Breakdown and preview of North Carolina’s offense and defense under new head coach Larry Fedora

You can find both here: offense and defense. North Carolina is an intriguing team, and will be extremely multiple on both sides of the ball. On offense, Fedora is going with an up-tempo, pro-style spread, while on defense Vic Koenning and Dan Disch will be using a hybrid 4-2-5/3-3-5 type package. Should be fun to watch.

Joe Paterno’s Penn State Defense

Joe Paterno has passed away.  I am not the right person to put his lengthy career, decorated career together with the tragedy at Penn State, and, ultimately, his death, in proper context. Others will assuredly do it and do it well. Below is instead a meager contribution to Joe’s legacy, however mixed it may ultimately be. Before the Jerry Sandusky scandal and all that went with it became public last fall, I wrote this simple strategic-focused piece on Penn State’s traditional but very effective approach to defense. I wrote it to be a part of a larger project to be published; once I learned what happened with Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno, and so on, the piece simply became an orphan.

So I offer this here not as any commentary on what Joe’s legacy should be; that question now is about a lot more than football. But I hope it is of some value — maybe not today, but at some point in the future — given that it was written in what can only be referred to as a more innocent time, even if that was only just a few months ago.

Penn State’s Defense – Written in August 2011

Once upon a time

Penn State will – and should – always be defined by its defense. Despite some glances in the direction of being “Spread HD,” the foundation of the program is its rugged yet simple defensive schemes. When that team, wearing those same, historic uniforms, led by that coach, shuts down a hapless opponent under a sea of blitzes and gang tackles, “Linebacker U” speaks to something primitive within each of us. When you think of Penn State, you think of linebackers with bloody knuckles and neck roll padding, and a camera close-up of the opposing coach and quarterback wearing that “I-just-got-screwed” face after being on the wrong end of a goal line stand – like Michael Douglas at the end of so many of his movies – and all is right with the world.

Joe Paterno must get primary credit for building the program in his tough, irascible image. It’s a legitimate question how involved Joe is on a day-to-day basis these days, but the foundation is his and he still coaches the coaches. And he’s had some great ones, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The defense has evolved in response to the revolutions that offenses have undergone, from option football to I-formation running to west coast passing and even the early rumblings of the spread in the late 1990s. Current de facto defensive coordinator Tom Bradley (in one of its many traditions, Penn State does not actually name its coaches “offensive coordinator” or “defensive coordinator”) and linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden are among the very best and most knowledgable guys in the game, while anyone who has heard defensive line coach Larry Johnson speak will no doubt remember it for years afterward. Bradley, who nearly left the program to become Pittsburgh’s head coach and was rumored for several other head coaching positions, in particular has kept the Penn State tradition intact, by keeping the framework that Penn State has used for decades while updating it for the newest waves of offensive evolution.

Penn State is nothing if not tradition, and that includes always being surrounded by the ghosts of those who came before you. Each linebacker is given a position name so he can make sense of the defensive calls: “Sam”, “Fritz” and “Backer.” Penn State’s linebackers are supposed to know which historical greats that made “Linebacker U” what it is were Fritzes, which were Sams, and which were Backers. Similarly, in many systems the strong safety is known as a “monster” player because he plays all over the field. For tradition rich, they keep the view Penn State of Rip Engle, who coached the Nittany Lions from 1950 to 1965: that “monster” is a derogatory, déclassé term, and thus the strong safety is known as “Hero.” For Penn State, the age of Eisenhower continues to be the model for present day battles.

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Grantland Blog: Evaluating Alabama’s defense

It’s up over at the Grantland Blog:

… Whether pro-style, Air raid, or spread-to-run, we’re living in offense-dominated times.

That is, except in the game that (rightly or wrongly) crowns the champion: LSU-Alabama. Indeed, that game features the country’s most dynamic and exciting defensive player in Tyrann Mathieu (who might end up no better than the third- or fourth-best NFL prospect in LSU’s secondary) and one of the most statistically dominating defenses of the past decade in Alabama.

There will be plenty to say about this matchup in the coming weeks. (Especially since the teams have already played — or hadn’t you heard?) But for now, despite all of the above evidence of offenses’ increasing dominance, because those offenses were in turn dominated by LSU’s and Alabama’s defenses there is no choice but to declare this season the year that, channeling William F. Buckley, those two teams stood athwart the march of history yelling, “Stop!” It was the year of defense.

Read the whole thing.

What coach said this about facing what team and quarterback?

Quiz time:

“Well. We have another big one ahead of us. This next one, I guess you’d say that every game is really really big, but I think this one will pose a real challenge to our defense because they’re like three offenses in one. They’re a power attack . . . . They go from that to being able to be an option attack with the quarterback. . . . You see where their offense is. It makes the defense have to be sound in all phases. You can’t load up and play the power because you may be getting optioned. You can’t go in there with an idea of being a finesse or assignment totally or you’re going the power run right at you. This is going to be a big test. And he can throw it. He’s put some yardage on people. The last thing they do that challenges your defense is they have a fast pace, so they do that to try to get your defense so they’re not in great alignments. Just to be a little sloppy because they hurry up and if you’re not a real disciplined defense, you don’t get set correctly, and you know as well as I do that we’re not good enough to not be perfect in our assignments and our alignments.”

The answer is after the jump.

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Buddy Ryan’s “Polish Goalline” tactic

Reader Alex sent in the below page from Buddy Ryan’s old Houston Oilers playbook. I have to say I haven’t seen this tactic before. Count the number of defenders:

My question is, given the current state of NFL (or college) rules with run-offs and so on, would this tactic still work? Seems just like Ryan: clever and devious.

Update: Alex also tracked down evidence of other “Polish” schemes Ryan employed:

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The so-called “wide nine”

Apparently the buzzword around the NFL for sounding like you know what you’re talking about is the phrase “wide nine.” This refers to a technique the Philadelphia Eagles have used this season, where the defensive end in a four down lineman front slides a few inches or a foot or so to the outside and sometimes will tilt towards the quarterback. It is, in short, the defensive end getting in pure position to rush the passer. It’s called a “wide nine” because the technique, i.e. the specific alignment, of defensive linemen is categorized by a numerical system often credited to Bear Bryant (and also to Bum Phillips). The “nine” technique is the one outside the tight-end.

Greg Cosell of NFL films gives a decent version of the overly glowing if not mystical analysis of the technique below. (Of course the offense has only one tight-end, so the right defensive end isn’t really even playing a nine technique at all, but such details must bow before the intrinsic coolness of calling something “THE WIDE NINE.”)

Obviously there’s no magic to this: it’s just telling your defensive ends to pin their ears back and to rush on passing downs. Indeed, moving those defensive ends out that wide opens up all manner of attendant issues, issues that the Eagles opponent’s have routinely exploited this year. Specifically, by aligning the defensive end so wide the end has farther to go to get to the quarterback and, in the clip above, the left defensive end is so focused on rushing the passer he doesn’t bother getting a jam or chip on the tight-end. Moreover, this technique (it’s a technique if anything, there is no such thing as the “wide nine defense”), obviously opens up all kinds of issues in the run game: the defensive end aligns so wide the interior offensive linemen can quickly get up to the second level defenders like the linebackers, and the defensive ends are easy marks for traps, draws and counter plays as they sprint upfield.

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Bud Foster of Virginia Tech explains his “field dog” pressure

As I’ve previously explained, Virginia Tech’s “lunchpail defense” has gone through several evolutions, despite remaining one of the elite defenses in the nation:

In the nineties, many teams tried to emulate Frank Beamer and defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s scheme, with its premium on defenders stacking the line to either stop the run or scare the offense into abandoning it and apologizing for having considered such a silly idea. Yet the spread has effectively run the eight-man front out of college football — at least as a base defense — with its reliance on quick, easy throws, quarterback runs and “speed in space” philosophy.

But here’s the rub: While the defense Virginia Tech made en vogue was effectively countered, the actual schemes Beamer and Foster have put into practice in Blacksburg have evolved, year-in and year-out, to maintain the most dominant defensive legacy in the country: Since joining the ACC in 2004, the Hokie D has rebounded from subpar years in 2002 and 2003 to finish in the top-10 nationally in both yards and points allowed five years in a row — despite overhauling their base defensive scheme, to zero fanfare. . . .

As Bud Foster told ESPN’s Mark Schlabach, “Back when they played two tailbacks, you could put eight or nine guys in the box. Now they’re making it tougher to do that because of where they place their people.” And so, he explained, with offenses “putting five or six athletes out in space,” the Hokies too had to “put athletes out in space.” . . . [And w]hat makes Tech’s “quarters” coverage particularly interesting is that they have not actually changed their old “G” front, they have merely removed one guy from the box and lined him up at safety without changing his aggressive responsibilities against the run.

Below is a clip of Foster explaining some of the nuances of one of his base zone blitzes from the new(er) split safety/Cover four look I explained previously:

Paragraph of the day

Unlike GERG [former Michigan defensive coordinator, Greg Robinson] he [new Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison] has patience with questions, especially football questions. GERG wanted little to do with the press and had no patience with anything resembling a football question. (I asked whether he would be playing “one or two gap” a couple of years ago. He looked at me like I was crazy (maybe I am/was, probably the question was idiotic) but he responded (and repeated himself) with “Let’s just say by the end of the season you’ll be happy with our defense.” Uh, well, not exactly.)

That’s from Craig Ross’s writeup of the coaching clinic at Michigan over at mgoblog. Read the whole thing.

Anatomy of a game winner – TCU-Wisconsin

Sometimes you can scheme it up, even execute it up, and then some guy named Tank bats the ball down and you go home a loser. On the final two-point play, TCU had this defensive blitz on:

blitz

On the two-point play, TCU made two errors: the weak safety failed to cover the tight-end/innermost slot to the three receiver side, and had a blitz error:

block

Wisconsin used a 4 man slide to the right to pick up the TCU blitz. This should not be problem for the DOG blitz, because 5 men will be coming with only 4 to protect. (4 From the dog side plus the nose.)

Just looking at the side of the Dog, someone should be free. Even if the Wisconsin center and guard pick up the D-Tackle and Sam Backer (which they did) the tackle should be in a lose-lose with the D-end and SS. The breakdown happens here. Wagner [the right tackle] made a great play by pushing the D-End down to the ground preventing the end from cutting inside of him, and then came off to block the SS #28 Colin Jones. It was impressive.

I have not seen nor think I will ever see an O-Line coach expect one his linemen to block 2 guys like this. It goes to show how good the Wisconsin offensive line is.

And yet….

“I was definitely on the blitz,” Carder said. “We thought they were going to run. Coach [Gary] Patterson put me on the blitz. I got blocked so I stepped back and he [Tolzien] cocked his arm back and I jumped up and swatted it down.”

Wisconsin had, really, the perfect playcall, but it didn’t matter, because TCU made the play. Credit for the above to Runcodhit. Read the whole thing.

Eliminating “daylight” from the axiom “run to daylight”

[Ed. Note: This post is by Jerry Gordon, a defensive guru (and good friend of mine). He recently authored a book on the 4-3 under, Coaching the Under Front Defense.]

The only way to stop backs like Herschel Walker is to eliminate their daylight by filling all the gaps.

The term “run to daylight,” made famous by Vince Lombardi through a book named just that, became a mantra for running back coaches across the country. It is also (unsurprisingly) exactly what defensive coaches fear the most — a runningback who can see the hole and run to daylight.

I was a college running back coach for six years in the early and mid 1990s and coached a kid, Rene Ingoglia, who did a bit more than simply havet a cup of coffee with the Buffalo Bills.** I asked him what he saw when he ran the ball and how he always seemed to find the hole. He told me that all he saw were flashes of color and he simply went to the hole where there was no color.

From us defensive coaches, it is up to us to provide a solid wall of color that encompassing every possible hole or gap. Although this seems simple in theory, it is much harder than it appears. Defensive coordinators are confronted with a number of problems.

First lets take a look at the I-formation, the formation of the great running teams of yesteryear. Over the decades the I has produced some of football’s most prolific rushers, including Archie Griffin of Ohio State, O.J. Simpson of Southern Cal, and Herschel Walker of Georgia. Any defensive coordinator worth his salt has to have a plan for the I.

As you can see in the image below, an offense in the I presents seven gaps to defend.

As stated above our goal is to put a player in each gap. The problem is that the gaps are not stationary. Let’s take a look as the offensive lineman come off the ball to our left .All the gaps have moved. Each defensive player must move and still fit into his proper gap. Remember the offense know the snap count, we don’t.

In the diagram below, all our gaps have moved to our left.

In the next figure, we are aligned an under defense, which a common front against teams that have a tight end and two backs in the backfield. Under defense is generally characterized by a linebacker over the tight end, defensive ends aligned in an outside shade on the offensive tackles, a nose shaded on the center to the tight end and a defensive tackle in an outside shade away from the tight end.

The important thing to remember is that it doesn’t matter what front we present to the offense — all gaps must be filled with color. A motto that I picked up from CoachHuey.com is to “play defense, not defenses.” It’s more important that we play well as team than to present a ton of different defensive looks to the offense.

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