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Film Room: Odd Fronts and Backup LBs

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Ryan Walters’ shift toward the odd front paid off handsomely against Troy. Plus, bonus film of backup linebackers!

NCAA Football: SE Missouri State at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

(Let’s begin with a parenthetical aside. I finished this column just before finding out about Cale Garrett’s injury. Had I known when I started, I probably would have examined some of the snaps the players likely to replace him — Cameron Wilkins and Jamal Brooks — took in the second half on Saturday. I offer here the column I originally wrote, followed by some bonus footage of Wilkins and Brooks with very brief commentary. So keep scrolling after the Conclusion.)

Something odd was afoot when the Mizzou defense was on the field on Saturday. It wasn’t that the Tigers thoroughly dominated their opponent (though given that Troy had been torching opposing defenses, being bottled up the way they were must have been strange for the Trojans). What was truly odd was the means by which the Tigers controlled the game.

Missouri runs a base 4-2 defense, an even front. The four down linemen align in three-point stances, the tackles covering the offense’s guards.

Even front: nose and tackle are covering the offensive guards

And yet, for the majority of the first half (when the game was still relatively competitive) the Tigers aligned in an odd front: three down linemen with a nose tackle over the center.

Odd front: nose is covering the center

To this point in the season, the Tiger defense has shifted between even and odd fronts from snap to snap, but never have they leaned on the three-man front like they did against the Trojans.

In the first quarter, Mizzou was in an odd front on every snap but one. For the first half they played with three down linemen more than 60% of the time.

I won’t speculate on coordinator Ryan Walters’ reasons for this aberration. It could be the schemes Walters liked for the week worked better out of a three-man front. Maybe the defensive staff identified the center as a weak link and wanted to make him uncomfortable by covering him. Who knows?

Nevertheless, let’s look at some of the many strong plays the Tiger defense made out of their odd front.

Aligning to the formation

First, let’s look at how Walters adjusted his front according to the Trojan formation.

Against four-wide formations the Tigers aligned in a 5-1 look.

(I’ve kept the base 4-2 position names in my diagrams — two ends, a tackle, and a nose tackle — because Walters did not adjust personnel when going to a three-man front.)

Mike linebacker Cale Garrett aligns on one edge, and the defensive end opposite him stands up on the other.

5-1 alignment

Facing two-back formations, Mizzou added a man to the box, showing a 5-2 structure.

Either Garrett remained on the edge and one of the Tiger deep safeties dropped into the box:

5-2 with Mike on the edge

Or Mizzou strong safety (either Khalil Oliver or Ronnell Perkins) took one edge and Garrett settled into his customary linebacker alignment:

5-2 alignment with Mike and Will as linebackers

Now let’s look at some plays.

Run Plays

5-1 versus RPO Draw

The Tigers align in the 5-1 against the Trojans’ Trips look.

Diagrammed:

And the play:

The offensive call is an RPO. The idea is to hit the Hitch route by number three (in green in the below diagram) if it is open. If the Hitch is covered, the logic goes, a player left the run box, leaving five defenders for the five linemen to block. In this case, the quarterback will hand to the running back on a Draw.

The 5-1 front, however, makes the play difficult to execute, as we will see.

Notice that the Will linebacker (#32, Nick Bolton), can’t be blocked if the handoff is made. Garrett (#47) appears by alignment to have the strongside C gap, but drops off the line at the snap. Defensive end Chris Turner (#39) slants outside to hold the edge.

It could be that Garrett’s drop triggers Troy quarterback Kaleb Barker to abandon the Hitch and hand off. But with a blocker assigned to Garrett, there is no one left to block Bolton.

Garrett gets stood up by the Trojan right guard, but is able to constrict the path available to Troy’s back, DK Billingsley. The unblocked Bolton finishes Billingsley with a textbook solo tackle.

5-1 versus Tackle Trap

The offensive formation and defensive alignment are both the same as on the previous play.

Diagram:

The play is Tackle Trap to the right. The line blocks down to the backside, leaving Garrett for the trapper.

Diagram:

Once again, the front creates problems for the blocking scheme. Against an even front, the offensive line could double team both tackles up to the linebackers:

Tackle Trap v. even front

The odd front, however, prevents these double teams by alignment. The center has to single block Whiteside.

Center must block the nose with no help.

This is a problem: Whiteside drives the center into the backfield, then disengages to make the tackle.

Jordan Elliott (#1) manhandles the backside guard, then crosses his face and gets in on the stop.

Watch again at the damage Whiteside and Elliott do to the Trojan offensive line.

The dominance of Whiteside and Elliott was a major theme of the game.

5-2 versus Jet Sweep

On this play the Trojans deploy a second back. The Tigers respond by putting another defender in the box, as we mentioned above.

The result is a 5-2 look.

The play is a Jet Sweep to the left.

Troy leaves the playside defensive end, Jatorian Hansford (#28), unblocked and sends the two backs on arc blocks to the edge.

As is often the case, one defender makes the tackle, but another makes the play. In this case, it’s strong safety Ronnell Perkins (#3) who makes the play, keeping his outside shoulder free and turning the sweep up inside. This allows Garrett, who quickly defeats the left tackle’s block by scraping hard across his face, to make a sure tackle.

Bolton (#32) also does a fine job of scraping over the top of his blocker and is in good position as well.

Let’s pour one out for Cale Garrett.

Pass Plays

The Tiger defense held the Trojans to a mere two yards per carry. Impressive to be sure, but Troy’s running game was not its strength.

The real accomplishment was holding the Trojan passing game to a measly 150 yards with two interceptions. Let’s look at the interceptions to see how the Tigers handled the pass out of the odd front.

5-1 versus Ill-advised pass

On this play Troy is back in Trips, and the Tigers align accordingly in a 5-1.

Diagram:

Garrett lines up as a pass rusher, but on the snap he buzzes to the hook area near the hash where he gets a hand on the ball, then corrals it for the interception.

The coverage is a form of Cover 2 Tampa. In Tampa 2 the defense aligns in a two-deep shell, but sends an underneath player down the middle of the field as a third deep defender. This allows the safeties to play wider, covering the holes on the sidelines behind the corners.

In the traditional form of Tampa 2 that deep middle player is the Mike linebacker.

Traditional Cover 2 Tampa

Ryan Walters employs an interesting tweak here, sending safety Joshuah Bledsoe (#18), who is aligned as the strong safety, to the deep middle third. This is an interesting adjustment. The assignments better fit the skills of the players involved, allowing the linebacker to play the underneath area, and the speedier safety to play in the deep zone.

Garrett reads the quarterback’s eyes, breaks on the ball, and comes up with the pick.

Then he does it again...

5-1 versus Ill-advised pass, Take two

This is another Trips set, but with the trips receivers in a bunch. The Tigers, once again, align in a 5-1 with Garrett on the strong edge.

The diagram:

Garrett is defending the same area as on his previous INT. He fakes the rush before backing out to his zone.

I’m not entirely sure what the coverage is, but it looks like some kind of Tampa 2 again. We can see in the below tight shot that safety Tyree Gillespie (#9), initially aligned on the line of scrimmage, sprints all the way to the middle of the field on the snap.

We should note that key to the quarterback’s bad decision is the pressure applied by Bolton. Reason: well, the tight shot shows the, ahem, modest effort given by the Trojan running back.

That’s not very good.

Once again, Garrett reads the quarterback’s eyes which take him right to the intended receiver. This time Garrett gets the ball to the ‘zone.

One last time.

Conclusion

Whatever the reason for the change, I’m impressed with Ryan Walter’s adjustments to the Tiger front. The danger in making such a radical shift is that players will be confused, missing gaps or assignments, or that they will slow down from having to think too much. Neither of those pitfalls came up as far as I can see. The Tiger defense was fast and fierce.

In terms of our Film Room project, the fact that Walters is so willing to experiment and innovate is exciting. We will keep an eye out for more interesting changes from the Tiger defense’s general.

Bonus!

As promised, here is some footage of Cameron Wilkins and Jamal Brooks who filled in for Cale Garrett in the second half. Wilkins was the first to take over Garrett’s Mike linebacker spot. At the start of the fourth quarter, Brooks came in at Mike. And at the game’s end, Wilkins and Brooks manned both inside linebacker positions.

Wilkins finished the game tied for first on the team with five tackles, four of them solo. Brooks finished with two solos.

Wilkins with a knee-buckler

Wilkins (#40) doesn’t make the play here, but check out the hit he puts on the pulling tackle. The play is Tackle Trap, the same as the second play above. Wilkins plays it just like Garrett did, but stuns the puller, dropping him to one knee.

Don’t know how great his overall linebacking will be, but the dude can sting ya.

Wilkins finishes off a tackle for loss

Walters did this a few times—we saw it in the second play above. The Mike linebacker aligns on the edge in the 5-1 look, Mike in the C gap, the DE in the B. At the snap, the two switch gaps—the end slants out to the C gap and the Mike drops back and takes the B.

While Jordan Elliott makes the play by blowing past the center, Wilkins, who starts off on the right edge of the Trojan line, does a good job shedding the right guard’s block and getting in on the action.

The tight view:

Brooks on the tackle

This is from later in the game when Wilkins and Brooks were on the field together.

I like the way Brooks (#25) explodes into the right tackle’s block and disengages in time to make the tackle.

Brooks scrapes across the formation

I like Brooks’ patience here, never overpursuing, which could open up the cutback, then making the tackle — with help from defensive end Franklin Agbasimere — once the running back commits.