Saturday, July 25, 2009

Virginia Tech Robber

Without an original thought in my head, I am going to piggy-back on a brilliant article recently authored by coaches Chris Brown ( ) and Chris Vasseur analyzing the evolution of the Va Tech Hokie 42 from an 8-man Robber, to their current, 7-man front quarters look. The article can be read here;,178348

Both contributors are great minds of the game and Coach Vass has run the 44 "G" with Hokie "Tuff" front (bear) and Robber concepts for years.

As an aside to that piece, I am offering this treatise on Robber that may illustrate the evolution of the game from the days of our youth into what we have today. Fans of 'defensive football' will no doubt have an affinity for the violence associated with the likes of Buddy Ryan's 46 defense and other unrelenting, aggressively swarming dominant defenses of the 80s.

What does that have to do with the Robber? Well, sports fans, quite a bit. When we reminisce of these grand days of Hollywood football, we often do not account for WHY certain schemes were successful when they were, and are can be puzzled at why we don't see these schemes much any more or why they aren't as dominant as they once were.

What you'll find with the Robber and 46 is though their concepts are different from one another, the reason behind their success isn't. The ability to stuff the box with more defenders than could be blocked means someone is coming free (because you ran out of people to account for all those defenders). What broke (or accelerated defensive Darwinism) Robber, also broke the 46.

Offenses of the era were hamstrung by painting themselves into a (formation) corner by relying on 2 back, tight end formations in an effort to bring more numbers to the point of attack than the defense had. Rather than fight fire with fire (keep adding additional bodies to block), the solution was to stress the defensive front (and coverage) by REMOVING numbers from the box (think of the adage, "you've got to spend money to make money"). By displacing one of the two backs outside the box, the offense gained a horizontal stretch on the defense. This had the ability to stress coverage and run-support to a breaking point. More and more, offenses began finding strength in going on the attack of these explosive defenses (Seifert-era 49ers were notorious for their exploitation of using William Floyd & Ricky Watters in these coverage-stressing roles).

The following is an illustration of Va Tech Robber during the infancy of its dominance, the 1998 season. With players like Keion Carpenter, Pierson Prioleau, Loren Johnson, and Corey Moore, the Hokies were just starting to develop a stride of aggressive defensive players that they would carry through the new millenium.

These shots are against a young Syracuse Donovan McNabb. The Orangmen eventually won this game, which many feel Syracuse squeaked by based on the ineptness of Tech's offense, coordinated by Rickey Bustle (now HC at ULL), and not the result of defense. These shots best capture what the "robber" was made for, and also show what caused it to evolve.

The first graphic beautifully captures the numbers matchup of the formation du jour of the era, 2-back pro. With just a single receiver split on one side of the formation (flanker I), the corners could essentially lock down any 5-7 step vertical throw, allowing the FS to "rob" and put the defense at a +1 advantage in the run game (8 offensive players - 8 box defenders + 1 FS).

In the Va Tech Robber, the Corners align in typical Cover 3 leverage, looking to shuffle into the 3 step and bail into 5 step game. They bail to take away deep 1/2 vertical throws, knowing they have help on pass inside with the deep hole safety.
he key for the FS is the TE, if he releases vertically and gets depth on the underneath linebackers, he is free to take the TE man-to-man in a speed matchup he is sure to win. If the TE stays in for protection, or releases shallow, underneath the linebackers, the FS is free to "rob" any inside breaking route from either of the single receivers (typically this would come from the backside X). The read is clear and distinct, allowing the FS to confidently play this technique against any 2-back offense with a TE.
You'll note the depth of the FS in these pictures, playing at almost LB depth around 8 yards. A reach, arc release, or down block from the TE initiates a run read for the FS, allowing him to aggressively fit the alley support as an unblockable defender in the run. Typically, in the 80s and 90s, that is essentially all offenses did, anyway (run/pass out of 2-back sets). The FS in robber is flat-footed and looking to move forward at the snap.
In this first example, we find the Orangemen in a 2-back pro-formation, running a play-action pass at the Hokies. Notice the FS's shoulders turning immediately to the #1 receiver as McNabb's shoulders square up and declare that this was not a run.

At the snap, the FS reads the high-hat pass read, and follows McNabb's shoulders to the now vertical X receiver running a post. With the corner in phase over the top of the receiver, the FS "robs" this route from the inside-and-underneath and finishes the play with a pass break-up.

The "robber" allowed the Hokies to essentially double-cover a single receiver, while at the same time, had it been a run, get an additional defender in to stop the run. With only 3 possible immediate vertical threats, the FS was able to quickly check off to the most dangerous man and aggressively play ball.

This game may serve as an illustration of the constant cat-and-mouse game offenses and defenses play with formations vs coverage, as you will see Syracuse's option attack test and experiment how they could best match up against one of the best 8-man fronts of the era. Syracuse uses 2 tight ends, 2-backs, and at times 3-backs, to attempt to stymie the onslaught of Tech's aggressive front, but as this next example shows, it is addition by subtraction that wins the day for the offense.

The next play here shows a completely different look. No longer are the Orangemen presenting 3 vertical threats, but now they have 4 vertical threats spaced horizontally, forcing the Hokies to account for these 4 over the 53 1/3 yard width of the field.

Now the chess match begins.

What is the 'right' decision?

Do you cover/respect the vertical threat of these 4 receivers? To do so, means you can no longer support the 8 man box

Do you treat the gifted McNabb as a runner and stay in an 8 man front? To do so, means you can no longer support the 4 verticals with only 3 deep defenders

To stay in Robber, would put 2 receivers on 1 FS, making an easy read for the QB to find which one will be open.

The Hokies chose the conservative approach, minimizing their liabilities by matching the formation, checking to Cover 4, and fortunately, bottling the receivers allowed the defensive line time to finally sack McNabb..

If you remember the game, McNabb was a terror running on the perimeter out of these spread sets. That aggressive offensive concept has been all too familiar throughout the last decade of football (and one the Hokies, themselves, would employ with Michael Vick the next year).

For more 'study' of the old Hokie Robber, check out the game film at;


Chris Vasseur said...

Well, it seems I have arrived! I have my own category on the best defensive coach in the countries' blog... I can die a happy man!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this article. I have a new understanding of robber and its weaknesses and strengths. Is there a variation that can work with a single back or spread formation?

brophy said...

Great question. The link referenced above written by Chris Brown and Chris Vasseur, kind of explain the transition required to adapt to the spread (quarters). The coverage adapts to the formation. Most teams, will auto-check coverage based on formation. Robber is amazing vs 2-back pro, but not so great on 1-back. The Syracuse illustration above kind of goes over this adaptation