spoiler alert: i linked this
No this isn't a "3-4"; well it is a 3-man front with the nose over the center,
but not a 3-4, let me explain.
Various people reporting back from practice have noticed three (or fewer) guys with their hands down, and said "oh they're going 3-4." Soon enough people pick up on this, figure a new DC means a new defense, and whiteboards across the state get sales points erased in favor of X's and O's with arrows diving between X's.
Mattison was asked about the 3-4 look in his breakout Q&A and had this to say:
"We ran that last year. What we're doing on defense is trying to see what scheme fits the players."
I know we've hashed the 4-3 under a bunch on this site but I could never walk by a boardroom with football drawings on it (this is probably why I lost that job) so here we go again.
Everyone Runs Everything. Calling a defense a "3-4" or "4-3" or any one thing at this level is not ever going to be accurate, because defenses change up gaps and show different looks so offensive linemen won't know exactly who's got what gap every time. In the process of showing that you might be running 3-4, sometimes you actually have guys two-gapping. If you have a really special player you might do that even more. But general rule is everyone runs everything, and the best you can do to describe any single defense is what their base is. Everything else will stem from the base.
Alignment vs. Philosophy
Alignment is where you put your players before the snap; philosophy is what they're being tasked with. The two-gapping philosophy has become synonymous with the 3-4 alignment, and the one-gapping philosophy is thus tied to the 4-3. The major difference between these philosophies is understood better by using the "gap" terms.
…means you have one to three defensive linemen responsible for controlling a blocker instead of a gap between those blockers. His job is to get into that guy and be in a position to tackle if the run goes to either side. He's not left out to dry; the two-gap philosophy gives you a free hitter from the second level who watches the play then reacts. Think of it as man defense for run fits, i.e. the defenders all have a certain offensive player they're responsible for beating, the free hitter's being the ballcarrier.
You can do this if you have a super large nose tackle, the classic example being Wilfork on the Patriots. You can look at the above diagram and see the downside of two-gapping: if that left guard releases and the center holds up, you have a blocker eating your free hitter downfield. Two-gapping is a luxury you can have if the guy you have two-gapping is able to do it effectively.
A two-gapping defensive lineman needs to get that control established early, so lining up directly over the guy he's going to control is rather important. So a base 3-4, two-gapping defense will line up almost always with the nose tackle directly over the center, thus threatening the two-gap assignment, and still in position to change it up.
Remember that these are not set-in-stone gap assignments, just common ones. You change these up from play to play.
This is your basic "everyone has a gap" defense and the philosophy behind both the 4-3 even/over and 4-3 under. It is zone defense of run fits. Coaches who use this as their base, however, call it the more "aggressive," because football coaches describe the way they eat an ice cream cone "aggressive," yes, but also because the linebackers and linemen aren't diagnosing anything before taking their first steps of the play.
Instructively, one of the terms used often for the 4-3 over is the "Miami 4-3" because Jimmy Johnson used it to great effect when he had access to a lot of very athletic yet not very coachable defensive players. The concept was fast guys hitting their gaps and penetrating upfield to cause disruption.
You'll note that the 4-3 under picture is nearly identical to the 3-4, one-gapping example image above. That's pretty much what a 4-3 under is: a nose tackle and two large DL who set up in a position to take on double-teams so the LBs can attack their gaps. Philosophically everyone has one gap, but guys start taking on different roles: the NT is shaded to strongside so he'll need to be a bit more of a plugger; the SDE is further inside and has to be able to take on doubles like a DT; the other DT is further out and can be a little more end-ish; the WDE has a one-on-one battle with the OT, and can be a little more linebackerish; and the SAM has to be part-DE to compensate for the fact that he's the edge defender instead of the SDE.
Because it looks so much like the 3-4 defense it can threated to do 3-4 things. That gets us to the point of what Durkin does with his defenses, and what Michigan is expected to do this year: threaten two-gapping as a changeup.
Here's a play from Florida-FSU last year and you'll recognize the alignment as 3-4 (or would be 3-4 except weakside OLB is pulled for a nickel):
Nose tackle is right over the center. Ends are right over the tackles. You are thinking all sorts of Wilforky things. But this is still a one-gapping defense and you'll see why off the snap:
Right there is a good shot of the roles of 4-3 under defenders. The NT and 3-tech have double-teams; as long as they don't give up ground and stay engaged with those dudes they're keeping the LBs clean and keeping their holes closed. The five-tech has a guard (he'd be doubled if the run was going the other way), and the two MLB-types (the WLB and MLB) can flow into gaps (the MLB is blitzing his). The SAM has his edge. The difference here is the WDE has been pulled for a nickel, a dramatization of the fact that a 4-3 under WDE is often in coverage.
Here's how it's drawn up:
(orange arrow means player's in zone coverage and watching his gap; black=rushing).
On that play the nickelback (5'10"/206 junior Brian Poole, Florida's hybrid space player) came down inside and got blocked by the slot receiver, giving up the edge and leading to a big run since the free safety was deep in coverage. If not for that, Poole should have been in perfect position to hold this down.
You Sure Durkin is a 4-3 Guy?
Durkin likes to accomplish the base thing from a gazillion different looks; I predict defensive UFRs with regular opening shots of Brian trying to name things. Here are the formations for every play leading up to that one:
What defense is this? It's a philosophically 4-3 (one-gapping) multiple-front thing that likes to have speed on the edges, either from standup WDE/SAMs or putting hybrid space players in there with edge responsibility. IE what Michigan's been since 2011.
What About 3-3-5?
The 3-3-5 stack also uses two-gapping as a base threat, though neither Rocky Long nor Jeff Casteel have often had access to a nose tackle capable of doing it consistently. The point of the 3-3-5 is it gives up starting position for the threat of attacking from anywhere.
Remember how GERG was terrible at this? It's because he was a 4-3 coach teaching 4-3 philosophy, and that took away the unpredictability of this defense.
My biggest takeaway from last night is Michigan will need a very strong and well-coached front seven if Harbaugh is to pull a 1969 next Thanksgiving weekend.
The key to Michigan's dramatic defensive improvement in 2011 was that Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison gave Michigan's defense an identity. They went to a 4-3 under, single-gap run defense that Mattison brought from the Ravens, and over the course of the year found the best fits for the guys on hand.
|Durkin knew Mattison from his Charlie Weis pants days. [photo: Joe Raymond|Freep]|
You remember, despite the relative success of this transition, that some fits were more or less awkward than others. Jake Ryan was a perfect SAM. Ryan Van Bergen worked as a 3-tech or a 5-tech. Mike Martin played nose because nobody else could, and his disruption was deployed with a lot of stunts, or weird stuff like when they came up in an Okie and Martin dropped back to essentially MLB. Roh at WDE was a solid run defender but wasn't built to take advantage of that WDE-tackle matchup that's supposed to produce natural pressure.
Last year of course they went to a 4-3 over base alignment, making Jake Ryan into an awkward MLB because the alternative was Beyer as a really awkward 5-tech. The kicker: offenses were forcing Michigan to play nickel 50% to 90% of snaps, which made Ryan into either an undersized defensive end, or a guy on the sideline.
JMFR is gone but Mattison will still be around, joined by new defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin. At the Cleveland event last night I suggested Mattison’s role will be as sensei to Durkin, who hasn’t really flown solo yet (Muschamp was very involved with that defense).
It adds up to a belief that Michigan won’t change its defensive style for 2015, but what is that style? Coverages are another matter; just speaking to the front seven: should they be the under that they recruited for, or the over they transitioned to?
Refresher on 4-3 philosophy
Mattison and Durkin both coached (Durkin as a graduate assistant for one year) under Bob Davie at Notre Dame, who with Jackie Sherrill developed the Texas A&M "Wrecking Crew" defense. Jimmy Johnson (another Sherrill acolyte) took it a step further in Miami, and Pete Carroll now runs in Seattle.
You’ll note that they used different alignments. Johnson’s defenses were the genesis of the 4-3 over, and so influential that this is what people usually mean by “4-3” defense, as opposed to Tom Landry’s base version. Carroll’s been coaching the 4-3 under since he learned it directly from Monte Kiffin, who developed it at Nebraska.
The under alignment was not the base concept; the real philosophy in Kiffin's terms was to give his defensive linemen simple assignments so they could play with aggression and disruption. The benefit of one-gapping is no defensive linemen stopping to diagnose the play. Once the ball is snapped, all of these defenses want those brains thinking "go!", "put my hat in a gap," "be a factor," and "attack that block!"
Mattison used a mix in Baltimore because he had Ngata, but at Michigan he’s had an almost exclusively gap-attacking defense. The question has been what alignment to run it out of, and that’s a question of which players fit it best.
(Start at 1:17)
So which alignment is Michigan going with this year? I think again it’s a question of personnel? I make diagram.
Michigan’s short on red dudes
The above is my attempt at showing the spectrum of qualities emphasized by the front seven positions in the 4-3 over versus the 4-3 under. I also gave a small approximation of color fits for guys I know something about (Spur-like objects like Gant and Wangler left out because I ran out of colors to depict DB-ness).
It's meant to show what we mean when we talk about the why nothing's a perfect fit for the talent on hand. Suggestions for improved shading are welcome. Takeaway from this experiment: Michigan's front the next few years may be better at throwing out different looks than it will be at rotating through shark teeth.
If you trust my judgment on the shading above, the over appears to remain the best fit for the guys we have, provided they can find some backup ends (the glut of DE/DT tweeners remains). As Mattison mentioned in the video above, the half of the time you’re in nickel to counter a 3- or more-wide look, you’re in an over anyway. D.J. Durkin used a lot of smaller players and changed things up a ton at Florida, and I expect the future will be a truly multiple defense with versatile front seven players. I expect when they can’t run Ojemudia and Charlton out there at the ends, Durkin will experiment with linebacker-ish dudes out there.
Those Van Bergenian thighs. That Clarkian pass rush. That responsible chin…[Fuller]
Final reminder to settlers along Lake Erie: We're coming to your Cleveland on Monday to talk about…I dunno…basketball or kickers or something. We've now added "Big Ed" Muransky to the lineup. Here's some footage of Muransky (#72 right, sometimes left tackle) as a sophomore against MSU, courtesy of WH. The rest of "we" are Brian, John U. Bacon, [huge gap in how much you care] and myself.
We've got the area reserved behind the bar through 11, and there's about 100-120 people coming, which means when the Ohio State fans show up later to watch the national championship game there'll be this wall of Michigan fans to greet them. And a bearded blogger guy rooting loudly for Oregon…while standing behind Big Ed Muransky.
Huge thanks to this lemon-eater for setting it up.
OT don't care SVG is boss: The Pistons cut their best player then ripped off a seven-game win streak. To win #6 they had to preserve a 1-point lead from the defending champions on the road, so Van Gundy used the last rasps of his weakening voice to demand the stones "Just form a [bleep]-ing wall." So I formed an effin' t-shirt.
If you hate this one you're all fired. My "IT'S H4PPENING" shirt is gone now but we've got several other new offerings if you haven't been on the store lately:
Not this again! New coaches mean new schemes to learn and WMUKirk did an amazing job in two diaries of showing how Durkin likes to play chess. Part 1 got into the base stuff and Part 2 was about how he mixed those to stay one step ahead of Jameis Winston's reads. There's this from Part 1:
What I've noticed is he doesn't deviate from 4 basic coverages. Quarters, Cover 3 Press, Cover 1, and his favorite blitz is the Fire Blitz from the QB's blind side. He hardly ever runs Man Under, Tampa 2, or Cover 0. He values speed and isn't against running a 3-4 with 3-3-5 personnel.
Florida's 3-3-5 was lifting one of the middle linebackers for a safety/spur/hybrid space player dude, and looked thusly:
The WDE is a pass rusher type and is standing up. On 1st and 15 this is Xtreme speed.
That's a 3-3-5 but not a Casteel stack; it's more like one of Mattison's okies except the MLB is a LB, not Mike Martin.
[Cont. after the jump]
We shall have to *press* our *quarters*. Ha ha! do you smoke the pun dear Maturin?
We've been talking about how Michigan State's defense worked and how Michigan's this year and in the future could be using that as a model. I've brought up how the 4-3 over works, but the genius of Dantonio's defense is really in how he does coverage. Since it seems this is what Michigan will be doing, I thought a lay understanding of it wouldn't go amiss just now.
Coaches, you can offer corrections or tune out because this is going to be a little more basic. Spartans, try not to be too offended at the butchery I make of your wonderful defense. You are truly our state's top program and in no way does continuing to whine about a statement a 21-year-old made in 2007 make you petty.
Now let's go to the alignment above. We're looking at a 4-3 over; the defensive line is shifted to the "strong" side (technically Michigan's offense is balanced but the side with the two TEs is strong. Also that's the field side). We're also looking at a defense that is really creeping up. The safeties are 7 and 8 yards off the line of scrimmage, the linebackers are 4 yards off, and the cornerback at the bottom of your screen is in press. The variant on the 4-3 over is the defensive ends spread out (the SDE is in a wide-9 tech, the WDE completely outside the RT's shoulder), and the linebackers group in closer to compensate.
This is "aggressive." The guys apparently in charge of the deep part of the field are further off the line of scrimmage than the running back. There's a mismatch on your right, where a cornerback is matched against a tight end (Butt), but that hardly matters since any run is going right into a pile of bodies.
Cover 2 and Cover 2 Man
Getting up and bothersome to any receivers near the line of scrimmage has big benefits. The receiver will have a hard time getting into his route, throwing off the timing of the play and ensuring the offense gets nothing cheap like a quick out or in. A good press corner will prevent his receiver from getting into an easy route like a slant (the old fashioned man-coverage beating route). The danger of this is the press doesn't work all the time and then you've got a receiver accelerating downfield past a cornerback who's facing the wrong way. For this reason press teams would leave the safeties back to help. It ends up functionally not that different from Cover 2.
Of course that has a downside as well. While each receiver has 1.5 guys occupied with him, you've got the safeties and outside linebackers chasing the passing game instead of manning the run gaps. Defensive rule numero uno is don't be easy to run on.
A very popular alternative these days is Quarters. The link will explain further but simply put, with quarters coverage the cornerbacks and safeties have option routes depending on what the receivers do. They watch the inside guy (in a stack it's the back guy). If he goes vertical the safety has him; if he goes into the flat, the cornerback does and the safety plays Cover 2.
Watch this gif from the above link until you get a feel; the left side is the #2 receiver going vertical and the right side is him going into the flat.
"Going vertical" as I learned it, is the receiver going 8 or more yards downfield before making a turn. This is a strong coverage technique to cover the outside and downfield stuff the receivers will do, and leaves the linebackers available to cover short Cov 2 routes and react to the run. It's very base; the best way to beat it is to have your running game outmatch their front seven. The safeties are able to stand back and read, so like Cov 2 they're available to cut down whatever made it through. That's good enough for Virginia Tech, who's been running Quarters and been solid against the run for a decade and a half. But it wasn't good enough for Dantonio.
Very Aggressive Quarters
You may have already smoked out the difference between Michigan State's alignment against Michigan and the Cover 4 look that quarters starts out in. You've got that cornerback pressing a guy, for one. And the other thing: if the coverage is waiting until the inside guy is 8 yards downfield to be sure of their decision, and the safeties are standing 7 yards off the line of scrimmage, aren't they setting themselves up for one of those "hey maybe I oughtta be chasing this guy who just ran by me." things?
State will pack their guys in the box so linebackers and safeties are right there to stop the run. The linebackers squeeze laterally into the box, so the coverage is strongest inside (knowing this, offenses don't typically expect to find open guys there, leaving those LBs free to run Narduzzi's favorite Double-A gaps blitz).
That makes them very stout against the run, but should have a weakness tradeoff against outside passes. If the #2 receiver goes vertical the safety has to turn and go with him, meaning there's zero help for the cornerback.
State's answer to that: "So what!" This is where stretching the boundaries of pass interference comes into play, because the cornerback's job is to grab anything, pay off anybody, or sacrifice however many livestock and virgins it takes to keep that receiver from getting downfield.
Here's where Dantonio's program development comes into play, because it takes a long time for cornerbacks to get to the point where their press will work often enough that the quarterback stops expecting that guy to be open. Also they have to be ready for what coaches will do to screw with them.
It's also where finding good players comes into play. You can't get away with this if you have crappy Indiana safeties. There's tremendous strain put on the defensive backs to play up and still cover deep; if they can't handle it (and the offense has any kind of downfield passing ability) the jig is up.
In the defense's favor: in the college game, especially the game today where Tom Brady wannabes are less common than Denard Robinson wannabes (i.e. guys who are running threats but hardly devastatingly accurate deep passers), an offense that can rip you over the top is a rare cove indeed. The talent-depleted Big Ten has been short on defense-stretching receivers; a good 40% of Big Ten wideouts who'd pose a major threat to this scheme play for Maryland. Braxton Miller has a lot going for him but he tends to sail such passes over his open guys' heads. Devin Gardner, especially a beat up Devin Gardner, has a tendency to underthrow, turning open receivers into a game of Five-Hundred. Hackenberg might have success but his best targets are tight ends; Sudfeld has a similar problem now that his slot dude is the last man standing. And omigod can you just imagine what happens when this thing meets Gary Nova? "Like a Wrecking Ball" don't enter into it!
Last year Borges tried to screw with the Quarters reads by making it unclear who's the #1 or #2 receiver to that side, either with stacks or putting 3 receivers to the same side or like this (watch the WRs at the top of the screen):
Michigan ran just a two-man route, motioning the outside receiver into the inside receiver. Ultimately Funchess leapt a million feet in the air to beat Drummond to the outside, but look how seamlessly the Spartan defensive backs executed this and made it hard.
A novice might have a hard time with who's 1 or 2, but not a 5th year senior. Dantonio built his program, like Wisconsin's, on retention. He'll hold onto guys for three or four years usually before they see the field (or else the kids have to beat out the upperclassmen). It also makes those elders kind of crucial because the depth chart carries a lot of pressmen in training.
So for the first few seconds of the play, it's kind of Cov 2 man with everybody so bunched near the line of scrimmage that the run game will be right there and obvious, and thus easy to stop. Then quarters rules take over. And it can't be cracked wide open because pass interference isn't likely to be called unless you're playing at Notre Dame.
Can Michigan do this? Actually it's probably the best thing for the defensive personnel the coaches have collected, since the one thing we seem to have a glut of is really good cornerbacks, and more in development.
Click to big. Right-click to open in a separate window so you can reference it as you go.
A few weeks ago I promised to finish this piece on the differences for Michigan's personnel in the 4-3 over. Sorry.
Refresher: What's a 4-3 Over? What you're looking at are alignments of the front seven. The "under" shifts the defensive line away from the strength of the defense and the linebackers swing the opposite way to compensate. Michigan would often align this to the hash rather than the offense, shifting the DL toward the sideline.
The "over" shifts the line the opposite way, but not to such an extreme. The linebackers wind up centered over the ball, and the DL spread across the formation. There is nothing 3-4 about it except the nose tackle.
Last time I talked about how going from a base under to a base over will demand the WDE and 3-tech play a little bigger, the SDE can play more like a rush end, and the nose's job stays pretty much the same except he's now the backside DT. Now on to the second level.
Strongside Linebacker (SAM): James Ross/Royce Jenkins-Stone
The 4-3 under is tough to run against—often they wind up blocking the backside DE in hopes of getting something from a cutback, since it's hard for the LT to get to anybody else. That meant the WLB could be a free hitter
On inside zone that strongside (right) tackle is trying to get a free release. The 3-tech could get aggressive and slow him up but the danger of playing aggressively on the DL against a zone running team is you open up the backside. The faster the OT gets out to the second level the more room there's going to be for the running back to dodge around the DT. A SAM who can read IZ quickly will be all up in that OT's face, able to affect both frontside gaps without opening up the backside cut. Every half-second of delay on the SAM's part is another yard for the offense.
But the SAM can't get crazy-aggressive attacking the OT or the C gap because that tight end is an eligible receiver, and there's another receiver on that side of the formation who could be slanting or dragging. Since the guess is Michigan wants Jake Ryan to be aggressive in the middle, Ross will end up in a lot of zone drops or in man-to-man on the tight end.
The fit: The WLB in the 4-3 under that James Ross played last year isn't hugely different, but it wound up playing differently because Ross was constantly having to take on blockers thanks to Michigan's Jibreel-Black-is-a-NT stunt-a-thon. His quick-twitch reads will be an asset, and his speed and coverage ability will be also. Michigan State's defense had Denicos Allen blitz a ton from this position, and got away with it because the handsy press coverage took care of the slant/drag passes that punish it, and because they had Max Bullough to read and react at MLB. Ross will get to blitz more than he did as the backside linebacker, but I'm guessing Michigan would rather he be the read-react-hit-spill dude so Jake Ryan can go viking.
[jump for the other two spots]
This here Friday because not enough for Dear Diary.
What do you think of the transition to a 4-3 over? Who else is running it? Is it so much of a shift?
Ace: While I was skeptical at first—it felt like a bit like a panic move—I've started talking myself into this being a positive change. The main reason is that it should allow Michigan to generate more of a pass rush, and in less predictable ways. Seth pointed out the benefits for both Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer in his post—they slide into roles more suited to their abilities in a way that gets them on the field at the same time. Add in the ever-present threat of Jake Ryan blitzing up the middle and I think the pass-rush will be improved thanks to this switch.
|When you have Clark and Beyer (and Ojemudia and Taco etc.) available this isn't the best use of Jake Ryan [Fuller]|
The defense should also be better suited to go against spread attacks by keeping Ryan in the middle. He no longer has to worry about playing over slot receivers or being the primary defender against bubble screens, and when Michigan goes to a nickel, they'll most likely lift James Ross for a defensive back—adding coverage without losing much from the pass rush.
Keeping the linebackers clean against the run is also easier in a 4-3 over; Iowa's linebackers were very successful last year in part because their alignment allowed them to roam free sideline-to-sideline—I was dumb enough to confuse "DTs aren't making plays" for "DTs not doing their job" in that post, when it turned out Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Passat were really good at holding up against double teams while the Hitchens/Morris/Kirksey trio combined for 35.5 TFLs despite rarely blitzing. I highly doubt Greg Mattison's defense will be as passive as Iowa's, but the Hawkeyes still provide a solid blueprint for how to get better production from the linebackers.
That brings me to my biggest concern, however, which is the defensive tackles. I believe the Henry/Pipkins combo will hold up fine at the nose, but the lack of experience at 3-tech is worrisome. The good news is both Chris Wormley and Matt Godin—the likely rotation there, along with Ryan Glasgow—were tweener DE/DT recruits with large frames, solid strength at the point of attack, and some concern about their edge-rushing ability; the last part matters much less now, and as long as they're not ceding ground with regularity, the experienced linebackers should be able to work behind them (Northwestern's linebackers managed to stand out in their 4-3 over even though their DTs routinely let the seas part).
My other main concern is how Ryan will handle more offensive linemen releasing to block him at the second level, but I have the feeling he'll figure it out. It's clear the coaches have been planning this shift for a while—see: Noah Furbush, MLB recruit—and despite a few minor bumps along the road I still have a great deal of trust in Mattison. If, as advertised, this shift allows the defense to be more aggressive in general and more adaptable against spread attacks specifically, I'm on board.
[Jump: Brian and BiSB go over this more. HA!]