Defending the Spread: Zone Out or Man Up

Josh Schlichter Analysis

Stopping Oregon is a terrible task for a defensive coordinator, especially during the middle of the season with little time to prepare between games. The schematic bonuses given to the Ducks through spreading a defense out, then isolating and rendering a defender useless, truly makes a defense overmatched schematically in every way. So that brings up the inevitable question–how does a team slow down or even stop it?

The lasting football theory is that a play will work, on paper, every time. When an offense executes to perfection, the defense is simply along for the ride, there only to feebly attempt to slow the inevitable. Defensive coordinators don’t like that theory very much, so their goal is to prepare their players to force an offense to execute flawlessly, and exploit every mistake the offense makes. Essentially, bend, don’t break.

Some defensive coordinators like to bend to the offense’s advances all the way down the field, forcing a quarterback to make all the right reads, and preventing big plays. Others like to take matters into their own hands by playing as rigid as possible on early downs, then pinning their ears back on third down, preferably a passing situation.

Some names, or specific games, come to mind when talking about defending the spread: Nick Saban, Monte Kiffin– and for Duck fans– Clancy Pendergast. Each of these defensive coordinators has used unique schemes to defend some of the most potent offenses around.

Faking injuries is only part of the way Cal slowed Oregon in 2010

To start, Nick Saban is easily one of the best defensive minds in the game today. His obsession with detail, trends, and calculation forces his players to adapt to a highly complex defensive scheme involving literally hundreds of checks and modifiers within every base set.

Although the detail of his defense is complex, the true philosophy of Saban’s defense is relatively simple, “[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,” Saban states in the 2001 LSU Playbook, which has been widely known as the ultimate defensive playbook. You can check out a copy of the “defensive holy grail” here.

Against the spread, Saban’s defense would theoretically rely on a base Cover-1 look. By playing man-to-man, gap responsibilities become extremely important against a zone running scheme. Should Alabama ever square up against Oregon, the essential goal would be to somehow get to passing situations, where zone blitzes force the quarterback to throw a perfect ball in order to beat the defense (easier said than done). Not surprisingly, that idea doesn’t stray at all from Saban’s original philosophy.

Zone blitzes, by the book, are the answer to all problems against the spread. Before the zone blitz scheme truly surfaced, the only way to apply pressure to a quarterback was to man-up the receivers and rush six or seven defenders. By doing this, there is relatively no deep help, and simple check-down routes can turn into huge gains.

With zone blitzes, a defense can bring pressure and not sacrifice downfield coverage to any extreme degree. This is accomplished (in a Fire Zone) by dropping defensive linemen (drop ends) into coverage, while rushing five defenders from random places on the field. In turn, this allows those “psycho” fronts, where a multitude of players jab at an offensive line before the snap seemingly at random with defenders either rushing the passer or dropping into intermediate coverage.

To learn more about zone blitzes, please check out this article from

For a video breakdown, check out Gus Malzahn’s analysis of the Alabama defense:

Monte Kiffin is a name already well established as a defensive mastermind from his years in the NFL developing the Tampa 2 defense, though his system at USC has experienced mixed results against Oregon’s spread. We look at Kiffin’s solution for slowing the spread not for his attack against the Ducks, but rather Time Tebow and the Florida Gators. Back in 2009, the Kiffin battery was in Knoxville for a short-lived stint, but Monte Kiffin’s scheme against the juggernaut Gators is one of the best remembered moments from their time in the SEC.

To set the stage, the Vols had one of the most talented defensive players in the nation that year in Eric Berry, while Tim Tebow, Aaron Hernandez, and a plethora of speedsters highlighted the Florida offensive unit.

The underlying theory behind Kiffin’s scheme was to cover the Florida offense from the top down. Tennessee’s corners played way off (a cardinal sin against Oregon), but their super-talented safety in Eric Berry, along with their free safety, could play in both run support and in pass coverage. A specific scheme used was an inverted cover 2 look, shown here at

Still, like Oregon, Florida’s strengths relied on the running game. The Vols (then a Tampa 2 team) lived on zone coverage, which has always been strong against the run given the defenders always looking into the backfield. Essentially, that game came down to a schematic stalemate, and the team with more talent (or just Tim Tebow pounding away at the Tennessee defense) won.

The lasting memory from that game in terms of football strategy was that zone defense is king against the spread offense, regardless of talent on either side of the ball. If there was one thing that an offensive playcall can’t account for, it is a defender playing more than one role; in other words, playing both pass and run coverage at the same time.

Finally, there is Clancy Pendergast, who famously “solved” the Oregon offense in 2010 as defensive coordinator for the California Bears. The Cover 0 scheme, like always, is simple: play man-to-man with everyone on the field, including the quarterback. Cal was helped by a phenomenal defensive front, too.

Here’s a look back at my previous analysis of the Cover 0 defense:

As opposed to a cover 2, or cover 3 look (where the safety(s) will cover a deep half or third of the field) Cal plays man-to-man on everyone. Three corners on three receivers, the rover on the tight end, and the safety (which is the unique part) mans up the QB, in that the safety does not have deep zone responsibilities, but will “go-wherever the QB goes,” so to speak. So when the QB is being tracked by the safety, the linebackers and play-side linemen have one job– get LaMichael James.

Seems good enough, Oregon has an advantage right? Eight men (Six blockers, Two potential runners) in the box to Cal’s seven, six with the read man. But Cal, unlike any other team to that point in the 2010 season, used the safety to “mirror the QB.” This caused Oregon’s key advantage, an extra play side blocker, to be neutralized.

Beating the Cover 0 defense is really easy, on paper, the goal being to get open in man coverage. For whatever reason, the Ducks could not pass the ball to any acceptable degree against Cal in 2010. Here is every pass play Oregon attempted against the Bears:

All in all, there are two schools of thought for defending the spread: Zone Coverage and Man Coverage. Whether it is a combination of both, in Saban’s scheme, or more polarized version, such as Kiffin’s and Pendergast’s, a scheme is merely chalk-talk, and is truly left to the coaches playing chess on the sidelines.

Behind all of those schemes, although wildly different on the field, are very simple principles that can be found in every defensive philosophy: fly to the ball, and force the quarterback to make quick reads and tough plays. Playing against the spread magnifies a defense’s ability to do just that. Schematic leverage helps, as the Cover 0 is the best example of that, but the answer to the spread most likely lies in a much more conservative theory.

NFL caliber defenses have been the only answer to Oregon's attack to this point

Being able to play multiple spots on the field, and match a spread offense’s own ambiguity is the hardest thing to attack. Fittingly, the better the athletes, the more success a defense will have at doing that.

So will Oregon have trouble against an LSU defense or an Alabama defense, where mistakes are magnified and every yard is hard earned? Yes. Will the SEC trump Oregon forever? No. In fact, any self-respecting football fan can’t wait for the day that Chip Kelly breaks an elite defense wide open because when that happens, a new defensive scheme or philosophy will arise in response, and the cycle of football innovation continues.

For offensive minded fans, the spread revolution out west promises lots and lots of points for the next few years. But for the defense lovers, the adjustments made by the coordinators in the PAC 12 will be equally fun to watch.

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