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Shaq Griffin and 3-4 OLB play against the spread

The 3-4 OLB is being threatened with extinction by the spread offense, but Shaq Griffin revealed that a fast enough athlete can still make it work.

NCAA Football: American Athletic Conference Championship-Memphis at Central Florida Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

For much of the decade the 4-2-5 has been the preferred formation for defending the spread. In the Big 12, if not elsewhere, finding great inside linebackers for the scheme has become tricky. In the Texas high schools, the guys with the level of athleticism that are sought after to play those positions don’t play them in their high school defenses. The guy with 4.6 speed with great tackling ability or toughness to play in the box is more often found playing a true OLB position and rushing the passer or back at safety. It’s hard to teach the fundamentals of ILB play so schools often make life easy for their more disruptive athletes and give them roles where they can just attack the offense or sit back and play by instinct. Meanwhile, many of these guys are too small or not quite physical enough to spin down as 4-2 DEs.

That’s created some problems for schools trying to find inside-backers with enough athleticism to hold up against spread offensive schemes designed to expose and attack them in space. Another issue though has been the challenge of teams trying to balance the ability to hold up to spread offensive tactics with maintaining some capacity for attacking the offense. If your most explosive athletes are being best utilized as OLBs in high school with simple, attack-oriented roles then perhaps your defense should look more like a high school defense.

For the last two years, Shaq Griffin put on a clinic for what an attacking OLB can look like in the nickel and dime era of spread defense. Over two seasons at UCF he totaled 33.5 TFL, 18.5 sacks, two INT, and forced four fumbles from a fairly traditional OLB role.

Nickel/outside linebacker

At 6-0, 227 with 4.38 speed, Griffin really blurred the lines of nickel and dime defense for the Knights over the last couple of seasons. Technically he’s really a LB and didn’t really get any hybrid assignments out of the norm for any other outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. He spent most of his time showing as a potential edge blitzer to either follow through or to make a typical flat drop or to replace a blitzing ILB:

The Knights were basically running a standard 3-4 defense with Shaq Griffin out there, it just so happened that because they had a 4.38 runner at the field OLB spot they could get away with running that scheme against the spread.

They preferred to keep Griffin near the box where he could attack opponents but he’d also mix it up from depth with plays like this, made possible by his incredible acceleration and range:

From a position closer to the action Griffin was a real handful for opponents. Here’s what he got up to from a wide-9, stand-up OLB position:

The Knights would use a standard scrape exchange strategy for dealing with the zone-read play but here the Bulls had a lead blocker to account for it by arcing out their H-back to lead on the edge for the QB. The problem for the Bulls was that Griffin was quick enough to take a more vertical path up to the mesh point to discourage the QB from trying to pull the ball and run by him and then still catch the RB from behind after the give.

Auburn also ran into problems trying to option Griffin, he was just too quick to be sure that they could “make him wrong.” Generally what happened was he made you hesitate, then he ran down whatever decision you made anyways.

Griffin’s utilization as an OLB begged the question of whether some of the 210-220 pound speedsters coming out of high school should really be bulked up and taught to read a triangle from the inside-backer position rather than being left to play the edge. But of course we’ve seen other guys like him before, such as Oklahoma’s Eric Striker, and the trouble tends to come when teams get into four-receiver sets and use trips formations or other sets to force an OLB to more open declare where he’s going to be after the snap with wider spread sets.

UCF had a rather obvious solution for those situations.

Dime/outside linebacker

The Knights’ answer for 10 personnel and passing downs was a package that blurred the lines between a nickel and dime set. All it included was subbing out the boundary/weak side OLB Titus Davis for a fifth defensive back who slid into Griffin’s strongside/field spot while Griffin slid into Davis’ role.

This set-up probably cost Davis some good chances at getting his numbers in the pass rush (indeed he only had 1.5 sacks) but it was pretty terrifying for opponents. The problems were essentially in identifying where Griffin was going to end up after the snap when they wanted to throw the ball.

As a pure edge-rusher he was a problem, as Auburn could eventually attest:

But the Knights also found his coverage ability useful to help set up their other pass-rushers off the threat of his pressures.

They’re showing an overload blitz from the field with Griffin as the tip of the spear before firing a stunt opposite by bringing the weak inside linebacker. You may have to count for yourself to believe it but the Knights only brought four pass-rushers on this play and beat (rather easily) a six-man protection scheme before bringing down a highly mobile QB. Griffin showed a pressure briefly before dropping back to play inside LB.

If you wanted to try and take advantage of the Knights being in a base 3-4 defense by subbing in a fourth receiver, they’d match by subbing in an extra DB and keeping Griffin in position to act as a hybrid around the edge of the box. If you wanted to try and take advantage of his lack of size (or lack of a left hand) by bringing in a TE then you were in trouble trying to deal with his ability to bounce back and forth from playing out in space or screaming off the edge.

Playing 3-4 outside linebackers against the spread?

Griffin and UCF basically laid out the prototype for what a 3-4 OLB needs to look like in the spread era. For starters, at either the weakside/boundary spot or the strongside/field spot if that guy is going to be out there instead of a DB he needs to be having an impact in blowing up runs and/or rushing the passer. There’s simply no use for a linebacker that doesn’t bring value-add that a DB wouldn’t and the calculation isn’t as simple as it appears.

One of the big benefits of having extra DBs on the field is in disguising coverages and blitzes so that the offense can’t get in a precise play call or set their protection properly. Whatever defenders are left up front after a defense floods the field with DBs are better positioned to rush the passer. So any and all OLBs at either spot have a high bar of “value-add” they need to bring to the table.

The OLB playing in the weak side/boundary or “jack” spot needs to be a great pass-rusher, unless he’s playing opposite a guy who can rush the passer and handle space like Griffin did for UCF. The strong side/field “sam” player needs to be able to close on plays from space and make tackles against screens out wide or runs behind the line to offer much over a good DB.

The typical 3-4 OLB has always needed to have a versatile skill set, that’s the whole point and value of the scheme, disguising who the fourth and/or fifth rusher will be from among the linebackers. The spread challenges teams by forcing them to “declare” who’s rushing by spreading everyone wide enough that you can’t disguise where your assignment will be...unless the dude you force out wide is so fast that he can still reach the backfield.

Shaq Griffin was fast enough to be worth playing over a fifth DB and negated the need to play a sixth in order to achieve the desired speed and versatility of a good passing down/anti-spread dime defense. There will likely be other guys with comparable speed and abilities that teams may determine to use similarly in the future rather than trying to teach them the more complex art of inside linebacker play.

In the nickel and dime era of defense, the 3-4 OLB will increasingly be a guy that looks and runs like a DB, even if he mostly plays as a LB.