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November 5, 2012Alabama head coach Nick Saban has often said that he would rather be a secondary coach rather than a head football coach. It shows in his detail to the position, especially in terms of how he teaches defensive backs to play their techniques within the various coverages that Alabama uses. Alabama plays multiple coverages in the secondary including Cover one (man to man), cover two, cover three, cover four (quarters), and robber coverage (where a safety plays up close to the line of scrimmage). However, Alabama primarily uses a cover one or man free look (one deep safety) with zone principles. It's called pattern reading and basically it allows defensive backs to watch the receivers and defend the routes rather than the receivers because reading one route can often tell you where the other routes will go.
As in quarters coverage (two deep look with man principles), Alabama's back seven numbers the receivers from the outside in on each with the outside receiver being the number one receiver, the slot being number, and the running back or inside slot (if there is one) being number three.
Versus a 2 x 2 look, the corners on both sides have the number one receiver if they go vertical. If this receiver goes inside or goes outside, the corner essentially goes to a deep third as if he were playing outside zone in a cover three. If they go away from them, they pass them off to someone else in another part of the field.
The strong safety and nickel back have the number two or slot receivers. They also have these receivers if they go vertical down the field in man coverage because the inside linebackers in the Tide's 3-4 defense have the number two receivers on inside routes.
Let's say the slot receiver on one side runs vertical. The nickel back or strong safety has them down the field. The inside linebacker to that side is now looking for someone else to run into the area vacated by the number two receiver because that's the only open area to that side to run a route. Initially, the first read is the running back or number three receiver. If they don't show, then that means that they must look for either the outside receiver to that side running inside or for the number two receiver on the other side to run a shallow route across the formation to them.
If the slot receiver runs to the inside, that tells the strong safety or nickel back that someone -- the outside receiver to that side -- can run a curl route back to the inside toward the space vacated by the slot. Thus, this defender drops to take away the possibility of the number one receiver running a hook. While that slot receiver runs inside, the inside backer on that side plays zone on the slot and if they continue across the formation hands off the slot to the other inside backer.
Against trips or a 3 x 1 set, everything remains the same except that the linebackers align to the three receiver side. The corner is on the number one receiver, the strong safety/nickel is on the number two receiver, and the backer to that side has the number three or innermost receiver. The strong safety/nickel and corner to the three receiver side have their men in man coverage. The corner to the one receiver side has that receiver man to man. The weakside nickel/safety and inside linebacker play zone. If the playside linebacker can run with the number three receiver, the linebacker takes him. Regardless of formation, the free safety can help out on any receiver going to the middle of the field and can help squeeze the receiver with another defender.
If Alabama wants to blitz out of this defense, it can zone blitz, overload one side with blitzers, and drop someone on the other side into zone coverage. Either way, the corners play man to man and the inside defenders try to keep the receivers from going inside and attempt to turn them outside.
There are a number of advantages to using this coverage for Alabama. First off, the Tide essentially has eight people in the box to help the stop run with the strong safety and nickel back already in or near the box. Second, defenders understand that their man is either going to run right at them and they will take them in man coverage or away from them where they will be passed off to someone else in zone coverage. Three, since offenses don't have two receivers running into the same area on routes, if their man runs away from them then they know that someone else that is not their initial responsibility will probably be coming into their zone. Finally, deep routes are handled by people that can run (safeties and corners) and shallow routes are handled by the slowest defenders (the linebackers) as they don't have to run with anyone down the field.
Overall, it's a fundamentally sound defense that covers a wide variety of plays. They key to it all is that Alabama's corners stay in press man coverage almost of the game which means that they get to use their size to route outside receivers wherever they want them to go. However, they just use one hand jams so that they don't sell out versus the pass, especially since they have deep responsibility.
A&M has ravaged opposing defenses the past two weeks that stayed in a two high safety look and didn't put enough people in the box. A&M ran against it and threw routes along the line of scrimmage because the safeties were out of position to come up into the box. They also threw some into the middle off of play action where was a hole from the lack of a safety in the center of the field. Under Nick Saban, Alabama prefers pattern reading so that they can get people into the box and still literally beat people to the ball in the passing game. Its success is highlighted not just by Alabama's ability to play the pass (they force a higher proportion of interceptions per pass attempt than anyone else in the country) but the run as well (second ranked rush defense nationally). Thus, A&M faces not only a different level of personnel this Saturday but also a different way of playing defense.
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