Saban Discusses Bama's 3-4 Defense

A few years ago the NCAA made one of its many goof-ball decisions aimed at making all schools equal. A media guide could be no larger than 208 pages. Thus, Alabama with its extraordinary record of championships and All-America players and bowl success has to cram its information into the same number of pages as the lesser football schools – which are most of them.

It may not matter. Most schools, Alabama included, now produce a "media guide" that is really much more a "recruiting book." The Alabama media guide is full of pages dedicated to things like the NFL draft and what it's like to be a student-athlete at The University, eliminating pages of information on teams and players who have been a part of Bama tradition and in-depth statistical records. Bowl history? You have to wait until Alabama can produce a bowl media guide, which fortunately is about every year.

That 208-page limit extends to conference media guides, too. If the Southeastern Conference office is pressed for space, here's a recommendation on how to save two lines per team:

Eliminate the sections that call for Basic Offense and Basic Defense.

Seven SEC teams list their BASIC offense as multiple, which says nothing. (What is the alternate offense?) One, Mississippi State, says its basic offense is Multiple Spread. Four teams (including Alabama) list the basic offense as Pro Set. (Do all professional teams have the same basic offense?)

On defense, six teams say the basic defensive set is 4-3. One, Auburn, says its basic defense is 4-3 multiple. What is that? It would seem it is either 4-3 or something else. South Carolina has a slight wrinkle on the 4-3, a 4-2-5. How about Kentucky: it says the basic defense of the Wildcats is "4-3, 3-4." Florida bails out with a "multiple," although the Gators under new Coach Will Muschamp are thought to be basically a 3-4 team.

The 3-4 – three down linemen and four linebackers -- is listed by Alabama and Georgia as the basic defense.

Anyone who has watched Alabama football under Coach Nick Saban knows there is no basic Crimson Tide defense, and he confirmed that in his remarks at SEC Media Days last week.

Saban said, "It's probably a little bit overstated because we actually played a 3-4 last year about 20 per cent of the time. That's dictated and determined by the offense that we play (against). Because when we play nickel and dime, we're playing more 40-type defense. I know Will (Muschamp) will be the same way; most of the people in the league are the same way, because you're going to get in the best pass-rush front you can have."

Saban went into more detail on his choice to use the 3-4. Among other things, it gave him an opportunity to speak to prospects.

"I think we sort of go in cycles defensively," he said. "I think half or more than half the teams in the NFL now are running a 3-4 defense. I think that there was a time where most people were playing four down guys and three linebackers. But I think that's kind of cycled back to the 3-4."

Almost all players recruited by Alabama would like to play in the NFL, and no one gets those players better prepared for "the league" than Bama, Saban is telling those prospects. That has been proved in recent NFL drafts.

Saban also explained that a team can't just become a 3-4 team by taking out a defensive lineman and adding a linebacker.

"I think philosophically you have to be able to manage circumstances and understand what you're getting into because you need bigger guys to play nose and defensive end," the Tide coach said. "So you have to have outside backer types who can pass-rush when you get into all the spread stuff and nickel stuff that you have to play.

"I think the greatest advantage philosophically of playing a 3-4 is it gives you the best opportunity to play a seven-man front and play split-safety coverages rather than having to be in an eight-man front to stop the run. You have to have the right kind of players to do it. But philosophically I think that's why you see more and more of that defense. "[F]rom a technical standpoint, that's the reason we like it."

But, remember, Alabama was in a 3-4 only about 20 per cent of the time last year. More often than not, Alabama would drop a player (frequently the strongside linebacker) from the 3-4 and bring in a nickel back. Sometimes the jack linebacker (Courtney Upshaw, usually) would move to end, or even tackle, for a four-man front look.

The strongside and jack linebackers are the outside linebackers in Bama's 3-4 scheme.

"And because you have both linebackers at the end of the line, your adjustments to formations are a little easier," Saban said. "And the trend on offense now is to have a tremendous number of multiples in personnel groups and formations, so (defensive) adjustments are a little easier (from the 3-4)."

Want a little proof?

Alabama has been the SEC scoring defense leader the past two years and the total defense leader in the league the past three seasons.

Asked about pass rushing, Saban was able to get in another plug to prospects.

"I think that we have a little different type team this year defensively," he said. "I think in the last few years we have had, always had, dominant down guys that had pass-rush ability, Marcell Dareus being the most recent; several other guys in the past that are playing in the NFL now, as well.

"I'm not sure we have those kind of dominating down guys right now. We're trying to develop some of those guys as younger players.

"We have more linebacker types who are pass-rushers. I think this is one of the key ingredients of playing the 3-4, is your linebacker guys are going to have to be your pass-rushers because the down guys are going to be bigger and not as effective rushers. So that's where a lot of our pass-rush is going to come from.

"Courtney Upshaw is actually an outside linebacker who plays a lot of defensive end and nickel. Dont'a Hightower does that, Alex Watkins did it some last year towards the end of the year, added some pass-rush for us.

So we need to develop. One of the challenges on defense is to develop rushers who can push the pocket to go with the edge rushers we have, which are really linebacker types."

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