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
August 10, 2008

THE SPREAD offensehas transformed more than a few games into the football equivalent of athrill-a-minute action film for fans, but defensive coordinators feel more likethey're watching a horror flick. They sit in darkened rooms and witness thecarnage on videotape, often seeing next week's opponent carve up some helplessdefense with multiple-receiver sets and quick, pinpoint passing, or withrunning plays that rip off big yards because the D is stretched sideline tosideline. It would be hard to blame the coordinators if they covered their eyesduring the particularly grisly parts, when the spread all but tortures adefense, marching down the field in short bursts with remarkable precision.

But liketownspeople banding together against a monster, defensive coaches across thenation are joining forces. They are combating the spread with a spread of theirown—the spread of information, theories and philosophies aimed at slowing downthe offensive surge that has bedeviled them. Coaches who are opponents duringthe season turn into coconspirators in the off-season, sharing ideas on how tostop the dreaded spread. "Everyone is trying to get a handle on thething," says South Florida defensive coordinator Wally Burnham. "Ifsomeone's defense seems to have some success against it, other coaches arenaturally going to be interested in picking that coaching staff's brain. I knowthat we borrowed everything we use."

Thestop-the-spread market is booming, with instructional videos, Internet forumsand dissertations in publications by coaches from high school to the pros."Wherever you get two or three coaches together," says Texas coach MackBrown, "you can be pretty sure the subject comes up."

Burnham's officewas a particularly popular hangout in the spring—coaches from Ohio State,Minnesota and Colorado were among the visitors—thanks to South Florida'ssuccess against West Virginia's spread option in the last two years. TheMountaineers were 22--4 during that stretch, with two of the losses comingagainst the Bulls; they averaged only 16 points, 160 rushing yards and 3.8yards a carry against USF, compared to 39.6 points, 311.8 rushing yards and 6.6yards per carry in the other 24 games.

Big Ten coachesare especially motivated to educate themselves because Rich Rodriguez, formerlythe coach at West Virginia, brought the spread option with him to Michigan thisseason. Wisconsin's Bret Bielema sent his assistants to several schools—hewon't say which ones—to study up on defending the spread. The problems itcreates for a defense can be discouraging, but most coaches are optimistic thatif other innovations such as the triple option and the wishbone couldeventually be contained, the spread should be no different. "It can bedealt with like any other offense," says Brown. "We're just not surehow yet."

A SINGLE, widelyagreed upon scheme has yet to emerge, but there are a few tenets regardingpersonnel and approach that any successful defense would almost certainly haveto adopt. Among them:

• START WITH ASTOPWATCH. The adage You either recruit speed, or you chase it has never beenmore true. The spread's main priority, to create mismatches in whichskill-position players are covered by slower defenders, is harder to accomplishagainst a unit with serious speed of its own. That's why defenses are pluggingplayers into positions for which they might once have seemed undersized but inwhich they have above-average quickness.

Players who mighthave been linebackers in another era become light but quick pass-rushinglinemen, such as defensive ends George Selvie (6'4", 245 pounds) of SouthFlorida, second in the nation in sacks last year, and Dexter Davis (6'2",252) of Arizona State. Big defensive backs, such as USC's Taylor Mays(6'3", 230) and Missouri's William Moore (6'1", 230), become hybridlinebacker-safeties. "It doesn't matter how creative you areotherwise," says Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, the architect of the RedRaiders' pass-happy spread. "If you can't run, you can't stop thespread."

• A MISSED TACKLEIS A TOUCHDOWN. Defenses have to assume as much when they face the spread,which often leaves them stretched so thin that if a defender blows the takedownon even a short reception, help might not arrive in time to prevent a TD. InDivision I-AA Appalachian State's 34--32 upset of Michigan last year, theclassic example of the spread eviscerating an ill-equipped defense, theMountaineers' first touchdown came when wideout Dexter Jackson caught a shortslant and safety Steve Brown let him slip out of his grasp. The Wolverinesdidn't get a second chance at the tackle, and Jackson dashed 68 yards for ascore.

"It's notalways a matter of great X's and O's," says Portland State coach JerryGlanville, a longtime defensive coordinator at the college and NFL levels."Part of it is just a case of execution, of tackling properly. I wouldthink that every team getting ready to face a spread would spend time goingback to basics, pulling out every tackling drill [the coaches] have everrun." Teams don't need a deep passing game because the chances of onemistake turning something short into something long are there on almost everysnap. "A defense basically has to approach every tackle as if it's atouchdown-saving play," says Glanville, "because most of the time itis."

• BREAK UP THEBEAT. The success of the spread, particularly in the passing game, dependsheavily on timing. The quarterback often takes a three- or five-step drop anddelivers the ball in rhythm to receivers who quickly "find grass,"i.e., open spots in the secondary. The most effective defenses devise ways todisrupt that timing on one end or the other. "I like my guys to jamreceivers coming off the line," says former Arkansas defensive coordinatorReggie Herring, now the linebackers coach for the Dallas Cowboys. "If wemake it tough for them to get into their routes, maybe they're still trying toget to an open spot when the quarterback is ready to throw."

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

Even if a defensefulfills the basic requirements—speed everywhere from the interior line to thesecondary, sure tackling and the ability to disrupt receivers' routes or thequarterback's rhythm, the spread still poses challenges that keep defensivecoordinators up at night. That's especially true of teams that feature a groundgame that has to be taken seriously, like Missouri and West Virginia, where thereturn of dual-threat quarterback Pat White guarantees the Mountaineers' attackwill be balanced even without Rodriguez. "People think of the spread andthey envision 50, 60 passes a game, but it's the run that can really give youheadaches," says Glanville. "I think most defenses would rather see anempty backfield with a quarterback who just chucks it all over the fieldinstead of a team that also makes you account for the run."

Defenses face yetanother conundrum against teams that run primarily out of the spread. Theoffensive linemen take wide splits, which leaves the defensive linemen twooptions: They can maintain their normal, narrower splits, which gives theoffense better blocking angles; or they can widen out as well, which createsbigger running lanes and leaves pass rushers farther away from the quarterbackat the snap. Beginning to see the problems?

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

More and more,defenses are playing a game of cat-and-mouse. They line up one way, then shiftand reshift, with players moving up or dropping back before the snap, hoping toconfuse 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 canmorph into a four-man rush with a corner blitz and zone coverage by the timethe ball is snapped.

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






Stewart Mandel takes a look at the coaches who are innew positions as well as those who will be under pressure to win in 2008.


PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY John Pyle/Cal Sport MediaTIME TO GET A HYBRID AT 6'3" and 230 pounds, Mays (2) might seem to fit the mold of a linebacker, but the USC free safety can get physical with a wide receiver—and run with him too. PHOTOPAUL ABELL/US PRESSWIRE PHOTOMIKE MOORE/ICON SMI PHOTOJULIAN H. GONZALEZ/DETROIT FREE PRESS (JACKSON)RUSH HOUR Jackson made Michigan pay for a missed tackle (left), while Missouri (in black) spread the Texas A&M defense and ran for 203 yards. PHOTODAVE E. KLUTHO (MISSOURI)[See caption above]