In part 2 of this series on Sparty’s D, MQ discusses their top pressures and coverage distributions.
In Part 1 of MQ’s series on Michigan State, we discussed how the Spartans have adjusted over time to develop a base that can adapt to the Spread’s evolution to downfield RPOs and TE formations. The primary set being used in the game today is the Y-off formation group. Many times, the TE is in a slotted position (outside the tackle), either to the two-speed (3×1) or away (2×2). This is similar to the H-back offenses made popular by Gus Malzahn’s Slot-T scheme that uses 20 and 21 personnel formations from the “gun.”
The Big 10 is home to some heavy hitters in Ohio St. (Urban Meyer with Rich Rodriguez made the Gun Option a national staple), Michigan who has used Y-off formations more prevalently with a running QB, Penn State behind the dual-threat McSorley, and Nebraska with Frost’s adoption of the Chip Kelly system. Needless to say, the Spartans are well versed in the modern Spread game. The first part of this series focused on the foundational schemes within the Spartan defense. In part two, MQ dives into some game plan adjustments, pressures, and coverages that established the Spartans as one of 2018’s best defenses in the country.
Michigan St. bases out of a Press Quarters scheme. The CBs are pressed and responsible for the outside WRs. The Safeties are responsible for #2 with help from the overhangs (Star/Ni to the field and the Will to the boundary). One concept that the Spartans use consistently to combat 3×1 formations is Solo coverage. This is called a “safe” kick coverage because the backside Safety will kick to the front side depending on the release of the #3 WR.
In a 2×2 formation, that would be the Mike. In a 3×1 formation, the Mike will relate to the bottom of #3, but the Will must take the RB. If the RB were to push to the field or boundary, the LB to that side would take him. The ‘backers take the RB and the second takes the receiving threats. Unlike other two-high schemes that will drop in the backside Safety so the LB to the #3 WR can take him man-to-man, the Spartans opt to keep the Safety in coverage.
Below is a prime example of Solo coverage (also referred to as Poach). Nebraska is aligned in a Trips Slot Open formation (3×1). This particular Y-off set is a favorite for modern Spread attacks because the TE can stress the defense horizontally (Split Zone/Arc Option) and vertically (Y-pop/Arc Option) in any direction. The main issue versus this formation is who takes the TE vertically? If the defense sinks in the backside Safety, the Mike LB must now match-up man-to-man. This also gives away the intentions of the defense because the Mike must now cover down to the TE (most defenses are still setting the 3 tech. to the TE – Over). In the clip below, the Mike is in a 10 (“A” gap). There is little the Mike can do if the TE arcs vertically. This is where Solo comes in.
Sparty is known for its Press Quarters coverage & stingy defense. MQ reviews one of the best 4-3 Quarters defenses around.
When running a Quarters system, the Michigan St. Spartans are a go-to when looking for quality ideas. On the surface, the Spartans defense looks simplistic but has had major carryover throughout the years. Outside of the 2016 anomaly (#104 in Defensive Efficiency and 2-10), the Spartans have fielded one of the better defensive units in the country. The high water mark coming in 2018 when they finished #3 overall in DEff. Head Coach Mark Dantonio has kept the defense as one of the better units in the country even without his long-time side-kick in Pat Narduzzi (Pitt. HC and former Spartan DC) and losing another long-time assistant in Harlon Barnett (current Florida St. DC).
Narduzzi, on the other hand, has not fared as well as Dantonio. The Panther defenses fielded by Pitt have consistently been in the bottom half of all defenses in the country. Pitt’s four-year high water mark came in 2018 with a DEff finishing #65 (the previous three years? ’15 – 74th, ’16 – 97th, and ’17 – 74th). Narduzzi has yet to find the same recipe he had in East Lansing. The jury is still out on Barnett, who’s inaugural Florida St. defense finished 50th in DEff.
One major issue with the scheme Dantonio has been running forever is the overhang defender. In a traditional 4-3 defense, the field overhang (Sam) is most likely not going to be a Nickle type body, but rather a true LB. Although probably the most athletic LB and paying to the field, he is not going to be responsible for carrying the vertical of #2. The bigger body actually works in the Spartans’ advantage. Most defenses are trying to get “smaller” at that position and put a true cover man to the passing strength. Like any modern defense, the Spartans have the ability to put a true Ni at Sam, but Dantonio opts to stay with the bigger body near the box. Leading up to their 2015 Cotton Bowl match-up, Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban detailed the difficulty of defending a bigger body on the perimeter:
“…we could not block the guy, couldn’t block the linebacker because he was a bigger guy than what we were used to seeing. We need to be able to make those kinds of blocks this year because when a guy cheats in the box, you need to throw the ball out there so that he has to get out there and he can’t cheat in the box because you can’t block them all if you allow them to do that.” – Saban, AL.com
Using Quarters to adjust to one of the most popular ways the Spread goes unbalanced.
The use of unbalanced formations is nothing new. Whether it is a simple Tackle-over to create a four-man surface or the use of an unbalanced open set (no attached TE) to get the defense to roll its coverage, unbalanced formations challenge a defense to stay sound and keep its numbers even on either side of the ball. One popular Spread unbalanced formation is the two-back Unbalanced Trips set that places three WRs to one side, yet keeps a two-back structure in the box. This can be a great way to out leverage a defense because it creates conflict.
The two-back set forces defenses to acknowledge the offense’s ability to run the ball. Adding three WRs to one side forces the defense to leverage the secondary to a perceived passing strength. This conflict is what leads to issues when facing a team that utilizes this type of unbalanced formation. In an earlier article, I highlighted ways to defend the top Spread unbalanced sets. One of them was the 20 pers. “X-off” formation usually paired with Jet motion to gain a Quads look to one side (below).
This formation, in particular, forces a defense to acknowledge the leverage of the two WRs while challenging the defense to see that one of them is ineligible. The backside “X” WR now has the ability to go in motion. By using a quick motion like a Jet motion, the offense can now conflict the defense. One great way to do this is by using a BAsh, or “back-away,” run scheme. This split-run action can have a devastating effect on a defense’s run stopping ability if the defense over rotates the secondary or is overly aggressive to the direction of the motion.
In the above diagram, the Jet motion challenges the defense to honor the fast pace of the WR. If the defense overreacts, the Q-Counter will hit home. Pop motions are great eye-candy used by offenses to gain leverage on the defense. In the play above, the QB can either read the DE or the Mike ‘backer depending on who is more aggressive. Either read works well, and the offensive coordinator can switch the read at any time. If an offense has a “box read” (counting the number of defenders between the tackles), the QB could see an apexed Sam and throw a WR screen, especially if the CB is backed off. The key to defending these plays from an unbalanced set is understanding numbers. Continue reading “MQ Film Study: Defending Unbalanced Trips (2018 Michigan State)”
Walk into most defensive staff rooms, ask what their #1 blitz is, and it will most likely be some variation of this:
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.”
“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 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.
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.
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.