[Ed. Note: The piece below is by Mike Kuchar, a defensive coordinator and researcher with the new site, X and O Labs. Mike previously wrote a piece for Smart Football called "Breaking Down Boise," about Chris Petersen's Boise State offense.]
Defenses across the college and prep ranks have been forced to adjust to the rise of four receiver spread formations. Commonly referred to as “sub” personnel, our researchers at X&O Labs have found that many four defensive line teams have shifted to three down linemen structures to match speed with speed. What started out as nickel packages has grown into an every down defenses. Coordinators are replacing one of their defensive linemen with linebacker/safety hybrids to combat speed and defend the width of the field.
After surveying over 2,000 college and prep coaches, we’ve found that the most difficult challenge when facing odd front teams is finding a way to occupy the alley defender (usually an outside linebacker or drop safety). Often taught to be the force player, it’s this overhang player that can cause problems for offenses wishing to push the ball to the perimeter. Sure, it’s offensive pedagogy to attack the B gap bubbles vs. odd front teams, but it’s only a matter of time until defenses try to take that away by slanting or stemming to a four-down front pre-snap. Eventually, you’ll need to get to the perimeter, so why not save time by getting there immediately? Our researchers at X&O Labs have sifted through feedback, and we’ll show you how to do just that below.
Case 1: Using Tight End Structures, Particularly 11 or 12 Personnel
Even if you don’t have a tight end in the program, start to develop one. Over 80 percent of coaches polled by X&O Labs attack odd defenses by using various tight end formations. Whether by using 11 personnel (one tight end, one back), 12 personnel (two tight ends, one backs), or 21 personnel (one tight end, two backs), the tight end is pivotal in the run game.
We’ve all seen how productive spread offenses like Oregon, Boise State and Florida have been within the last three years. What separates those teams from traditional spread teams is the implementation and execution of the tight end on normal downs. According to our research, using a tight end in spread personnel accounts for two valuable advantages:
1. It changes the structure of the defense: No longer can that safety/linebacker play in space, which is exactly what he wants to do. Now he’s forced to cover down on a bigger, stronger opponent giving you leverage to get to the alley.
2. It provides for an instant mismatch in the run game: Many of these hybrids don’t like to get their hands dirty. These types, who usually weigh in the 180-210 pound range, are forced to balance up and fit in the framework against bigger tight ends.
X&O Labs’ Coaching Analyst, Mike Canales, who is also the associate head coach and offensive coordinator at the University of North Texas, contributed heavily to this Coaching Research Report. Canales has modeled his spread scheme after studying a ton of what Oregon does to attack the perimeter with their speed sweep and option series. “Anytime we’re going to get odd fronts, like we do when we play Louisiana-Monroe, we need to make some adjustments to our scheme,” said Canales. “Teams are going to give you a six-man box, regardless of what you’re putting on the line of scrimmage. Handling that overhang player with a six box is a bitch. You can’t stay in 10 personnel with no tight ends because those slot receivers aren’t big or strong enough to handle safety types one-on-one, so you need to get into 11 or 12 personnel to force the defensive coordinator’s hand.”