? 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."