Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The 3-4 Opus starring Al Groh......

Warning: Actual Football Content. Another warning: this is a ridiculously long post. War & Peace-esque, if you will. But if you really dig defense you're in the right place. Let me preface this post by saying I am neither a football coach nor did I stay at a Holiday Inn last night. I'm writing this as a primer so we'll have an idea of what changes we will see on the defensive side of the ball next season. Please post any corrections/comments if I've missed something. If you have a question I'll try & answer it.
So we've hired former UVA head coach Al Groh as our defensive coordinator and things will doubtlessly change for the better on the defensive side of the football. Groh is widely regarded as an excellent defensive coach, having worked under Bill Parcells & Bill Belichek, two of the greatest defensive minds ever, in the NFL. Alabama coach Nick Saban is also from this lineage so we know it works in college football. That coaching tree is known for its use of the 3-4 defense which seems to be gaining popularity in college football having been a mainstay in the NFL since the early 80's. So what is the 3-4 and more specifically how does Coach Groh like to run his defense?

Standard 3-4 alignment

The standard 3-4, as you can see above, has three down lineman (two defensive ends & a nose tackle) & four linebackers along with a secondary of two safeties & two corners. Groh calls his defense a "Stack Cover 2". First some strategery. The overall defensive philosophy of the Parcells/Belichek 3-4 from one of Saban's LSU playbooks (courtesy of Smart Football):

"[Our] philosophy on first and second down is to stop the run and play good zone pass defense. We will occasionally play man-to-man and blitz in this situation. On third down, we will primarily play man-to-man and mix-in some zone and blitzes. We will rush four or more players versus the pass about ninety-percent of the time.

In all situations, we will defend the inside or middle of the field first – defend inside to outside. Against the run, we will not allow the ball to be run inside. We want to force the ball outside. Against the pass, we will not allow the ball to be thrown deep down the middle or inside. We want to force the ball to be thrown short and/or outside.

… Finally, our job is to take the ball away from the opponents’ offense and score or set up good field position for our offense. We must knock the ball loose, force mistakes, and cause turnovers.Turnovers and making big plays win games. We will be alert and aggressive and take advantage of every opportunity to come up with the ball . . . . The trademark of our defense will be effort, toughness, and no mental mistakes regarding score or situation in any game."

Expect Tech's defense next year to adhere to the same mantra. Our goals will be the same: defend from the inside out, focusing on the run first & the pass second. We'll be much more of a "bend but don't break defense", focusing on limiting big plays & forcing opponents into sustained drives where they are more likely to make mistakes. How do we do that? Let's start with our defensive line.

The single most important player in a 3-4 is the nose tackle. It all starts with the big fella' in the middle. In our new scheme, the nose tackle will line up in a "0 technique" (head up directly over the center) or in a "1 technique" (angled in to the outside shoulder of the center). First & foremost, the nose tackle must control the two gaps on either side of the center & demand a double team. That's his most important job. If he can be blocked by a lone center or guard the integrity of the defense falls apart. How do you command a double team? Well, you have to be big. And very strong. The ideal nose tackle in a 3-4 is short by football standards and very heavy (generally a minimum of 300 pounds). A low center of gravity & the ability to hold one's ground are essential traits in a 3-4 nose tackle. Coach Groh also preaches what he calls "violent hands" & begins each practice with a series of drills that focus on our defensive linemen using their hands to keep the offensive line away from their bodies, thus making them harder to block. So who will play nose tackle for us? I expect redshirt freshman J.C. Lanier to start there in the Fall. Lanier has fully recovered from shoulder surgery this fall & possesses good size & strength at 6'2" & 315 pounds. I'm sure mammoth RS sophomore T.J. Barnes (6'7", 340) will get a look at NT but he'll have to work a great deal on keeping his pad level lower if he wants to play there next season. Leverage is key for our NT's. Perhaps the best fit at nose tackle is incoming freshman Shawn Green. While Green will most likely redshirt in order to get bigger & stronger, it wouldn't surprise me if he pushes onto the 2-deep depth chart this Fall. Green has prototype NT size (6'1" 295), a terrific build for the position (low center of gravity, strong base) and a very quick first step. He reminds me of a young Vince Wilfork (ThugU/Patriots) - I expect big things.
As far as our defensive ends, they will need to be a little bigger than what we've been used to in the 4-3 as in Groh's defense they will spend a majority of the time playing a "5 technique" (head up on the tackle). Explosiveness off the snap will be paramount as will power - playing head up on the tackle it is pretty difficult to speed rush - that's the outside linebacker's job. Expect our ends to be in the 270-290 pound range as they will be locked up one-on-one with offensive tackles the majority of the time. I expect Jason Peters, Robert Hall (pending his knee being healthy), Izaan Cross, Logan Walls (particularly on obvious running downs), & Emmanuel "TooTall" Dieke to battle it out on the two-deep depth chart this year. Watch incoming freshman Denzel McCoy here in the future. Our most highly touted recruit this year, McCoy projects as a great 3-4 defensive end in the future. He'll most likely redshirt but I expect big things down the line.
One note on coach Groh's philosophy concerning defensive line play. The job of the defensive line in Groh's defense is to keep their pads parallel to the line of scrimmage & occupy blockers, thus allowing the linebackers to make plays. Covering the offensive linemen is the idea - "no creases" is the mantra.
The playmakers in a 3-4 defense are the linebackers. In Groh's 3-4 the outside linebackers are "Jack" & "Sam" while the inside linebackers are "Will" & "Mike". Expect the defense to line up with the "Jack" linebacker on the weak side, followed by "Will", "Mike" & then the other outside linebacker, "Sam", in that order across the field. The "Jack" & "Sam" generally line up one yard outside the offensive tackles on the line of scrimmage. The "Will" & "Mike" or inside linebackers play four yards deep & head up on the outside eye of the offensive guard. One interesting thing to note is that Groh defines the strong side of the offensive formation differently than most defensive coaches. Traditionally the strong side of the offense is the tight end (TE) side as the TE is an extra player on the line of scrimmage. This is the case in Groh's defense unless the offense has a slot receiver (read 2 receivers) on one side of the formation. If that is the case, the two receiver side becomes the strong side. The reason for this is how we scheme pass coverage which I'll get into later but essentially the "Sam" is better in pass coverage & this will allow him to drop into the flat & defend against the hook, curl, or quick slant. A quick break down of the linebackers:
  • "Jack"- this is our hybrid LB/pass rush specialist. Think James Harrison of the Steelers or even Lawrence Taylor (who Groh coached with the Giants). Will need to be bigger than an average linebacker. Michael Johnson would have been perfect in this role. Expect Egbuniwe, RS freshman Euclid Cummings & Chris Crenshaw, and Albert Rocker to get a shot here. Perhaps the frontrunners here are perpetual Jacket A.T. Barnes & Osahon Tongo. Barnes has struggled with consistency throughout his seemingly endless career but this looks to be a great position for him. Tongo was an undersized, pass rushing end in our 4-3 & projects to have the size & speed for the position. In the future incoming freshman Anthony Williams will be a good fit at "Jack".
  • "Mike" & "Will"- these two, along with our nose tackle, form the triangle that is the heart of our new defense. They must be physical players who can stop the run by reading the flow of the play, evading or shedding blocks, & then make a tackle . This is emphasized by the fact that there will always be an offensive guard that is not "covered" by a defensive lineman who will fire out & try to block one of them on every running play. So they must be able to take on this guard, defeat the block, & make the tackle. Expect bigger, more physical linebackers in the middle going forward. Brad Jefferson, at almost 240 pounds, will likely start here. Kyle Jackson, although a little undersized, also has a shot depending on how his foot heals. Lucas Cox is moving to LB from A-back & will also get a chance at one of these spots. Other names in the mix include Hash favorite Julian Burnett & B.J. Machen.
  • "Sam" - Our other outside linebacker will have the obvious run stopping responsibilities of the other LB's but also be more involved in pass coverage. If Barnes doesn't win the "Jack" spot I could see him here along with Stephen Sylvester, Malcolm Munroe, RS freshman Brandon Watts, & true freshman Quayshawn Nealy.
On to the secondary. As I said earlier, Groh calls his defense a "Stack Cover 2" meaning that in the secondary we will line up in a Cover 2 shell the vast majority of the time. That does not, as I'll demostrate later, mean we will always play Cover 2. As defensive guru Yoda likes to say: "tricky bastards, you shall be". So let's start by examining Cover 2. Cover 2 is a zone coverage scheme that simply divides the deep portion of the field (a minimum of 8 but generally 12-15 yards from the line of scrimmage) into zones which your two safeties then cover. The underneath area of the two zones will be covered generally by the cornerbacks or linebackers. Here's a good diagram of Cover 2 in a 4-3 scheme. The front four don't really matter to us at this point so this works as a good example:

Cover 2
There are, of course, hundreds of variations on this. Some you will see from us:
  • Cover 2 Zone. Expect to see this a great deal, particularly on 1st & 2nd down. We'll generally rush four & drop the other players into pass coverage where they each have a zone or area of responsibility. One note is that Coach Groh & those from the Belichek tree of coaching use the concept of pattern reading extensively. I'll get into this superficially in a bit & more in depth in a separate post as it's a very detailed concept that I've just scratched the surface of. Below is a diagram of Cover 2 zone:
Cover 2 Zone (our fourth LB, "Jack", is rushing the passer)
  • Cover 2 Man Under. A Cover 2 shell deep with man-to-man coverage from the cornerbacks & linebackers underneath. A strong variation which we will use frequently if we feel our corners have a favorable match-up with our opponents receivers. Groh prefers this on 3rd down & intermediate distance.
  • Cover 3. We'll use this to try & confuse quarterbacks as we vary coverage. The field is divided into deep thirds where three players then have zone responsibility (usually both corners & the free safety). A variation on this is the famous Tampa 2 where the middle third of the field is covered by the dropping middle linebacker.
Cover 3
  • Cover 1 Robber. A very aggressive coverage that is ideal when you can bring pressure on the QB. Man-to-man underneath (corners on WR's, LB's on the TE & RB) with a lone safety having deep responsibility and the other safety (the robber) patrolling an intermediate area 8-12 yards deep off the line-of scrimmage looking to either read the pattern or the QB & create an interception by getting a great break on the ball before it's thrown. The idea is that the pressure from the rush hurries the QB & he does not see or account for the "Robber" who is then able to make a play. Nick Saban loves him some Cover 1 Robber (a great breakdown by Chris Brown at Smart Football).
Cover 1 Robber
  • Cover 0. Straight up, good old fashioned man-to-man. Groh prefers zone & I seriously doubt we'll play much Cover 0 as the entire object of our defense is to limit big plays.
There are a couple more aspects of secondary play we need to discuss. The first is relatively simple & that's run support. In the 3-4 (as with almost every defense) the cornerback's role is to force the play to the outside while the safety fills the gap left by the corner & makes the tackle. This is obviously easier said than done but that's the scheme. The other concept, which is new to our defense this year, is pattern reading or pattern matching. This is a very advanced concept that has come into favor over the last several years. It's interesting to note that the coaches in the national championship game this year (Saban, Smart, Muschamp) are some of the biggest proponents of pattern reading. So what is pattern reading?
Well, in a nutshell, in the traditional 3-4 zone defense players would simply drop to a pre-assigned spot according to the coverage & wait to see who came into their zone or read the quarterbacks eyes to see where he is going with the football. Pattern reading throws the idea of dropping to a specific landmark out & stresses understanding pass route combinations (patterns) thereby giving the defense advanced knowledge of what is going to happen. For example: you are watching film on an upcoming opponent. On 3rd & 7, two WR are lined up wide with one in the slot. The play begins & the slot receiver runs a go route, a direct line down the seam. The outside receiver simultaneously runs a crossing pattern into the space cleared out by the slot receiver. The idea of pattern reading is that you train your players to recognize this pattern & react to it accordingly. According to most coaches who teach pattern reading, defenders can have a pretty good idea of what's coming at them by reading the first four steps of the slot receivers route ( the premise is that a pass route is basically formed after four steps). By knowing the route the slot receiver is running (& the down & distance) the defender has a pretty good idea what other routes make up that pass pattern for all players on the field. In essence, you are much more proactive in getting to spot the ball will be thrown than reactive to what the offense is trying to do. If you can beat the WR to the spot it's much more difficult to complete passes. For a much deeper look at pattern reading try this post on Barking Carnival.
So who plays in the secondary next season? Expect Mario Butler, Tarrant, & Rashad Reid to hold down the corner slots with Rod Sweating getting some action on obvious passing downs. At safety, Cooper Taylor returns on the strong side to compete with Mario Edwards while senior Dominique Reese & RS freshman Jemea Thomas battle at free safety. One name to watch out for is true freshman Isaiah Johnson from Sandy Creek. Johnson enrolled early & will go thought spring practice. If he can put on a little weight he's got a real nose for the ball & could see time as a true freshman next season.
Lastly, expect our Cover 2 to be aggressive. One of Coach Groh's fundamental tenants of his defense is to deny "vertical entry" into the secondary. This is, of course, logical, as most big plays are vertical & our entire focus is to limit big plays. How do you deny "vertical entry"? Jam the receiver at the line of scrimmage. We will always try to deny clean release off the line & make it harder for the WR to get into his route.
One of the great advantages to a Cover 2 shell in the secondary will be our ability to disguise coverages. The Cover 2 shell is recognizable but we are able to play all the coverage schemes mentioned above out of the Cover 2 shell. This forces a quarterback to read the defense after the snap, making his job significantly more difficult. Another advantage of the 3-4 is the ability of the defense to bring pressure on the QB from multiple areas, i.e. the zone blitz. Invented by Steelers defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau, the zone blitzes disguises where defenders are coming from while blitzing & makes it harder for the offense to pick up. Expect some but not a lot of blitzing this year. We'll frequently rush the "Jack" but in the 3-4 that's really normal, not a blitz. I expect Groh to begin conservatively & adjust from there. For more on zone blitzes try these two articles here & here.
Wow, we're glad we got that off our chests. Hope you find it helpful & accurate. In sum, expect a better defense from Tech next season. How do I know? Well if you're a numbers person the most accurate way to measure defensive performance between two teams & take into account personnel differences, number of plays, time of possession (our offense led the ACC, UVA's was last), etc. is yards per play. Last year Tech gave up a whopping 6.1 yards per play. Virginia allowed 5.0 yards per play. When you factor in time of possession, number of plays, etc. it's empirically clear we have upgraded on defense. For those of you that don't care about numbers it's pretty obvious the respect Al Groh has as a defensive coach around the country.
There are a couple traditional weaknesses in the 3-4. The first is the 2-tight end set. By having a tight end on either side you essentially tie up the outside linebackers & make it harder for them to react & make plays. The second is the power running game up the middle. Because a guard is uncovered, you have a weakness up the middle if your inside linebackers can't take on that guard then shed the block & make the tackle. For our 3-4 to succeed, our inside linebackers must be able to shed blocks & make tackles.
So expect a bend-but-don't break style of defense that is fundamentally sound. Our goal will be to limit big plays & force the offense to earn points through short gains. The more repetitions for an offense, the more chance for an error or for us to make a big play. It's allowing big plays on defense that really hurt us this year. Hopefully this post helps you figure out some of what is going on. A word of caution: be patient. This is a major scheme change. We will need our players to learn the new scheme (takes time...) and we will need to recruit players more specifically suited to play in this scheme. The hiring of Al Groh & switch to the 3-4 will not all of a sudden turn us into the Super Bowl winning defense Groh had with the Giants in 1990. Will we be improved? I guarantee it. But keep the expectations reasonable.
Some other good reference material on the 3-4 is here, here, & here. Please share this & the blog with friends, enemies, etc.....Spread the Good Word.....

1 comment:

  1. BRAVO!

    Smart football also ran a story on Houston vs. Texas Tech. Houston basses there receiver pattern trees on the vertical go rout. This makes it harder for defenses to pattern read as the first four steps are always forward.

    Pattern reading is really designed to stop west coast offense slant and crossing routes.

    Brian Kelly and CPJ also base their passing game off of vertical routes.