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How North Dakota State stopped the Bob Stitt Air Raid

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A classic, 4-3 defense was able to completely stuff one of the most innovative Air Raid teams in the country in the FCS playoffs recently. Were you paying attention, Big 12 defenses?

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Football's greatest innovations often come from the lower ranks these days. The people responsible for making FCS or high school offenses work are generally going to be more inclined to try something new. If necessity is the mother of invention then smaller programs who don't have multi-million dollar facilities and 85 scholarships doled out to the most obvious talent in the region are more likely to be the source of innovation and breakthrough.

Case in point, Bob Stitt's version of the Air Raid has proven inspirational for coaches across the country and received some extra attention when it blew up the four-time defending FCS national champion North Dakota State Bison team in an exciting 38-35 season opener.

But the Bison got a second crack at Stitt's Grizzlies in the first round of the FCS playoffs and came equipped with a new plan for stuffing an Air Raid attack of the sort that has destroyed college programs at every level. In their re-match, ND State held the Stitt-Raid to six points, 235 total yards, 4.8 yards per pass, while picking them off four times.

They did this mostly from their base 4-3 defense, demonstrating a path to handling these teams for 4-3 defenses around the country who were starting to lose hope. Here's the path the Bison have laid out for stuffing the Air Raid if anyone cares to learn from the lower levels.

Lesson 1: Flip the focus back to the trenches

Our own Bill Connelly had a fantastic article earlier in the year about where returning experience matters in today's game. As it turned out, returning experience at QB, WR, and DB was more valuable than returning experience at OL, DL, or LB.

Why is this the case? Because teams are emphasizing complexity in the passing game and simplicity up front based on the rationale that the passing game is where football games are won today and a better place to invest practice time and attention. In response, defenses spend a lot of time teaching pattern-reading coverages to counter these offenses.

Trench warriors may benefit from extra time in the program to build up the necessary strength but when everyone's run game playbook is pretty similar and fairly simple, talent can get up to speed much more quickly.

But that's not how North Dakota State does things. They are a developmental program, akin to Dantonio's Spartans, who regularly redshirt as many players as they can and prefer to build from the inside out. The Bison learned over the course of their season opening contest with the Grizz that their DL was good enough to allow their defensive backfield to over play the passing game and counter the run game with complexity up front.

Because the Montana run game is fairly simple, the Bison were able to scheme it with a few choice stunts that they ran regularly throughout the game. On example was a tackle-end twist that was useful for thwarting the Grizzlies' zone schemes and setting up the Bison weakside linebacker for an easy path to the football.

Bison T-E Stunt

You'll notice that in this diagram the Bison's two safeties are dropping into deep halves and the middle linebacker is dropping with the slot receiver and would do so even on running plays. There are no conflicted defenders here for an RPO (run/pass option) to attack in the passing game as the Bison are instead conceding numbers to the run game.

The Grizzlies, like many Air Raid teams, are at their best when attacking single-deep safety man coverages. Stitt's team is particularly excellent at it thanks to their WR screen game, various pick routes, and mastery of the back shoulder fade.

They are counting on teams not playing a great deal of two-deep coverage because against trips formations like the one above it's impossible to drop both safeties deep without leaving only five defenders in the box. That should make it easy for the offense to run the ball but the Bison used stunts like this one to complicate matters. Here's what that looked like against the Grizzlies running outside zone:

The defensive end loops inside of the defensive tackle who's looking to work outside. For the offensive line, the left tackle was looking to get outside of the DE and hook him inside so the RB could potentially bounce outside, instead he's got no one to block.

That means the stunt has two positive results for the defense, first it takes away the edge and secondly it results in a five on four battle in which no one is left to block the weakside linebacker. He makes the tackle after a minimal gain.

They also stopped attempts to run inside zone with this stunt:

The Grizzly OL were often busy chasing the DL around or looking to stop the stunts from resulting in penetration, which meant that the linebackers were running free to the football. The two backers combined for 19 tackles, eleven of them by weakside backer MJ Stumpf who was regularly left alone in the box against the Grizzlies' trips formations.

The Bison would also frequently mix in stunts featuring the nose tackle and three-technique tackle on the inside, almost always with the result of tying up Montana OL and bringing the advantage back to the defensive front that should have been lost from playing so much two-deep safety coverage.

An offensive line for an Air Raid team like the Grizzlies is generally very simple with their schemes and they don't always spend a great deal of time teaching blocking techniques and extra play wrinkles for dealing with teams that try to out-scheme the run game. Generally when they get into trouble their team is designed to pass their way out of it, but the Bison's focus on DL play and versatility up front allowed them to make hay and allowed what happened up front to impact what happened out wide.

The Bison essentially called Montana's bluff and dared them to beat them running the ball on a five man box while using stunts to eliminate their own disadvantages in taking on that challenge. Montana had no answers and their backs only had 23 yards on 15 carries.

Lesson 2: Disguise the boundary safety's assignment

Many passing teams will key a good deal of what they do off the rotation of the boundary safety. His rotation will generally reveal if the defense is leaving corners in man coverage to bring extra numbers down, if they are bracketing the boundary receiver, or if they are rolling coverage elsewhere on the field.

Air Raid teams usually prefer for their QB to have as little as possible to discern and read after the snap so that he can focus his eyes on a single post-snap defenders and make him pay for how he plays the routes. So the Bison would generally line up like this:

Bison pre-snap look

You can see the boundary safety (#35) drifting towards the middle of the field, indicating a possible single-high coverage. This would be particularly notable for the Grizzlies' QB to take note of because when the Bison play a single-high safety that usually means they are bringing an extra pass-rusher on the blitz.

However, just before the snap when the QBs eyes come back down the safety would usually drop back into a deep zone:

Bison post-snap SS rotation

You can also see the field-side defensive tackle and end executing the stunt again to allow the Bison to play a five-man box against the run and get their underneath defenders in position to cover the slot receivers.

Trying to throw quick routes underneath against widened out linebackers like this is a low-percentage option and back shoulder fades are a risky business against cover 2. What's worse though is that Montana QB Brady Gustafson didn't always have a good pre-snap read of what coverage the defense was in largely because of the effective disguise by SS Robbie Grimsley.

Lesson 3: Blitz smarter, not harder

Blitzing is often what got the Bison into trouble in their season opener against Stitt as his team connected on a few rub routes and deep shots to beat their man coverage. However, removing blitzing from the game plan makes the base defense, no matter how sound it is, a sitting duck.

One blitz they used to great effect was to drop that boundary safety down to key the running back, even joining the blitz if the RB stayed in the backfield to protect, while bringing the weakside linebacker as the extra blitzer coming off the a defensive tackle's hip. Like many other effective blitzes in the year 2015, this was a man/zone combination blitz with the boundary corner playing man coverage on his side while the opposite side played cover 2.

Bison man/zone blitz

It's hard to punish this man/zone blitz with the usual tactics since the corners and free safety are in position to take away many of the deep shots that the Grizz like to punish blitzes with and all of the underneath receivers are covered up.

Up front, the two defensive tackles will fight their way through the guards to reach their gaps, which usually resulted in a completely clear path for the weakside linebacker to blitz through unless the RB stayed in and picked him up.

The Bison did mix in some five man pressures with a single deep safety, but typically they just used that as a boogey-man to threaten the Grizzlies with while relying on other means when they actually wanted to get pressure. Another tactic they'd use when they actually wanted to pressure the QB was to play a 30 front nickel package on passing downs that could bring pressure like this:

Bison Spinner blitz

This is basically a spinner package in which the tackle lines up at end and the end, Greg Menard, stands up and chooses an interior gap to blitz with a full steam of momentum. It'd be inadvisable to have DL just pin their ears back and charge up field like this on every snap but on passing downs, why not overload a single side of the protection and let the DL just work to get upfield?

The first time they unleashed this package it was early in the game in the 2nd quarter when the score was still just 7-0 North Dakota State. After the play was over the scoreboard read 14-0 and the Grizzlies were in real trouble:

Again, the Bison are playing cover 2 with players widened out to stop the quick passing game that Air Raid teams often use to punish blitzes with safeties over the top to punish deep shots as well. However, they get quick pressure with a four-man rush simply by using a more pass-aware alignment to set up their pass-rushers for success.

So there you have it. The Bison were as multiple as possible while relying very heavily on two-deep coverages and four/five man pressures. Because of the quality and versatility of their front four, the Bison were able to regularly scheme advantages for their trench players to control the Grizzly run game and get pressure on the QB without venturing away from their preferred two-deep zones.

As a result, Bob Stitt's Air Raid could not effectively attack them through the air and even handed them the game with repeated turnovers. If there are teams at the FBS level that can field good four man fronts and thus scheme different ways to get into safe, anti-pass game coverages they should take notes from this FCS defense that only needed one extra try to clamp down on a potent Air Raid.