Let's allow Saban to explain his defensive philosophy in his own words.From one of his LSU defensive playbooks:
“[Our] philosophy on first and second down is to stop the run and play good zone pass defense. We will occasionally play man-to-man and blitz in this situation. On third down, we will primarily play man-to-man and mix-in some zone and blitzes. We will rush four or more players versus the pass about ninety-percent of the time.
“In all situations, we will defend the inside or middle of the field first – defend inside to outside. Against the run, we will not allow the ball to be run inside. We want to force the ball outside. Against the pass, we will not allow the ball to be thrown deep down the middle or inside. We want to force the ball to be thrown short and/or outside.
“… Finally, our job is to take the ball away from the opponents’ offense and score or set up good field position for our offense. We must knock the ball loose, force mistakes, and cause turnovers.Turnovers and making big plays win games. We will be alert and aggressive and take advantage of every opportunity to come up with the ball . . . . The trademark of our defense will be effort, toughness, and no mental mistakes regarding score or situation in any game.”
None of this is revolutionary and much of it is coach-patois (there is another section in his playbook where every position is required to put in “super human effort” or else they are deemed to have failed), but it’s a good place to start. Most good defenses begin with the premise that, to be successful, they must stop the run on first and second down to force known passing situations on 3rd down. (Which is one reason why Bill Walsh – in words far too often unheeded – advocated doing much of your dropback passing on first down.) Indeed, the book on Bob Stoops’s defense is known to everyone: first and second down expect an eight-man front and on third down you will see some kind of base or nickel personnel zone-blitz. No mystery there. A final brief prefatory note is that while Saban bases out of a 3-4, he quite commonly has one of his linebackers put their hand down and line up as would a 4-3 defensive end.
So let’s get a bit more specific. First I’ll discuss what is maybe Saban’s most common defense, Cover 1 Robber. Second, when Saban does use zones on known passing situations he likes the overload blitz and the common 3-3 zone blitz behind it, so I’ll show a basic example of what this might look like. And finally, I’ll discuss a couple coverage techniques that Saban likes to use.
Cover 1 “Robber”
Cover 1 is maybe the most common defense in the SEC. (Though “Cover 2” is close if you lump together all its variants.) Base Cover 1 is quite simple: the “1” refers to a deep safety who aligns down the middle, while all the offense’s skill guys are covered man to man. This doesn’t necessarily mean it is bump and run – it could be loose coverage – but it often is bump and run. The defense needs a great centerfielder back at Free Safety who can stop the deep ball and cover sideline to sideline.
The nice thing about this defense is it is simple and, once you’ve locked in five guys in man and a free safety, you can do whatever you want with the other five. And, maybe most importantly, with just one free-safety deep, the defense can get in a lot of eight-man fronts. On passing downs, the defense can find ways to creatively blitz five guys, have a deep safety, and all the while still account for all five of the offense’s receivers. The defense cannot really outnumber the pass protectors, but it can still collapse the pocket. That’s base Cover 1.
Cover 1 “Robber” works the same, except there are only four rushers and, along with the deep middle safety, another defender comes down to an intermediate level to read the QB’s eyes and “rob” any pass routes over the middle, like curls, in routes, and crossing routes. “Robber” is the most popular term for this technique but Saban’s is “Rat.” (I was always partial to Homer Smith’s term, “floaters,” which is the most descriptive.) There’s nothing magic about this coverage; every NFL team and most BCS college teams use it. Indeed, despite all the bluster about the Indianapolis Colts being a “Cover 2 team,” on first and second down you see lots of Cover 1 and Cover 1 robber from them, except they use their strong safety, Bob Sanders, as the “floater.” The key is for the floater to be able to read run, screen, or pass, and to use his eyes to get to the receiver and the ball. It’s particularly effective nowadays with the increased use of spread formations which most offenses use to open up passing lanes over the middle. Floaters or rat players can stop these inside passes and make game-changing interceptions. Below are some diagrams, and I expect to see Saban use this coverage a lot this season. (As a final note, Cover 1 Robber is useful against spread offense teams with mobile QB’s because the floater’s job becomes to not only read the QB’s eyes on passing downs but also to watch him for scrambles and to simply mirror the him on run plays like the option and the zone read.)
Base Zone Blitz
I won’t say too much because I’ve written extensively on pass protection and the zone-blitz here. But Saban will go to the zone-blitz in some passing situations and also when he feels like he can use the blitz in a way to attack an expected run and still play zone behind it. For example, if a team likes to run off tackle to the TE side on a particular down and distance, he might call a blitz that attacks that area and the zone blitz lets him still play sound coverage behind it. And like most modern defenses, Saban’s most common coverage behind a zone-blitz is a 3-3 or three-deep and three-intermediate defense with five rushers. Cover two behind a zone blitz is often dangerous because of the added uncovered deep seams, but most defenses feel comfortable with the 3-3. Below is a good example of an overload zone-blitz Saban uses to the open side of a one-back formation.
The thing to remember is that for years, when a team blitzed it was playing either Cover 1 or Cover 0 man (or simply left holes in its zone), and quarterbacks were coached to throw the ball where the blitzer had come from. Nowadays, there’s a common perception that a zone-blitz works because a defensive linemen gets in the throwing lane – no. What the dropping defensive end in the diagram above does is allow the defense as a whole to stay in zone coverage, and further notice who is covering the area where the blitzers came from: the strong safety, who is usually an effective pass defender, certainly moreso than a defensive end. That is how zone-blitzes cause confusion.
Other Techniques - Cornerback Leverage and Pattern Reading
Finally, let’s discuss some coverage techniques. The first is that Saban likes to have his cornerbacks adjust their “leverage” on a receiver based on the receiver’s split from the tackle and sideline. The theory is that if the wide receiver has cut his split down he has done one of two things: (a) given himself more room to run an out breaking route, or (b) cheated in to run a crossing or deep in-breaking route. So if the receiver cheats his split in, Saban has his cornerbacks align outside the receiver to defend the out-breaking route, because if he runs the in-breaking route the corner has help from the linebackers and safeties. Similarly, if the receiver lines up very wide (bottom of the numbers, let’s say), he has given himself room to run an in-breaking route like a slant. So the cornerback will align inside the receiver to take that route away and on the belief that an out-cut from that wide will be very difficult for the quarterback. To coach this Saban uses a “divider” line where they believe the receiver’s tendencies change to reflect one of the above two strategies. Nevertheless, the defensive back still must defend the route the receiver actually runs and maintain proper technique, but this is an important starting point.
More significant, however, is that Saban heavily coaches up “pattern reading” within his zone drops. The two zone-dropping schools of thought are to teach “spot-drops” or “pattern-reading.” One can overemphasize the distinction, but generally spot-dropping is easier to teach and was the traditional approach. For example, if your outside linebacker is responsible for the weak-flat, he will take his read steps and, upon reading pass, will drop to a spot and then react to the QB’s eyes. A big advantage with spot-dropping is simply that it is easy to teach to, say, a run-stuffing inside linebacker who spends most of his time on run game pursuit and shedding blocks. But the weakness is that well coached receivers – who have enough time – can become excellent at settling in the “zone holes” between defenders. And, with good receivers and good QBs, offenses have become more and more adept and finding and exploiting these zone holes.
Pattern-reading, on the other hand, is much like a matchup-zone in basketball. Defenders are responsible for zones but they basically play man on the receivers who come into their zones. Moreover, pattern-read teams begin by immediately coaching their defenders on how to recognize popular pass combinations (and indeed, the very concept of pass-combinations themselves), and each week zero in on the 5-15 most common pass concepts they will see from that opponent. When done correctly, pattern-reading defenders know exactly how to cover receivers in their zones and seamlessly (in a quite literal sense) pass the receivers onto other defenders as they run their routes. One thing that distinguishes Saban is that he uses pattern-reading in almost all of his coverages, including the traditional Cover 3, whereas many coaches only let certain defenders pattern read or only use it with certain defenses like Cover 4.Sounds a lot like Belichick, no?