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Manny Diaz: Building the New Texas Defense

As you know we've been talking a lot of offense this summer. And while there is still a lot of discussion worth having on the offensive side of the ball, it's time we turned our attention to what Manny Diaz is building on the defensive end. If we're going to do this right it's going to be lengthy but let's start with the core concepts that Diaz is putting into our defense and then build from there. Philosophically, our defense breaks into two basic trees: middle of the field safety and split safeties with middle of the field being our bread and butter and split coverage being our change up. Let's investigate each tree with some examples from the Spring Game.

Middle of the Field Safety Coverages
Manny Diaz's base defense is a pattern match Cover 3 that is derived from the Saban school of thought. If you are interested in a more technical approach Brophy Football has some beautiful posts on the pattern match Cover 3. Spend some time there, you won't be disappointed. Essentially, I'm repackaging his insights and attempting to relate them to what we saw in the Spring Game, but I highly recommend reading what he has to offer if you have the time and interest. The pattern match Cover 3 is the heart of Diaz's defense because the understanding of position maintenance that his players develop in this defense feeds into their technique in every other part of this coverage tree. Here's the basic concept of a Cover 3 zone:

As you can see it's a 3-deep 4-under coverage. But it's important to understand that the Texas defense will not be a traditional zone defense with the defenders dropping to landmarks and simply reading the quarterback. This is a much more sophisticated approach that is adaptive to alignment threats and timing from the offense. In a pattern matching the defenders are taught how to dynamically identify the offensive threats and their coverage works to deny the routes available to the offensive players rather than to defend a portion of the field. It's a philosophy that teaches players to understand the field from their opponent's point of view and then deny that opponent the leverage and spacing they want.

The offense's passing game operates differently on 3-step and 5-7 step passing so Diaz's defense will as well. The 3-step (Quick) passing game is designed to give the offense high percentage plays and spread the defense thin with shallow timing routes. To take away the quick game, the defense has to be able to defend the flats which is precisely where traditional Cover 3 zone is weakest. The 5-7 step game is designed to threaten the defense deep and unless your defense is better athlete for athlete across the board, you need help on the vertical threats presented on a longer play. At that point, you would lean toward a Cover 2 Man Under(sometimes called Cover 5). But with the proliferation of the running game out of spread sets and the challenges posed by the extra threat of running Quarterbacks, the defense needs to be able to bring a safety down to keep the offense from having a consistent numbers advantage in the running game and that means you are down to playing a lot of Cover 1. If you have the athletes to play Cover 1 man consistently, great. But against top shelf competition there are going to be a number of 1-on-1 match ups that are not in your favor and building your defense on a principle that isn't going to deliver in crunch time seems like a recipe for mediocrity.

Pattern Match Cover 3
Saban's (and Diaz's) answer to this conundrum? The pattern match Cover 3. it offers a response to the quick game, it gives the defense the benefit of 3 deep zone coverage, and it allows him to get 8 in the box against the run if they want to. In order to accomplish this, the defense has to approach the play just like the offense does: in timing phases.

There are far too many iterations of alignment to go through all of them. But let's just touch on the basic ideas about spacing and leverage. Each defender is responsible for the threats to his portion of the field. Consider the corner in the Cover 3 and the 1/3 of the field he is responsible for. If you divide this portion of the field in half and think of the line that runs through the middle of it, this is the key to spacing and leverage that the corner must use to position himself correctly in response to the receiver. If the receiver aligns outside this line, the corner is being threatened by inside breaking routes. If the receiver aligns inside this line then the corner is threatened by routes that break to the outside. This fundamental will be the key to the corner's decision making about his positioning throughout the play as he stays over the top of the receiver. Brophy has a great series of posts that go into more detail: here and here.

Against the Quick Game
Here's an initial alignment from a Cover 3 defense (notice that it presents as a split safety coverage, more on this later).

The offense is presenting 4 receiving threats to the wide side and 1 threat to the short side. After checking run/pass with an initial read off the offensive line, the corners are going to begin getting depth while they read the quarterback's drop.

Notice (above) how the defenders have all positioned themselves in this initial phase in relation to the offensive players. Since the back is still in the protection, the #3 threat is being bracketed by the linebacker and the strong safety. As the quarterback sets his feet and the receivers stem their routes the defense is alerted to the quick throw and begins to break reading the quarterback's aiming point.

By the time the ball is completed on the quick out, the defense is in great position. You probably remember what this play looked like at full speed:

Against the 5-Step Drop

Same thing here. The defense gains initial depth and reads the drop of the QB.

This time it's not a 3-step so the defense now adjusts to the stemming routes from the receivers. One general thing to note about this initial phase is the positioning of the strong safety (above). One of the crucial elements to the success of the Cover 3 is that the underneath defenders don't allow both seams to be exploited at the same time as this puts the Free Safety in conflict deep. Since the strong seam is the furthest from him, the strong safety is going to try to attack and reroute any route from the #2 receiver on his side (#2 route in from the sideline) first, and then he is going to adjust to the pattern distribution on the strong side (usually by defending any threats to the flat). Notice the dilemma for the Quarterback: his outside receivers have their vertical routes capped by the corners, the slot's route is outleveraged by the Sam under and the Mike over, the backside flat route is being broken on by the Will. Just about the only route with a shot is the flat release to the running back but the strong safety is en route. Let's see if anything opens up:

Everything is well covered and the pocket has broken down. Great job of recognition and pattern matching from the defense.

Against Vertical Seams

In a 4 wide look the offense can quickly threaten the seams with the slot receivers.

We revisit the play again as the receivers stem (above). At this point the threat to both seams has emerged. A few things need to happen for the defense, first the weakside corner should use his depth to squeeze the seam and gain leverage on the slot receivers route. Second, the strong safety needs to come through here and reroute the strong side seam threat to buy time for the free safety. Third, the free safety needs to continue to backpedal and then read the QB and break on the ball. Let's see how things play out:
None of the 3 things developed as they should have: the strong safety didn't reroute effectively, the free safety overcommitted and had to 180, and the corner didn't use his positioning to clamp down on the seam route. Learning to defend the seams effectively will be an important theme for this defense. Saban has some built in calls in his Cover 3 that help him deal with the challenges posed by 4 verticals in 4-Wide 2x2 and Floods in 4-Wide Trips called Rip/Liz and Mable, respectively. Both calls essentially allow the defense to play man rules if 2 vertical threats present on the same side of the field and cover 3 rules otherwise. I believe that Diaz has the same build ins as they provide an essential bridge between the Cover 3 pattern match and the Cover 1.

Incorporating Cover 1
The positioning lessons that the Cover 3 teaches will help the defense understand man coverage positioning much better because they will understand how each receiver's positioning relates to the route possibilities. The main difference between the two coverages is the vertical space. In Cover 3 the defenders are trying to keep the receiver in front of them and break on the play, in Cover 1 they want to pressure the route and then trail it, denying the pass and relying on the deep safety for help over the top. Both coverages offer the defense a number of pressure options, but the Cover 1 offers the benefit of really clamping down on the Hot Routes for the QB. Perhaps most importantly the Cover 1 allows the corners to play really tight coverage and this takes away the quick screen game. Let's take a look at some man defense in the Spring Game:
Cover 1 defense is something that Texas fans should be pretty familiar with. Out of all of the iterations of the Texas defense in the last 13 years one constant has been Akina's ability to develop great footwork and mechanics in man defenders. I originally had concerns about the Diaz/Akina mix primarily because I didn't know if Akina would flourish in a defense that was focused on zone coverage. Having spent more time getting to know what Diaz is trying to accomplish, I think the new scheme is going to play right into Akina's strengths because the pattern matching concepts are only going to enhance our ability in man coverage and Akina's physical work is going to help our secondary get more out of their athleticism in this scheme. Corner had been the position I was most concerned about on this side of the ball but now I think it will become a source of strength very quickly in this defense. The nagging concern is that we don't seem to have a true center fielder that the cover 1 needs to be a staple.

Split Safety Coverage
As I said in the intro, Diaz will base out of middle of the field concepts and change up with split safety concepts. The reason is simple, the split safeties coverages are strong where the MOF safety coverages are weak.
So sometimes we will align in Cover 2 and stay in Cover 2:
But very often Diaz will disguise his coverages. One of the advantages of having speed at the corner position is that is allows you to get close alignment pre-snap but still bail deep for the deep zone on Cover 2:
We also showed quite a bit of Cover 2 Man and Cover 4 (Quarters) in the Spring Game which are variations on the split safeties coverage. In this case the progression probably starts with the defense learning to pattern match effectively in Quarters and then going down through Cover 2 pattern match and into Cover 2 man. The pattern matching principles will be different for these coverages compared to Cover 3 because the deep support structure is different, but the learning arc is the same… the better the defense gets at decision making the tighter they can play their coverage effectively. Split safeties are strong against the seams and shallow flats but are susceptible to deep outside routes and deep middle routes. And this is exactly why Diaz wants to create confusion between the two branches each is strong where the other is weak, so the offense has a hard time targeting his defense with coverage calls.

Fire Zones
You may have already heard a lot about Manny Diaz and Fire Zones. Here I'm going to build on some great articles that are already out there. In this article, again from Brophy Football, the intent and specific jobs in Diaz's fire zones are laid out. The basic idea of a fire zone is to bring 5 man pressure, confuse the assignments for the offensive line, and keep the offense in front of the defense with 3 deep coverage. In a lot of ways it's a conservative call because it forces the offense's hand early and to underneath routes: making it a natural 3rd and long call.

We spent a lot of the first quarter of the Spring Game practicing different versions of the fire zones from 4-3, 3-4, and 3-3 looks. To gain a better understanding of Diaz's different flavors of fire zone, I highly recommend this gem from Coach Hoover's site (another great spot for football). One of the little perks of bringing in great coaching talent is that it also cultivates interest from great football minds.

As the article explains, Diaz defines his Fire Zone Scrape looks by which direction the Scrape goes: to the Field (the wide side) or to the Bench (the short side). Note that a "scrape" is just a technique where a linebacker comes over the top of another defender basically exchanging responsibilities with each other and confusing the assignments for the linemen. The beauty of these calls (as Coach Hoover touches on) is that they are fairly simple for the defense to pick up on and modify but they present a serious headache for opposing offenses. All Diaz has to define is the grouping, the direction of the scrape, and the coverage. The front automatically slants opposite the scrape which creates conflict for the offensive line, the slant influencing them one direction and opening up lanes for the scraper. From these few basic components Diaz easily develops a ton of looks and confusion. Let's take a look at a few examples from the Spring Game:

The defense is going to bring a cross stunt on this fire zone. The idea of the criss crossing pressure is to open up a straight shot to the quarterback. Notice that again the defense is presenting itself as an even coverage pre-snap and it will transition to an odd coverage after the snap.

Here you can see the zone responsibilities as they are playing out. "Hot 2" to the field is responsible for a hot read to the #2 receiver on his side. "Hot 3" is responsible for the middle of the field and is reading the QB. "Hot 2" to the boundary is dropping and then protecting the flat. In this case the #2 receiver on his side is coming out of the backfield and he'll attack that route.
We ran quite a few Fire Zones toward the beginning of the Spring Game. Here's a cutup of some of what we ran:
You have to be excited about the possibilities here with Vaccaro and our linebacking personnel. In the Spring Game, our offensive line actually did an overall good job on protections considering that the defense came out guns blazing. We've heard that the team has been running some 11-on-11 work this summer and you can bet that the main idea was to work on fire zones for the defense and protections for the offense.

Cover 2 Traps
The final core piece in Diaz's defense is the Cover 2 Trap Fire Zone. Just as he has the change up in his base defense, he also has a complement in his Fire Zones. The Cover 2 presents as an odd cover and then a safety comes down and a corner drops back to give a 2 deep coverage. The key is really in disruption of the hot reads. The coverage in the trap is designed to make the offense read Cover 3 and end up throwing into the strength of Cover 2.

As the play (above) progresses the cornerback to the boundary side is going to drop deep toward the seam and the free safety (not pictured) is going to drop toward the other seam, they are the 2 deep defenders. However, to the QBs initial read this looks almost exactly the same as a corner and safety dropping in Cover 3. That's why the other corner is called the "Trap" defender in this call. He drops shallow but its supposed to look like a busted coverage, luring the QB to make an ill advise throw over him but right into the Free Safety's deep coverage. That doesn't happen on this particular play but you will notice that the routes being run by the wide receivers are right into the teeth of this coverage… the 1's are running short routes right into the shallow zones and the 2's are running seam routes right into the deep coverage. To add to the problem, the QB has incorrectly surmised that the most immediate threat to the protection is from his right side and he motioned the running back to that side. That leaves the QB with a lot of pressure and no outlets: McCoy's throw away was ugly coming out and absolutely the correct read (that was a theme for him in the Spring Game).

Building a Defense
When you look at what Diaz installed in a very short period of time, you have to be impressed. And here's the key: these core elements are exactly what we will be doing a ton of all year long: Pattern Matched Zone, Man, Fire Zones with Traps, and Man Coverage Blitzes. All of these elements play off of each other through disguised fronts and coverages but the overall theme in this defense is really one of fundamental football: penetrate up front, keep the play in front of the defense, read, close, and tackle. I was impressed with our ability to keep the plays in front of us and close on the ball in the Spring Game and I was also impressed that we got basic execution on so much conceptually after just 4 weeks of practice. The upside for this defense is high… particularly as the decision trees in the pattern matching start to click for them and they embrace the pass rushing concepts that Diaz is teaching: I think the potential for turnover production goes way up. However, the most important factor is tackling from the linebackers and safeties: it's an absolute must as a baseline for the defense to play at a high level. I think the style of defense they are playing, with the play developing in front of them allowing them to attack it downhill, is going to help them progress quickly in that regard. Overall, I had my doubts about Diaz's scheme from a superficial level but the more I've investigated what he's doing, the more impressed I am. There are a lot a reasons to be encouraged on both sides of the football. Until next time, enjoy.