The current conventional wisdom is that Nick Saban and, by extension, Kirby Smart can not defend against modern spread offenses. The truth is that the Kirby Smart defense has undergone a shift in defensive thinking over the past two seasons.
There are a number of football coaching blogs available with Football is Life being one of the best. The author recently published a look at the changes in Bama defensive practices. Interestingly enough, his defensive analysis starts by suggesting that having changed the offense with the addition of Lane Kiffin, Saban/Smart were able to practice against newer looks in addition to more fundamental defensive changes:
[su_quote style=”modern-light” cite=”Football is Life” url=”http://footballislifeblog.blogspot.com/2016/01/happy-new-year.html”] …His team is now able to mimic these offenses, because up-tempo is in part, what Kiffin likes to do on offense. Yes, they aren’t Auburn, Oregon or Baylor, but they do use tempo as a key part of their offensive identity, which breeds familiarity. This allows them to give their own defense a good solid look in practice at what they will see during game week. These looks, being as close to game speed as possible is critical to the defense’s success.
I’m sure it wasn’t all Kiffin though. Saban and Smart had to make a dedicated effort to want to change. In other words, they had to be willing to adapt or mold their philosophy. One change I saw was in the secondary. They both were more willing to drop the larger, run stuffing style of safety Saban has typically employed over the years at that position, for more “cornerback” types there. Saban and Smart finally realized getting more speed on the field was paramount. One area that is very difficult to run in sub packages is the secondary. You need consistency there, and those two found a way to keep the same four guys on the field at all times.
They practiced subbing in their various packages against themselves. Saban hasn’t fully washed his hands of personnel groups. What they have done is figure out a way to use the substitution rule to their advantage. I read one article where a player said it was “organized chaos” on the sidelines. What he later went on to say, is that when he first arrived at Alabama…it was just “chaos”. This means there has been improvement in the sideline management of getting the right players on the field at the right time. The other element is the size of the sub package. When watching the National Championship game this past Monday night, I would see no more than three guys at a time run on the field, and usually, it was just one player. This means that they are recruiting players who can stay on the field and help in any situation, something I also think is very key in defending these type of tempo, spread offenses.
One key area Saban has upgraded, is special teams. I cannot, for the life of me, figure out how a guy like Nick Saban got where he is, with such a poor special teams philosophy. I’ve never known Saban to have a punter you would consider a “weapon”, but I don’t know how many times I heard Alabaman punter J.K. Scott mentioned as just that…a weapon. The same can be said of Alabama’s kicker. Despite missing a field goal in the game this past Monday night, Alabama’s kicker has been on point for most of the season. The other thing is, he kicked a perfectly executed pooch-style onside kick. I’m not sure in years past if I’ve ever seen a better special teams unit under Nick Saban. Special teams, in my opinion, is an area that against the modern spread, up-tempo offenses, where you can gain the advantage by stealing a possession. Fake punts, onside kicks, and fake field goals are things that have to be done in practice, to a high degree of repetition in order to ensure success. I think this mental shift was none more evident than in the National Championship game by Clemson keeping Alabama’s punt block unit at bay with the threat of the fake, and Alabama’s critical onside kick. One was simply just the “threat” of a stolen possession, and the other WAS a stolen possession. See these offenses are going to score points. If the idea is to score more, then you need to find a way, at the end of the game, to have had more scoring opportunities than your opponent. Stealing possessions on special teams is a great way to do this, but most coaches don’t put in the time to do so. This is where I think many coaches are going to have to make their philosophical changes to their approach to the game.