When you hear traditionalist NFL commentators and coaches discuss the influence of the "spread option" on the game, exemplified by the 2012-13 explosion of the zone read play and pistol formation, there is often a great deal of scorn for the notion that option-oriented offenses could be successful in the NFL.
Of course, in reality, option offenses have been dominant in the NFL for decades now. Bill Walsh's West Coast offense was built around the QB making quick reads and decisions with the ball, just like in college football's Wishbone offense. While the ball is tossed forward in the NFL, option reads by the QB are an important part of the game.
The Big 12 continued its marriage of those innovations in 2012 with offensive concepts that asked quarterbacks to make quick decisions that included both run and throw options on the same play.
Good football defenses have always depended on athletic players and a phalanx type mindset in which everyone depends on his teammate to do their job while he does his own. However, the modern option-heavy offenses are so good at finding the weak spots in coverages and defensive fronts that these tenets of good defensive play have been stressed to the max.
A good defense must now consist of players who understand their roles, execute, and THEN possess the awareness and speed to track the ball. Against an offense that makes good reads, if you've done your job there's a good chance the play is occurring somewhere else and you need to get there quick.
Of course, the nature of spread offenses is also such that fulfilling your first assignment on defense often requires great athleticism in order to cover the amount of space that the offense makes you account for.
The traditional linebacker is one of the primary victims of all these innovations. One of the first run/throw option plays that has been introduced is the Inside Zone/Bubble screen. Plays like this challenge a defense on how they will account for the possibility of the ball attacking them on the flank or up the gut. A linebacker often has the responsibility to pursue the screen, but if he does so then he must vacate his interior gap, which is being attacked by a combo-block and inside run.
This is the world into which Arthur Brown was thrust when he transferred to Kansas St. and was made the starting middle linebacker in 2011. At 6'0" and around 230 pounds, Brown did not match the ideal body-type of a classic middle linebacker. However, he does possess the stocky and quick traits of legendary Tampa-2 linebackers like Jack Ham, London Fletcher, or Derrick Brooks, who excelled in the tasks that modern linebackers undertake.
While many Big 12 defenses would remove linebackers to match four and five wide receiver formations by the offense, Kansas State always left Arthur Brown on the field:
Here against Baylor, Brown is technically the Mike linebacker but he's several yards outside of the box being asked to play out in space between the slot receiver and OL.
Here against an empty set with five wide receivers by West Virginia they still have Arthur Brown on the field. Because they could trust Arthur Brown to hold his own on the field against spread sets, they were able to play the same base nickel personnel against all manner of offensive formations.
That paid big dividends in the form of the overall discipline and cohesiveness of the KSU phalanx, and in the physical run defense that came from having Arthur Brown on the field at all times.
West Virginia was totally thwarted by Kansas St's defensive tactics in their 2012 matchup on October the 20th in Morgantown. Where Oklahoma and their dime and dollar defensive packages were abused, Kansas St. put on a 55-14 rout. Brown led the way with eight tackles, two behind the line of scrimmage, an interception, and a knockdown of Geno Smith on a blitz.
West Virginia came into the game looking to attack the Wildcats' linebacker corps, and in their second offensive drive brought out a 20 personnel package (2 running backs, 0 tight ends) to attack KSU inside out with an inside zone/bubble screen play.
At this point, West Virginia's defense has really struggled to contain Collin Klein and the KSU offense, and a score is essential. Arthur Brown (no. 4) is in the field-side B gap and the 2nd linebacker from the top. West Virginia already has Kansas State outnumbered in the box with five OL and two RB's vs four DL and two LB.
West Virginia motions the boundary-side running back to the field. The response by Kansas State will reveal their coverage and defense. If a linebacker chased the running back out, it would indicate a man-coverage. Instead, the weakside KSU linebacker slides over and Arthur Brown slides out of the tackle box.
The initial read for QB Geno Smith is to see if the defense has been out-leveraged by the quick screen. Since Brown, the nickel back, and safety behind them have shifted outside to prevent getting beat to the edge, the weak spot in the defense is in the B-gap where Arthur Brown had been stationed. It's quickly opening up into a massive crease.
However, Arthur Brown demonstrates his sideline to sideline speed and is back in the crease before the running back even reaches the line of scrimmage. Now it remains for Brown to handle the back's cut in the massive space afforded by West Virginia's motion plus defensive end no. 42 rushing hard up field.
Brown manages to get his legs and bring him down for an only two yard gain.
West Virginia used motion to try and outflank the Wildcats on the perimeter with the true intention of opening up the middle of the field to be gashed by inside zone. Kansas State responded by sliding their defensive backfield over to prevent getting leveraged, sent their DE's flying upfield to try and funnel the ball back inside, and then relied on Arthur Brown's quickness and tackling to control the middle of the field.
The game proceeded with KSU staying in good leverage against West Virginia's attempts to spread them out and hammer either the perimeter or interior while Collin Klein was giving Holgorsen's Air Raiders a quick death with downfield strikes that added up to 333 passing yards.
Coming back after halftime down 31-7 (only score coming on a Tavon Austin kick return), West Virginia tried to punish Kansas State's aggressive pursuit of their inside/outside concepts by throwing over the top.
They bring back the 20 personnel formation with the boundary-side running back motioning to the field to threaten KSU with both the screen and the inside zone run yet again.
Kansas St. responds in the same fashion with Arthur Brown sliding out of the tackle box and the nickel back sliding out so that he can play with outside leverage on the slot receiver.
Arthur Brown and the nickel have their eyes to the backfield to be ready to respond to the running play.
But it's a play-action fake, and Geno Smith is looking for the no. 2 receiver who had appeared to be blocking for the screen. Both the nickel and Brown immediately recognize what's happening and look to get depth as quickly as possible.
You can see the West Virginia receiver on bottom nestled between the underneath coverage and the deep defenders. The nickel back no. 15 tips the ball up and Arthur Brown has already arrived.
The Corner had stayed shallow to defend the no. 1 receiver and the safety has just arrived over the top but there was a window in the defense to hit the receiver for what would have been at least a 15 yard gain. Unfortunately for the Mountaineers, the nickel and mike backers for KSU were able to take deep enough drops in time to deflect the pass.
Naturally Arthur Brown intercepts the ball after the deflection and the game is essentially over. It's 31-7, KSU has the ball inside the West Virginia 30 yard line, and Dana Holgorsen's counter to KSU's disciplined pursuit of their gameplan has just blown up in his face.
The distance that Brown covered in these two plays and his diagnosis of spacing attacks demonstrates his great potential value for NFL teams that have to deal with misdirection and subtle gameplanning on a weekly basis.
BUT! cries the NFL scout. While the NFL is employing more and more of these college spread concepts, they still aren't running the Air Raid. Linebackers still have to fill gaps, take on blockers, and bring people down in confined space.
While power running wasn't necessarily West Virginia's forte, the Mountaineers did employ some classic smashmouth football tactics against Arthur Brown, as did much of the league. Here's an example of a typical outcome from that approach:
Needing a yard early in the game, WV came out with two receivers, a fullback, a halfback, and a running back. Holgorsen introduced these kinds of loaded backfield formations at Oklahoma St., which allowed the offense to send blocking numbers to unexpected parts of the formation. KSU responded with a sort of 4-3 Under front with Brown taking the traditional Mike role of filling the "bubble" in the defense.
There is no DL lined up over the right guard, providing the offense with a "bubble" to attack by sending that guard to the 2nd level. Ideally the nose will require on a double from the guard and center and leave the Mike the role of blowing up the fullback to allow the weakside linebacker or free safety to make the tackle. This is the job duty of a classic mike.
West Virginia runs Power into the B-gap, the classic smashmouth approach. The right guard does indeed help the center double team the nose tackle and leaves Arthur Brown for the fullback while the halfback ventures outside to stop the outside linebacker from caving in the play from the edge.
From the camera behind the line of scrimmage you can see Brown leveraging himself into the hole before the fullback is there. The obvious crease would come behind the fullback's demolition of the smaller Brown in the hole.
But Brown gets lower than the fullback and leads into him from the ground up using his right shoulder so that his left is free to play the running back. Looking carefully, you can actually see the fullback's feet leave the ground on tape after the impact.
Arthur Brown sheds the fullback with relative ease and gets his hands on the running back on the wrong side of the intended hole.
He makes the tackle two yards behind the line of scrimmage and forces a West Virginia punt that leads to KSU's quick momentum in the game.
Granted this play came against the spread-oriented West Virginia and not against Vonta Leach and Ray Rice, but the physicality of Brown and great fundamentals are still evident.
At the combine, Brown measured at 240 pounds while running a 4.65 40. His low center of gravity and great knee bend in his stances and approach to blocks and ballcarriers gave him the needed power to play in the box while his speeds allows him to reach the box from alignments that are intended to take away passing lanes for the offense.
Where he fits in the NFL will depend on the scheme. Most scouts have him pegged as an outside linebacker who can pursue plays laterally behind the protection of inside backers and defensive lineman. There is no doubt that his horizontal pursuit speed would allow him to excel in that role. However, against West Virginia we saw Kansas St. task Brown with maintaining control of the middle of the field and the results speak for themselves.
West Virginia threw the ball for 155 yards in 35 attempts, a total of 4.4 yards per attempt. Tavon Austin, who normally abuses the middle of a defense's coverage, gained only 34 receiving yards on the day. West Virginia ran the ball for 88 yards on 27 carries, a total of only 3.3 yards per carry.
An NFL team that values linebackers who can make deep drops against the pass, pursue the ball all over the field, and still have the tenacity and strength to mix it up in the tackle box will snatch up Arthur Brown. Much like the "undersized" Tampa-2 defenses of the early 00's, this team will be better equipped than most to handle the spread-option attacks headed their way.