Much has been made of the advancements of offenses in this 'modern age' of football. There are endless articles on these new spread plays, but what of the defense? What can a defense do to not only adapt but limit the seemingly endless advantages of these offenses?
See The Big Picture
Previously, we covered how the metrics are changing for defenses. What matters most for defending the spread, ultimately, is just preventing points. Chasing traditional yardage goals may not actually benefit the "spread" defense (focus on negative yardage plays, containing explosive gains, win 3rd down, settle for field goals).
In this installment, we hope to cover the options a defense has against 1-back spread and schools of thought on how to live in this new era of run-pass option, tempo offenses. This isn't intended to be "the answer" that coordinators need to implement, merely noting trends how some coordinators adapted to a variety of offenses and how these adjustments can be used to limit the effectiveness of recent offensive wrinkles.
First, defenses have to insulate themselves against the known risks a spread offense presents. With as many dynamic offensive flavors in today's game, thinking modular is the best approach to maintain front integrity and prevent easy completions when receivers are "spread". This approach also lends itself to compartmentalizing components of the defense, instead of making wholesale changes to the defensive structure.
Defense has traditionally been thought of in terms of the 8-man box or the 7-man front. Your "defense" (identity) was determined by the front alignment of your 21-personnel grouping (3-4, 4-3, etc). In today's game, it is apparent that these terms are irrelevant because defenses are faced with so many different styles of offenses that the only thing that will remain consistent will be the front preference (odd / even) and the philosophy implemented behind it.
With that said, let’s move on to how defenses approach 1-back spread teams. The first step is to keep it simple; break down the threat into its fundamental alignment threats. You will obviously have the 5 offensive linemen and in today's game, 4 spread receivers and no real tight end. The good thing is with "spread" tempo teams is that it generally leaves you with a limited playbook and most assuredly has only two formations; ace and trips. The receivers will present a slot or trips look to a side. When you add 3+ receivers to a formation, your coverage options expand. The more coverage defenders you add, the more variety you can have. In nickel a situation, which is what we're talking about with spread teams, we will commit 5 secondary players.
We will get into the coverage options later, but we have actually laid out the foundation for dealing with spread before:
Now all we have to assess is what are we left with to account for?
A 5 man line with a back and quarterback against our remaining 6 box defenders.
With 6 box defenders, are you going to use an odd or even front?
If you are an 'odd' defense, you can continue to keep 6 in the box with a stack or use a true odd front with 10 and 20 backers
EVEN (over / "T")
Typical 40 front defenses will set their fronts based on strong and weak personnel, setting strength to the field or to the back. Most set strength to the field to protect the edge and restrict a bubble to the boundary. Otherwise, most defenses you'll find will always set strength AWAY from the back.
If an offense is proficient in (inside) zone running or have a backside running QB threat, strength will be declared TO the back. This puts the shade / nose in the immediate path to disrupt the zone track. The 3 and 5 to the back present a solid leverage front against quick QB gap (power) runs.
Increasingly, many defenses are opting to play the spread (particularly when the ball is placed in the middle of the field) with two 3-techniques to discourage the perimeter and off-tackle run game. It is vulnerable to inside zone (unless you 2-gap backside). Interestingly enough, this is also what is pushing many coordinators to basing out of an odd front because what you'll find is all you need is two legitimate interior defensive linemen (A and B gap players) and the remaining gaps can be filled in with linebackers and safeties. In shotgun, without a fullback and tight end, there is no real threat of power runs so digging in at C gap in a 4-pt stance just isn’t necessary.
"T" - double 3 techs
WILDCARD (Bear / double eagle)
The wildcard you will see some defenses regularly get in on 3rd down is the old 46 or bear front. Reducing the front to 3,0,3 and edge rushers . This provides a pressure look that can utilize edge droppers or check-blitzes. The bear threatens to cover all gaps and stymie any leverage for zone combos or gap runs (using pullers). More importantly, however, it threatens your snapper with A-gap pressure with no help and can create a problem in identifying the Mike for protection (which way you will zone, which side you will man) forcing the back to block or have a defender free to the quarterback.
Play With 13 Players
6 on 6 would actually be an advantage for a defense; unfortunately the outside box linebacker in our front has to be at least threatening as a coverage option against his slot receiver. Otherwise, the offense can tee-off on this slot side because it’s clearly just the safety that can cover-down on the slot. This "Will" has to play with, "one foot in the box and one foot out of the box" for the defense to provide a challenge to the offense.
How do you control the front with 6, particularly if the quarterback is a running threat or they throw regularly throw quickly to the slot?
If you are 1-high, its an easy fix with rip/liz, but leaves you vulnerable to the field without a safety over the top of #1 and #2.
If you are 2 high, you can cover-down with the nic and walk out the linebacker on 2 (4+1). However, if you are not in dime grouping how can you stay sound with only 5 in the box? That leads us to exploring the kind of creativity needed to control the box.
While this really helps stymie an offense's intent at going vertical on you and forcing them to play it safe by throwing short horizontal throws and earn their yards on the ground, just how can defenses stay sound with only 5 "full-time" box defenders?
How to defend 6 gaps with 5 defenders? Get Creative
During the rise of the Tampa Bay Bucs defense in the late 90s, the defense would rely on relentless pressure from the front 4 to control the front. With the MLB retreating to cover the deep middle hole, how can 4 rushmen control 6 gaps? By stunting into the open voids. The pirate and long stick stunt helped Tampa impact fronts even on run downs by covering up 2 gaps at once and inserting themselves into the open window.
This is the cheapest of the alternatives, as most defenses already have line games installed. Using it to cover up run-fit voids is a strategy that can provide a shortcut solution to these dilemmas . The stunting approach will naturally lead to fire zoning a spread, which remains a viable alternative. If you follow this logic of stunting into a front to control all the gaps, you now can add and replace the 5 rushmen to include safeties and backers with the security of adaptable zone coverage behind it.
If you're already looking at the front from a perspective of to and away from where the back sets, you can also change how that front responds. You can designate a side to be an attack-and-read 1-gap fast support and the other half being a read-and-attack 2-gap slow support side. This allows you to temporarily control half the front until secondary support can insert itself as a primary run support fitter. This option requires an investment in defensive linemen technique, but will provide carry over against other run offenses. With spread runs a true stout 2-gapper isn't what is required. With 1-back gun, the offense doesn't use traditional gap blocking post/drive double teams, but zone combos where the lead (post) blocker looks to work to the second level when the backside (drive) blocker overtakes the defender. This allows a "heavy" lineman to work leverage to control 2 gaps and keep the blockers from reaching the linebackers.
- 2-gapping to the back: provides you the flexibility to close any cutback but also remain stout against same-side gap power action
- 2-gapping to the field: allows you to slow-play run action to the width of the field, allowing secondary players time to fit into the run support.
Jump through / Run around blocks
A no-no for the traditional defensive mindset, with so much width to account for and so few players available for primary run-fit in the box, the other alternative is to run around blocks to get penetration and cause negative yardage plays. This is possible because there really are few linebackers to protect in the box. This, too, is a solution that requires a technique investment; it has little carry over against no-spread run games. It would also only be viable if you had an exceptional athlete among your defensive linemen to use the explosive burst required to chase a play down from behind (and likely not stout enough to hold point against the run).
These options allow a defense to account for the 6 gaps in the box. When the quarterback becomes a runner, the offense adds an additional gap to the formation without a clear indication of which side of the formation it will present.
The easy answer is to play single-high and drop a safety into the box, opposite of the nickel and account for the outside "D" gap(s). For the sake of this article, against 2x2 we want to remain in a 2-high shell pre-snap to provide us the most security against the deep ball and flexibility with coverage options.
Offenses today are doing more than throwing bubble/flash screens the perimeters with their run action, making the "open space" for the secondary grows to a near impossible expanse to defend. Further widening receivers from the ball reduces any slot coverage possibility into a man-to-man matchup in space.
This is the dilemma all coordinators are in and amounts to a 'rob Peter to pay Paul' on a down by down basis. This requires the defensive coordinator to squeeze more out of his overhang defenders. If you can account for the 6-gap box and two split receivers, you can get can introduce more uncertainty of what the overhang defenders are capable of, forcing a run-pass option offense to be wrong.
What Else? Pressure
Here are some ways for defenses to supplement the defensive front, to retard the effectiveness of run-pass options:
The easiest option is to use overhang pressure (nickel blitz) something a defense already has in its package, but the application of edge pressure against spread offenses are factors to consider.The intent would be to not only to threaten to pressure the thrower, but also discourage perimeter runs or fast screens.
The safest pressure to apply because the width is constricted, affording disguised pressure because by alignment, any defender is in good position to cover or blitz. Boundary edge pressure gets in the way of flash screens and pressure would be intended to get in the face against a deep sideline throw.
Because the width of the field will likely be used for perimeter runs, bringing pressure throws an immediate force defender to the edge as well as disrupt the trajectory of the thrower for any field throw (flat, bubble or curl area). The How to cover up this guy leaving coverage?
Another effective strategy spread defenses employ is to position safeties so that they can continue to advance the LOS on run-action. More and more, quarters safeties are cheating down from 15 yard depth to near 8 yards to muddy the coverage shell read and also put themselves in position to be at the line of scrimmage on the perimeter when facing run/screen action. Aggressive safeties rolling down can become an unaccounted defender in run support to discourage the perimeter run game (QB). Defenses today routinely bring 2-high safeties down late (to cover the slot) or allow them to fit as immediate run force, squeezing the open run lanes sooner than the back can gain leverage on the edge, pushing the ball to interior support. This method is gaining popularity in correlation with using catch-man coverage technique to obstruct vertical receiver stems, maintain leverage on any receiver break (by remaining square to the line of scrimmage), as well as being in good position to defend against a stalk block and attack the ball on run action.
We believe these strategies will be employed more as the spread continues to proliferate. This evolution will have coordinators looking to adopt these strategies as part of their system to produce a go-to bag of tools to smother aggressive offenses.
In future posts, we will explore how offenses are countering these defensive responses and also note the additional developments of the 2015 football season.