Being a defensive coordinator, if a person would ask me what defense I would build my program around, that answer would have been different 15 years ago, and even 5 years ago. I went from a 4-4, to being a 4-3 wonk and now I am solidly in the camp of the 4-2-5. The reasons are numerous as to why I have changed my defensive philosophy over the years.
The biggest reason as to why my base defensive philosophy has changed, is in part because football has changed. At the college level, you can recruit to some degree, the types of players that fit your vision but at the high school you have to have a system that fits the personnel you have and is adaptable enough for the opposition you play. Not every defense is designed to handle whatever the opposition with throw at you any given week. Not every defense is created equal in adaptability either.
When you discuss scheme it is an amalgamation of the fronts you use, the stunts, the blitzes, and coverages. Moreover it is every adaptation, every rule, and alignment adjustment you have to make every week to remain sound. Remaining sound is of importance, in that your scheme needs to answer what the offense challenges you with, and to remain sound and be effective scheme are a challenge sometimes.
Constraints and Limitations of Scheme:
I have run a number of different defenses over the years for different situations, and there are a few that I would rather burn up in a trash bin rather than ever run again. Most of the programs I faced when coaching in Montana and Idaho were geared around power running football. The 4-4 that we started with (4 defensive lineman, 4 linebackers) was ideally suited to handle most of the teams we faced week in and week out. Then my head coach decided that he wanted a defense that would give him a competitive advantage. In 2009 that made sense from a tactical standpoint, teams didn’t have ways to effectively manage the 8 person box alignment and the infinite pressure combinations of the 3-5-3. Yet the reality was the defense would be as incompatible and ineffective as any that I had ever been around. We had to make adjustments, vast deviations from the base scheme, to just lineup effectively against most teams we faced. The 3-5-3 is great against pro sets and spread schemes, but it is super difficult to manage when facing wing-t, veer, and wishbone teams that you face at the high school level in high frequency.
In that I learned a few great lessons about defenses. The first rule is that your base scheme is your best scheme. The second rule is that any scheme is only as effective as your personnel’s ability to execute it. The reason I hated the 3-5-3 so much, is that by the end of year 3 we had perverted the system so much that it wasn’t a 3-5-3 anymore and we weren’t very good in any of it.
So when we get all bent out of shape as to how our defense adapts to playing Cal-Poly one week and then Eastern Washington
the next, the root issue is considering how the ‘base’ is the defense against that opposition. If your base defense for that week isn’t that base or you have to make tons of concessions/adjustments and you have to do that week in and week out then most likely you have a scheme problem.
One issue that has come up numerous times over the past five to ten years in facing spread teams is the significant number of adjustments the vast majority of power defenses (4-3, 3-4, 4-4, 5-2) have had to make. To the point that the number of ‘nickle’ or ‘dime’ packages those programs have run have gone from situational (2nd, 3rd and long) to perpetual. So if you are in a 4-2-5 or a 3-3-5 most of the time, are you really a 4-3 or a 3-4 defense anymore?
By adapting personnel and scheme to fit the offenses you face, you are making significant alterations to the stunts, blitzes and coverages you run. To the point that you are stuck in vanilla or bland special schemes with little or no opportunity to vary. The better way to explain this, you spend all your spring and fall camps implementing a deep scheme, but when you get to play certain teams or maybe your whole schedule you can’t use 3/4ers of that scheme.
I had no problem pressuring out of that 3-5-3 that we had and the coverages didn’t change, but the issue was that my players couldn’t execute those adjustments because it wasn’t second nature to them. The 3-5-3 and the 3-3-5 are great defenses to combat spread, but as I learned they weren’t all that effective when you faced double and triple pullers 25 times a game.
A lot has been made about what defensive coordinators have to do to remain sound against the spread, and at the same time use the full depth of the scheme you spent hours implementing. Whether it was Kraig Paulson, Dave Breske, Ty Gregorak or Jason Semore they have had the same problem. How do you adapt your base defense and keep it as deep from a coverage, fronts, blitzes, and stunts as you can.
The 4-3 by itself can handle, but sometimes not so effectively, just about anything that an offense could throw at it. The problem is that by adapting, manipulating, or conceding that you get further and further away from the concepts and principles of the defense. You can create so very many rules to adapt that any defense can effectively matchup against any defense. However those adaptations and concessions come at a great cost. This was Gregorak’s cardinal issue in his four years as defensive coordinator, is that his scheme adjustments against those wonky offenses created issues that were far larger than the problems those adjustments were meant to answer.
Your defense is no longer as deep, not as sound, you lose pressure and coverage concepts and the team as a unit becomes parts of a whole. Which is why there has been a significant movement to creating packages, or blending disparate schemes to create multiple defenses. As a trend many defensive coordinators are moving to a multiple defense concept where you take a blend of multiple defenses and blend it into a system that substitutes complexity and depth on a singular scheme, with a shallower but broader scheme that more adeptly handles whatever an offense might show you. Semore’s philosophy last was rooted in that concept, that his ‘base’ defense was a 4-3, but he made decisions in coverage concepts (man) that would allow him to move freely among those multiple defenses.
In the end, Gregorak’s problem was also Semore’s problem. Your defense wasn’t ‘base’ as you wanted to be, and your personnel struggled to implement those tweaks and adjustments as the season wore on. Last year and this spring and fall have pointed out the struggles most 4-3 guys have had. How do you cover? How do you pressure? Lastly how do you do both and adapt to everything that you see. Gregorak took coverage security over pressure, and Semore took pressure over security. The outcomes in both cases were decidedly mixed.
Complexities of Scheme and Instruction:
Changing game plans, reads, and requirements is a bear to complete at any age but even more so at the high school level. The more complex the rules, or the more drastic deviation a game plan is from your base concepts, odds on it is going to get met with failure on one part or many of your gameplan. I moved away from a 4-4 to a 4-3 because it was infinitely more flexible against multiple formations than the 4-3, and the 4-2-5 is even more flexible. I for one hate creating contrived elements to fit the offenses I would face (spread one week, and old school wishbone the next) and the daunting task of creating schemes to face unicorn offenses is more than this high school defensive coordinator can take.
To be honest it wasn’t the scheme creation that creates the problem, it is the teaching and execution end from a player perspective that creates the problem. As such I wanted a defense that is less contrived, more flexible and easier to teach adaptations from one week to the next, and the 4-2-5 is that. The biggest issue that faces many high school coaches is the absolute absurd variance between offensive schemes and how little time (and film) you have to construct sound defensive schemes. More often than not, you are a vastly better defense if you don’t have to adjust all that much from one offensive scheme to the next. A lot of defenses have opted for flexibility and agility over stability, and that in large part is due to the high prevalence of spread multiple receiver schemes. In the end, you have to have a system that is usable and comprehensible for the players you coach.
The 4-3 like many other defenses has adjustments for certain formations. Facing trips not only alters rules for coverage, but how to execute blitz packages. What happens when a team runs a trips package the whole game? These are meant as exceptions, not the rule, and you end up having to get players in a rule adjustment for 60 snaps a game versus 5 to 10. Your OLB is no longer an OLB with a primary run read, but rather does pass drops 80% of the game. So your base defense is actually an adaptation rather than a base look. Honestly for coaches and players alike, that is a problem.
Coverage, Alignment, and Adjustments:
The problem is marrying a diverse scheme with coverage concepts. A lot of schemes are structurally incompatible with certain type of coverage concepts. For example a 3-5-3 defense doesn’t work to well with traditional cover 2, cover 4 concepts because of its use of a single safety.
One of the reasons I believe there was a dependence on man coverage last year, is because it would allow for seamless movement between the multiple defenses that Semore wanted to use. The rules are simplified that way and your scheme doesn’t have to lose depth of scheme because of coverage constraints. That is one explanation of many but if you are going to switch between 4-3, 3-3, 3-4 concepts with varying safety placement, it becomes much easier when you choose a coverage concept that can be used in all of those choices.
Last years execution issues in coverage may have been personnel driven, or a desire to commit to those rules, but most of the time when there are cover or scheme failures, it has its roots in whether the scheme is consistently executable. Even college players struggle with a deep set of rules, complex execution points, and multiple moving parts. Look at it this way and I’ll come back to this at varying times of this discussion:
A defense needs to be able to effectively respond to what the offense asks it do. By rule, the more complex an offense is, the less complex and exotic that your defense can be.
Cover 2, Pressure and Adapting to offensive alignments:
What hasn’t changed over those 15 years, is that if I had a preference for coverage, it always has been Cover 2. In part because the coverage scheme and philosophy of cover 2 allows you to adapt and tweak to handle just about everything an offensive scheme both by formation, run philosophy and pass philosophy will present to you.
There are more than a dozen iterations of the coverage, and while it is widely assumed to be ubiquitous in college football, it is massively misunderstood. There are a lot of reasons for the misunderstanding, at least from a fans perspective, but most of it is rooted in the jargon and language you hear on popular NFL and college shows. They aren’t wrong, but the mechanics of how cover 2 works is not nearly as simple as it seems.
Yet the biggest issue that has faced Cover 2 adherents over the past five to ten years, is how to handle Spread and not have to vacate the rest of your scheme. Most 3-4 and 4-3 teams run more cover 2 than not, and most teams with seven box personnel design their packages with one extra run defender and one extra pass defender than you really need. The reason that is effective, is those front 7 defenders can be maneuvered and manipulated to provide a large number of fronts, stunts and pressures to cause problems for the offense.
The reason is that the offense is tightly wound (such as the first first graphic in this section), and as such is the defense. If a team has 8 offensive personnel within the box (5 OL, TE, QB, RB), a 4-3 or a 3-4 scheme has no problem in allocating 8 or 9 personnel (4 DL, 3 LB, 2 S’s). The closer the defense is aligned, the more you can manipulate those fronts and stunts. Inside guys can go out, outside guys can go in. Defensive lineman can drop, safeties can blitz from depth.
Most traditional iterations of the Zone coverage fall into
two different styles. Full field zone, or a zone concept high and man concept low. There are other versions, other styles, but for the purpose of this conversation we will start there. As long as offenses remain tightly wound, lots of personnel on defense can cover offensive personnel in the pass game. Whether that is in man, or in zone coverage.
For most offensive schemes, coverages have answers for, but the question is how much of a deviation do you want from the coverage that makes you the most powerful in regards to depth of scheme? In reality spread asks most cover 2 teams to use 6 guys in coverage. Power teams it is far less than that. The more you have to adjust and alter your rules from your base coverage and alignment, there are bound to be mistakes. The challenge is always in limiting those mistakes and blown coverages.
What I will discuss in the next installment is how Cover 2 specifically handles those variations and how coaches have married their desires for pressure with flexibility and soundness at the same time. The final installment is marrying blitz scheme to coverage schemes to handle not only spread but power offenses.
We have seen the aftereffects of these conflicts over the past few years. A concession to make yourself sound or more flexible in another has made you weak in another. Finding the happy medium, to make your base defense effective and adjusting to all the offense asks of you is not an easy task.