffin McNeill: There's still a different part of each team's offense you have to prepare for each week that you can do only by working specifically for them. Each team has its own identity and something you have to get ready for. So there's still some aspects and concepts that another team prefers that you try to make not sound. But as far as the scheme, we do get tested daily.
When you arrived in Lubbock in 2000, Leach was the only coach in the conference running the spread. Now, seven of the teams run the offense as a base set. Did you ever expect it to be this widespread?
RM: I've definitely seen things evolve. The yards per game and points all have increased. I think it's because we've seen a development in the training of quarterbacks and offensive players through seven-on-seven camps and the like -- particularly here in Texas. Now, everybody is trying to get their wide receivers and running backs into space. And we're trying to do what we can to stop them.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Oregon's spread-option offense averaged 42 points and 485 yards per game in 2008. Only two defenses stopped the Ducks last fall: USC and California.
Everybody knows about USC's defense.
Cal, which had switched from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 during the 2008 offseason, held the Ducks to just 290 yards in a 26-16 victory.
One of the reasons to be high on Cal this year is eight starters are back from that defense.
But, considering the Bears also held Dennis Dixon & Co. to just 24 points in Autzen Stadium in 2007, it seemed appropriate to check in with defensive coordinator Bob Gregory and see if he'd share some insights into slowing the spread-option.
Does it help that you guys have incorporated some spread elements into your offense so you get to practice against it?
Bob Gregory: No question. Anytime you see it a little bit more it helps you. We're a little bit fortunate in the Pac-10 in that, unless it's out of league, we only have one team that is true spread -- Oregon. But anytime you see it in practice, it helps for sure.
I remember in high school preparing for wishbone teams: It was pure assignment football. Is it like that preparing for a spread-option vs. a typical pro-style, multiple offense?
BG: Yeah, it definitely is. In the old days, you had three backs in the backfield and everybody was doing option defensive assignments and concerns. It's the same kind of deal. The quarterback can carry the ball. He can hand off. He can motion a guy around to be the pitch guy. It really is the same idea. You've really got to make sure you stop all those elements. And then they throw in the no-huddle with it, which most of them have, and that can slow you down a little bit more. So we talk about that with our guys -- it's assignment football. You can't be quite as reckless, unless it's third-and-long and then you can get into your normal blitz stuff.
How do you go about stopping a spread offense? That's the question that has plagued defensive coordinators across the country in recent years.
One team that's found some success against the spread is Pittsburgh. The Panthers have beaten the Big East's most dangerous spread team, West Virginia, in each of the last two years. And they held the Mountaineers to a total of 24 points in those games.
I caught up with Pitt defensive coordinator Phil Bennett to ask him about slowing down the spread:
First of all, what is the challenge like when you're going up against a spread offense?
Phil Bennett: I played for a guy at Texas A&M, Emory Bellard, who invented the wishbone.
With option football, everybody says it's an equalizer. I think if you have that quarterback, then the spread can be an equalizer.
I think it equalizes the field. I know as a defensive coach, it can take the aggressiveness out of you, because you have to be so concerned with assignments, just like the option. I was nervous last year when we played South Florida and Matt Grothe, and then obviously West Virginia. Our ends are big get-off, speed guys, and it really makes your ends go into a different mode. I don't think with the spread, in the run game, that you ever just really have to mash a guy. If you've got a body on body, then it becomes assignment football. But then you work on it so much that it can take a little bit of aggressiveness out of you.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
Ellis Johnson, who's headed up defenses in the SEC at Alabama, Mississippi State and now South Carolina, can't help but think back to his playing and coaching days at The Citadel when he sees how the spread offense has evolved.
That's because of all the triple-option principles teams are using now in the spread.
Johnson took some time recently to discuss his thoughts on defending the spread.
There are so many versions of the spread offense. What do you think when you hear that somebody is running the spread?
Ellis Johnson: Everybody just refers to it in general as the spread, but it all starts with the quarterback and whether he's a good runner. If they run the quarterback, it's a whole different animal.
What makes it a different animal?
Ellis Johnson: If the quarterback doesn't run much and it's never more than the quarterback and the running back in the backfield at the same time, it doesn't present as many problems unless they've just got so many great athletes that you can't match up. But you've got problems with any offense that has that many great athletes. The quarterback being able to run presents that extra challenge back there that almost makes it seem like you're trying to defend a 12th man.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Defending the spread offense isn't easy, and Mike Hankwitz should know. He's one of the nation's most experienced defensive coordinators, having held the job at six different schools, and he's witnessed every step of the spread's evolution. Now in his second year at Northwestern, Hankwitz coaches against the spread offense every day in practice.
Hankwitz recently weighed in on the difficulties of defending the spread.
How has the spread offense changed the way you put together your game plans?
Mike Hankwitz: It has changed things because in the past, you wanted to feel like you could be more proactive and try to dictate. You could stack up against the run and force teams to throw, or you could stack your coverage and dare 'em to run. The spread does literally what it says: It spreads the field, forces you to spread your defense out more and especially with the quarterbacks that can run and throw. There's all different types of blocking schemes in the spread, aside from just the zone read.
So how do you counteract all of that?
MH: We try to see what the strength of their attack is. Is it the running game? How good is the quarterback in the run game? Is he a better runner than passer? If he is, then we'll commit more to the run and try to make him beat us throwing the ball. Or if they're a better passing team, then we will play more coverages and try to make them beating us running the ball. The third element when they spread you out is the unscripted, the improvised plays with the quarterback scramble. You're spread out and you're trying to rush the passer and play coverage and all of a sudden, the quarterback that can take off and scramble, it's not easy to plan for that all the time.
In the Sun Belt Conference, seven of the conference's nine schools run some form of the spread.
Whether it's an option-based spread or a passing spread, Sun Belt defenses have to constantly be on alert for offenses that like to play sideline to sideline and put lots of points on the board.
Arkansas State coach Steve Roberts knows the spread well. Not only does his team play it, it was also second in the conference in defending it. So, during Sun Belt Conference media day on Monday, I asked him and defensive end Alex Carrington how they went about stopping the spread.
You guys were second in the league last year in terms of total defense and I know a lot of offenses out there play spread or some version of it. I was wondering if you could give me some insight into how to defend some of the spread offenses you see?
Steve Roberts: Well, I think for us it starts with stopping the run. In facing a spread offense, many times people look at what you're doing coverage-wise in the secondary or with the defensive back, but I think it all starts up front with the defensive line and in particular one linebacker. We use a lot of line maneuvers up front, a lot of changes in their responsibilities to confuse the offensive linemen in all their run blocking and zone blocking that you see. Changing it up on the read option as to who has quarterback and who's going to take the dive. Just try to confuse those reads for the quarterback. But I think stopping the spread offense starts up front.
Alex, what are your thoughts on that?
Alex Carrington: Pretty much the same. Once we get the run stopped then we can kind of get after it. As a defensive lineman, we love third-and-long situations. If we can get that run stopped on the first couple of possessions then we pretty much take the cake.
A lot of offensive coaches will say that it's not necessarily about scheme, it's about the guys you have on the field; the type of players that you have on the field. Is that pretty appropriate?
Steve Roberts: Oh, there's no doubt. It all boils down to the athletes that you put on the field. You can sit with a piece of chalk and win every single scheme debate as long as you've got the chalk last. But it comes down to players executing and doing what they're coached to do and technique as hard as they possibly can.