Finding defensive lineman is hard, especially at smaller enrollment high schools. The trend from four-down to three-down is always fluctuating and relies heavily on the athletes at hand. As more teams turn to the Spread because of the lack of lineman, it is only natural for defensive coordinators to go “small” as well. Adding athletes to the field is never a bad thing, and if the “heaviest” formation a defense will face is a two-back 20 personnel set, then why not keep a faster defense on the field? The trend is playing out on Saturday’s too. Look at any conference that is heavy spread and the defenses are getting “smaller.” Why? Because they have to be. The phrase, “Speed kills,” has more validity than ever before.
The Big 12 is usually on the forefront of the modern Spread game and continues to push the envelope for what offense can do and defenses have to defend on the field. Starting in 2016, Big 12 defenses began to tinker with their defenses and fully blossoming into the scheme in 2017. The backbone of this defensive transition was the Tite Front or 404/303. Iowa State went from 103rd in 2016 to 32nd in 2017 according to BCfToys.com’s Defensive Efficiency ratings. Texas rose to a top 10 defense (#6 overall) from #45 under first-year coach Tom Herman utilizing the Tite Front and a unique Dime package created by Todd Orlando. Ian Boyd for Football Study Hall wrote an article recently that highlighted how the Tite Front has taken over college defenses when defending the Spread. Even the heavy hitters in the SEC and Big 10 are turning to the front to defend the Spread teams on their schedule. The reasoning is simpler than one might think.
The modern Spread offense is based on two primary plays: the inside and outside zone, plus the reads and RPO’s that go along with them. Many offenses choose to add gap plays, but the Spread offense is predicated on the cutback. Think about the simple concept behind Split Zone. The offense is running a simple zone while an H-back or RB works to wall the unblocked DE opposite the zone (the same movement as the Zone Read except the QB opens up opposite the “read” DE). The play forces the second level defenders (LBs) to hold their gaps while the offense creates a new one with the pulling back. The gap left between the DE and the zoning offensive tackle allows the RB to step in the direction of the zone only to cut back to an open gap left by the defense. This type of scheme can lead to a devastating play for defenses that have immobile defensive linemen or linebackers that over pursue. The point of a zone play is to engage the point of attack, allow the defense to (over) commit, then wall off the pursuit. The cutback lane is the sweet spot for the offense (below).
In this day and age, the great defensive minds are turning disadvantages into their own advantage. If a team is zone heavy, why not plug the middle and force the cutback early, if not drastically? Most high school and college Spread offenses rely on speedy backs to run the ball outside or cut it all the way to the backside once the over pursuit has been walled. Many Spread formations force the defense into light boxes that Spread teams feast on. Again, why not make that an advantage for the defense? The 3-4 Tite Front can be a simple way to eliminate the inside zone, make zone reads harder for the QB, and force the teams that like to run a zone offense to bounce their plays outside to open defenders. Here is Iowa State using their Tite Front to devastating effect. Everything goes East and West; a DC’s dream.
3-4 Tite Front (404)
A 3-4 defense utilizing the Tite Front can run the front out of a 303 Front (3 techniques and a shade Nose) or a 404 Front (4i’s and a shade Nose). The advantage to a 404/303 is in the 4i/3 techniques themselves. The Tite Front has some great advantages. First, it hinders the offense’s ability to pull a guard, thus eliminating a player that can create an extra gap. If the offense does pull someone it is primarily the OT, but the front makes the play bounce naturally. TCU essentially aligns in a Tite Front with a wide-9 to the boundary. The front allows the Mike to vacate the box and cover down to the #3 WR. The Will (ILB) spills the pull to the Mike who is unblocked.
Both 4 techniques in the Tite Front cover the guards and make it hard for them to pull. This alignment can hinder the power read, simple fold zones, and counter plays the offense has in its Spread arsenal. The 4i/3’s also hold the infamous “B” gaps. The “B” gap is the holy grail for most spread teams. Plug the “B” gaps, and everything has to bounce, which is exactly what the defense wants. A person will be hard-pressed to find a Spread team that tries to hit the “A” gap on a regular basis.
Sitting outside the box are two linebackers that resemble outside or wide-9s. Many teams will insert a hybrid or Nickel defender as the field OLB (Ni Sam) and a heavier Nickel (versus “super” spread teams like Texas Tech) or hybrid OLB to the boundary (prototypical wide-9 pass rush DE that can also drop into coverage). The Mike is also available to the strength as a plus-one, holding down the “C” gap. There are times when the front can give the illusion of a 3-1 box.
S/O to Iowa State for finishing 22nd in the country in Rushing S&P+ while employing a 4 man box as often as possible. pic.twitter.com/iwrd1BfsfN
— Seth Galina (@SethGalina) May 8, 2018
The simple beauty in the Tite Front is that to the Nose’s side, the ILB is technically the “C” gap defender allowing him to vacate the box making it hard for the offense to account for him. Depending on how a defense plays its boundary OLB (wide-9 or true hybrid), he can be a “free” player being able to fold into the box or drop into coverage. By “squeezing” the offense, the defense has put free hitting defenders on the edge of the box ready catch anything that bounces.
The Tite Front essentially fits like a 4-3 Under Front. Instead of waiting for the snap of the ball to get a gap exchange, the Tite Front creates it off the bat by suffocating the interior of the offensive line. The 4is, plug the “B” gaps and allow the Mike to shade outside while the Will stacks the Center. As stated earlier, the point of this defense is to force everything outside. By plugging the inside gaps the back either has to cut back drastically to an open defender or take a stretch path running East and West as illustrated in the clip above.
Even versus stretch to the weak side, it is difficult for the offensive line to climb to the Will. The tackle has to either push out to the wide Jack (forcing a cut back) or pin the End and get pushed off by the Guard to the Will. The Will versus stretch is essentially a “free” player and can flow with the path of the ball (the Mike will overtake the vacated weakside “A” – “pull-the-chain”). Unless attacked downhill “right now,” the Mike can run sideline to sideline unabated. Versus a 2×2 set, demonstrated above, the defense is not only plus-one in the run but in the pass as well. Even the Sam is allowed to gain a full cover down for the RPO because the Mike is in charge of the “C” gap. This flexibility of the “wide-9’s” cover down and the coverage ran behind him is what gives the Tite Front its unique adaptiveness and why it has become en vogue against the Spread.
Other Spread Sets
The Tite Front is really special against 3×1 sets. Not only does a defense gain an extra defender in pass distribution, but it helps the Mike versus the Spot Draw RPO (Snag) and gives the defense an extra defender to the single receiver side (the Jack can cut #1). The big play in a 3×1 set is the Power Read. The Tite Front makes it difficult for the offense to pull a guard. If the play is run to the Trips side, the Center must block back on a 4i (which is difficult) and the 4i has the advantage as it crashes down off the butt of the puller. The alignment to the three-receiver side makes it hard for any O-lineman to climb to the Will.
The 4i forces the Tackle/Guard combo to stay on the double team as illustrated by Iowa State in their bowl game against Memphis who opted to go “big” against the Tite Front aligning in an Ace Trey formation. The Cyclones used a modified Odd Stack to funnel runs to free hitting defenders. The front and the LB/secondary alignment forced the O-line of Memphis to stay on their double teams. As long as the Cyclones D-line could hold their ground, Memphis would struggle and struggle they did. Eventually, Memphis gave up on the 12 personnel experiment and reverted back to their Spread attack.
As stated before in the 2×2 set, the Will is a free player. Against a Power Read, the Mike is allowed to slow play the stretch flow and contain the outside shoulder of the RB because of his width. If the QB pulls because the Mike is sitting outside, the Mike can rock back for the QB pulling for the Power allowing the defense to have a defender on either shoulder of the pulling O-lineman (plus-one mentality). The Mike aligned in a wide “50” muddies the read because he can slow play the stretch. As long as he widens, he can have the angle for the stretch while still holding the outside shoulder of the puller.
Against a 2×1 set, an offensive coach may argue that the Mike is in a precarious position. Even if pinned, the Sam and CS can close the gap. This is the beauty of running quarters behind the Tite Front. The offense’s counterplay is eliminated by alignment. The Nose and the 4i’s make it difficult, if not impossible for the offense to run Power Read. Two-back Power is difficult as well. The 4i to the weak side hinders the offense’s ability to pull. Again, the 4i crashing down on the pulling guard is exactly what the offense does not want. The block-back by the Center is next to impossible and the 4i has time to either penetrate the play or cross the Center’s face. Split zone would be the likely adjustment, and the read off of it, but even if the Will got pinned by the Guard, the DS is there to clean up the mess in basic Sky coverage to the weakside.
The “New Age” Double Eagle
To the untrained eye, this looks like a new defensive front, but the Tite Front is nothing new. It is a bastardized form of the Double Eagle. In the Double Eagle, a defense has a Shade Nose, two 3 techniques, and two wide-9s. What the Tite Front does is eliminates the defensive ends (nine tech’s) and replaces them with OLB’s or hybrid players (especially the Sam) to defend the Spread.
The Tite Front, and how it reacts to the offense is the same. The Mike is a little different as well because the Sam is covered down for the pass and is responsible for the “C” gap. In a Double Eagle, the Mike is a “free” player. In the video below, the Tite Front fits up nice against the offenses Zone Lead play. Though the Jack goes too far up the field, he is able to rock back on the cutback and make a play. The beautiful part of this film is the Mike. The Will buries himself in the “A” gap, but because the Mike is essentially a free player on a cutback, he is able to make the tackle on the opposite side of the play. A great vice tackle and a gain of very little.
Tight Front Clinic
If you run a 3-4, then you have some variation of the Tite Front or Double Eagle. Most DC’s don’t think of using the 303/404 Front as a run stopper against Spread teams, but it can be a great adjustment to combat the Spread’s zone-heavy runs. The front truly is a multi-dimensional scheme. It helps versus heavy packages and is a good changeup to Spread attacks. There are very few fronts that can say that.
In my state of Texas, this defense has become very popular if not the most popular defense at the higher classifications. Paired with Quarters this front can do some real damage. Most teams that utilize the Tite Front in Texas use a four-lock scheme (much like four press – man by the CB unless WR releases inside), or Two-Read scheme to allow the “wide nines” to sit and attack the ball is handed off (“hang” players). At the college level, the front is being used in much the same way. Iowa State and Texas have created a pseudo-Odd Stack Dime package with devastating effect while running Tampa 2, Rip/Liz, and Quarters in the back end. The use of Two-Read and Tampa allows the defense to change the force players while the front “squeezes” the offense outside.
The Tite Front is a very versatile front that can do some real damage to a Spread sytle offensive scheme. The 4i/3 techniques don’t allow the guards to pull on gap runs or climb on zone runs. This frees up the ILBs and makes them essentially “free” players. What DC doesn’t want their ILBs running free? Another advantage is in the passing game. The Tite Front allows the defense to gain its cover downs to the field while adding an extra defender to the boundary. The Mike being “hipped” allows him to flow freely to the Spot Draw RPO versus 3×1 and defend the stretch much easier. By plugging the middle with the Tite Front a DC can effectively force the play outside to his “free” players.
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