Saban’s Dirty Word: The “Spread” (repost)

I’m re-posting a blog that I did back in July since it’s related to the A&M game coming up.  Also, I know there are some new folks following the blog so I thought I would relate this story to you guys, as well.  Big week – can’t wait to start breaking down last year’s game again!


The spread – it’s a dirty word around the Alabama football complex.  It’s also a very dirty word for the Alabama fan base, that is unless you happen to be referring to it while you are looking at Playboy’s issue of “Girls of the SEC.”  I know, I know, you just read it for the articles – right!

Usually when the dreaded “spread” word is used when talking about Alabama it’s mainly in reference to the Texas A&M version of the spread that kicked our butts for three quarters last November.  And, when you take a look at Alabama’s 2013 schedule, you have to circle the A&M game and wonder how in the world Saban and Smart will stop this dreaded spread.  Last year it took Saban & Co three full quarters before they remotely began to slow it down so the hopeful thinking for 2013 is that Nick has been studying A&M’s spread offense since the clock hit 0:00 in Miami.  The expectation of the Bama fan base is that he and Smart will put something together defensively that will effectively shove Manziel’s Heisman where the sun don’t shine!

During Saban’s caravan stop in Birmingham, someone dared to ask Saban about how he’s going to stop the spread offense.  Please remember that this question was posed to the man who is the architect for an Alabama defense that has ranked in the TOP 5 in Total Defense every year that he’s been at Alabama.  Currently Auburn, Kentucky, Missouri, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Texas A&M all run some variation of the “dreaded” spread offense.  Also, please remember that it was Nick Saban who sent Urban Meyer and his spread offense to the hospital after throttling him in the SEC Championship game and Tuscaloosa in consecutive matchups.  It was Nick Saban who chewed up the Texas spread offense and spit out Colt McCoy, Greg Davis and the entire Longhorn offense.  With the exception of three quarters against Texas A&M, Saban has owned the spread offenses he’s faced.  It was no wonder he bristled at the audacity question.

“I assume you are talking about Texas A&M”, he began.  As the rest of us cowered behind out seats, Saban mentioned that he’d had no small amount of success against the spread and that, in all honesty, A&M’s spread was no different than anyone else’s spread.  But, as we took shelter beneath the table clothes or behind the food trays, Saban suddenly began addressing the question.  What followed was a true breakdown into how Saban truly is altering his defense, his recruiting and his tactics to counter the speed game that the spread offense poses to his defenses.

In my spring write up on the defensive line, I stated that it appeared to me that Saban was utilizing more four man fronts and that the athletes along the line were thinner and more athletic than their predecessors.   As Saban spoke, he confirmed my theory.  He admitted that Alabama is now making a point to recruit more “quick twitch” athletes on the defensive line.  Doing so allows him to have much better athletes on the field who can all chase down the quarterbacks.  The premise is to move defensive ends to the tackle position and move the outside linebackers down to defensive ends – he calls it his  Rabbits package and you see it quite a bit in long yardage situations. Against spread teams, you’ll likely see it now on first and 10.

Saban has consistently said he doesn’t use his base 3-4 defense as much as he used to.  In today’s game with nearly everyone running a variation of the spread, he is forced to use his nickel and dime looks more than 50% of the time and this includes placing rabbits at the ends.  You’ve seen evidence of this on Saturdays as he’s used Donte Hightower, Eryk Anders, Adrian Hubbard and Denzell Devall off the edges in four man fronts.  This allows more speed across the entire front four.  And, now by moving Xzavier Dickson down to a defensive end position, it appears he can even bring speed out of the 3-4 look with Dickson at DE and Devall or Ryan Anderson coming off the edge right behind him.  Speed, speed and more speed!

Meanwhile Saban is hitting the recruiting trail hard looking for, you guessed it, speed.  Jonathan Allen runs a 4.5.  Tim Williams runs in that neighborhood as well.  Anderson and Devall were 2012 signees who both run a 4.6 or better.  So is this the end all answer?  In a word, no.  Saban explained…

“But, listen, you can’t have too many little guys.  In boxing, little guys don’t fight the big guys for a reason – they’ll get their ass kicked,” Saban said.  “You can’t just go out there and recruit and play a bunch of smaller guys because when you play a team like LSU they’ll kick your ass!”

So, look for the Rabbits package to be employed early and often against A&M.  Also, look for Saban to use the substitution rules to his advantage as he’ll send a fresh batch of players onto the field each time A&M substitutes on offense.  The refs are forced to allow the defense to sub and Saban will use this opportunity to change out his defensive players.  This will also slow the pace of the game significantly.  Will that be enough?  In a word, no.  Saban even addressed that question.

“A&M’s offense isn’t any different than any other offense.  It’s really not.  The only difference is their quarterback because he ad libs,” Saban explained.  “I’ve even talked to the A&M coaches and THEY don’t even know what that guy is going to do on every play!  So how can we know how to defend him if they don’t even know what he’s going to do?”

So, circle your calendars for 9/14 as that will be the judgment day for the Tide coaching staff as they try to find a way to slow down Johnny Football.  But, as Saban indicated, Bama has had a tremendous amount of success against today’s spread offenses and they will have a plan in place to get more speed on the field to combat Manziel’s running abilities.  They’ve also been practicing against an up-tempo offense throughout spring drills and beyond.  Will it be enough?  College football’s most anticipated matchup of the 2013 season will tell us in September.


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