Coach's Mailbag

Our board coaches are back with another round of questions answered in "Coach's Mailbag." Please keep sending in those questions.

There was talk about Weis and Cutcliffe changing the receivers routes in Charlie's offense because of the wider hash in college before last season, maybe one of the coaches can explain that.

Response: The NCAA hash marks are obviously farther apart than the NFL hash marks. In the NCAA, the hash mark lines are two feet wide, and from the center of those lines it is sixty feet to the nearest sideline. In the NFL the hash marks are also two feet wide, and it is seventy feet, nine inches to the nearest sideline from the center of those hash marks.

I can't speak for what is the mindset of Coach Weis about changing patterns, but I will offer a few possibilities, as I see them.

First of all, in switching from the NFL field to the NCAA field, one is dealing with nearly eleven more feet from the hash marks to the sideline boundary. Eleven feet may not seem like that much, but in a game of inches, a game of timing, it makes a difference. The fact that Coach Weis prepared for this beforehand is just another example of his thoroughness.

As an example, if one is on the left hash and throwing anything to the far right side, the pass, without adjusting receiver routes and alignments, is longer in the NCAA than in the NFL. While the defense must cover more ground to react to the pass, in this case, it is also possible that an INT (interception) could occur more easily due to the longer time it take a ball to arrive. For example, the opportunity of an INT on an out route to the right would be a concern. In this case, if I was throwing to the widest receiver with a slot inside of him, I'd alter the route from a straight right angle cut to one where the receiver is angling back to the LOS (line of scrimmage), instead of being parallel. This would increase the distance a DB or LB would have to cover while the ball is in the air and lessen the chance for an INT.

If one is on the left and throwing left, the DB in that area has less turf to defend and the receiver has less room to maneuver into a route. In order to counter that advantage when implementing pass routes and WR alignment, route depth and the break points of routes may be altered.

I once saw a talk at a coaching clinic where an offense hit a lot of inside passes on, or close, to the hash marks. It was run by an NFL offensive coordinator showing film from his team's games. Obviously that coach, a very thorough man, would have to adjust his patterns due to the difference in the college field. Guess who that guy was?

It could be worse if the high school dimensions were used. The high school field is completely divided into thirds with each third fifty-three feet, four inches. Imagine the difference that would make at the higher levels.

What sorts of weapons does a defensive coordinator have at his disposal when he knows his team is at a disadvantage in terms of speed, size or raw athletic ability? To what extent can scheme mitigate opposing talent?

Response 1: When a defense is at a disadvantage (either due to strength, speed, or experience), it is forced to guess and take chances. I'll explain this with the following example. Our high school team was very good last year. Probably the best we've ever had. Our DC (defensive coordinator) wanted to blitz every now and then, but the HC (head coach) usually told him to play one of our base fronts. His reasoning was solid. We could stop the other team without blitzing, so why take a chance and give them a weakness to attack? Sure, an argument can be made for the big play potential of a blitz or a stunt, but if you're incredibly sure the opposition can't sustain a drive down the field, why bother? Just stop them in your base fronts, force a punt and punish them on offense.

Conversely, when you're at a disadvantage, extra men need to be put in position to stop the offense's "bread and butter." Experienced coaches know this is a clear sign of weakness. But if you're the weaker team, I'm a big believer in rolling the dice and trying to make something happen. Sure, you'll get burned now and then, but hopefully you'll force a turnover or big play on defense every now and then and keep your team in the game.

For example: Let's say a team runs the option, and they are superior to you. You might need to mix up sending a cornerback or a safety as run support to pitch back. This is a sound strategy, as bringing DB's from different angles on run support can confuse a blocking scheme. However, if you've sent a safety and the TE or slot back runs free up the seam, or you've sent a corner and the WR gets a free release to the void (a fade route) on a play action pass, you're in trouble.

Most of the time, when a defense blitzes or stunts in a down and distance situation that isn't a strong pass tendency, it's simply a roll of the dice. And you don't want to "crap out" with a national television audience too often, or you'll be coaching special teams at Montana State before you can say "Who blew that coverage?"

Response: 2 Frankly, very few. This is a nightmare scenario. It is where the "bend, but don't break, keep them in front of you" approach comes in. If you want to see what happens when an inferior defensive team blitzes a talented offense, I recommend last years BYU-ND game. In the situation the question describes the DC must have two or three blitzes that he will call strategically, and on a limited basis. Otherwise, I would hope to limit the big play, play field position, and try to keep it close to give the offense a chance in the fourth quarter. The idea that there is a scheming, magic bullet, which covers large talent deficiencies, is the fantasy of Howard Cosell-like fans.

With some of the rumors floating around that ND may go to a 4-2-5 (with Lambert being the fifth DB and taking the place of an outside LB)--what are some of the advantages and disadvantages of this scheme compared to a traditional 4-3 alignment? Is a 4-2-5 essentially a defense in full time nickel coverage? True or not, with all the talk of a disappointing spring from the LB corps, would it make sense for ND to adjust their scheme in this way?

Response: Change schemes? I doubt it. That would require, at best, the back seven position players to learn a new scheme, and it would be the third defensive change in the past three years. Such a change, like the oft surmised 3-4 by some ND fans, would require another year of learning and consideration as to whether ND has the personnel to fit such a scheme. I fully believe this year that ND will present more defensive packages through varied personnel, but will do it with the 4-3 as the base defense.

I'd be interested in an explanation of the differing roles of the safeties. Specifically, both Tom Zbikowski and Chinedum Ndukwe got flak last year for biting on play action passes - but is that fair? I'm not sure if one should be less susceptible to bite on play action than the other by the nature of their positions. Should a strong safety be more inclined to bite and a free safety stay back? Does ND have a system in which strong/free are interchangeable - and are there such systems? Does it appear that Zbikowski is more often matched up against third or fourth receivers than Ndukwe - and is that consistent with his designation as the strong safety? What about an objective analysis by the coaches of how Zbikowski and Ndukwe performed last year, especially considering Zbikowski got third team All-American and it didn't seem to make a whole lot of sense given the blow-ups in the secondary.

Response: Before I attempt to answer this question, I need to add a disclaimer. As I've mentioned before, I watch ND football as a fan, not a coach. ND football is my escape from the "Xs and Os" I deal with all football season. One of my cohorts in the coaches' mailbag is a complete psycho who analyzes each ND play on O and D as a coach, and I personally believe it takes away from his enjoyment of the game. Those of you who know me from the tailgates can vouch for my "less-than-focused" approach to ND game days.

That being said, I believe either of ND's safeties can be fooled by play action, depending on the play action and flow of the play. College and pro football today have a great emphasis on keeping as many defenders "in the box" as possible. The days of a true free safety are over. Depending on the flow of the ball, to the field or the boundary, either safety is asked to provide run support. The only way to get better at this is repetition. I'm a head case, no one doubts that, but I believe a safety can subconsciously pick up the movements of a back, a receiver or a lineman he isn't even focusing on, and his movements can key that safety to pass or run. It only takes one or two players on offense to "give a play away" for a good defender to make the proper read. Experience is the key.

Of course, as a DB coach I'll always defend them, but I'll add this little tidbit as "food for thought": Every team's defensive backfield gets burned now and then. As fans we notice it and dwell on it when ND's DB's blow a coverage. But Quinn threw for three dozen TDs last year. That means the other teams' DB's screwed up quite a bit as well. That doesn't let our DB's off the hook, but it might help to keep things in perspective.

I would love to hear more about the fiesta bowl and in particular what exactly broke down defensively (I know, I'm a glutton for punishment). Maybe the guys could explain the different coverages that were in place for the two bombs and the Ginn reverse, and explain what defense we should have been in. Of course some film would be necessary for the coach's to analyze.

Response: Regarding the Fiesta Bowl, or any other individual game, there is no way any of us can assign blame. I'm not trying to defend DB's on this one, but I think this is a very solid point we all need to consider. We have NO IDEA what coverage was called on those long passes, or what fronts and stunts were called on the reverse. Of course, with a ton of film analysis, we might think we can get pretty detailed, but we still weren't in the film sessions, the defensive game plan meetings, or the practices.

Remember, nearly every defense called is meant to look like other defenses. That's all part of the chess game going on each Saturday. So while it might seem completely obvious a corner was in man-to-man coverage and he flat out got toasted, it might really have been the safety's fault, who was told to shade the other team's best receiver in that particular situation to make a play over the top (on any deep ball). The same can be true the other way. I've seen a million instances where a deep ball is thrown, and as the receiver runs into the end zone, the safety is the closest defender chasing after him. "Joe idiot" in the stands yells about how bad the safety was on that play, when in fact the safety had the TE covered like a glove, but left his coverage once the ball was thrown to track down the WR who had completely blown by the pathetic coverage of the cornerback.

Unless we have attended every defensive film session and studied the game plan from front to back, we will never know for sure who is to blame. That's why football is the greatest game. It takes 11 guys working together as one. It's just a beautiful game.

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