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Can the 4-2-5 still stop the spread?

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The 4-2-5 was once a cutting edge system for handling spread attacks, now spread attacks are designed to attack it. Are there enough evolutions available to keep the system alive and well heading into a new decade?

Valero Alamo Bowl - Stanford v TCU Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

For a fair amount of time, the 4-2-5 defense was treated as the solution to the spread offense. Base nickel defense in which an offense’s best personnel for stopping the spread were also their best 11 players regardless was a major evolution for the game. Additionally, the Gary Patterson 4-2-5 in particular offered some major breakthroughs in terms of the structure of the defense and the way it allowed defenses to simplify their organization and adjustments on the field to counter tempo.

Those elements are now commonplace across the game and offenses are now designed and executed with the understanding that defenses can get into a nickel package and communicate at tempo without looking like a fish out of water.

Now the big question is whether the 4-2-5 has been left behind or whether it can still work as a means for stopping modern spread offenses. A few key pieces to the scheme have been found that can allow it to stay effective in the modern spread era.

The space-backer in the box

Whether or not most schematic innovations in college football stick and become trends generally depends on how well they translate to running the ball or stopping the run. The surest fire way to build a program that lasts is to always recruit good athletes, develop them in a hard-nosed culture, and then go command the line of scrimmage. Developing a consistently great passing attack is more difficult because of the high level of skill needed to rely on the forward pass as a consistent strategy.

The 4-2-5’s emergence came largely because it allowed a team to keep at least six players in the box and spill the ball to speedy safeties sitting deep on the hash marks but closing hard on the ball from quarters coverages. Even with a TE on the field, there are still six players for six interior gaps and plenty of means for spilling the ball to the perimeter. However, offenses have been designed this decade to attack the structure of these defenses rather than the older models they replaced.

While joining ESPN’s college football live desk and reflecting on the national title game, Nick Saban noted, I’m still trying to figure out, after 40 years, how to play cover 2.”

The RPO game has been one of the biggest issues for 4-2-5 defense, RPOs and play-action, because they trigger the defenders that are trying to use speed and aggression to control offenses and then hit them where they ain’t.

In particular, formations that use inside receivers to run routes during passing plays are a nightmare. A defense like TCU’s, in which the linebackers are taught to read their opponents plays and attack them with confidence, can be turned on its head when the offense introduces extreme conflicts like throwing to the FB after he shows a lead block.

The 4-2-5 defense isn’t designed to work with hesitation and caution from the frontline players, if they aren’t attacking gaps and spilling the ball then flooding the field with speed doesn’t work.

The solution was pretty straightforward, the “space-backer” types that were playing the nickel in previous iterations of this defense are now playing as a “money-backer” in Saban parlance, replacing one of the inside backers. For TCU that was Travin Howard, a converted safety that first played the position in 2015 at 190 pounds before growing into a 210 pounder for the 2017 season when he led the team in tackles for the third consecutive year. Gary Patterson has Northern Illinois transfer Jawuan Johnson, a 6-0/218 pounder who had five sacks, five INTs, and 24 runs stuffs a year ago, lined up to replace him.

Notre Dame is sliding “sam” LB Drue Tranquill inside this year, Alabama is playing 4.4 burner Dylan Moses in the spot, and teams across the Big 12 (K-State, OSU, and OU to name a few) are sliding their space-backers inside for the 2018 season. There’s a few different ways teams will utilize them but one common method is to make them the “B-gap” player who aligns with the nose tackle in a four-down defense and can line up in an “apex” alignment split halfway between their run game and a slot receiver.

The idea is basically to start playing a guy who’s fast enough that being conflicted between a run and pass responsibility is less of a strain. Often he needs to play with just a touch of hesitation to muddy the read for the QB before closing on the run and arriving approximately when and where a bigger plugger would have while playing in the box.

So the space-backer needs to still be sturdy enough though to handle playing OL blocks in the box or the system doesn’t work but at least he’s much quicker than anyone trying to block him which can be challenging for offenses that are still adjusting to this adjustment.

There are tradeoffs but the system can’t work and allow the team to attack gaps with the front six while spilling the ball to a two-deep secondary unless one of the inside-backers is a guy that can really cover some ground.

The OLB at DE

The returns from playing four down seem to be decreasing all the time, especially the rise of the “tite front” that uses 4i-techniques to allow the defense to cover up interior gaps with only five in the box. Traditionally teams have liked to play four down because it allows them to control the line of scrimmage more easily than with only three down but against today’s diverse spread offenses the decrease in versatility from playing four-down is a heavy price to pay.

However, teams have found the four-down way to still be worth it if and when they use players with a particular skill set at the DE position. Namely, if they use linebackers.

TCU had a resurgence on defense in 2017 that seemed to mostly correlate to infusing a star nose tackle that helped protect their space-backer and from having a pair of DEs with OLB size and skill sets in Louisiana Monroe transfer Ben Banogu and JUCO transfer Mat Boesen. The two combined for 23 run stuffs, 31.5 tackles for loss, six forced fumbles, and 20 sacks. Either could drop back into coverage for blitzing purposes but perhaps the biggest addition they made to the defense was giving TCU pass-rush and backfield disruption on every single down. For that reason they were one of the only teams all year that had answers for Oklahoma’s GT counter-read scheme.

With Banogu and Boesen on the edge, all of the favorite spread run schemes that leave a DE unblocked were trouble because they were too quick to be left unblocked. Meanwhile plays that pulled a H-back or OL over to block them ran into trouble when they’d spill the block outside to the speedy Frog LBs and DBs.

Wisconsin’s 2-4-5 nickel package enjoys a similar advantage from always playing highly versatile OLBs in lieu of traditional DEs. Teams that want to attack the perimeter and throw different blocks regularly struggle against the Badgers because their OLBs are like old school middle linebackers, speedier but still big and powerful athletes that specialize in a dozen varieties of block destruction.

Kansas State still employed a pair of bigger DEs a year ago and got themselves into real trouble on a variety of occasions both because they lacked top notch pass-rush to allow their speedy nickel defense to stay back in coverage without getting picked apart and because they didn’t have dynamic block destroyers at the point of attack. Starters Reggie Walker and Tanner Wood combined for 12 run stuffs, 11 tackles for loss, one forced fumble, and four sacks, scarcely comparable to either of the Frog DEs.

A four-down defense that doesn’t get a lot of impact from the front four can’t protect or set up a nickel or dime defensive backfield, instead they’ll tend to allow offenses to run through them. A team may not need a 3-4 OLB type skill set at both DE positions, at least not yet, Michigan effectively runs a 4-2-5 that features a bigger strong side end (6-5, 281 pound Rashan Gary) and then more of an OLB on the weak side (6-3, 253 pound Chase Winovich). Winovich had eight sacks in 2017, Gary added five, but then the Michigan defense was designed to bring a lot of pressure so that inside-backers Devin Bush and Mike McCray had five sacks apiece while nickel LB Khaleke Hudson added another eight.

So the Wolverines get plenty of pressure, but teams that want to rely heavily on a base rush from the D-line while playing two-high probably need a smaller, pass-rushing DE on both sides.

The answer is almost always to get smaller...except at nose tackle

Guys that used to excel as inside-backers back in the day, blowing up lead blocks and winning the point of attack for the defense belong at DE these days and not at inside-backer. The box safety that could take on some blocks but also play in space is now packed in tight up front. Teams need to get as many good rangy, smart, coverage defenders on the field as they can so they can erase space, stop explosive plays, and give themselves a chance to win with toughness up front in the trenches.

For all that though, teams still need a true DT in the nose tackle position, particularly the teams that are playing <220 pound DBs as their B-gap linebacker. That team needs to do what it can to prevent OL from having easy angles to bully their nickel/dime backfields (with a space-backer inside it’s more like the 4-1.5-5.5 defense) with favorable angles in confined spaces.

The popular weak side iso play from the spread we recently discussed is a great example:

Another reason this play is becoming a better fit for the modern era is that it’s easier to keep those athletic DEs from being involved and you can isolate the TE/FB on the smallest LB. The best a defense can reasonably expect from this guy is to attack downhill quickly and hopefully push the ball to the other LB or a safety, the defense needs the nose to play a bigger role than a more traditional defense to prevent that crease from getting blown open or to prevent the double team from ever reaching the other LB.

The college football world was shocked back when 2017’s star nose tackle Poona Ford of Texas or 2015’s Andrew Billings of Baylor didn’t get high valuations from the NFL in the draft. Both were absolutely dominant in college and essential to allowing their teams to get away with playing small behind them because they could command double teams and survive up front when the double came. Neither had the kind of pass-rushing skill that the NFL craves for stopping pro-style passing attacks but in the B12 where many passing plays come attached to run blocking or play-action/max protect it’s much more valuable for the nose to eat doubles than to be a big part of the pass-rush.

The 4-2-5/2-4-5 defense is poised to survive as one of the “best practices” on defense heading into the next decade of college football but only with these three player types to allow the structure and philosophy of the defense to work out against evolving spread tactics that were designed to bedevil the unevolved 4-2-5.