We spent the first three articles visiting the offensive side of football strategy. In the last article we looked into the three strategic offensive forms employed by most teams; aggressive, reactive, and “sandlot”. That was all tied in to the selection of a type of offense, and then the issues regarding selecting the personnel for that offense. First, all of that applies to defense. It’s going to surprise exactly zero people that you have to pick a defensive strategy, the personnel to make it work, and then deal with executing the defense given those two conditions.
Shaky Building Blocks Require Lots of Development
There is a difference, however. It’s a critical one at that. Defense is entirely reactive. That is Strategic Reality #1 and all of the humming and bucking about running a defensive scheme like an offense is well “hum” and we’ll leave it there. The perception is that high school football programs tend to be pretty dismissive of defense. The taxi squad might go down as the worst abuse of young talent ever perpetrated; but the impulse to go with the “Best 13” instead of the “Best 25” is a fundamental issue in high school football. That impulse even includes shortening the game by 12 minutes. There is probably a big part of the “concussion” issue that is difficult to avoid, here. The tendency for programs to run most of their players on both sides of the line of scrimmage is a health/injury issue as well as a knowledge problem. The drive to study the practice and the impetus to fix it at the league level is still too low to be pursued, though.
Hey it’s just more proof that defense does not get the functional respect and training commitment that would make it a more developed discipline for most players in their first years at the collegiate level. It’s just a serious afterthought in High School.
The taxi squad does two things personnel wise that make defensive scouting a bit different from offensive talent evaluation. It’s just really hard to see interior linemen do their jobs, and it is even more difficult to balance the grades between offense and defense. That means the players are often observed on offense, and then defense is a function of the scout team. This isn’t exclusive, there are some pure defensive players in high school, but the rule tends to be that players are evaluated and sorted later. We have seen this kind of thing happen several times where a 2-way high school player starts off on offense and then ends up on defense. We’ve also seen the converse happen. It’s just not all that shocking but it does present some serious challenges to the defensive coaches.
Accepting that Defense is Ultimately Reactive
Let’s go back to the first function under the new step down header that strategically speaking, defense is reactive. The issue is then exactly what sort of defensive strategy is the team going to use? It’s easy to assert certain defensive discipline it’s much more difficult to answer that assertion.
What do most defenses do, then? Let us “assert” a defensive posture. The ideal defense has a large, quick defensive line that controls the line of scrimmage, contains the outside paths past the line of scrimmage, and forces the opposing team to make reactive adjustments that create one dimensional play. The ideal linebackers (two core backers, three in non-nickel formations) are quick, strong, tackle surly, but also have the ability to put heavy pressure in penetration situations. The perfect secondary has two shutdown cornerbacks who can cover the primary receivers man-to-man, a Strong Safety who can operate as the fourth linebacker, and the free safety who not only provides the emergency backstop, but can cover routes and ball hawk. It that configuration sounds a bit suspicious it should. That was the 2016 and 2017 Virginia Tech defense, the latter being one of the best defenses in the nation, and certainly one of the best Tech has fielded in a great while. It did have some weaknesses, though and we’ll talk a bit about them later in the series, but suffice it to say the 2018 Hokie offense knitted together with the 2017 defense would have challenged for the top 10. (My opinion, of course).
Most college defenses are flavor variations of a four man defensive line, with three linebackers, two corner backs and two safeties. Everything else is a combination scheme “voodoo” and sweat equity. Last season there was a good deal of sweat, but the voodoo seemed to be a bit beyond the grasp of the staff. Truthfully, if you are going to look at example of the best of collegiate defenses, Bud Foster’s Bear Front 4-2-5 is brutally difficult to beat; when he has the personnel to pull it off. The 4-2-5 only part is the strategic choice, though. Foster has been forced into adjustments to that mix. There have been several years where Tech didn’t really have the full linebacker talent at hand so the defense morphed into more of a 4-1-6 where there was a Rover and a Whip on the field at the same time. That configuration is called the Dime package and it saw a major workout several times since 2009.
Defensive Styles and Realities
The big strategic challenge for the defensive coordinator is how not to allow the tactical planning and structural adjustments to damage the base defensive strategy for the program. Again, we have a reactive situation. Defensive planners have to defend against “something” and that means balancing the big three of strategic choices. You have seen these in the article about Offensive Execution, but the function is bumped down one level, and the descriptions change just a bit.
Reactive Defense – The Universal Baseline
The first type of defense is totally reactive. The DC plays a sort of odds game and works to configure the defense to meet a potential play threat. This sort of game generally works because most offensive teams are very “tracked” in their thinking and execution. Just like most baseball players rarely play above their statistical averages; most football offenses rarely play outside of their statistical averages. Most coaching staffs now have computer geeks with loads of displays, bar graphs, spider webs, probability curves, and the like to help them decide how best to shade the safety to the right a bit to cover a problem back, or move the Rover up to cover the slot receiver or have him cover the Tight End/H-Back instead of relying on a slower footed linebacker. All of those choices take some anticipation and some forethought. What it isn’t; a guarantee that the play configuration is even remotely good. That’s where the athletic skill and reaction time comes in to the equation. No matter how you plan, the defense is always in reactive mode. A totally reactive defense looks to minimize the number of reactions necessary to get the ball back.
Aggressive Defense – The Riverboat Gambler’s Delight
The second type of defense is aggressive. That can be a really dangerous proposition for most defensive coaching staffs. Overly aggressive defenses are often overcompensating for something that is missing from the squad. Over pursuit in the defensive line means getting your slats kicked when the running back counters or the quarterback hits a quick wheel route, or screen pass. Aggressive linebackers can rack up the big time tackles, but where are those tackles occurring? If they have over pursued, or are out of position that tackle could be +8 or +12 for the offense. That’s either a first down or close to it. I remember a coach telling me that there are only 8 8 yard runs on the field before you are in some real trouble. How many free safeties have forgotten that their position is also their function, and they are the last guy between the ball and the goal line? Most of those big mistakes are not passive; they are active and overly aggressive. THEN, though there is the tension of the reality of that an offense allowed an average of 6 to 8 yards a play is scoring. So, being totally reactive and less aggressive has its disadvantages.
The Goldilocks of Perfect Reaction and Aggression
The final Goldilocks defense is a version of Aggressive. It is like the Sandlot Offense in that it depends heavily on the skills and leadership of one or two key players. It really doesn’t have to be a backfield presence. We know what we lost when the Edmunds brothers left the defense. It wasn’t just skill; it was also that leadership core in the backfield. Who can forget Darryl Tapp, and his 2002-2006 domination and leadership from the Defensive End position? Sometimes there are just defenses that can successfully mix aggression with tactical reaction because the players make the difference, not the scheme.
The Hokie Angle
How does this fit into the Hokie scheme of things? There have been a few examples that have been pushed into the analysis. The fact remains that Virginia Tech’s defense is the third operation. It’s the risk taking, aggressive defense that is too often too small on the inside, and too short in the middle. The Hokies don’t fight for the hashtag #LBU, they do contend for the #DBU appellation; however. And no, no one is ever going to pat Bud Foster on the back for putting a dominant powerful defensive line on the field. As a matter of some exasperation and disapproval from more defensive minded Hokie fans, Foster can credibly be accused of fielding lineman that are too small to do the job. When he finally got a few appropriately sized Tackles playing together; Walker and Settle come to mind immediately, he couldn’t keep them on the field long enough due to those eligibility issues that we covered in the Personnel article. Hey, Tech is not known as #DLU... It just isn’t.
That leads to the conclusion, that if the Offense is led by scheme, the defense is dominated by personnel. Well, in 2018, Hokie Nation saw that reality by the bushel full. Critical graduations in the secondary were tough. Four surrenders of eligibility (including Adonis) were all on the defense. Then the coaching controversy and temporary substitution, and a sorely undersized and injured line with the loss of a critical Defensive End to a still not well understood controversy just heaped fuel on a fire that was just going to have to burn out.
No amount of Bud Foster Pixie Dust or “Enter Sandman” jumping was going to get a crippled defense of freshmen and sophomores to perform that far above their heads. The resulting inconsistencies were to be expected. Literally everything broke down; all we needed to hear was that the defensive team bus had lost an axle on the way from the Hotel Roanoke to Lane Stadium to put a capper on the season on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Even then, it was the offense that had to scramble to tie it up. The defensive miracle at the cap of the Overtime – as Emmanuel Belmar stood up with the fumble and stopped the clock with us up 3 is the final measure of where things could have been. It wasn’t because of heart and personnel choices were making a difference.
Just a note that the players ending that game are all leaders of the 2019 Hokie Roster, and all will be making differences in many more games to come.