Defending Tight End or Pro Spread Formations

Making adjustments versus TE sets in 4-2-5 or hybrid defense.

The game of football is a constant pendulum. As defenses move to hybrid players to combat the spread attacks proliferating through all levels of football, offenses are turning to tight end/”H-back” sets and a more traditional run game (Power, Counter, and Iso). An easy way for Spread teams to create an extra gap and keep their Spread principles is to add a TE to their formations.

More and more, if a team has access to a TE or “H-back” they are opting for a pro-style Spread look, basing out of 2×2 (Pro Twin) and 3×1 (Trey) formations, even running pro-style two-back sets (20p). This can stress a 4-2-5 defense because the hybrid Sam, or a true Nickel, can be exposed to a larger, stronger bodied TE and depending on how the defense chooses to align can put a safety in primary support of an interior gap.

In recent years, Oregon has used Spread TE sets with devastating effect, and even the typically receiver happy offenses similar to Baylor have opted to add more 11 personnel formations to their arsenal over the past few years to beef up the run game and force defenses to spin. Take a look at how Bret Bielema (former Wisconsin and Arkansas Head Coach), a constant critic of the Spread, recruits running backs against Spread teams across the country. He is not the only one in his corner.

Football, unlike any other sport, is a constant chess match. The fluidity of the game from TE sets to Spread sets and back again puts stress on hybrid defensive coaches. It is important to have a plan when facing teams with TEs or H-backs. One play can have a formation that creates an extra gap on the line, the next is a Spread formation, and then finally the offense puts the H-back into the backfield again or lines him up out wide. All this can be carried out in one series. The defense must have a plan to defend every single formation without the ability to sub.

In a perfect world, defenses could insert a traditional linebacker against tight end/traditional formations, and substitute the traditional player for a hybrid/nickel against Spread formations. With the advent of the Spread, even the TE position is changing into a hybrid player, one that can flex out, play fullback, or line up and block in the box as shown above. Defensive coaches have found out subbing against tempo teams can be impossible and puts the defense at risk of a big play (or penalty). It is also not realistic.

In order to be great at something, a team must have consistency. Constantly subbing players in and out, while trying to teach box techniques and coverage skills can be a daunting task, and many times unrealistic for the lower level coach. It is important for a defensive coach to have a set of rules and a plan for any formation. When an offense goes from a spread set to a pro-style set, the defense must react quickly and decisively with no hangover. Another question that must be asked when defending Pro Spread teams is if they are an RPO or traditional run offense because this changes how a defense aligns immensely.  Continue reading “Defending Tight End or Pro Spread Formations”

Three RPOs – Three Stop Calls

Defending the Spread’s three top RPOs.

It is never too late to look for innovative ideas to stop RPOs. The game of football is changing on a yearly basis for defenses. Offensive coaches are finding interesting ways to combine plays, all while simplifying the playbook. It is amazing to think that one simple read-arc play shown below can have four different outcomes. The multiplicity that is a simple 20 personnel read-arc play combined with tempo can stress even the most experienced coordinator.

RPO 1

Defensive coordinators in the modern game have to prepare for all four plays shown above when deciding how to attack the formation shown. Add tempo into the mix, and to the untrained eye, it looks like the offense is running multiple plays. Offenses can even use the H-back and a hybrid slot to align in 11, 10, 20, or 30 pers. looks without subbing one play. That is a lot for a defense to handle.

A great example of how this particular formation and play can be used was seen in the 2013 BBVA Compas Bowl between Pitt and Ole Miss. Following a touchdown by Pitt in the 2nd Quarter, Ole Miss came out and ran one formation and the same play five times in route to a quick strike touchdown. Pitt never adjusted to the tempo and Ole Miss hit every available option on its way down the field (Inside Zone, Hitch, QB Keep, Bubble, & finally the Hitch read for a touchdown).

Defensive coaches need to have simple adjustments that can combat a multitude of different plays and formations. When facing tempo a DC needs to have simple, one word calls that can help the defense quickly align and attack. Tempo forces the defense to be vanilla and if reacting slowly, can get them out of alignment. It is important to have counters to the Spread offense’s top RPO play.

Continue reading “Three RPOs – Three Stop Calls”

Building a Better [Zone] Blitz

Evolving the age old Zone Blitz.

America’s Blitz

Walk into most defensive staff rooms, ask what their #1 blitz is, and it will most likely be some variation of this:

.01 AM BLITZ

The image above is “America’s Fire Zone Blitz.” A Sam/Mike edge blitz with full line movement, and the defensive end to the boundary dropping to the low hole (replacing the Mike). A “Fire Zone” is simply a blitz that sends five men and plays three under-three deep behind it (Cover 3).  Many times a defensive lineman is used to drop to the low hole (MOF), or to replace a blitzing linebacker (curl/flat). Other variations, like the one below, drop the safety into the box and have the DE sink to the curl/flat.

The emphasis for a defense in this type of blitz package is sending more players than an offense can handle to a certain side. Most offenses have hot routes to counteract a blitzing LB. To counter this, defenses started to drop D-lineman, or exchange the LBs responsibilities, into the vacated spots or rolling secondary players to the hot receivers. Here is an example of a Cross-Dog blitz (the term “dog” = LBs) with the DE to the boundary replacing the Will’s coverage responsibility.

Bill Arnsprarger is considered by football historians as the Godfather of the Zone Blitz. In 1971, Arnsparger began using a hybrid DE named Bill Matheson in coverage. This created a de-facto 3-4 and would eventually lead to a new era of defensive football in the NFL. The schemes relevance was solidified in ’72 with the only undefeated season in NFL history. The “No Name” defense ushered in the “Zone Blitz Era.”

The reason Fire Zones are so prevalent is they are easy to run and can use any player on the field. They are also considered a “safe” way to blitz. Arnsparger, considered the blitz safe because he was still playing zone behind a pressure. Legendary DC Dick LeBeau visited Arnsparger early in his career to gain knowledge about the scheme. The words “safe pressure” resonated:

Bill’s catchphrase was that he wanted to get ‘safe pressure,’ on the quarterback, and that expression stuck with me because that was a very succinct way to summarize exactly what I was looking for. Safe pressure. I walked out the door saying those words to myself.” – Dick LeBeau

To run a Fire Zone, a defense has to have two curl/flat players (or seam players), a low hole player (MOF), and three deep third players. This allows a defensive coordinator to get creative because the blitzers can come from anywhere on the field. If looked at as a numbers game, the offense should be able to handle the rush. Where Fire Zones work is by overloading a side, forcing the quarterback to move, and creating short inaccurate throws to hot WRs. The dropping D-lineman assists in the overload by trying to bait the nearest O-lineman into taking him, only to drop and leave a gaping hole for an oncoming rusher. Continue reading “Building a Better [Zone] Blitz”

The Not So “Odd” Front – The 3-4 Okie

The evolution and application of football’s most multiple front.

When Phil Bennett took over the Baylor defense in the Spring of 2011 he was taking on a massive overhaul of a traditionally porous defense. Baylor was coming off a 2010 campaign that witnessed a 6-7 season and an abysmal showing in the Texas Bowl, losing to a then 6-6 Illinois team 14-38. Though the season was a success by traditional Baylor standards and the first bowl game since 1994, Coach Art Briles wanted to take the program to take the next level and knew in order to do that he needed to hire someone to clean up his defense.

In steps Bennett, currently the interim Head Coach of Pitt, and coming off a bowl victory over the Kentucky Wildcats, was also looking for a job. Briles that winter approached Bennett to revamp the Baylor defense. With a future Heisman at QB (Robert Griffen III), Briles needed just enough from his defense to get the Baylor program moving in a historic direct and he felt Bennett had enough experience to get the job done. Bennett, a Texas native, signed on to the task and the rest is history.

Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 2.05.48 PM
Phil Bennett’s historical Defensive Efficiency rankings according to BCfToys.com (’08 – ’15).

In 2015, and coming off of back-to-back Big 12 Championships, Coach Bennett ran into a serious issue during the season – lack of defensive line depth. Through both Big 12 Championship seasons, the D-line had been one of the star units for the unexpected rise to respectability of Baylor’s defense. Anyone who watched Baylor under Bennett’s tenure (and even his time at Pitt) knows that Bennett based heavily out of a four-down 4-2-5/4-3 structure. Faced with little D-line depth and injuries to key players during the 2015 season, Bennett was forced to turn to a three-down front.

The transition, for the most part, was a smooth one. The ’15 Baylor Bears were able to end up in the top 50 in Defense Efficiency (44th according to BCfToys.com), and the Bears ended up ranked #13 overall with a 9-3 record culminating the season with a 49-38 victory over North Carolina (with no QB). How was Baylor able to keep a steady hand on the defense while completely changing their defensive structure? They just switch to a hybrid Under Front, replaced the boundary defensive end with an outside linebacker/hybrid in Taylor Young, and kept their run fits and pass distributions the same. Something defenses have been perfecting since the ’70s. Continue reading “The Not So “Odd” Front – The 3-4 Okie”

“How do you play Trips?” – Pt. 2

MQ explains the top Trips coverages.

The Trips formation creates a dilemma for any defensive coordinator and the problems usually start in the box. The major issue with any 3×1 formation is how a defense chooses to defend the #3 receiver. Regardless if a defense runs an Under Front or Under, the Mike either has to cover down to the #3 WR or the defense has to spin a safety to gain a cover down. If the defense uses the Mike as a cover down, it loses a man in the box and makes the Mike a “fold” or conflict player. To alleviate the issue some defenses drop the boundary safety into the box, but that leaves a defense susceptible to the back side post. Below is an example of Nick Saban’s “Rip/Liz.” The sinking backside safety allows the frontside ILB to vacate and cover down to #3.

02 r-l 3x1

A “fold” or conflict player is susceptible to the Spread’s deadly weapon, the RPO (run-pass option). The run-pass conflict created by Mike’s width and assignment can cause him to hesitate. Play a team like Baylor under Briles, who spreads their Trips formation past the hash, and the Mike will struggle to get to the #3 and fold into the box. In theory, the Mike is always wrong. That’s pretty depressing news for a DC. Below is an example of the Over Front versus a 3×1 formation with no adjustment from the defense.

v. Over

If a DC wants to keep a 6-man box and put the 3 technique (DT) to the Trips it creates a problem for the Mike who has to plug the strong-side “A” while reaching #3 in pass. That’s not an easy thing to do for even the most elite ILBs. The answer for most coaches is to kick the coverage (bring the backside safety across), or spin to some kind of Cover 3 (illustrated above in Saban’s Rip/Liz scheme). In order to make it hard on the offense, a DC must change-up the coverage or move the gaps. It is important to have a base coverage. One that protects you from the most harm. To stay ahead of the offense, a defense must be multiple in its looks, adding pressures, blitzes, and a change-up in coverage if need be. Part 2 of “How do you play Trips?” will explain the multiple coverage pieces to Trips Open.

Continue reading ““How do you play Trips?” – Pt. 2″

Attacking the Zone Read

It’s one of the simpelist plays a Spread team can run, but devistating if not held in check.

When looking at the Spread’s most basic run, the Zone Read, one has to admire the simplicity of the play and how effective and efficient it is. Defenses for decades had the advantage against offenses because it was an 11 on 10 game (the offense minus a QB). The popular West Coast and Power “I” offenses of the ’80s and ’90s took the QB run out of the playbook, and defenses feasted as a result. As the Spread began to proliferate through the football ranks the defensive stranglehold started to show some cracks. The large “pluggers” that defenses had accumulated were now obsolete when put into space.

Coaches like Urban Meyer and Rich Rodriguez (see video below) began to tear through defenses in the early 2000s, and Vince Young ran to a Rose Bowl and National Championship behind the simplest of plays, the Zone Read. It is one of the first plays a Spread offense installs when putting together a playbook, and after close to two decades of Spread dominance, it’s still a defense killer. As football moves further into the age of the Spread offense, two things are clear; football has become a game about space and hybrid players. The Zone Read highlights this evolution greater than any other play. Ask a traditional Triple Option coach and when they watch a Spread option attack they see the Dive Option, just with the players spread across the field.

Continue reading “Attacking the Zone Read”

Zero the Mike & “What’s a ‘Belly-Key’?”

Double gap the Mike in a single gap scheme.

Zero the Mike

In a single-gap defense, the initial thought is to align the defender responsible for a given gap head-up in that particular gap. In theory, this makes it easy for the defender to read his keys and react to the ball aggressively. Offenses play on this alignment rule with zone blocking, particularly the Zone Read. As the ball snaps the offensive line steps in a certain direction, with the understanding that by moving the gap, the defenders will move too. In order for defenses to combat this, the defensive line and linebackers must react off each other (anchor points) and utilize gap exchange. By playing off anchor points (or D-Line gaps), the defense can confuse the offense and stay one step ahead.

Continue reading “Zero the Mike & “What’s a ‘Belly-Key’?””

How do you play Trips? Pt. 1

Using the Under Front to gain an edge versus Trips.

The 3×1 Dilemma

While working at Baylor, one of the first questions the defensive staff would get from visiting coaches was, “How do you defend Trips?” The Trips formation stresses the defense to the max. By using a 3×1 scheme, offensive coordinators have a plethora of options to attack a defense. If the defense stays in an Over front and tucks the Mike in the strong side “A” gap, the offensive coaches know that the defense is either in man or spinning to single high coverage.

By kicking the boundary safety to the field, the offense gets a guaranteed one-on-one match up with the boundary corner. Even if the defense is dropping an end, or slinging the weak side backer under the single receiver, the top can easily be blown off if the offense has a stud “X” receiver. Against RPO teams a tucked Mike gives offenses the option to read the field safety. This is where the “Spot Draw” can give fits to a defense that is playing an Over front.

v. Over
4-3 Over v. a “Spot Draw” RPO

Some teams will stay in an Over Front and “sink” the back side safety into the box. This is still the same concept of kicking to the Trips side, but inverted. Though the Mike is now able to cover down for the “snag” route, the defense has introduced a safety into the box, creating a third level conflict player. When teams do this they are exposing themselves to an even bigger play, the backside post shot. By creating a conflicted player in the secondary, the defense has put a CB in isolation. Most modern defenses are trying to find ways to stay in a two-shell to combat one-on-one matchups in the secondary. By sinking, the defense has eliminated a 5-yard route to replace it with a deep shot.

Over Special

Continue reading “How do you play Trips? Pt. 1”

Fitting up 20p Two-Back Power

Defending traditional two-back power sets.

Run Fits versus Two-Back Power

The power run game is not dead. As spread offenses proliferate through all divisions of football, the “Power” play is still a staple of many offenses. Defenses must be able to adapt to any formation without subbing players because of the tempo being thrown at them. This can cause a dilemma when a defense’s base scheme is a 4-2-5. When teams insert an “H”, or fullback, a defense does not have to spin to a single-high in order to gain an extra man in the box. Instead, use the natural structure of the 4-2-5/4-3 Hybrid to the defense’s advantage.

Continue reading “Fitting up 20p Two-Back Power”