Coaches are often asked the formula for stopping a Spread Offense such as Oregon’s high scoring attack. There is no formula for defending a Spread Offense. If you ever hear a football fan say, “You can stop the Spread Offense by, “(Insert Blustering Nonsense)”, then you need to end the conversation immediately as that person has no idea what he is talking about.
Here is the truth about the mythical ‘Spread Offense’ we all hear about; all Spread Offenses are different! Preparing for each of them is quite different hence the winning edge can come down to the game plan devised by your coaching staff. The process for game planning to defend Oregon’s or anyone’s Spread Offense is to first figure out what the basic attack philosophy is of that team. At programs like the University of Oregon, the basic philosophy is to force the defense to defend the entire width of the field. The Ducks have the ability to both run the football, and throw it with success. We have to dig deeper however, to learn defensive game plans and about the new “Hybrid” defenses emerging to counter the Ducks Spread Offense.
Spread Offense Philosophy
Spread Attacks want to get the football in the hands of athletes, in space, with the fewest possible defenders in the area. If you overplay the pass, then opposing Offensive Coordinators will want to run the ball on you. If you overplay the run, Spread coaches you face will throw the football. The obvious answer may be to balance up the defense. This means playing with six defenders (above) in the tackle box, while keeping five defenders focused on defending the pass. Yet a balanced defense only makes sense if the offense is actually balanced.
What is the Opponent Good At?
The second step of game planning for the Spread Offense is to decide “what they are really good at?” It is very rare that a team is truly dominant at both running the football and passing it. While these steps are simple in the beginning, they must be addressed to formulate the game plan. If your opponent is a superior running team, you want to emphasize your run defense. These teams are normally very good Zone Read teams with an athletic, mobile Quarterback. (Sound familiar?)
To stop the run, spend most snaps of the game with a 7 man box. (above) That means playing a lot of Man Coverage on every skill player on the opponent’s offense, which is known as Cover Zero. Pure man coverage is a risk because there is no help for each of the defenders; everyone is truly on an island. One benefit for your team is that this defensive game plan forces the opposing Offensive Coordinator to run his offense “left handed.” He must call plays that do not fit his team’s running strength!
While the Ducks have the ability to both throw and pass, the 2012 Oregon Offense showed a strong preference for running the football with a similar tradition going back to Chip Kelly’s early days at Oregon. As a defensive coordinator opposing the Ducks, I would want to force Oregon to beat me with the pass.
When you see a Spread Offense that is a great passing team, plan to overplay the pass. Teams whose Quarterback operates as more of a Point Guard, distributing the football all over the field but rarely moving it down the field himself, fit this mold. In your conference that would be Washington State and Cal with their “Air Raid” passing attack.
Plan to use a lot of Cover Two/Man Under Coverage (above) and play with a 5 man box (above) against a Spread Passing attack. Unlike man coverage where there is no help for the defensive backs, Cover Two/Man Under has two deep safeties giving extra protection to the defenders locked down in man coverage. For all it may lack in run defense, Cover Two/Man Under is the unchallenged leader is pure pass coverage against a passing Spread Offense. The game plan usually also includes coverage variations, disguise and blitzes as you want to keep the passing Spread Offense Quarterback from being able to easily read your defense.
No game plan will ever only include a single defensive alignment. If your game plan is going to focus heavily on stopping the run, you should also expect the game plan to work and when that does the offense will be forced to start throwing the football. At that point, use more balanced 6 man boxes with Cover One or Quarters coverage to slow them down. The same is true if you are going to be focusing heavily on defending the pass. Be prepared to adjust when they are forced to try running the football.
Filling Out the Game Plan
After you have established what the opponent’s offense is truly good at, and have established your basic game plan philosophy, it’s time to get specific. Now you have to look at tendencies, personnel packages, and match-ups with your opponent and then you put together your blitz packages, your coverage variations, any personnel adjustments you will need to make, and your call sheet next. Again, only after you have the established your basic philosophy!
New Hybrid Defenses Attack Oregon!
If you examine the Cal and Oregon State games, you will find a game plan in common between those two and probably a lot of other Oregon opponents. It starts with Oregon’s ability to run the ball and pass, spread the field, and run at a high pace, hence their opponents are constantly looking for ways to disguise their defensive intentions and get the advantage.
Cal’s defense in 2012 used what looks to be a 3-1 box, but in fact there are three other players who are being used as “Hybrids!” They are halfway committed to run defense, and halfway committed to stopping the pass, so the actual count of defenders in the box would be 5 ½? Hmmmm.
The Golden Bear defense (above) had the majority of the first quarter with three down linemen and one linebacker. A safety was behind the linebacker at 7-8 yards, and two more overhang safeties are 2-3 yards outside of the tackle box. Sometimes they are more focused on the run defense, while at other times they are moving quickly to defend the pass by getting into man coverage, and occasionally blitzing.
Oregon State with their four-man front(above) has a similar look. At times they are in a 4-2 or six-man box, while at other times they are playing what appears to be a 4-1, or five man box. The six-man box fits their base defensive rules well, and they seem more comfortable playing it, but on that day Oregon was able to spread the field with edge runs and their perimeter passing game. In response, Oregon State moves one of the linebackers out of the box and forces him to play the “Hybrid” role. Again, the box count goes to 5 1/2 defenders!
The strategy is designed to confuse the Ducks offensive play calling, however the problem is these teams seem to out-coach themselves as well. The schemes the opposing defensive coaches ask their players to implement will often conflict with the defensive techniques they work on all season long. Thus forcing the defenders do more makes them think more, thus react less quickly, makes them slower to respond to both the run and the pass!
The “5 1/2 Man Box” defensive strategy seems like an excellent game plan on paper. The defense could have as few as four defenders focused on the run, or they had the flexibility to have seven defenders focused on defending the running game, with man coverage behind it. (Both teams employed this strategy at times in the Red Zone). Asking defensive players to make adjustments immediately before the snap among many defensive alignments to match up with all of the Ducks’ offensive formations is asking their players to think too much, which slows them down, and nothing makes Oregon’s offense more effective than slow moving defenders!
After the game is over, go back and evaluate and look past the win or loss. Did the game plan work? Was it the right game plan? Did you win or lose, because of, or in spite of your game plan? Coaches have to pay attention to these things, so you never stop learning and evolving!
That is why here in Virginia, “oh how we love to learn about your beloved Ducks!”
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Joe Daniel (Football Analyst) is the author of Football-Defense.com and Football-Offense.com, and host of The Football Coaching Podcast. Coach Daniel has written over 300 articles and produced six eBooks on coaching football. With 10 years in coaching both High School and College Football, he will be the Defensive Coordinator for Prince George High School in Prince George, Virginia for the 2012 season.
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