The relationship between offense and defense is well documented. Few defenses are able to play at a high level if they are constantly on the field because of an unproductive offense. At the same time defenses are often at the mercy of their offense where field position is concern. If an offense put their defense in bad spots by turning the ball over or failing to convert on 4th down, the defense is at a distinct disadvantage. Over the last year, Brady Hoke has introduced a new line of thinking where the relationship between offense and defense is concerned. Two comments made by Hoke highlight his line of thinking and the philosophy as a whole. The first was made by Hoke while the coach of San Diego State and was directed towards Oregon. In an interview with San Diego columnist Tim Sullivan Hoke declared:
“Right, wrong or indifferent, when you’re zone blocking all the time — when you’re playing basketball on grass — you practice against that all spring, you practice against it all fall and then you’re going to play a two-back team that wants to knock you off the football. I don’t think you’re prepared.”
Hoke made similar comments during Big 10 Media Days 2 weeks ago:
“I can tell you, and I’m a defensive coach, that when your defense plays against a pro-style offense all spring long, and they play against a pro-style offense all fall camp, you build a toughness and an edge because the schemes themselves are different … And this is a physical football league. It’s a physical offense, with people who run the football. We think we can play better defense by the fact of how we do things on the offensive side of the ball because they feed off each other.”
Hoke’s point is simple yet intriguing. The offensive scheme that a team uses helps dictate the level of preparation for the defense. Two aspects of Hoke’s comments are worthy of further examination. The first concerns the result of a defense practicing against an offense that utilizes zone blocking a majority of the time. The second concerns defenses who play against basketball on grass i.e the spread being unprepared to handle downhill running teams. These comments have led many members of the Michigan faithful who have watched Michigan struggle mightily on defense over the last 3 years to nod their head in agreement. After all Michigan has been gashed by downhill running teams for most of the last 3 years. Is there validity to Hoke’ comment is the question. Are teams that primarily use zone blocking and play “basketball on grass” less prepared defensively? Is the reverse also valid? Are defenses that practice against a pro-style scheme and primarily drive block less prepared to deal with spread teams?
A cursory glance at the play of the Michigan defense would certainly seem to suggest that Hoke is right on the money. The Michigan defense was pushed around and scored on at will by downhill pro-style offenses for the better part of 3 years. The results when Michigan played Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan State, and Ohio State can be classified as terrible at best. Michigan gave up a 3 year average of 39.3 ppg and 248 ypg rushing to Wisconsin, 33.3 ppg and 247 ypg rushing to Ohio State in 3 years, 31.6 ppg and 204.3 ypg to Michigan State in 3 years, and 35.5ppg and 109 ypg rushing to Iowa in 2 years. Again the question is whether the performance above are the result of Michigan’s defense practicing against the spread and zone blocking every day in practice or not? The answer is yes and no. One of the issues with the Michigan defense was certainly the lack of time the defense spent practicing independent of the offense. When your defense is nothing more than a glorified practice dummy that exists for the purpose of preparing your offense, the odds of being fully prepared for the upcoming opponent is extremely low. This lack of preparation extended beyond pro-style teams as you will see.
Further analysis of Michigan’s schedule over the last 3 reveals that the Michigan defense was no less prepared to deal with pro-style teams than were against fellow spread teams. In the case of Illinois, Michigan performed far worse on defense than they did against any of the pro-style/run right at your teams. Michigan yielded a whopping of 49.3 ppg and 294 ypg rushing to Illinois over a 3 year period from 2008-2010. Now some will immediately point out that the 65 points Michigan gave up to Illinois includes 3 overtimes which skews the average. But, even if we remove the 20 points Michigan gave up to Illinois in overtime. Michigan’s 3 year average is 42.6. Even taking away the overtime point the average is still significantly higher than the amount of points given up Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Michigan also gave up a 3 year average of 34 ppg and 169 ypg rushing to Purdue, which is more than the average amount of points given up to Michigan State and Ohio State but on par with Iowa over the same 3 year stretch. Wisconsin is the lone pro-style/run right at you team that averaged more points against the Michigan defense than Purdue. These results suggest that practicing against a “basketball on grass” offense that primarily uses zone blocking yields a defense that is no less prepared to face a downhill offense than a spread offense. In fact, if you go strictly off the last 3 years the results indicate that Michigan’s defense was actually LESS prepared to face spread teams than pro-style teams.
The most likely explanation for Michigan’s struggles defensively has little to do with what scheme the offense was using. The truth is that the defense was simply unprepared across the board. In addition Michigan was poorly coached and was low on talent, size, and depth. No matter what style of offense they faced, Michigan’s defense did not perform well against it. Had they practiced against a pro-style offense everyday it is likely that they still would have struggled to stop Michigan State, Iowa, Ohio State, and Wisconsin. Without good coaching, talent, depth, and experience the odds of playing good defense are low regardless of the scheme your offense is using.
Michigan represents just one case however which is hardly conclusive. Even if we accept the idea that Michigan was less prepared to deal with pro-style/run right at you teams because of the scheme they used offensively, the same would need to be true for other teams in order for Hoke’s statements to be valid. After all, Hoke’s initial statement was made in relation to Oregon not Michigan. Hoke was making a general statement about the nature of football and how well teams prepare given their offense. While I would like nothing better than to conduct a full scale analysis of how well the defense of every spread team performed against pro-style/run right at you teams. For the sake of time and the need to use comparable examples I focus on 4 cases, Florida 2006 and Florida 2008, Auburn 2010, and Michigan 2006.
Why these cases? Florida and Auburn were selected because they played in a conference not unlike the Big 10. Like the Big 10, the SEC prides itself on defense, physicality, and boasts a large number of teams that like nothing more than to line up in the I-formation and run right at opponents. Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, LSU, Arkansas/Ole Miss under Houston Nutt, and recently South Carolina all use schemes fit Hoke’s mold of teams that “wants to knock you off the football.” The second reason is simple, Auburn and Florida both represent teams that use or did use schemes that have been labeled “basketball on grass.” Both also primarily employed a zone blocking scheme up front. Michigan 2006 provides an even more relevant example of a team that primarily employed zone blocking on offense while facing a large number of downhill running teams.
The 4 cases highlighted above certainly present a challenge to the theory that the style of offense a team uses dictates the level of preparation defensively. In 2006 Florida ranked 9th in the country in total defense and 5th in rushing defense. In 2008 Florida finished 9th in total defense and 10th in rush defense. Florida played 7 teams in 2006 which could be classify as downhill running teams, Tennessee, Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Arkansas, Auburn, and Ohio State. Florida’s defense gave up an average of 18ppg and 76ypg rushing in those 7 contests, including 47 rushing yards to Ohio State. In 2008 Florida played 5 downhill running teams, Tennessee, Mississippi, LSU, Georgia, and Alabama. Florida gave up an average of 17ppg and 111.6 ypg rushing in those 5 contests. Auburn, which ranked 60th in the country in total defense thanks in large part to its horrific secondary, finished 9th in rushing defense. Auburn played 6 downhill running teams last year, South Carolina (twice), LSU, Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama. Auburn gave up an average of 25ppg and 119ypg rushing, including a paltry 69yds rushing to Alabama. The 2006 Michigan defense requires little introduction. The Wolverines ranked 10th in the country in total defense and 1st in rush defense. Michigan played 4 teams that would classify as downhill running teams, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa, and Ohio State. Michigan gave up an average of 18ppg and a ridiculously low 75ypg rushing in those 4 contests.
The results clearly indicate that teams utilizing a spread offense and/or zone blocking as the primary run scheme are capable of preparing for pro-style/run right at you teams. What these results suggest is that defenses are able to independently prepare for opponents regardless of the offensive system that is used by their own team. While teams certainly do play against their own offense, most break away and practice against a scout team simulating the scheme used by the upcoming opponent. Clearly spread and zone blocking based teams aren’t doomed to failure simply because of the style of offense their team uses. The same is true in the reverse; Alabama, Ohio State, and Virginia Tech have all enjoyed a share of success defensively against spread teams in recent years despite not running the spread or primarily using zone blocking themselves.
Like everything else, the key to good defense is most closely tied to talent, good coaching, and experience. If those elements are in place, the odds are high that a team will produce a top notch defense regardless of the scheme their offense uses. Good coaches prepare their team to face a multitude of different offenses. In the college game that is especially important as teams continue to diversify their offense. In the case of Michigan over the last 3 years, the results indicate that a defense can be victimized by spread teams as much if not more than by a downhill running teams. In the case of Florida, Auburn, and 2006 Michigan the results indicate that teams that primarily employ the spread and/or zone blocking do no face a greater likely hood of being unprepared and victimized by downhill running teams. While it may make for a good sound bite, the theory that a team’s offensive scheme dictates how well they prepare defensive is in fact a myth. Based on the evidence present above there is no factual basis to backup the claim. Clearly disconnect exists between the theory, which on the surface appears sound and logical, and reality displays something different.
If you agree or disagree with Joseph’s article, let us know below .. and as always, Go Blue!