The 4-3 and Illinois

Jan 13, 2020

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Editor's note: Sometimes, responses to comments turn into entire posts. That's what happened here. Craig wanted to reply to one of the comments on his bowl post but his reply was so long it might as well be posted here. So here is the question and then Craig's lengthy response.

illinisludge on January 01 @ 11:24 AM CST

thanks for your coverage. can you do a post about the schematic deficiencies of Lovie's D? (not too technical)

I'm not sure I can do not too technical well, but I'll try my best. The first thing to understanding the 4-3 defense, and why it works and fails, is to understand what it was designed to stop. Skip the next 11 paragraphs if you don't care about any of this.

The 4-3 defense was brought to prominence by Tom Landry with the NY Giants in the 1950s. The defense was set up to stop the T-formation of the Chicago Bears but was also effective against the Cleveland Browns vertical passing attack. The Giants won a championship with the defense, so gained traction early on. The 4-3 defense was effective against the T-formation's pulling line and dizzying backfield moves. The front 7 players were responsible for a single gap, and the idea was to shoot the gap and hold the spot. As with any defense, having the right personnel helps, but the defense took away a major advantage of the T-formation by simplifying assignments in the run game.

The secondary assignments changed as well, moving to a 2-deep look. If you are a two-high defense. you can get your CB's involved in the run defense. The T formation typically involved a double-tight TE look (one on each side of the line). Therefore, each side has one receiving threat on the line to account for. Typically the CB is responsible for the #1 receiver, or TE in the T formation, in man coverage. Moving to the two-deep coverage though meant the TE is being covered by the deep safety while the CB reads TE to the nearest back. If the back goes away at the snap, the CB pursues the play from the backside. If the back starts toward the CB, the CB plays run defense as the spill player since the interior gaps should be filled. If the TE shows pass, the CB has the back nearest him in coverage as the flat and wheel defender.

The 4-3 fell out of favor in college due to the dominance of Bud Wilkinson's 5-2 Oklahoma defense and a lack of passing attacks. The 5-2 Oklahoma is the precursor to the 3-4 that would be recognized today. The 5-2 Oklahoma defense allows the LBs clean reads and puts a lot of pressure on offenses on the edges. The 5-2 and variants became the most common defense in college. Darrel Royal took advantage of this with the Wishbone offense. The wishbone is simply a power running offense, and power run schemes evolved out of the sets. Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma, etc. all took off during this time as the wishbone offense required incredible talent at the Nose and Defensive Tackle positions to stop.

The 4-3 came back into fashion starting with Jimmy Johnson at Oklahoma State. Tired of the dominance of Oklahoma's option attack (and maybe Nebraska's too), Johnson introduced the 4-3 you would recognize today. It was about disruption and speed, having players shoot gaps and disrupt blocking assignments. When Johnson went to Miami and placed even better athletes in the system, they were dominant. The defense also was effective against both Don Coryell's vertical passing attack (the Chargers offense and Mike White's) and the West Coast offense of Bill Walsh. After Johnson's move to the NFL, about every 5-2 variant neared extinction (including the Buddy Ryan 46 defense).

The major downside of the 4-3 Cover 2 scheme was the soft middle of the field between the safeties on the hashes but behind the middle LBs. Enter the Tampa 2. The Tampa 2 defense was developed to give all the deep coverage of the Cover 3, while still have strong support in the flats for run support. In the Tampa 2, the corners still have the flats and are run support for backs being spilled to the edge. The 4-3 Tampa 2 completely killed off the West Coast offense as a pure offense. The downside of the Tampa 2 is it requires incredible speed from the MLB, while also relying on the MLB to be a run-stuffing behemoth.

The college game evolved differently than the pro game, and the spread offense blazed through the college ranks. The spread came in two forms, the Air Raid and the Power Spread. Mike Leach was the trailblazer who made Tim Couch for the first overall pick with the Air Raid. Leach then moved to Oklahoma with Bob Stoops as the OC. He generated a few adherents there, while also creating others at Texas Tech when he took over as head coach. (Another variant was Joe Tiller at Purdue). The Running Spread was initially a Rich Rodriguez concept but grew from there. Head coaches in all of college football went looking for guys with unique spread concepts. Thus, Gus Malzahn and Urban Meyer.

The 4-3 Cover 2, and the Tampa 2 struggled to contain these offenses. By putting more WRs on the field, they began moving LBs out of the box and putting them into major conflict. The spread offenses generated a numbers advantage at the point of attack with a two-man read option on an unblocked DE (Juice Williams at Illinois for example). The earliest solution to the Spread attacks was oddly a solution developed to stop a Wisconsin style power running game. Gary Patterson developed his 4-2-5 to take away the advantages of power running teams and concentrate on spilling run plays. He did that by replacing a LB with a safety. The added speed worked very well for the spread option teams since he had an athlete who was better in space than a traditional LB.

Overall, Patterson's story is a minor variant of the Jimmy Johnson story. Getting players to the ball faster was the objective of Patterson's D, similar to Johnson's concept. The attacking style leads to a great deal of disruption of offenses and allows the defense to dictate aspects of the game. The real trick of the Patterson defense was specialization. Patterson disconnected his defensive front 6 from the back 5. Patterson swapped out the Sam LB with another safety, which differentiated his defense from Nickel defenses where the linebacker is subbed for a corner. The 4-2 of Patterson delegates the inside six gaps to the front six and spills everything else to the corners. The DBs are allowed to play pass first, and support the run from the edge.

The 4-2-5 had a major deficiency though. With all the players up front playing single-gap, they are aggressive up the field. The twist to help slow down the attacking 4-2-5 was the RPO. Rich Rodriguez is probably the first guy who ran RPOs in college, but it took off in the last five years. The RPO is also a very successful killer of the Match Quarters defense. Match Quarters is a Cover 4 look made famous by Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi. The great thing about Match Quarters was that the safeties are run defenders, and coming hard on any run. The RPO gets the WR behind those safeties coming up hard in run fits.

The way most teams have started attacking the RPO game is by moving to a 3-4 front. The 3 down lineman are two-gap players, meaning they are more read and react. On the back end, the defenses have moved to a lot more split coverages, like a Cover 2 on one side and Cover 3 on the other. The offense will base the attack on the defense's shell. By showing the shell with split coverage, the defense can force the RPO to a specific place and aggressively attack where the ball is going to be based on formation.

For every innovation on one side of the ball, there is a reaction by the other side. The deficiencies of the 4-3 Cover 2 are noted above. Some schemes are inherently better than others in today's game (no one in college is running a pure 5-2 Oklahoma anymore), but there is no magic bullet defense. What works at Ohio State may not have the same success at Illinois. There are two things that are needed for success on defense: correct alignment and reads along with fundamentals. This is why Lovie was loud this year about how missed tackles were killing the defense.

Illinois right now faces six teams in the B1G West every year. Let's look at the other B1G West offenses:

Iowa: A power run team that uses some shotgun spread concepts

Minnesota: A Power Spread team using RPOs (at least they were…)

Nebraska: A Spread Option team

Northwestern: A Power Spread team (at least they were…)

Purdue: A Spread Passing Team

Wisconsin: A Power Run team using some shotgun spread concepts

The 4-3 defense was designed to attack power run teams and the triple option. The Shotgun Spread Read Option play is just a new Dive Option for the triple option or Wishbone. The original 4-3 was designed to attack a power run game, so Illinois schematically matches up pretty well against Iowa and Wisconsin. Minnesota and Northwestern run two similar offenses based on the Read Option. Jimmy Johnson actually designed his defense to stop the triple option, so Illinois matches up fine with them. Nebraska is running a Spread Option that puts Illinois' LBs into a weird conflict, but with the right personnel at OLB the defense works. Purdue's passing spread is the only offense where the front has major match-up issues. In order to stop the Purdue passing attack, Illinois needs a DL that can generate pressure to force the Purdue QB to get rid of the ball quickly into the Illini five-across zone defenders.

The main takeaway, the 4-3 defensive front relies on defensive linemen who can get penetration and be disruptive. The best way to defend the Wisconsin offense is to make the play bounce to the outside. The Shotgun Spread allows teams to take advantage of overly aggressive DEs by designing some spill concepts into the play itself. To counter that, the LBs in the 4-3 must become very adept at utilizing different reads to still attack the offense. Without getting too deep into it, the offense can be "tricked" into running a play at a LB because the LB is reading a back vs. the guard like traditional offenses. Iowa has become extremely good at coaching their LBs to account for this, and it shows. Iowa has therefore been able to remain a 4-3 team.

The Cover 2 scheme is very useful for combating the passing game of offenses, particularly when the DL gets a pass rush and forces quick throws by the QB. The spread option attacks of the B1G West have one thing in common, four eligible receivers. The four receivers force teams to respect 4 vertical routes, which the Cover 2 and Cover 4 are designed to accommodate. The Cover 3 has no easy accommodation and relies on a secondary defender covering a lot of field to stop the four threats. If the pass rush exists, the Cover 2 primary issue is the support of safeties in the run game to cover all the gaps. Illinois accomplishes this with the backside S playing aggressive on run action (it is also why Illinois sees the Jet Sweep so often).

With the right personnel, any defense can be successful. With adequate personnel and great coaching, any defense can be successful. The idea of any defense is to account for every gap in the run game, and account for every receiver in the passing game. All this has to be done pre-snap. Therefore, if the players are lined up correctly and they execute the fundamentals, any D can be successful. Many coaches say it, a few live it. Belichick is annoying as hell, but his "Do your Job" saying is famous for a reason. Lovie focuses on eliminating big plays, tackling, and turnovers. If those fundamentals are maintained, and they are blended with a penetrating D-line and second-level defenders taking good pursuit angles chasing a spill play the defense works. Going back to the first sentence though, the right personnel is key. If the defense lacks the speed to attack spill plays or lacks a line that can penetrate, the premise of the defense is wrong from the outset and doomed to fail.


NTB on January 13, 2020 @ 08:59 AM

Thank you. This was a fantastic read.

Douglascountyillinifan on January 13, 2020 @ 09:34 AM

This was great. Now the for the million dollar question. How close are the beloved to having the penetrating D Line and coverage studs to run this d successfully, Craig?

illiniranger on January 13, 2020 @ 10:07 AM

You want to get pressure with 4 consistently, you need a first round pick like Corey Liuget or Whitney Merciles. We don’t have those guys on the current roster. Maybe an Okpala or a Coleman gets there, but it won’t be next year.

If you’ve got “energy guy”, which is what we have, your just not going to get a ton of penetration. You need future NFL guys.

CraigG on January 13, 2020 @ 02:26 PM

In order to have a penetrating DL, you need a DL who can win one on one battles consistently. Avery shows flashed of that capability, and Gay may get there this season as well. The way Lovie runs his DL though means lots of guys rotating through. I'm not sure Illinois currently has the depth to consistently win with 8 guys.
Illinois is going to rely heavily this season on guys who are RS Fr, or grad transfers. The development of the DL this offseason is going to be crucial to making it work.

illiniranger on January 13, 2020 @ 10:04 AM

Probably worth mentioning Lovie ran a ton of Man Free his first 3 seasons and specifically mentioned Man Free in his opening press conference.

This is the first he really sold out to Cover 2, and IMO we became a better run D because our DBs weren’t turning and running as much at the snap.

The lack of a Mike that can patrol the intermediate middle to the deep middle was arguably our biggest hole. I think that was a coaching issue (never seemed to drop deep enough) more than a personnel issue. We lack the long rangy Mike (think Martez Wilson) that would be a great Tampa 2 fit.

Here’s an article on Inverted Tampa 2. Play one D over and over and you’re dead in the modern game

CraigG on January 13, 2020 @ 02:30 PM

I like the article, very informative. The main shell is still going to be Cover 2 for Illinois, but even in the Cover 2 they still run man on the edges at times. Against Cal they moved to a single high safety and had success with it. I also agree with the improvement in sun support once the DBs were focused on locking down their area. Illinois has LBs who can play the position, particularly Hansen. The question becomes if a guy like Hansen can be the plugging run-stopper similar to Phillips or Harding.

illiniranger on January 13, 2020 @ 07:49 PM

You’ve got to be able to jump from C2 to single high to stop inside run teams. As you wrote in your post game, that adjustment came too late. Brown was good as a box defender. Much improved this year, think he’ll continue to get better. Bennett Williams was really good at it as a true FR.

Interesting point about man free. Saban has started playing a CB as a S to help him get better M2M cover skills out of the S that has to cover a WR in Man. Kind of like a dime but with a CB replacing a S instead of LB.

There’s nothing wrong with Cover 2, but you better be able to be in your spot and run out some NFL types at DL.

Love Hansen as a Will, don’t think he can be a Mike. Tolson? Cooper with weight gain? Barnes?

neale stoner on January 13, 2020 @ 11:10 AM

What about the 3 man fronts that Iowa State has been playing and others are copying? Shouldn’t we mix in a little, particularly with next year’s roster which may be short on front four but relatively deep on the back seven?

illiniranger on January 13, 2020 @ 11:28 AM

That link I shared discusses that.

Venables jumped from 4-2-5 to a 3-2-6 and choked out OSU. If you’re only able to play one D, the good teams will beat you. Even the best pitchers have to mix pitches and location.

CraigG on January 13, 2020 @ 02:31 PM

I'm not sure that Illinois has the DL talent to consistently run a 3-2 front. That requires players that can draw double-teams...

illiniranger on January 13, 2020 @ 07:42 PM

Avery, Woods, Betiku, and Milan were there physically. If ISU can consistently pull it off with the guys they recruit I’d think IL could.

But yeah, you gotta have at least a couple 2 gap-ers.

IBFan on January 13, 2020 @ 01:13 PM

Awesome Craig. Some posters think that the same defense was played every down and that’s not the case. Unless you are a former player or coach it is hard to realize all the variations, some minor that if applied correctly make all the difference in the world. I know Craig could discuss techniques for every defensive set, proper positioning, drops, gaps, probably at every position but the variable are basically endless.
Perfectly said, the right personnel for the defense being employed. Lose your ball hawking LB and it effects the rest of your defense. Our last few games we were missing players or had players not at100%, it showed. A lot of speed coming in at S,LB and hopefully we get some DE that can maintain containment and still get push when needed. As previous poster said they might already be on roster, next man up. It’s January and I can’t wait for Robert’s camp reporting. BB beat NW!

Joe Edge on January 13, 2020 @ 02:17 PM

WOW... What a great piece... Thanks Craig. One small comment. This: 'With the right personnel, any defense can be successful.' should have been ALL-CAPS, BOLDED, and UNDERLINED as it is the most important sentence in the piece...

Dickbupkis on January 13, 2020 @ 09:27 PM

Absolute gold. Thanks Craig.

ktal on January 13, 2020 @ 10:24 PM

Thanks for this great write-up, Craig. Very helpful read.

Gary48 on January 14, 2020 @ 01:19 PM

Very interesting, Craig. My question is, can Coach Smith adjust his schemes to match our actual available talent game to game? From my perspective he did not adjust well during the 2019 season. When it wasn’t working (Northwestern) we just kept trying the same thing over and over again, which did not work.

illiniranger on January 14, 2020 @ 08:53 PM

He’s changed a fair amount. Went from 4-3 man free to a 4-2 Nickel Man to more of a 4-3 Cover 2 zone.

We weren’t hugely different from what Iowa, NW, MSU do. 4 man front playing mostly a zone behind it and mixing in man to some degree. To my eyes we even run some split field coverage, usually a quarter, quarter, half look.

We just don’t execute well, ie guys not in the right spots often enough. Make of that what you will. I don’t think it’s a Xs and Os problem.

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