The Cyclone Pressure Package

MQ takes its annual look at the Cyclones’ defense.

By now everyone is familiar with the structure of Iowa State’s 3-3-3 or Broken Stack defense. In fact, most of the Big 12 has begun to use this defensive structure as it’s base look. Clemson’s own Brent Venables and staff even traveled to the Ames, IA to discuss how to run the defense with Cyclone Defensive Coordinator, Jon Heacock. Venables wanted to see how a defense that is built to stop the constant onslaught of high-powered offenses could hold the top spot in run defense in the Big 12. Clemson used the defense early in 2019 when they took on Texas A&M and would turn to it to help secure a victory in this year’s College Football Playoff victory over Ohio State.

Related: MQ Pressure Tape – Clemson D vs Ohio State O

What started as a shot in the dark for a struggling defense has begun an epoch change in college football’s defense of the Spread. The Odd Dime, or 3-3-3 (my friend Ian Boyd would prefer “Fly-Over D“), has taken over many of the Spread heavy conferences in college football. Turn on the TV any Saturday and you will see some kind of Odd Dime package being ran. Auburn and Georgia experimented with their own versions of a three-down “Dime” package to take on the vaunted LSU Tigers’ offense.

Related: Auburn’s 3-1-7 vs LSU’s historic O

Over the past several seasons, the Cyclones have evolved the scheme to fit their unique personnel and needs within the Big 12. The 2019 season could be seen as a down year, especially after 2018 which saw them finish the season winning seven-of-eight and barely losing to a 12th ranked Washington State team. ’19 would see the Cyclones finish 7-6 and 1-4 versus offenses in the top 60 in Offensive Efficiency. In DEff, the Cyclones finished #43 and were in the top 25 in DOA, defensive performance against their schedule strength, and 7th in DFD, which refelts the number of offensive possessions that earn a TD or at least a first down. Overall, the Cyclones defense was on par with how it has been doing the past several years and continues to be one of the better units in the league.

One topic of discussion that seems to be of interest to many coaches is the Cyclones’ unique pressure package that can be used to suffocate the run game and confuse QBs. Though the Cyclones are not getting many turnovers (#115/13 total) or Sacks (#64th/28 total), they are racking up Tackles For Loss in the upper third of college football (#36/85 total). This is due to how the Cyclones fit the run and pressure the offense. With so many DBs on the field, Iowa State can give multiple presentations post-snap to help negate soft spots behind their pressures.


Burn (3u/3d)

In the Cyclone language, Burn Coverage is their Fire Zone or three-under/three-deep coverage behind five-man pressure. From a three-high structure, the two seam and one hole player (rat) can come from almost anywhere. In may cases, the hole player is the Star or middle safety (MS). If an apex or overhang player is gone from one side, that safety will play the “Hot 2” technique or Seam. In the case the apex player is staying in coverage as the Hot 2 away from the pressure, the hash Safety will work to the middle third.

The CBs in Burn coverage are playing Press Bail playing what is referred to as a “Hot Third.” With eyes keying the WR to the QB, the CBs are playing zone trying to stay on top of any vertical but breaking off if the QB brings them down. If the CB has two WRs and both go vertical, the CB will play a mid-point technique playing deep-as-the-deepest. This is typical Fire Zone CB coverage.

Where Iowa State is unique is in pre-snap alignment. The ability to shift the secondary players and bring any defender outside the field CB, the Cyclones can give “exotic” post-snap presentations without playing exotic or unsafe coverages. With two Safeties on the hash, it is easy to defend seams because they are already aligned on their marker. It is also easy for them to gain access to the middle third. The Middle Safety is already aligned on top of #3 and can quickly close off the hole. Layering the coverage is critical to the Cyclones’ success and can play with the QB’s eyes post-snap. Below is a look at a Cyclone Burn pressure.

In this particular pressure, the Cyclones are sending two off the edge to the RB. This is the reverse of “America’s Fire Zone” with the first blitzer taking the heel-line and the second scaping for contain. The Sam LB will take the contain rush and try to get into the QB’s window or take the outside shoulder of the RB. By placing a 5 technique to the rush side, there is a D-lineman crossing the face of the tackle. The Mike, or first ILB, will read the OT and fit accordingly off his backside.

The Cyclones are playing Burn Coverage behind this pressure. The hash Safety drops down on #2 (Hot 2) with eyes to the QB. Baylor runs a “Swap” screen (WR screen to #2) and the Safety quickly triggers to take the screen. The MS (Star) sits on top of #3 while the other hash Safety (not seen in the clip) works to the middle third. With the Safety reading the eyes of the QB, he is too quick for the #1 WR and easily makes the tackle for no gain.

The front presentation is Iowa State’s Invert Front. This puts the Cyclones in their four-down package with two 5s, two 3s, and a mugged Mike (really the Sam) on the Center. The Will is aligned right behind the Mike. The pressure works the exact same way, except the personnel and presentation are a little different. The RB is in a static blocking position with the Will hammering down from depth. Simple inertia will push the RB back. Though the blitz is initially picked up, the RB can’t handle the LB’s rush and the Bears’ QB is sacked. The base pressure (Alamo) is detailed below.

01 Alamo Burn

Outside of coverage structure, the Cyclones give different front presentations to aid in the manipulation of pass pro. Below, the Cyclones run there Double “A” Mug Front and run the same pressure as above. Though the pressure doesn’t hit home, the QB feels the pressure in his face and releases the ball quickly. With EYES coverage, the hash Safety cuts the #1 WR’s slant and almost picks the ball.

The Cyclones have three versions of this pressure, two sims and the Burn pressure shown above. In the two sims, the Cyclones can either drop out the edge rushers or the mugged ‘backers. In the sim pressure where the edge players drop out, they run what they call Duece, which is a reduction Trap 2 concept. In Duece, the field CB is playing MEG (Man Everywhere he Goes) on #1, and the hash Safety will trap the slot WR with the MS playing deep 1/2. Again, the luxury of having five DBs. In the sim where the two ‘backers drop out, the Cyclones run a Trap 2 coverage with the CBs playing hard on the #1 WRs while the MS inserts into the field seam. The hash Safeties play Deep 1/2 and Will playing the weak seam and Mike playing the middle hole.

Related: 2019 Baylor’s Pressure Package (3-3-3)


Blaze (4u/2d – Trap 2)

Blaze Coverage is the Trap 2 concept ran behind some of the Cyclones pressures. Both CBs will play anything out by the #2 WR and if there is a single-WR, the CB will cut towards the box (below). This type of coverage is usually ran when a DB is in the blitz path. For instance, if the Cyclones were to bring a CB, the secondary would roll to that side creating a Trap 2 pressure. In the clip below, the MS is in the pressure making both hash Safeties the Deep 1/2 players.

The pressure below shows the boundary hash Safety inserting from depth with the Will LB. The CB to the boundary plays hard on #1 while the MS works to the Deep 1/2 taking the vertical by #2. The Mike will open to #3 and work vertically for any crossed. The pressure moves the QB off his mark and he throws a bad pass into double coverage. The field Safety almost gets the pick.

Playing a Trap 2 coverage, especially on base downs can pay off against a team that throws RPOs or perimeter screens. The same pressure as above is shown (Flash). The CB is playing hard on #1 and sees the QB throw the ball. The result is a TFL and a 3rd and extremely long.

With three-Safeties, the Cyclones can use them in pressures without messing with the coverage. In many cases, the coverage looks similar to the zone schemes they run on base downs. The addition of non-traditional rushers from depth is something that many teams facing the Spread are starting to move to. The O-line now has to account for players lined up at depth. This can bring havoc to O-lines that aren’t used to seeing players form depth or aren’t that great at pass pro.


Hot (2u/3d)

Hot or EYES pressures are great ways to send more numbers than the offense can handle. Instead of dropping a defender away from the pressure, Hot blitzes keep him in the fit to add a number. The two seam or “hot” players relate to the nearest man and read the “eyes” of the QB (also why it is referred to as EYES). This type of scheme places defenders in the “hot” or check-down window of the QB. Once the pressure hits, the QB is going to look for is “rush” throw or check-down. If done right, the seam player can get hands on the ball creating a turnover or force the QB to hang on to the ball, letting the rush hit home. One thing that can give these pressures difficulty is cruise or crossing routes (below).

With Iowa using a Slide-Insert pass pro where the O-line slides to one side, the tackle away from the slide locks on the DE, and the TE inserts in the gap, the Cyclones attack the blocker in the backfield (below). This type of pressure puts players on either side of a blocking back making him wrong no matter what his choice is. In the blitz below, the Cyclones load the “B” gap away from the slide. The TE can’t handle that many players and the LB comes free. The LB from the other side attacks the guard and wastes him by attacking the “A” gap.

Related: MQ’s primer on HOT pressures


Unlike Baylor that played mostly Cover 1/3 with their hash Safeties, the Cyclones have a wide variety of coverages to go with their pressure package. The ability to drop, roll, and trap from any one of the five DBs lends to the variety for Iowa State. Coverage wise, things don’t change except for the way the coverages play post-snap. This is why the scheme is so successful when done right. There is no predictability and any one of the DBs (outside the field CB) can work into the box or drop deep. Whether it is a traditional Fire Zone (Burn) or Trap 2 (Blaze) the Cyclones have a multitude of ways to attack a Spread offense. Finally, the timely use of Hot pressures can have a devastating effect on a Spread offense that is used to timing and freedom in the pocket.

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Cautious Aggression: Defending Modern Football

Hybrids: The Making of a Modern Defense

Match Quarters: A Modern Guidebook to Split-Field Coverages

Breaking Down Your Offensive Opponent

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The Evolution of the Odd Dime: Baylor vs Oklahoma Pt. 3 – Pressures (2019)

Baylor’s 2019 defensive success was built on creating havoc. The creation of turnovers and negative plays directly correlated with Baylor’s ability to win games. Nationally, Baylor ranked 8th in DEff (Defensive Efficiency), but that didn’t mean they were dominant. The Bears were middle of the pack (#55) in First Down rate (the percentage of opponent drives that result in a TD or at least one 1st Down) and 39th overall in Total Defense. Where Baylor excelled was in killing drives and limiting TDs. To do that, a defense needs to dominate in negative plays (TFLs/Sacks) and turnovers.

Baylor was second in the Big 12 behind Oklahoma in total TFLs (Tackles for Loss) with 102 total and 18th nationally. Included in that stat is Baylor’s 46 sacks, which led the Big 12 and was ninth nationally. Finally, Baylor was tied for second nationally in opponent turnovers, ending the season with 30 total (13 fumbles/17 intercepts). These stats were crucial to the Bears’ success. One way the Bears were able to cause havoc was to bring pressure. As shown in Part 1 (Coverages) and Part 2 (Fronts 7 Fits), Phil Snow’s 3-4 defense was transformed into a 3-3-3 in 2019. His aggressive style of play calling meshed with the roster Baylor had. Placing two converted CBs at “hash safeties” and hybrid LBs allowed Snow to bring pressure from all over. In Part 3 MQ takes a look at the most frequently used in the Bears’ scheme.


Delays/Green-Dogs

The “ameba” front highlighted in Part 2 of this series is a base down look for the Bears. By standing the D-linemen up, the O-line has no anchor point to go off or. The single-high look can indicate pressure is coming. In the prior article, I highlighted a clip that showed the Bears using this as a “bluff.” Below, the Bears Sam LB “green-dogs” once he has deemed the play a pass (green-dog refers to a “delay” pressure where you insert if your man blocks). With Cover 1 behind the front structure, the Sam can climb to contain once the RB and QB divvy out the mesh. The Sooners’ QB, Jalen Hurts, pulls the ball on a slight Waggle (no O-line protection) and the Sam climbs immediately. The pressure in the QB’s face forces an errant throw.

Continue reading “The Evolution of the Odd Dime: Baylor vs Oklahoma Pt. 3 – Pressures (2019)”

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). Continue reading “Playing Dime as Your Base Pt. 2 – The Front”