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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A closer look at the New England Patriots defense

No one suggests that the Patriots defense is good, or even average. For starters, well, look at the starters. Here was New England’s starting lineup this weekend against the Broncos:

I'm working on it

DE	 Brandon Deaderick 
DT	 Kyle Love 
DT	 Vince Wilfork 
DE	 Andre Carter 
OLB	 Jerod Mayo 
MLB	 Dane Fletcher 
OLB	 Rob Ninkovich 
CB	 Devin McCourty 
FS	 Matt Slater 
SS	 James Ihedigbo 
CB	 Kyle Arrington

Casual fans have heard of Wilfork and Mayo, and McCourty was one of the top rookies in the league last season. But don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of Deaderick (2010 7th rounder) or Love (undrafted) or Fletcher (undrafted from Montana State) or Slater (5th round draft pick — at wide receiver — who converted to safety in the middle of this season), and it’s not like Ihedigbo (undrafted, special teams ace for the Jets) , Arrington (undrafted, Hofstra) and Ninkovich (5th round pick by New Orleans) are high profile players, either. Now that Andre Carter — New England’s best pass rusher — is out for the season, the situation looks even worse. And among the “name players” on the Patriots’ defense, only Mayo (who missed several games earlier this season) isn’t having a disappointing season.

The Patriots do not have much talent on defense. So it’s not too surprising that the Patriots rank last in the league in yards allowed. But the situation is even bleaker than that. The 1981 Baltimore Colts were one of the worst teams in football history; they’re also the only team that allowed 5800 or more yards in the first 14 games of the season. Well, they were: now the Patriots have joined the list.

But the Patriots total defense is still better than the Patriots pass defense. Until this season, no team had ever allowed more than 3,910 passing yards after 14 games; the Patriots have allowed 4,154.

Part of that historical ineptness is because the Patriots often play with the lead. New England has faced the third highest number of pass attempts this season, and ranks 30th (as opposed to 32nd) in net yards per pass attempt. So instead of having a historically terrible pass defense, it’s probably fairer to just note that they have one of the league’s worst pass defenses. New England’s rush defense isn’t very good — the Pats rank 26th in yards per carry allowed, and because they face so many more passes than rushes, 19th in rushing yards allowed.

But New England ranks 14th in points allowed. That means despite a terrible pass defense and a bad rush defense, the Patriots actually have allowed fewer points than the average team this season. So what gives?

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Smart Links – Strategery Round-Up: two-tight ends, the 3-4 defense, rocket toss and “Iso” – 12/8/2011

Old school Green Bay Packers’ use of two-tight ends:

- Two good links from Ron Jenkins:

- Wisdom from Woody Hayes:

[W]hen I first starting coaching listening to Woody Hayes talk about designing an offense. He talked about you start with your schedule and rank all your opponents from one to ten in terms of toughness to beat. Then you base your offense on beating the top 3 or 4 teams. That’s it. Once you are done there you just make sure you’re sound against everything else.

- The importance of choosing your coverage in the 3-4 defense:

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Attacking “Psycho” fronts and other blitz heavy defensive looks

When asked earlier this season how he would describe the current trend in modern defenses, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton summed it up in one word: “confusion.” While there are few truly “new” ideas in football, there is a near infinite number of ways to hide, disguise, or slightly vary those ideas. One increasingly popular idea in the NFL is the “psycho front“, which simply refers to a defense that has two, one or maybe even zero defensive linemen with their hands on the ground and tends to stack the line of scrimmage. This may mean the defense is bringing a heavy blitz — or it might not. Often, the defense will show this look and then back out of it into some kind of coverage.

The advantages of the pyscho are many, but the biggest key is that confusion Payton talked about: it’s difficult for the quarterback and offensive line to determine which of the potential rushers will blitz — other than through mind reading — and with so many of them there is a high likelihood that there will be an assignment bust. Further, although the defense might give away what deep coverage it is playing, it’s not clear what kind of underneath coverage it will be — man, zone, and if zone how many underneath? Two? Three? Four? These are real issues.

Of course, the psycho itself is just a spin on some scheme done before; the fact that a defensive lineman takes his hand off the ground doesn’t, by itself, change the defensive structure. Indeed, these same issues have been presented by NFL-style heavy blitz teams in the past. The problem presented in the image below is the same one as in the image above, as the defense shows a seven man defensive front while the offense has only the five linemen and one running back as pass protectors. If the offense uses some spread run game they can tilt the numbers slightly back to their favor, but it’s still a big issue.

So how do you attack these looks? Ultimately the offense will need the ability to protect and complete some passes downfield, but that’s not where I would begin. Below is a short list of ideas (in no particular order) to defeat these heavy or “psycho” fronts where the defense simultaneously threatens all-out man blitz, confusing zone blitz, and no blitz, all at once. Note that this is from the perspective of either a pro-style team or some kind of pass-first or pass-balanced spread team.

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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.

What were the seminal offenses/defenses of each decade?

Inspired by this post, remember the definition of “seminal” when answering. Think of it (as it was in the original post) as The Great Gatsby was to books in the 1920s as X was to offensive/defensive schemes in Y.

Here are my picks. Add your own:

1900s – 1910s: Single-wing.

1920s: Notre Dame Box.

1930s: I’d like to choose the TCU/Dutch Meyer/Sammy Baugh spread offense but I’m not sure this counts as seminal. I leave this one for the readers.

1940s: T formation.

1950s: “Pro-style” offensive schemes of Paul Brown (Cleveland Browns), Weeb Ewbank (Baltimore Colts), and Vince Lombardi (Packers), and the 4-3 defense developed by, among others, Tom Landry as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants. Almost everything in the current NFL is merely a footnote to the 1950s.

1960s: Veer.

1970s: Wishbone.

1980s: West Coast Offense and Zone Blitzes.

1990s: Zone blocking and multiple-eight man front defenses.

2000s: Run-first spread offense and, to a lesser extent (though incredibly important on the lower levels), the Airraid.

Football doesn’t have to be that complicated

Overheard at a coaching clinic:

Coach 1: “We just couldn’t stop you guys from hitting the speed out. We used our Tango technique, then switched to the Dragon Claw alignment, and even whipped out the Lombardi Kung Fu grip and we still couldn’t handle it. What are you guys doing to make that that route so effective for you?”

Coach 2: “Our fast kid runs it.”

More on the zone read (or midline read) of the defensive tackle

The classic zone read, where the runningback runs the zone play to one side while the quarterback reads the backside defensive end, is a great play. But if you use it enough, two problems emerge.

Practice makes perfect

First, just because you’re reading the defensive end doesn’t mean you’ve made your blocks on everyone else — a stud defensive tackle you can’t block can still blow up the play. Second, the defense can simply play games on the backside; the zone read is no longer new. A common response is the “scrape exchange,” where the defensive end crashes down for the runningback, thus forcing the quarterback to pull the ball, only to run right into a “scraping” linebacker waiting on him.

An increasingly frequent solution to both of these problems is to read defenders other than the defensive end. One, you can read, instead of trying to block, the most dangerous defensive lineman on the other team. Two, this makes the “scrape exchange,” at least where it involves the backside defensive end and weakside linebacker, irrelevant, as you just block both of them.

DT

Oregon and Florida were the first teams I saw use this, but last week’s game between Purdue and Northwestern — Purdue being quite desperate and with a new mobile quarterback — went to this technique to try to manufacture some offense. As reported in the Journal & Courier:

[The Purdue quarterback, Robert Henry,] keyed on Northwestern’s interior linemen on the zone read plays, either keeping the ball or handing off to Dierking or Antavian Edison. Five consecutive running plays produced 34 yards and brought the Boilermakers to Northwestern’s 21-yard line. . . .

“We did some research, calling a bunch of buddies of mine that have made their living doing the different reads of the interior linemen,” Nord said. “I’ve always been involved in the drop back passing game, the misdirection and the play-action. I never did a lot of veer, option stuff.

“We have a guy that can execute it very well. He’s reading down linemen and doing what they’re not doing. If they’re biting on the ball carrier, he’s pulling it. If they’re biting on him, he’s giving it.”

. . . . The Boilermakers faced fourth-and-1 from the Wildcat 7 and called timeout.

“We wanted to make sure we had a chance to either hand it off or have Rob Henry keep it so we called a play where if the hole is there, we hand it off and if it wasn’t, Rob Henry would keep it,” coach Danny Hope said. “It gave us two options to score and win the game.” The hole was definitely there.

“I couldn’t have written up a better script,” said Dierking, who had five carries for 22 yards on the last drive. “I saw the hole open up so I jerked it from him.” . . .

“We knew they were going to run the quarterback; how they were going to run him we had to adjust to,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “They changed up their scheme a little bit, and were reading our tackles as opposed to our defensive ends. There were times when we fit it very well, and there were times when we didn’t.”

When I wrote about this play yesterday I had only seen some of the game and spotted the tactic; the above article (courtesy of reader Brad), confirms my analysis. Video of the fourth down play is below:

This tactic has been adopted by other teams as well, including Nebraska. The question is whether it will provide a sustained advantage or if only work to catch defenses off guard for a little while — time will tell. Certainly teams like Oregon have made a living on the play. And the rules for how you might teach the play are quite simple too: On the frontside, your defenders keep their normal zone rules. Your center and backside guard leave unblocked the first man heads up or backside of the center, while the backside guard and tackle block the backside defensive end and weakside linebacker. Thus the zone read where the defensive tackle, instead of the defensive end, is the read.

But wait, say option coaches. Why call this the zone read, instead of what it is: the midline option from gun? They have a point. You end up blocking the same people and using the same read. That said, I think both get you to the same place, however, and the primary difference is whether you began with zone running and the zone read, or you began as a traditional option guy. See how similar the midline from gun is to what I’ve been discussing, as shown in the video below:

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Smart Notes – Norm Parker; inverted veer – 10/12/2010

Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker will return this season, despite having had his foot amputated as a result of his diabetes. Parker is both one of the great defensive coordinators out there and one of the good men in the profession. Check out the video below, courtesy of Brophy, of the Hawkeye Tackling Circuit:

For more on Parker’s defense, see here.

- Julio Jones played with a broken hand during almost all of Alabama’s loss to South Carolina. Cue Doc Sat: “The injury was bad enough (and presumably exacerbated by Jones continuing to block and catch passes all afternoon) to require surgery on Sunday to insert a plate and screw. That may not quite measure up to playing after losing a piece of your finger, but it’s tough enough to impress me. Jones’ return for this week’s visit from Ole Miss depends on his “pain tolerance,” per coach Nick Saban, who also said this morning the offense will be without starting right tackle D.J. Fluker, victim of a “pretty severe” groin injury.”

- Inverted veer, spreading. Nebraska’s speedy quarterback Taylor Martinez scored a couple of his long touchdowns on the “inverted veer” play, which I discussed previously here and here. Check out the clips below; the first example comes on Martinez’s second touchdown run about 18 seconds in. It’s really amazing how different Nebraska’s offense is than last season, if not totally in schemes then certainly in personality and dynamic.

- Zone read of the defensive tackle. How did Purdue beat undefeated Northwestern despite having less than 50 yards passing? One key tool — which had a large part in Purdue QB Rob Henry rushing for 132 yards — was Purdue’s use of the zone read of a defensive tackle rather than a defensive end. Check out the video below.

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Breaking down Boise: How the Broncos use leverage, numbers and grass to gash the opposition

[Ed. Note: The following article was written by my friend Mike Kuchar, who, when not writing incredibly informative articles, is the defensive coordinator at North Brunswick Township High School in New Jersey.]

It’s no secret that Boise State knows how to move the football — its 42 points per game last season led the nation — but it’s exactly how Boise moves the ball that makes them unique.  I became privy to this information when I spent a week with the Virginia Tech coaching staff back in early April as they prepared for their opener against the Broncos, a September 6 bout at Fed Ex field pitting two top ten teams against each other.  Indeed, the mere fact that Va Tech’s staff was breaking film down more than five months before gameday tells you something profound about how much respect Boise head coach Chris Petersen’s offense commands. I sat with Virginia Tech defensive backs coach Torrian Gray and defensive graduate assistant Steve Canter (who has since become Norfolk State’s QB coach) as they scouted Boise State’s games against Tulsa, Nevada, Fresno State and finally TCU last season.  Canter was given the important but not-so-glamorous task of charting every snap that Boise took on offense last year.  And after just a few minutes of watching tape with them my head began to spin, but Canter couldn’t spare to take his eyes off the screen.

To me, every play seemed like an entirely different scenario — a tiny but perfect little strategic masterpieces carved out by Petersen and his offensive staff for that situation alone.  While I struggled just to follow the ball (apparently the filmer in the press box had the same problem, as the camera often got faked out along with the defensive end or safety Petersen targeted) Canter diligently worked his craft, jotting each down and distance, all the personnel used, every formation, any motion and play. It’s a process he’s engrossed himself in as a former head coach himself: he mentored Vikings receiver Percy Harvin at nearby Landsdown High School (Virginia) and won a state championship in 2004. He’s earned the respect of defensive coordinator Bud Foster, one of the best defensive minds in the game. “[Boise] tr[ies] to do a ton of different things, but there has to be a reason for what they are doing,” said Canter.

Five months and a dozen scratch pads later, I’m not sure that the Hokies have Boise all figured out yet, but knowing Foster, they’ve certainly gotten some insight on them.  I took all the information from that visit and — mainly out of curiosity for my own purposes as a coach to see how a great offense works and how a great defense might prepare — to thoroughly study what Boise State does on the offensive side of the ball.  Once the studying was complete, I compiled a detailed and definitive report on what makes Boise, well…Boise. And more importantly, what the Hokies must do to win.

Personnel

“Maximizing personnel,” one of those football buzzwords that sounds like it was invented by Peter Drucker, is nevertheless essential to making an offense dynamic — and arguably nobody in the college game knows how to do it better than Petersen.  He learned it from his days working as the offensive coordinator under previous head coach Dan Hawkins where his direction thrust little known talents RB Ian Johnson and QB Jared Zabransky onto the college football landscape in 2006. [Ed. Note: Petersen also credits former Southern Cal head coach and longtime NFL offensive coordinator Paul Hackett for his football development, along with the time he spent under Mike Bellotti at Oregon where he worked alongside Dirk Koetter and Jeff Tedford.] Boise doesn’t always have the Tarzan’s on film — they don’t bang heads with the Oklahomas and Floridas in the recruiting wars — but they don’t need to.  Petersen is schooled in the art of allocation: he wants to best utilize the talent he has.  For example, five-foot-nine senior running back James Avery, rushed for 1,151 yards last season for the Broncos.  He’s not the fastest, but he’s elusive with an explosive burst. “He’s not the fastest guy in the world, you rarely see him get long runs” said Virginia Tech’s Gray.  “But like most Boise backs he has terrific start and stop skills; he can change direction quickly and he knows how to read blocks.”

Chris Petersen: smart guy, smart slacks

Avery is a patient, zone style back who looks for creases in defensive fronts. His skills are modeled after guys like Ian Johnson who had a stellar career running the same zone type runs.  Of course, it helps when those blocks are created by an offensive line that only surrendered five sacks last season.  And that success against the pass rush must be attributed to their knowing their protection assignments when picking up various blitz packages that teams throw at them at a weekly basis. In the Fiesta Bowl last season, TCU appeared to be in dial-a-blitz mode for most of the first half but still couldn’t get to Boise quarterback Kellen Moore, before largely giving up that approach as Moore never got flustered.  He knew where the weakness in his protection were and found a way to escape at the right times to avoid losses.

Moore is another anomaly: not scary on paper, frightening on film. Despite being barely six-feet tall, he has tremendous presence in the pocket.  He knows exactly where to escape when the pocket collapses and often finds receivers downfield simply because the defensive backs got tired of covering.  He’s quick and decisive with the ball — he threw only three interceptions in 431 attempts last season. His career completion percentage has been in the mid 60%s, he finished seventh in Heisman voting and was the WAC offensive player of the year.  His main target, senior Austin Pettis, had 63 catches from virtually every spot on the field: flanker, slot, split end and even out of the backfield; Petersen loves moving his chess pieces around.  Referring to Pettis, Virginia Tech’s Gray said: “He’s their tallest guy at 6-3 and they move him around a ton,” adding, “In the red zone, he’s lethal.”  Indeed, Pettis had 14 touchdowns last season, mainly on bootleg schemes — a Boise favorite in that part of the field.

Schemes

Boise State’s linebacker coach, Jeff Choate, once told me at coaching clinic two years back, “We run plays, we don’t have an offense.  It makes it difficult to defend.”  At that time he was working with the running backs.  Before this project, I wondered how an offense can’t be a system.  Coordinators pride themselves on establishing identities: “It’s what we do” is a common mantra among the coaching profession.  Urban Meyer at Florida has his spread option, Chip Kelly at Oregon has his QB run game, Steve Sarkasian at Washington has his pro-style offense that he developed at USC. Well, apparently Boise was the Seinfeld of college football — their lack of identity is their identity.  Although I may not have understood it then, the method behind this apparent lack of cohesion became much clearer to me after hours of study.

Boise specializes in getting defenses out of position to make plays by utilizing the three major essentials in offensive football:  numbers, leverage and grass.  “Numbers” means outnumbering the defense at the point of attack — i.e. more blockers than defenders on the edge, more receivers than zone defenders, etc.  “Leverage” refers to out-flanking a defense at the point of attack — i.e. you may not have numbers but the angles are on your side.  “Grass” harkens to Willie Keeler’s baseball adage, “hit ‘em where they ain’t.”  Run the ball where there are the fewest defenders.  As it turned out, Choate was right: Boise spends more time on distracting you then developing themselves.  But don’t get confused: the point is that although the Broncos have the talent to be one of the best teams in the country and could simply overrun certain opponents, their modus operandi is to be patient and to take what the defense gives them — a true reflection of Petersen, their coach.  The quintessential underdog philosophy, they wear you down by picking at four and five yard gains until they pop a big one.   Watching them on film, it’s never surprising they score, but to a football junkie, the methodology of how they score is a work of art.  Basically, Boise uses three distinct ways to score: (1) pre-snap leverage by the use of formation, (2) post-snap misdirection and (3) calling the unexpected — the dagger after lulling you to sleep.

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