Alabama won its third BCS title in four years last season, solidifying the Crimson Tide as the most dominant program of the current era. If you're a current Alabama player, however, you can be forgiven for feeling like you missed out on the celebratory reverie. "After the national championship game, we had a team meeting," Saban said at the Nike Coach of the Year Clinic this summer. "I told them they were not the national champions. 'Some of you played on the national championship team, but you are not the national champions.' I went on to tell them what this team does will only be defined by what they could do from this point on."
In Saban's world, you become -- and remain -- a champion by fighting against complacency and measuring yourself against one goal: perfection. And as great as Alabama was, they were not perfect; Heisman trophy-winner Johnny Manziel, quarterback for Texas A&M, saw to that last season by delivering the Crimson Tide their only loss.
Alabama's weight rooms replayed the loss to the Aggies on an endless loop.
"Each year we go through our schedule and decide which team we have to beat to compete for the conference championship," Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said this summer. "We have to decide what we have to do to defeat that team." This summer, the television screens in Alabama's weight rooms replayed the loss to the Aggies on an endless loop; it's a pretty good bet the focus of Alabama's offseason was on Texas A&M and Manziel.
Manziel dominated the offseason coverage, but he gained his status through the incredible things he did on the field, not least of all against Alabama. Manziel molded Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin's system in his image, into a kind of streetball air raid, where the offense's uptempo no-huddle and wide-open formations were merged with Manziel's improvisational savvy. Before the game in Tuscaloosa, a reporter asked if Manziel reminded Saban of Tim Tebow or Cam Newton.
Saban said he didn't, and instead said Manziel reminded him of a different sort of quarterback. "I've been around longer than most, and most of our players can't relate to this, but this guy reminds me of Doug Flutie," Saban said. "I played against him a long time ago, but he was a really good player and a really good competitor, and that's who this guy reminds me of."
Suffice to say that as much as Saban, Smart and the rest of Alabama's coaches and players are concerned with Texas A&M as a whole, their concern can really be condensed into one very specific issue: Nick Saban has a Johnny Football problem, one he's been working all offseason to solve. And to find the answer to his current problem, Saban might be looking to his past.
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In 1994, the Cleveland Browns under head coach Bill Belichick went 11-5 during the season, tacking on an additional win in the playoffs over the Patriots. But they lost three times that season to the Pittsburgh Steelers, including a loss to them in the divisional round of the playoffs. Belichick and his defensive coordinator at the time, Nick Saban, could not stop Pittsburgh's offense, especially from one-back sets. "Pittsburgh would run 'Seattle' on us, four streaks. Then they would run two streaks and two out routes, which I call the 'Pole' route from two-by-two," Saban recalled recently. "Because we could not defend this, we could not play three-deep [zone], so when you can't play three-deep zone, what do you do next? We'll play Cover 1 [man-to-man coverage]. But here's the problem with Cover 1: If their men are better than your men, you can't play Cover 1, because they've got someone you can't match up with."
This was a concern, but had Pittsburgh purely been a throwing team, it wouldn't have been much of one. The Steelers were not, however, purely a passing team. In 1994, the Steelers led the NFL in rushing, something Belichick and Saban were brutally aware of. "So now we can't run Cover 1, and these guys can run the ball," Saban said. "We lost to the [Steelers] three times. And you know why? We could not play eight-man fronts against them to stop the run, because they would wear us out throwing it."
The question was how to find a way to get an extra defender in the box without playing a true, pure mano-a-mano defense. As Saban put it, "How can we play Cover 1 and Cover 3 at the same time, so we can do both and one would complement the other?"
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The first quarter will be in some sense the fifth quarter of the last one.
No game exists in a vacuum, and this year's matchup between Texas A&M and Alabama on Sept. 14 will be no different. The first quarter will be in some sense the fifth quarter of the last one, with both coaching staffs looking to the film of last year's game for clues.
Alabama began last year's game against the Aggies using a defense Saban has long used against spread passing teams, which dates back to his days against the Browns, when they faced the Houston Oilers' run-and-shoot attack. Saban has had a basic model for defending spread passing teams, one he developed with Browns coach Bill Belichick to defend the vaunted Oilers triggerman Warren Moon, and which was further refined for modern spread offenses for the 2009 BCS National Championship against Texas, a game Alabama won 37-21.
Although Alabama is known for running a 3-4 defense -- meaning three defensive linemen and four linebackers -- that doesn't quite describe the practical reality on the field. "We are a 3-4 defense. That does not mean we play the 3-4 all the time," Smart has said. "Last year, we ran the 3-4 front 25 percent of the time. The rest of the time we played 4-3."
The reason for the shift is that offenses have been changing, so Saban must change with them. Saban's 3-4 was designed as a run-stuffing defense for traditional attacks, but teams like Texas A&M are far more likely to spread the field. "When we play a two-back team, we are in a 3-4 defense. Georgia and LSU are two-back offenses," said Smart. "If a team is a one-back offense with three or four wide receivers in the set, we match their personnel and play nickel or dime. When we play nickel or dime, we play very little 3-4 defense out of it; we are in the 4-3 front."
And, when facing one of these spread attacks, Saban likes to adjust his pass coverages as well. As he explained a few years ago, "when you're playing a passing team, you always have a better chance with split safeties," meaning coverages with two deep safeties. Against spread offenses, the blueprint has thus been straightforward: four down linemen, two deep safeties, and his corners rolled up on the outside receivers. With this mixture, Saban's defenses have suffocated team after team: the attacking four-man line pressuring the quarterback, the cornerbacks rolled up to take away the quick screens, and a two-deep safety look from which Alabama can mix and match coverages to confuse the quarterback.
And the run? Against teams like Texas, Alabama has been able to stuff it by giving its defensive linemen and inside linebackers responsibility for extra gaps based on the offense's blocking schemes.
This tried and true scheme is what Alabama began the game with against Texas A&M last season, ostensibly a Big 12 spread team that was about to learn what big-league SEC football was all about. Alabama's defense didn't work.
En route to Texas A&M's delirious 20-0 start, head coach Kevin Sumlin and then-offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury preyed on the weakest aspect of Saban's established anti-spread scheme: its linebackers and nickel cornerbacks.
On the second play of its first drive, Texas A&M hurries to the line. Kingsbury (now the head coach at Texas Tech) calls a packaged play, which is effectively two plays in one. A&M's offensive line blocks an inside run to the left while the receivers, specifically inside receiver Ryan Swope, run a quick stick passing concept.
On the play, it's Manziel's job to decide whether to throw the ball to Swope or hand it off to his running back, Ben Malena, all depending on the alignment and movement of Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley.
Because Mosley cheats his alignment inside for the run -- the direct result of Alabama keeping two safeties deep -- Swope is open and Manziel hits him for the first down. It's a simple play, but Saban and Smart quickly realize they can't continually give Manziel freebies on the outside, so they rapidly adjust to cover each of A&M's receivers. This too does not work, not as much because of scheme. Because of, well, Johnny Football.
Three plays later, on second and seven, Alabama lines up with a similar alignment. But when A&M's receivers take off down the field, Alabama's defenders run with them, opening up a massive running lane for Manziel to dart through, at which point he blasts past Mosley and stiff-arms Deion Belue, gaining 29 yards to the Alabama 14. Texas A&M would score three plays later.
The cat-and-mouse gem continues. On the following Alabama possession, A.J. McCarron throws an ugly interception. Saban and Smart are nevertheless ready. They have a plan to bait the young freshman quarterback into a potential game-changing mistake, just the kind of mistake they've forced in so many games before.
On first and 10 from the Alabama 41, Texas A&M aligns in the same formation as the earlier packaged pass to Swope. Alabama shows the exact same look -- at first. Just before the snap, Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri shifts in to take away the hand-off to Malena while cornerback Dee Milliner slides inside of Swope to take away -- and possibly intercept -- the quick pass. Instead, Sumlin and Manziel are already on to their counter to Alabama's counter.
Because of Sunseri's and Milliner's inside alignments, Alabama safety Robert Lester slides down to cover receiver Kenric McNeal in the slot. Manziel dashes to the right as if he is running a speed option play, only to drop back and hit McNeal streaking past Lester down the seam.
A&M quickly scores another touchdown. By this point Alabama's defensive plan is out the window. On their next possession, Saban and Smart throw up their hands and bring an all-out blitz on third down, only for Manziel to easily escape for a 32-yard run, leading to another A&M score making it 20-0, Aggies.
Alabama recovers, as its offense finds life and defense changes tactics.
"There are times in a game when you must deny the ball. It is like basketball. If you want to get the ball back at the end of a game, you cannot play a two-three zone defense," Saban said this summer. Alabama would concede nothing: "You have to get on them and deny the ball. In football, you cannot deny the ball playing zone coverage."
Out are the anti-spread tactics that Saban had designed to stop the Oilers and the Texas Longhorns, the kind of complex, hybrid defenses he developed with Belichick. In is the mano-a-mano football he learned while coaching under Jerry Glanville with the Oilers.
"Sometimes you've got to be able to play middle-of-the-field coverage to get an extra guy in the box," Saban has explained in past lectures. In other words, said Saban, "You have to have some guts and play press."
In the second half, Alabama clamps down, challenges the Aggie receivers, challenges the Aggie run game, and, most of all, challenges Manziel. And Alabama gets back in the game, so it works, until it doesn't.
The Johnny Manziel who Alabama faced is not the same Johnny Manziel that Florida and LSU had beaten: a talented but raw player who wasn't able to consistently hit passes in tight windows.
Instead Manziel comes into his own as he hits several key second-half passes to Swope, until, finally, he beats Alabama mano-a-mano. Johnny Football is better than Alabama's men. In the fourth quarter with just under nine minutes remaining, Texas A&M lines up in an empty, no-back set. Alabama plays straight-up man-to-man coverage, with a single safety deep; because Manziel is such a threat to run, they need the extra defender in the box and can't put two safeties deep. The call for A&M is "8," in which the outside receivers to the trips side run slants while the innermost receiver, Malcome Kennedy, runs a corner route. Kennedy beats Dee Milliner -- who would be picked ninth in the 2013 NFL Draft -- and Manziel lofts a perfectly placed pass over Kennedy's outside shoulder. Alabama will still have opportunities to win, but that touchdown proves to be the ballgame.
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Had the coaches not been named Saban and Belichick, it's likely that the Steelers beating the Browns three times that year would have been the end of the story. But instead those two coaches devised a new tactic called "Rip/Liz Match," though neither got to put it to much use in Cleveland. Saban left to coach Michigan State, while Belichick was fired from Cleveland after failing to make the playoffs. But each has used Rip/Liz Match on his subsequent championship teams, and there's a chance it could be Saban's answer for Johnny Football.
Rip/Liz Match is a pattern-matching adjustment to a traditional three-deep zone, which means that the zone defenders essentially play man-to-man coverage <i>after</i> the receivers have run the called pass pattern. Below is an image from Saban's playbook on Rip/Liz:
The insight behind Rip/Liz is that when offenses -- like the Steelers in 1994 -- want to defeat three-deep zone, they run the tight end and slot receivers down the seams, but if they want to defeat Cover 1 man, they run picks and crossing routes. Rip/Liz match therefore gives the offense precisely what it doesn't want to see. To oversimplify, they do this because when the inside receivers run vertical, those nickel defenders and linebackers run vertical with them, but if they quickly break outside to the flat or inside on a cross, those linebackers and nickelbacks, rather than chasing the receivers across the field, pass them on and drop to their zones and match up to the offense's other receivers.
"If [the receivers] run vertical, it looks like Cover 1 man coverage," Smart said this summer. "It is unless the receivers start to cross, then it becomes zone. We play zone until the offense tries to run four vertical patterns down the field." And the most important benefit is the defense can now add an extra defender to the box to stop the run -- or spy the quarterback.
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Texas A&M and Manziel present Saban with precisely the dilemma he faced from the Steelers: How do you stop a spread passing team that can really run the ball? Rip/Liz Match -- coupled with a heavy emphasis on making sure Alabama's pass rush remains disciplined to keep Manziel in the pocket -- seems like a ready-made answer for Alabama to address the problems Texas A&M presents. Alabama certainly played much better on defense after that first quarter, and Rip/Liz would not have given Manziel the clear one-on-one matchups to hit Swope and Kennedy late in the game.
But maybe Rip/Liz isn't the answer. It was in Alabama's playbook last season, and they still lost. Instead, maybe Saban and his defensive coordinator, like Belichick and Saban himself back in 1994, must react by devising some modern tactic as they face this modern problem.
Right now, at every level of football, defensive coaches have been racking their brains trying to find a way to stop the onslaught of deadly dual-threat quarterbacks, particularly those captaining uptempo, spread attacks. With Manziel and Texas A&M, Saban is facing an acute version of the problem NFL, college and high school defenses are also facing.
It's no understatement to say that almost the entire defensive coaching world, including at the very highest levels, want to see very badly what Saban has in store for Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel. If anyone can figure out how to stop these offenses, it must be the best defensive coach in the game, Nick Saban. And what if he can't? What then?
Can Saban solve his Johnny Football problem? Inquiring minds want to know.