There is not a more difficult time than the present to be a defensive coordinator. The amount of offensive formations, schemes, and alignments has never been greater. Present day defensive coaches can see an offense that bases from an empty set (3×2/4×1) one week to a power set (2×1 with two backs) the next. When changes in the scheme are so drastic it is easy for a defensive coordinator to find himself changing his base every week. With the advent of spread offenses, the power sets (2×1 with a tight end and H/fullback) are becoming less prevalent. It is difficult for a 4-2-5 team to play a wide open spread team one week, only to turn around the next week and face a smash mouth power/counter team. With a good set of base rules, a defensive coordinator can seamlessly maneuver the nuances of defending any formation thrown his team’s way.
Base Rules for Power Sets
The key to any good base defense is a solid set of rules for lining up against any formation. One way to ensure a base defense can survive the multiple offenses of modern football is to establish a set of rules based on formation sets. The offense can only give a defense so many different looks (2×2, 3×1, 3×2, 2×1, 1×1, etc.), by establishing a base set of rules for each set a defensive coach can help his players line up correctly no matter what is thrown at them. Rule number one for any base defense should be to formation the calls. When facing power sets, the offense is bringing everyone in the box and creating new gaps with a tight end or H-back, while creating one-on-one matchups with the outside receivers. By formationing calls, a traditional two-back/TE set is nothing more than a 2×1 set, and the defenders react accordingly.
In a base 4-2-5, the Sam linebacker is the adjuster to any formation, always aligning himself off of the #2 receiver. If a team lines up in a power set (2×1 with a TE), the defensive coordinator must decide on what to do with him. In most 4-2-5 defenses, the Sam is a hybrid safety/linebacker type, and many coaches would prefer to keep him out of the box. If that is the case, a “solid” alignment would be a great choice, and keep the smaller ‘backer out of the box. In “solid” the Sam would walk down on the line in a 9 technique, and set the edge, in the case of play away it is possible for him to fold back into the box and look for the cutback. This is no different than his regular responsibility in a spread set (aligning off the split of the #2 receiver). The Mike and Will, like in any two-back set, align themselves in their base positions (if an “over” front, Mike in a “zero”/Will in his gap). If the Sam is physical enough to play in the box, the DC can choose to line the strong-side end in a 7 (outside shade of TE) and play the Sam in the “bubble” (or “C” gap), but by doing this, it allows the puller in power to hit the gap a little early instead of stringing it out. Plus, if the Sam is a smaller ‘backer, it may be better to keep him outside aligning with his base rules.
The Over Front
In most defenses, the strength versus a power set is usually called to the TE (“over” front). The “over” front coupled with a “solid” alignment by Sam creates a nice wall to the strong side (9/5/3, with Mike in the “A” gap). In a match quarters scheme, the safety to the strong side will take the “O” gap and make the Sam right. This is no different than the safety’s spread technique. To the weak side, the Nose anchors the “A”, while the Will secures the “B”. The 5 technique to the weak side holds the edge and the weak side safety holds down the “O” gap. In a quarters scheme, it is not ridiculous to think that the defense actually has an eleven man box. The true question is whether to run an “over” front or an “under” front. Both give the defense equal protection, but each one brings something a little different to the table.
In an “over” front the second level players (the LBs) are shaded away from the strength. The Mike is in a “zero” alignment and the Will is in the “B”. If a team likes to run weak side stretch, this alignment allows your faster players to have the freedom to chase the flow. The “over” front protects a defense against power by making the guard’s pull longer. In a typical power play, the offense will kick out the Sam with the FB and block down with everyone else. This creates the open gap in the “D” gap. The Mike tracks the guard and “boxes” the puller on the outside shoulder. The Will has to see the pull of the guard and climb over the offensive lineman who is sifting up to him. As the puller turns up the open gap, the Mike should “box” and the Will should hold the inside. The safety, who is untouched, should make the Will right. If the Will gets caught inside, the safety is the plus-one (see diagram below).
The front makes the pulling guard fit further from the downhill path of the back and allows the Will time to overtake the sifting lineman. The real ace in the hole is the safety, his role as the plus-one is key to any successful play. The Nose’s alignment is key too. Playing a “G” technique (2i), allows the Nose to chase the guard on the pull, and have enough time to climb over the center on a block back, this technique wrecks havoc on teams trying to hit the power in the “A” gap.
Versus counter the “over” front is solid as well. The center’s block back is tougher against a 3 tech., and the “zeroed” Mike allows for a quick exchange once the guard pulls. Plus, in a quarters scheme, there is always the safety to fit off the ‘backers. If the defense has a smart player at Sam, the DC can use him as a fold player with play away. Take a peek:
The Under Front
The “under” front is a seamless pairing with quarters coverage, and a hybrid/nickel Sam. Running an under front gives the defense two linemen to the weak side and creates a solid structure against the run. In an “over” front, the defense has a three-man surface to match the offense’s three-man surface, this tucks the Mike in the “A” gap, and can leave the defense susceptible to stretch, or option to the field. If this is a concern a defensive coordinator can rely on the “under” front.
The “under” front allows the defense to be even on both sides. The Sam and the end to the TE set the edge, while the Mike holds the “B”. Away from the TE the 3 tech. and 5 tech. hold the edge on the open side, and the Will is now the “zero” player. The 3 tech. creates a hard block back for the center, and Mike can attack the puller downhill. The Will from his “zero” alignment has time to see the puller and the sifting tackle.
Versus the counter, the “under” front holds its own as well. Though it is a short edge for the wrapping FB, the Will is untouched, and can attack the wrapping FB downhill. The Mike should be able to see the guard pulling from his gap, climb over the double team and hit the FB on his inside shoulder. Again, in a match quarters scheme, the safety is the extra man, and should fit off the LBs in front of him.
Three Stop Calls vs. Power Sets
- Full line movement. In particular towards the TE. This builds a natural wall to the play side of power and doesn’t allow the line to climb on counter. With the d-line moving to the strength, the LBs can rock back on any counter play. Against power, it muddies the hole to the play side and freed up ‘backers for cut back.
2. Nose Will stunt. Against power, the crossing Nose creates a plus-one, the Will blitzing off the puller can’t be blocked (he’s the responsibility of a play side lineman). This creates a free hitter in the box. Even against the counter, the Will can block the pulling guard, eliminating the kick out.
3. Gap plug blitz. This blitz is a great run blitz because it sends more than the offense can handle. The key here is to pair it with line movement and create a guessing game of where the LBs will attack. By plugging each gap a defense ensures that every hole is accounted for, and the LB blitzing of a pulling guard is always problematic for an offense.
When creating a defense it is important to create simple rules, so the players can align themselves no matter what the formation. By formationing the defense it is possible to align correctly and still make slight adjustments during games. Power sets are difficult in the age of the spread because they are rare. When facing a team that powers the ball it is important to have a plan and use the safeties as extra fit players. Use all eleven! The debate between an “over” versus “under” is about what the offense adds to their playbook. If it is a zone based offense, the “under” front gives you an even look and allows the ‘backers to flow. If a traditional power-counter team, and “over” front might do the job. No matter what have some stop calls. Full line movement is always a great call to disrupt pulling plays, and Nose Will is a traditional stop.