An X's and O's Tour around College Football: The Alabama Crimson Tide Defense

By Ross Fulton on June 6, 2013 at 2:00p

For many teams the offense gets the glamour and awards. But that is not the case for Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide. During a time when offenses have set records when increasingly alacrity, Saban's Crimson Tide have stood atop the college football landscape based upon an often-dominant defense. A week after examining Alabama's offense, I turn to the defending national champion's defense.


Saban's defense is one of the few in college football that bases out of a 3-4 defense. The primary difference between a 3-4 and 4-3 difference is that with the 3-4 a defensive linemen--generally the nose guard--is responsible for two gaps. The nose guard will line directly over the center and seek to defend both gaps by neutralizing the center and making a pile. This creates freedom to use the linebackers in creative ways. In a 4-3, by contrast, each defensive lineman and linebacker is responsible for one gap.

Saban is not wedded to the 3-4, however. He will instead also utilize four man, one gap fronts, such as the 4-3 under above. Saban and his defensive coordinator Kirby Smart also use four man fronts when they go to their his sub, or nickel, package. Alabama uses nickel looks quite often, given the frequency with which they face spread offenses in modern college football.

Making his Mark

Saban's defensive fronts therefore employ an aggressive yet flexible framework. But where Saban has made his most lasting schematic mark upon football is his implementation of man pattern matching principles within zone coverages. At its simplest, pattern matching simply means that each zone defender will play man defense within his zone. Before the snap, the defense will identify the number 1, 2, and 3 receivers to each side (from outside to in). Upon the snap, the defenders will drop to their designated zone. If the receivers all run vertical routes the defenders simply will play man coverage, with the cornerback taking number 1, safety number 2, etc. If the number 1 receiver breaks inside, however, the assignment changes. The corner will not follow, as in traditional man, but will instead pass that receiver off to the inside zone defender and wait. Knowing how most pass patterns are distributed, it is likely that an inside receiver will eventually come into that cornerback's zone. Similarly, the inside defenders will wall off any quick routes, and then pick up the incoming crossing route. (H/T: Chris Brown). The safety and outside linebackers will work in tandem The safety will generally take any inside routes longer than 8 yards, while the linebackers are responsible for short inside routes underneath. The linebackers will also widen with flat routes if no underneath inside routes show.  

As Chris Brown states, in short, the coverage looks like man when the defenders release deep, and zone when they cross. The defense is made possible, above all, by recognition. Saban drills with his defensive backs what typical pass pattern combinations look like, and who is likely to appear in their zone when another receiver vacates.

Trial and Error

As the old saying goes, invention is the mother of necessity. Saban and his colleague Bill Belicheck came to pattern-matching because they were getting beat. Saban and Belicheck traditionally based out of single high safety coverages such as cover-3. NFL offenses began gaining yards, however, by running four vertical pass patterns from the one-back offense. As Saban states (courtesy of Brophy):  

When you’re playing a passing team you always have a better chance with split-safeties, but with all this zone read / zone option stuff we see…all the spread stuff, sometimes you’ve got to be able to play middle-of-the-field coverage to get an extra guy in the box.

We got to the point where, this is the reason that we do this, when everybody started going spread we couldn’t play 3 deep zone. This started with the Cleveland Browns, I was the defensive coordinator in the early 90s and Pittsburgh would run 'Seattle' on us , four streaks. Then they would run two streaks and two out routes, what I call ‘pole’ route from 2x2. So we got to where could NOT play 3-deep zone because we rerouted the seams and played zone, and what I call “Country Cover 3” (drop to your spot reroute the seams, break on the ball). Well , when Marino is throwing it, that old break on the ball shit don’t work.

So because we could not defend this, we could not play 3 deep, so when you can’t play zone, what do you do next? You play Man (cover 1), but if their mens are better than your mens, you can’t play cover 1 .

We got to where we couldn’t run cover 1 - So now we can’t play an 8 man front.

The 1994 Browns went 13-5 , we lost to Steelers 3 times, lost 5 games total (twice in the regular season, once in the playoffs). We gave up the 5th fewest points in the history of the NFL, and lost to Steelers because we could not play 8-man fronts to stop the run because they would wear us out throwing it

We came up with this concept; how we can play cover 1 and cover 3 at the same time, so we can do both these things and one thing would complement the other. We came up with the concept “rip/liz match”.

In essence, the Rip/Liz call announces that with four vertical routes, the safety coming down will be responsible for the No. 2 receiver to one side and the outside linebacker will play the seam opposite the safety. Their goal is to maintain inside leverage, making the receivers re-route so that the deep free safety has time to make a play on the football. Saban prefers the 3-4 because it provides him two detached linebackers to each side that can easily adjust to fill this role. This is but one form of Saban's pattern matching. He will use this coverage style from any coverage. For example, with cover 4, the defense works in a similar matter. As Brophy states:

With two receivers to the passing strength, you have the vertical stem of #2 being controlled by the deep safety, and any vertical by #1 being handled by the corner (unless in “MEG”). The SLB / Nickel will take the first receiver to the flat, the Mike will match the final #3.

Pattern matching provides Saban the opportunity to be extremely versatile and yet use the same framework for any coverage. The defense can base from a two-high shell, quickly drop down to a one-high defense to play the run and still deal with four deep receivers. The defense can play even safety defenses using the same principles, and is well practiced in man coverage. The secondary adjust to any offensive alignment such as trips. Players get ample practice repetitions under the same framework.

Saban's system also has the benefit of putting athletic, intelligent players in a position to make plays and succeed. This complicated, yet simple system is the backbone of Alabama's success.


Comments Show All Comments

jccavanaugh's picture

So I'll ask the obvious question: how do you beat it?

OSUs12-OH's picture

A mobile QB and an overabundance of speed from the skill positions;-)  

"I want a hungry team. I want a team that can't wait to get out there. I want an angry team! You're the Ohio State Buckeyes. You're an angry football team. You're a hungry football team and I'm proud to be your coach." UFM

jccavanaugh's picture

When A&M beat Bama last year, Manziel had some fantastic runs, but he beat them with his arm just as much as his legs.  He's a good passer, much better than Braxton was last year.  I hope Brax will have improved enough to keep the passing game up as a solid threat.

RBuck's picture

Manziel also kept threading the needle with his throws and had receivers that could catch anything within 5 yards of them.

Long live the southend.

OSUs12-OH's picture

I'm going out on an oak limb and say Brax360 will be much better as a throwing QB this year. And his longer runs won't be QB designed runs like last year with more runs off pass plays when the wrs are covered. I hope;-)

"I want a hungry team. I want a team that can't wait to get out there. I want an angry team! You're the Ohio State Buckeyes. You're an angry football team. You're a hungry football team and I'm proud to be your coach." UFM

stevebelliseeya's picture

With speed.

"We are eternal. All this pain is an illusion." - Tool

sirclovis's picture

Well looking at that second picture, if you send the running back on a bubble route to the near flats and then have a 2 receiver do a shallow slant and maybe just sit in the middle of the field 8 yards or less. The running back would evacuate the MLB, emptying the short middle of the field for the 2 receiver.

Though employing a 3-4 version gives you 2 MLB's which might leverage this small but apparent weakness.

EDIT: Thinking about this even more, if there was some sort of play action, the 2 Receiver on the play action side could still do a skinny sla-go (first few steps of a slant route followed by a go route) or a slant-flag route. I think this would take advantage of the safety to the 2 Receiver's side having to deal with run support. Its really all predicated on a good run game so that the safety bites on the play action.

Ross Fulton's picture

2 quick points:


1) The coverage can be attacked by holding the No. 2 seam defender in place and then attacking outside the hashmark, particularly by getting a match-up with a linebacker. You will see that with Meyer's 'Houston' play. Wheel routes are also a good play for the same reason.

2)  Pattern matching can cause problems with a running QB, in that the DBs have to turn and play man coverage.  OSU drilled Neb last year (who often pattern matches) through designed QB runs.

4thandinches's picture

To me, trips seems to be the a very good answer. 

I wasn't born a Buckeye but I became one as fast as I could. 

buckeyeblur5's picture

You go trips they will man up the backside corner 1 on 1.  Then the backside safety (away from trips) will actually read the 3rd receiver (most inside) to the trips side.  He will match #3 vertical.  If you run trips your options are to look at the 1 on 1 backside (and if their guy is better than your guy that's not very good) or throw a short or outside route to the trips side.  Short routes don't gain many yards and outside throws are the toughest.  This style of defense makes the offense make plays, nothing is surrendered easily.

yrro's picture

This system sounds like it could be a nightmare or genius depending on just how well the coordinator understands the nuance. It seems like your system for making the players' reads something that they can actually grasp and understand would be as important as the actual framework for the defense itself.

Earle's picture

It works for 'Bama because they have great athletes and are incredibly well-coached.  Urban and Herman are trying to assemble a multi-faceted offense full of dynamic playmakers that can  can match their athletic ability and confuse their reads.
Texas A&M was successful against 'Bama largely because Johnny M was able to run around and make plays outside of the framework of their offense.  Hopefully, Braxton could do the same if Ohio State faces them, though so far he has been more successful with designed runs than with improvisation. 
Let's hope we get to find out.

Snarkies gonna snark. 

Shock-G's picture

Fascinating insight and a great article, Ross. Thoroughly enjoy these opportunities to learn more about the game we all love so much. 

I wanna go back to Ohio State ... 

OSUBias's picture

Weren't we trying to run this defense at the beginning of last season but our guys couldn't figure it out? Have we completely abandoned it for quarter-quarter-half, Cover 3, etc? Seems like the cutting edge of defense, are we falling behind the curve? Also seems more difficult for QB's to read, I'd imagine?
Good article, as always.

7 yards and a cloud of dust is a beautiful thing

Ross Fulton's picture

Yes and no. OSU (as pretty much every other team) pattern matches from Cover 4 or quarters. That is the basis of that coverage. And OSU still often ran cover 4 on first or second down, particularly against 'spread' teams. 

What Saban does a bit differently, however, is that he pattern matches from every zone coverage, including cover 3. 

buckeyeblur5's picture

I'm going to have to respectfully disagree on this point.  95% of college teams employ pattern matching in all of their coverages, just not to the extent that Saban does.  Nobody is simply dropping to a specified zone and waiting for action, even in Cover 2 or 3.

Blue Eyed Buckeye's picture

Ross is my absolute favorite part of elevenwarriors, and that's high praise considering the amazing group of talent on this site!!!  Never stop writing!

buckskin's picture

Excellent breakdown Ross.  I see two keys to beating that defense.  First as stated above, Braxton will need to improve on his passing game and improvisation in the pocket.      The second is our unique power run element out of the spread.  Not too many spread offenses are successful utilizing both slasher style speed guys AND power guys in the run game like OSU does.  Imagine on one play getting trucked by El Guapo, then the next trying to get your hands on Jalin or Dontre, and finally Braxton burns you in the air for a TD on a broken play.  That is a lot for any defense to prepare for.  IF we are hitting on all these cylinders, no way Bama can stop us.