Gameplan: Peso defense and the new world of cover 3

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Over the weekend, Steve Sarkisian’s staff added yet another outside linebacker transfer to the roster. This time it was a former 5-star recruit, Alabama “Jack” linebacker Ben Davis, a 6-foot-4, 250-pounder. Davis never cracked the top of the depth chart in Tuscaloosa but was solid for the Tide in mop-up duty as a boundary 9-technique who could rush the edge, stunt, or drop into coverage. Davis joins fellow newcomer outside linebackers Ray Thornton and Ovie Oghuofo on a team well stocked with big defensive linemen but short (until now) on outside linebackers.

Suddenly the Texas defensive roster includes three grad transfers at outside linebacker, two of which have only one year of eligibility remaining (Davis and Thornton), along with some returning defensive ends from the Tom Herman roster such as Marqez Bimage, Jacoby Jones, and maybe Moro Ojomo or Vernon Broughton if they don’t play inside at defensive tackle. When summer comes, the influx of transfers and freshmen will completely transform the position.

It’s not surprising Texas’ new staff would be keen to fill out the roster with greater depth of positions. New defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski had an extensive playbook at Washington in terms of the defensive fronts and packages involved, utilizing 46 and odd 3-4 defenses, even 3-4 defenses, some 3-down dime schemes, and a 2-4-5 “peso” nickel package.

Today, we’re going to talk about the peso package, which increasingly appears to be the likely “base” defense for the Longhorns in 2020. A true 2-4-5 defense with outside linebackers at either “defensive end” position has ramifications for the structure of the overall defense. If the Longhorns present a nickel package starting Ray Thornton opposite one of the other transfers, or even the bigger Jacoby Jones or Marqez Bimage, there’s a good chance this will dictate how the rest of the defense functions in order to execute the scheme.

Peso defense

The term “peso defense” is just a clever way of naming an alternate sort of nickel package using two defensive linemen, four linebackers, and five defensive backs. Instead of using the term “nickel,” which normally describes a 4-2-5 personnel package, they use the Mexican “peso” which is worth .048 American dollars…or about a nickel. Still basically a 4-2 front but just a little bit less, because those ends are both linebackers.

The 2-4-5 nickel package comes from base 3-4 defenses and is one of many efforts to maintain the fundamental advantage conferred by the 3-4 defense for the era of spread offenses. This fundamental advantage is being able to play an explosive edge player to either side of the formation and making the offense wonder and guess at which one might be rushing the quarterback on a given snap.

When an offense played a slot receiver it pushed the defense to remove one of those outside linebackers from the box and asked a typically 240+ pound pass-rusher to drop into coverage and chase 190 pound, sub 4.2 shuttle runners on timing routes. This didn’t work.

Todd Orlando’s solution to this issue was basically to teach an outside linebacker to play inside linebacker and rush an interior gap while subbing out the outside linebacker position for an extra defensive back. The Big 12 eventually had him following this formula to playing in dime with defensive backs at either outside linebacker position.

The “peso” solution is to sub out one of the defensive linemen and use the outside linebackers more consistently on the edge of the front, which requires giving up on the odd front nature in order to play a 4-down type, even front.

In a 2-4-5 the defense could theoretically play dominant edge-rushers to either side of the formation and also mix in a wide variety of stunts and four-man blitzes with either outside linebacker effectively having four options for the offense to consider every snap.

The 2-4-5 offers more flexibility in disguising and creating pressure than a 4-2-5, 3-3-5, or most any other nickel package. It’s designed to emphasize hybrid edge rushers rather than allowing the spread offense to chase them off the field by deploying weapons out on the perimeter. There’s a cost to this approach though and it materializes in run defense.

If the offense plays with a tight end they create additional gaps up front for the defense to account for, which is true for any scheme. However, if you have outside linebackers on the field who lack the size, strength, or technique to face double teams or down angles then you’re in a bit of a pickle. You cannot play a 6 or 7-technique linebacker (definitely not a 5-tech) shaded inside of a big blocking tight end if he’s not big and skilled enough to avoid getting washed down.

Additionally, if you want your outside linebackers to play as true outside linebackers, standing up with the option to drop back and positioned to set the edge, then you don’t want them lined up inside of a big tight end anyways.

But you have seven gaps up front to defend and a new inside gap to assign.

Gary Patterson’s 4-2-5 would typically play the field defensive end in a 6-technique, lined up across and inside of the tight end. He’d have a defensive back handle the edge while the five interior gaps and opposite edge would be assigned to his six-man, nickel front. Kwiatkowski could do that as well if he had a Jack who could slide inside and play as more of a true defensive end, but he may not have such a player in 2021 and he may not want to go that route anyways since he also likes to set the edge.

In that event, the defense needs to have a plan to account for an interior gap with a defensive back, most likely a safety, and thus we get into all sorts of downstream consequences for the overall structure of the defense.

The new world of cover 3

While ubiquitous across the greater college football world, Nick Saban’s famous pattern-matching cover 3 has not been particularly common in the Big 12. Texas played a very simple version of it under Charlie Strong, as did Oklahoma under Mike Stoops. Both had fairly mixed results.

Pattern-matching cover 3 was developed specifically to resolve this very problem, how to get a defensive back in position to support the run without playing pure zone. A true zone defense in the Big 12 is a nonstarter. Good quarterbacks and RPOs can shred defenders trying to balance run fits with coverage drops. You could frustrate all but the most accurate quarterbacks and eliminate some RPO difficulties with man coverage, but those schemes require elite play at both cornerback and deep safety. Match 3 defense has rules regarding who covers which receivers or which routes based on formation and assignment and generally takes the best of the cover 3 and cover 1 (man) worlds.

It all gets pretty detailed and technical in a hurry, so teams don’t typically dabble in multiple, divergent brands of pattern-matching coverage. They’ll major in match quarters or match 3 (cover 3) or include just a few versions of both. At Washington, Kwiatkowski’s defense was pretty famous for majoring VERY heavily in match 3 as opposed to having many quarters coverages in the equation. Terry Joseph’s Notre Dame defense went in the opposite direction, putting more emphasis on quarters.

The formation above could be solved by Kwiatkowski’s Washington defense playing match 3 in this fashion:

The strong/boundary safety is now dropping down to give the defense help in stopping weak side runs, having enough defenders in the box to account for all the gaps, and specifically having a defender playing with enough depth to help fit inside runs.

Kwiatkowski’s nickel was generally more of a nickel corner who’d have to play zone in wide open spaces or play man coverage on the slot receiver, depending on the formation and which type of match 3 call was made. The free and strong safety would then tend to play in space less often, unless dropping deep to serve as the post safety over the top. Free from the responsibility for turning and running with receivers, they could be bigger defenders like the tandem of JoJo McIntosh and Taylor Rapp who both played between 210 and 220 pounds.

Such an alignment fits well with the Texas personnel for 2021. The Longhorns now have three high level cornerbacks in Josh Thompson, D’Shawn Jamison, and McNeese State transfer Darion Dunn, at least two of which (Thompson and Jamison) project well to the nickel position. Then the two returning starting “safeties” include the versatile and rangy B.J. Foster and the bigger Chris Adimora who spent last season hanging around the box. Adimora makes more than a little sense as a strong safety who drops down into the run fit from time to time while Foster has more athleticism and experience playing in the deep field or matching slot receivers now and again when the nickel blitzes.

It’s worth pausing to note the nature of Kwiatkowski’s defensive structure tends to increase the linebackers’ share of tackles because they can pursue the ball and key the running back or the tight end while leaving behind gaps for the strong safety to then account for in the fit. One of the two inside linebackers (the Mike and the Dime backer) accounted for the team’s leading tackler in five of seven years at Washington under Kwiatkowski, between those two positions you could almost always account for two of the top three tacklers in a given year.

For instance, if the offense ran a standard split zone play at this formation with pass options attached for the quarterback:

The strong safety and nickel are able to sit in the passing windows while the linebackers track the tight end and back’s paths to find the football. If the glance RPO is a real threat the strong safety may have to hang in the window before arriving as a plus one in the run game but hesitation is the defense’s friend against option concepts. If the strong safety can create hesitation from the quarterback and running back, the potential paths for the running back decrease and the overall defense can start to recognize what’s happening and get hats to the ball.

In this case, the glance route also faces man coverage from the cornerback, forcing an exact throw with a safety potentially sitting in the window. Many a quarterback will just avoid the risk and hope his running back can find some room to work in before the strong safety arrives to erase any possible space.

The design of this system isn’t to create a “Roy-backer” like Oklahoma’s Roy Williams but to use the safeties as a release valve to free up the linebackers to make the plays.

After RPOs, the other pressing question is how match 3 works against some of the Big 12’s nastier passing concepts. We’ll dive into the weaknesses of match 3 over the course of the offseason but there are a few particular areas to note. One trouble spot from the weak rotation seen above which puts the strong safety near the box is the requirement for the Mike linebacker to be able to handle himself in space to the opposite side of the formation. Texas is in great shape here though with DeMarvion Overshown.

Another concern with an embrace of match 3 defense is the need for the nickel to be able to man up slot receivers. On a slot fade route with the receiver breaking outside there will be occasions in which the nickel has some manner of help over the top and occasions in which he’ll need to turn and run without it.

Washington had some NFL players in their nickel position, including Budda Baker and Myles Bryant, who were both scrappy but sub 6-0 and very quick in a shuttle drill. All of Texas’ three main cornerbacks figure to be quick-moving athletes but D’Shawn Jamison may have the best change of direction whereas Josh Thompson and Darion Dunn are obvious fits as cover 3 cornerbacks.

Texas still has a lot of big defensive linemen on campus and Kwiatkowski does have 3-man fronts in his playbook, but they’ve been shaping the roster to potentially lean on a Peso nickel package, which has traditionally been his answer to Big 12 type offenses in the past. If the Peso is Kwiatkowski’s main solution in 2021, it will have other ramifications for the shaping of the greater defense. Fortunately for the Longhorns, many of those adjustments make sense for the roster.

History major, football theorist.