Five concepts to steal from the National Championship Game
You get your pencil ready to take notes when it's Alabama vs. Georgia...
The Saban system is the gold standard for defense in college football. Alabama has played in six of the eight College Football National Championship games since the inaugural game in 2014, with Georgia participating in two (1-1). Since 2016, Kirby Smart has quickly built the Bulldogs into a defensive juggernaut only rivaled by Alabama. Needless to say, the Saban system is king in college football.
In the NFL, Bill Belichick has used a similar system created with the help of Nick Saban. Over four decades, the two friends have dominated the top levels of football using principles founded when they worked together for the Cleveland Browns during the early ‘90s. The HBO documentary “Belichick & Saban: The Art of Coaching” detailed their friendship over the years. Though each has their own unique brand, they closely watch each other to sharpen their tactics.
“I watch what they do, I study their schemes. I know that if it’s good enough for Nick and he’s doing it, that it’s probably good enough for me.”
The 2021 Georgia defense may be the crowning achievement for the system. According to Brian Fremeau’s BCF Toys, which measures efficiency data similar to Football Outsiders DVOA that has become a popular metric, the 2021 Georgia defense was the most dominant in the last ten years with a DFEI (Total Defensive Efficiency) of 1.93. Only the 2016 Alabama defense was within .2 of that number (1.88). Georgia’s passing defense registered a mind-blowing -.309 for the season in terms of EPA. The next closest team was Wisconsin at -.198, whose season would have gotten more noise if not for the Dawgs.
The entire system is built to have answers for every question the offense can run at it. From traditional schemes to new-aged Spread systems, the Saban system is adaptive and flexible. Like Belichick’s version in the NFL, the Saban system can bounce from a four-down to three-down with ease. The ability to jump from one front to another allows the system to base in what fits their personnel from year to year. For example, in 2021, the Bulldogs played more four-down concepts because that is what was on the roster; they had elite D-linemen (Just see what they did at the ‘22 Combine!).
In his ‘21 Spring Nike Coach of the Year Clinic, Kirby Smart alluded to the need to stop the run to be dominant through the air. The fewer defenders you can attribute to the run fits affords the defense an ability to “drop” an extra defender into the passing distribution. Being able to win with four on the line was an emphasis this year for Georgia. As offenses adjusted to the Tite/Mint Front, the adjustment has been to go back to four-down alignments. Saban has done similar in Tuscaloosa, building a hybrid defense that features fluid schematics that mold and form to the opponent they are playing that week.
The goal for both defenses is to win the early downs (1st & 10 - 2nd & 6). Winning these “mixed” downs affords the defense to apply pressure on 3rd. An offensive coordinators’ call sheet shrinks on 3rd & Long. Shrinking the playbook is created when the defense can place the offense in predictable situations. 3rd & 6+ is a passing down for most of college football, and 3rd & 3+ is the marker for most NFL teams.
Both Georgia and Alabama aren’t just sitting in a “static” base defense. Neither defense is just playing what I call “sit-n-get,” letting their base defense win games for them. Against inferior opponents that philosophy may work, but in the SEC, which has seen an injection of modern Spread offenses in the past several seasons (Briles/Kiffin/Leach), the ability to apply pressure without sacrificing pass distribution has become ever more critical.
Bill Arnsparger, the godfather of the Fire Zone, called his new invention “safe pressure.” In my book, Hybrids: The Making of a Modern Defense, I detailed the evolution of his scheme. The “53 Defense” would be the catalyst for the ‘74 Dolphins Super Bowl run and gave birth to the modern 3-4 defense. Fire Zones use a “replacement” concept in their foundation. On one side, the defense rushes a second-level defender while a first-level defender drops into coverage opposite. Against traditional two-back offenses, the scheme dominated and became a standard defensive call. Below is a diagram of Arnsparger’s “OG” replacement pressure.
Versus 21 personnel looks, the Fire Zone gave the defense an ability to “cap” any vertical routes while sending five defenders towards the protection. In the diagram above, both CBs and SS can easily handle any vertical routes the offense runs, with only three receivers with direct vertical access. As offenses have evolved over generations, the Fire Zones have evolved into another form of “safe pressure.”
Creepers and Simulated pressures have become a hot topic in the past several seasons as more teams are using them to combat Spread attacks all across the football landscape. Creepers are the modern iteration of Arnsparger’s Fire Zone concept. In a Creeper or replacement pressure, the defense will bring an off-ball defender and drop an on-ball defender similar to a Fire Zone. What was once a 3-4 novelty has become a standard attack for any modern defense.
Baylor’s Dave Aranda has an entire playbook full of Creepers that can be run from his famous Tite Front to his lesser-known four-down version in his Peso package (2-4-5). Like Aranda, the Saban system has many packages and fronts that their pressures can be run from. In both the Georgia and Alabama systems, there has been a concerted effort the past several seasons to change the picture post-snap for opponent QBs. The presentation pre-snap changes post-snap, forcing the QB to make split-second decisions while defenders are running at him.
A simulated pressure is not just for 3rd Downs, where most people are familiar with seeing them. In a sim pressure, the defense gives the offense the illusion of five or more defenders rushing the offense, only to bring four with pinpoint precision. Applying pressure without sacrificing coverage is a premium in the modern game, and the Saban system is at the forefront of this evolution. In an October press conference, Kirby Smart explained that the Georgia defense was using more simulated pressures in its early-down attacks.
“…we have changed a bit philosophically, whether we've got a great front seven or an average front seven… we'd probably be doing what we're doing. It's not a matter of them changing us, it's more a matter of what we have to do in order to defend these types of offenses.”
I have written about several major Creeper and Simulated pressures, especially the A-gap insert (MEX, below) and field insert (FAVRE) pressures. These two, in particular, are best-practice paths found throughout the football landscape. The ability to apply pressure without sacrificing coverage ability aligns with the era we are in. Spatial Darwinism, as I refer to it, is in full swing. Defenses must understand how to change the math, post-snap picture, and constrain space pre- and post-snap. The Saban system is one of the leaders in this department.
Once the defense wins the early downs, they can focus on beating protections on 3rd Down. Placing the offense in predictable passing situations expands the defense's playbook while shrinking the offense’s ability to call plays. At this point, it becomes a match-up problem for both sides. Who is the offense trying to get the ball to when it matters, and who can the defense win a one-on-one match-up up front? Whether it is forcing the RB to block or taking advantage of a dominant defender on a lesser O-linemen, the ability to manipulate is in favor of the defense on 3rd & 7+.
Schematic nerds like me were ready for the 2022 National Championship. With both teams knowing each other’s playbooks, each defense needed to showcase the ability to disguise and execute. Georgia was out for revenge after their SEC Championship loss and would eventually win 33-18. The game was close until a Kelee Ringo pick-6 capped off the Bulldogs 20 point explosion in the 4th Quarter.
Whether a casual fan or a diehard schematic nerd, the ‘22 National Championship was must-watch football. With Saban and Smart at the helms, the defenses would put on a show. Below are five highlighted concepts from their January matchup.