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Gobbler Country Playbook: Considering Defensive Tactics

The Gobbler Country Playbook looks at tactical defensive considerations. It’s still all about personnel and reaction. What matters is how experienced the personnel are, and can the adjustments be made as the situations change.

The Defensive line from 2017 at the Pitt game.
John Schneider - SB Nation

One would think that this is a relatively easy topic. Defense is more often than not treated as an exception to the entirety of the game of football. It certainly is an afterthought in high school, where taxi squads dominate and coaches leave their better practiced defenders on the bench; preferring to field their “stars” than players who do the grunt work in practice who might actually be better on the field, in a game situation.

The reality is that defense is not thoroughly taught as a playbook discipline until collegiate play. This makes defense very weak and shaky when conducted by first and second year players. As we covered in our article about strategic defensive planning, more than anything the first item of defense is always the personnel. This is because defense is still nearly entirely reactive.

Game-at-a-Time Reaction as a Plan

Since defense is a reactive function, the Defensive Coordinator is going to have to control what he can to gain the most leverage in the game ahead. So, the film room gets a workout. The team’s assistants spend hours gleaning through films (now it’s mpegs). It pretty much is guaranteed that the following questions will be asked:

  1. What is the Offensive Philosophy of the team this week?
  2. Is the Offensive Coordinator the driver of the offense and not the HC?
  3. What are the usual play groupings, and tendencies?
  4. Who are the players and is there some indication of how they will play?
  • What are the offensive weaknesses? These are the detail things like:
  • Is the O-Line a run heavy or pass heavy?
  • Is the running back/ground game the critical stop?
  • What are the receivers like? How experienced, size, skill sets, etc.?
  • What style of QB do they have? Is he any good in general? Is he more likely to pass or run?

These are some of the critical situations that every game plan preparation must answer before a team steps on to the football field. Here’s the list of hitches that go with the list of research topics:

  • Is the OC (or HC for that matter) a known quantity? If he’s new, he is certainly a planning problem. Most of the “tendencies” are going to go out the window as a part of the plan. You might have game film on individual players, but depending on when the opponent comes up in the season you are going to be relying on whatever limited research from that season. If it’s the 1st three games, you are in for some serious reactivity time.
  • Does he deviate from his tendencies much? This is a critical question. Some OC’s are pretty innovative, have very changeable game plans and can flip detail things on a dime. Many times coaches use some of that to sucker a DC into preparing for Style A, and then smacking his defense with Style B. Preparing for a run heavy offense and being presented with a suddenly prolific passing game is going to present a huge problem.
  • How good are his players? You prepare for certain players to be present, both good ones and not so good ones. If you know that their left guard has been struggling you are going to pick on that wound. If you know that their QB has been devastating with the run, you are going to have to account for that fact. The real dilemma is when there are few perceived weaknesses; even if the offense is pretty mundane in its scheme. A game plan to defend against an Alabama must account for the fact that the Three-Deep is actually Three-Deep, and few players in that depth chart are average.
  • How good are your players? To paraphrase a Real Estate axiom, “It’s personnel, personnel, personnel”. How is your three deep? Can your defensive line get good pressure on the QB without blitz help? Can you actually take advantage of the opponent’s weaknesses, or are they in opposition to your problems? Can you make their offense one dimensional or are you going to be forced to defend the entire field?

These questions are always going to shift around, and may actually remain unanswered until after the kickoff. That is the real challenge in defense. Again, can you react fast enough to keep him out of the end zone, or away from field goal range?

Pure Game Time Tactics

So, you build your plan and your defense. You choose your personnel to fit the anticipated game style being presented by your opponent, and you try to cover all of the bases as best you can. Remember, unless you are some huge program with tons of money and a depth chart dripping with stars, you are going to come up short somewhere. It’s just going to have to be that way and how you deal with that is a key to how successful your defense is going to be.

There are some strategies for dealing with obvious weaknesses that are game to game change elements in any defense.

Passing Teams

Against a pass heavy team, if there are issues in the secondary (ex. Your Boundary Corner is good with Zone but gets beaten often on man coverage) you might “lighten” your Dime package and make the base defense for the game. Lightening the Dime is doing something like adding a Free Safety to the 5 defensive backs instead of putting a Whip (Will Linebacker) or Rover (Extra Strong Safety) into the mix to double team in the zone that you will have to run with your Corner. Against a run heavy team your base dime would be perfect, even with a zone Corner.

When it comes to the 2018 Hokie D, by the middle of the season there were only five experienced defenders, and two of them were hurt. There seemed to be every variation in the playbook used for the 4-2-5/4-3-4 combination. Bud threw the kitchen sink at them, but his sink wasn’t the expensive farmhouse model that you dream of. There is no substitute for experience, and last year’s defense had none to spare for the effort.

There is one other way to defend against a pass heavy team, and that’s to get massive deep penetration through the A-Gap, collapse the pocket, and make the Quarterback a panicked halfback. Tech’s three experienced linemen were reduced to 1 by injury and um… other things.

A Run Heavy Team

Run heavy offenses are pretty standard, mundane, unexciting affairs. Most defenses are built to contain and handle the average running offense. It’s pretty standard stuff, really. Use the linemen to fill the gaps, collapse and control the line of scrimmage, and then have the linebackers roll up and tackle the runners. At least that’s the plan. The reality is that the run heavy offense is rapidly fading from existence unless it is “that” run heavy team. The triple option presents many defenses with a serious challenge. Those defenses that fail at containing it (and scoring more efficiently than it can) will often lose the game for the team. The major issue is how you configure a non-option base defense to deal with the triple option.

You might field a single free safety over the top, and deploy a full “heavy” dime where you run what becomes the old “Oklahoma” Defense which is a 5-4-2. This means that you have 4 linebackers to cover the line of scrimmage and four defensive linemen to shut down the holes and spread the flow to the sideline. Of course that means you are operating with two defensive backs over the top, and gambling that the option pass doesn’t work all that well. Usually that duo is a Free Safety high, and a good speedy Zone Cornerback. Both players have to have their heads on a swivel, though. That also means not getting sucked into covering the run and getting passed on a deep seam route… cough… cough… Paul Johnson Ambush… cough…

The Virginia Tech angle on this one is that we never seemed to be able to deal with the cut/chop blocking scheme at the line of scrimmage. There were more than a few teams that had difficulties, but many managed to do it as Georgia Tech’s hot and cold record would show. Tech’s defensive line was never big enough to crash through the cut blocks (folks there are some of those unwritten rules involved in defeating low blocks) to penetrate along the line of scrimmage deep enough to keep the pitch back from turning the corner for at least 5 or 6 yards. We also had serious flow discipline problems from the limited Linebacking group that would also raise ugly heads for run stops as well. Of course there would, more often than not, be a tackle but too deep to stop the drive. That’s how the option works. It creates a consistent 4 to 5 yard schedule on the ground that even if one play only made 3, virtually guaranteed a 4th down and very short. If you can make a guaranteed 3 yards on every play there is absolutely no reason to punt, ever. Of course where we got trapped was in thinking that we had managed a stop on 3rd and long when the result was 4th and 1. On 4th and 1, Paul Johnson as going for it, no matter where on the field his team was, unless he thought your offense was going to stall out and punt it back to him three or four plays later.

Modern Offenses

Against a Read/Option team (including RPO plays) that has a good passing QB, the options become a bit more complex. You have to pick what is the QB’s weakest hand and do your best to stop the strongest. Yes, you saw that right. You stop their strength, and try to exploit their weakness. Bryce Perkins was not completely stopped, but he was contained and his passing game was really confined to 2 receivers. We weren’t anywhere near perfect against him; but we kept his run yards down and managed to get two critical stops when we needed them. Sometimes winning a football game isn’t about domination, it’s about making do.

Then, of course, there is the reality that the Read/Option with a run heavy Quarterback has just completely flummoxed Bud Foster. He just can’t seem to change his base defense to allow for a consistent rotating spy assigned on each play. The rumors that Foster just doesn’t like to run that sort of specialty configuration (Which is no longer a specialty reaction, BTW… It’s the way most college offenses are working, now.) seem to be confirmed with each game that the defense fails to stop running Quarterbacks. There is always some gap created by an undisciplined over rush, or back side non-containment into which a fleet footed QB manages to dart. A serious case of poor tackling plagued too many games over the last several seasons (including the Beamer Era). The danger of the 3rd down and long letup just kept rearing its ugly head, with long gash after long gash when the series should have been about keeping them punting from their own end zone. Are all of these things fixable by “coaching up”? There hasn’t been a satisfactory answer for that question in over five years.

The Wrap

It is, again, all about personnel and experience. Planning just breaks down too often, and tactics have to swap from series to series, not just game to game. No matter how much heart, desire, or raw athleticism a defense has, it still requires discipline, observation, and teamwork. To be sure, heart and effort do count for something. By the UVA game the defense had reached down and found something to play with. It wasn’t great but it certainly was better. In championship level football, heart is a good thing, but it’s not going to win the big prize at the end.

Next, the Playbook visits Special Teams choices… settling for 3, to punt or not to punt, and kickoff returns.