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Wrestling With the Beast
August 11, 2008
Defensive coordinators are comparing notes as they scramble to find ways to stop—or at least slow—the spread, but this much they know: The best weapons are speed and solid tackling
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August 11, 2008

Wrestling With The Beast

Defensive coordinators are comparing notes as they scramble to find ways to stop—or at least slow—the spread, but this much they know: The best weapons are speed and solid tackling

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? BREAK UP THE BEAT. The success of the spread, particularly in the passing game, depends heavily on timing. The quarterback often takes a three- or five-step drop and delivers the ball in rhythm to receivers who quickly "find grass," i.e., open spots in the secondary. The most effective defenses devise ways to disrupt that timing on one end or the other. "I like my guys to jam receivers coming off the line," says former Arkansas defensive coordinator Reggie Herring, now the linebackers coach for the Dallas Cowboys. "If we make it tough for them to get into their routes, maybe they're still trying to get to an open spot when the quarterback is ready to throw."

The other option is to shake up the timing of the quarterback, which is where speed rushers like Selvie come in. Sacks are difficult to get against the spread, but sometimes they aren't necessary. If linemen can get enough penetration to make the quarterback throw a split second early or hold the ball a hair longer than he wants, it can make all the difference. Oklahoma stifled Missouri's spread in its 38--17 win in the Big 12 title game largely because the Sooners harassed quarterback Chase Daniel enough to keep him from throwing in rhythm consistently. "Sometimes if you can make the quarterback double-pump, you know your defense has done its job," says USC coach Pete Carroll.

Even if a defense fulfills the basic requirements—speed everywhere from the interior line to the secondary, sure tackling and the ability to disrupt receivers' routes or the quarterback's rhythm, the spread still poses challenges that keep defensive coordinators up at night. That's especially true of teams that feature a ground game that has to be taken seriously, like Missouri and West Virginia, where the return of dual-threat quarterback Pat White guarantees the Mountaineers' attack will be balanced even without Rodriguez. "People think of the spread and they envision 50, 60 passes a game, but it's the run that can really give you headaches," says Glanville. "I think most defenses would rather see an empty backfield with a quarterback who just chucks it all over the field instead of a team that also makes you account for the run."

Defenses face yet another conundrum against teams that run primarily out of the spread. The offensive linemen take wide splits, which leaves the defensive linemen two options: They can maintain their normal, narrower splits, which gives the offense better blocking angles; or they can widen out as well, which creates bigger running lanes and leaves pass rushers farther away from the quarterback at the snap. Beginning to see the problems?

SO WHAT is a defense to do? Should it go to five defensive backs? Six? Should it play man-to-man, which runs a greater risk of giving up the big play, or zone, which is more vulnerable to a methodical drive? The best strategy involves creating an equal amount of uncertainty for the offense by disguising those intentions as much as possible before the snap. Even that isn't easy, because a defense that's spread so wide has a hard time fooling anyone, and communication can become an issue. "We blitz our safeties a lot," says New Mexico coach Rocky Long, "but when they spread you from sideline to sideline you almost have to give it away early and have them sneak up closer to the line of scrimmage. Otherwise there's almost no point—the safeties have too far to go to get into the backfield."

More and more, defenses are playing a game of cat-and-mouse. They line up one way, then shift and reshift, with players moving up or dropping back before the snap, hoping to confuse blockers and make it harder for the quarterback to make presnap reads. What looks like a three-man front with a nickel package playing man-to-man can morph into a four-man rush with a corner blitz and zone coverage by the time the ball is snapped.

If nothing else, the trickery may give coordinators the satisfaction of causing their offensive counterparts a small measure of the anxiety that the spread creates for defenses. "There's really no way to stop it when you look at it on the chalkboard," says Long. "You just have to find ways to keep the score down." Defensive coaches will continue to collaborate on finding a solution, but they shouldn't count on getting any insight from the offensive coaches. "Even if I knew how to stop the spread, I wouldn't tell," says Leach. "I'm like everybody else. I have no idea."

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