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.”

Screen Shot 2019-03-05 at 1.15.39 PM.png

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”

Attacking the Tite Front

The Tite Front is becoming a popular way to defend the Spread; it’s important to understand how teams are going to attack it on the ground.

The Tite Front was all the rage during the 2017 season. From Georgia in the SEC to the Longhorns and Cyclones in the Big 12, the “new-age” Double Eagle took flight as one of the top ways to contain high powered Spread offenses. Georgia and Texas used the front and similar coverage schemes as a base, with both finding themselves in BCfToys.com’s top 10 in Defensive Efficiency (adjusted for the strength of opponent offenses faced – UGA was #5 and Texas #6).

The Iowa St. Cyclones rose from #103 in 2016 to a respectable #32 in BCfToy’s efficiency rankings in 2017. The Cyclones and Longhorns most notably did it while using a 3-safety “Dime” package for parts of the season. The Cyclones used the “Dime” look as their base defense for the entire season, leading to victories over high-powered offenses like Oklahoma (#1 in BCfToys’ Offensive Efficiency) and Memphis (#16).

The Tite Front works because it forces the offense to bounce everything outside. The two DEs (4is) in the “B” gaps close off the lifeline for every Spread team, the “conflict” gaps. Spread offenses search for the “B” gap because that is where the conflicted player usually is for a defense. By closing both “B” gaps, the offense has to either plug it up the “A” gap (which most Spread teams won’t do) or run it outside. Defenses that base out of the Tite Front don’t mind the bounce because their speedy (and usually “free”)LBs can now chase down the RB while its overhangs box everything back inside (think of them like the Double Eagle’s wide-9s). The diagram below illustrates the front’s usefulness versus a popular Spread play, the Power Read.

Tite vs PWR READ (W)

The 404 alignment does several things for the box: 1) the offensive line can’t climb because of the 4is, and 2) it frees up at least one of the inside linebackers (if not both). In the illustration above, the play side offensive tackle will either have to handle the 4i by himself or rely on the guard for a double team. If the guard decides to climb for the Mike (illustrated), the 4i can easily get penetration and maybe even block or negate the pull (I have a clip of this later vs TCU’s 11p single-back Power).

If the guard stays on the 4i (double team), both the Mike and Will are left free to flow with the play and what DC doesn’t want is ILBs free-flowing to the ball? In this particular instance shown above, the Jack ‘backer walls the play by climbing to the RB. The defense has numbers and is plus-one on the pulling guard. One thing to not overlook is the away side 4i who has leverage on the away side tackle. Once the guard pulls (the 4i’s key), he can chase and climb to the mesh. The play is ultimately killed.

Texas and Georgia, in particular, had great success all year running similar schemes from a base Tite Front. In this year’s (2018) THSCA Football Lecture, Georgia Head Coach Kirby Smart attributed his use of the Tite Front and how he played the secondary behind it to his meeting with Texas’ own, Todd Orlando. Most defensive coaches can recognize the usefulness of the front, but one thing is clear, Spread offenses will try and figure it out. It wasn’t all about the front either, the use of Match 3 (Rip/Liz) and the rebirth/redesign of the (Dime) Tampa 2, was a big contributor to how teams attacked the Longhorns, Cyclones, and Bulldogs.  Continue reading “Attacking the Tite Front”

THSCA Football Lecture – Kirby Smart (2018)

Learn how one of the top defensive minds evolved his defense.

One great thing about being a coach in the state of Texas is “Coaching School” at the end of the summer. The Texas High School Coaches Association (THSCA) puts together a massive conference that covers everything from professional development to sport specific clinics. If you have ever been to football’s national convention held by the AFCA, then you have an idea of what this convention looks and feels like. There are regional meetings to elect representatives for leadership positions in the association as well as rule committees for each sport. The association functions as the voice of coaches across the state and works with the UIL (Texas’ athletic governing body).

The convention isn’t just about football, though it is dominated by football coaches. That shouldn’t be a shock in a state that worships the game. Most head football coaches in the state are either the athletic director for the district or coordinate the campus they are on. This means that most decisions about sports for a district or high school are centered around the head football coach. As with college football, many times you are “hired to get fired” in Texas. Every head coach in the state has a crucial role even outside of football. They basically make sure every high school runs smoothly in the athletic arena.

This year’s convention in San Antonio saw a record number of coaches from all sports. There were lectures and clinics for everything from swimming to soccer, track to football. It is one of the greatest transfers of knowledge in the state and everyone is invited. For many staffs, this is the last days of summer and many spend it as a time to come together for fellowship and plan for Fall Camp. Arkansas Head Coach Chad Morris and Georgia’s Head Coach Kirby Smart were the two main football speakers for this year’s convention. Below are my clinic notes for Coach Smart, which was one of the best I’ve been to. This will be different than my Don Brown clinic notes in the fact that I will add a little more commentary (and no PDF). Continue reading “THSCA Football Lecture – Kirby Smart (2018)”

MQ Quick Hits Ep. 10 – The Tite Front

MQ’s clinic on the Tite Front explains the theory behind this popular front.

The “new age” Double Eagle is taking over Spread defenses and “squeezing” out the Zone. In this episode of Quick Hits, MQ explains how the Tite Front can be a great alternative to stopping the Spread. It makes the offense work for every yard and can be a great counter to Spread zone and gap plays.

Continue reading “MQ Quick Hits Ep. 10 – The Tite Front”

Defending 11 Personnel from a 3-4

How to adjust to TE sets without a natural adjuster.

Spread and Pro-Style offenses utilize a Tight End versus three-down defenses because the defense lacks a natural adjuster. Unlike a four-down defense that can distribute their anchor points evenly across the formation, the 3-4 lacks the extra lineman to defend the extra gap (hence the name “Odd Front”). When faced with an 11 personnel formation, many 3-4 defensive coordinators choose to spin to single-high coverage to gain an extra man in the box. Another adjustment for many DCs in this situation is to attach the outside linebacker to the TE’s side. With the loss of a coverage man and overhang, the DC is forced to spin. When defending an 11 pers. offense from a 4-2-5 or 4-3, these little adjustments aren’t needed because the anchor points are evenly distributed and don’t need to be created.

In a four-down scheme, the defensive ends act as the walls of the box. When a TE is introduced into the formation, the DE to the TE’s side moves to a 9 technique (unless it is Trey and then he is in a 7 or 6i). The four defensive linemen allow the defense to stay even and adjust with the linebackers and secondary. The evenness of the four-down is why many spread teams attack 4-2-5 and 4-3 defenses from 20 pers., utilizing an H-back. In 20 pers., the offense can use the “H” to attack either side of the defense, reading the overhangs to determine what play to run. If the “H” was attached to the formation (TE) he would lose his two-way go.

Defending 11 pers. formations from a 3-4 boil down to understanding how certain fronts react to the extra gap. From a single-gap fit 3-4, a defense can easily adjust to TE sets and stay within a two-shell scheme. The lack of an adjuster is an issue, which is why many 3-4 teams that face the spread, and Pro-Style spread, choose to defend from an Okie Front because it reacts much like the four-down Under Front. Using the offense’s formations as a guide, it is easy to build simple rules within the defense, setting the strength and when to attach the OLBs, to alleviate the issues seen in many 3-4 defenses. Combining an Okie Front with a match quarters scheme can adapt and flex with any formation an offense throws out, it just boils down to how a DC chooses to line up.

Continue reading “Defending 11 Personnel from a 3-4”

Defending the Spread From a 3-4

Running an Okie Front to defend the modern spread attack.

Defensive linemen are at a premium. For many teams, it is hard to field a deep roster that can lend itself to a four-man front. Running parallel to the defensive dilemma of lineman depth is the popularity of the spread. A natural conclusion for many defensive coordinators around the country has been a shift away from a four-down front and into a 3-4 scheme. The flexibility of the 3-4 and the added athlete on the field makes the scheme spread friendly. The multiplicity within the scheme allows DCs to attack the offense from multiple directions without sacrificing pass distributions. Running a two-high scheme behind a three-man front meshes well with teams that have a history of running a 4-2-5 or 4-3.

The Okie Front, in particular, can be of service when defensive coaches are looking to defend the spread from a three down front. With a 5 technique, a shaded Nose, and a 3 tech. (or 4i) to the weak side, the Okie’s anchor points fit the spread much like its four down sister, the Under Front. To the weak side, the Jack linebacker (boundary OLB) is technically a wide “9” in the run fits and controls the edge of the box to the boundary. The Jack LB, in particular, is useful when defending offenses that like to attack the boundary through the air. Even though the Jack is technically a conflicted player (he is responsible for the “C” gap), his alignment allows him to read the offensive tackle and slow play the run. In most four down fronts, the boundary OLB (Will) is the “fold” player and is considered conflicted because his gap is in the box. The Okie Front eliminates the fold and replaces it with a loose overhang (much like a natural Will/DE exchange in a four down front). Continue reading “Defending the Spread From a 3-4”

Packaging Your Blitz Calls by Formation

How to formation your call sheet.

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about how to formation your blitz calls, as well as packaging different calls that are similar (click HERE for the original article – Formation Your Defense ). The best way to approach packaging blitzes/pressures is to create a master list and sort blitzes that are from the same tree. For instance, all blitzes that send an edge pressure from one of the outside linebackers can be lumped together because they are mirrors of each other. The next step is to draw them up against basic formations and decide if you like the look of one pressure over another. In the truest sense, this is blitzing to formation, or BTF.

Blitzing to Formation

05-side-by-side

Each BTF stems from a base blitz and that blitz is adjusted to defend each formation it sees. An example of an adjustment is a defensive coordinator may not want to send an edge blitz into the face of a TE when coming up against 11 personnel. A better alternative would be to blitz the openside versus a TE. That rule can be carried throughout the packaged blitz call. By packaging the blitzes, a DC can eliminate long call sheets and dense verbiage. Against spread teams that tempo, seconds matter. I’ve been asked several times what my call sheet looks like, or what did it look like for Coach Bennett at Baylor. I’ve never used one, and Bennett kept the sheet in his pocket. Packaging your blitzes eliminates the call sheet altogether because you have you bread-n-butter calls already memorized, and they attack the formation how you want it because you taught your players to adjust to the formation (the definition of BTF). Continue reading “Packaging Your Blitz Calls by Formation”

The 3-4 Tite Front

The “new age” Double Eagle is taking over Spread defenses and “squeezing” out the Zone.

Speed Kills

Finding defensive lineman is hard, especially at smaller enrollment high schools. The trend from four-down to three-down is always fluctuating and relies heavily on the athletes at hand. As more teams turn to the Spread because of the lack of lineman, it is only natural for defensive coordinators to go “small” as well. Adding athletes to the field is never a bad thing, and if the “heaviest” formation a defense will face is a two-back 20 personnel set, then why not keep a faster defense on the field? The trend is playing out on Saturday’s too. Look at any conference that is heavy spread and the defenses are getting “smaller.” Why? Because they have to be. The phrase, “Speed kills,” has more validity than ever before.

The Big 12 is usually on the forefront of the modern Spread game and continues to push the envelope for what offense can do and defenses have to defend on the field. Starting in 2016, Big 12 defenses began to tinker with their defenses and fully blossoming into the scheme in 2017. The backbone of this defensive transition was the Tite Front or 404/303. Iowa State went from 103rd in 2016 to 32nd in 2017 according to BCfToys.com’s Defensive Efficiency ratings. Texas rose to a top 10 defense (#6 overall) from #45 under first-year coach Tom Herman utilizing the Tite Front and a unique Dime package created by Todd Orlando. Ian Boyd for Football Study Hall wrote an article recently that highlighted how the Tite Front has taken over college defenses when defending the Spread. Even the heavy hitters in the SEC and Big 10 are turning to the front to defend the Spread teams on their schedule. The reasoning is simpler than one might think.  Continue reading “The 3-4 Tite Front”