Defensive coaches play catchup
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There's nothing subtle about offensive innovation in college football. It's flashy. It's fun. It's in your face.
That the game's rise in popularity has coincided with an unprecedented surge in offensive creativity is no coincidence. Fans tune in to see what Art Briles has up those ever-present sleeves, what Gus Malzahn will call next from under the visor or what Kliff Kingsbury is thinking behind those oh-so-stylish shades. They know about HUNH (hurry-up, no huddle), the 10-second rule controversy and the debates about the nation's best offensive minds: Malzahn, Briles, Sumlin, Meyer, Leach, Gundy, Helfrich.
And they await the fireworks show every weekend.
"Obviously, the number of plays, the pace of game and, really, the scoring is up," Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. "It's good for fans, but if you're a defensive player or coach, it's something you can lose sleep over."
Mason and his colleagues are using the longer nights to combat the offensive renaissance with some innovation of their own. Their advancements might not be as obvious, but they're just as significant.
The Stanford defenses coordinated by Mason didn't subdue mighty Oregon the past two seasons by accident. When Florida State flummoxed Clemson last October in Death Valley, defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt pulled all the right strings. Some of the nation's top programs -- Alabama, LSU, Florida State and now Michigan State -- are known more for their defensive ingenuity than their offensive prowess.
Many defensive coaches are designing their units in the image of those they're trying to stop. They're preaching speed and pace -- whether in recruiting, practices or signaling -- and a situations-based strategy to try to slow down the spread, if not stop it entirely.
"What I've seen a lot of people do on defense now to be more innovative and catch up is run your defense the way offenses are running," Duke defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said. "You need to be more like the offenses are."
Like many defensive coaches, offenses hold the edge in today's game, Knowles admits. It wasn't always that way.
In 1994, only two FBS teams averaged more than 40 points a game and only nine averaged more than 35 points. Last season, both Baylor and Florida State averaged more than 50 points. Seven other squads averaged more than 40 points and 26 teams scored more than 35 points per game.
"The defensive coaches had the upper hand," Knowles said. "The game was much slower. The formations were standardized. You had time to get lined up, you had time to show one thing, do another, bluff, disguise, line a guy up on the right, move him to the left.
"There was a lot of creativity back then."
Creativity is still possible, coaches say, but not first without a dose of realism. Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who has held the same title at six other schools, said coaches who think they can limit opponents to fewer than 70 rush yards, fewer than 300 total yards and three touchdowns or fewer "have unrealistic expectations," unless their team is substantially more talented than the opponent.
The math has changed.
"You're defending more plays, defending more drives -- 375 [yards] is the new 300, the old 13 points a game is the new 18 points a game," Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. "There's more snaps, more opportunities to score points, more explosive plays. Defensive coordinators aren't throwing in the white towel and saying, 'We're going to play bend-but-don't-break.' I don't see that.
"But guys have a little bit different perspective."
For Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, a fan of analytics, it means separating the good statistics from the bad ones. "Almost a 'Moneyball' thing," Shoop said.
Because offenses are running more plays -- last season, 47 teams averaged at least 75 plays per game and 20 averaged more than 80 plays per game -- yards per play matters more to Shoop than yards per game, and points per possession can trump points per game.
"It's all about possessions," Knowles said. "How do you steal possessions?"
Mason looks more at points per game plus possession time, especially when facing traditional offenses that can eclipse 35 points and 35 minutes of possession.
"It's not so much being a dominant defense any more," Shoop said. "It's about being good on third down, it's about being good at takeaways, it's about being a good red-zone defense and forcing teams to kick field goals. Those are the things defensive coordinators across the country are talking about."
Domination remains the sole focus for Pat Narduzzi. His Michigan State defenses have finished in the top six nationally in each of the past three seasons. Last year, the Spartans were the only FBS defense to rank in the top three in the four major statistical categories: scoring, rushing, passing and total defense. They also led the nation in pass efficiency and yards per play (4.04), while finishing second in opponent third-down conversion percentage.
Star players have helped, but the Spartans' scheme also sets them apart.
"I don't think there's a team in the country that does what we do," Narduzzi said. "We're more cutting edge [with] zone pressure. We're cutting edge with how we play our quarters [Cover 4] coverage. It's adapted to if you play Stanford, a two-back, two-tight-end team, or an empty team. We do a lot of things people don't do and to be honest, people are trying to copycat it all over the country."
Michigan State leaves its cornerbacks isolated in man coverage and uses a bouillabaisse of blitzes. Much of the Spartans' creativity comes after the snap, which helps them against tempo teams.
They can appear to be in a base look with a simple front and then switch into a more complex coverage.
"Offenses like to have what I like to call statues, things that don't move," Narduzzi said. "They think when they hurry up, everybody's going to play a base defense. We should play something different."
Although Iowa isn't known for an up-tempo offense, Narduzzi recalls the Hawkeyes' attempt to "fastball" the Spartans by hurrying to the line and attempting a long pass early in last year's game in Iowa City. MSU switched into a different coverage post-snap and star cornerback Darqueze Dennard intercepted the ball.
The key, defensive coaches say, is not letting the offense shrink your playbook.
"The innovation to me comes in having a lot in your pocket but being very selective in what you use," Knowles said. "You want to be able to pull it out when the time is right."
Mason designs schemes that not only provide multiple looks but multiple personnel groupings. They're "freshman-friendly" because with the pace at which many offenses operate, rotations expand and young defenders will see the field. Pruitt plays every deserving defender he has, whether his rotation is 14 or 34. Former Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti often would use 22-25 defenders in a game -- "like a hockey team," he said.
But the rotation component can be tricky, as substitution rules still favor the offenses. Johnson will sacrifice size up front for athletic, three-down players who don't have to come off the field against up-tempo teams.
"Defensive coordinators, we're trying to get where we can run our whole defense against a hurry-up [offense] without having to substitute so much," Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke witnessed the zone blitz as an innovation in the 1990s. These days, more teams are using man-free coverage (man-to-man with the free safety deep) and disguises in the secondary.
"The game keeps evolving from an X's-and-O's standpoint," Hoke said. "It's always that cat-and-mouse, who's going to be ahead of the curve?"
Johnson, who landed his first defensive coordinator job at Appalachian State in 1984, has used myriad schemes, from the wide tackle-6 to the 3-4 to the 4-3 and, for the past decade or so, the 4-2-5. He still loves the 3-4 and the flexibility it provides, but as spread offenses boomed, he found himself spending much more time installing the system than actually using it in games. Johnson used to be "extremely multiple" in what he called but has scaled back, preferring to stick with what works best against the spread.
"All of it has been in reaction to the changing [offensive] schemes," he said. "You have to adapt in order to keep up."
One of the most challenging, and essential, adaptations is the pace itself. The most innovative defenses stand no chance against today's offenses if they can't keep up.
The process begins on the practice field. If defenses are fortunate, they face offenses that can simulate game tempo. Arguably no defense had more of a luxury than Oregon's, although Aliotti didn't see it that way at first.
"It was so fast sometimes, it was ridiculous, our offense versus our defense," Aliotti, the Ducks' defensive coordinator from 1993-94 and 1999-2013, recalled. "I hated it, especially initially, but I found that the more we practiced in chaos and under stress, the more we were able to strain and control situations in games because our games never went as fast as our practices."
Oregon would run up to 33 plays in a 10-minute chunk of practice.
"It was absolutely not legal," Aliotti said of the tempo.
Auburn has a similar practice period called "Pace" in which the offense will operate as fast as possible. Johnson sees the payoff in games, as defenders won't panic or lose focus against tempo teams.
Pruitt, now Georgia's defensive coordinator, has the scout team prepare five-play sequences for the first-string defense that can be run at any time during practice.
"You put that in three or four times in practice, it's training [defenders] to get their eyes to the sideline at actual game speed," Pruitt said. "You've got to beat 'em back to the ball. You can't stand around. When you do that, it gives you a chance to make a few more calls."
The structure and speed of those calls also tests coaches' creativity. When facing a HUNH offense, Claeys expects the ball to be snapped with about 20 seconds left on the play clock. That gives him just seven seconds, 10 at most, to decide the alignment and coverage, since he wants to give players another 7-10 seconds to substitute if need be, line up and communicate checks.
Claeys saves time by trimming terminology.
"Defensive calls used to be five, six, seven words," Claeys said. "They're all going back to one or two."
Pruitt's calls are all one word. Shoop's are often one syllable. Knowles' one-word calls mean different things to different positions.
Since many defenses can't huddle against hurry-up offenses, they look to the sideline for calls and changes, just like the offenses. The flexibility to change calls, Venables notes, is as important as the simplicity in relaying them.
"It would be one hand movement or one rub of the shoulder," Aliotti said, "one brush of the arm, one tap of the head -- like a third-base coach giving signals -- that meant the whole defense to the line, the linebackers and the secondary."
Coaches differ on the feasibility of disguising their calls against fast-paced offenses. Aliotti thinks there have to be some disguises, especially in the secondary, to avoid the statuesque alignments that offenses crave. When an offense rushes to the line, Pruitt likes to offer several different looks, which can reduce what the offense actually decides to run.
"I don't believe you can do it any more," Mason said of disguising. "Functionally, you could, but it's extremely hard. Offenses are now going at a stealth pace."
Mason recalls advice he received from longtime defensive assistant Willie Shaw, the father of Stanford head coach David Shaw: Half the time, they know what you're in anyway. They've still got to execute, so don't put your guys in a position where they're going to fool themselves.
"Hey, I'd like to be able to roll coverage and show disguises all the time," Mason said, "but there's something to be said about being lined up in the right place at the right time."
Scott Shafer saw the personnel paradigm shift while working as a defensive coordinator in the Mid-American Conference from 1996-2003 and again from 2005-06. He faced a broad range of offenses, from Urban Meyer's spread at Bowling Green to Jim Grobe's triple option at Ohio to some of the zone read concepts Brian Kelly brought to Central Michigan.
Defenses coaches began gathering more often to discuss their problems and brainstorm possible solutions. They realized players and positions had to change.
"What you saw were old-school middle linebackers go to defensive end, strong safeties go to outside linebacker and the slowest one of them would play the middle," said Shafer, now Syracuse's head coach. "And then you'd recruit three corners and one of them would end up being a safety.
"That's the advent of these modern defenses that you see."
Much like the offenses they typically face, defenses are prioritizing speed and versatility with players. Safeties must be physical enough to stop the run but fast enough to mark slot receivers. Corners must be quick enough to cover without assistance. Since many quarterbacks provide an extra run threat, defensive linemen have had to play more two-gap. Hybrid players are everywhere, especially the safety-outside linebacker types.
One position seems to be on life support.
"The days of the box linebacker -- that tough, middle linebacker kid that maybe you think of with Penn State football or Big Ten football -- is a guy who has become somewhat obsolete," said Shoop, who often uses just two linebackers in his alignment.
Added Knowles: "Big, inside linebackers, those guys are gone."
Mason notes that many of those players still suit up on Sundays, but if you can't find linebackers with the ideal size-speed ratio, and most teams can't, you lean toward speed.
Before Clemson, Venables spent his entire career in the Big 12, the ultimate HUNH spread league. Not surprisingly, he has never used box linebackers. His main focus is the defensive end spot, which is top of mind for many offensive coordinators.
"They give them a bunch of false reads," Venables said. "Blocking scheme-wise. everything they do is trying to neutralize those D-ends. If the D-ends are too reckless, too much up the field, they absolutely wear you out.
"That's the position that's most difficult to play from a mental standpoint now more than ever."
Pruitt's first question about a potential defensive recruit isn't about his height, weight, speed or hometown.
"What position is he going to play on third down?" Pruitt said. "If he doesn't have one, we don't need to be recruiting him."
Defensive coaches no longer view the game through a wide-angle lens. They break it up into small but significant pieces -- third downs, fourth downs, red zone, takeaways, two-minute drill, four-minute drill.
"The biggest question you have to ask yourself is: Can you win situational football?" Mason said. "That's where defensive coaches have had to adapt and adjust. Offensive coaches have done that the last 20, 25 years."
Practices have become more situation-based, coaches say. When Shoop gets together with other defensive coaches in the offseason, they focus on specific areas such as red zone and third down. Claeys is well aware that the three games in which Minnesota's opponents converted at least 50 percent of their third downs were all Gophers losses.
Michigan State's total defense and scoring defense numbers in 2013 received the most attention, but it's how the Spartans got there: They were in the top 10 in third-down defense and fourth-down defense, and 19th in takeaways.
"We talk to our guys about winning first-and-10, winning third down, winning the turnover margin, winning the red zone and winning the clock situations," Shoop said. "Win those things and the big things will take care of themselves."
Donna Narduzzi might be married to a defensive coordinator but, like many fans, she's in awe of what college offenses are doing. So is her husband.
"She's like, 'Oh my God, they scored that many points!'" Pat said. "You watch 'GameDay' and you watch the scores going by on the scroll the Saturday night after games and you go, 'Holy mackerel, more points are being scored than ever.'"
Defensive coaches acknowledge what's obvious, but they also don't see modern offenses as infallible. There are weaknesses to be exploited.
Surprisingly, it starts with the playbook.
"You're not seeing near the variety of plays from hurry-up teams," Claeys said. "You see a little zone, some zone-read, a little option. For the most part, most hurry-up teams are more simplified."
Claeys also sees increased blitz opportunities as more offenses go from two backs to one. Aliotti liked the fact that up-tempo offenses ran less motion than traditional ones, which prevented defenses from having to realign.
Pruitt thinks protections are a challenge for spread teams, a reason why they often slide plays to the field or boundary.
"There are more opportunities for big plays on defense because the offenses expose themselves a little bit more now," said Venables, whose Clemson defense led the nation in tackles for loss last season (122) and finished 13th in sacks and 10th in takeaways. "Whether it's tackles for loss or sacks, they're going so fast a lot of the time, they're not worried where the pressure or the blitz is coming from.
"They're area-blocking more so than ever before, so they're a little more vulnerable on their side for negative plays."
Shafer often recalls what his father, Ron, a longtime Ohio high school coach, said about the cyclical nature of the game: It's going to come back around.
Perhaps it proves to be true, these are challenging times for defenses. Offenses aren't slowing down and are helped by the rules, from targeting to substitutions.
"Fans want to see points," Johnson said. "That's where the rules are going to go."
Defensive coaches must continue to push the creative envelope. The HUNH teams might be their priority, but they can't neglect the more traditional, slower-death offenses run by Alabama and others.
And while many coaches have modeled their units on some of the principles the offenses are embracing, defenses need their own distinct identities.
"This whole idea of one size fits all, it doesn't work that way," Mason said. "The trends are ever-changing, they're fluid, so as coaches, what you try to do is stay in front of them."
Shoop remembers what his boss, James Franklin, told him after the 2012 season: We better evolve or we get left behind.
"The advantage right now seems to be the offense," Shoop said, "but the defensive guys spent this offseason looking at the tempo, the no-huddle, the spread, the spacing of things.
"We're trying to get back into the game here a little bit."