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The Spread Revolution: Defense

With Spread mania "spreading" through the NFL ranks, how do defenses stop them?

Welcome to the Pit(oitua) of Hell, opposing quarterbacks
Welcome to the Pit(oitua) of Hell, opposing quarterbacks
Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

The spread offense is the dominant offense in college football and it is rapidly making its way into the NFL. How can the defenses game plan to stop them? Last week, we took a look at some of the concepts and history of the spread offense, which you can find here. This week, we'll be taking a look at the countermeasures employed by the defenses to match these high scoring machines.

Defensive Formations

The nickel and dime aren't just a form of US currency or a popular phrase (nickel and dime them down the field). In today's NFL, most defenses are in either nickel or dime formation for a majority of the game instead of their base defense.

What is a Nickel defense?

The nickel defense features five defensive backs (in any combination you want/need). Typically this means two safeties and three corners. The third corner is often referred as the nickel corner. It's also the origin of the popular theme of having three good corners in today's NFL.

What is a Dime defense?

The dime defense has six defensive backs and usually means that you're selling out against the run and hoping that the defensive front can get there in the event of a running play. Features either three down linemen and two linebackers or four down linemen and one linebacker.

What is the 3-3-5?

The 3-3-5 was popularized by Rich Rodríguez during his tenure at West Virginia. It has three down linemen, three linebackers, and five defensive backs. The secondary typically consists of two outside "boundary" corners, one free safety over the top, and two strong safeties who can either blitz or drop back depending on the situation.

Defensive Concepts

The key to playing any form of defense against the spread is limiting the big plays and playing contain defense because you cannot totally stop them from making plays. The two best defenses that I've seen that "stopped" these offenses are Florida State and Stanford but these two defenses go about it in different ways. Both defenses are very fundamentally sound and great on matchup assignments. Apologies to Michigan State, but going up against Al Borges should be an automatic win and we all know that Braxton Miller is the poor man's Denard Robinson (i.e. can't pass. AT. ALL)

The 2013 Florida State defense is unique in that they faced two of the best spread offenses in the country in Clemson and Auburn. They also had multiple assistants who had experience in combating the spread. In particular, former DC Jeremy Pruitt (now at UGA) worked under Nick Saban overseeing the secondary and current DC Charles Kelly, who worked at Georgia Tech, going up against Paul Johnson's option offense everyday in practice. FSU also played Nevada, who primarily uses a Pistol offense. They faced one of the great offensive minds in football (and a name SEC fans should be familiar with) in David Cutcliffe at Duke. Say what you will about Duke and the quality of the ACC Coastal division but it's a huge credit to Cutcliffe for getting the Blue Devils to the ACC title game and keeping it close for a half.

Stanford has been Oregon's bugaboo as of late. The Ducks have been repeatedly manhandled and dominated by the Cardinal defense.

Florida State defense 2013

Stanford vs Oregon 2012

Stanford vs Oregon 2013

Versus the run

What's the secret behind Chip Kelly and Gus Malzhan? Effective and devastating ground games. In short, they are not reinventing the wheels in terms of running plays, only the consistency of repeated simple attacks that break the will of the defense over the length of an entire game.

How to stop the run

The trick to stopping the run is maintaining contain and gap integrity along with discipline. Also having multiple draft picks on your defense can't hurt, either. Kelly and Malzhan capitalize on defenses wearing down and starting to miss their assignments, which leads to a breakdown in discipline.

The difference between FSU and Stanford vs the run

The fundamental difference between Florida State and Stanford is how they utilize their front seven. Florida State used a nose tackle in the 3-4 front (Timmy Jernigan) to open it up for the ends and linebackers with little secondary help while Stanford used their ends and relied heavily on their secondary to help out in run support.

Versus the pass

The passing game in these offenses focus on finding weaknesses and stress points on the defensive perimeter with screens and short throws. The defense has to react to this by being in nickel and dime personnel and being frequently in one and one matchups all over the field. So in essence, you better have a great secondary that can play assignment football and tackle well.

The difference between FSU and Stanford vs the pass

Once again for the Seminoles were led by Jernigan at the nose, which allowed for their ends to pin their ears back and rush the passer. Pruitt frequently used secondary blitzes to make up for the fact that the linebackers were a little shaky initially in 2013. Florida State had the best secondary in football last year and it showed. Lamarcus Joyner was the lynchpin and leader of the secondary. He was a fearsome hitter and had a knack for making the big play in pass coverage. Stanford, on the other hand, relied on their ends to make things happen for the linebackers while hoping and praying the secondary held up. FSU was the most disciplined and assignment sound defense that I saw last year. On every play, there were multiple defenders near the ball. The Cardinal simply had their ends destroy Oregon's offensive tackles and allowed Shayne Skov to blitz up the middle.

How does it translate to the NFL?

As I mentioned earlier, the defenses are trending away from being in a base defense for majority of the games. This trend makes defensive backs who can tackle more of a precious commodity. Also the linebackers are changing as well, no longer are the middle linebackers slow and lumbering run stoppers but just as quick and agile as their counterparts on the outside. The Giants probably started the modern trend with their famed "NASCAR" package of all four down linemen being defensive ends of various shapes and sizes.

How does it affect the Titans?

Well, just look at their offseason acquisitions within the front seven. Big body types on the line like Mr. RP and the key to Super Bowl success, Al Woods (OK, Ropati P was a resigning but an "acquisition" nonetheless). Smallish LBs who can cover (Wesley Woodyard), and pass rushing dynamos (Shaun Phillips). The biggest signing of them all, is DC Ray Horton, who was schooled within the Pittsburgh system and honed his crafted with the fearsome Cardinals defense and improved Browns defense.