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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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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