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Examining Mizzou's Defense in the Cotton Bowl and what it means for 2014

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Mizzou relied primarily on the 4-2-5 defensive formations to slow down Oklahoma State in the 2014 Cotton Bowl. I attempt to examine the different personnel packages and formations as well as what it could mean for the 2014 season.

Braylon Webb (#9) is a key returner for Mizzou's defense
Braylon Webb (#9) is a key returner for Mizzou's defense
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

At some point after the Indiana game last year, there was some confusion about Dave Steckel's defense.

MU defense unveils a new wrinkle - David Morrison

Wilson said Steckel calls it "a lot of different stuff." Brothers said it's the "40" defense, presumably, he said, because of its four linebackers. Coach Gary Pinkel called it the "30" defense, because of the three down linemen.

Steckel said it was a version of the team's 4-3, but it also contained its nickel (4-2-5) personnel, but with a linebacker subbed in for a defensive lineman.

Whatever it is, Steckel said, it is not a 3-3-5.

"Coach Stec is going to beat me up for this, but I'm going to say it, because I don't know what else he wants me to call it but a 3-3-5," junior defensive end Kony Ealy said. "That's basically what it looked like. We just got out there in a 3-3-5, something they haven't seen on film. We just pulled it out of the can."

Guide to N.F.L. Defenses, Part 7: Nickel Subpackages - NYTimes.com

The 3-3-5 doesn't necessarily include three defensive linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs. The package can also be played with 4-2-5 or 4-1-6 personnel. To run the package well, a team needs three down linemen with the ability to penetrate and disrupt running lanes or pressure the pocket, a combination of three rush ends, linebackers and safeties that are athletic enough to stop the run, rotate into any zone coverage or blitz effectively, and a combination of five defensive backs that can handle different types of coverage calls without giving up a big play.

To pull it off, teams look to get as many of their best athletes on the field at the same time. It’s a strategy that usually works best for teams with a hybrid playbook and hybrid personnel. The alignment and group of versatile athletes can disguise coverage and blitzes until after the snap, while still having six players with size in the box to defend the run.

Mizzou under Pinkel and Steckel is notoriously reluctant to blitz, but is committed to stopping the run and the explosive deep plays first. This means having four down lineman for the majority of snaps to control the line of scrimmage and stop the run, while also trying to put their best athletes on the field in positions - primarily in the hybrid spots like Linebacker/Defensive End and Safety/Linebacker.

The Evolution of the Hybrid Defender

NFL coaches have begun referring to this as their "big nickel" package, which is a bit misleading because "nickel" is a term invented to describe some smaller part of a team’s overall defensive game plan. The reality is that just as NFL offenses rarely line up with two true running backs, NFL defenses rarely line up with three true linebackers. Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu were the two best safeties of the last decade or so, but their successors — in body type, athleticism, and playmaking ability — may not play safety at all. Regardless of the position at which he’s listed, he’ll likely be a linebacker in a safety’s body.

What really stands out for me is how much Mizzou played in the 4-2-5 nickel personnel, but instead of using a third cornerback, they sub in a third safety - Duron Singleton - to play as a Safety/Linebacker to cover the slot receiver as well as provide run support. I think the confusion comes from not truly understanding the way formations are made up of personnel specifically tailored for greatest tactical benefit. Throughout the Cotton Bowl, Mizzou was primarily in the 4-2-5 or nickel formation, with only one notable instance of a true 3-3-5 in the third quarter.

4-2-5 Defense by the Experts

MM:  We went from a 4-3 to a 4-2-5 because of all the one-back sets we’re encountering now.  It’s easier to adjust with a 4-2-5 than a 4-3.  If you’re in a 4-3, one of your outside backers must become an adjuster, so it ends up being a 4-2-5 anyway against spread sets.

The mainstays of Mizzou defense, from back to front, were Matt White, Braylon Webb, EJ Gaines, Andrew Wilson, and Lucas Vincent. I didn't keep a strict snap count for each player but I saw those players on the field for almost every snap that mattered. It is unsurprising that the core of Mizzou's defense was literally it's at it's core, the Free and Strong Safeties, the Middle Linebacker and the Nose Tackle. Everyone and everything else rotated around them, primarily the safety Duron Singleton and the Linebackers Kentrell Brothers, Darvin Ruise and Donovan Bonner.

Reviewing the film from the Cotton Bowl

The opening half of the Cotton Bowl saw Mizzou field mostly the 4-3-4 and 4-2-5 versions of their defense, and it held up pretty well except for a lone touchdown at the end of the first quarter. Mizzou lined up in a 4-2-5 defense with three safeties: Duron Singleton in the slot, Braylon Webb, Matt White, two linebackers: Andrew Wilson and Darvin Ruise, and four down lineman: Shane Ray, Lucas Vincent, Josh Augusta, Markus Golden.

It's obvious to me that Andrew Wilson's responsibility was to play the running back while Darvin Ruise covered the short zone in the middle of the field. OSU's Clint Chelf motions the running back from the right slot to his left side in the shotgun, he then fakes the hand off before throwing a strike to #5 WR Stewart. Ruise appears to bite on the play-action fake and can't recover as the ball flies off his left shoulder into the wide open grass. Then it's a footrace that has Matt White spinning in circles.

Fast-forwarding to the 3rd quarter, we find OSU looking to pick up a third and short versus Mizzou in a 4-2-5 defense with three safeties: Duron Singleton, Braylon Webb (who's just off-screen), Matt White, two linebackers: Andrew Wilson and Darvin Ruise, and four down lineman: Michael Sam, Matt Hoch, Lucas Vincent, Shane Ray.

Coincidentally our Kentucky Comrades at A Sea of Blue were just talking about this kind of play.

Kentucky Football: Air Raid One-Step Combo Plays - A Sea Of Blue

The quarterback is taking a one step drop, and reading the defender covering the Y receiver running the Stick route. If that defender cheats the pass the quarterback hands it off to the running back and a Draw play is executed. If that defender attacks the run, squats, or just stays flat-footed the quarterbacks throws it to the Stick route. It's incumbent on the quarterback to make his read correctly and quickly. Here is a graphic courtesy of SmartFootball.com (linked below). Notice how defender B is being forced to make a decision:

Oklahoma State Quarterback Clint Chelf is immediately thinking to pick up the first down with a quick pass in the middle of the field, his target is going to be #87 Tracy Moore. The read is a quick one which negates the pass rush. Andrew Wilson is there to make the tackle, but he's not fast enough to break up the catch and force a fourth down. Even if he'd been closer to the line of scrimmage to better cover that inside route, Clint Chelf's check-down pass to his running back in the left flat is wide open for at least first down yardage because Darvin Ruise is back-pedaling as soon as the ball is snapped. Granted, the Linebackers are supposed to drop into a short zones in the middle of the field, but Ruise hardly has to worry about a speedy WR getting behind him, his priorities are to prevent the inside routes from the X WR to his right, and to pick up the RB out of the back field.


Later in the 3rd quarter we see a 4-1-6, with three safeties: Duron Singleton, Braylon Webb (again off-screen), Matt White, three corners: John Gibson, EJ Gaines, Randy Ponder, one linebacker: Donovan Bonner, four down lineman: Markus Golden, Harold Brantley, Shane Ray, Kony Ealy.

This formation is unique because of the down and distance. Oklahoma State is way behind the sticks at 3rd and 17 and is going to ask Clint Chelf to throw a deep bomb. Even if it's intercepted, it's an armpunt as long as OSU tackles quickly. And guess what? It is intercepted, by Braylon Webb. This bodes very well for the future.

Unfortunately the very next play on offense by Mizzou is a fumble, giving OSU the ball in great field position.

Now Mizzou lines up in a 3-3-5 because... well I'm not really sure why. And while we're at it, I wish I hadn't reviewed the film because this next play is highly forgettable. I'd gone ahead and labeled everyone on the field but I think you'll see why I stopped trying to figure out assignments.

The 3-3-5 is a formation already susceptible to the run because the three down line man can be over-powered by the five offensive lineman. This means the three linebackers and extra men in the secondary have to be very conscious of runs on the inside. Markus Golden takes himself out of the play right off, Donovan Bonner gets eaten up by a lineman, Matt Hoch and Andrew Wilson fail to bring down the runner, which leaves the job to Kentrell Brothers who is knocked off his pursuit, Matt White who ... doesn't even really slow the man down, Randy Ponder who actually lays a decent hit but doesn't wrap up thus allowing #31 a few extra yards which he uses to stumble over Donovan Bonner.

The last play was pretty sour, so the next play is very sweet. It's the same 3-3-5 with the same exact personnel (because OSU was seeking to take advantage of the previous big gain). The only difference between the two plays is OSU runs the first out of the pistol and this one out of the shotgun with the RB on the QB's left. This time however, things play out significantly different. Mizzou's defensive line congests the middle and Andrew Wilson attacks the edge just off the Right Tackle. This forces the runner wide, giving Braylon Webb time to come from his Free Safety spot and hold the gain to a negligible two yards.

The next play is a false start by OSU that sets up a second and twelve. Mizzou comes out in a pretty standard 4-3-4 defense with the Free Safety Braylon Webb playing close to the line of scrimmage over the slot receiver in what I think is a "Cover 3" call because the Linebackers Darvin Ruise, Andrew Wilson and Donovan Bonner stay in an underneath zone. EJ Gaines and Matt White are playing deep coverage at the bottom of the screen. The play is a quick hitting, first-read by Clint Chelf, who puts the pass just over Andrew Wilson's out-stretched hand.

It's tough to fault anyone for this play but Andrew Wilson didn't get enough depth. Andrew Wilson was a great linebacker when he was moving forward and attacking the ball-carrier in front of him, less so when asked to rely on his athleticism or speed in coverage. This play took great advantage in that flaw in his game.

I've been waiting for Dave Steckel to pull out his next defensive formation for a while. He wants to throw something at OSU they haven't seen yet to make them start thinking. Just like against Indiana, Steckel was saving his "best" stuff, read: blitzes, for the second half of the game when OSU would have less time to adjust to them. Unfortunately, they don't start off too well.

Mizzou lines up in a standard 4-3-4, two safeties: Matt White, Braylon Webb, three linebackers: Kentrell Brothers, Andrew Wilson, Donovan Bonner, four down lineman: Shane Ray, Harold Brantley, Matt Hoch, Michael Sam. Just before the snap of the ball, Donovan Bonner moves up just off the outside shoulder of OSU's Right Tackle.

The intent appears to use Donovan Bonner's pressure to force the play inside or very wide. Unfortunately Bonner gets absorbed by OSU's fullback and promptly tripped by one of his own teammates, allowing the OSU running back to reach the edge. Kentrell Brothers is there to limit the gain.

The next play is also a 4-3-4 with the LB pushing forward, this time Andrew Wilson, but to little avail as OSU continues to move the ball. Mizzou falls back into a 4-2-5 only to give up a big gain up the right side line. The defense is reeling so they try to revert to normal and align in a base 4-3-4 defense with two safeties: Matt White, Braylon Webb, three linebackers: Kentrell Brothers, Andrew Wilson, Donovan Bonner, four down lineman: Kony Ealy, Harold Brantley, Matt Hoch, Michael Sam. This is another play that isn't really worth labeling because ...well.

You ready for it? This isn't pretty. Michael Sam takes himself out of the play, Donovan Bonner takes on the fullback's block, Andrew Wilson is ready for the running back to have the ball, but it's a QB keeper and Clint Chelf takes advantage of some downfield blocking on EJ Gaines and Braylon Webb to snake his way into the endzone. Defensive formations or personnel don't mean a whole lot when the defense is exhausted and the offense is firing on all cylinders.

The game sees some quibbling about defensive holding vs. a pick-6 but I won't get into that here. The score is tied 24-24 and there's approximately 9 minutes left in the 4th quarter. Officials apparently need to review every catch. Andrew Bagget is kicking 46 yard field goals. Tensions are high.

Blink twice and now it's 34-31 Mizzou, Oklahoma State has the ball after a Henry Josey touchdown run gives Mizzou the lead. 3:08 on the clock and they're starting on their own 25 yard line. The TV analysts say things like "I'm interested what Dave Steckel decides to do defensively, he's not been able to get the pass rush that he's used to having." and "Will he have to bring more pressure to get the ball out of the hands of Clint Chelf?"

Dave Steckel is thinking the opposite. Instead of trying to bring more pressure like blitzing Bonner or Wilson, he's going to drop players into coverage.

Now it's 4th down and 7 yards to go.

We are in a familiar 4-2-5 nickel defense, but there's a catch, while DE Shane Ray, DT Harold Brantley and DE Michael Sam rush the QB, DT Kony Ealy joins Andrew Wilson and Darvin Ruise in underneath coverage. Clint Chelf evades pressure and finds his streaking WR between EJ Gaines in the Nickel/slot safety position and Braylon Webb in his strong safety position to convert for the fourth down.

This is a deflating play and OSU tries to capitalize with a quick hurry up offense and a couple long scrambles by Chelf that drives them down the 23 yard line.

It's third and seven with 1:09 left in the game. Mizzou is in a 4-1-6 or "dime" formation with Matt White and Braylon Webb as the two deep safeties, Duron Singleton as the Nickle/slot safety, Randy Ponder, EJ Gaines and John Gibson as the corners and the defensive line of DE Shane Ray, DT Harold Brantley, DE Konly Ealy and DE Michael Sam.

Kony Ealy drops in to coverage like he did just a few plays before, but Michael Sam beats OSU's right tackle around the edge so fast we barely have time to react as he knocks the ball loose and it immediately bounces into Shane Ray's arms.

The rest is beautiful history.

For the majority of the game, Mizzou used a 4-2-5 Nickel defense, but they won the Cotton Bowl on a play that was a 4-1-6 dime defense that switched to a 3-2-6 at the snap of the ball. With as close as the Nickel safety was playing to the line of scrimmage and the fact that Kony Ealy dropped into coverage from the middle of the defensive line, I'm willing to hear arguments that Mizzou won the 2014 Cotton Bowl on what was really a 3-3-5 defense, which would bring this whole discussion full circle in an ironic way.

Fall camp begins next week

We'll be getting updates about how the team is adjusting to the loss of so much production from last year.

Countdown to Camp: Mizzou's defensive line : Dave Matter

As well as Sam and Ealy played last season, Mizzou returns 65.4 percent of last year’s tackles production from its defensive linemen … 52.7 percent of its tackles for loss … and 44.3 percent of its sacks. With more playing time this fall, it’s reasonable to expect more production from Golden, whose sack and tackles for loss totals from 2013 rank second among all returning SEC defensive linemen. Among returning SEC linemen, Ray is sixth in TFLs and seventh in sacks.

If you recall my Depth Charting post from last Saturday, you're probably familiar with the prospective starters for the 2014 Mizzou defense. I believe only four players will be "true" returning starters: Strong Safety Braylon Webb, Weakside Linebacker Kentrell Brothers and Defensive Tackles Lucas Vincent and Matt Hoch. By the end of last season, however, many players who are set to be starters right now were rotating snaps and seeing the field, including Safeties Ian Simon and Duron Singleton, Cornerbacks Aarion Penton and John Gibson, and Defensive Ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray.

College Football Countdown | Paul Myerberg | No. 43: Missouri

Seniors Lucas Vincent (34 tackles) and Matt Hoch (41 tackles) are back at nose guard and tackle, respectively, with each extremely serviceable — perhaps an understatement — as starters. Think of the interior as a flipped script: Missouri's tackle depth matches what last year's defense brought to the table at end, with Vincent and Hoch spelled by Harold Brantley, Josh Augusta and Evan Winston, among others. I do worry about the reserve options at end, however, though this concern doesn't extend to the starting pair: Markus Golden (55 tackles, 13.0 for loss) is going to be an all-conference menace and Shane Ray (39 tackles, 9.5 for loss) will be steadily terrific. Last year, Golden and Ray were all-league performers coming off the bench; this year, the Tigers' top reserve bodies are all redshirt freshmen.

If Mizzou plays any of the defenses discussed above - the 4-3-4, the 4-2-5 nickel, or the 3-3-5, the only position it'll only be relying on where significantly inexperienced players will first be seeing the field is Middle Linebacker Michael Scherer and Sam Linebacker Donavin Newsom. The difference between players with marginal experience and some experience (notably late in the season) is admittedly a fine distinction, but let's put these players in the defense we saw the most frequently in the Cotton Bowl, the 4-2-5 Nickel, so we can visually represent where the changes are for the 2014 defense.

Yes, the departure of EJ Gaines and to lesser extents Randy Ponder and Matt White will mean the secondary will see more passes and yes, Markus Golden and Shane Ray will become full-fledged starters and may be able to provide greater impact because of the pressure they'll put on opposing quarterback. Lucas Vincent, Matt Hoch, Kentrell Brothers and Braylon Webb will be that inside core of Mizzou's defense that'll be rotated around throughout 2014.

The inside consistency provided by that returning core interior, which excelled at stifling the run and has experience in coverage will allow players transitioning into starting minutes to be put into positions where their roles will be very clear and the increase in burden for Aarion Penton, John Gibson, Duron Singleton and Ian Simon will be a matters of degrees instead of the much larger jump asked of Michael Scherer or Donavin Newsom.

From my review, Steckel preferred the Nickel defense because he knew what he could get from his players. During camp next week and throughout this fall, Steckel and staff will be getting a better feel on this year's players and which formation best suits their abilities. Predicting what formation will be the base defense in 2014 is largely speculative, but I think it makes the most sense to put as many returners or significant contributors from last year on the field as possible, from which I would conclude the 4-2-5 Nickel makes the most sense.

It'll let Steckel use four great defensive lineman to mask the growing pains of the outside cornerbacks, while asking Braylon Webb and Kentrell Brothers to bring along the middle of the defense. I expect Golden, Ray, Singleton and Webb to be play-makers. The speed with which the new guys progress will impact the degree to which those four will be making plays or protecting the rest of the team against them.