Most people are familiar with Lincoln Riley’s offensive genius. Since arriving at Oklahoma Riley’s offenses have been at the top of the charts in college football. He has had three different QBs, all of which either won the Heisman (Mayfield/Murray) or went to the ceremony (Hurts). The one thing that has been the thorn in Riley’s side at OU has been the defense.
After Bob Stoops resigned Riley was given a defensive staff that needed to be dealt with. One major issue was that Stoops’ brother (Mike) was the Defensive Coordinator. After two abysmal years, Riley pulled the trigger and made a change. In steps, Alex Grinch, who was seen as a rising star in the defensive community. Grinch had solid defenses at Washington St., and there is your connection to Riley. Everyone knows Riley is a Leach disciple.
Grinch was able to work alongside a powerful offensive mind (Leach) and still be able to keep the hands on the wheel. Wazzu was consistently in the top half of Defensive Efficiency ranking 13th in Grinch’s final year in Pullman. The job Grinch did in Pullman put him on the map. After his stint at Wazzu Grinch moved to Columbus, OH as the co-DC for Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes. There, Grinch would hold down the secondary while Greg Schiano called the defense. Grinch’s success, pedigree, and connection to Leach made it easy for Riley to pull the trigger. He had all the intangibles: a young intelligent coach who had worked under offensive-minded coaches yet was able to show high-quality results.
It is amazing what a year can do. In 2019, Grinch brought a calmness and discipline to the Sooner defense that had been lacking for a long time. In contrast, 2018 would be a year of opposites as the offense was stellar and the defense was one of the worst in the country. The 2018 defense would finish 114th in total defense. Surrendering 6.13 per play (102nd in the nation) while being on the field for over 1036 total plays (2nd in the nation behind Houston). Finally, Points Per Drive (PPD), which factors in the total amount of series played divided by points, was 112th overall at 2.88. That’s almost a field goal a drive! Needless to say, something had to give.
Grinch brought instant stability. Though Oklahoma didn’t finish the regular season in the top echelon of college defenses, they were able to crack the top 25 in total defense (25th), move up to 39th in yards per play (5.29), and a respectable 64th in PPD (2.21). That’s a lot of movement upwards in one year. Grinch’s brand of hybrid defense fairs well in the high-powered Big 12 universe as well. Grinch uses line-stems, multiple coverages, and an aggressive 3rd Down package to get results.
One of the more unique things about Grinch is how he plays his Nickelback (Ni). Watching the Sooners in 2019 you will notice that the Ni plays relatively deep at times. This is on purpose and helps Grinch be multiple in coverage. The ability to move the Ni around to keep modern offenses guessing is crucial, as offenses (especially in the Big 12) have figured out ways to attack static Quarters looks. Grinch aligns himself with other top DCs in the way he uses his Ni as a tool, creating indecision and even inserting him in blitzes. MQ takes a look at how Grinch uses what has become the key cog in the modern defense, the Nickelback, and how that changes his overall defensive structure.
The first clip illustrates the “hinge” technique used by the Ni (#44) to wall the seam. At the snap of the ball, the Ni turns towards the #2 WR walling the hash. The Mike is responsible for the RB, but doesn’t push past the hash because it’s 2nd and 17. The defense can rally. Plus, the QB’s eyes are not on the back.
This technique is called “zoning over.” If this was a man-match concept, the Mike would chase the RB out to the flat. Instead, the Mike settles with eyes to the QB. He knows the down and distance (D&D), so there is no reason to take a route in the negative (behind the line of scrimmage or LOS). In a typical Quarters scheme the Ni and Mike would work on the same level, meaning the Sam would push out with the Flat (RB) and the Mike would settle in the seam area near the Snag route.
The hinge technique makes the Ni blind to the RB. His main concern is beating up any crossing routes since the boundary is playing a Cover 2 scheme. The two secondary players are zoning off playing a typical Quarters scheme. With the #2 WR running a Corner, the CB undercuts the route and the Safety works over the top.
In contrast, Grinch can pair this with a more aggressive form of Quarters. In this clip, Ni is closer to the box. The traditional alignment allows the Ni to be closer to the box. Post-snap, the Ni is reading the mesh point. If the QB were to give a run read, the Ni would work towards the box. In this case, the QB drops back. The Ni still steps towards the box (initial read).
The main difference in the scheme is in the secondary. Baylor runs quick outs on either side of the ball. Both Safeties trigger on the outs while the CBs stay deep on the Fade routes. This route combination is a typical Quarters beater because the OLBs are focused on the box and the Safeties have to protect the flats from depth.
The initial clip is what I call MOD Quarters or “loose” Quarters. Both the Safety and CB will play from depth. The Ni will relate to #2. The only difference from how I teach my SKY coverage and how Grinch plays it is how the LBs react to the push by the RB. In Grinch’s MOD version, the Ni and Safety work as a bracket on the Slot. By doing this, Grinch has several ways in his base Quarters to play with the box and QB’s post-snap vison. Where the first clip is a more pass-centric approach, the second clip is a 1st Down, run-centric call allowing the Ni to be aggressive.
Ginch’s Cover 2 look is very similar to the Quarters shown above. The post-snap movement in the secondary is actually a stressor on the QB. The Ni hinges like he would in Quarters, but the CB hinges inside & plays trail technique under #1. The Safety works to his deep half creating a triangle over the two WRs. The pressing CB isn’t unusual either. Many teams play MOD Quarters from a “soft” press.
Another way to play this would be to have the CB turn and run with his WR giving the illusion of MEG Quarters, only to turn and PEEK back once he gets in a trail position. If a team is Quarters heavy, the ability to give similar looks to the QB, but play a different coverage is key. The PEEK technique is similar to Saban’s 2 Buster concept. Make it look like Quarters, only to change to 2-Read post-snap. As more offenses become comfortable with static Quarters a defense needs change-ups. This is a good one to keep in the toolbox.
Bracketing the slot is nothing new. In Quarters, the Ni is aligned inside the slot while the Safety tops the coverage (takes the vertical). Bracket flips the overhangs alignment and puts him outside the slot. This is great versus teams that use horizontal RPOs or use play-action to pull the overhang near the box only to dart underneath the Safety and behind the Ni.
In the clip below, the Ni aligns low and then backs off deep on the QB indicator (how he communicates to the center that he is ready for the ball). The Safety takes an inside alignment for leverage purposes. Schematically, Bracket flips the responsibilities of the overhang and Safety. In a typical Quarters scheme, the Ni is a force defender and works near the edge of the box versus runs. Bracket puts the Safety on a mesh read and he will insert on a run read.
Above, the Safety works down the moment he gets a run read. The Ni is responsible for ALL of #2 (Slot). The outside leverage assists the Ni if the offense runs horizontal routes and depth helps him versus any vertical routes. If the QB were to run a play-action or in cutting RPO, the Safety is sitting in that window with the Ni topping the route. The defense has its coverage numbers. Below is another look at the Safety insert from Bracket combined with D-line twists.
The way Grinch plays his Safety and Ni in Bracket lends itself to “Buzz” as being the next step in the evolution. Grinch opts to keep split field coverage & runs a Swap coverage or inverted Cover 2. In 3 Buzz, the Safety inserts taking the strong hook and the Ni cuts the flat. Cut refers to the movement of the defender. He is “cutting” underneath #1. Grinch runs a Swap coverage in the clip below. The Safety takes the flat and the Ni sits in the hook. All this is disguised by Quarters alignment. Plus, this is true split-field coverage.
In the clip, the Ni and Safety switch responsibilities. In Bracket, the Ni is outside while the Safety plays inside. In Swap, the Safety aligns in a normal Quarters position but will cut the flat on the snap (the players “swap” responsibilities). The Ni walls the hash to ensure nothing leaks into the middle of the field (MOF). If the QB reads field to boundary, he will think the Sooners in Cover 3. This is a great change-up to Quarters and defending the flat without tipping your hat by aligning the Ni outside the slot in Bracket. The Sooners get the same distribution in the end. As Bracket and Quarters becomes more popular, schemes like this will need to be used in order to keep the OC and QB on their heels.
Blitzing from Depth
In the modern game, blitzing from non-traditional areas is key. The boundary CB has become a favorite in many defenses. It’s a “cheap” blitz because it allows the defense to rush four or five without sacrificing a ton of coverage capital. The CB is also one of the last defenders an offensive tackle is thinking about. Using the safety and field overhang are also ways to use limited coverage capital and put pressure on an offense. Grinch uses his overhang alignment to complement simple pressures. When coming from depth, it is hard for the O-line to pick up.
The obvious first choice for pressure is to use the Ni. Below, Grinch brings the Ni from depth. The front helps the pressure formulate. Grinch aligns the Sooners in an Under Front, 3 tech. set away from the strength, which in this case is the two WR side. The boundary DE is really an EDGE player (hybrid DE/OLB) that can drop into coverage. The O-line has to honor the four D-lineman. By honoring them, they are not directly aware of the Ni who is standing it what looks to be coverage alignment.
As the ball snaps, the Ni inserts himself in the “B” gap. The DE to the field works outside the OT to keep contain and to occupy the tackle. The Nose pins the center and guard, forcing them to clamp on him. By “pinning” the “A” gap and occupying two men, the Ni has free access to the “B” gap as shown in the clip. Away from the Ni pressure, the Jack cuts the flat and the Will (ILB to the boundary) works with flow and scrapes to the edge for contain (he could green-dog or insert for contain if the play was longer). The 3 tech. to the boundary uses the same “pin” movement to occupy the guard and tackle.
I refer to this as a see-saw because the Ni is coming from one side, while the Jack ‘backer (EDGE to the boundary) is dropping into coverage. Schematically, the Sooners are only rushing four, so they are keeping their entire coverage capital. The pressure also allows the ILBs to be flow players because the gaps to the field are canceled. Coverage wise, Oklahoma runs a simple Cover 3 concept behind it. These types of pressures are also called “Creepers.” This type of see-saw motion can effect a QBs vision. or even confuse the O-line into thinking they need to slide one way while the blitz hits from the other.
Grinch has the Sooners defense heading in the right direction. The use of multiple field overhang alignments and assignments keeps offenses guessing where he will be on any given play. As football progresses into the future, static Quarters alignments will need to be updated to fit the modern model. Most Spread offenses are good at attacking static Quarters. That is why their needs to be change-ups. Grinch and his staff at OU are doing just that, and it is paying off. The defense is less predictable and moving towards being sustainably successful.
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