The goal of The Football Scientist interview series is to talk to some of the most interesting people in the football world.
There are a lot of individuals who fit into that category, but it didn’t take long to decide that Coach Cody Alexander was the first person I wanted to talk to for this series.
Coach Alexander has one of the sharpest football minds I have encountered in my over 16 years in this business. He learned his trade while serving as a Defensive Graduate Assistant under Defensive Coordinator Phil Bennett at Baylor from 2011-2014 and is currently the Secondary Coach at Midlothian High School (5A in Texas). He has penned three books: Cautious Aggression: Defending Modern Football, Hybrids: The Making of a Modern Defense, and Match Quarters, A Modern Guidebook to Split-Field Coverages, all of which are available via his Amazon page.
Coach Alexander also operates a website called MatchQuarters.com that has some of the most insightful and easily discernible play breakdowns in the industry. Just spend even a few minutes on that site and it quickly becomes clear that he is something of an all-seeing eye when it comes to this incredibly complex game. I am convinced that he could follow in the footsteps of Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy (as detailed in this great article on The Ringer) and make the jump upwards from the high school level in the coming years.
During our interview, Coach Alexander shared his insights on how hybrid players are leading the charge towards power football, the cause of the decline of the fullback in the NFL, how a heavy reliance on single high coverage schemes by NFL defenses greatly benefitted Lamar Jackson, and why teams facing run-centric quarterbacks would benefit from using a Match Quarters scheme.
KC Joyner: The NFL is coming off of a season that saw the fourth highest pass attempts per game in league history, yet the playoffs showcased multiple instances of power football still reigning as king. You are of the mindset that this return to power football approach is not an anomaly. Can you share some insights as to why you think that is the case?
Coach Cody Alexander: I wrote in Hybrids about how offenses are starting to move more towards 12 personnel [one running back, two tight ends]. I think NFL teams have figured out they can kind of dictate personnel by finding a tight end that can be multiple enough to be dangerous in the passing game.
I think (Oklahoma Head Coach) Lincoln Riley does the best job of moving hybrid players so that the defense has to figure out is the guy a fullback? Is he a tight end? Is he a glorified tackle that’s all of a sudden going to run down the field?
In the NFL, Kyle Shanahan is so much better than everybody at this because he was able to get a tight end that can block and catch passes [George Kittle] and have a fullback that can run a slot fade [Kyle Juszczyk]. He is able to use those two to manipulate matchups even if it is from a 21 personnel look [two running backs, one tight end].
NFL Films recent posted a video titled The Vanishing Fullback. Given the personnel investments NFL teams have made at the tight end position over the past few years, would it be accurate to say that it really isn’t that the fullback is vanishing, but rather that fullbacks are being converted into tight ends?
I think that’s the case. It’s not that the fullback’s dead. You can’t just have a juggernaut fullback anymore. You’ve got to have a guy who can add value in the passing game. When you ask him to catch the ball, will he catch the ball? Offenses have decided that instead of those plugger blocking peak guys, we would much rather have a glorified tackle that has soft hands, so every once in a while we can throw him a bone when the defense isn’t looking.
Defensively it’s the same, you can’t just be an “A” gap plugger anymore. You’ve got to be able to add value in the passing game. I think that’s the key, so it’s not that the juggernaut fullback is dead, it’s that he has probably just been moved to play interior defensive line or something.
You are a strong advocate of a defensive system called Match Quarters. What is a main benefit of running the Match Quarters system?
You’re always going to be plus one in coverage and you’re trying to be plus one on the run game, too. It’s a pass coverage, but another thing that it does help is when you do have a running quarterback, which we’re seeing more and more of in the NFL, we’re really seeing the NFL buy into a mobile quarterback, quarters gives you that extra man that can be that half player on the quarterback. If you talk to anybody that runs single high [coverages], the one thing that kills them is the quarterback run game, because they just don’t have the manpower for it. You’ve got that [manpower] in quarters.
Why don’t defenses have that manpower in single high coverages?
Because you single gap everything. The way that it’s built is that in single high you are gapped out, but the offense can create an extra gap because the quarterback is going to run so whoever’s in the backfield can become the lead blocker. The person who fits that extra gap is also responsible for the post, so you put that person into conflict. That’s why the NFL has struggled this year against players like Lamar Jackson, because when you go into single high, you have one safety in the middle and the other guy is rolled up somewhere and he can’t come all the way across [to help fill that extra gap].
If Match Quarters is so strong against the pass and the run, why don’t more coaches use it as a primary defensive scheme?
I think people are afraid of quarters because of all of the teaching involved. It’s front loaded teaching-wise and yet if you really take time in the quarters world, especially with split field, and you teach the different variations, you’re really only teaching a couple of different coverages with interchangeable parts. So once you teach the basic schemes, and the basic matchups, and the basic routes you’re going to see, then you can almost do any kind of coverage.
What is your response to Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown’s comments that he doesn’t want to run quarters?
Coach Brown has said we don’t run quarters at Michigan because it ends up being a check and you always have to worry about your checks, but it’s that choice of I don’t want to spend time on it in the front end. I want to be able to install my stuff and then work from there.
It’s really just a preference deal to go with single high. To me, single high is easy. You gap out the box. It doesn’t matter if you’re strong rotation or weak rotation, everybody kind of just knows where they fit and it never really changes. With quarters we’re capped at verticals, we’re on the hash, am I the intermediate, are you the intermediate? You do have to go through your checks and your reads have to be good, but I do think it’s more adaptable and more flexible and what I call fluid. And I think that defenses nowadays have to be fluid because of all of the different looks you are seeing.
For example, look at the difference between the Kansas City offense and the San Francisco offense. It’s a night and day difference in philosophy. Imagine you are playing Kansas City one week and then the next week you are playing San Francisco. How does that change your personnel? How is that going to change your coverage structure? How does that change what you do?
You have to be able to match up week-to-week and I just feel like if you run Cover 3 you kind of get stale because it’s always going to look the same against all of the different looks. I think with quarters you can be a little bit more manipulative. Obviously in the NFL they do some funky stuff, inserting guys, giving people different looks, but that’s because they’ve got the best athletes in the world. At my level, I’m better off being static pre-snap and moving post-snap and force a 16-year old quarterback to make a decision when bullets are firing.
Where did you learn to place this emphasis on schematic adaptability?
I learned that from, I’ll never forget it, in one of my first staff meetings, it was after my first year at Baylor and we’re reviewing the season. Coach [Art] Briles said, “We can sit here and we can be like everybody else, but if we’re going to be like everybody else, we better be the best at it. Or we can be different. I have always wanted to be just different.”
And I think that’s kind of where I’ve always been is that I don’t want to do what everybody else is doing because I may not have the cats that everybody else has. But if I can be different and I can be adaptable and I can learn and grow and teach that to my kids and get them in the right position, to me that’s much more valuable.
I’m in education so I’m always teaching, trying to get these kids to understand that you want to constantly be growing and learning. For me to say we’re only going to run this scheme and this is all we’re going to run, that gets stale and then you get comfortable and you get complacent. I always want to look for answers. I tell young coaches all of the time, learn whatever system you’re in and then try and break it once you learn it.