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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Short Note on Football

(Ok, of the few people who read this blog, I don't know who will understand this, but...)

A lot of people dog Rich Rodriguez as being a sort of flash-in-the-pan peddler of a gimmick system. But I disagree with that. He's a real student of the game. For one, there's the famous offense he's made popular, with Pat White running the single-wing game out of a 21st-century shotgun spread set. It's pretty brilliant (as evidenced by run-first, run-second, run-third Auburn taking on the spread option for next season.) Not much has been made of his defense, though.

One of my guilty pleasures is making football playbooks on a football computer game. I even like making all my own formations, and my latest endeavor has been the 3-3-5 stack defense used most prominently by RichRod's WVU mountaineers. Basically, there are three down lineman, three linebackers lined up directly behind the lineman (stacked,) two cornerbacks playing deep off their receivers, a central free safety playing centerfield, and two roving safeties that play close to the line, on the edge of the box. It's a tricky defense that trades speed and penetration for brute force at the point of the attack.

And it's a pain in the tail to make in Madden. Part of the strategy in the game is shifting your line, your linebackers, and your corners before the snap to get the right angles and coverages. If you make the formation from scratch, you don't get any of that. You can only get it to work right by taking an existing formation and modifying it. That way you can take advantage of the natural pre-snap shifts. Unfortunately, there aren't many formations that look anything like that, because pro teams uniformly use two-safety, two-corner defenses. When you modify those to look like the 3-3-5 stack, the shifts don't work in any useful way.

Except the old 46 defense! Pull the second defensive tackle back, change a linebacker to a strong safety, fiddle with the players' locations and voila! You have the stack. The 46 was an innovative defense created in Chicago by Buddy Ryan. It had the strong safety playing in the box on every down, with the free safety in center field, and both outside linebackers split wide to take advantage of the angles on their blitzes. Offenses had to adapt to the relentless blitzing which - surprise - the 3-3-5 stack also excels at. But, the 3-3-5 stack isn't just the 46 repackaged, it does it with three down lineman like the 3-4. And the 3-4 is specifically designed for monster linemen to command double-teams and free the linebackers to knife into the backfield. The 1972 Dolphins did just that, with one man playing a tweener position halfway between rusher and middle linebacker. It's pretty satisfying that my defensive-tackle-turned-middle-linebacker plays just like old #53 from the '72 fins, even stemming up to the line of scrimmage when I call for a D-line shift.

So not only is RichRod's offense a hybrid of the modern spread attack and the old single-wing power football, his defense combines the angles and pressure of the 46 with the line-dominating rush of the 3-4. Pretty brilliant if you ask me.

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