For a long time, defense was about taking away the opposing offense's signature plays, and forcing them to beat you left handed. The idea being that the offense was not as good at executing their 7th favorite play as their 1st favorite play. Therefore, take away their favorite plays with your defensive scheme and then beat them with fundamentals.
That worked for a long time. Unfortunately (from the defense's perspective) it does not work any more. It doesn't work any more because some very intelligent offensive football minds figured out a way to put defenses on their heels.
The birth of the spread offense
Someone should write a book about Northwestern's 54-51 defeat of Michigan in 2000. Northwestern's quarterback (go ahead, try to name him) threw for 322 yards and four touchdowns. Northwestern rushed for 332 yards with an average of 6.6 yards per carry.
That game, and the rest of Northwestern's season, shocked college football. It was shocking because there was probably not one player on Northwestern's team that Michigan recruited. Michigan's offensive line had Steve Hutchinson, Jeff Backus and Jonathan Goodwin. Defensively, they had two pretty good NFL linebackers with Cato June and Larry Foote. Northwestern's star running back, Damien Anderson, was an undrafted free agent in the NFL.
The greatest misconception about spread offense is that it spreads out a defense and gets the ball to its athletes in space. That's true, but if that is all that you do then you're going to get beat. This is the reason why you see so many bad spread teams in high school and college. What they are lacking is the real reason the spread was and is so successful.
The Constraint Theory of Offense
As I mentioned previously, for years defenses were able to take away what the offense did best. They did this by cheating. Not New England Patriots cheating, but by loading the box to stop and run and still being able to stop vertical pass threats. What Randy Walker did at Northwestern, and other good spread teams did also, was stretch the field horizontally instead of just vertically; thus, the 2 x 2 and 3 x 1 offensive sets. Then, they got very good at bubble passes, wide receiver screens, and smoke (one step drop) passes. Therefore, if the defense was going to try to keep seven in the box, then the offense would throw bubble screens and wide receiver screens all day.
The spread teams practiced these plays enough that they got good at them. As long as they got four yards, it was a successful play. It essentially became a long hand off. These screens were built into the offense. If the quarterback saw that the trips formation had the defense out-leveraged, then he threw the screen.
Defenses countered by matching the spread formations and taking defenders out of the box. This is the constraint on the defense. You force the defense to defend the entire field. Moreover, because the quarterback is also a run threat, a defense might find itself severely out-manned in the box.
From 2000 on, scoreboards lit up in college football. Many of these concepts also found their way to the NFL. As a result, the NFL has become a quarterback league and a passing league. Gone are the Steve Atwater safeties and in their place are the Earl Thomas safeties.
Defensive coordinators are smart too, and pretty soon they were able to counter what the offenses were doing. We've seen a great example of it here in Pittsburgh.
Four defensive linemen, two linebackers, three safeties, and two corners: the new base defense. I often wonder how long the networks will still run the starting defense from the "base" defense. Back up corners and safeties play almost as much (if not more) then some of the defensive linemen.
Keep in mind, when I say four defensive linemen, two of them can be outside linebackers. Also, the Steelers used to drop Deshea Townsend down on the slot to be that third safety. The Green Bay Packers did the same with Charles Woodson. The semantics really don't matter. Also, whenever someone mentions this package, some in Steeler Nation begin to fret about the Steelers becoming a 4-3. So what? Call it whatever you want; it doesn't matter. What does matter is getting more speed on the field while also maintaining the ability to play the run. Essentially, defenses can now cheat again.
Defenses can cheat because the five guys in the secondary can pattern match. As was discussed in the previous article, they can play robber coverage, mix coverage, or whatever type of combination coverage they want. Additionally, and this is where it gets really fun, they can play different coverages on different sides of the field. Playing with 2 high safeties allows you to do this.
If an offense came out in a standard 2 x 2 formation, the defense could drop one of the safeties down to one of the sides of the formation. They would determine this based upon scouting. On that side, they would have a three to two numerical edge. One safety down, one safety high, and the corner down. We'll call this the defensive strong side.
The defense can then slide the linebackers away from the strong side. This gives you a safety high, a corner down, and linebacker playing both in and out of the box (this is what I mean by cheating; he can play both run and pass).
Offensively, you have to attack the defense away from its strength. You can try running a bubble screen weak, but the defense is pattern reading. Both the safety and the corner are reading the #2 receiver. If the #2 receiver goes out, the corner plays the flat hard and the safety takes #1. The defense defends the bubble.
The offensive coordinator tries to attack the weak side deep since the corner is playing the flats. The two receivers run a curl, flat and deep route. The No. 1 receiver runs the curl and the No. 2 receiver runs the wheel route (go to the flat and then wheel deep). But, when No. 2 starts his vertical stem to run the wheel route, both the corner and the safety sink. The safety is in position to play No. 2 on the wheel while the corner gets underneath No. 1 on the curl.
Ok, that didn't work. Let's try running the ball. We can't let the linebacker play both the run and pass, so let's attack the box. Here is where the real beauty of the defense comes in: the run fits. The safety that dropped down on the strong side can be the force player with run at him or the cutback player if the run is away from him. The two high safeties, because they are playing zone, are both reading the uncovered offensive lineman. If they get a run read, they are either playing force or cutback. To whichever side the offense is running, they get a 7 man box.
To review, the two big advances that defenses have made are pattern matching and getting more athletic safeties, not corners, on the field. Athletic safeties can pattern match against the pass and insert themselves in the box against the run. Previously to combat the spread, defenses just tried to play regular nickel with more corners. That's why they got torched by the run.
Lastly, the flexibility of running split safety coverage allows the defense to dictate to the offense. The defense can now say, you can't attack here, we are going to make you try to go here. Additionally, they can disguise their looks. The offense doesn't know where the defense is declaring their strength. This is why you see Ben snap the ball normally with a second left on the play clock.
For the defense, the bottom line is you have to have players that communicate, are smart, and are experienced. The Steelers have those players and it will be fun seeing how they are used this year.