Strong’s defense vs Big 12 offenses

The best Big 12 offenses stress defenses in ways that older defensive coordinators didn’t anticipate in their worst nightmares. Our man Ian Boyd looks at Charlie Strong’s defense and how it matches up with the Big 12’s offenses.  
The layers of brutal tactics at play in an offense like Art Briles’ Baylor team thwart many of the responses defenses have utilized in the past to counter the more effective offensive trends.First, the wide spacing of a spread formation allows an offense to pick on the weakest part of a defense like an ugly scab. A defense with just one below average unit or feature becomes vulnerable. The better-designed offenses force defenders to diagnose and play in space, while still asking them to handle old-school duties such as being physical at the point of attack, only without the ability to easily bring extra defenders into the box to help.The rise of the no-huddle has eliminated a few more of the classic defensive tactics. Many B12 offenses operate like Peyton Manning’s Broncos, they line up, see what you’re up to, and then call the perfect play to attack your weak spots in that defensive call. Offenses are then allowed to be simple and built around repetition and execution of the core concepts needed to shred the defenses they’ll see.Defensive DC’s who prefer to handle offenses by attacking them with a big playbook of stunts, blitzes, and coverage variations have their hands full trying to get their players lined up and executing at the pace needed to keep up.The most recent tools that have given great advantages to the offense are packaged plays. Teams now have multiple play-options packaged together so that the QB can read the defense after the snap and put the ball in the perfect spot. It’s a modern take on the triple-option, with quarterbacks’ choices now including the forward pass. These new packaged plays have destroyed some of defensive football’s classic rules and fundamentals for defending the option.Coaches now even pair different pass concepts on the same play. They’ll have a Cover-2 beater on one side of the field and a Cover-3 beater on the other side. The QB can drop, read if he’s looking at one deep safety or two, then execute whichever play is best for beating that coverage.These tactics are emerging everywhere, but access to Texas HS QB talent combined with some of the brightest stars of the Leach/Briles schools of spread offense in the coaching ranks make the B12 the best offensive conference in the land.The TexasStrong strategy for dominating the B12 depends on our new HC’s ability to bring a tough defensive tradition that churns out squads capable of not only surviving but also subjugating this climate.So how does he accomplish this goal? A defense designed for the B12 has to be able to pass three competencies in order to dominate. It must be simple, sound, and disguised.Strong’s schedule at Louisville pitted the Cards against a few B12-type offenses, including Blake Bortles’ UCF Knights who were comparable to an elite B12 offense. From the tape of those games, I’ve deduced the following about Strong’s plans to accomplish those three aims.Simple?This is where Manny Diaz’s designs failed. Texas was not able to take advantages of its vast reserve of exceptional athletes on defense because they played slowly and unsure of where to be or what was going on.The 4.8 linebacker will play faster than the 4.5 freak if the former knows what’s going on and where to be while the latter does not.Strong’s schemes are going to very similar to what Diaz did but the subtle differences will reveal why his system is superior and capable of being installed in this DC reputation graveyard we call a conference.Texas is going to base out a pattern-matching Cover-3 scheme. The Fire Zones and variations of that scheme will all revolve around the same techniques in pass coverage. The corners will match the outside receivers in man to man coverage, the safeties and linebackers will match the inside receivers based on alignment and route distribution.This scheme always starts in a 2-high shell with both safeties deep, then a safety drops down. When the strongside safety drops down it’s called “Tan” coverage:The corners take the #1 receiver counting from the outside in, the nickel and will backer take the number #2 receivers, and the mike backer and strong safety take the #3 receivers to their side. Whichever of the strong safety and mike backer doesn’t see a #3 receiver to their side is free to roam the middle.In this instance, the strong safety is certain to draw coverage responsibility since the #3 receiver is already lined up outside of the formation and the middle linebacker is free to play the roaming “rat” role, reading the routes and QB’s eyes.Strong also has his “Orange” coverage which drops down the weakside safety into the box:The same rules apply, the corners take #1, the rover and nickel take #2, and the mike and will linebackers handle #3 based on where he shows up. In each of these coverages, the cornerbacks have to be able to keep the receiver in front of them since the deep safety won’t always be able to help over the top.Then you have Strong’s Fire Zones, which follow the same coverage rules for the defenders. Essentially all the Fire Zones do is remove the “rat” player and instead bring a fifth blitzer.Strong has a variety of zone blitzes in his arsenal but almost all of them are based in one of three concepts: Raider, Cowboy, and Steeler.Raider is an aggressive play that often creates a free path up the gut for whomever is the last blitzer into the fray. Steeler overloads the perimeter while Cowboy is a DB blitz that crashes a corner, nickel, or safety off the edge while leaving the linebackers in their normal position. Each serves a specific purpose within the defense.Because Strong uses a limited number of Fire Zone concepts and employs the same pattern-matching rules, it’s simpler for the players. In Diaz’s system, you often saw defenders struggle with some of the roles in his Fire Zones, resulting in gaping holes in the D which B12 spread offenses were well versed in exploiting.Fire Zones have become somewhat less common in the B12 these days because they move defenders into less traditional roles, for instance perhaps asking the weak safety to drop down into the middle linebacker role. However, when installed with this level of simplicity, the defenders have a chance to become strong at executing their assignments well enough to take advantage of the Fire Zones’ advantages.Strong will also certainly employ some 2-deep coverages but expect the single deep safety coverages to be home base for the defense against B12 squads.Sound?Do you know why Texas has struggled with the QB run game so much for the last several years? Because the defense has not been sound against the option.This is true for the simple reason that Texas’ DC’s have not adapted well enough to the inclusion of the forward pass into packaged plays. Examine this nasty play run by the UCF Knights with future 1st rounder Blake Bortles:Link:’s a zone read with the QB having the option to exploit the flat defender on the weakside by throwing a quick out to the #2 receiver. Against this option play you need to be able to handle the Inside Zone run by the RB, the QB keeper on the edge, AND the quick out pass to the #2 receiver. You didn’t have to worry about that last option with the Wishbone.Teams like Baylor will also pair the zone read concept with a bubble route on the perimeter, or a draw play with a spacing throw to the middle. These plays devastate traditional defensive approaches that treat an option play as follows:1. Unblocked DE steps inside to take away the interior running lane.2. Linebacker scrapes wide to handle the outside running lane.These rules were essentially based in stringing the option out to the sideline and killing it with speed and pursuit. So offenses finally responded by nullifying defensive speed with conflict.Previously, the linebackers and safeties running hard to the edge would have been in charge of covering the receivers that are now running quick pass routes for the QB. How can a defender drop back to cover a route AND attack the option?The now popular “Power-Read” play was also devastating to Texas.This play puts the unblocked defensive end in conflict. The running back (or occasionally sweeping WR) is attacking the perimeter at high speed while the QB is waiting to dart up the gut behind the pulling guard if the unblocked defender widens with the sweeper. Texas followed classic option rules and had the DE stay inside and potentially even try to hit the pulling guard.Well, that left the Texas linebackers to win a footrace against the outside runner and win battles on the edge, where they were ineffective.In either instance, Texas was soft and vulnerable on the perimeter to these concepts. Charlie Strong takes an alternative approach. Whether his D is running a Fire Zone or a four-man rush, the unblocked edge plays do not step inside to take away the RB’s interior pathway.Instead, they stay wide and attack the QB. This then frees up the defenders responsible for covering the #2 and #3 receivers to stay with their assignment and take away the forward pass option for the QB as well. The QB is forced to hand the ball off and hope the RB can navigate the blitz or interior run D.Let’s take a look at some examples:Link 1: you have the zone read play from above with a quick out to the #2 receiver available for Bortles. The DE left unblocked stays wide so that Bortles has nowhere to run. This is essential because the “Buck” player has dropped back to cover the #2 receiver and is poorly positioned to tackle Bortles. Within this defensive response, he’s not in conflict.Now, you take the playmaking responsibility away from the QB and ask the RB to make plays for the offense. UCF’s Storm Johnson was able to cut inside of the DE or find holes from time to time…in this instance “Raider” set up the mike backer to get a tackle for loss.In the B12, taking the ball out of the QB’s hands and putting the playmaking duty on the RB and OL in traffic is a clearly superior option. Particularly against the DL Texas is able to recruit and field.Link 2: time UCF has paired an inside run with the “Y-stick” passing concept we discussed as being a likely feature of the 2014 Texas offense. Bortles thinks the middle linebacker is too far inside to cover the stick route to the #3 receiver so he tries to fire the ball in there.However, the wide path taken by the unblocked DE on this “Steeler” blitz doubles as a way to attack the quick passing game. The defensive end stays wide to force a handoff, then turns and runs at the QB and gets his hands up, resulting in a deflection.The Cover-3 pattern matching defenses of “Orange,” “Tan,” and the fire zones keep defenders in the middle of the field so that they can outnumber the offense and be sound against these option looks. Strong’s approach for the unblocked player keeps the offense from exploiting the edges. No more humiliation from attempting to defend QB run plays!The remaining challenge is in defending the vertical routes employed by B12 offenses. To do this effectively, Texas will simply need to get great play from their cornerbacks and deep safety. However, the wider spacing of a team like Baylor makes this true regardless of the coverage. The inclusion of Fire Zones should also help discourage offenses from attacking Texas with plays like “4 verticals” too often.Disguised?“Orange,” “Tan,” “Steeler,” “Raider,” “Cowboy,” or “Cover-2” will all look exactly the same until right before the snap. When Strong’s front is in the 3-3 package, the offense will also see the exact same front every play before it morphs into a three-man rush, a four-man front, or a Fire Zone.This kind of aggressive disguise is very effective in thwarting spread offenses for two reasons. First, it makes it difficult for that offense to get into the best play call to execute against the D and helps prevent weak spots from being repeatedly targeted.Secondly, there is much greater potential for turnovers. The downside of modern spread offenses with their emphasis on getting the ball out quick before a pass rush can arrive is that if a defense introduces hesitation or disrupts the timing, things can come apart in a hurry.The simplicity and sound principles of Strong’s schemes and rules allow his defenses to look complicated but remain simple for his own players.This is how you assemble a team that rides aggressive defense to a BCS contention at a basketball school. This is how you take down 2008 Oklahoma with a young secondary. This is how you take advantage of having access to the best athletes in the conference and field a defense that can shut down B12 spread option football.

History major, football theorist.