The Big 12 has always been on the outer limits of what coaches are willing to do on offense and a graveyard for “guru” defensive coordinators (just ask Diaz and Strong). Defenses in the Big 12 play more snaps than the average Power 5 defense. Tempo and the Air Raid reign supreme in a league that prides itself on scoring points. The knock on the league has always been the defenses in the conference. To many outsiders, the Big 12 is offense first, and it is, but if you are looking to defend the spread, there is no other place to look – they live with it every day.
If looking at defensive stats alone, the Big 12 is on the outside looking in, but there is something to be learned here. Starting in 2016, teams in the Big 12, primarily Oklahoma St. (2016) and Iowa St. (2017), began using a modified Dime (3-down) and Nickle (4-down) package to combat the Air Raid heavy teams in the league. I discussed in January’s article about how teams are becoming more fluid in their fronts; switching from 4-down to 3-down without losing scheme.
The Dime package utilized by Iowa St. in 2017 was no different. Versus a run-heavy Oklahoma team, the Cyclones relied on a modified 4-down defense to defeat the Sooners in Norman. There ability to switch from a 4-down to a 3-down without subbing made the scheme a perfect fit for the multiple Sooners. With a TE like Mark Andrews and an H-back like Dimitri Flowers, the Sooners could give multiple looks without subbing. This fact alone is why the Big 12 is so innovative on defense. Hybrid players are a premium in the league. In Iowa St.’s season finale versus a high-powered spread attack in Memphis, Iowa St. utilized the 3-down version of their hybrid Dime to defeat Memphis 21-20.
The Dime/Nickel hybrid defense has become Iowa St.’s base defense and is fluid between the different front structures. When the Cyclones go 4-down, it is no different than if they are blitzing a linebacker from their Dime package. The coverages are similar too. Here is a look at the two base defenses:
Oklahoma St. Nickel (4-Down)
Cyclone Dime (3-Down)
The schemes are almost identical except for the introduction of another Nickelback in the Dime Package. Iowa St. and Oklahoma St. can run a multitude of coverages from each package, but the base coverage used is a modified 2-Read (Cloud) concept. Going from left to right, the Trap Corner (TC) is reading the #2 wide receiver and trapping any out route, cutting inside the #1 WR. Working in tandem with the TC is the Trap Safety (TS). His role is to “top” the coverage and absorb any verticals by #1 or #2. The Middle Safety (MS) will sink into the curl area, almost like robber coverage and absorb any vertical by #2. One way teams can exploit trap coverage is by running double verticals because the CB will not be able to react in time. In order to protect itself from this issue, the Cowboys/Cyclone’s MS sinks like a robber safety and will absorb any vertical by #2. The MS also helps with the Air Raids favorite route, the over route (or Dig) into the middle of the field (MOF).
Moving to the boundary, the defense is running a “hard” Cover 2 concept. The Jam CB (JC) will jam the #1 WR and read the slot or backfield, depending on the set. One advantage of this scheme is the fact that a defense can cut (trap) both CBs. This helps against the run. Offenses will assume they have numbers, but with two cutting CBs, the defense has numbers with late support from the MS. The Half Safety (HS) will “top” the coverage to the boundary and play a traditional deep 1/2. Where both teams get creative in the scheme is when they flip from trap coverage to regular Quarters. In that case, the Jack will move to a cover down on the #2 WR and the HS will switch his role and play robber coverage to the boundary with the Will vacating the box (see diagram below).
Against Oklahoma’s daunting rushing attack, the Cyclones were versatile, switching from their Nickel and Dime packages to match the personnel Oklahoma had on the field. Versus 11 and 20p formations, the Cyclones would utilize their Nickel package (4-Down). One interesting wrinkle the Cyclones used was to set their 4-down front away from the H-back (Under). This was probably because of the amount of Split Zone and Counter that OU likes to run with their versatile H-back (#36 – Demitri Flowers).
In the scheme of things, this makes sense because the Cyclones figured the 5 tech. was better suited to handle the Counter and even if OU decided to run Power, they could box the play with their Jack and keep it contained in the MOF were there would be two ILBs and a MS topping the play. When OU would go to Spread sets, the Cyclones would sub in their Dimeback for the Jack and not lose a beat scheme wise (or put in a “heavy” Jack that could play in space or line up on the ball – hybrid players).
Versus Memphis in the bowl game, the Cyclones utilized their hybrid Dime package to combat the pass & RPO heavy Tigers. The interesting thing to note is that the Tigers’ offensive staff tried to go big early to take advantage of Iowa St.’s scheme. With no prevail, the Cyclones were able to hold up against 11 and 12 personnel. Eventually, the Tigers went back to more traditional Spread formations.
Iowa St. Film Study (2017)
Cyclone Dime – 10p 2×2
The first image is the Cyclone’s Dime package versus a 10p 2×2 formation. The defense has three safeties in the MOF. Iowa St. can run any coverage they want. In the video below, the Cyclones opt to run Quarters (Sky) to the RB and Cloud to the field. This allows the Jack, MS, and HS to fly to the ball. The MS gets there unblocked for the tackle.
The way the defense is structured reflects the same fits of a 3-4 hybrid team running Quarters. The only difference is the depth at which some of the “LBs” play. In the video, the HS acts as the strongside DE and the MS plays like a Mike LB from depth. The “true” Mike spills the pulling blocker to the MS screaming down to the line of scrimmage (LOS). OU gets a 4 yard gain, but the Cyclones live to play another down. It’s the Odd Stack taken to the extreme.
Cyclone Dime – 10p 3×1
Above is an image of the Cyclones playing their 3-down package to Trips. The Jack has been flipped to the passing strength forcing the backside secondary to play Sky or Under (Safety invert – robber). This is essentially “Kick” coverage. The MS will work to top the route of #3 and the frontside TC, TS, and Jack can play a 3-over-2 coverage (Sky/Cloud). Here’s a look at how the Cyclones distributed the pass:
One obvious issue with this coverage is the backside run fits. Below is a QB Draw by OU to take advantage of the soft weakside left by the Cyclones scheme. The frontside coverage is playing Sky with the MS kicking to the Trips side. To keep the Mike and Will in the box, the HS is responsible for the push of the RB. Here, OU fakes a flare screen to pull the secondary to the field. The result is a big run play by OU on a weakside fold draw.
One modification Iowa St. added versus Oklahoma was a 3-Roll (Trap 2 to the front side) concept to combat the Sooners ability to throw to the three WR side. Here OU tries the RB screen seen as a fake above. The CB cuts the play and the pass results in a loss for the Sooners. Take a look:
Were Iowa St. made a living on this scheme was against teams that tried to get big with their Dime Package. Memphis went to 12p early in their bowl game against the Cyclones. As stated earlier, the depth of the safeties is difficult for zone (and gap) teams to handle. The offensive line stays on their double teams and offensive coordinators don’t count the safeties in the box fits. Iowa St. was able to stifle the run from depth. Below is an image of how Iowa St. aligned to 12p Ace Trey:
Below the Cyclones utilize a three-safety look against the Tigers. To the front side, the Cyclones are in Sky coverage. This allows the overhang to be quick to the box. The HS and MS are quick to fill the box at the sight of the weakside TE folding in. The play is a GY Counter and it is stifled by the sinking secondary players.
Against the RPOs, the scheme worked perfectly. The Cyclones were able to maintain a 3-over-2 coverage over the two WRs. This coverage to the frontside allowed the MS to read, and fit off the strongside TE. The HS to the backside, knowing the CB was locked on the backside TE, the HS can sink into the box. The ability to play Sky or Cloud over the two WRs makes the read for the QB muddy. He knows he can’t run because of the pursuit, but he can’t immediately throw because the overhang and the Sky safety are vicing the bubble.
Cyclone Dime – 20p 2×1 (or Slot – 3×1)
Below is the base way the Cyclones aligned versus a 20p formations. Regardless of if the H-back was in the backfield or aligned in a slot position, the Cyclones kept their base alignments. Many defenses will view a slotted H-back the same as if he was a sniffer of near the QB. The reason for this is the fact that the “H” can move in any direction, therefore treat is like 20p. Obviously, tendencies need to be correlated with the formation, but as a base way of looking at H-slots, treating it like 20p is the best way to start.
Iowa St. doesn’t stay static in their fits. Against Memphis’ 20p they utilized line movement to gain advantages and to muddy the reads. One advantage of this scheme is its ability to change the front fluidly from down to down. The base front is an Okie (5/Sh/4i), but in the video below the Cyclones align in a Tite Front (4i/Sh/4i). The use of line movement kills the pin and pull scheme while the secondary fills from depth. Utilizing Sky coverage into the boundary freed up the MS and TS to run to the ball. The line movement freed up the LBs to free flow to the pullers. The result was a loss for the Tigers.
Cyclone Nickel – 11p 2×2
When teams went to more run heavy sets, the Cyclones would adjust by bringing an extra lineman and reverting to, what looks like a 4-3 but from a Ni personnel. The structure when defending an even 11p set looks similar to how many 4-3 Cover 2 teams play their base. The TE’s side, the DE is in a 7 while the Ni aligns outside. To the 2-speed side, the Will covers down to the slot WR. The DE to the Nose will rub into the “B” gap in order to help the Will’s cover down. The 3-over-2 coverage to the 2-speed side is Cloud, also to help with the Will’s cover down. With a reduced alignment to the field, the CB moves to outside alignment. The Ni and field safety read the TE much like they would in Sky Coverage. The CB’s outside leverage plays much like a Cover 3 with post help from the field safety. Below is a video of OU attacking the field with a Counter. The Ni boxes the kick out and the Mike and field safety box the puller.
Seeing that the Ni Sam will always align to the field, OU puts the 2-speed into the boundary. This removes the Will and puts him into coverage. With Andrews aligned to the slot in the boundary (FIB), Iowa St. sent the Ni on an edge blitz. Since the TE to the field stayed in, the safety to the field sunk to the post window while the field CB toped the post. To the boundary, the Will overtook the slot’s snag route with top support form the safety. The pressure and the double on the field post made Mayfield hurry his throw on the comeback to the boundary allowing the CB to hit the WR as the ball arrived.
Cyclone Nickel – 20p 2×1
When OU went to their traditional 20p formations, the alignment looked much like a 4-2-5. The ability to put a man on the line and bring the MS from deep to a more traditional cover down gives the defense a flexibility that most DCs would kill for. Below is a traditional 4-2-5 defense utilizing Sky press to the boundary and regular Sky to the field. The Ni Sam will fold int the box with run action. This transition is seamless, as I will show later with Oklahoma St. The Cyclones adjust by setting the Jack to the H-back and set the Front opposite.
In my breakdown of the Okie Front versus the Spread, I argued that if a defense always sets the front to the 2-speed side it will be able to maximize its cover downs more efficiently. Essentially running an Under Front. Iowa St. flips this to help support their smaller Jack by setting him to the H-back. This is also a play on OU’s tendency to bring the “H” across the formation. This flip alleviates some stress on the Jack.
Oklahoma Film Study (2016)
In 2016, Oklahoma St. utilized the 4-down Nickel to combat the heavy artillery in the Big 12. As shown in the diagram at the top of the page, the Cowboys dropped the traditional cover down Ni to the MOF. This MS position played much like an overhang but from depth. This allows the Cowboys to steal a man in the MOF for extra run support (where is the weakest part of a split-field look? Answer: MOF), while also robbing the over route that is so prevalent in the Air Raid schemes that dominate the Big 12.
Cowboy Nickel vs 10p 2×2 Jet Motion
Cowboy Nickel vs 20p 2×1
Much like the Iowa St. Nickel above, the Cowboys could opt to have a “Heavy” Jack instead of a Dime Jack (extra safety). This flexibility allowed Oklahoma St. to move from a 4 to a 3-down scheme seamlessly. Against Texas Tech, who is ultra tempo and will utilize hybrid players to move from 10p to 20p and so forth, the Cowboys could quickly switch from different fronts depending on Down and Distance and tendencies.
One obvious weakness in the Nickel scheme is the soft spots right outside the box. Depending on the coverage, the Cowboys could cut both CBs like a Tampa 2 defense or rob the MS in the curl where he would align in a traditional 4-2-5. In the video below, West Virginia uses a simple RPO spot route to take advantage of this soft area. Oklahoma St. gets caught in a Tampa look and the outside hook areas are exposed.
In the video above I illustrate how the Cowboys utilize the flexibility of their Dime scheme to combat a heavy tempo team like Tech. The 1st play in the video, the Cowboys are in a typical 3-4 alignment. It’s 1st Down, so a base alignment is typical. Tendency probably told the Cowboys that Tech would pass on a mid-range 2nd down. The adjustment was to get into their 3-safety Dime look. The transition was seamless and the result was an incomplete pass. All the Oklahoma St. defense needed to do was drop their front side overhang to the middle of the field.
If you’ve ever read anything I’ve published, I preach simplicity when it comes to defending the spread. What we can learn from this film study is that you can manipulate your front side overhang, even change the “structure” of your defense, without changing the scheme. One thing that the 3-safety Nickel and Dime look allows a defense to accomplish is to defend the area that most Air Raid teams are trying to attack, the intermediate zone in the MOF. This area is a soft spot in most split field safety defenses, especially when utilizing a speedy slot versus a safety.
Watching both teams on film, it is interesting to note how Spread teams, and most offenses in general, teach their blocking schemes. On paper, this scheme looks like it would give up the run relatively easy, but because the Cyclones and Cowboys can switch from Quarters to Cover 2 and manipulate overhangs, they can play with who is coming and going from the box. The utilization of a MS really helps add depth in the middle of the box. This Dime and Nickel scheme is a great base for defenses that sees a ton of Spread and is versatile enough to withstand a dose of Power or Pro Spread (11p) football. It’s at least interesting enough to tinker with as a Dime package in the Spring. If you see a heavy dose of Spread and you are not following the Big 12, you aren’t doing your job. They live it day in and day out.
Interested in a simple 3-Down Dime package? MQ has you covered – CLICK HERE
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