The tite front has continued to be immensely popular in college football in 2018 after a breakthrough season in 2017 when multiple top defenses employed the scheme. The premise is simple, by using a normal zero nose tackle and then DEs playing on the “inside eye” of the offensive tackles the defense can cancel out the A-gap and both B-gaps AND offer up resistance to the offense’s best athletes (the tackles) from getting downfield and picking off linebackers.
The design of the front allows the defense to play with five or even four defenders in the box which negates the ability of the offense to spread them out on the perimeter and beat them in space. It also lends itself easily to sub-packages as the D can match the offense’s inside receivers. If they play a TE or FB and a slot WR then the D can play an OLB and a nickel DB. If they play with two TEs the D can play with two OLBs, two slot WRs can draw a dime package.
Georgia reveled in the sub-package versatility the front afforded a year ago while leaving Roquan Smith in the middle of the field to run wild behind their very sturdy three-man fronts. Iowa State regularly mixed in the tite front while also blending in the “Aztec safety” and Texas immediately stole that idea for their own defense.
In 2018 we’re seeing the results of teams trying to adjust and find ways to run the ball on the tite front.
Running option on the tite front
One obvious tactic that teams have mixed in is to run option plays at the 4is, who may or may not be well drilled or taught on how to respond when they’re left unblocked and read. It’s also hard to run a zone-read play on an outside backer or nickel who’s playing from outside-in and often much faster than the QB who has to be ready to punish them by winning the edge on a keeper. So why not block that guy and read the DE?
The 4i is generally not the same kind of athlete as an OLB or DB as he has to be big and strong enough to grapple with tackles and control the B-gaps, although the need to shoot through B-gaps mean’s he’s typically no slouch either. The proximity of the 4i-technique to the mesh point between the QB and the RB means that if they catch him by surprise or in a bad technique it can be devastating, particularly with the backside tackle climbing up to pick off the OLB or DB, but if they don’t he’s at the ball in a hurry.
If the QB is quick enough to present a real threat on the keeper, the 4i can often be frozen and then the offense has four OL working to block two DL and then whatever linebackers or DBs emerge play side. Here’s an example from the HS game, a version of power-read you may have never seen before:
This play doesn’t amount to much (three yard gain) because the nickel beats the block from the slot receiver, the LT struggles to control the play side 4i, and the RG pauses to help the LT before advancing to find the play side LB. Here’s how it looks on the board:
The HS offense running this play, Port Neches-Groves down in the “golden triangle” of Texas, features QB Roschon Johnson who’s a four-star recruit committed to play for the Texas Longhorns in 2019. The last thing their rival Nederland wanted was for him to get loose on the edge against an outnumbered defense, so they had their 4i play this safe and took their chances beating the power run honestly. The OL was driving them off the ball in the middle but they just couldn’t win on the edge decisively enough. Nevertheless, expect to see plays like this more often with teams that have QBs fast enough to zip by the 4i DE.
When Oklahoma State played those same Longhorns they didn’t always have the same kind of advantage in the matchup between the QB pulling the ball and the 4is he was reading on option plays. So they trotted out this outside zone-read play that had a failsafe installed for the event that the 4i was able to force a QB give to prevent that DE from then closing and tackling the RB in the cutback lane:
Teams regularly run into the problem on zone-read plays of teams either overloading the read-side with a blitzer and a DE diving after the RB in the cutback lane or the DE giving the QB a contain look before quickly getting inside to narrow the cutback lane. It can be murder on zone schemes that depend on cutbacks, but this was an effective solution.
The fullback simply protects the cutback lane by cutting the DE on his path to the back. If 4is are unused to being read they are definitely unused to being cut and trapped like this.
Of course as it happened on this play, the Texas DE dove inside but the MLB didn’t scrape outside to contain the QB so the clever design by the Cowboys was incidental to their success on the play. The real problem here for Texas was hesitant and slow MLB play, but Texas installed the same play for the following week and ran it against the three-down West Virginia Mountaineers with great success.
Running at the nickel or dime
The following week, West Virginia built on Oklahoma State’s success running stretch plays at Texas’ tite front by mixing in a different option that didn’t require them trying to have Will Grier run around on the edge.
The gist of this play design is that Texas likes to have their nickel follow the slot WR to preserve matchups and avoid Big 12 offenses getting really dangerous slot receivers matched up on an OLB in coverage. But their response to the sweep motion isn’t to try and chase it with the nickel because that won’t work on a sweep, instead they rotate the safeties and the nickel has to provide a hard edge on a run right at him.
That didn’t work out so well here and Texas got run over throughout the game by the Mountaineers. The challenge of the tite front is that the “overhang” defenders in those OLB positions have to be ready to show hard on the edge because there’s no one in the C-gap unless they or an ILB get there fast and hard. If there’s a defender in one of those spots that struggles to play the edge with a good dose of physicality than the offense can leverage that spot and widen the front.
The same truth is evident on that Texas HS team’s alternative power-read play, with a better block by the playside tackle the offense is hitting the soft C-gap with a lead blocker.
Power and doubles in the middle
Finally, the tite front depends on those three down DL to really hold the point of attack. They have an advantage in that look over others, which you can see clearly from this two play series of the LSU Tigers trying to defend Georgia on the inside zone play the Dawgs run better than anyone.
Play one against an Under front:
The RG helps bump the nose inside for the center and then picks up the downhill LB and that’s it, the A-gap is left bare and Elijah Holyfield is running downhill for a first down. The double teams of inside zone are straightforward and have easy angles when DL align in the gaps like this.
On the next play LSU moved into the tite front.
You can see the strenghts and weaknesses of the front here all on display at the same time. The backside 4i DE gets doubled and driven off the ball, even though he’s scrapping like wild, the playside 4i DE is combo blocked and he fits his gap fine. The problem is the nose and the cost of doubling the backside 4i. The OLB is not well contained by the zone read and the front is ultimately successful at spilling the ball to the perimeter where the overhangs are running free to the ball.
You’d hope to just power it inside where the guards are uncovered but the zero nose and backside 4i are difficult to stop from shooting backside gaps if they aren’t doubled but doubling them ends up having the same effect as singling them, the ball is spilled outside to LBs.
You can see the potential trouble though for the front, if the Dawgs had a TE blocking the OLB and better matchups inside (particularly on the nose) then then this style of front runs into major trouble. An adjustment we may see in the coming years if the tite front continues to take hold is for teams to get lighter and faster at guard so they can execute combo blocks on the nose and free each other and the center up to get downfield and blow holes through the middle of the defense. Additionally, stretch blocking is trouble for the tite front IF the offense can reach DL, but that requires that teams stop loading up on 6-5, 320 pound guards and start finding some 6-2, 280 pound scrappers of the sort that Alex Gibbs used to develop.
For now, despite these adjustments, the tite front is holding fairly firm as a base front against the initial round of counterattacks.