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100 Days to Kickoff: Film Room - Defensive Formations, Roles, and Responsibilities

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Another year, another new defensive system—but this one looks fun

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Georgia Tech Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The offensive transition is in the spotlight—and rightfully so—but this is also the second straight offseason in which the Jackets will be installing a new defensive system. Such frequent change is less than ideal from a player development standpoint, but if the end result is a better staff and system, it will pay off in the long run. Just as yesterday’s article looked at offensive formations and player responsibilities, the second day of film week will take a closer look at how the new defense will look and how the individual units will work together.

Scheme Overview

The defense will consistently keep a fifth defensive back on the field—an increasingly common choice for the base defensive package in the spread offense era—and will be moving back to a four-man front after spending a year in Nate Woody’s 3-4 system. While these are not insignificant changes, they don’t constitute a massive shift from Woody’s system, which prioritized speed over size at outside linebacker and functioned more like a 3-3-5 in reality.

If the coaches’ own words are to be taken at face value, new coordinator Andrew Thacker will be turning up the aggressiveness an extra notch this fall as part of a press man coverage scheme. It’s a major departure from the zone-heavy approaches of both Woody and Ted Roof, and it’ll place extra demands on the secondary—particularly the cornerbacks. The good news is that is one of Tech’s most talent-rich position groups, and how well they respond to those demands will go a long way in determining how the defense fares in the early going.

Formations

The base formation is closest to a 4-2-5, meaning four linemen, two linebackers, and five defensive backs. That personnel package will be out there the vast majority of the time, looking something like this:

For reference in the positional breakdown later in this article, the positions are, by number:

1) Edge
2) DT
3) DT
4) SDE/Edge
5) MLB
6) WLB
7) BCB
8) FCB
9) SS
10) FS
11) NB

Saying there are four linemen is not a perfect description, because at least one is an Edge player—a defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid who functions primarily as (surprise) an edge rusher and, depending on the individual player’s preference, can play standing up or with his hand down. The other three tend to be linemen in the traditional mold.

By design, the spring game showed a relatively small slice of what the defense will be running this fall, but we can look back at some Temple film to get a bit more flavor. For example, here’s the base formation lining up against a five-wide set on third and long:

Some changes are made to match up with the five-wide set. First, the three linemen shift over such that one of them is playing directly over the center, much like how the line sets up in some 3-4 systems. Additionally, there appear to be two Edge players, but the one lined up on the field side—over the right tackle’s outer shoulder, since the play is near the left hash—is one of the linebackers, while the other is covering the slot receiver on the boundary side. The defensive backs are all up near the line, with one safety playing at the marker and the other offscreen as a deep safety net in case a receiver breaks free.

Expect to see this formation in similar situations against four-wide or five-wide sets, with Thacker switching up who rushes and who is responsible for the short middle zone.

Positional Responsibilities

Defensive Line

For the three positions that fall under line coach Larry Knight’s jurisdiction, the responsibilities are largely in line with the defensive tackle and strongside defensive end roles in a traditional 4-3 defense.

For most plays, one of the tackles will line up as effectively a nose guard, slotting himself between the center and one of the guards as either a 1-technique or 2i-technique (see this article for a graphic that explains defensive line “techniques” and a bonus Paul Johnson quote). This player is the anchor against the run and is key to stopping any sort of dive play. The other defensive tackle often lines up on the other side of the nose guard as a 3-technique between a guard and tackle; this DT also needs to be stout against the run but is counted on to be more disruptive.

The defensive end has to be able to both set the edge against the run (translation: push back the OT to prevent the running back from reaching the outside) and to get some pressure in the pass rush. Based on a smallish sample of Temple film from last year, it looks like the end is sometimes swapped out for a second Edge player in passing situations.

Edge

(Author’s note: apparently standard convention is to capitalize this, as in EDGE. I think it looks dumb that way, especially since it isn’t an acronym, but if you disagree, I am always up for a grammar/style fight in the comments.)

The Edge position is somewhat of a hybrid between a 4-3 rush end and a 3-4 outside linebacker. The ideal player here is someone who can fill both roles: serving as a pass-rushing threat who can take on offensive tackles and win while also being able to drop into a short zone to cover a tight end or slot receiver. His job description involves more of the former than the latter, but both skills are necessary.

For at least the first year, this position will mostly be populated by guys who in 2018 played Jack linebacker, the more rush-oriented of the two outside linebacker roles. It was the closest allegory in the Woody defense to the Edge position in Thacker’s unit, but adding more length and size at the position has emerged as a priority for the coaching staff.

Linebackers

Defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker will be coaching the linebackers himself, and that’s an exciting development for a unit that has underperformed in recent years.

Collins and Thacker converted a base 4-3 defense into a 4-2-5 by replacing the Sam (strongside) linebacker with a nickel back and keeping the Mike (middle) and Will (weakside) linebackers intact. Typically the linebackers will line up over the gaps between the four linemen up front, but they’ll also move around to line up over running backs, tight ends, and slot receivers, depending on what the playcall asks them to do.

The responsibilities of the two linebackers are similar but not identical. Overall, the Mike linebacker’s job is to be a well-rounded player who can both play the run and cover in equal measure, and he’s often relied upon as an on-field leader for the defense. The Will linebacker takes on a more demanding role in coverage, though with only two true linebackers on the field, he will spend plenty of time in run support as well.

Cornerbacks

To quote a certain enlightened individual who saw through the lies of the Jedi and understood the evils of sand: this is where the fun begins.

The most significant difference between the Collins/Thacker defense and the past six years at Tech is the coverage scheme, and particularly the demands on the corners. Over those six years, they’ve been asked to sit back in zone the majority of the time and wait for the play to arrive, with man coverage serving as more of a change of pace.

Now, as part of the new system, cornerbacks coach Jeff Popovich has the task of teaching his unit how to play both tight man coverage, where the corners will be running with receivers stride for stride (ideally, anyway), and press coverage, in which the corners will step up to jam receivers at the line to throw off the offense’s timing and buy a few moments for the pass rush to arrive. It’s a massive and aggressive shift in both philosophy and technique for the corners, but if it was ever going to happen, the timing couldn’t be much better. Paul Johnson’s last couple classes stocked the roster with long, athletic cornerbacks who happen to be perfect for a press man scheme, and Collins’ first class added several more players in the same mold.

That’s not to say they’ll be in man coverage 100% of the time. Collins’ defenses tend to mix up the coverages, throwing in some traditional Cover 2 and Cover 3 looks along with some more exotic things like Inverted Cover 2, where the outside corners play deep zones and everyone else is underneath. On top of that, expect to see some boundary corner blitzes, which Tre Swilling ran to great effect last year. Thursday’s article will delve into a few of those anticipated playcalls in more detail.

Safeties

The back end of the defense will feature the ubiquitous pairing of a free and strong safety. Both will play crucial roles in coverage, which will vary from deep zones in Cover 2 and Cover 3 plays to marking receivers and tight ends when more players are sent on blitzes. In general, the strong safety has more responsibilities in run support while the free safety has more demands in coverage.

Based on observations from the spring game and from Temple’s games a year ago, the free safety often ends up playing extra deep as a precaution due to the aggressive cornerback posture. Given that Tech will be leaning on young corners who are still learning proper technique for the press man scheme, that free safety--likely to be Juanyeh Thomas this fall--will probably have plenty on his plate.

Nickel

As previously mentioned, the 4-3 Sam linebacker is replaced in the 4-2-5 by a nickel back, who functions as a safety/linebacker hybrid and generally lines up across from the slot receiver on the field side. In many cases—including some of Ted Roof’s defenses—the nickel ends up being essentially a fifth defensive back and is primarily in a coverage role. However, from what little we’ve already seen of the new system, Tech’s nickel backs will spend a great deal more of their time on the attack. NB blitz seems to be one of Thacker’s favorite calls, and at times the nickel back functions almost as a smaller, faster Edge who gives the playcaller the option to attack from either side of the formation.

This is a physically demanding position that saw several players take snaps there in the spring, from a slew of defensive players to quarterback Tobias Oliver.

Conclusion

The plan to attack frequently and trust the secondary more is a roll of the dice that might result in short-term struggles. If the pass rush (which has been lacking for the better part of the past decade) fails to materialize, then the secondary will be vulnerable against teams that look to attack deep.

All that said, the current plan lines up well with the long, athletic players Tech has been recruiting in the secondary. It’ll almost certainly take time for actual results to manifest, and it’ll require heavy investment in making sure the defensive front is more stout than it’s been in recent years. But as long as the players show some growth over the course of Year One, the new system could pay off nicely over the long term.