The Not So “Odd” Front – The 3-4 Okie

The evolution and application of football’s most multiple front.

When Phil Bennett took over the Baylor defense in the Spring of 2011 he was taking on a massive overhaul of a traditionally porous defense. Baylor was coming off a 2010 campaign that witnessed a 6-7 season and an abysmal showing in the Texas Bowl, losing to a then 6-6 Illinois team 14-38. Though the season was a success by traditional Baylor standards and the first bowl game since 1994, Coach Art Briles wanted to take the program to take the next level and knew in order to do that he needed to hire someone to clean up his defense.

In steps Bennett, currently the interim Head Coach of Pitt, and coming off a bowl victory over the Kentucky Wildcats, was also looking for a job. Briles that winter approached Bennett to revamp the Baylor defense. With a future Heisman at QB (Robert Griffen III), Briles needed just enough from his defense to get the Baylor program moving in a historic direct and he felt Bennett had enough experience to get the job done. Bennett, a Texas native, signed on to the task and the rest is history.

Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 2.05.48 PM
Phil Bennett’s historical Defensive Efficiency rankings according to BCfToys.com (’08 – ’15).

In 2015, and coming off of back-to-back Big 12 Championships, Coach Bennett ran into a serious issue during the season – lack of defensive line depth. Through both Big 12 Championship seasons, the D-line had been one of the star units for the unexpected rise to respectability of Baylor’s defense. Anyone who watched Baylor under Bennett’s tenure (and even his time at Pitt) knows that Bennett based heavily out of a four-down 4-2-5/4-3 structure. Faced with little D-line depth and injuries to key players during the 2015 season, Bennett was forced to turn to a three-down front.

The transition, for the most part, was a smooth one. The ’15 Baylor Bears were able to end up in the top 50 in Defense Efficiency (44th according to BCfToys.com), and the Bears ended up ranked #13 overall with a 9-3 record culminating the season with a 49-38 victory over North Carolina (with no QB). How was Baylor able to keep a steady hand on the defense while completely changing their defensive structure? They just switch to a hybrid Under Front, replaced the boundary defensive end with an outside linebacker/hybrid in Taylor Young, and kept their run fits and pass distributions the same. Something defenses have been perfecting since the ’70s.

The OG of the “Hybrid” Fronts

To football historians, Bill Arnsparger stands as the godfather of the modern hybrid defense. He is the mastermind behind the “No Name” defense that led the 1972 Miami Dolphins to the only undefeated season in NFL history. He is also the coach that taught Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers the Zone Blitz that every coach at every level of football is familiar with. Arnsparger’s greatest achievement in football is the creation of the hybrid pass rush DE that would inspire the creation of the “safe pressure” or Zone Blitz.

During Arnsparger’s tenure with the Dolphins, he started using Bob Matheson, a LB at the time, as a DE. This was new territory not only for the NFL but for football in general. Matheson, when lined up at DE, was able to rush the QB or drop into coverage – the modern definition of a “hybrid.” Arnsparger at the time was tinkering with a way to create a “safe pressure.” The use of a “hybrid” LB combined with an edge pressure coming from the opposite direction spurned the creation of the modern Zone Blitz. The “53 Defense,” so-called for Matheson’s number 53, was the precursor to the 3-4 that became all the rage later that decade. As David J. Neal of the Miami Herald explained in his obituary of Arnsparger:

“There’s a direct line from the ’53 defense,’ so named for the situational use of No. 53, linebacker Bob Matheson, as a fourth linebacker in the early 1970s to the modern 3-4 defenses teams began using later that decade.”

The ushering in of a hybrid player allowed for the explosion in pass rush DEs seen in the ’80s. One player, in particular, Lawrence Taylor, changed the game of football completely and ushered in modern football as we know it today. The use of four LBs on the field allowed the defensive coordinator to send multiple people from multiple locations while keeping the coverage integrity within a zone. Arnsparger’s use of the Zone Blitz led to the dominance of the “No Name” defense and an eventual undefeated season for the ’72 Dolphins.

The 3-4 seen in the ’70s gave birth to the hybrid DE/OLB that dominated football in the ’80s and is still seen today at every level of football. This new way of playing defense allowed teams to give 4-3 looks but were really playing a 3-4 and vice versa. The likes of Fred Dean in San Fransisco (George Seifert) and Lawrence Taylor in New York (Bill Parcells/Bill Belichick) during the ’80s gave birth to a new position that every team in the NFL is looking for when drafting DEs.

This new style of play over time would eventually lead to the 4-3 Under defense we see in modern football. In a 4-3 Under scheme, the weakside DE is usually a hybrid/pass rush DE that can put his hand in the ground or drop back in coverage. Teams that want to use gap control or utilize single gap fits in their defense but get value from a hybrid player being on the field turn to a 4-3 Under’s flexibility. Pete Carroll, who runs a version of the 4-3 Under defense in Seattle featuring a weakside hybrid, calls his hybrid DE a “Leo” while Belichick, who is constantly switching from 3-4 to 4-3 schemes, calls his hybrid an “Elephant.” Arnsparger’s simple adjustment in the ’70s started this evolution that coaches are still seeing today.

A Smooth Transition

Even in a traditional four-down scheme, most defensive coordinators will have a three-down playbook used for situations that call for drop-eight coverage or obvious passing teams/downs. Some teams utilize a three-down Dime defense on heavy passing downs while others will insert a hybrid player to the weakside (like the 4-3 Under explained above). These parts of a four-down playbook usually are regulated to sub packages and special situations.

In Baylor’s case, the Bears had already shown the 3-4 playbook was there, utilizing it against teams like SMU (June Jones/Run-n-Shoot) and Texas Tech (Kliff Kingsbury/Air Raid). In order for a smooth transition, without the labor of creating a brand new scheme, the Baylor Okie package was installed. Baylor’s Okie Front is essentially a 5 technique, shade nose, and a 3 or 4i technique. When the front is set to the strength it resembles a 4-3’s Under Front with the OLB to the boundary essentially a “wide-9.” In the image below, the Okie Front is seen lined up against a basic Spread 2×2 formation. The Jack ‘backer to the weakside is a flex player and can cover down to the boundary slot while fitting the “C” gap versus a run.

.01 Okie - Base

Even when Bennett opted to switch fronts, the run fits and pass distributions didn’t change. The front was just flipped and a hybrid OLB was placed to the boundary. This quick tweak allowed Baylor a quick transition verbally (calling plays) and schematically (run fits/pass distributions) when the switch to three-down was decided. Even to 3×1 formations, the front stayed the same as the Baylor’s base 4-3’s, – an Under Front.

The Jack ‘backer, for the most part, played by Taylor Young, essentially read the end man on the line of scrimmage (EMOL) acting like a DE (wide-9) in the run game and an OLB against the pass. He could be moved down on the line or covered down depending on what Bennett wanted. More importantly, the pressures and blitzes were only slightly adjusted so they could be run out of an Under Front. As illustrated in the history of the hybrid 3-4/4-3 Under, the flexibility gained by the scheme can pay dividends to coaches that utilize it.

The advantage in running an Okie is not just in the run fits. By setting the 5 tech. to the field, the Sam is allowed to cover down to the #2 receiver (much like a 4-2-5). This simple adjustment gives the defense a plus-one in pass distribution while keeping the box intact. Much like Pat Narduzzi, currently, at Pitt, Bennett transitioned into a Quarters press scheme over his tenure at Baylor. The theory behind running pressing the CBs in Quarters is it limits the number of route choices for the offense, thus creating predictability all while keeping a nine-man box.

.02 Okie v 20P

In the image above, the Okie Front transforms into a 4-3 Under Front versus a 20 pers. formation. This flexibility allows the defense to change the way it looks depending on multiple factors: D&D, offensive scheme, and personnel. Teams in the Big 12 are going one step further by utilizing a Dime package as a base verse certain teams. The use of a hybrid 3-4 allows the defense to create mismatches against an offense by being able to send players from all over the field without losing pass distribution and gap integrity (single-gap). The video below shows Baylor’s defense in what looks like a 4-3 Under with the boundary hybrid attached to the line.

When teams try and “get big” versus an Okie Front, the defense reacts much like it would in a 4-2-5. Like it’s sister in the 4-3 Under defenses, the boundary DE is a hybrid and protected. His role is to box everything to the ILBs. The ILBs in an Okie are similar to a 4-3 but switched. The Mike LB is similar to a traditional 4-3 Will. He is a run fitter but can cover. Versus a 3×1 formation, the Mike in an Okie Front will have to cover down to the #3 WR and be able to carry him vertically. Below is Chad Morris’ (now at Arkansas) SMU offense going with a 21 pers. Pro formation and running the ball. Baylor, like in their 4-3 scheme runs a Solid Front with Quartes behind. Notice the smaller hybrid is to the open side and Taylor Young, “big” hybrid, is to the TE. The Okie Front run fits are similar to a 4-3 Solid Under alignment.

The Will in the Okie scheme can truly be a plugger because he is most likely responsible for the weakside “A” gap and not exposed to much gap exchanges. Where the 5 tech. and Mike can utilize gap exchange (known as a “Heavy” technique), the Will most likely will end up fitting the “A” gap versus the run or following a puller versus a gap play. In the pass, the Mike can relate to #3 (like in a traditional 4-3) and the Will can be a “spy” or vice versa. This extra defender can help in the pass to keep an eye on a scrambling QB or insert to add an extra rusher.

Duling Hybrids

Baylor opted to use a hybrid OLB to man the boundary, but Bennett has used two Nickel ‘backers on the field before. The use of four safeties allows the defense to shift from a 3-4 scheme to a Dime fluidly. That kind of flexibility in a conference that is dominated by Air Raid offenses is crucial to success. Versus Boise St. in the 2016 Catus Bowl, Bennett used a “Big” and “Small” Okie package to defend Boise State’s multiple formations and personnel groups. The “Big” package featured #44 Clay Johnson (6’3″ 220) as the “big” Nickel and speedy #48 Travon Blanchard (6’2″ 205) as the true Nickelback. When Boise subbed in a lighter personnel group, Johnson would come off and #21 Pat Levels (5’11” 190) would come on giving Baylor two Nickel ‘backers. To begin the game Baylor utilized both packages during the first series. See below:

Play #1: 1st & 10 — 11p GN Twin vs Baylor’s “Big” Okie

Play #2: 2nd & 5 — 12p D Ace vs Baylor’s “Big” Okie

Play #3: 3rd & 4 — 10p GF Trips Open vs Baylors “Small” Okie

Other teams will put a hybrid DE at the Jack ‘backer position to allow the defense to keep a “heavier” player on the field but still have the flexibility to send him or drop him into coverage. This type of hybrid is the traditional way defense use the boundary LB. Moving an athletic ILB body type that has the speed to drop back in pass coverage. The Houston Cougars in 2017 utilized Emeke Egbule a 6’3″ 245 hybrid to play their weakside DE. The Cougars could move him around the field depending on what they needed. Below, Egbule aligns as a traditional hybrid to the boundary, boxing the counter back to the pursuit.

Later in the 1st Quarter, Houston drops Egbule back into coverage. Showing his athleticism, Egbule sheds the smaller WR trying to block him and makes an open field tackle on the QB. These types of plays highlight the schematic advantage of having hybrid players on the field that can stuff the run and cover in zone. The video below also demonstrates what Arnsparger initially wanted in the beginning – a way to blitz from multiple areas from multiple positions without losing pass distribution integrity.

Conclusion

When faced with a dilemma such as lack of defensive line depth or looking to “hybridize” a scheme, a defense can be multiple and creative by utilizing its roster. Ever team in Amrica has guys that are considered “tweeners.” That word used to have a bad connotation to it, but in the modern Spread era of football, these “tweeners” are now a coveted role player in any scheme.

Even if a defense runs a 4-3, it is an easy transition to a 3-4 through the Okie Front (or even a 4-3 Under scheme) or vice versa. This transition can be especially useful at the high school ranks where depth can fluctuate yearly. Teams at the lower level are consistently being forced to adapt because teams may run different offenses every week. Hybridizing a defense can have benefits when it comes to seeing multiple schemes on a schedule.

When installing a 4-3 defense, a coach can teach the Okie Front right alongside it. This allows the players to see the slight adjustments and creates fluidity between the schemes.  It also gives “tweener” players a role that they might not have had otherwise. Finally, it is important to have a base defense, something that can be leaned on regularly and expanded, but when faced with depth issues or a plethora of “hybrid” players a defensive coach can look at their own scheme and find ways to tweak it to fit personnel much like Baylor had to during the 2015 and 2016 seasons.

Other MQ 3-4 Resources:

  1. Defending Modern Spread from Okie
  2. Defending 11p from a 3-4
  3. The Tite Front (303/404)
  4. 3rd Down Calls From a 3-4

 

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