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Who owns the middle?

Defense wins championships…or at least it used to.  What happened?

Big offense is king in today’s football landscape.  Spread the ball, hurry up to the line, get the ball to your athletes.  This does a lot to distract commentators and fans alike who use this new style offense to explain the collapse of the D.  The real difference, however, lies in the “Battle for the Middle”.

The football field is 160 feet wide.  In college, the middle of the filed is 40 feet across; in the NFL the real estate is even more scarce (18 feet 6 inches).  Given these numbers, it would make sense that the majority of the game would be played on the edges.  The middle of the field, however, has been the key battle ground since the creation of the game of football.

Before the days of the spread, it was the option and the veer that tried to conquer the middle.  Then the I formation, the offset I, and even the single back formations tried to gain control of the middle by throwing more bodies in front of a bruising running back.

But defenses have always had an answer.  Stuff the middle, overload the box, chop the lineman.  And then there is the one strategy that has withstood the test of time.  Be more physical.  Punish the running back for coming to the middle of the field.  Meet the blockers head on and out-muscle your way to the back.  Let everyone know that it’s the Defense that owns the middle of the field and whoever comes into “our” house will have to pay for it.

Then came the spread.  Offenses give the illusion that they have abandoned
the middle of the field by using runs around the ends, deep passing threats
and short bubble screens to the outside.  But don’t let yourself be fooled.  The spread is still concerned about the “Battle for the Middle”, and in most cases they’re winning.

So what has happened to the defense?  Why have they relinquished control of the middle?  Some will tell you it is a direct result of the spread.  Spreading the defense out prevents them from stacking the box.  Running on the edge forces the defense to recruit faster athletes at positions that traditionally need bulk and strength.  Middle linebackers are now used to drop 15 yards into coverage and run sideline to sideline instead of only worrying about blowing up a lead blocker on the way to the running back.

While a worthy observation, I don’ t think that completely accounts for what is happening.  While some of the damage in the middle is being done by the run game, most of it is inflicted by the passing game.  This would never be allowed 10 years ago.  If a wide receiver tried to catch a ball in the middle, it was a personal insult to the defensive back 7.  Many wide receivers, NFL and college alike, described the feeling of running a route across the middle in the same way.  Fear.

What’s changed?  More than anything the rules of the game have changed.  Press coverage is discouraged because of the new rules about how far down field you can press a receiver.  New terms such as “launching” and “unnecessary roughness” have been used to describe the same hits and collisions that were taught and idolized not 5 years ago.

This is most obvious in the NFL with the new helmet to helmet rule.  While this rule is important in the prevention of concussions, it needs to be modified in the way it is called.  If any defensive player touches an offensive player’s helmet for any reason, the helmet to helmet is being called.  This includes situations in which the offensive player was hit once before and his trajectory changed so quickly that the defensive player couldn’t help but collide with his helmet.

These new rules and fundamental changes in ideals have stolen the defense’s possession of the middle of the field.  Safeties check up before making contact with receivers who come into the middle.  Linebackers don’t work down hill as aggressively in the running game, because they have to be more conscious of the pass.  Because defenses are not as aggressive and have the rules against them, the game has changed.

The offense rules the middle, and they won’t give it up easily.

{This post was made to discuss the general state of football.  There are exceptions to this rule, but for the most part, this is the way the game has turned.  And before any Alabama homers post about how terrific your control of the middle has always been, here are a few items for careful consideration.  (1) Alabama vs. Utah 2009. Utah scored 31 points on 336 yards passing.  Most of those passes were across the middle of the field. (2) Alabama vs. South Carolina 201o. Alabama allowed Garcia [yes Garcia] to go 17/20 for 200, Lattimore to rush for 93 yards and 2 TDs, and the offense dominated the middle of the field.  (3) Alabama vs. Georgia Southern.  Against a much less talented team and at home, Alabama allowed 302 yards rushing to a traditional option team.

All of these games were played in the Nick Saban/Kirby Smart era}

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About davidtutwiler

Together with Andy, we are the creators of Outputting Our Coverage. Our radio show broadcasts every Thursday at 5:30 P.M. Central Time and can be found at http://www.spreaker.com/show/the_outputting_our_coverage_show. We also have our blog on WordPress.com that contains opinions, jokes, and social commentary we didn't get to during the show. It can be found at https://outputtingourcoverage.wordpress.com/

3 comments on “Who owns the middle?

  1. LarryB
    October 4, 2012

    I don’t know when it happened but long gone are the days of a big tight end that would love to go into the middle. At around 6′-5″ and about 250 big tight ends of the past ( like Dave Casper ) would go in the middle and catch their share of passes and dish out punishment to most linebackers or defensive backs that took them on. It would seem by using the tight end more and therefore establishing that constant threat that the sides would be more open for the wide receivers. An additional real dimesion offense has to help the running game as well.

  2. davidtutwiler
    October 4, 2012

    That’s a good point Larry. The college ranks haven’t caught on to this fact like the NFL has. In the last 2 years the tight end position has been transformed from a pure blocker to an extra wide out.

    And size they do have. Of the top three tight ends in the game we have Aaron Hernandez (6’1″ 245lbs), Jimmy Graham (6’7″ 275lbs), and most notably Rob Gronkowski (6’6″ 275lbs) who smashed several tight end receiving records last year.

    They kill the defense by going over the middle on play fakes that draw the linebackers in. And with these sizes, they make it very difficult for defensive backs to bring them down. New England still runs offensive sets that feature three tight ends.

    Larry, you have the mind of today’s offensive coordinators.

  3. Bamafan1
    October 4, 2012

    Great observations. I know I am an old man but I truly beleive defense wins championships. When a spread team faces a great defense, the defense wins. I think two things are in play here. 1. College moves toward NFL style football. 2. Its offense is easier to coach and run. Great blog and we can’t wait for more.

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This entry was posted on October 3, 2012 by in College, Football, Sports and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , .
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