Inside the Gameplan: Texas LBs under Todd Orlando

Malik Jefferson. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Malik Jefferson. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Todd Orlando used to be a 4-3 guy in his days back at UCONN. He played LB at Wisconsin himself and his defenses used to be defined like much of the rest of the Midwest or Northeast with an emphasis on sound, physical play and “bend don’t break” strategies.

Back in the 2011 Fiesta Bowl he got what was probably his first taste of defending a modern, spread offense going up against Landry Jones, DeMarco Murray, and the Oklahoma Sooners. He tried to split the difference of handling the run game and spread passing attack by relying on a 4-3 defense with 6-3, 247 pound Sam linebacker Scott Lutrus remaining on the field but split out wide over the slot with the safeties playing cover 2.

The play above where Lutrus is caught in a ton of space and beaten by a cutback notwithstanding, the Huskies actually did fairly well against the run from that set. However, they were hopelessly outmatched against the Oklahoma passing attack and Jones carved them up with 49 passes for 429 yards at 8.8 yards per pass with three TDs and a sole INT.

UCONN played decent defense that year overall, ranking 63rd in defensive S&P in 2010, but were doing nothing to write home about nor nothing quite as good as what they’d achieved in previous years under Orlando. They were fundamentally sound and tough up front but not terribly exciting or aggressive.

His next stop was at FIU where he took the job as DC, he put together a respectable D that ranked 42nd in S&P in 2011. However this is where things started to change for the Orlando defense. He started using a stand-up technique more for his weakside DE and instead of relying on his DEs for pass rush, the 2011 Golden Panthers had no players with more than five sacks but seven defenders with at least three. They’d begun to embrace the zone blitz.

After another season in 2012 with a decent D he went to Utah State and then things really changed for the Orlando defense. He started to work with Gary Andersen learning the 3-4 defense which went from being a third down package or experimental element of his scheme to becoming his base system. You can track the success and evolution of his defense somewhat through the years with this handy chart:

orlando lb play 1

Orlando started to embrace the blitz more at FIU and after arriving at Utah State he totally embraced the 3-4. Here’s a glimpse of his Aggie defense facing a spread-option concept similar to what Oklahoma threw at him in our first clip above:

That’s a pretty different approach to handling that offense, now attacking the option reads with disguised blitzes while moving players around to try and clean things up when the ball gets loose.

The 2014 Utah State defense saw DE BJ Larsen get nine sacks, “Rover” Nick Vigil got nine, “Mac” Zach Vigil got 6, and safety Frank Sutera got in on the action as well with 4.5. You can see him drop down and make the tackle in the clip above and understand why I’d love to see Brandon Jones eventually play that boundary safety spot if possible.

By embracing the 3-4 defense Orlando has really embraced using linebackers as the featured playmakers of his system and using disguise to set them up to attack offenses. As you can see from the sack totals, it’s been a successful transition.

So how does the linebacker position change in this defense and how will an emphasis on LB play work out at Texas?

The B-backer

This is Orlando’s rather lame term for the rush-backer who usually lines up to the boundary and was filled by Tyus Bowser for the last two seasons. The B-backer is a true hybrid between an outside linebacker and a DE and he may have the responsibilities of one or the other from snap to snap based on the call.

When he’s acting as an OLB he’ll basically key off the behavior of the inside receiver to his side, so if they go out into a route then he’ll collision them and then usually move into flat coverage. If they run block he’ll force the edge. When he’s acting as a DE obviously he’ll crash the edge or stunt inside in the case of a blitz as a DL would do.

The Rover

This is basically the weakside linebacker and he usually lines up to the boundary as well. This was Steven Taylor’s role for the last two years at Houston and the name is much more descriptive than for the “B-backer” because the Rover does a lot of different things.

On some snaps he’s basically a normal inside-backer in the 3-4 reading RB/OL flow and filling interior gaps. On others he’s more of an outside-backer playing out in the flats some and forcing the edge or picking up a slot in coverage. Then there are the frequent opportunities he gets to blitz, which he may do through any gap at any time based largely on his own strengths and the strengths of the players around him.

Steven Taylor was really good at blitzing up the gut and he had 18.5 sacks over the last two years in this system.

The Mac

The other inside-backer, he blitzes a lot as well but his secondary role is less often to serve as an outside-backer because he’s often playing to the field with a nickel and cover safety as his main adjuncts to help cover all that grass. The B-backer and Rover tend to be in the boundary or on the weakside and can trade roles more easily.

The Mac is going to spend a lot of time blitzing from all angles but also a lot of time reading RB/OL flow and filling creases between the tackles. He needs to be good at traditional linebacker duties like beating blocks and gap control.

Here’s how they look lined up against a typical formation like what you’d see from week to week in the Big 12:

orlando lb play 2

Here’s a sense of how they play in just a base look without any blitzing or anything going on:

The B-backer is a DE in this instance, so he’s looking to step down and blow up the pulling guard on the edge and spill the ball outside to the free safety and ILB pursuit like a normal 4-3 DE. The Mac and Rover are both playing as ILBs in this defense so they are reading the OL and backfield and are a bit late to realize that the ball is going wide and not behind the OL that’s blocking counter-trey.

If not for the exceptional force play by nickel Brandon Wilson (a re-occurring theme in this game) this brutal RPO (run/pass option) by the Sooners could have put the Cougars in a real bind, but instead the Sooners got only five yards from it.

On the next snap they sent the Rover and dropped the B-backer:

Bowser held the attention of OU’s LT Orlando Brown and made it easier for the DE to loop wide in his pass rush, but his job is to play coverage. Taylor is essentially playing the part of a 4-3 3-technique DT here by blitzing the right guard. So Bowser now has to play as a will linebacker in their 4-2 look and Taylor as a DT while everyone else proceeds as normal.

As you can tell, every player’s unique strengths factor into what Orlando can call but so do the strengths and weaknesses of his teammates. Everyone can and will blitz, but everyone has to be able to carry water when they’re the ones dropping into coverage to make it work properly.

Fitting the Texas roster into these three positions

I’ve had my own ideas about who could fit where but thanks to a recent Humidor we have something much better, which is knowledge about what Orlando wants to try out. Evidently this is the starting point:

B-backer: Naashon Hughes/Jeffrey McCulloch/Erick Fowler
Rover: Malik Jefferson/Ed Freeman
Mac: Breckyn Hager/Anthony Wheeler

I think many of us forgot Naashon Hughes existed after he was supplanted by the Roach/Hager duo down the stretch but he’s a very versatile player that has already shown great competence in dropping back as an OLB vs the run or the pass. However, I think his ability to hang on there is going to depend on what happens at the Mac position.

Malik at Rover obviously makes a great deal of sense. It gets him into a lot of different roles so that his athletic versatility can shine. He’ll get to blitz up the gut or on the edges with regularity in this set up and this is honestly probably the best thing that could happen for him in terms of creating film that will impress the NFL. I still wonder what he might be able to do at that nickel position but it’s understandable that Orlando might be hesitant to embrace that move for all the limitations it would put on Texas’ coverage options.

Malik understands blitzing and was starting to embrace the idea of fighting through blocks rather than looking for something else to do if opposing OL picked up his stunt, which will be key under Herman and Orlando. He’s occasionally brilliant as an OLB and still has work to do in understanding the finer points of ILB but this is all fine, he’s only a junior this season and his various duties and extended playing time as an underclassmen is going to serve him well now.

Mac is the crucial spot, both for allowing the Malik vs Freeman battle at Rover that might not be a foregone conclusion as well as for what it means for the B-backers. I think putting Hager here may be more experimental than a long-term solution, in part because I think Hager has a lot of upside at the B-backer spot and in part because I don’t think they’ll want to keep Gary Johnson off the field for long once he arrives in the fall.

As you’ll notice with the clips above against OU, playing Mac is largely about reading flow and scraping laterally before coming downhill with momentum. Hager is more of a strictly downhill player who excels at fighting through traffic, he’s not stiff moving laterally but his ability to scrape is not what makes him special and he’ll be caught in space a lot playing Mac in the Big 12.

The other interesting aspect of this depth chart is that it didn’t include Texas’ other young pass-rusher Malcolm Roach at the B-backer position, instead moving him down into the 4i DE spot. Our own Coach Venable has already noted why this isn’t a particularly good fit, as Roach is at his best with some space to work in and not so much when he can be engulfed by a guard. Perhaps he grows into the role but he seemed a no-brainer fit at the B-backer spot and was more comfortable dropping into coverage last year then grappling with OL.

The driving force behind these questionable-looking position changes is that the staff needs to find depth at the 4i and Mac positions, or else revamp the defensive front to a different alignment and even then they’d still need to teach more players on the roster how to play inside-backer.

Here’s the kind of inside-backer play that Texas needs to find from somewhere next season:

Houston has only four defenders in the box between the three DL and the Rover (with the Mac and Nickel aiming to arrive soon as needed) yet they still stop this gap scheme from Tulsa. The key to their success, besides the strongside end holding the point of attack and Ed Oliver causing havoc on the backside, is the Rover’s decisive scrape to arrive to make the tackle two yards behind the line of scrimmage.

Tulsa gameplanned the Cougars with the hope that if they pulled their guards around they could punish Houston for spreading their defense out wide to stop the passing game by knocking big holes through their defense when the guards hit the linebackers. It didn’t work out though because the guards struggled to find Adams and Taylor and so the Cougars held the Golden Hurricanes to 2.7 yards per carry.

Todd Orlando’s main task this coming offseason will be to train a pack of outside linebackers that were highly recruited for their athleticism to play inside linebacker and he’s apparently starting with two of Texas’ most explosive yet role-limited players in Breckyn Hager and Malik Jefferson. If he succeeds, everyone gets to blitz and have fun. If not, Texas may endure more pain on defense until they start finding players that can do the dirty work inside.

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