I Think I See Tom Izzo


I have often wondered about what Pete Carroll and Bradley have been trying to build on defense. How is it all supposed to fit together? I'm no X's and O's guy like the regular writers, but here is what went through my mind when Browner intercepted Romo in the first half of the Dallas game. "I think I get it now. We're trying to leverage teams into taking mid-range jump shots!"

This defense is the football version of Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans.

Obviously, all defenses exist to stop the other team from scoring regardless of sport. But for me at least, basketball provides the best analogy for understanding what this defense tries to do. Why the Spartans?

The most straightforward way to be a dominant defense in basketball is to have a great shot-blocker, analogous to a high-sack pass rusher in football. Yet Izzo routinely fields elite defenses without one. How? The simplest response is that Izzo's defenses influence teams to rely on mid-range jump shots; that is, the Spartans limit 3-point and layup attempts while cleaning the defensive boards.

I saw this defense in those terms or the first time in the Dallas game on that Browner interception, and it was like an epiphany for me. I could see it unfold clearly over the 2nd half. In fact, with even a slightly less elusive QB than Romo the analogy of leveraging teams into mid-range jumpers would have been even more obvious. The beauty of this defense--and "beauty" is relative when referencing an Izzo-coached defense--is that when it's clicking it has an almost subtle (again, relative) asphyxiating quality. Sometimes there will be big plays, but they come off a slow, steady suffocation (that shows up in the 2nd half) rather than hero plays.

So, how does it work? I think previous posts on this blog do a much better job of laying out the specifics than I ever could. What I see are four fundamental principles analogous to basketball.

1. Limit 3-pt. attempts (deep passes). This secondary discourages deep throws based on personnel, and it's not just their size. It's also their range. Many offenses go deep against man coverage on principle, regardless of opponent. (Bet your bottom dollar that GB will take shots down field against our secondary.) But few teams will craft a game plan built around consistently beating Seattle over the top. That's a BIG deal, because the Achilles heel of this Red Bryant-centered defense is defending the pass on early downs. But when it's clicking, teams who look to throw on early downs like Arizona did still won't be too keen on throwing down the field. Not giving up yards in huge chunks on early downs is pretty important to leveraging teams into passing downs (i.e., 2nd and 7+, 3rd and 5+).

2. Limit close in shots (running game). Seattle's run defense will be able to take all but the most committed teams out of their running game early, and consistently leverage them into playing mostly in passing downs. Shutting down the running game, to go back to the hoops analogy, is like taking away layups and post-ups. When the offense can't get anything easy it turns every possession into a grind.

3. Influence offenses into taking mid-range jumpers (short passing game). The effect of 1 & 2 is to subtly influence teams into that mid-range area of 5-15 yard passes. In truth, THAT was the Achilles heel of this defense last season. We could influence offenses into the mid-range, but were fairly helpless once we got them there. The LBs simply could scarcely cover a TE or RB. Teams could throw in this area AND get some run after catch with impunity. Not so much this year. The Legion of Boom will allow you to catch it. But they are bringing the wood with them (with very good tackling form).

4. Contest everything and clean up the defensive boards (disrupt timing and spacing). Any of us who witnessed the majesty of Bobby Engram knows it is difficult to make a living in that mid-range area. An offense needs precision in both timing and spacing--not to mention some pretty brave receivers--to do damage in that area. Well from a defensive standpoint, a big aspect of messing up that precision is the ability to generate pressure from practically any angle. That kind of pressure--unreliant on a single rusher that can come from anywhere--can force QBs to change release points on throws or re-set their feet. In the mid-range areas, those kinds of adjustments can be death on timing and spacing.

When this defense can execute all four areas it just becomes slog for the opposing offense. Green Bay will present a different challenge than Dallas. They are deep enough to continuously challenge teams deep down the field. That of course creates space underneath. I can't wait to see the matchup. I can just about guarantee it'll be more exciting than Big 10 basketball.

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