What a decade the Baylor Football program has had. From “the season that no one talks about” (RGIII knee injury in 2009), to a Heisman and the first 10 win season since 1980, to the back-to-back Big 12 Championships of ’13-’14 under former Head Coach Art Briles. Then there was the scandal that burned the program down, the limp to a 7-6 record capped with a win over Boise, the hiring of Matt Rhule, and the one-win season. Life was breathed back into the program in 2018 with a 7-6 finish, but no one saw the meteoric rise of 2019, capped with an 11 win season, a spot in the Big 12 Championship game, and a Sugar Bowl appearance versus Georgia. The roller-coaster ride that has been the past decade of Baylor football cannot be understated.
When I stepped foot on Baylor’s campus in the Summer of 2011, the 2009 season where Robert Griffin tore his ACL in a blowout victory over Northwestern St. (LA) had the same reverence as the uttering of “Voldermort” in Harry Potter. You just didn’t talk about it. 2009 was supposed to be “the year” that Baylor made its assertion into relevancy. Sadly, that wasn’t the case. The Bears would finish 4-8, going 1-7 after their victory over Kent State in early October.
Once Art Briles decided to make a change on defense after an average 2010, and a concerted effort to commit to the ultra-spread in 2011, the rise was real. RGIII would win the Heisman in ’11 on the back of stellar performances against Oklahoma and Texas in the latter part of the season. Though 2012 saw a step back in terms of wins (they did lose a generational talent at QB), the Bears solidified their spot atop the Big 12 in ’13 and ’14, as they won back-to-back championships. The ascension, as we all know too well, was short-lived.
2016 is the season the wheels came off. The program was rocked with multiple sexual assault accusations. Briles, the school president, and the AD were all let go. Former Wake Forest Head Coach Jim Grobe was brought in to calm the waters and steer the program out of the storm as Baylor searched for its next Head Coach. At the conclusion of the ’16 season, Baylor settled with Temple’s Matt Rhule who had just taken the Owls from a 2-10 record to 10-4 in only three short seasons.
Baylor took a chance on Rhule who had an NFL pedigree and a knack for turning programs around. Rhule instantly instilled a degree of discipline and toughness that the Bears desperately needed following the tumultuous roller-coaster ride that was the 2016 season (remember the famous “bull-in-the-ring pre-game routine?). The results of 2017 were predictably grim, as the Bears finished 1-11. People around college football started to question if Baylor could ever get back to prominence in the Big 12 again?
Where Baylor was known for their offense under Briles, Rhule shifted the focus to defense. the 2019 Baylor Bears were one of the best defensive units in America, finishing eighth in Defensive Efficiency. There is always a learning curve when entering the Big 12. It takes time to understand the nuances within the conference and adjust the defense accordingly. Iowa St. starting in 2016, began aligning in the now-famous Odd Dime. With so many Air Raid offenses in the conference, HC Matt Campbell and DC Jon Heacock shifted to a modified 3-3-5 (below). Following the 2018 season, many in the Big 12 followed suit. The Odd Dime essentially became the de-facto “Big 12 Defense.”
Below is a typical look from Snow’s Temple defense, 3-4 Cover 3. Like many modern defenses, Snow used an EDGE hybrid as a Jack and three true defensive linemen. The base coverage was usually some kind of Cover 3 or Cover 1 scheme. The ability to move from four- to three-down looks aligns with what most modern defensive coaches are trying to do. This forces the offense to adjust the way they block from down to down.
Snow’s defenses at Temple were usually in the top third in the country. With ’14 and ’15 ending the year in the top 30 in DEff. Similar to the trajectory at Baylor, Snow’s first year at Temple was abysmal, finishing 100th in DEff. It would take him two years at Baylor to get out of the bottom quarter of DEff in the country. Following the 2017 season, Snow and his staff understood, something had to change defensively if they were going to be successful. Many have fought the change in the Big 12, only losing their jobs in the process.
Snow and staff spent the 2017 offseason looking at the Texas defense who adopted a modified version of the Aranda system that featured up to six DBs on the field at a time. Former Texas DC Todd Orlando used a mix of Odd Dime and 3-4 principles to dominate the Big 12 defensively, finish seventh nationally in DEff in ’17. Coming from a 3-4 background, Snow used the film they had to try and build a “new” base defense. Though the 2018 Bears would feature the same 3-4 Snow had used at Temple (with worse results than 2017: 105th in DEff), the wheels of change were spinning.
After an “average” 2018 season in regards to the Bears record (7-6), and the same results defensively (105th in DEff), Snow and staff embraced the change and completely adapted their 3-4 single-high scheme to fit into a Broken Stack. This wholesale change is rare outside of the Big 12, where it seems everyone is now running some variation or a straight-up carbon copy of the Cyclone Odd Stack. What is interesting about Snow’s version is that he chose to stay true to his base and lived in single-high looks for most of the year.
Snow wasn’t necessarily reinventing the wheel either. Most defenses carry a Dime package that features concepts seen in the now-famous Cyclone Dime, but it is a completely different thing to live it on base downs. Snow was able to mix elements of his 3-4 into his new Odd Dime scheme. The clip below shows a Dime Tampa look from Snow’s days as the DC at Temple. Schematically, the pieces were there, Snow and staff just needed to retool the playbook and shift personnel around to fit their 3-4 into an Odd Dime template. The results speak for themselves.
The 2019 Baylor defense reached similar heights as the 2017 Texas defense. Though it took two years for the Bears defensive staff to fully embrace change, the ability to keep things similar schematically while moving to a completely different structure was key to Snow’s success. Baylor would end the season eighth in DEff and would lead the Big 12 in Sacks with 38. Defensive End James Lynch would end the year as the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. Six total members of the Bears defense would earn All-Big 12 honors.
Everything came together perfectly for the Bears in 2019. The defense was full of Senior players that were ready for a break out year, and break out they did. James Lynch would end the year with a Baylor record 13.5 sacks. The defense would have a highwater mark of 17 interceptions (Baylor had 10 the previous two years). Tackles for loss (TFLs) would go from 69 in ’18 to 102 in ’19. To put this in perspective, the Baylor defense prior to Rhule and Snow averaged 98 TFLs, 33 sacks, and 13 INTs a year (under Phil Bennett). The Bears wouldn’t match those numbers until 2019. The major change? The move to the Odd Stack.
The chart above compares the production of Baylor’s defense pre-Snow (Phil Bennett) and during Snow’s tenure. On the right, the production of the Bears defense is compared to Iowa State’s production for the past three years. Anytime there is a massive upheaval in a program, and athletes are asked to learn new (and quite different) tasks, there is going to be a learning curve. What is interesting to note is that under Snow, the production on defense didn’t reach pre-2017 levels until the switch to the Odd Stack. 2019 saw the Bears back to their “normal” defensive numbers. The main difference was in DEff, which saw the Bears at #8 (Bennett’s highwater mark was #20 in ’13).
Traditional stat numbers, Total Yards, Total Rushing, Total Passing, Defensive Scoring, etc. can be misleading sometimes in the modern game. DEff accounts for non-garbage time and takes into account how defense functions on each play. BCfToys.com describes it as, “represent[s] the per-possession scoring advantage a team’s defense would be expected to have on a neutral field against an average offense.” Other adjustments like taking away garbage time, or when a team is up by more than 28 points, schedule strength, TD and 1st Down rate are all calculated to create a number that represents the overall efficiency of a defense. The DEff along with points-per drive (PPD) can give an indicator of how well defense functions over time and downs.
PPD is taken into account in the chart above. Prior to Rhule/Snow, the Bears where right at the bottom third in terms of defense. Snow, on the other hand, was doing well in the American Conference holding the Temple defense in the Top 25 each year. As stated earlier, there is always an adjustment period in the Big 12, and taking into account the devastation that reigned at Baylor prior to the ’17 season, one can only assume it was going to take some time for Snow to work his magic. All this is pointing to one fact, the switch Snow made in the Spring of ’19 to move to the Odd Dime, meshing it with his aggressive 3-4 single-high system, created a massive shift in production. To go from 106th in PPD to #8 is astonishing. All from a simple tweak in personnel and a shift to the Odd Stack.
Like many that have entered the league (Big 12), Rhule would eventually shift his defensive approach away from the normal 3-4 his DC, Phil Snow, ran at Temple and in the first two years at Baylor. The numbers speak for themselves. Personnel wise, the Bears used several hybrid-like players to make the transition happen. Instead of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, the Baylor coaches embraced their roster and molded their defense to fit the hybrid players they had.
Blake Lynch (6-3 225) started his career as a WR, moving to a LB/Safety hybrid in 2018. His combination of size and speed fit perfectly into what the Odd Dime asks from the Sam, someone that can cover down and play in coverage but can blitz and insert versus the run if needed. The entire LB corp for the Bears were on the small and mobile side. Soph. Mike ‘backer Terrel Bernard is built more like an OLB (6-1 222), but can run. Sr. Will LB, Jordan Williams, is built in a similar fashion.
Secondary wise, the Bears took two former CBs in Henry Black and Graylon Arnold and moved them to Safety, with Chris Miller patrolling the center of the field as a hard-hitting “rover.” This gave the Bears the ability to be multiple in coverage and essentially field four CBs on the field. This meshed perfectly with the high use of single-high coverages that stress the seam players. Baylor doubled down on putting mobile, athletic players in the back eight and it paid off in a big way.
Everything is easy when teams run 2×2 formations. In the Odd Dime set up, the defense can easily adjust to this with two hash safeties, a MOF safety, and two CBs. In a typical broken Stack, the Sam LB will gain a cover down to the field side and the Will opposite will “hip” the DE. The MOF is reading the #3 WR, who would be the RB. This is where the defense gains an extra hat in the box that is not accounted for. Below is the typical way a 505 (Buck) Tampa defense plays.
Though many think the Odd Dime defenses run out of a Tite Front, many, including Iowa State, use multiple fronts to combat Spread offenses. Baylor uses a 505 Front in most of its alignments. In order to live in that, the ‘backers have to hug the box. To stay two-high and keep the ‘backers near the box, the 5 techniques (DEs) have to play “heavy.” This essentially gets the defense into a Tite Front post-snap, with the Mike in charge of the “A” gap opposite the Nose, and the overhangs as force players on the edge. The ability for the Sam and Will to hold the seam while not being involved in the interior fits helps alleviate conflict. In part two of this series, we will discuss run fits.
Offenses that face an Odd Dime defense tend to live in 3×1 looks. This forces the defense to roll strong because of the way the secondary is structure. The “strong” roll leaves the defense vulnerable to runs to the weak side, especially ones that utilize a QB. In their games versus Oklahoma, Baylor saw this play out from Lincoln Riley, OU’s HC/OC. Anytime the Sooners needed a big gain, they turned to a designed QB run or Draw, usually succeeding. Another way teams defeat Odd Dime looks is to use the RB in the passing game. Many times, these defenses are running “country” coverages and no one is pushing with the RB, especially in a 3×1 look. Washington St. made a living against Iowa State in last year’s Alamo Bowl by using the RB as a lever, pushing defenders from the MOF and throwing behind the LBs.
To the Trips side, Iowa State is running Special, but the Nickle pushes off the #2 WR to take the RB. This leaves the Safety two-on-one with Wazzu’s WRs. In Special, the CB is locked on to #1. You can see him drive with the Cruise route. This is an easy pitch-and-catch for a Leach team. Baylor’s defense functions in a similar way, except they base primarily out of a Cover 3 scheme.
One of the easiest and most common ways for Baylor to get into their Cover 3 scheme from the three-safety look is to run what I call 3 Invert. In 3 Invert, the two hash Safeties roll down near the LB depth and will most likely play Seam/Curl. By doing so, the Bears get into their “stack” look in the box with the Sam LB no longer responsible for the Seam. This puts eight players near the box and will play similar to any “country” Cover 3. Baylor can do this because both hash-safeties are converted CBs.
As stated, one of the issues with running country coverages is when the RB flares there can be a tendency to lose him as the offense pushes vertical. Below, the Sooners align in a split-back Twins Open formation and run a simple Flare Screen to the RB. The Bears run their 3 Invert and the overhang and Sam LB get pinned by the two WRs. Since this is Cover 3, the CB is bailing for depth and late to the party.
This simple way of playing Cover 3 floods the intermediate zones and clogs the box against the run. Like with most single-high coverages, QB runs can give the defense issues. What this type of coverage ensures is that a capable DB is going to take the slot WR. If staying in a typical two-high personnel and rolling down a Safety into coverage, an overhang is forced to cover a Seam. The three-high Safety look puts a DB on a WR and ensures a true cover-man is defending a speedy slot.
With a three-safety structure, the Bears can get to a two-high shell in a multitude of different ways. Most coaches are familiar with the three-safety Tampa 2 variation that was made famous by the Cyclones, but in this particular scheme, defenses can get to different looks by dropping one of the Safeties down. This luxury allows the DC to keep the offense on its heels because the coverage structure can change post-snap from any one of the three spots. Below is a look at the three most used variations.
3 Cloud (can be run either to field or boundary)
Field Invert (can be run to the boundary as well)
Below, the Bears sink the Field Safety (FS) down on #2. The Sam most likely is supposed to sit inside of #3 and support the strong Hook. The FS is responsible for the Seam and takes the RB out of the backfield. The CB and Middle Safety (MS) climbs to deep half over the Trips formation. With #1 and #2 working inside (Levels), the CB sinks to Cone the clearout by #3 (if he decides to bend away from the Safety). This field inversion is similar to the second diagram above.
Away from the Trips, the Safety and CB work in tandem to guard the two WR side (the formation is Empty). When the slot goes underneath, the Safety flips his hips to the MOF looking for any crosser. The “X” runs a Hitch-n-go and pulls the Safety back to him. This clears the space for the Over route where CeeDee Lamb is waiting for the ball. The Sam LB for the Bears never carries the Over and leaves it naked in the MOF, something no defense wants.
Though the Sooners connected on the play, you can see how the Bears can manipulate their looks to fit their need. Had the boundary Safety kept working through the Post, he might have had a chance on the Over route. This is a pure zone coverage as you can tell because everyone’s eyes are on the QB. With drop-eight coverages like this, spot dropping or zone-matching is usually the technique involved because the defense is flooding the field.
One issue in the Baylor system is the tendency to be ultra-aggressive to the run. Coverage assists in this by allowing Baylor to stack the box. The basic 3 Invert discussed earlier allows the Bears to put DBs on the slots while stacking the box. The Tite Front and Buck Front (505) pinch everything (spill) to athletic ‘backers. The look shown below in the clip is an example of how Baylor played some of OU’s “heavier” formations.
The Sooners attack the Bears with a Pop pass to one of the up-backs. The second level of the Bears’ defense is focused on the mesh and doesn’t see the receiver until it is too late. This is an easy pass for a seasoned QB like Jalen Hurts. The result is a major gain for the Sooners.
Along with Baylor’s 3 Invert, they pair it with Cover 1. It looks identical except man. One area that hurt the Bears versus OU and then again versus Georgia in the bowl game was the soft outside edge of the defense. In the Bears Cover 3 scheme, the CBs are deep and playing over the top of everything. This passive coverage allowed the Sooners and Bulldogs to hit receivers and force tackles in space.
Baylor took the college world by storm in 2019. The big stand out? The defense. Baylor under Snow showed that the Odd Dime could not only stop the Spread but put stats on the board as well. What Snow really highlighted is what I talked about in my second book, Hybrids, in order to be successful in the modern game one has to be adaptive.
Snow and Rhule fought the change their first two years, staying in their typical 3-4 structure they used at Temple. The 2019 campaign saw a wholesale change to the 3-3-5. This change paid dividends. Baylor would win 11 games, go to the Big 12 Championship, and play in the Sugar Bowl. Many around the country thought this program was dead, but the defense was the catalyst for change.
Finally, the 2019 season saw Rhule and company parlay this performance into an NFL opportunity with the Carolina Panthers. New Head Coach Dave Aranda stated in his clinic talk at the 2019 Lone Star Clinic, that he was interested to see how Baylor played from their 505 look (Aranda is a Tite Front guru). In the second part of this series we take a look at run fits and that 505 Front.
Want more on Odd Stack & Hybrid 3-Safety Defenses:
- Running a 3-Down/3-Safety Dime as Your Base (2017)
- Running a 3-Down/3-Safety Dime as Your Base – The Front (2018)
- The Katy HS (TX) Hybrid 3-4
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