The wishbone offense, which took college football by storm in the 1970s, developed on the high school level before migrating into the college game. It took a long time for defensive teams to come up with an effective strategy to contain the wishbone.
The same thing has happened in recent years with the new versions of the spread offensive systems. Defensive coaches are still working on coming up with the best strategy to contain them.
A lot of ideas that featured in college offenses came from experiments done on the high school level. There is a lot of innovation taking place and Auburn’s new head coach, Gus Malzahn, happens to be on the cutting edge of that change.
You can even see elements of that style of play in the National Football League. When pro teams are adding new ideas to their offenses that is a sure sign the innovations are difficult for defenses to stop. If you look at some of the scores we have seen in college football this season with games having point totals approaching basketball numbers that is sure sign that defenses have some catching up to do.
When I was coaching college football, especially in the days when we were in the wishbone era, I wasn’t particularly impressed with pro football coaching although there were a few exceptions. Since I got out of coaching and starting watching and studying what the pros are doing, I am more impressed. Nobody is doing it any better than they are. Although there are still some sorry coaches out there, guys like Belllichick with the Patriots, Harbaugh with the ’49ers are truly great at what they are doing.
What I am seeing in the pros, as well as college football, is that defensive coaches don’t have all the answers for dealing with the good spread offenses that feature quarterbacks who are very effective at both throwing and running the football. The best example of that in college football can be found in looking at this year’s Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Manziel, and the numbers he and his Texas A&M offense have produced this year.
Manziel causes headaches for defensive coordinators just like Cam Newton did at Auburn in 2010 and Robert Griffin III did in college and is still doing for the NFL teams this season along with Cam. Facing talented quarterbacks like those guys, you are not sound defensively when there is just one guy assigned to stop him because one defender often can’t tackle Cam or Manziel or RG 3 in the open field.
The teams that are incorporating option runs into their spread formations are particularly difficult to defend because they eliminate one defender and force the defense to commit another player to cover the potential pitch on an option play. As a defensive coordinator you have to keep people in the secondary to defend against the pass so there is room inside for the offense to attack with a power running game, something that Coach Malzahn’s teams have been effective doing.
If a team is running a conventional offense, third down and five or longer is almost always going to be a pass play, but with the new spread offenses that isn’t necessarily the case. In that situation, a defense facing a conventional offense has an advantage knowing what the offense is likely to do, but that is not the case with an offense that forces the defense to be ready to defend the whole field.
On critical third down plays, against well-run spread offenses the defense is going to be doing a lot of guessing, which is a good thing for the offense and something Auburn fans have to look forward to with the return to Malzahn’s offensive system next season.
(If you have a question or a subject you would like me to write about in future columns, you can email it to PatDye@autigers.com.)
Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of columns that College Football Hall of Fame member Pat Dye is writing for AUTigers.com about the game he played and coached. An All-American player at Georgia and one of the top head coaches in SEC history at Auburn, he also served as a head coach at East Carolina and Wyoming. Dye writes three columns for AUTigers.com--The Dye-Log, the Dye-Gest and Pat’s Picks.
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