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Film Review: Examining the Hokies’ Three Man Fronts and Zone Coverage

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How the defense bounced back after a tough loss at ODU.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Duke James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Every defensive coordinator in America wants to get pressure on the quarterback with their front four and drop seven into coverage. It allows so much more freedom on the back end in terms of coverage responsibilities and relieves pressure on the secondary to cover a seemingly endless amount of green grass with the spacing concepts offenses use in this era.

Bud Foster took that one step further, dropping a defensive lineman into coverage on about 60 percent of the defensive snaps against Duke. Considering the loss of Trevon Hill, the team’s most talented pass rusher, it was a bold strategy when facing a quarterback who has played fairly well against the Hokies in his career.

However, this was a strategy that worked on the field much better than I think even Foster anticipated. Essentially, that extra defender helped the underneath coverage, allowing the corners who struggled mightily against ODU to focus primarily on their deeper cover responsibilities. This sort of simplification can be incredibly beneficial to young, developing players who are then allowed to just play football.

Foster did not use classic 34 front look, as he lined up with four defensive linemen on every play. The defensive end on the strong side of the formation would usually drop into coverage. For example, quarterback Daniel Jones motions the tail back from his right to his left, and the defensive line shifts responsibilities in coverage. Belmar drops into the flat instead of Gaines as the strong side of the formation changes.

The issue with this comes from the creation of a favorable numbers advantage in the box to run the ball. At the beginning of this play, there are only five defenders in the box, which means each offensive lineman can be hat-on-hat with a defender and there is potential for a giant gain on the ground. But in their run defense, you can truly see the intensity and effort the Hokies played with that was absent in Norfolk.

The defensive line, specifically Walker and Hewitt disrupt the running lane for the ball carrier, allowing time for Deablo to quickly fill his run fit and Dylan Rivers come from the weak side to bring the the back down.

On this next play, there are five defenders in the box again that have to fly out to the perimeter to stop this toss play. Watch how the defensive line flows to the ball while setting the new line of scrimmage in the backfield. They keep the linebackers clean and free to make plays, a theme of why the trio of Hollifield, Rivers, and especially Ashby were able to stymie Duke’s run game. Also watch Dylan Rivers’ burst to the football – his ability to diagnose outside run plays and beat the pulling offensive lineman is outstanding.

Duke was smart with their play calls, and kept running the ball or calling an RPO if the box was light with defenders. However, down the entire second half, they eventually had to get away from that strategy and shifted towards throwing the football.

Bud Foster’s unit used the eighth man in coverage to implement more zone concepts than I have ever seen him use in a game. I don’t think he called his patented “man-free” defense more than five times on Saturday. Playing zone allowed to keep the play in front of the back seven, where they could use their team speed to rally to the football and make the tackle for a short gain.

A perfect example of this happened later on in the same drive as the first play pictured above. On this 3rd-and-6, the Hokies show another three-man front and only rush those three while playing Cover 3 Bail on the back end with five underneath defenders. Duke attacks this with a Levels concept on the three receiver side of the formation, away from the defensive end dropping into coverage.

The outside receiver and the inside slot run shallow cross routes and sit in the soft spot in the zone. Farley, the outside corner, recognizes that he has no deep receiver running into his zone and keeps an eye on the receiver about to make his break. Farley recognizes this and pulls the trigger with flawless technique, delivering a blow to keep the ball short of the first down marker.

ODU torched the Hokies with explosive chunk plays, many of them coming against man-to-man coverage. Foster provided less opportunities to Duke to take advantage of those situations, forcing Duke to take underneath routes. Man coverage usually means a quarterback has to make tight window throws, but dropping eight into coverage does the exact same thing. Although this pass is completed, check how close it is from being tipped or intercepted.

Defense is about making the offense earn its yards in the toughest manner possible. Sometimes the offense earns those yards, but poor results shouldn’t diminish the detail of the right process.

Virginia Tech was not perfect in zone coverage either, however. It is a near impossible task when some routes break down the rules of who to pass off. Duke scored their first touchdown off a wheel route beating Reggie Floyd in man coverage. The Blue Devils try this concept again on the cusp of the red zone.

The Hokies are in a Cover 2 defense, while Duke runs three verticals, putting the outside corner, Caleb Farley, in a bind on who to follow. Farley takes one step inside before picking up the jet motion receiver who runs the wheel down the sideline but the receiver already has a step on him.

Yes, the pass fell incomplete, but the play design worked and Duke really should have scored if not for an incredible recovery by Farley and a drop by the receiver. Zone coverage is not going to be the ultimate answer to the Hokies’ defensive struggles. Offensive coordinators south of Chestnut Hill are too smart to lose against a well run zone every time, and this is a great example of a concept that has its advantages over certain coverages.

Another example is one of Bud Foster’s favorite zone concepts is inverted Cover 2, and Duke almost beat this coverage for a touchdown as well. The safeties void the deep middle of the field to help guard underneath routes, but this leaves the corners with unfavorable outside leverage should an outside receiver run a post route. That is exactly what happens here.

Quillen is responsible for cutting off the pass deep downfield but that’s a tough cover for anyone, even an Alabama corner. Poor execution once again fails Duke on a perfect play call and play design. Jones leads his receiver too much

The defensive line, even when rushing three was able to generate pressure on Daniel Jones, a dream come true for a defensive back. On Duke’s next offensive drive, they gained one first down before Jones was hurried or faced pressure on three straight drop backs forcing the Blue Devils to punt the ball. The first came on a four man rush where House Gaines timed up the snap count, beat the tackle to the edge by swiping his hands down, and did a heck of a job flattening his rush to sack Daniel Jones to put Duke behind the chains.

Rushing four surprised the Duke offensive line a bit considering Gaines was rushing from a two-point stance, which in this game usually meant he was dropping into coverage. Great tendency breaker.

The next pressure came from a true three down linemen look with Belmar dropping into the flat. The secondary settles into a soft Cover 3 given the down and distance. Gaines comes at the right tackle with a bull rush this time, while Ricky Walker walks back the guard and the center right into Daniel Jones’ lap. This speeds up the decision making process for Jones, who quickly checks it down in the flat to set up a more manageable third and long situation.

Tech registers another pressure on third down. Check out Gaines’ wide-nine technique to give him a good rush angle to Jones, but this play is all made by Belmar’s inside swim move to flush Jones out of the pocket. This a move typically used by quicker defensive tackles to get past offensive guards, but Belmar executes it perfectly here. Although Belmar misses the tackle, a flustered Jones can’t complete the pass to bring up fourth down.

In the third quarter, Virginia Tech only allowed Duke 41 total yards. Against three man fronts on run plays in the period, Foster’s unit only allowed a paltry 2.3 yards per play, which is incredibly impressive when playing with a light box. However, the pass defense received a huge boost with a three man front, only allowing 1.3 yards per drop back in the third quarter. Those are phenomenal numbers. That defensive performance really helped secure the win for the Hokies, as a 17 point fourth quarter deficit proved to be too much to overcome for Duke.

Virginia Tech’s ability to limit Jones on the ground was a third crucial mini-win for the Hokies. We all remember the 2016 game where he ran for over 100 yards, leaving the defense shaking its heads in his wake. The Hokies’ propensity to play man coverage meant that the defenders had their backs to the ball leaving open running lanes for Jones to escape the pocket and pick up huge chunks of yardage. Against zone defense, everyone’s eyes are glued to the quarterback’s movements, making it much more difficult to pick up yardage on the ground. Jones totaled just a single yard on six rush attempts including sacks. Excluding sacks, he ran three times for 14 yards.

We will see if the Hokies run as many three-man front looks against the Fighting Irish three days from now. With this type of front, the Hokies give up less explosive plays, but will also leave themselves exposed to the run to teams with good offensive lines. I expect Foster to mix in the heavy zone looks he showed against Duke, but also much more of his staple defensive calls for the rest of the season. It will be a great way to keep offenses guessing as to what is coming on each play.