If you've read any of my X & O analysis in the last few years, you probably know that most of it has been heavily influenced by the work of Chris B. Brown. From his original Smart Football blog to his work with ESPN's Grantland property, Brown has been a tremendous influence. Quite frankly, the reason I started writing these types of articles is because I wanted to read them about LSU.
And over the years, Chris has also been a gracious friend, sounding board and a willing interview subject for a couple of different topics here for ATVS. So when his second book, "The Art of Smart Football" was released, I made sure to grab a copy.
At just past 160 pages, it's a great read that I really recommend getting in before the season opens in three weeks. The first chapter, right out the shoot "Who's Laughing Now?," deals with Pete Carroll's journey from the NFL to tremendous success at USC that he's carried back to the pros with the Seattle Seahawks. His 4-3 "under" front philosophy is one that could be pretty relevant to LSU this season under new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, something Dan and I have both written about extensively here.
Other topics covered and relevant to LSU include pattern-match coverages, and the ideas and evolution of concept passing as it relates to spread and pro-style offenses. Plus, there are some great notes on Chip Kelly's philosophies on running programs, and some offensive theory. It's a great pickup that can help you learn a little more about how and what to watch for this season, and Chris's writing style takes the complex and really condenses it in a simple way for the reader to digest.
In addition, Chris was nice enough to answer a couple of questions:
1. In the first chapter of your new book, you talk about the 4-3 "under" front defense, a style that LSU will be shifting to under new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and Ed Orgeron. What are your thoughts on that front's strengths and weaknesses versus the "over" front LSU used under John Chavis in the past?
CBB: The 4-3 Under is a tremendous set, which is one reason it's so popular. The biggest advantage is it's tough as nails to run against on the weakside; while the 4-3 Over has a natural "bubble" to the weakside between the guard and tackle because the nose tackle lines up inside the guard and the defensive end lines up outside the tackle -- leaving the defense open to weakside zone, power and isolation (fullback lead) run plays -- the 4-3 Under sticks a defensive tackle right in that gap on the outside shoulder of the weakside guard (in a three technique position). And then on the strongside because the Strongside (or Sam) linebacker lines up on the end, you are essentially in a five man front.
The issues with the 4-3 Under come in the fact that there's a lot of space to the weakside of the defense in terms of coverage: you have a cornerback, free safety and defensive end outflanking the defense, while the weakside linebacker is lined up in the defensive end which puts him in great position to flow fast and blow up strongside runs (think about Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks playing in Monte Kiffin's 4-3 Under with the Tampa Bay Bucs) but he's not in great position to cover the flats, and if he widens then you may have gap control issues inside.
The answer from most 4-3 Under teams is to roll the corner up to play the flat in squat Cover 2 coverage or have the weakside safety buzz down to take on a slot receiver, but the bottom line is it's hard to play the 4-3 Under without explicitly tying your front (4-3 Under) to your coverage, which can make you somewhat predictable on that side and hamstring your options. In this way the 4-3 Over is a slightly more flexible front, though that flexibility often comes through walking the strongside and weakside linebackers (or nickel and dime backs who have substituted for them) out of the box, which can result in a light box.
2. Additionally, LSU will likely be implementing some of the pattern-matching and combo coverages you discussed in the book. What are some of the concerns in a style shift away from a scheme that was much simpler in terms of coverage concepts?
CBB: Pattern match and combo coverages are a big part of the future, as they automatically morph to offenses that -- at a lightning fast tempo -- shift seamlessly between runs, short passes and deep passes.
And at the end of the day pattern match defense is a type of man coverage, or at least it often gets played with man technique, it just comes after the pattern distribution. The hard part of these coverages, however, is communication. Alabama under Saban and at times Steele's Clemson defenses shut people down because there were really no open passing lanes as their defenders read the release of receivers and latched onto them.
But one doesn't have to look farther than the Orange Bowl against West Virginia to find an example of an offense that completely -- and very subtly -- attacked the coverage rules of Clemson's defenders, resulting in wide open receivers all over the field. West Virginia's coach Dana Holgorsen talked about how from his film study -- supposedly informed by a couple of choice phone calls from none other than Steve Spurrier tipping off his rivals' opponent -- that he didn't think Clemson's defensive backs did a good job of switching off assignments between the #1, #2 and #3 receivers both before and after the snap, so he often sent receivers in motion where they would go from being the #3 to the #2 receiver by alignment and then again criss-crossing after the snap. Clemson did a poor job of communicating and the rest is history.
3. A recurring theme in discussion for LSU fans in the offseason has been the idea of "pro-style" versus "spread" offenses. Do you feel that the distinctions have become somewhat arbitrary?
Very arbitrary. The NFL is a shotgun spread league now -- the rate of the use of shotgun and three wide receiver (or more) sets were both just under 60% in 2013 and 2014, while a "pro style" team like Stanford is frankly more pro-style than any actual pro team in terms of personnel packages and formations. And, in response, nickel (five defensive back) defense was played in the NFL more often than base 4-3 or 3-4 defense. The upshot is I don't know what those terms mean, and when someone uses them it's usually something very subjective.
Now, that's not to say the terms are entirely meaningless, as there's definitely a difference in offensive style between a team like LSU and Ohio State, though the line is probably blurrier than people want to admit. Ultimately the purpose of having a style on offense is twofold:
(1) it gives you a framework for recruiting, as you don't want to recruit to a 3 tight-end or five receiver offense if you're not going to play that style (it's arguably even more important on defense); and
(2) your offensive system, whatever it is, should be coherent and give you ways to both get playmakers the ball, get critical yards and points (red zone, short yardage, two minute offense, four minute offense) and have answers to problems posed by defenses without junking what you do and going to entirely new teaching. The beauty of a "pro style" system is usually that it's very multiple and thus adaptable to players, but the downside is there's often no single governing principle so featuring different players or reacting to defenses can often get overly complex for your own team, not just in terms of assignment but also for mastering the necessary techniques.
4. It feels like football has been moving in cycles, with offenses spreading the field in response to defenses getting faster, but at the same time using a lot of the concepts we think of as being "old," like the Wing-T principles we see in Auburn's offense. Any idea what the next shift is?
CBB: It's always hard to predict the next shift, but one thing I know is that it's both true and false that old ideas always come back: It's true in the sense that the broad trends of the game are cyclical, and even specific concepts or plays come in and out of vogue. But what's false about the statement that the game is "cyclical" and everything that is old comes back into vogue is they never come back in quite the same way: Auburn and Ohio State run the old school power plays like the "Power-O" and Counter Trey that Washington made famous under Joe Gibbs (and which he got from the Nebraska teams of the 1970s), but they don't run them the same way, instead dressing them up with shotgun, fake jet sweeps, motions, and so on. Coaches don't really forget, though ideas can remain sound ones.
In terms of what's around the corner, it's hard to say. One of the fun parts of the season is by week 3 or so the trends really start to emerge -- think of Cam Newton in 2010 running the inverted veer play. I do think defenses will start doing a (slightly) better job against the no huddle, which will in turn cause a reaction by offenses to take advantage of other weaknesses.
5. From a pure football, X&O standpoint, what are some of the things you are looking forward to watching this fall?
CBB: I want to see how defenses continue to react to "packaged plays," which I talk about in the book and which combine run and pass concepts into the same play. In particular I expect defenders to get better at giving QB's "fuzzy reads" on these plays, just as they do for traditional option football reads. And I also expect to see more straight man coverage, which takes the guesswork out of defense and assigns defenders to specific receivers and the rest can blitz or play the run. Packaged plays feast on zone defenders who have to read run and pass, but they turn into just regular runs or quick passes that can be defended if defenders are in man coverage and aren't making those run/pass reads.
I also am looking forward to watching defenses continue to evolve to "no huddle defense," as they find ways to run sophisticated, adjusting defenses against the lightning fast no huddle. For a few years there defenses were in base defenses and just wanted to get lined up versus the no huddle, so offenses were able to run their base plays against very simplified defenses. But defenses have improved and are learning how to dictate things back to offenses; watch TCU against Ole Miss in the their bowl game last year call blitzes, coverage adjustments, stunts and all kinds of unique calls on first and second down while Ole Miss was trying to go fast. It was fun to watch. (Not for Ole Miss fans.)