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Unlocking the mysteries of college football’s new favorite defense

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NCAA Football: CFP National Championship Game-Alabama vs Georgia Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

One rare area in which Chip Kelly was ahead of the grain without getting much credit for it was his deployment of the 4-0-4 “tite” front which utilizes a pair of big, strong side DEs in 4i-techniques (inside eye of the offensive tackle). Oregon was stocking up on those players under Kelly and Mark Helfrich and really doing some damage and today much of the college football world relies on the same front and player types.

It’s a largely overlooked phenomenon honestly, but just see for yourself:

Noticing it yet?

Wisconsin, LSU, and Texas all have coordinators from the same coaching tree but Georgia and Oklahoma’s DCs are outside of that stream. As are these defensive coaches...

Using the 4i-technique from a three down defense is immensely popular in college football today across multiple conferences and multiple defensive styles. It’s ascendant, really, with increasing purchase as a tool for defending modern offenses. Here’s why it’s become so popular.

Controlling interior gaps with minimal numbers

The major problem that defenses have to handle in modern football is how to handle the horizontal and vertical stress created by spread offenses without going soft up the middle. The “hit em where they ain’t” nature of the spread is a real challenge and different styles of the offense are developing increasingly potent ways to achieve balance in being able to force the defense to defend the entire field.

The major goal of the 4-0-4 “tite” front with it’s double 4i-technique “defensive ends” is to use the DL primarily as a tool for clogging the interior while leaning on the LBs and secondary to handle the rest of the field.

With the DEs sitting in position to handle the B-gaps, the defense then has three guys positioned between the tackles to handle the two remaining A-gaps. The nose will typically lock one down while one LB will be able to take the other while the other is freed up to key the ball or take on an insert block. What’s more, not only is the defense well positioned to defend all the gaps between the tackles but two of the five guys up front are off the line and thus “moving targets” for the offense to try and block.

The positioning of the linebackers and of the DEs makes life very difficult for offenses trying to execute spread run game favorites.

Taking away everyone’s favorite options

So here’s how this front tends to play out against some of modern offense’s favorite running plays. We’ll start with the inside zone play that is foundational to many spread offenses:

Here’s the dreaded split zone play drawn up against a tite front backed by a two-high quarters coverage. The angles up front are not at all favorable to the offense with the boundary DE and nose easily able to account for the play side A and B gaps and the ball necessarily cutting back.

The biggest problem for the offense is that the LBs are pretty covered up and free to “rock back” into the cutback lanes while the trapping H-back has to round the corner and find a guy to block on the move. It’s child’s play for a disciplined LB corps to blow that block up and either kill the play or spill the back laterally to the secondary run support. If inside zone is getting spilled laterally it’s pretty much DOA, the whole point is to allow the RB to get going north and south with square shoulders.

Power has a rough go as well for a few different reasons:

The biggest issue is that an offenses’ most athletic run blockers are typically the tackles and they are completely stymied by the 4i-techniques that are lined up across from them. That means that the double teams and climbs up to the LBs have to be executed by the less athletic center and the guards, and the center has to do this with a nose across his face that is typically either much faster than he is or much stronger.

The angle on the double team of the nose tackle is awkward and then the angle up to the free flowing linebacker is also difficult. Meanwhile, the backside guard is leaving the tackle (the left tackle in this diagram) in a tough spot trying to step inside to prevent his own 4i from racing into the backfield to make a tackle for loss. The center could try to help him out, but now the right guard is left in a similar predicament while trying to stop the nose tackle. The outside LB (J) is probably free to either race into the backfield and try to make the tackle for loss or else playing over the top and being an extra man in the hole.

The angles just aren’t very good for the offense. Counter doesn’t fare much better, the pulling guard has to find a LB on the move and in space and the double team angles are still awkward, as is pulling a backside guard against a 4i-technique.

The outside zone play can be okay but typically only if the offense has a good TE. The challenge for outside zone comes from trying to reach the play side 4i-techniques and the nose tackle with the guards so that the center and play side tackle can get the favorable angles up to the LBs:

The offense can probably count on having to maintain those double teams longer than they’d like because the play side nose tackle and 4i-technique are both in very good position to get their hands on the center and right tackle respectively, slowing up the works and likely freeing the LBs to arrive in a timely and disruptive fashion. If they have a TE that can help but it’s still tough sledding for the intended design of the play, which is to stretch the defense out and then hit a crease.

The three over two advantage in the A-gaps means that the offense is in trouble on any play design meant to hit up the middle as even adding a lead insert block still faces bad angles and the need for quick-acting double teams that don’t have much time to neutralize the nose and then get at those inside-backers.

The best options for running on the 4-0-4 are actually off tackle, on the perimeter. For instance, the “dart play,” the “pin and pull” scheme, and the G-lead power runs all have better odds of creating favorable angles, particularly against a nickel defense. Here’s dart run to the TE against the tite front:

The advantage in this play is that most of the blockers are just focusing on keeping the DEs and LBs pinned inside where they are to start the play. The pulling tackle has to find his man in space but he’s probably looking to block a 200 pound DB so it’s a pretty favorable assignment so long as he at least gets in the way.

The tite front is designed to get more speed and ability out on the perimeter while leaning on the five inside players (the three DL and two ILBs) to handle the interior, but it’s not well designed to handle TE formations that can pin things inside and then loose a back or blockers downhill on the perimeter defenders.

What’s next?

The TE issue was one that Texas faced against Missouri in the Texas Bowl with their own 3-2-6 dime defense that was built around clogging the interior with 4i-techniques and a nose. Their solution was to track the TE with their dime defender, a 6-3, 220 pound senior DB named Jason Hall that had previously been a tweener without a full-time role in the defense.

By using the extra man as a 9-technique outside of the 4i and tied to the TE, the Longhorns avoided getting burned by free-running TEs getting a free run with a nice angle on their inside-backers.

The challenge of the wide-9 in a typical defense is how much space exists between the 3-technique and the wide-9 DE, space that offenses could all too easily exploit, sometimes by sending their athletic tackles up to the LBs quickly and cleanly. But those problems don’t exist with the 4i-technique across from the tackle.

Additionally, the job of keeping the ball inside is not so physically taxing that it can’t be performed by a stand-up player there. Teams can afford to utilize a LB/S type hybrid if they wish, or they can move their DE/OLB hybrid there if they want to keep a top pass-rusher on the field.

The biggest challenge for the tite front is in the sacrifice that has to be made by the DEs and DTs that are asked to play the 4i-technique. It’s a pretty thankless job, grappling with offensive tackles, drawing double teams, and aligning inside where it’s hard to win the edge and turn the corner in the pass rush. It takes some real length and athleticism to get the edge at all and it’s nowhere near as good a gig in terms of putting up sacks as a typical three-down DE position.

Eligible DL are just going to have to accept their fate in modern defenses though because the interior spilling and nickel/dime friendly nature of the tite front means it’s here to stay.