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September 28, 2012TUSCALOOSA | It happens in a matter of seconds, sometimes even a fraction of a second, after the offense lines up and before the ball is snapped.
The University of Alabama defense shifts. A linebacker drops back into coverage or a safety steps up to blitz. Or maybe not. Sometimes it's just a false tell, a fake to confuse the opposing quarterback. Sometimes it's for real.
All that movement, all that goes on, is as much between the ears as it is between the sidelines.
"It's just a mind game," Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley said, "all a mind game."
The mind Alabama defenders play games with belongs to the opposing quarterback. If UA can fool him, it gains a major advantage.
"The whole thing, in the simplest terms, defensively if you can make it look like a zone and play man, make it look like man and play zone, make it look like you're playing zone and blitz - any time you can get in the quarterback's head, you get a little ahead," said Joe Kines, who served two stints as Alabama's defensive coordinator and another with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the National Football League.
So what kinds of games are played before the snap, and how do they affect the game?
Checks and kills
The chess game that goes on before the snap is a game of one-upmanship with the quarterback and his center, who calls out blocking assignments, on one side and the defense on the other.
First, the offense lines up with a play called. Alabama's defense looks to the sideline to coordinator Kirby Smart, who calls a defense to match the offensive formation and personnel grouping. Then the defense can make a check - looking again to Smart for adjustments within the same alignment - if the offense puts someone in motion or makes a shift. If the quarterback calls an audible and changes the play and formation entirely, the defense will call a kill and reset in a completely different alignment.
"They try to see if we're in man (coverage) or if we're blitzing," linebacker Nico Johnson said, "and if they do they'll check and we'll look at Coach Smart, and if he sees that we need to check, then we'll check. It's kind of complicated, but being around a while you see what's going on."
The key for the defense is to give the quarterback a false look, to show one coverage or pressure package when it is really running another.
Take, for example, a play midway through the second quarter against Arkansas two weeks ago. Alabama showed a four-man front with one linebacker on third-and-7. As quarterback Brandon Allen began his cadence, he saw UA defensive back Nick Perry sneak up behind right end Adrian Hubbard, showing blitz. Allen checked to move his running back over to help with protection against Perry's expected pass rush. Instead, Perry went backward in coverage with the tight end. The running back moved up in expectation of the blitz that never came, leaving Hubbard one-on-one with the left tackle.
Hubbard beat his man for a sack, in large part because Arkansas saw one thing while UA was doing another.
"We try to disguise," Johnson said. "That's one thing we've done well since I've been here is disguise well, show something that we're really not in. When we do that it kind of confuses the quarterback and confuses the offensive line."
The eyes have it
It starts with the eyes of the quarterback. Alabama defenders watch his eyes to gain maximum advantage. One reason Alabama has been so successful against spread formation offenses is the quarterback usually operates out of the shotgun, taking a long snap from the center. That requires the quarterback to divert his attention, and in the blink of an eye Alabama will change its defense.
"We're looking for the quarterback, whatever he does," cornerback Dee Milliner said. "He's either going to look down (at the center) or clap his hands or something, and when he looks up we're trying to show a whole other thing that we're in."
That's what happened when Milliner intercepted a pass in the first half of the season opener against Michigan and returned it 35 yards to set up a short touchdown drive. Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson was operating out of the shotgun on second-and-20. When he looked to the center to call for the snap, linebacker Trey DePriest began blitzing from Robinson's right side. By the time Robinson was looking up, DePriest was crashing through the line unchecked. Robinson threw off his back foot in the face of the pressure and Milliner had an easy pick.
"We're just trying to fool with them a little bit," DePriest said.
Much of what goes on before the snap is routine, getting players lined up in the right places.
"On both sides of the ball, getting your numbers straight is 90 percent of that," Kines said. "You know, the center identifying the linebacker they're going to turn off of, who's going to block him, getting the count right up front - and then the secondary, they're getting the numbers right on who they have to cover.
"On defense, as long as you get one more than they can block, you're fixing to have a big play. Most of all that, literally, is just getting the count right. There's nothing philosophical or mysterious about it."
Most teams are limited in what they can do with the personnel on the field at any given time. Where Alabama has a big advantage is in the versatility of its defensive players. Smart and head coach Nick Saban want linebackers to be able to play all four positions, defensive backs to be able to play more than one spot and linemen who can play inside or outside. The more players are able to play multiple positions, the more options the defense has to change its scheme before the snap.
"Everybody tries to emulate what Alabama does. It's not that unique. Nick's schemes have been around for a while now," said CBS college football analyst Gary Danielson, who played quarterback in the NFL for a dozen years. "The difference for Nick is his players are more interchangeable. He has a higher level of athlete that is recruited. When he switches around, they are not out of position as much because they are more versatile.
"A lot of people look like Alabama before the snap but are not Alabama after the snap. People try to replicate what Alabama is doing, but they just cannot do it."
Johnson is one of those versatile parts. He is a middle linebacker by trade, but often moves around in accordance with the checks made after the offense lines up.
"That's why coach preaches to us to know every position on the field, because you never know which position you're going to be at," Johnson said. "You've got to know it all."
Opposing quarterbacks, of course, are the ones who have to make sense of all of Alabama's presnap movement. Those quarterbacks have a week of preparation to figure it out, and then scant seconds to make a decision on the field.
"It took me a year to learn it, and I'm still learning," safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said. "I feel bad for the quarterback."
Dazed and confused
The purpose of it all is to keep the quarterback guessing - and guessing wrong.
"The hardest thing to handle defensively is a hot quarterback," Kines said. "You get one that gets hot on you and he's making that throw and he's ahead of the count all the time, he can play better and make everybody else around him play better. To get after him and cause him to throw off balance and cause him to misread or do something to get him off of stride or off balance, that's very important."
The confusion Alabama creates before the snap accounts, in large part, for how UA was able to lead the nation in total defense, scoring defense, passing defense and rushing defense last season. In 2012, the Crimson Tide is ranked second in scoring and pass defense through four games, third in total defense and sixth in rushing defense.
Sometimes the chess game gets more sophisticated, with the defense thinking two or three moves ahead. Alabama will show blitz when it intends to blitz upon occasion, in anticipation that the quarterback will think it's a bluff.
"If the quarterback thinks we're showing this, he's going to check, but we're really already in what we're doing sometimes," Milliner said. "We just try to throw the quarterback off."
The defensive secondary will also mix things up, tipping one coverage scheme while running another. Safeties will show blitz and drop back in coverage, or defensive backs will blitz while the safety moves over to cover a receiver, or a safety will line up on one side of the field and move over with the snap to cover the other side.
No matter what the quarterback sees, he cannot trust his eyes.
"It's fun to be out there and be able to blitz around and show different things," Mosley said. "It's just a mind game."
Reach Tommy Deas at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0224.