Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Defending 3x1 Formations Part III

"C'mon, it's just 3x1 for crying out loud!!!"
After reading parts I and II to the series on Defending 3x1 Formations, you should now have a pretty good grasp on both how the offense plans to align as well as how the offense may attack you and who they may choose to attack you with.  Once you've gone through the set of questions, you now can look into ways to stop your opponent by taking away their bread and butter plays and forcing them to utilize portions of their offense that are not used as much.  In this post, I will look into defending the most common running games out of 3x1.  I know this is not a complete and comprehensive post on every run play out of 3x1, but in order to do so, and in essence of being "in general" there is not enough time, nor bandwidth on Blogger to accommodate such a post.

Zone schemes

Zone schemes, although beginning to take a back seat to the newer gap schemes, are still a staple among spread teams.  Being able to diagnose these plays and play soundly against them, as well as taking away the offenses best runner on option plays is a key element to forcing the offense to scrap it's run game plan against your defense.  The hottest of all the zone runs currently is without a doubt the dreaded zone read.  I've written many articles on stunts and tactics to utilize to defend the zone read (which can be read here).  When looking at defending it from 3x1 sets, one has to be cautious with how they set things up.

Example 1- Zone read from 11 personnel

In this example, the offense has a tight end (TE) trips set, or what I refer to as a Trey set.  Looking at this, from the 4 man front perspective (as usual, with a TCU "flare" to things-forgive my nature), the key element is "Where do I set the three technique?".  This is an age-old question among defensive coordinators (DC's) when facing any scheme.  Do you set him to the field, boundary, or to the TE?  Most of us are on the inclination to set him to the TE.  Nothing wrong with this idea at all.  If the defense gives the QB a hand off read, then the run simply becomes inside zone with a large chance of the running back (RB) cutting the ball back into the soft B gap on the weak side.  Now, for me, I don't care for this, but hey maybe the QB is a better runner than the RB.  If that's the case, by all means, have the DE give the QB a hand off read and play defense.  The key here is the action by the weak side LB, he must sit and be in a position to play both the RB on the front side of the play, but also be able to play the cut back.  This can be tough, but is a solid way of defending just such a play.

Another way, is to involve the safety in "cleaning up" for the LB.  I prefer to have my LB's be aggressive in nature.  As with any option play, sound defense of the option requires you to have two players designated to the QB.  With the DE forcing a hand off read, he will be the contain player on the QB, while the LB will track the back (see illustration below).  The safety will fit in the weak side B gap to play the QB OR the RB cut back.  Since there is no lead blocker, you now have a three-on-two match up that the offense can't win.

My favorite way of defending the zone read, is to invite the offense to run the ball to a soft B gap, as seen below.  I prefer to set the three technique to the RB, then slant the interior DL away from the back.  Basically this does the same thing as if you simply set the three technique to the back, BUT it puts the defense on the move instead of being sitting targets (for the TCU folks, this would be Set "G", Aim).  The DE to the side of the RB, is a two-for-one player.  He will squeeze the tackle, keeping his shoulders square and will play the RB if he gets the ball and the back cuts back.  Or, he will play the QB if the QB chooses to keep the football (he would play inside the QB, countering for the cut back.  Assuming we are playing some sort of poach version of Quarters (Palms, Solo etc.), then the weak safety will roll down and force the QB.  You also have the LB who will track the RB, so you really are now getting three-on-two.  The LB and DE will handle the RB and the safety and DE will handle the QB.  They key coaching point in this scheme is that the DE must keep his shoulders square to the LOS.


Example-2 Jet Sweep

Another example would be that of jet sweep.  Jet sweep is tough because many teams are using it to set up the sweep read or power read etc. that has taken ahold in the college landscape.  The sweep, in-and-of itself is designed to immediately attack the flank of the defense with little to no warning.  Sure, the offense motions, but how quickly can you adjust when the sweeper is moving at full speed?  Another new wrinkle is that offenses are "passing" or shoveling the football to the runner now to keep from there being any issues with the exchange.  So even if you work your ass off to get in position and they drop the ball, there will be no reward for your hard efforts other than the potential long yardage situation.

Defending the sweep requires a bit of guts and an idea on how the offense will want to attack you.  One such method is to utilize the TGOG schemes mentioned on here, and set the three technique on the side you have researched where they want to run the sweep.  As read earlier, the DE to the three technique side is a one gapper, and can get up the field.  This player is not concerned with down blocks or squeezing gaps etc.  This player's only job is to not get reached and rush the QB.  Now, if you're like me, your DE is not really athletic enough to "stop" the sweep in this situation, yet he makes the ball "bubble" away from the LOS, allowing defenders to run to the football, get off blocks and attack a runner, actually running away from the LOS.

If that's not your cup of tea, you can easily slant and blitz into or behind the sweep to keep the offense on it's toes.  In many cases a great way of defending the jet sweep is to give the offense what they call a "hot two".  This means that they now have a force player blitzing into the face of the sweep, and the sweep must now be forced to cut up field into the pursuit, or "teeth" of the defense.

The beauty of the blitz above is, it can also handle the zone read as mentioned before.  You are now defending two of the offenses best plays, with one simple stunt and blitz combination.  You can run the blitz above and play man or zone, or a mixture of both behind it (see the post on the away side coverage variations TCU uses here).  No matter how you set it up, you have something sound that forces the offense to play "left handed".

Gap Schemes

Gap schemes, such as Power, Power G, and Power O are making a comeback in the spread offense.  Even old staples such as the inside veer, midline and buck sweep are all coming back into mainstream college football.  A defense must be sound enough in its attack to defend these plays as well as the zone runs mentioned above.

Gap schemes present a bit tougher challenge than zone schemes in that the offense is usually working an extra blocker to the play side (although we saw how Gus Malzahn used "pullers" with H-backs this season on zone runs) so immediately you are a man down to that side.  This is why stunting and moving the DL is imperative vs. these gap schemes.  A simple one to look at is just QB Power O out of the standard trips open 3x1 set.  Presnap, the offense has 6 to the trips side and 5 away.

If the offense runs Power O, with the QB as the runner, the H as the kick out block and pulls the offside guard (hence the "O" in Power O), they are automatically gaining an offensive player to the weak side of the defense.

What is the defense to do?  One key element here is to slant to the RB, however this is again, why I prefer to set the 3 technique to the back, and then slant to the RB with a blitz coming off the edge in case they do run zone read or outside zone etc. back the other way.  Obviously this is information that comes from scouting data, but nonetheless the blitz shown below is a VERY sound and solid way of defeating the loss of a defender on these gap schemes.

In the above diagram one of the obvious changes is that there is a shade instead of a 2I.  You do this to get the Nose to cross face of the center.  If he does and the play side guard is working back at him he can redirect and help close the cutback lane on zone read.  For Power O, the Nose is replacing the pulling guard, one for one, and this can make a center's life miserable.  The other thing is, you have two LB's there to clean up for any misses on the QB, which is why I prefer not to blitz them vs. the gap schemes.  The safety coming off the edge is the real kicker, he can do a lot of damage because the front side now has the QB bottled in and the only way to go is back side.  The DE to the blitz side, reads the tackle and doesn't try to come inside of him, he simply flattens down the LOS and chases helping on cutback.

Running the same blitz at the zone is not bad either.  What it does is force the RB to make a cut very quickly, and he usually does so into the Nose, or the unblocked Mike (who as a free run through in the A gap vacated by the Nose).  The Mike is usually unblocked because the center is caught up dealing with the Nose crossing face.  Zone guys can say what they want about stunts and blitzes not being an issue, that is all on paper.  When their feet are put to the fire, and their OL is having to deal with moving DL it makes getting up to the second level that much harder.  I wouldn't argue with a college OC, but a high school one, I'd argue this point all day long and twice on Sundays!

Another gap scheme that has folks really on edge is that of the inverted veer.  The inverted veer probably became most famous from Cam Newton and Auburn's national championship run back in 2010.  I won't go much into the details of the play, but here's how I'd defend it.

Where the play gives so many folks a tough time is with the down block read by the DE and the sweep action by the back.  The DE has got to be disciplined, or does he?  One thing the defense can do, from the above alignment is use the Two Gap, One Gap (TGOG) scheme discussed on here in an earlier post.  In that case, the DE would work hard up field to stop the sweeper, while the Mike would come down hard off the pulling guard's outside shoulder, with the Will scraping hard and fast to the inside shoulder of the puller.

The trouble with this is that pesky play side tackle.  If he's worth his salt, he can get off the 3 technique and pin the will, thereby creating a seam off the inside shoulder of the puller.  This leads to the home run hit, because now it's only the QB and the FS, and a lot of green grass.  Enter in TCU's smoke concept (what we've really been talking about here anyway).  Let's look at it, from the front above, but this time with a shade instead of  a 2I and bringing the smoke weak.

Here we see, that the tackle cannot get the free run he had earlier because he now has to deal with the 3 technique slamming into his inside hip.  Sure the guard "could" get up on the Will, but the angle is tougher on him than if that was the tackle.  Plus, the center has to handle the Nose by himself.  This is tough with the Nose slanting.  You get a 2-for-1 with the guard pull, because the block back by the center cancels the backside cutback gap, and the WS coming off the edge cleans up any backside leakage and is also sound against speed option.

Running the blitz into the face of the sweeper, yields just as good a benefit.  This "fools" the QB into a handoff read right into the blitz because the DE to the sweep side is pinching down inside.  You effectively handle the play by simply giving a false read.  The blitzer can also be a spill blitz, and due to the position of the strong side LB, he can even overlap and force.

The inverted veer, is nothing to sweat about, even if it's coupled with zone schemes, due to the fact that as long as you're sound in the way you defend Power O, you can be sound in the way you defend the inverted veer.

Veer is beginning to make a comeback as well as the other option runs such as midline.  Teams now are reading everybody from the one technique to the weak side linebacker.  The idea is to not defend the "play" so much as you defend the blocking scheme.  Getting too cute or fancy can leave your defenders in a bind if, in fact, they are being read.  Defending the option is nothing new, and a link to these old posts may shed some light on just how you need to set things up to defend the triple option.  The key element is always remain gap sound, even in how you set the secondary.  You cannot compromise your run leverage because of the offense simply having three receivers on one side of the ball now.  This is why setting the secondary is so crucial, not only to stopping the pass, but to stopping the run vs. 3x1 sets.

Setting the Secondary Vs. the Run

One key item to add to this otherwise extremely lengthy post is the fact that the secondary cannot be compromised when facing 3x1 sets.  I prefer to stay in a 2-high shell, but however you choose to do it, the key ingredient is this.  You cannot under set the secondary to where you are deficient in the run game to the trips side, because of the extra gaps presented by the receivers.  Secondly, don't over set the coverage, and then have yourself in a position where the weak side run game can gain leverage.  One thing about spread teams and setting the front is the offset back.  The pistol, in recent years, has compromised this some, but most teams still utilize the offset RB in the gun.  When looking at the 2 sets below one can get an idea about what I'm talking about in terms of setting the run support.

As you can see from the diagram, how shifted or "over" shifted your coverage is really depends on where the offense can gain leverage.  Looking below, you can see how in a "poached" coverage you can move the weak safety over a bit due to the "tell" by the offense.

Now for those of you who insist on going 1 high vs. trips, you have to look at the weak side run leverage and make sure you are not sacrificing your force player to the weak side just so you can defend the pass on the strong side.

Any sort of gap or option scheme weak can leave you in a serious bind.  One thing I recommend for the "one-high" guys is to look at using TGOG and setting the three technique away from passing strength so you can utilize the DE's read to that side and have him play the force player.  Setting the front in this manner will yield the diagram below.

This gains the defense a man advantage vs. any plays that spill.  The same could be done to the top diagram without TGOG being utilized by simply playing the Mike in a 00 and the Will in a stacked 50 technique.  However, the Mike has to be a good athlete in order to push to inside leverage on #3 to the trips side when pass shows.  These are some considerations to look at if you are hell-bent on going 1 high vs. 3x1 looks.  Not bashing that view at all, though I wouldn't recommend it.  I prefer some sort of poached quarters look or some "X-out" concept when playing 3x1 looks as I think you get the best of both worlds being sound vs. the run and pass games.  I'm sure this point could be argued until the end of time, but that is just my personal preference.

There are so many different ways to set the secondary when facing 3x1 formations.  The most common is the X-out concept, whereby one defender is assigned a receiver to play man-to-man, while the others convert the formation back to a 2x1 set.  TCU has numerous versions of these and a review shows us they are:

  1. Solo- Some Palms folks call this poach.  This is a weak side X-out concept that involves putting the weak corner man on #1 and the WLB man on #2 with the weak safety cheating or poaching (TCU uses the term "long wall") #3 strong.  The strong side of the secondary plays quarters, or 2 read to #1 and #2, thereby "x'ing" out the #3 receiver in trips.
    1. Strengths:
      1. Solid vs. trips side run game due to leverage by force player.
      2. Sound vs. most trips quick passing game, because the #3 receiver in trips is generally not the most feared of all four receivers.
      3. No new teaching, except for the weak side safety learning the long wall technique.
    2. Weaknesses
      1. Weak side run game leverage can be an issue due to weak safety having to read #3 strong AND read the RB.  This can be tough on the weak side safety.
      2. If either of the weak side players are much better athletes than you have, you may have a mismatch on your hands.  Since most teams usually play their better WR at the "X" position, then that corner needs to be very fluent in man-to-man coverage as the chances are high that he will not receive any help from the weak safety.  The WLB is no different, if this player cannot match up vs. the back, then the coverage needs to be checked to something different.  
      3. Short wall player vs. #3 vertical.  If this player is not the greatest of athletes, it can lead to a seam or void in the coverage due to the positioning of the weak safety and the amount of ground he has to cover to cover #3 vertical.  

  1. Special- This is an X-out concept involving the strong side corner manning up the #1 receiver and either a nickel back or LB playing the role of corner on #2 strong.  
    1. Strengths:
      1. Weak side run game leverage.  With the safety and corner playing pure zone or match up zone technique, now one of them may be utilized as the force player, or better yet blitzed.  
      2. Match ups.  Since the X receiver is generally the offenses's better one-on-one receiver, he is now double teamed (or triple teamed if the back doesn't release).  Also, if the RB is a tough match up for the LB this can be eased by doubling him with the safety or the corner.
      3. Again, little to no new teaching.  Only the strong side LB or nickel player needs to be taught anything different from their standard quarters teaching.
    2. Weaknesses:
      1. Strong side #2 player.  If you're not nickle, or don't have a nickle package, this guy's abilities can severely hamper your defenses ability to run this coverage.  
      2. Strong side run leverage.  Because of the displacement of the #2 player, and his assignment, defending the run to the strong side of the formation can get a bit dicey.  
      3. Match ups.  Again, the strong side corner needs to be able to cover man-to-man against what is usually the offenses #1 or #2 receiver in terms of depth chart (The Y is usually no slouch in the spread offenses pass game).

  1. Mable-
    1. Strengths:
      1. Much like Solo, the strong side run game is defended quite soundly.
      2. If you are normally one-high or a rotational coverage, then this coverage requires no new teaching to the defensive backfield.
      3. Strong side passing game is nixed.  With the extra defender over to that side AND the underneath coverage pushed in the direction of the trips, makes this a a great quick game coverage vs. 3x1 sets.  You now no longer have the standard "Oh you're in cover 3 so we'll throw curl-flat on you all day" issues because you no longer have a curl to flat player.  You have effectively added a curl player, and reduced the curl to flat player's assignment by one-half.  That's a win-win in my book for the defense.  
    2. Weaknesses:
      1. Match ups.  Again, with a corner being manned up on the X receiver, it can be an issue if your corner cannot hold up.  Another key match up is the LB that ends up handling #3 vertical vs. four verticals.  If this LB cannot hold up, your coverage is busted.  Also, if the WLB cannot match the RB out of the backfield you also have issues.
      2. Weak side run game leverage.  Depending on how you set your front, as shown earlier in this post, the weak side run game leverage can be compromised if you are not careful.
      3. Reads.  I don't care for Mable having a LB responsible for the vertical of a receiver.  I know Tampa 2 guys are all over it, but it has never been my cup of tea, so I generally don't care for it.  Look at it from the high school perspective in that I'm generally doing good if my LB's will play downhill on run plays, let alone then have to ask them to redirect and now drop down the seam and handle the #3 receiver on a bender.  This may work on Saturdays, but I strongly urge coaches to think about what they are asking their players to do, and really think it through before making Mable one of their coverage choices.

Some other coverage options that aren't X out options are Cover 8 (1/4, 1/4, 1/2), or the mixture of pure zone with man (playing 1/4, 1/4, zone to the trips and man away).  Another one is Palms.  Many coaches simply sit in quarters when facing trips.  If you do your scouting homework you may be able to do this.  Let's look into some of these other non-X-out solutions to defending trips.

  1. Cover 8 (1/4, 1/4, 1/2)
    1. Strengths:
      1. Simple.  It's zone, and pretty much any kid can learn zone.
      2. Sound. It's solid vs. the run and fairly sound vs. most of the standard trips passing game.
      3. Good vs. a good X receiver.  You get the high-low on #1 weak, who is usually one of the offenses better weapons.
      4. Weak side run leverage is good when set to the boundary.  Cover 2 into the boundary is usually money because the corner doesn't have to be too enamored with covering the #1 receiver and he knows if he gets hit on play action, he's got help over the top.
    2. Weaknesses:
      1. It's zone.  While simple, this means it can also be simple to pick apart.  It's not much better on the strong side of the coverage than cover 3, and what's worse is you still have a curl to flat defender instead of in Mable where you dedicate a defender for the flats and a defender for the curl.
      2. It's not pattern reading.  What more should I say?
      3. Run leverage strong is compromised.  With two deep zone defenders, not pattern reading, this leaves only an OLB or a nickle out there to turn the ball back inside.  Basically, it makes one of the extra gaps created by the third receiver "soft".
      4. Four verticals can be tough. With a corner having to trail to the weak side, this can really put the weak side safety in a bind as he's trying to split #3 vertical and #1 weak vertical.  This can make his life tough.

  1. Palms/Quarters
    1. Strengths:
      1. It's Quarters, not many weaknesses there!  True, and nobody really has to learn anything new either.
      2. Run leverage to both sides is sound.  Safeties are still playing force and reading the #2 receiver to do so.
    2. Weaknesses:
      1. Number 3 Vertical.  In Quarters, the Mike is responsible for #3 vertical.  This is fine if it's a RB, or maybe a TE.  However, a speedy wide out is not the greatest of match up for the defense.  Now, if the offense doesn't run four verticals, or doesn't send #3 down the seam often, then it's probably a pretty solid solution.  
      2. Quick game into trips.  The quick game into trips gets a bit dicey due to you being three on three if all the receivers are working vertical or out (away from the ILB).  This means concepts such as spacing and floods can be tough to cover.
Not everyone's cup of tea...

  1. 1/4, 1/4 Man (TCU's Roll Solo)
    1. Strengths:
      1. Similar to 1/4, 1/4, 1/2.
    2. Weaknesses:
      1. Similar to Solo.
As you can see, there is no perfect answer to defending 3x1.  You have to take a detailed look at how the offense is setting up their plays out of 3x1 and what they are trying to accomplish.  Then you have to look at what it is they truly like to do from these looks.  I'm not just talking passing game here either, I'm talking run game as well. Some coverages such as Solo and Mable set up well to strong side run games.  This does you absolutely no good if your opponent aligns in trips just to run to the weak side.  Many of these concepts are sound vs. four verticals, but if your opponent hasn't shown this look, then a pure zone look, Mable, or even Quarters is a viable coverage to play.  My recommendation is to define a standard "catch all" coverage to play vs. 3x1 (mine is 1/4, 1/4, 1/2) and then work to have at least one more way to defend 3x1.  By the end of most seasons I've been able to have three ways to defend 3x1 and what this does is allow you to take time during the week of game preparation to work two of them, and then have your base way of playing trips to fall back on if things aren't working too good with options one and two.  An example of this past season is we only had two ways of defending 3x1, that was 1/4, 1/4, 1/2 and Solo.  A few years back, we played Quarters, Mable, Solo and a bit of 1/4, 1/4, 1/2.  Again, it's based on what you are seeing week-in and week-out as well as the ability of your kids to be able to process these varying coverages.  Last season, two was about all we could handle, and this season doesn't look much different.  This is our job as coaches is to not only define what we need, but our players ability to handle what we need them to do, AND to package it in a way that they can understand.  I could go on this topic as well, but that is for another day and another time.


In Conclusion

Now that you've seen some common things you can do vs. the run game, and how the secondary should be set up vs. the run we can take a look at defending some passing concepts that are typical of 3x1 teams.  I'll save that for another post, however, the main theme you should take from this post is not necessarily the die hard "X's and O's", but the idea that it is absolutely crucial to do your homework in film study and determine how you are going to be attacked.  Once this determination is made, then you have to simply find the right tool in the toolbox to fit your application.  This may simply be Cover 3, or some pure zone because your opponent is very vanilla when utilizing 3x1 sets.  However, many teams thrive at being in these 3x1 sets and they require a bit more in terms of defending them schematically.  The main idea is have a base plan for defending and aligning to 3x1 looks that is sound (doesn't have to be great) vs. pretty much every look (especially the option to either side).  Once you have this, then move on to at least two more ways of defending 3x1 sets.

Another key item is pressuring 3x1 sets (which will be explored more in the future).  You must be sound when pressuring 3x1 sets even if what you are doing is a "run blitz" or zone blitz.  You don't want pressures that work well vs. 2x2 and have to checked vs. 3x1.  Make the pressure work vs. all sets by building in simple checks here and there, or developing a universal blitz.  Whatever you do, you don't want the offense to dictate, simply because they moved a receiver from one side of the formation to the other.

Take care, and again, sorry so long between posts.  I hope to do at least one more if not two more posts on this very topic.  Until next time coaches!