Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Defending the Flexbone-Linebackers

The linebacking corps, when defending the Flexbone, must be extremely disciplined and sound in their attack of this complex offensive threat.  Since I'm elaborating on Coach Hoover's posts, we will discuss the 3 linebackers commonly found in the 4-3, and refer to them as Sam (strong side outside linebacker or OLB), Mike (middle linebacker), and Will (weak side OLB).  For a very detailed description of OLB play vs. the Flexbone please go here.  Information on how the Mike LB should play can be found here.  What I'm going to do, is break down some of the keys and reads I've used in the past, as well as some stunts I've utilized that have helped me defend the Flexbone offense.

Mike LB

Years ago (in a galaxy far far away) I was like most when facing the Flexbone with my Mike LB.  I had him play at his normal depth, and do what he did best, key the fullback (FB).  Our rule for what the Mike did when facing the triple option, was easy, check FB to inside 1/2 of QB.  Not much trouble with that right?!  Well, a few things can be inherently wrong with this, most notably the depth of the Mike.  We had ours at 4.5 to 5 yards as a base rule.  This is tough when defending the Flexbone because of good down blocking tackles.  Even if your defensive ends (DE's) do a good job of getting the hands on the down blocking tackle (against veer mind you), the angle the Mike takes when attacking the FB is going to, get even the best of Mike's caught up in a wash of bodies that they cannot recover from.  What was the solution?  To first see the solution, we must know the problem, and understand the offense we are attacking.  The Flexbone works on a simple principle when running the triple option or inside veer (ISV).  Wall of all defenders inside the FB's path, known as the crease.  Isolate the 1st 2 defenders outside this path (handoff key and pitch key) and establish the option alley (See diagram below).  The key to stopping the triple option is simple too, get more bodies across the crease than the offense can block. 

How do you get more defenders across the crease?  No matter the front, EVERY defense has a "man in the middle".  In odd 8 man fronts, it's a noseguard, middle linebacker or free safety (FS), in even 8 man fronts it's usually a robbing FS.  In odd 7 man fronts it's the noseguard, and in even 7 man fronts it's the middle linebacker.  In the case of the 4-3, the "man in the middle" is the Mike.  He has to be able to play on either side of the ball, and get across the crease when facing the Flexbone.  He cannot be concerned about the cutback whatsoever or counters.  This has answered the "who" will get across the crease, but not the "how".  Be patient, remember "know thy enemy". 

How we got our Mike across the crease was to back him up to a depth of 7 yards off the line of scrimmage (LOS).  Most defensive coordinators (DC's) cringe at this thought, however it's not as bad as you think.  From this depth, the Mike need not be concerned with the down blocking tackle on ISV.  He can easily scrape and get to the inside 1/2 of the QB.  Some folks question, "What about the zone dive?"  Well, on paper, yes the Mike is at a disadvantage to stopping this play, however if you couple the Mike play, with TED stunt we talked about earlier, the Mike is free to roam.  With all the inside gaps being filled your Mike is free to play sideline to sideline and assist on cutback runs by the QB.

There are 2 ways I've played my Mike in the 4-3 when facing Flexbone triple option.  The first is how I mentioned it in my post on Coach Hoover's site found here.  The 2nd way I've had my Mike attack the triple option was to play outside 1/2 of QB to pitch.  I got this scheme from a coach in Texas, and I was suspect to it at first.  It works though, especially if your Mike is a player.  Let me say this, he needs to be athletic enough to tackle in space, because he will see some one-on-one tackles with him and the QB.  I will explain later how this works, when talking about the OLB's and their responsibilities vs. the triple option.  The first method of playing the Mike is safe, and works well if your Mike is not a good open field tackler.  The 2nd method, as you will see, is a more aggressive method of playing the triple option.  You have to evaluate your talent to see which method fits your personnel the best.

MLB Outside 1/2 of QB to pitch/OLB QB

MLB Dive to inside 1/2 of QB/OLB Outside 1/2 of QB to pitch

Outside Linebackers

When it comes to OLB's, I have done numerous things through the years with these players.  From having them align 1 yard off the LOS, to stacked over the slot, to keying the FB or keying the slot, you name it, I've done it.  I'm going to explain what has worked the best for me and why.  I prefer to align my OLB's over the slots with their toes on the heels of the DL.  I also prefer to have them key the slot they align over, or basically the near back.  The scheme I've used the most, had the OLB's key the slots and gave them the following 3 reads based on the slot's release:
  1. Slot arcs inside/outside of you (NOT blocking you)- If the slot arcs, come to the LOS now, and settle, slow playing the QB.  Do not allow the ball to cross your face.  Play outside 1/2 of QB to pitch.
  2. Slot arcs to block you- Attack the slot with the inside arm, do not allow QB to widen, play outside 1/2 of QB to pitch (pitch heavy). 
  3. Slot folds (blocks inside, underneath the offensive tackle)- Attack LOS now, outside the DE, play for spill by DE (generally seen on midline or counter iso).

OLB alignment vs. Flexbone
 Very simply put, that's it.  I think schemes that try and adjust the OLB's assignment based on the block of the slot can confuse high school kids (believe me, I've tried it).  I'd prefer to keep it consistent, and as you can see, no matter what, vs. any triple option blocking scheme (#1's, and 2) the OLB has outside 1/2 of QB to pitch.  This scheme fits with the first scheme I talked about with the Mike LB's.  These are very easy, and very sound methods to teach when facing the Flexbone offense.

The OLB away from action is probably the most important of the 3, as Flexbone offensive coordinators (OC's) will try to use fast LB play against you, by utilizing their counter run game (counter iso/counter option).  For our OLB's in our first scheme, we told them, if your slot motioned away, stack the DE to your side and look inside for pullers (this means move directly back behind the DE).  This is tough, but not so tough it cannot be repped.  The OLB away from action has to slow play, looking for counter (guard pull, back or back misdirection), to dive leakage.  He has to be paitent, or he will not be in position to play the counter plays of the Flexbone offense.  The basic Flexbone counter run game, is usually 1 of 3 things, dive sally (GT counter to most), counter iso (no pull), and counter option (run rarely in Federation states due to the inability to cut block). 

The 2nd, more aggressive scheme, I played vs. the triple option, had the OLB's align in an outside shade on the slot, with their toes on the heels of the defensive line (DL).  In this scheme, if the slot released outside or inside of the OLB auto blitzed the C gap area.   We were looking to force the pitch quickly and get the ball out of the QB's hands.  If the slot attempted to block the OLB, he wrong-armed the block down inside, maintaining C gap integrity.  If pass showed, the OLB away from motion auto blitzed off the edge, adding to the pressure.  We did this because we wanted them aggressive against the option, but not to hesitate trying to read pass.  Since most of the Flexbone's passing game is playaction, this gave us an extra defender at the point of attack (POA), and since we were rolling coverage anyway based on motion, it basically became a zone blitz.


I first learned about stunting against the Flexbone when I faced a very mediocre 3-3 stack team when I was an OC (again, back in the day).  We went into the game assuming they were going to play 4I's with the DE's and the OLB's would be stacked behind them.  This gave us the feeling that the DE would pinch to take the dive and the OLB would scrape for QB.  Very easy, and the 3-3 to us was an 8 man front to us, so no problem right?  Wrong!  They aligned in 4 techniques with the DE's and stacked the LB right behind him.  All night long they played games based on motion and made life miserable for our QB.  Sometimes the LB would come inside and take dive while the DE sat for the QB, other times the DE slanted down inside and smacked the FB while the OLB blitzed outside for the QB.  In reading up in the off season, I came across an article on "echo" stunts ( for more on echo stunt check out Coach Iannucci's blog here) and what they were trying to accomplish.  Echo stunts were always tough to handle for young QB's, and we had to rep these constantly throughout the season.  One day, in the defensive war room, I decided "How can we run echo stunts from our 4-3?".  I had moved to using the defense that most of you saw Iowa run vs. Georgia Tech. in the 2010 Orange Bowl.  Our LB's were close to being stacked behind the DE and I thought they could execute the stunt from that alignment.  We tried it against ourselves, and it worked very well!  Here is the echo stunt out of the 4-3.  The key here, again, is that the OLB is keying the slot he aligns over.  If this slot does not motion, he screams into the B gap for the FB.  The DE, does not honor the down block by the tackle, yet "sits" or "sqauts" on the LOS for the QB.  This was a good stunt, until you came up against the QB that could area read (read open/closed windows rather than defenders).  We face one of these in the playoffs several years back that torched the echo stunt.  Back to the drawing board again!  So we came up with a different version of a stunt, this one involved the OLB and the secondary!

Echo Stunt

I had a young LB's coach, that kept wanting me to put the OLB on the pitch with the safety on the QB and DE/MLB on the dive.  I kept shrugging him off as "young" and immature until I drew it up, and it looked pretty good!  I base out of a rotation "sky" Cover 3 when facing the Flexbone.  Our safeties cross read the slots and move on motion.  Flexbone offenses that watched film on us, knew this and knew who was going to take pitch.  So we ran a simple stunt we called "switch".  I know, I'm not much for names, but it simply meant the safety and OLB "switched" their assignments putting the safety on the QB, and the OLB on the pitch (listen to your young coaches, they DO have some good ideas).  As you can see from the illustration, the safety rotating down based on motion, comes inside and drills the QB on option plays to him.  We ran this in practice and the 1st time we ran it, the QB got hit so hard he fumbled the ball 10 yards backwards!!!  However the first time we ran it in the game, they pitched it for a 48 yard touchdown (had to coach up our OLB on that one).  The OLB did not take a flat enough angle to take the pitch, but we got it corrected and gave the team we were playing fits! 

Switch Stunt

The echo stunt and the switch stunt are two excellent ways of attacking a Flexbone QB.  In my experience, if you can rattle him early with these stunts, you have him and the offense right where you want them.  You are also attacking an offense, that most teams sit back and play passive against.  I think this is a must when playing the Flexbone.

In the next segment, I will discuss the secondary and what I've done in the past to defend this offense.  Don't go anywhere!!!!