Mike Elko's Split Front
MQ looks at how new Duke Head Coach Mike Elko uses Hot, Warm, Cold principles to attack offenses with his Split Front.
One of my favorite 3rd Down fronts is what I refer to as BLAZERS, or as newly appointed Duke Head Coach Mike Elko calls it, the Split Front. The foundation of the front is a 505 alignment with a “zero” Nose and two 5 techniques. Placed outside the DEs are two other defenders in 9 techniques. With the base front stemming from an Odd presentation, the defense can mix and match different alignments to manipulate the offense’s protection.
Related Content: The Blazers Front
The front’s structure masks the intentions of the defense and lends to overload (four to a side) and “Bear” alignments that can complement a plethora of pressure paths. Within the 505 structure, the defense has ample space inside to “load” a side or stretch the protection by placing edge rushers outside the DEs. With 5’s and 9’s outside the box and only a Nose inside, the Guards are forced to play like Tackles, which at most levels is a matchup win for the defense. Micheal Bennett (former NFL DE) explained this “width” issue in an interview with USA Today’s Doug Farrar,
“…when you take a guard and make him have to deal with the width of the pocket… it takes away from what he usually wants to do.”
Adding in “load” presentations that can place up to four defenders on one side is another great way to take advantage of the 505 structure. In reality, there are only three “bigs” on the D-line when utilizing the BLAZERS Front, two DEs, and a Nose. The other three box defenders can be DBs or LBs. Packaging the front with speed allows the defense to now drop players into coverage or take advantage of matchup issues on the O-line. There is a reason defensive coaches like Elko and Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi favor the split alignment on 3rd Down.
In his ‘22 Nike Coach of the Year Clinic, Elko explained his philosophy for 3rd Down. First, attack the offense and make the QB uncomfortable. Second, crowd the line of scrimmage (LOS) with multiple defenders so the OC and QB can’t identify where the pressure is coming from. Finally, Mix man and zone pressures as well as alignments (Where are the non-bigs aligned?) to keep the offense guessing. The Split Front lends well to Elko’s philosophy.
Along with being multiple in where the off-ball players are located, Elko uses multiple pressure designs in a game to maximize the Split Front and to keep the offense guessing. One way to describe Elko’s philosophy in terms of pressure selections is that he has a Hot (6-man/Max), Warm (five-man/Fire Zone), and Cold (Simulated/Drop-8) call for each 3rd Down. Each pressure is pre-designed and can overlap in concept or be completely different depending on the plan for the week.
Having a pre-planned pressure menu prior to a game allows Elko to keep track of how he is attacking the offense while keeping the OC guessing. Plus, Elko can then use his Hot, Warm, and Cold calls to manipulate future opponents by using similar looks but changing the pressure path. The menu also allows Elko to match the situation and need of the specific field zone and 3rd Down.
The Aggie defense would finish fifth overall in EPA per play (fourth in per-game EPA) and fourth overall in passing EPA (via CFB Graphs). According to Brian Fremeau’s (Football Outsiders) BCF Toys, A&M’s defense came in seventh in DFEI which tracks efficiency. Since Elko’s arrival from Notre Dame in ‘18, the Aggie defense has been in the top third of defense, with the ‘22 defense being the crown jewel of his tenure. In Texas A&M’s upset of Alabama, Elko showed his defensive diversity against Bama’s passing attack. Though the Aggies gave up plenty of yardage and had a 50% efficiency on 3rd Down, the defense “won” enough to help eke out a win against the #2 team in the country.