Why Nick Saban is (Really) Opposed to the No-Huddle And How He is Adjusting On the Field

By Ross Fulton on May 6, 2014 at 1:15p

In between continuing his run of success at Alabama, Nick Saban has generated notoriety for another reason – proposing rule changes in an attempt to slow down the ever-increasing use of no-huddle, up-tempo offenses.

While Saban's ten second proposal was tabled, the idea surely won't go away. And although Saban couches the concept as increasing player safety, there is no available evidence that up-tempo offenses increase risks.

What is undeniable that up-tempo, no huddle offenses limit what Saban wants to do with his defense. Nevertheless, although this style of football may not be Saban's favorite, he and other defensive coaches have begun to devise ways to address no-huddle offenses. And their method to do so is keeping things simple. 

Goin' Backyard Style

College no-huddle offenses increasingly follow a similar framework. In a meshing of spread to run and air raid principles, these offenses generally utilize shotgun, spread formations with run-pass packaged plays. For instance, one favorite for Dana Holgorson and others (including Urban Meyer) is a zone read-stick package. The quarterback reads the backside defensive end and linebacker to determine whether to a) hand off to the running back on inside zone, or b) pull the football and throw a stick pass behind the linebacker playing run. Cal's Tony Franklin goes so far as to have every play contain a run-pass option.  

This up-tempo, school yard style of play puts Saban and other defensive coaches in a bind. Saban's preferred style is to use situational and specialty packages. Saban utilizes a 3-4 defensive front in part because it allows for an assortment of blitz schemes. Similarly, Saban prefers combination coverages, utilizing pattern matching zone looks from cover 3 and cover 4. 

But the no-huddle offense short circuits the plan. Specialty packages are not possible when the no-huddle limits substitution. And packaged plays take advantage of second level defenders such as linebackers and nickel defenders who have both pass and run responsibilities. To regain the arithmetic, advantage defenses will often cheat these defenders into the box against the run. Packaged plays punish defenses that overcommit to run action by pulling the ball and throwing short pass routes right into the areas vacated by those second level defenders. 

Fighting Fire with Fire

To respond, defenses have had to adapt a backyard football mentality. The primary response is for the defense to strip down what it is doing and utilize cover 1 robber. As the name implies, cover 1 robber means that a defense plays man defense with two zone defenders – a deep, middle of the field safety, and an inside linebacker who plays the middle underneath zone. 

Cover 1 Robber

Cover 1's simplicity permits the defense to easily match multiple wide receivers and deal with packaged plays. Man coverage eliminates any conflict for defenders. As West Virginia corner coach Brian Mitchell stated, with zone the defender is in a run-pass conflict. If the defender bites on the run the offense will throw a pass behind him.

But with man, a defender is not pulled in two directions. He knows he is either a run defender or a pass defender. Defenders with man responsibility cover their assigned receiver. And the defense still has a middle linebacker in the box (the robber) to play the run or spy the quarterback. 

Saban himself is increasingly deploying such tactics. For instance, against Johnny Manziel and Texas A & M this fall, Saban largely eschewed complication to utilize a 4-2-5 cover 1 nickel. C.J. Mosely operated as the robber in an attempt to account for Manziel as a runner.

Bama Cover 1

Action . . . Reaction

Defenses were able to slow down Holgorson's West Virginia offense and others with this basic plan, because they could eliminate easy yards from packaged plays. That is not to say the offense is without options. Five defenders are committed to man coverage, providing the offense fairly advantageous numbers to run the football. And man coverage self-evidently requires the defense have defenders with the ability to play man coverage across the field.

Yet the defensive plan forces offenses to have the personnel to win their individual matchups. What this stripped down defensive plan does is take away easy yards through confusion and force an offense to out talent the defense. And that should be something even Saban appreciates. 


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The Butler's picture

The primary response is for the defense to strip down what it is doing and utilize cover 1 robber. As the name implies, cover 1 robber means that a defense plays man defense with two zone defenders – a deep, middle of the field safety, and an inside linebacker who plays the middle underneath zone. 

That is not what I inferred at all. But a great article nonetheless! These articles are my favorites by far.

I've trained Canaries in the sport of falconry.


+1 HS
d5k's picture

The fact that offenses have the ball creates optionality that the defense doesn't have.  Pattern matching when well executed seems to negate some of this but the QB still has the ability to make the last decision off of what the defense shows.  My perception of what MSU has done is to essentially bring both safeties up to negate all of the short-intermediate stuff (runs and passes/screens) and leave center field open for shots.  These offenses do not really enjoy the high-risk high-reward plays but instead like to get short chunks of yards to stay "ahead of the chains".  I would think a trend toward spread to run teams mixing in more vertical passing is in order.  Baylor has had a lot of success throwing deep.  If a defense is going to sell out to stop the short stuff you have to make them pay.  And not just a little bit, you have to make them pay repeatedly.

+1 HS
yrro's picture

I would *love* to be running a real power game like Wisconsin over the next five years or so, given the adjustments defenses are going to have to be making.

MSU's tactic will work because there just aren't a bunch of guys who can run the read option and also stick those deep throws. Put a big-armed old fashioned quarterback back there and you've got to go back to a more traditional defense. I don't know that defenses have shifted enough yet for the old style to work again, but given just how many people are running the spread stuff these days I'm not sure how long it will take for defenses to forget how to handle a power team.

JKH1232's picture

I don't know if "forget" is the right word, exactly- D-coordinators aren't just deleting their 4-3 scheme run blitzes and tossing them out of their minds.  Those parts of the playbook still exist.  The advantage a tradition I-formation, power run to play action team in a spread to run and airraid world would be a lack of player experience.  After all, what's one of the advantages of the Flexbone system?  Only a few teams run it, and you have to run a different defense to stop it- so, that week, defensive coaches have to completely change course, and defensive players have to forget everything they know for just that week.  

You'd also have an advantage in recruiting, since you could focus on players that don't fit into those spread schemes, but do fit into yours.  Less competition and all.  You won't get the best athletes, probably, but you can make it work- Stanford wins a lot of football games like this already.  Will you win national titles?  Probably not.  But you'll compete, for sure.

I think the lesson here is that you can win a lot of football games, especially in college or high school, by doing what everyone else isn't doing, so long as you have a plan, the right players, and people believe it will work. After all, Rich Rod developed his spread-to-run system just to find a way to win a game with the players he had.

+1 HS
d5k's picture

What the MSU scheme has is an adaptability within the same scheme.  They can adjust what the individual DB's assignments are within the same coverage (the Meg/Cloud calls Ross has mentioned before, and not Stanford lacrosse player Meg).  So they have a single defense that they can run against pro-style and spread.  OSU has had a spread defense and a pro-style defense the last several years.  The spread defense was basically running a ton of nickel.  

+3 HS
yrro's picture

The coordinators don't forget it, but the players haven't practiced it. And more than practice, they aren't the right size to stop it.

A good defense will still be a good defense, for sure. Anyone who plays fast and fundamentally sound will give any offense a challenge. I guess, my point is that a good pro style offense, at least one run with the same holistic philosophy as the modern spread offenses, is still less limiting than the classic triple option while being something that most teams don't have the personnel to stop. I think we have far enough in favor of the "spread" concepts that the power offenses are going to have the same advantages in recruiting and mismatches that the early spread teams did putting a slot receiver against a LB.

Zimmy07's picture

A great QB could probably nickel & dime it down the field against man coverage, IMO.  IN the photo above, Manziel has the receiver (near the 30 yd marker) open for a 5+ yard gain if he can see it & get it there fast enough.  5 yd in & out routes are very hard to cover playing man.

+1 HS
d5k's picture

It should be noted that Manziel completely torched Alabama twice, so I don't know that Saban has figured anything out vs. that scheme.

+1 HS
I_Run_The_Dave's picture

A lot of that has to do with TAMU having some freakish WR's.  Manziel had a lot of success throwing deep into double/triple coverage and having his 6-6 guys jumping and coming up with the catch.  And when that didn't work out, he was elusive running the football.  No matter what defense you are running, stopping the threat of both simultaneously is near impossible.  This is why he's going to have a rude awakening in the NFL when neither option is viable.

d5k's picture

I simultaneously hate Manziel (off the field, brash behavior) but love his game.  Chris Brown just posted an article about Manziel, Bortles and Bridgewater being a Rorschach test for your predisposed preferences in a QB.  When he made his argument for Manziel he quoted Bill Walsh saying a QB required "spontaneous genius".  It is the quality that Braxton greatly lacked in 2012 and started to show in 2013.  Making a play when there's 21 large men running around chaotically, particularly when the play breaks down.  You can make some claim that TAMU had some advantages but they certainly did not have better players than Alabama's defense.  He reminds me of Steve Nash being able to make the best play in chaotic situations repeatedly.  He needs to learn when to surrender in the NFL but he will make a ton of plays.  I think he becomes a better version of Tony Romo in the NFL, who is often underrated.

NitroBuck's picture

I think that is what Ross means when he says the cover 1 robber defense forces the offense's personnel to win their individual match ups.  A lesser QB is probably not able to exploit those brief windows of opportunity often enough to hurt the defense.

Ferio.  Tego.

+1 HS
Horvath22's picture

Great job Ross.

Tom57's picture

I don't think no huddle has anything necessarily to do with the spread. You can certainly run no huddle out of the I... and you can also run option and option pass plays out of the I.....

I also don't think that Saban wants to slow things down so he can sub in DBs. I do think he's trying to protect is 2 gap D linemen who by scheme have to be HUGE boys.... and esp the 0/1 technique kid.

No huddle with a ball control style will absolutely GAS your DL. ... and in spread so the kid is running hash to hash...