Theoretically, the best way to stop the spread offense—whether it is employed primarily via the run or the pass—is to just be better prepared than the opposition. Having linebackers that are beasts from a size perspective and can also run like deer and cover slot receivers, tight ends and running backs is absolutely vital. You want guys who you never have to substitute, and linemen that can go from holding the point to blowing up a jailbreak screen at the drop of the hat.
Unfortunately, most ballclubs do not live in theory land, and it is very hard to stock your roster full of such talented players.
That means you have to find another way to stop the different variations of the spread offenses that are taking the game by storm. This can be done by focusing more on implementing successful defensive schemes that are tailored specifically toward this type of offense.
Because "spread offense" is a term that has been bastardized beyond all recognition, we have to start by getting specific about what we mean with respect to the term. We're going to do this in three sections, but don't confuse that with assuming there are only three type of offenses that fall under the spread—that is not the case. However, for our purposes, we'll look at the running-based, passing-based and then hybrid variation of the offenses that generally all get lumped together as the "spread."
Let's start with the ground-based attack. This style has been made popular due to guys like Gus Malzahn, Chip Kelly and, of course, the Godfather of the movement, Rich Rodriguez. Stopping these guys is not easy, and it takes a blend of power and speed on the edge to counteract these schemes based upon parrying off of the opposition's thrust.
The power has to come from up front—big bodies on the defensive line that can hold their own ground, refuse to get washed down by the blocking schemes and can force penetration when the chance presents itself are essential.
In other words, let your defensive front control the action and then rely on great gap control from your linebackers. Run fits are paramount here, and guys playing a gap over or who are unable to hold their ground in their own respective gaps create seams that run-based spread offenses take advantage of. That is where the big plays come from.
You see, the beauty of these offenses—much like Paul Johnson's option attack at Georgia Tech—is in their patience. They plan their work and they work their plan. These teams probe and prod until they find where you lack discipline in the front seven. They feel you out, and whether it takes them a drive, a quarter or an entire half of a game, they stick to their plan and wait for their opportunity.
That means that even if you can physically match up with the players in a spread offense, a lack of defensive discipline will still sink you in a hurry. But if you play your responsibilities and keep things bottled up, you can make more tackles in a phone booth, and that's a blessing for your defensive players.
The same cannot be said for teams that operate out of a more pass-based spread attack, with a quarterback operating out of the shotgun and slinging it around the yard to the tune of big numbers. In this type of offense, the ball comes out quick, helping to negate your pass rush.
There are a couple different ways to combat this approach by playing either man or zone. Playing man sounds great because you can press, put your safeties over the top, give your defensive line a chance to get to the quarterback and force more difficult throws.
Unfortunately, the fact is that most teams cannot press very well. Elite corners are tough to find and having three or four guys capable of manning up for large period of a game is an extreme rarity in the current college football landscape.
That means that most teams will have to play zone coverage. While there are a lot of theories about what does and does not work, one principle is universal: You have to know how to tackle. If you do not tackle, it does not matter if you are playing Cover 2, Cover 4, Cover 5 or anything else because you're going to give up big plays regardless.
And much like doing your job and maintaining gap control is the way to beat run-heavy attacks, tackling is how you start to beat pass-happy teams.
So while some teams will look to employ quarters coverage to protect against vertical threats, others like to play two over the top in order to build the picket fence that allows for quick reaction to the out routes, slants and the like. You can mix and match them with respect to down and distance, and also allow your individual players to adjust to their possible threats.
However, regardless of what you play, you have to protect the deep pass and then come up to tackle the short ones. That means that linebackers, corners, safeties and defensive linemen all have to join the party.
You must first take away the slants and seams that can get loose in a hurry. Sacrifice the screen, or the flare in favor of protecting the dig, the corner and the fade routes. Then, when the short route is thrown, swarm to the ball-carrier for a minimum gain.
Yes, you are going to give up small chunks of yardage and there will be open players in open coverage zones near the line of scrimmage. This allows opposing players to catch the ball, but if you miss a tackle, that three-yard gain becomes an eight-yard gain for a first-down conversion.
That is fine because if a team is patient enough to throw nothing but check-downs and dink-and-dunk you down the field for an entire game, then so be it. Most teams are not patient enough to do this. They are used to big plays, used to things happening quickly and used to players breaking short throws for big gainers.
Teams will often get impatient. They start trying to manufacture new success, and they will start attempting low-percentage throws and forcing the ball into windows that it doesn't belong in as they try to make something happen. This is especially true if said team is down by a couple of scores.
This brings us to the defense killer that is the hybrid spread attack, where you get a quarterback who can move enough to be a real threat on the ground, in addition to being a skilled passer. It is a blending of skills that, to be quite frank, we have never truly experienced before.
In the last few years we have seen a rise of guys with the ability to sling it as well as anyone, but also with the ability to run the ball and make defenses pay with their legs. If you are a defensive coordinator, this is a nightmare.
How do you stop it? Well, you've got to pray.
On a more constructive note, it is not easy. We've discussed how you have to work hard to stop the run-based attack and also about the discipline required to stop the pass-based attack. We have also talked about all of the things that a mobile quarterback can do to a defense.
It is not just the zone-read run fakes, or the packaged plays that tax defenses in multiple directions on a given snap, or even the run-action fakes that quarterbacks can perform on their own to suck safeties up.
No, these sort of systems, and players, are more dangerous because they dictate what your defense can use to defend them, right out of the gate. When facing a mobile quarterback, you cannot play nearly as much man coverage. If you do, you run the risk of defenders' backs being turned to a quarterback who is scampering downfield, gobbling up green.
Your defense also cannot do as much blitzing or running stunts to pressure the quarterback. When you lose gap control, the quarterback can hand the ball off in the zone-read or pull it to hit the hole himself for a big gain.
Oh, and of course he can still throw the ball, too.
The only true way to beat this offense is to be better than it. You have to have disciplined players up front. You need guys who are not going to lose control or get too far upfield and allow the quarterback to slide up in the pocket and squirt out the side for a big gain. That means you need linebackers who flow side-to-side and instead of getting wrapped up in just chasing down the quarterback, they play rules and let the play come to them.
In the back end, it is all about the safeties. They have to be equally adept against the run and pass. They must be guys who can alley fill and take great angles against the run, but also are comfortable in coverage and have great range. They also cannot get sucked into the backfield.
Truth be told, most teams are not built to stop this sort of an attack. There's a reason that Clemson, Baylor and Texas A&M were such big problems for people. They take principles from two extremely potent offensive styles, blend them together and take advantage of their opposition.
If you scheme to stop the run, then these offenses still possess the ability to beat you with the pass. You play contain to stop their roll out game and moving the pocket, but they can still throw the quick hitters all day. You get tired of them dinking-and-dunking you down the field so you dial up a pressure, and the quarterback will slip contain. Now, you have a new set of problems.
Stopping these systems is not easy. While it is easier to gameplan for a run-based or a pass-based spread attack, those are no walk in the park to shut down either. You might have the players, but they don't have the patience. You might have the discipline but not the players.
College football, in its current state, is seeing defenses fight an uphill battle. Throw in quarterbacks who can throw as well as they run, and defensive coordinators have some real nightmare fuel.