Master Class – Michigan St. Part 2 – Coverages & Pressures (2018)

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.


Pass Distribution

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.

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Master Class – Michigan St. Part 1 (2018)

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

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Defending Stack and Bunch Sets

Theories on attacking the Spread’s cluster sets.

One of the hardest sets in football to defend is the cluster or stack set. Spread offenses utilize this set to get the defense’s outside linebackers in run/pass conflicts. Unlike a traditional 2×2 set, the defense has to adjust to the width of the receivers. Stacking them creates width, and width creates the conflict.

Spread teams rely on the open “B” gap to build their RPO’s into their offensive gameplan. By stacking the receivers out wide, the defense is forced to adjust. In a two-high system, the player in conflict (usually the Will LB) has to choose, cover down to his receiver or hold tight to the box. If he stays close to the box, the offense is going to throw the quick screen and create a 1-on-1 open field tackling matchup with the safety or corner. In most cases, the defense wants to avoid this as much as possible.

On the other end of the spectrum, if the defender widens to the cluster set, the offense has a 4-1 box and a clear running opportunity. Versus a two-high system, there is a great chance for the offense to part the field like the Red Sea for a big gain. Ask any offensive coach, a 4-1 box is a magical thing.

In the image below, Penn St. is running an Under Front and “hips” it’s Sam LB to the strength (“hip” refers to the OLB aligned on the outside hip of the DE). In most RPO style offenses, this is a clear pass read. The Sam has to honor the run read and step to his gap. Even with zone away and a gap exchange with a “heavy” DE (in this set the DE has dive), the Sam has to take a step towards the box. The QB is taught to read the Sam’s path and throw the screen.

Penn. St. is most likely in a “Cloud” coverage (Two Read) and the safety is bailing on the snap. Easy pickings for any decent offensive coordinator. It’s a conflict of philosophy; the offense wants 1-on-1 matchups and the defense wants a plus-one. In order to create a six-man box and protect against the run, the defense has to spin to single-high, but to keep a plus-one in pass distribution it has to stay in two-high, something has to give. MatchQuarters explores the options.

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