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Craig Naivar, Todd Orlando, and Tom Herman are big fans of the safeties they found waiting for them on campus at Texas. The unit that was perpetually filled with superior athletes that couldn’t edge out sticky-fingered Dylan Haines under Charlie Strong but is now finally stocked with multi-year veterans with diverse skill sets.
Jason Hall, DeShon Elliott, P.J. Locke, Brandon Jones, John Bonney, and even Antwuan Davis have all played some snaps for this team and experienced what it means to defend a Big 12 offense. In the base nickel package, three of these guys are on the field at one time. For Texas to get the best 11 on the field, that might mean something more progressive than nickel.
Now in the past, Texas has often been log jammed at one position, often a position where there wasn’t much opportunity to see the field such as outside linebacker, while deficient at another position. The 2017 Texas roster is lacking at Mac linebacker, loaded at B-backer, loaded at Rover, thin on the DL, respectably deep at corner, and loaded at safety.
Well the bright side here is that it’s hard to have too many DBs of any type in the Big 12. Safeties that know how to play multiple positions are easy to get on the field and it’s even possible to get away with playing your dime package as often as most teams play nickel.
For instance, the 2016 Baylor Bears were ultra-thin at DL and were forced to utilize their best DE (K.J. Smith) as a DE/DT in a 3-technique half the time because he was one of the only DL that could play the position effectively. The Bears were also put in a tight spot early in the year when star nickel Travon Blanchard was hurt and they had to plug in 5-11, 190 pound former walk-on Pat Levels at the position. Well they found that Levels was actually ready to play high level football, so they took a chance on a 3-2-6 dime package that included both of them once Blanchard returned.
Early in the year, before their staff threw in the towel on the season, they drew Oklahoma State and hit them with this package. While the Bears were exploring the extremes of going small, the Cowboys were going the other direction and experimenting with Pistol-I formation with two tight ends on the field.
It’s not obvious from that image what all is going on here but this is how that looks on the chalkboard:
The Bears would double team the “Z” receiver, which was James Washington, with the corner and free safety and then be aggressive about firing Pat Levels (the “D”) or Travon Blanchard (the “N”) into the backfield off the edge. You can observe that play out here.
The Cowboys took the bait and ran the ball 55 times for 213 yards, at 3.9 yards per carry. They were done in by the failure of that approach to match Baylor on the scoreboard, largely due to three fumbles inflicted by these aggressive tactics on the edge that stopped them in the red zone.
Baylor’s dime didn’t hold up as well later against Texas’ Pistol-I and the Bears folded down the stretch. However, the strategy is pretty straightforward and sound. If you can hold up against the run with dime personnel, you can force the offense to play left-handed and take good receivers and play calls off the table in order to try and grind out a win with the run game. Every game that Herman and his staff can try to turn into a lower-scoring slog in 2017 is going to be one that they have a much greater chance of winning.
A Texas dime package
Todd Orlando made regular use of a 3-2-6 dime package last year while at Houston. The three main safeties for the squad, Brandon Wilson, Garrett Davis, and Khalil Williams, were three of the better players on the team and the Cougars knew it.
The benefit of the dime package in Orlando’s defense is that it opens up a wider world of possibilities for the blitzes he can call because it helps the defense avoid getting caught in bad matchups. His main blitz structure is the single-high safety, fire (matchup) zone defense and his favorite way to do things is to threaten a blitz from one side before overloading from the other.
But if the other team has four receivers on the field then it becomes fairly obvious for the QB that if the defense is blitzing in a nickel package that either the extra man is the linebacker or it’s a DB and that LB is in coverage in space. Then you can send help to pick up the LB and if he doesn’t come you know how to quickly beat him with the pass.
But if the two outside linebackers are DeShon Elliott and P.J. Locke and then Texas has Malik Jefferson and Ed Freeman at the two ILB positions? Well, now the offense can’t really be sure of who’s going to be where after the snap…
Malik Jefferson and Ed Freeman both could either credibly drop out over the slot, blitz, or man the middle and take the running back. Nickel and dime defenders P.J. Locke and DeShon Elliott (or whomever ends up there) can each credibly blitz the edge, man up the slot, or even drop into deep zone. The deep safeties can do all of those same things OR drop into the middle and replace a linebacker.
So Texas can play man coverage and bring five, fire a LB up the middle and play two-deep matchup zone, do the same with three pass-rushers and Malik spying, etc. The worst part for the offense is that if these guys play together in this package regularly and learn to disguise their blitzes and coverages then it becomes impossible to get a good pre-snap read. You don’t want to be working out where to go with the ball after the snap with all of that speed on the field and Predator or Swamp Thing bearing down on you.
When to use it?
This is where Texas fans will likely be hesitant. The idea of regularly rolling with a dime package with this defensive group, which hasn’t reliably stopped the run in a few years, surely sounds like a risky venture.
As a starting point, I think this scheme is pretty safe and sound in the following circumstances:
1. The opponent has four receivers on the field.
If there are four receivers on the field then the nickel and dime backers are pretty much free hitters on the outside. The offense is going to struggle to get a good, clean block on them without the use of an H-back, tight end, or fullback.
2. Texas can hold up in the 4i techniques.
The 3-2-6 is an odd front, obviously. The 4i-techniques allow the nickel and dime to escape making difficult and physical run fits. A 4-1-6 dime could also make things fairly easy for the nickel and dime, not quite as easy but still manageable, but now you’re replacing Malik or Freeman for a DL from a thin bench and losing a little bit of versatility.
A 4-1-6 dime might still be a valuable package for this team but if they can get credible 4i play from Chris Nelson, Malcolm Roach, and Charles Omenihu then the 3-2-6 is the better option for getting the best players on the field.
3. The QB run is not a major part of the opposing offense.
The QB run is a game changer, particularly if the QB can run between the tackles. Now you have to worry about schemes that either use the option to cancel out a DL or that use the RB position to get a lead blocker for the QB on the field. If you add a lead blocker to the equation then the lack of size in the dime can become an issue, the offense can start getting more double teams, and DBs are going to start having to take on lead blocks.
It’s possible that Texas could still employ the dime in these situations, depending on how well the safeties play against the run and how much protection the DL can offer for everyone else. Against a less dangerous runner at QB surrounded by four receivers though, the dime is pretty safe.
This is a weapon, not a base
The goal is not to play dime defense all of the time. In fact, the more effective this defense is than the less Texas might end up deploying it this coming season. Ideally opponents would be terrified of getting into four and five receiver spread sets, which are normally some of the most dangerous formations that you face in the Big 12, for fear of getting man-blitzed into oblivion by Orlando’s dime.
In that event, they’d be forced to spend more time with an H-back or a tight end on the field. Take a look around the league, most teams aren’t terribly threatening when they’re trying to establish the run with a two-back run game before throwing the ball. If the DL and safeties really thrive in this scheme Texas might even be able to get away with playing dime against three-receiver sets and using the blitz as a deterrent to the run game. Even the teams that like to run the ball from those formations to set up the deep pass don’t necessarily want to try and win the game by handing off all day.
With an extensive and well-drilled 3-2-6 package, Texas can force opponents into a box, speed the game up, and keep the scoreboard manageable for their own offense.
As Tony Stark put it, “They say that the best weapon is the one you never have to fire. I respectfully disagree. I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once.”