In the age of spread offense, the biggest challenge and aim for most every defense out there is figuring out how to get a “plus one” defender against the run and the pass. Some teams work out ways to use their DL in various two-gap techniques to simplify things for the defensive backfield but most teams prefer the style of allowing their players to attack the ball and play fast, which requires an extra man.
The next question is then “where does the extra man come from?” and most teams fall into one of two main philosophies for determining how to create the desired numerical advantage. Then there’s Rocky Long’s San Diego State Aztecs, who have a unique 3-3-5 defense with an even more unique base coverage and structure that essentially splits the difference between the two.
Rocky Long landed at San Diego State in 2009 as a DC after being hired by Brady Hoke. Long had been the head coach at New Mexico for some time and then resigned, citing the program’s need for a new head coach in order to reach new heights. Hoke got the call from Michigan after just two years there and rather than taking Long with him to Ann Arbor, whose people had become highly suspicious of the 3-3-5 defense after three years of bad Rich Rod defenses, he left him behind to become the new head coach at San Diego State.
Long’s team chugged along in the Mountain West with winning seasons but over the last two years have really made a leap with back to back top 30 defenses per S&P+. Their style in coverage may be one that becomes increasingly common nationally, no longer a strange quirk which which only the Mountain West has to contend.
The standard means of gaining an extra man
The two main philosophies of defense utilized to gain an extra man are the single-high defenses (cover 3, cover 1) and then the two-high coverages that today mostly consist of different varieties of quarters coverages.
In single high defenses a linebacker (or a nickel, in today’s game) stretches out wide while a safety drops down to help cover an underneath zone, provide a better matchup with a receiver, and allow the defense to get an extra man against the run.
Even against a 2x2 spread set, using a single-high coverage with the corners either in man or playing deep 1⁄3 zones creates an eight-man front with the safeties, linebackers, and DL. This style of classic eight-man front positions the extra man on either perimeter. The most popular style of blitzing, which is to bring an extra man while playing single-high coverage behind the pressure, no longer gets an extra man on the perimeter since the defense is cashing that in for the blitz.
The struggle for the single-high defense’s eight-man front comes against modern spread-option tactics that can make it hard for extra men on either perimeter to arrive if the offense can punch through at some point across the front.
The problem that modern spread-option stuff presents to single-high is in the fact that the stationing of the extra man on the edge forces the defenders to move laterally after the snap to try and plug holes at the point of attack.
If the DE tries to take away the QB outside then the offense is running zone downhill with one of their tackles getting a free run at a linebacker. If the DE spills the ball then defenders at fairly shallow depth are running laterally to try and get into position. It’s pretty common for a spring to leak and then that deep safety has to make an open field tackle to prevent a touchdown.
An increasingly popular way to deal with these modern offenses is to go two-high with modern quarters schemes.
The linebackers, nickel, and safeties all have roles in the run fit based on what happens after the snap. This makes the defense more balanced against spread-option tactics with the extra men positioned deeper off the ball so they can arrive to help in a more downhill fashion. The trade-off is that the defense is split wider across the front and can only play aggressively when they know they can count on the safeties arriving in a timely fashion.
While the players are split a little wider, the positioning of the front actually allows the linebackers to charge at more downhill angles because the unblocked DE can box the play in and force the handoff while the nickel covers the bubble. Then the defense still gets that boundary safety (F here) dropping to help stop the downhill inside zone run.
Where two-high defenses can get into trouble is against “college-style” offensive sets that utilize an H-back to run the ball. Modern day fave “split zone” runs create an extra gap in the box that one of the safeties or nickel has to help fill and they have to do so from a deeper or wider alignment.
The goal in a two-high defense is to allow the LBs to play downhill and spill the ball so that the “nine-man front” effect really comes to bear. If the offense can create new gaps up front with a lead blocker then they can punish the offense for sending their extra help from such deep alignments.
With RPOs attached like the backside “glance” route and the strong side bubble screen, the offense can also delay those help defenders from arriving before the running back has sprung loose.
The Aztec defender
San Diego State uses a different system then these other teams both up front and on the back end with their coverage. It’s a 3-3-5 defense but with different position designations and roles then your typical nickel defense.
They play a pair of typical 3-4 DEs up front that can slide around and play inside as 3-techniques or slide out to the 5-technique. Their 2016 DE tandem was Noble Hall (6-3, 265) and Alex Barrett (6-3, 255). Then they have a tackle on the inside who’s like a nose but spends a lot of time slanting and moving around. They staffed that spot last year with Kyle Kelley (6-3, 260).
The linebackers include a pair of OLBs that sometimes play up on the line like a DE/OLB hybrid and other times like a more traditional outside-backer. In our example above the boundary side OLB is playing like a weak side end while the other is playing more like an outside-backer. Last year they used Ryan Dunn (6-3, 230) and Ronley Lakalaka (6-0, 225). The middle linebacker plays like you’d expect from an inside-backer in most any modern scheme and last year they used Calvin Munson (6-1, 245).
The secondary is where things get interesting. They use a pair of cornerbacks, then a pair of “warrior” safeties that play like normal quarters safeties, occasionally playing deep and other times picking up the slot receivers in man coverage, much like Michigan State has tended to use their safeties. Unlike the Spartans, the Aztecs use more coverage-oriented players here and last year called on Malik Smith (6-1, 190) and Kameron Kelly (6-2, 195). They have responsibilities in the run fits but SD St likes to spill the ball like a quarters team and it’s important that these guys can cover.
Then there’s the “Aztec” who lines up in the middle like a free safety but often plays more like a nickel or even a true linebacker. After a few games they turned to Parker Baldwin (6-2, 215) as the “Aztec.” Then they played a lot of coverages in which they’d create varieties of quarters coverages on the outside with Baldwin playing either in a “robber” role in the middle of the field...
...or even almost like a Tampa-2 middle linebacker fitting the run up front after checking for a pass...
The Aztecs play a few different quarters coverages, in the first clip they’re playing cover 2 on the boundary but with the “warrior safety” up and the corner deep and then cover 2 robber to the field with the “Aztec” as the robber. The second clip features “2-read” coverage to the field and “sky” coverage on the boundary with the safety playing deep but supporting the run. In the second clip the Aztec is a de-facto inside-backer.
When you account for all the movement and blitzing the Aztecs use up front and then include normal safety run support but with extra help from a big, outside linebacker sized guy playing in the middle of the field it becomes hard for the offense to track everyone. The biggest different from the single-high and two-high teams though is that the Aztec’s extra man against the run, the “Aztec” safety, is coming from smack dab in the middle of the field.
Baldwin had nine tackles in the Aztecs bowl game smackdown of the Houston offense and the Cougars struggled to spread out the Aztecs well enough to keep Baldwin from effectively reaching their ballcarriers. Take this example against one of Houston’s most difficult play designs, an unbalanced set with a perimeter screen combined with a QB counter run for Greg Ward, Jr:
The RPO read for Ward is off that outside linebacker, who crashes outside on a blitz which tells Ward that they have a 3 on 2 outside throwing the quick bubble to the flexed out running back. The problem is that this scheme, like most every other modern offensive scheme, doesn’t really account for the shallow and unhindered Aztec who makes the most of great force play by the “warrior” safety and drills the running back shortly after the catch for minimal gain.
Because the Aztecs’ have so much shifting around up front in their 3-3-5 it’s hard to get a clear picture before the snap of who will be doing what and because the Aztec is always lurking just behind the linebackers he’s often arriving quickly against a blocking scheme that hasn’t accounted for his presence.
Proliferation of Aztec weapons technology
You can already see this scheme start to move around a little bit as both the West Virginia Mountaineers and Oklahoma State Cowboys have experimented with using a safety or nickel LB as a sort of “topper” or robber in the middle of the field in their own 3-3-5 packages.
This system pretty effectively combines the matchup/man coverage of cover 1 with the more deeply aligned and balanced run support structure of quarters in a cocktail of confusion.
The Aztecs system hasn’t been proven as the best in college football, their safeties got torched playing their aggressive quarters/man coverages against the Cal Bears last year for instance, but there’s still a lot of value from playing a structure that is still sound but distinctly unique. Keep an eye out for Rocky Long’s 3-3-5 “Aztec” defense to start to filter into the power 5 conferences as defensive coordinators look for an edge when contending with all of the potent spread offenses out there today.