Monte Kiffin’s scheme for Urban Meyer’s offense

monteMuch of the offseason chatter around the SEC centered on how the legendary Monte Kiffin, now the defensive coordinator for the University of Tennessee under his son, Lane, would deal with the extremely productive but decidedly “college” (in a good way) Florida Gator spread offense, orchestrated and designed by Urban Meyer.

And, while the game itself, a 23-13 affair, was quite possibly a snoozer, the ennui that has followed the game has been remarkable. The storylines have swirled: Tebow’s passing was questionable, Meyer says that he put the brakes on because Lane Kiffin wasn’t interested in winning, and he mentioned that his team was flu-stricken. Yet there is no overshadowing that Monte’s defense did a nice job against Florida’s offense. His plan was to take away the inside run game and make the receivers beat them. And, indeed, the subtext of Meyer’s post-game comments indicate that Monte’s plan was pretty much on target:

“You don’t have to be a genius to figure out the strength of our team right now,” Meyer said. “And that’s a big offensive line running off the ball and a freak quarterback that just takes the game over.

“Is it perfect? No, it’s not perfect. But until we get the full allotment, the full compliment, of wide receivers playing at the level we need them to play, we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to win.”

So what was Monte’s plan? A few bullets:

  • The basic theory was clear: focus on Florida “inside to out,” meaning focus first on the line and the gamebreaking runningbacks, then on Tebow running and the inside receivers and tight-ends like Hernandez, and, only last, Florida’s outside receivers. I had predicted Monte might do this, but I was wrong with his prescription. I had said they might plan man and use Berry as a “rover” like Dungy used Bob Sanders. I was wrong: Monte played zone defense almost exclusively, played his cornerbacks way off usually to help deep inside, while the other nine guys — Eric Berry included — all kept their eyes in the backfield. And this is why Monte gets the big bucks: this was better than what I had suggested.
  • For example, Kiffin played a lot of Cover 4 or “quarters” against Florida. Florida, in turn, uses a lot of “trips” sets with three receivers to a side to try to force them out of it. The defensive adjustment is to have the safety to the single-receiver side cheat over and help with the inside slot. The diagram below shows this, though I admit it looks a little confusing. The point is that the safeties help with bracketing coverage but also fly up for run support; both guys can hit people on the line of scrimmage.
  • Where are the weaknesses? To the outside receivers. The single receiver backside is basically in one-on-one coverage because the safety to his side has cheated over for trips. Yet Tebow could not get the ball outside.
  • And when he tried, the Gators looked awful. Tebow was 14-19 for 115 yards and an interception, and also took a couple of sacks. First, Monte was able to make Florida’s line look poor with a lot of stunts and occasional blitzes, though he never brought an all-out one. Frequently, Tebow had very little time to go through his reads.
  • But even when he did, he looked off-kilter. The interception he threw to Eric Berry was a prime example. Kiffin changed up his coverage to what was (I believe, the camera angles were not great) an “invert Cover two” where instead of two deep safeties, a safety and the cornerback played deep. Yet this wasn’t heavily disguised: Eric Berry just sat in the flat. Tebow stared at him, and stared at him, and stared at him…and then threw him the ball. (Senior?!) Anyway Kiffin was mixing up the schemes well, but again the common theme was zone with pressure on Tebow to get him rattled.
  • Below is video of the pick; it should begin at the proper point. If not, skip ahead to the 0:50 mark.

  • Of course, take away the Gators passing game and you still have to deal with their strength, the run game. Again however, the zone Kiffin played was very effective because zone defenders, unlike man ones, get to look into the backfield on every play, and can therefore react quickly to the run. So much of the game Kiffin stayed in his base 4-3 looks with one or two safeties, and played aggressive.
  • But there was one adjustment which was very interesting, and that was Monte’s move on first downs and short yardage — basically any obvious running down — to a 5-2 “double eagle” look. I don’t know what personnel Monte was using exactly, but instead of the base 4-3 he went to a nose guard, two defensive linemen in “three techniques” (outside eye of the offensive guards) and then two stand-up types in “five techniques” (outside eye of the tackles). Two linebackers roamed behind them. See the image below, and apologies for the very low quality.
  • Why do this? It’s a move Pete Carroll uses a lot at USC, but is particularly effective against a spread set without a tight-end. It’s a numbers issue: the defense “covers” every person on the offensive line (the five line guys, or three down linemen and two stand-up guys), while both possible ballcarriers — the runningback and quarterback — have defensive counterparts, i.e. the two inside linebackers. Now a few times they went to this Florida was still able to bull for a short first down, but that’s just line movement as much as anything else. But it was no doubt effective as it helped keep Florida in check most of the game. Again, Monte dialed this up on first down too, which again called into question how dependable Florida’s outside receivers were.
  • But of course, Tebow being Tebow, found a way to win. He was helped by some late game adjustments Meyer called in. For starters, when Florida went to its read plays it was clear that Tennessee preferred to keep the ball in Tebow’s hands. This is not as irrational as it sounds: a carry by Rainey or Demps is a touchdown, whereas Tebow just bludgeons you for positive yards. The problem was that the Kiffins assumed that Tebow would eventually wear down, which is something that does not actually happen.
  • Meyer called for the veer option, where the quarterback and runningback read a playside defender rather than a backside defender as with the zone read. This lets the offense get more double teams at the point of attack. But they made  a nice adjustment: they didn’t really run it as the true “veer,” where you read the defensive end (five technique). Instead they ran the “midline” — they read the defensive tackle. A couple diagrams will (hopefully) better illustrate this. (See here for some “midline” info from a true flexbone look.)
  • This is not the true, true midline because there is only one read and from the gun the mechanics are different, but it is an effective move. Remember that the old option adage applies to the spread offense too: if you can’t block him, read him. Florida went to this play several times late in the game and the read man, the three technique defensive tackle, took the runningback and Tebow stepped around for big gainers.

In the end, Tennessee had an excellent plan, but Florida had enough juice with its powerful line and powerful quarterback. And Urban Meyer is right that Tennessee does not really lack talent on defense. I don’t necessarily buy his argument that they throttled the offense back. Maybe they could have been more aggressive but the passing game had been very shaky, and in the second half it was all read plays and options for the most part as UT had bottled up the basic zones and powers. It’s not clear whether this is a blueprint for future teams or just an example of an off game for Tebow with a fired up Tennessee defense (and a mediocre Tennessee offense not worth the risk?), or if, with Florida’s personnel weaknesses at receiver, we will see these schemes repeated.

And let me conclude by just saying this. I think these schemes were important, but Monte Kiffin coaches a disciplined defense. His defenders tackle well, fly to the ball, read their keys properly, and take good pursuit angles. If you do those things, you will have a good defense, no matter the scheme.

  • Florida didn’t threaten Tennessee veritcally the whole game. No Murph or Percy to threaten vertically made the Gators sort of one dimensional… could be a problem down the road.

  • Tom


    Maybe so but it is less of a problem when Thompson (pulled hammy, didn’t play) and Cooper (pinched nerve) are healthy. Currently they are the only two receivers that Meyer trusts that can stretch the defense vertically. Cooper had safety help overtop most of the game, effectively taking away Tebow’s #1 receiver.

    For Florida’s offense to take off, either Thompson and Cooper have to be healthy or one of Omarius Hines, Frankie Hammond, or TJ Lawrence needs to step up and show that they can be a vertical threat. As it is, Florida’s receivers are thin, but good enough to let the offense function when healthy.

  • bj

    1) Tebow only threw 1 INT, not 2. Had a costly fumble though.
    2) Tebow averaged over 5ypc when you take out the lost sack yardage.
    3) the 3 RBs for Florida averaged a combined 8ypc

    If teams want to go into a shell to prevent the pass, I don’t think Meyer will force things. He grew up in Big10 country, and has the #1 Rushing Offense out of the BCS schools. Monte’s defense kept Tennessee in the game, but didn’t exactly prove that you can totally shut down Florida’s offense. Florida took what was given, and pounded out twice as many rushing yards as the UT defense had given up in 2 previous games combined. 9 guys in the box may be a possibility when an opponent’s top two receivers are injured, but when you still give up 5.6ypc (w/o sacks) it still doesn’t seem to be a viable strategy.

  • Delgadog

    When the defense got in the double eagle look, why didn’t florida throw the bubble screen? Don’t the numbers dictate not running?

  • Perry

    The thing that I love about this site is that during the game I wonder why they keep running this one read play in the second half (and Tebow takes the keeper on almost every one) and Chris describes with pictures what a midline veer a la Urban Meyer is and why Tebow kept taking them.

    For someone with a PS3 level grasp of offensive football principles, this place is like the bible.

  • jesse

    sorry this is not on topic, but i really appreciate your work and would love to hear your take on the cal collapse earlier today.

  • Ben Smith

    Again Chris,great work! I had alot of friends and co-workers who doubted Monte Kiffin could limit the Florida offense.I guess they had bought in to the hype and the 28+ point spread. I was geniuinely impressed with the Vols’ defensive gameplan.I,like yourself,anticipated alot of Cover 1.I saw the need to contain Tebow and the run game. I was impressed with UT d-line being able to stunt and disrupt the Gator’s blocking schemes,without many blitzers. Cover 4 proved valuable in keeping everything in front and to the inside for Tennessee. I wonder if other teams will take this as a blueprint and mix in some safety/corner blitzes,until the wideouts can break off some big plays? Also how will Tebow fair with increased pressure given his head injury last night against Kentucky? I believe LSU,etc. will test him and find out if he’s gun shy or not.

  • Darrell

    Solid analysis! UF never challenged UT vertically because a) they didn’t have the wide receivers to do it with and b) the UF offensive line is not very good. Just watch the sack that put Tebow out of the game last night….Patchan blocked down instead of out, there was no back to account for the LDE ….until UF gets the Oline problems fixed, it’s gonna be like this all year.

  • Chas

    LOL@Darrell saying that the UF offensive line isn’t very good. What is UF averaging rushing per game? 250 yards? Yes, in 3rd and long in an empty set it is easy to get to Tebow. It’s easy to get to anyone in that situation.

  • Rob

    Chas, probably better for Darrell to say that their pass blocking has not as good as run blocking. Their run blocking is great. Can’t say that about their pass blocking.

  • Rob

    should have said pass blocking has not “been” as good as run blocking. sorry.

  • Theologator

    In 2009 the Gators had a significantly better day statistically than in 2008, despite the score being closer. In 2008 special teams and defensive TD’s blew the game open early & the Gators cruised. John Chavis fared much better than Kiffin in containing Tebow and the UF running game WITH Percy Harvin.

    In 2009, against Kiffin’s “genius” they ran for 200+ yards. That is no recipe for beating Florida. It is a recipe for getting beat. Had Tebow not fumbled lat, the score would have been exactly the same as 2008 but a much more conventionally dominating performance.

    The Gators didn’t pass, in part, because they had no deire to show LSU the full playbook. They are developing young receivers and, like 2006, 2007 and 2008, will have a remarkably different look for LSU whether or not Tebow is healthy. Tennessee just isn’t that good, Kiffins or not.

    And Darrell, the UF OL is maybe the best run-blocking line in the country. They do have some work to do in pass protection, but that will be sorted out by the time they get to Atlanta. There are currently just a couple of UF OL alumni in the NFL – but there are at least 3 high picks on their line right now (the Pouncey twins and Carl Johnson) and several 4 & 5-star young guys in the wings.

  • Biggn64

    for the record tebow had 1 pick not 2

  • Gatorpower

    So the key to stopping Florida’s vertical game is by having their #1 and primary threat WR Deonte Thompson pull a hamstring a week before, their #1 TE Aaron Hernandez (and #2 receiver) get the flu, their #2 WR (and #3 receiver) Riley Cooper get injured in the 1st quarter, their #1 RB (probably their #4 receiver) get the flu…yep. Play Florida without their top-4 pass-catching threats and you’ll stop their vertical game. LOL

  • Dave

    Theologator beat me to it. The Gators were far more efficient in virtually every offensive statistical category this year vs. last year. Perhaps Monte should have used last year’s scheme as the blueprint. The Vols have good talent on defense regardless of the scheme or the coach.

  • Gabe

    I think Monte should look at Muschamp/Tubberville tapes to stop Tebow and Florida. Auburn stuffed them pretty good two years in a row. Our offense didn’t score a single ouchdown in one of those games but our D did the job!

  • SmartfootballFan

    Many reports have indicated that the play where Tebow got knocked out against Kentucky was designed for the left tackle (Matt Patchan) to block down, leave the defensive end unblocked, Tebow to roll out right and get rid of the ball immediately. Tebow held onto the ball and got hit. It wasn’t a blocking breakdown or lack of talent. It was by design.

    Gator pass protection isn’t perfect, or maybe blame the developing receivers, but the running O is trampling people. Credit UT for the Tebow fumble and ensuing UT TD but Gators were 1 play away from 30-6 with 8min. left in 4th quarter.

    Good analysis on this site. Keep it up.

  • CoolGator

    The reason UF had off-day in passing game is very clear to me – look at what #66(James Wilson) at left guard is doing. At 54 secs in the video above, he moves to left to block somebody who was already blocked by our left tackle. That left a big hole on his side and one of the defender, who looked to be spying, get through straight to Tebow. Although, Tebow was not sacked on that play, he threw an interception.

    If this was just one mistake by him, I will just let it go. But if you look at the replay of whole game, you will see #66 missing his assignment for whole day. He either goes to right or left to block one guy who already someone else is blocking !! What Tenn did was simple. Goes to the left guard spot after 2 secs. That stupid left guard will empty his position. I think this is one disadvantage of O-Line coach being an offensive coordinator. He does not have time to think or fix the problem of O-Line. I think with right personnel on the O-Line, Gators will dominate any team in the country.

  • Scub

    For the record that was Tubbs and company at auburn that started it and shut them down and won both games and the only team in the country to beat tebow and the gators 2 years in a row. Id go to Tubbs and Champ if I was little saban since he cant seem to ever figure out a spread offense.

  • Hohen

    Don’t forget the Gators had the flu too? Jeez the amount of excuses coming out the Gators is endless. Great job Monte.

  • Patrick


    Do you think that the relative success of Monte’s scheme against the gators will translate into similar success against Malzahn’s offense this Saturday?

    Stated differently, do you think that Monte can essentially just use the defense he was using against Florida, or do you think he will need to tweak the scheme a little bit? If the latter, what changes do you expect to see?


  • wci347

    All one needs to do is took look at the stats from last year’s game with Tennessee with this year’s game stats to debunk this analyst’s entire postulation. Defensively, Tennessee actually performed worse than they did last year. They gave up more rushing yards, more passing yards, more first downs, time of possession, etc. etc. etc.

    Monte’s defense was not even capable of improving on its dismal performance last year. The only difference was the score which was affected by a bogus excessive celebration call which continued a sputtering drive of Tennessee’s and a gift fumble as we were driving to go up 30-6 late in the game.

    Stop immortalizing people who have basically done nothing on the college level like the Kiffens just because it makes you feel better about your team’s fundamental inadequacies.

  • lsufan

    Chavis’ D in 2008 actually held Florida’s O to fewer first downs, yards gained, less yards per play, etc.

    Other circumstances killed Tenn in 2008. James ran a punt back, Florida had a long KO return, and Tenn had three TOs.

    Tennessee has some good defensive personell and not jsut good coaches on defense.

  • TheRaid

    Would anybody be talking about this had Tebow not fumbled at the 4 and the Gators went up 30-6 late in the game?

  • Steward

    I work with these dogs and as far as animal behavior goes, I am a firm believer in nurture and coaching. I have met Jack Russell Terriers that I would not go close to once again, but have by no means had a negative experience with an American Staffordshire Terrier. If you are talking about their owners- well, that’s a distinct story. Human beings are animals as well, and we have a tendency to each have our individual tips about “moral concepts”.

  • Mr.Murder

    What stunts were used from the front fits?


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