Utilizing a HEAVY technique in the run game
Montana State illustrates the benefit of playing with a "heavy" five technique.
Ten years ago, the 4-2-5 was all the rage. It provided defenses a way to keep their anchor points intact upfront while placing a hybrid DB as the OLB to the passing strength or field. However, at the turn of the previous decade, offenses were moving forward with the hurry-up-no-huddle (HUNH) approach, and defenses needed a way to counter the attack. I saw the change live as a graduate assistant at Baylor under Art Briles, the architect of one of the most prolific offenses ever at the college level.
Offenses moved away from a gap-centric approach that required men near the box and began to spread defenses out wide (“The Spread”). Briles took the Air Raid system developed by Leach and made it vertical, faster, and gave it an actual run game (though most think it was all about the deep shot series). Zone was the featured run game with all its variations. If teams crept towards the box to clog the run, the QB flicked the ball out to uncovered WRs. If the defense covered down and kept the box light, the offense used its numbers advantage to run the ball.
The Spread’s philosophy is built on the open B-gap within the four-down structure. Someone had to cover that space in the box, and it was often a folding overhang. Thus, the RPO was born, and “option” football returned. The constant vertical and horizontal pull on the defense stressed it to the max. Something had to give, and the rise of the Tite Front was ushered in by the Dave Aranda tree and Nick Saban with his Mint package. At the turn of this decade, the Tite front and the 3-High safety system have become the answer for many defenses across the country.
In my book Hybrids, I talked about the constant cat-and-mouse game over the history of football. At the basic levels of the game, the ability to create (offense) or constrain (defense) space is the whole premise of the game. However, the Spread ushered in a concept I refer to as Spatial Darwinism. If you don’t understand how to manipulate space in this day and age, you are behind the eightball.
Related Content: Hybrids - The Making of a Modern Defense
With the explosion of the Spread offense at all levels of football, the ability to close that B-gap and reduce conflict was at a premium. So it is no surprise that the Tite Front (below) became the way to stop the bleeding on defense. The philosophy of the front is to clog the B-gaps and place a Nose on the Center to control the A-gaps and/or force the RB to roll out the front door working horizontally.
Zone has always been a cutback run, but the Tite front inhibits this from happening by blocking the escape routes in the cutback lane. With nowhere to go, the RB has to keep working horizontally and in the direction of the initial mesh. The Tite front gave defenses a way to take the conflict out of the run fits and plugged the lifeline of the Spread’s system. However, innovation doesn’t stop, and offenses quickly countered by placing a TE in or near the box. In both diagrams above, the FS is needed near the box as the ILBs are “pushed” to the TE’s side. Where there is space, there is an answer for the offense.
Offenses began taking advantage of the open space behind the sinking Safety. The Glance, or deep Slant (Chad Morris at Clemson), and backside vertical choice routes (Briles) became the primary way off attacking defense. In 2012, I was in Waco for the transition from a 10 personnel heavy attack to introducing a TE into the box. Defenses saw the TE and defaulted to single-high and spinning down into the box. The secondary was left in one-on-one matchups that they often couldn’t handle. Needing answers and fast, the Tite Front became the dominant defensive structure.
Like any scheme, the Tite Front has its own set of drawbacks. First, there is a lack of pass rush. As the passing game takes more of a front seat in offenses, rushing the passer is a premium. Second, the angles in the run game allow the offense to create easy down blocks increasing the use of pin-and-pull and gap schemes. Third, with an “open” C-gap against TE formations, the use of run schemes like Duo (Aranda calls it “Down” because of all the down blocks) and runs attacking the edges of the box (Wide Zone) have become increasingly popular. Though the Tite Front has answers to these problems, the ability to spread the anchor points in the box out has become important again. Thus, the rise of (again) the four-down front.
2021 has seen an uptick in the use of the four-down front. With the Wide Zone scheme, use of “bigger” personnel groupings (20p/12p), and the rise in play-action/passing on first down, teams have turned back to different variations of the 4-2-5. Time is a flat circle, as I wrote in Hybrids. The constant pendulum swing of football schematics illustrates that there are best practices in football, and defense is always reactionary.
Even though we see increased use of the four-down front structure, that doesn’t mean it is the “old” static 4-2-5s we saw back in the ‘10s. In Wisconsin, Jim Leonhard has used his plethora of hybrid EDGE and ILBs to create a 2-4-5 that utilizes simple replacement and simulated pressures to dominate fashion. Georgia this year used their defensive line talent to stifle the run games of all their opponents. Even 3-High dominant schemes in Oklahoma State (Jim Knowles new DC at Ohio St.) and Cincinnati (Mike Tressel) used hybrid four-down alignments to combat larger personnel packages in Notre Dame (Cincy) and Baylor (OkSU).
Related Content: Film Study - Cincy vs Notre Dame (‘21)
Knowles at Oklahoma St. parlayed his success in the Big 12 into a DC position with Ohio St., a staunch 4-3 single-high scheme. Head Coach Ryan Day saw the need for change and quickly snatched up one of the best DCs in the country in terms of hybrid defenses. The primary issue with single-gap four-down defenses is what I explained earlier, the open B-gap creates conflict, and conflict spells disaster for defenses. In addition, you can’t have a player in two positions at once.