The base dime defense is a matter of inevitability. The Big 12 is basically there already, both Georgia and Alabama leaned heavily on dime packages a year ago, and winning with speed and versatility at multiple positions is clearly a winning formula. Even the Clemson Tigers, who are still ostensibly a 4-3 team, tend to play speedy and safety-sized players at both OLB spots.
Bigger programs like Alabama tend to play the dime as a package, just one of many packages in the arsenal. While there are certain players they want to keep on the field at all times, there are often 13-15 guys that they’d feel comfortable playing 60+ snaps in a title game if the matchups dictated that their package was most optimal. For instance, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Rashaan Evans didn’t leave the field for Alabama if the game was in doubt, but a DB like Tony Brown was a package player that might play 60+ snaps against one team and then maybe only 10 against another.
For smaller programs that are just hoping to be able to consistently have 11 defenders on the field that can hold up without getting obliterated? The inevitable outcome is the creation of new positional “types” that they look to fill with recruiting and development in the hopes of having a single base defense that can hold up against multiple styles of offense. The dime is proving to be the better option here over the nickel, which can struggle against many modern spread offenses, because college football hasn’t yet reached the limits of what can be gained by adding more versatility and speed on the field.
Here’s where we seem to be headed with those types, basically in the direction of the San Diego State Aztec defense.
The defensive front
One of the key techniques that is driving the move towards dime defense is the 4i-technique DE, who I suspect NFL scouts will be complaining about vociferously as soon as the 2019 NFL draft. “School X doesn’t allow this guy to just turn loose and bend around the corner! Their scheme is a gimmick!” It’s going to be a blast.
The 4i-technique lines up in an inside shade across from the offensive tackle and is a B-gap defender. The miracle of the “tite” front with two 4i-technique DEs is that the defense can account for all of the interior gaps with three DL and a single inside LB, freeing up the other seven members of the defense to line up elsewhere.
The only uncovered OL for the offense are guards and even if they are released up the field to pick off targets, your strategy now relies on your meanest but probably least mobile football players on your entire team hitting athletes in space. Meanwhile your most athletic blockers, the tackles, are tied up by the DEs lined up across from them. Finally, the nose tackle is typically lined up in a 0-technique in the tite front, which is an easier position to play than the “shaded nose” position of a four-down front. Why? Because it’s hard to get a good double team angle on the 0-tech nose when he’s across from the center and he also tends to be lined up across from one of the weakest blockers of the offensive front.
There are techniques to attack this front with, mostly involving a really sturdy center or a TE and a willingness to bang your head against the wall with the run game. It’s pretty close to spread kryptonite though and is ultimately the creation of a formation that acknowledges the reality of how spread offenses tend to weigh their formations and personnel. Namely, towards the interior gaps of the OL and then out wide on the perimeter with widely aligned receivers.
As San Diego proved years ago, a three-down/base dime style of defense relies more on quickness and length up front from the DL than your traditional plugging DTs or burner DEs. You basically want all three guys to be sturdy and long enough to take on an OL heads up but then quick enough to beat them with athleticism and movement. So multiple guys in the 6-2 to 6-5 range weighing between 250 and 300.
Alternatively, four-down dime fronts tend to require ultra-athletic DEs that are really just 3-4 OLBs because unless those guys can wreak havoc on the line and occasionally drop into coverage the defense is giving up way too much by fielding another DL over a more versatile player like a safety or a corner.
Regardless of whether the defense is three-down or four-down, you tend to see teams only play one true inside-backer anymore. If you’re in three-down with 4i-techniques then the whole point is that you only need one LB to plug interior gaps and the other two are covering and scraping. If you’re in four-down then you always need at least one LB to be ready to drop out into coverage against a TE or fourth WR. In either event, lateral speed has to be a big part of the equation and you can play/need only one classic plugger.
On the flip side, the plugger is now freed up from onerous coverage responsibilities and can be more of a true Mike LB that may not be great carrying a dig route but will demolish an Iso block and is a load as an A-gap blitzer. We may see that at Texas this year with Malcom Roach.
Nothing is really changing here except the jobs of DBs in dime is arguably much easier. The key factor here is the increasing prevalence of three types of coverage. The first is the 2-robber scheme that the Aztecs use and which is becoming a bigger part of every anti-spread playbook in the country.
Playing “cloud” coverage to either side of the formation where the safety can help over the top is often something that defenses have only felt comfortable utilizing on passing downs in the past. The reason is that your OLBs need to be active in the run fit to avoid getting outnumbered and the best way to set them up to do so is to use a safety more aggressively in coverage.
The tite front backed by “2-robber” trades a DL up front for the ability to play cover 2 over both sides of the formation and to have a free-hitter sitting in the middle of the field to help where needed. In the olden days when teams primarily moved the football with the run game it made sense to weigh your defense towards the front but the numbers have changed as the forward pass has become increasingly prominent and deadly.
Nowadays it’s more advantageous to have the free-hitting robber who can help against run or pass after the snap (particularly on run/pass options) than to have a DL up front that the offense knows is trying to come off the edge every play. Lots of teams haven’t made that judgement call yet and it’s going to be VERY difficult for many teams to accept that they can field better defenses by adding a box safety over an edge-rusher, to say nothing of the mental adjustment that will be for fans and commenters. However, the proof is in the pudding at this point. Unless your edge-rushing DE can get enough pressure to stop offenses from chewing up the secondary on play-action with max protection, and very few can, then you’d rather have the big safety sitting in the intermediate middle.
The other two types of coverage that are boosting this are the straight up 3-cloud coverage, which is the same as 2-robber only with the safeties playing deep 1/3s over the corners and the robber as a centerfielder rather than the safeties playing 1/2s or quarters, and then the brands of quarters that feature a team covering down on the slots with the OLBs while the safeties can bracket WRs or be more aggressive against the run.
At any rate, the life of DBs in the dime package is much easier because the defense has that much more versatility in the coverages and blitzes they can run and because it’s more feasible for the DC to “cloud” the corners and play a safety over the top. “Fire zone” blitzes also become much more feasible because the defense has more players on the field that can credibly cover a slot, drop into the deep middle, or blitz. In a nickel or base defense a four-wide offensive set can quickly and easy find receivers against the vaunted fire zone because the matchups become obvious.
The outcome of all of this is that the “jack of all trades” DB who may not be exceptional at coverage or run defense in particular but has learned how to play multiple roles in multiple defenses is increasingly valuable. That’s a big win for smaller programs who can count on having stockpiles of solid DBs on campus that will tackle and know how to trade routes but can’t as reasonably expect to have an NFL-caliber lockdown CB every year.
The dime rover
The “Aztec” or “robber” defender is the one that is eventually going to be drawing the ink, much like the nickel did in the previous decade of college football. A defender who can move around as a free-hitter in the middle of the field or move up and spy the QB or match up on a TE is the ideal use for a 220 pound, 4.6 speed kind of football player. In the past that guy would be bulked up and specialized as a pass-rusher, taught to read flow and clean up as a weak side linebacker, or used somewhat in this fashion as a strong safety.
Now this guy is freed up to be an unaccountable nightmare, filling a dozen roles or just sitting back and using his instincts and speed to show up wherever the offense wants to be.
This defender is particularly useful on the sorts of play-action and RPO concepts that have made spread offenses extra deadly this decade. Spread offenses don’t want to spend their time trying to work the ball down the field slowly and methodically, they are often vulnerable to situational football. In short-yardage their play-action/RPO concepts can’t pull the defense apart and they have to be able to force the issue by getting hats on hats and advancing the ball with power and toughness. On passing downs they can’t use play-action to create isolations but have to deal with the defense dropping back enough enough defenders to bracket their best options or else to bringing a big pressure they can’t block.
But that’s all okay if they are regularly generating explosive plays that score TDs and boost drives with conflict-creating run/pass plays that get playmakers in space. Well, if you have a free hitting robber sitting in the middle of the field and then bracket coverage deep then you’re going to see those big plays dry up.
The best part is that every team can find this guy, there isn’t a serious lack of good, athletic 210+ pound defenders that can cover ground. There are more defenders out there that could thrive in this role and look like All-Conference stars than that can play some of the classic positions that only still exist out of the desire to maintain out of date defensive structures.
For a four-down defense you don’t get the “dime rover” and the dime defender is instead just a really coverage-savvy LB, like Minkah Fitzpatrick played last season. That can still create some versatility and options for the defense but if they don’t have lockdown CB or really good DEs up front it’s probably not worth it.
Expect to see smaller programs that can’t count on having those prized, NFL prospects on the edge from year to year opt for building out a base defense with the tweener D-linemen, single inside-backer, veteran-laded secondaries, and then a versatile star who excels at attacking offenses roving in the middle.