Modern linebackers have it hard in life, spread offenses continue to find ways to ask them to try and be excellent both in dropping and covering in space or in blowing up blocks between the tackles. Consequently, defenses have to figure out how to mitigate the challenges of handling those conflicting assignments. So far in this series we've talked about the pseudo-dime approach, in which teams flood the field with safety/linebacker hybrids, and the specialist approach where teams compartmentalize assignments to avoid needing particularly versatile linebackers.
The third and final popular method for choosing modern linebackers is similar to the pseudo-dime in that it utilizes hybrids, but also similar to the specialist method in that it often differs stress to the secondary. The third method is the attack method, wherein a team puts MORE big linebackers on the field at the expense of the defensive line.
The goal here is to cause as much confusion and disruption up front as possible with versatile, attack-oriented players that can slide into multiple roles up front. That means targeting linebackers that are in the 6'2" to 6'4" range and 220-260 pounds. These "attack-backers" are guys that can drop and cover or run some but that are chosen primarily for their ability to cause problems on the blitz. Instead of LB/DB hybrids they're either big LB/DL types or just normal linebackers who excel at blitzing. If a defense can get away with putting more of these guys on the field and fewer 270+ pound guys of questionable athleticism and skill then it can be a big win for the defense.
Attacking from the 3-3-5
The traditional 3-3-5 is the ultimate example of this method, particularly the aggressive "3-3 stack" varieties that ask their linebackers to play in different roles on a given snap. This style generally involves playing multiple types of even fronts but changing up which linebacker becomes the 4th DL.
As an example, if all three linebackers are capable of charging a gap and the DL are effective at stunting then the same 3-3 stack front can morph into an Under front backed by cover 3...
...or an Over front backed by cover 4:
...all the while keeping the offensive line guessing about who they'll have to block after the snap. If the defense is better in either cover 4 or cover 3, the under or the over, they can still lean on one front or base coverage but get there in different ways by stunting the same players into different roles within the concept.
The more versatile the linebackers, the better this style works and the more possibilities that open up. Charlie Strong utilized this system some at Louisville and he prized athletic linebackers that could blitz, stockpiling as many of them as he could find. Todd Orlando ran this defense at Houston last year and thrived thanks to the versatility of attack-backers Elandon Roberts (142 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, now a Steeler), Steven Taylor (92 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks), and Tyus Bowser (50 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks).
As you can tell from those sack totals, it was hard for opponents to keep track of which linebacker would end up where after the snap. Here's an example against the potent Memphis offense:
Before the snap all three linebackers were poised to blitz but they only ended up bringing Roberts while dropping both Taylor (M) and Bowser (S) both into the flat, where Paxton Lynch did not expect to find them. The result was an incomplete pass and nearly a turnover. Incidentally, Houston returns their D-coordinator Orlando Brown and both Bowser and Taylor for another go in 2016.
Attacking from the 2-4-5
Most of the teams that use attack-backers come from a base, 3-4 defensive origin. However, once you get into the world of nickel defenses things tend to branch out between those teams mentioned above that stick with a three-down approach and then those teams that instead turn to the 2-4-5 personnel structure.
The idea behind the 2-4-5 is that if you are investing in developing enough great outside linebackers to be able to play two at a time in your 3-4 base defense, why take one of these guys off the field in the nickel? Some 3-4 teams have looked to find outside linebackers that can balance the challenge of playing coverage in space with the normal task of maintaining the edge, and such players have been found, allowing those teams to play a base 3-4 defense against the spread.
However, for most teams today the 2-4-5 is just a package within a 3-4 base structure that substitutes a nickelback for a defensive lineman rather than removing an outside-backer from the field. The style is growing enough that it may eventually come to define a base defense, perhaps for a Big 12 or AAC team that spends the vast majority of their time in the nickel, but it hasn't happened yet. Stanford and Wisconsin were two of the more prominent teams to utilize a 2-4-5 package last year and here's a glimpse of the type of personnel that can make it work from the 2015 Stanford defense:
|Outside-backer||Joey Alfieri||6'3" 240||40 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks|
|Defensive tackle||Aziz Shittu||6'3" 279||57 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 4 sacks|
|Defensive tackle||Brennan Scarlett||6'4" 264||37 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks|
|Outside-backer||Peter Kalambayi||6'3" 242||52 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks|
|Inside-backer||Kevin Palma||6'2" 252||44 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack|
|Inside-backer||Blake Martinez||6'2" 245||141 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks|
Stanford could also mix in tackle Solomon Thomas in exchange for one of the outside-backers to stiffen up their interior D and play a 3-3 look or mix him in for Shittu or Scarlett in the 2-4 as needed. However, when they played it like this with two smaller tackles their stunts on blitzes were particularly devastating. Stunting the two defensive tackles in order to occupy lineman is a key component to this package.
Anyways, with a good 2-4 each of the six players up front is capable of taking on blockers in the box against the run or rushing the passer, but four of them are also capable of dropping into coverage and executing the kinds of coverage assignments you'd expect from specialists. With four attack-backers on the field in addition to a pair of D-linemen and five D-backs, it becomes very easy for the defense to manufacture pressure without committing too many pass-rushers.
Stanford tended to do this from a cover 1 concept and would often bring five pass-rushers with the outside-backers assigned to peel off and cover the running back if he tried to slip out of the protection. At that point it would become a four-man pressure with man coverage, a deep safety, and a "rat" sitting in the middle:
The four "attack-backers" all have pretty straightforward, protected assignments thanks to the secondary picking up the four receivers in man coverage. One of them is the "rat" dropping into middle coverage to help on crossers, one is just blitzing, and the other two are either blitzing or peeling out to chase the RB if necessary. No one is being asked to cover a shifty slot receiver in space or carry a vertical route. The system is protecting them like specialists while also enabling them as attackers by providing favorable angles and the opportunity to disguise who's coming.
Here's how Wisconsin would attack from the 2-4-5 while using a quarters coverage concept:
The nature of quarters, as we discussed in the article about specialists, is that it tends to ask more from the linebackers in coverage than does cover 3 or cover 1 which both drop down a safety to help out underneath. In this case, the middle linebacker "I" has to get over to the boundary to serve as the weakside linebacker in the coverage while the strongside outside-backer "S" has to drop back and serve as the middle linebacker.
Those are potentially tougher assignments than what the Stanford guys were asked to do but it's easy for the defense to confuse the quarterback about where the linebackers will be dropping. More importantly, the defense is dropping back into a more conservative coverage that can be picked on underneath but is hard to beat down the field. That blend of aggressive play up front with conservative and sound coverage tends to be a magical formula in college ball.
Attacking with the Fire Zone
Finally there are the teams that include the zone blitz as a major component of their defensive philosophy who also emphasize "attack-backers." Some of these are teams that operate from the 3-4, 3-3-5, or 2-4-5, all of which tend to lend themselves to the zone blitz, and others are 4-3 teams such as Bob Shoop and Manny Diaz's similar systems which are now traveling to Tennessee and Miami respectively.
The guiding principle of zone blitz teams is essentially the same as that of the 3-3-5 or 2-4-5 teams, to have as many versatile "attack-backers" on the field as possible who can slide into multiple roles and cause disruption on the blitz.
The differences between a 2-4-5 team and a 4-3 squad that uses fire zones regularly is pretty minimal, both are looking for linebackers that are good on the blitz and defensive end/edge players that can drop back into coverage. The main difference is that the 3-4/2-4 team is teaching these outside-backers to make multiple coverage drops and play standing up all the time whereas the 4-3 teams will focus on teaching their DEs to play traditional techniques with their hand in the dirt plus a simplified zone drop, usually just to the flat.
It's simply a matter of emphasis on what skill sets teams look for and what techniques they teach. Fire zoning 4-3 teams often split the difference between "attack" oriented teams, "specialist" teams, and "pseudo-dime" squads by essentially looking for versatile athletes and then scheming blitzes to make the most of whatever skill sets they bring to the table.
The nice thing about the game of football is that it's welcoming to a wide variety of athletic types, so long as they have a proclivity for violence and contact. With these three methods, defenses are finding ways to plug in different types of guys in at linebacker and find success.