Playing Dime as Your Base Pt. 2 – The Front

MQ checks in on the Cyclones after 2 years of running their “broken stack” defense and discusses their front structure.

Iowa State is much more than Tite Tampa. That is the front (404) and the coverage (modified Tampa 2) that is most associated with the Cyclones defense. When I first heard about what the Cyclones were starting to do defensively in the Spring of 2018 I was instantly intrigued. The defense in Ames was once touted as a gimmick but has quickly become somewhat of an Air Raid killer and a major influence in college football over the past two years. The defensive prowess of the Cyclones has enabled Head Coach Matt Campbell to become a coaching commodity (had some NFL interest this year) and has put Ames, Iowa on the map. A stage the program has rarely been on in its football history.

Ironically, the Big 12 is not known for its defense, but this is where you will find some of the most innovative schemes in college football. Especially when it comes to defending the Spread. Todd Orlando at Texas has become a big name around college football with his use of the Tite Front, simulated blitzes, and use of Nickel and Dime packages in the backend. Texas’ recruiting in 2018 saw them scoop up 6 DBs (all in the top 150 in the country according to 247 Sports) to add to their hybrid defense. This aligns with what is going on in Ames, Iowa as well, where the Cyclones defense has taken football schematic fans by storm. The defensive coordinator Jon Heacock’s defense is something to behold. He has basically created an Air Raid “killer.”

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One could argue the Cyclones have grown in the three years since Campbell and Heacock came to Ames. Their record versus the top Air Raid offenses in the Big 12 isn’t stellar (6-6), but the numbers also don’t suggest they are a bunch of pushovers either. Outside of Oklahoma St., the Cyclones defense has consistently been able to hold the four opponents shown above under their season average. One thing that makes the Cyclones ability to stop these high powered Big 12 offenses, even more, impressive is the fact they don’t recruit at the same level as many of the teams listed.

For instance, Oklahoma’s offense has been the #1 or #2 ranked efficient squad in the country last three years. When they face the Cyclones, they have consistently scored their season lows; even in a victory. The 2017 Memphis Tigers were the 2nd ranked offense in terms of points per game (45.7), the Cyclones held them to 20 points. In 2018, the Cyclones went up against the Mr. Air Raid himself, Mike Leach, in the Alamo Bowl. Though the Cyclones lost, they held Washington St. to 28 points. Only one other team, Cal (16), held them to less.

Analytics

2018 was a coming out party for the Cyclone defense. They finished the year ranked 21st in Defensive Efficiency and in the top third (#33/1.82) for Defensive Points Per Drive (DPD) and Total Defense (#33). Iowa St. was among the top defenses in stops when teams started on their side of the 50 (-20 to -40), which is called DMD (Defense Medium Drive). If you are going to win in the Big 12 you must eliminate scores from your opponent. Iowa St. did just that in 2018, finishing the year as the #1 scoring defense in the Big 12 (23 points per game). Efficiency speaking, the Cyclones were on the rise in 2018 making a jump into the top 25.

Over the past two years, the Cyclones have been consistent when it comes to limiting offenses in the DMD arena. Meaning, if an offense gets the ball between their -20 to -40, the Cyclones were in the top 25 when it came to limiting TD drives from this area on the field in 2017 and 2018. Most offensive possessions will start in this area, so it is important to win on their side of the field.

Another stat that paints a bigger picture is DDS (Defensive Drive Successes rate). DDS, as explained by BCfToys.com (where I get most of my analytics data), “…is the percentage of opponent offensive drives that generate value greater than the starting field position value of the drive.” This translates to the Cyclones making offenses “earn” their yards and not allowing offenses to steal plus yards on offense. Basically, it is hard to move the ball efficiently against the Cyclones.

Recruiting wise (trust me, I’m not big on recruiting sites, but it does give you a point of reference on talent), the Cyclones have been in the bottom half of the Big 12 consistently (never higher than 7th) under Matt Campbell, and have never cracked the top 50 nationally until this year (2019 – #48) according to 247Sports. The composite recruiting score (average player rating) has consistently gone up every year: 2016 – .825, 2017 – .839, 2018 – .848, and 2019 – .859. These recruiting ranking give us context to the on-field play. You could argue Iowa State is punching outside their weight class. In fact, the Cyclones haven’t had a player drafted since 2014 (this changed in 2019 with WR Hakeem Bulter and RB David Montgomery being drafted in the 3rd and 4th rounds respectively).


The question now has to be asked, is this a legitimate scheme, or is its unique success limited to the Cyclones? I’ve talked before about survival bias and how we need to look objectively not only at our own schemes, but other schemes as well. The ultimate goal of football, or any game, is to win. Iowa State hasn’t put back-to-back 8 win seasons together since the ’70s when they won 8 games three times from ’76 to ’78. That’s a 30-year drought! The Cyclones have only won 9 games TWICE in their history, 1906 (9-1) and 2000 (9-3). What Matt Campbell has done in Ames cannot be overlooked.

Defensively, the Cyclones have had a meteoric rise without the help of top-level recruits, going from 103rd in DEff to 21st in three years. DPD has dropped significantly too, going from 2.88 in 2016 (that’s almost a FG a drive!) to 1.82 in 2018. The real test will be in 2019 and if the Cyclones can maintain their consistency and continue to rise in defensive prowess. The 2019 Cyclone defense will need to replace only three starters, a LB and two CBs. Is the scheme legitimate? It is for the Cyclones and what they need to win games in the daunting offensive gauntlet that is the Big 12.

At the end of the day, a team is judged on wins and losses. The Cyclones have stayed consistently at 8 wins a year for the past two seasons but in order to become legitimate, a team needs to be winning 9+ games at a constant rate. Against the top offenses (ranked #30 or higher in Off. Efficiency), the Cyclones are 6-6 the past three years (3-1 in 2017). That’s not bad for a growing program, but one stat that can’t be ignored is the 3-6 record versus teams in BCfToys’ top 20 in overall team efficiency (0-4 in 2018).

In order to legitimize the scheme, the Cyclones are going to need to consistently win against top-tier teams. Only time will tell if Matt Campbell and the Cyclones can become a consistent threat to the Big 12 and college football’s elite. As for now, they have an intriguing defense that is gaining a cult-like following and a schematic foothold across the country. Campbell was even rumored to have been a target for some NFL teams this offseason.

Is the scheme legitimate? I would argue yes, but like any scheme, it has deficiencies (which can be said about all schemes!). Teams across the country, and at all levels, are toying with the three-safety scheme. The concepts used by the Cyclones have been used by many teams in their long yardage package. Most have had it in their packages, but never thought to base out of it. As stated, only time will tell if this scheme can have a foothold in mainstream football or if it is unique to the Air Raid-centric Big 12.


The 3-3-3 Defense

01 Base 3-3-3

The Cyclones base, in Heacock’s words, is a 3-3-3, or a derivative of the Odd Stack. Unlike a true 3-3-5, where all three LBs are stacked on their anchor points (D-line), the Cyclone defense will “break” the stack in order to keep the look of a two-high shell at all times. The ability to break the stack comes from, what I refer to as, the Joker or Middle Safety (JS).

The use of the JS as a run fitter helps alleviate some of the issues when breaking the stack. More importantly, the JS is a true hybrid that can move down if the Iowa St. wants to move away from the 3-3-3 and into a 3-4. Below is an on-field look at the diagram above. The Sam goes to the field, Will to the boundary, and the Joker will align on top of the RB, even if into the boundary (illustrated below).

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The ability for the Joker to move to different alignments helps the Cyclones mix-up there looks and concepts without wholesale change. Below is another look at Iowa St. versus the same formation. Washington St. is in a 10 personnel 2×2 set with the RB to the boundary. When the Joker slides down from the MOF, he becomes a Nickelback (Ni) near the field slot. The Sam slides into the box to become the Mike, and the rest of the LBs follow suit. This creates a “light” 3-4.

03 JS Down (3-4).png

The ability to slide the LBs is key in the Cyclone scheme. You could make an argument that the two most important positions on the defense are the Joker safety and the Sam LB. They have to be versatile beyond the norm. Outside of his own base position, the Joker safety must be able to play centerfield, Ni (above), and when asked, fit the box. The Sam must fit multiple slots as well, from Ni to Mike LB (above), even being asked to play the 9 technique in what I refer to as their “Flip” front (will talk about fronts later). These true hybrid players are what really unleashes the Cyclones on their opponents and makes offenses work versus different looks.

The Front(s)

When doing a break down of the Cyclone defense it becomes evident what they are trying to do very quickly. The Cyclones base out of two main fronts, Buck (505) and Okie (5/0/4i). I label both of these fronts as their base because of how the Cyclones use each. Buck is used mainly versus 11p Pro Spread sets and 20p or Y-off formations. Basically, if there is a TE or H-back on the line or in the backfield, Iowa St. will check to Buck.

The Okie Front the Cyclones use is similar to the one I have discussed on MatchQuarters, but instead of shading the Nose on the center and setting the 5 tech. to the most WR side, the Cyclones check the front opposite the RB and place the 4i the RB’s side. The Nose is in a “zero” and will “lag” or close off the “A” gap to the RB’s side unless tagged with a movement call. This puts the Cyclones into a pseudo-Over Front to a 2×2 set. The Sam acts as the force player and a wide-9.

Buck (505)

05 Buck vs 20p.png

The Buck Front allows the Cyclones to create two solid walls on either edge of the box. As a base, the 5 tech’s don’t “rub” into the open “B” gaps like some 3-4 505 defenses will do to get into a Tite Front (4i/0/4i) fit. The Nose as a base will “lag” or fit into the backside “A” gap to deter any cutback. The Mike and Will are going to fit downhill aggressively into their gaps. This leaves one gap open on the front side (below) which is filled by the Joker safety who is reading the mesh. An example fo the fits are below.

07 Buck vs SZ

What the image above shows you are the basic structures of the Cyclone 3-3-3. The box literally has nine players involved in the fit. By using a safety from depth (JS), the defense is ensuring it has an extra fitter in the box and most likely unblocked. What the Cyclones have done is squeeze everything into one gap in the middle of the formation. If anything bounces, it is cleaned up by a trapping CB to the boundary or the Sam LB patrolling the edge of the box to the field. Against the run, the trapping CB from the field can even make his way into the fit depending on how the offense uses the two WRs.

Above is an example of a man blocking complement to Spilt Zone. West Virginia is running an H-insert instead of bringing him all the way across the formation to wall the DE. This is due to the large gap created by the ISU alignment and the fact that they do not play with “heavy” 5 tech’s that will rub into the open “B” gaps. the tackle to bottom will base out on the 5 tech. The Nose fits to the RB’s side (lag) closing all the gaps but the “B.” The H-back will work into the open gap and be met by the Will who spills the block. The Joker safety is tracking the back and will meet him near the line of scrimmage (LOS). Though this is a gain of several yards, the play illustrates the fits the Cyclones are trying to achieve.

Above is a great example of how Iowa St. can morph into an Odd Stack versus heavy run formations. The LBs create a pyramid within the box and don’t necessarily stack the D-line. In this particular play, the Cyclones have opted to drop their Jocker safety to create a two-high shell instead of their normal three-safety look. The Sooners run a weak Stretch, and even though the 5 tech. to the boundary gets over-zoned (the OT crosses his face), his penetration walls the escape route forcing a cut back by the RB. The away side DE charges the mesh and has the QB while the LBs flow to the ball.

The 505 puts a wall on either side of the box and allows the LBs to flow fast to the ball. The play side LB will insert himself in the gap or spill a puller if one does come. The away side LB will shuffle over the top and look to work outside his partner. The overhang outside the box will help assist and fold or force the RB depending on the play. In the clip above, the Cyclones make everything go east and west. The CB who is at the top of the film actually makes the play. The 5 tech. to the field forces the RB to bounce drastically. The pressure from the Nose inserting to the RB’s side and the play side LB also assists. The result is a major loss on first down.

Okie “Back” (5/0/4i)

06 Back

When teams line up in a 10 pers. set, regardless of personnel, the Cyclones opt to run Okie. Unlike the Okie that I have discussed on MatchQuarters where the front is always set to the most WR side, the Cyclones set the 4i to the RB. By doing this, the Cyclones reduce the conflict for the field overhang by making him the “C” gap player. Away from the RB, the Mike or Joker safety can fit the gap left over. The reduction of conflict forces offenses to either throw into cover downs or run into the loaded box. In counting box numbers, the run game looks very enticing to the RB’s side because the Sam is covered down to the slot WR (see above).

One thing that is impressive about the Cyclone defense is its ability to rally to the ball. Many times, Iowa St. looks outnumbered in the box, only to stifle a run play. Above, is a great example of that. Oklahoma St. uses wide splits by the WRs to pull the Cyclone defenders away from the box. The front is set to the RB in what I refer to as Okie “Back” because the 4i is set to the RB’s side. Oklahoma uses the soft edge to the RB and a 4i to run their Dart or T-pull long trap play. The play diagram is below.

10 10p 2x2 Back vs Dart

One thing the Cyclones did versus the Cowboys that they don’t normally do is “heavy” the 5 tech. In a “heavy” technique, the DE will read the block of the offensive tackle. If the OT base blocks the DE, he will rip or “rub” into the open “B” gap. Against this particular play, the “heavy” 5 tech. wasted the puller and the Mike was able to shed the guard and make the play.

Versus most of their opponents, the Cyclones will single-gap their fits and use the 5 tech. as a natural wall builder. This allows the box fitters to be aggressive to their fit with no one needing to read out of their gap. The aggressive nature of the Cyclones defense is what has helped them in the run game. What seems to be an outnumbered box quickly turns into a flood of defenders near the line of scrimmage and a runner going east and west.

A stunt that the Cyclones like to add to their “Back” Front is a Nose-4i twist game. Below, the Nose will insert to the side of the RB and then work out to the edge of the box. This forces the center and guard to honor his penetration.  The 4i loops off the Nose’s backside to the strong side “A” gap. The Mike, reads the RB and finds a hole to insert into. The Will beats the sifting OT to the edge and forces the RB back into the mass of humanity waiting for him in the box.

On this particular play, Wazzu runs a delayed Draw. The looping 4i’s pressure forces the RB to stay same-side. The Will flashes off the edge making the RB cut back into the box where he is quickly tackled. This type of loop is great against Zones because it can waste blockers to the twist and away from it, the offense can actually work away from the looper allowing him to come free. It also keeps your LBs clean. Below is an end zone shot of the same stunt.

Setting the 4i to the RB does come with some issues, primarily when teams attack with same-side runs or cutback the Zone. Depending on how the secondary is structured there could be a lack of overhang to the 4i’s side. Oklahoma St. in particular used this to their advantage, cutting the Zone back with some success (below).

Everything fits perfectly. The Nose lags to close off the “A” gap. The 4i inserts and demands the double team. Mike runs through the open “B” gap and the 5 tech. walls the bounce. All gaps are covered except for the cutback lane. Depending on the coverage, the Joker safety is reading mesh or sinking to gain depth for coverage. The Will LB at the bottom of the screen is also in coverage and covered down to his slot. The result is a win on 1st Down for the Cowboys and an eight-yard gain.

The Sooners took advantage of this soft edge to the boundary in the clip above. The Counter GT Load (load referring to the RB as a lead blocker) is something the Sooners used to attack the weak side of the defense versus 10 pers. formations. What compounded the problem for the Cyclones was the strong roll by the secondary. The Joker safety was also down to create a 3-4 strucutre. The end result is a 3rd and Medium and a seven-yard gain. As I discussed in my original article, the weak part of this defense defending the QB run game to the weak side.

Other Fronts

Outside of the base two fronts discussed above, the Cyclones will utilize other looks from their front. These can help the Cyclones keep the offense on their toes, or add to their blitz package. As shown, the two main fronts Buck (used versus 11/20 pers.) and Okie “Back” (used versus 10 pers.) are their bread-and-butter. The Tite Front, which coaches tend to associate with the Cyclones, is actually a specialty front that isn’t used as often as you would think.

Tite 3-4.png

The Tite Front, shown above, is mainly used in the Cyclones Tampa package. The 4i/0/4i alignment helps free up the Mike and keeps the OLBs aligned outside with the ability to be force players. Many times this front is paired with a Tampa 2 scheme to allow the CBs to be force players on the edge as well. The whole point of the scheme is to constrict the offense into a tight space.

Bear Show.png

Iowa State will pair their Tite Front with a Bear Front (above). This is a great front to run simulated blitzes out of and clog up all the gaps versus a Spread offense. This front can also be used against any run-heavy formation. Below is an example of a pressure (5-man) from the Bear alignment on 3rd Down.

Conclusion

Iowa State has one of the most unique defenses in the country. They have truly created a defensive culture that runs to the football and has had success defending some of the top offensive minds in the country. More and more coaches around the county are taking notice of what the Cyclones are doing and attempting to implement their schemes. If the Cyclones can get over the 9-win hump, or even have continued success against the powerful Air Raid offenses in the Big 12, the legitimacy of the scheme will only continue to be founded on solid ground.


 

Make sure to read Pt. 1 to see the evolution:

Running a 3-Down/3-Safety Dime as Your Base (2017)

 

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Cautious Aggression: Defending Modern Football

Hybrids: The Making of a Modern Defense

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