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How Iowa continues to hold up in base defense

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The Big 10 have been late adopters to the spread era but Iowa has managed to survive and thrive on defense without moving away from their traditional, 4-3 defense.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 Iowa Hawkeye defense was one of the best we’ve seen from that program this decade. They finished 15th in S&P+ for the second consecutive year, led by senior MLB Josey Jewell flanked by longtime partners and fellow LBs Ben Niemann and Bo Bower. Jewell led the team with 101 tackles with 18 run stuffs, two INTs, and 11 pass break-ups and they came close to a pretty special season despite facing three of the best teams in the Big 10 East in Michigan State, Ohio State, and Penn State.

What made this unit unique was that they’ve largely ignored the nickel and dime revolution occurring elsewhere in the country and played base 4-3 defense against most everyone on the schedule. Against the big spread opponents on their schedule, Penn State and Ohio State who both came to play at Kinnick, they surrendered 21 and 24 points in a narrow loss (on a last minute drive by the Lions) and then a resounding victory (55-24 over the Buckeyes).

One of the storylines from early spring regarding the Iowa program was whether they might update their approach on the defensive side of the ball. With two talented young TEs returning on offense it was clear enough that the Hawkeyes aren’t moving off their “pro-style” approach on offense anytime soon. However, the defense was faced with replacing all three linebackers as well as second round CB Josh Jackson, so there was a lot of speculation over whether this Iowa team would be the one to finally embrace nickel defense.

Their own staff discussed it openly, before moving away from that expectation citing depth concerns, now it seems that they will stick to their base 4-3 defense after all. For most teams, playing with that kind of lineup is a recipe for disaster, yet Iowa tends to do just fine, how can this be?

Trusting in the linebacker

When teams turn to nickel defense it’s typically because they recognize that the role of their sam LB is such that it might as well be a DB out there. The Hawkeyes’ D asks different things of their sam LB these days, just like everyone else, but they’ve maintained LB Ben Biemann there who ran a 4.6 at his pro day while measuring in at 6-2/235. Those are good numbers for a LB but this was still a traditional backer who wasn’t out there playing man coverage or dropping deep.

For 2018 they plan to trot out 6-0/238 pound junior Amani Jones at mike LB, 6-3/238 pound junior Kristian Welch at will LB, and 6-4/232 pound RS sophomore and younger bro Nick Niemann at sam. Niemann is the “nickel” in this set-up, tasked with patrolling the wide side of the field and playing in space, but the nature of Iowa’s scheme is designed to help them all.

For starters, the Hawkeyes are on board with the modern defensive practice of using a “cover down” on the slot receiver to deny the easy perimeter screens that propelled spread offenses earlier in the decade.

The earliest moves to nickel defense were oriented around finding guys that were fast enough to play both the run and the pass and close on the ball as well as play man coverage. Iowa doesn’t really play man coverage and when they do a safety is dropping down over the sam’s assignment if it’s a speedy slot receiver.

Additionally, Iowa doesn’t ask this guy to play both the run and the pass, if the slot is running a route then he’s bumping him and staying in coverage. If the slot is part of a run action then the sam is forcing the ball inside of him like on this play above. The same is typically true for their mike and will LBs if and when they’re operating in space that an offense can attack with quick passing.

When the sam’s job is to bump the slot and then force the ball inside against blocks, then being a big (though still quick) LB becomes an advantage rather a disadvantage. It was very difficult to get the ball loose on the perimeter against Iowa:

Once again you see how this plays out against the option. The DE crashes on the zone-read play and forces the QB to pull the ball into space that the mike is already filling, Penn State has a third option in the form of the pass to the flat but once again the slot can’t win the corner against Niemann’s superior strength and the Lions don’t benefit from the “three on two” matchup on the perimeter.

While people talk about leaving linebackers on the field to help stop the run, not every scheme is stronger against the run if that means asking backers to try and chase speed in open grass. It works for Iowa to play three LBs against the spread because they divide the tasks, widen with the offense, and focus on winning individual matchups rather than trying to do it all.

The scarier issue is in the pass game, where having a 230 pounder of any level of athleticism can be pretty scary when offenses run multiple 4.4 guys down the field. Iowa has solutions here as well, mostly revolving around “bend don’t break” zone coverages.

In both of these examples the Buckeyes are trying to spread the Hawkeye LBs out and force them to cover their bluechip, burner wideouts in space. The Iowa coverages in response are designed to help the LBs out and have them play smart angles. They match up on the interior routes and try to bump guys and guide them up to the deep coverage.

On the boundary here the Hawkeyes are playing traditional cover 2, over to the field they’re playing quarters with the field corner in press coverage on the receiver. When they’d have NFL-bound Josh Jackson out there they’d play more press, if it was another corner they’d often play off coverage.

The strong safety sometimes had a tough gig, trying to stay over the top of the #2 and #3 inside receivers to the field, but their LBs would play handsy and prevent those receivers from getting clean releases to get up the field and overstress that safety. You can see that in the first clip, particularly with Josey Jewell who takes great care to hold up the TE from getting up the field. In the second clip the underneath coverage is tight and everything works to delay J.T. Barrett’s read or disrupt his passing windows, which allows the safety to hawk down and pick off the route.

Their goal is to have safeties over the top and to slow up deeper routes as much as possible so that anything past the second level of the defense has to take place after the pass-rush has had time to get home or else far enough down the field that the ball will hang in the air longer and give the DBs more time to make play.

And of course, if you have extra LBs on the field it doesn’t make much sense not to send them on the blitz at least from time to time.

Ohio State actually picks this pressure up quite easily, Barrett just hesitates too long and Josh Jackson reads him and comes off the go route to jump the corner. The Hawkeyes have an absurdly strong track record of developing CBs.

In effect, Iowa tends to find the opposite balance from everyone else in addressing the stress that spread teams create. While most teams will downsize to get more athleticism on the field, Iowa will instead leave their traditional personnel (for the most part) on the field and simply accept the widened field. They’ll play conservatively and aim to keep the ball in front of them and their LBs cover routes first on RPOs before closing on the run game.

Obviously the quality of their DL factors into that success in a major way. The 2018 Hawkeyes return four starters up front though and the “highest paid S&C coach in the country” is reimbursed largely because of his part in helping the Iowa coaching staff to routinely build NFL-laden lines on both sides of the ball out of Iowan farm boys.

The era of the 21 personnel spread

Right now Iowa has to fight to allow their base defensive personnel to work in the spread era and they’ve been able to execute it in large part because the spread offenses of the Big 10 are more run-centric. If you put the film of the Penn State or Ohio State games on you’ll see a lot of offensive possessions in which an opponent manages to convert multiple third downs but then you look at the number markers and realize they’ve barely reached midfield. Maintaining a long drive against the Hawkeyes’ ultra-sound leverage and good tackling is more than a little difficult, especially for spread teams designed to score points with big plays. Only the spread-iso oriented Iowa State Cyclones did any real, consistent damage to this unit from a spread alignment.

But in the greater world of college football, playing burners in the slot is starting to run its course as teams no longer yield the easy throws on the perimeter off the run game. Like Iowa, most teams now will have their nickel “cover down” on the perimeter throws and deny offenses from having a chance to make a play in space and then rally to stop the run whereas initially teams did the reverse.

The answer to that is greater utilization of the kinds of flex TEs that are already ascendant in the NFL. If defenses are going to play man coverage on your slot then it makes more sense to have a matchup nightmare there then a flex RB. But then what becomes the answer for the defense when the offense is playing a big flex TE? Probably to utilize someone like 6-4/232 pound Nick Niemann who will man the slot for Iowa this season.

It’s possible to see a future world where Iowa holes up in their base defense only to see the trends come back around in such a way that they’re ahead of the curve. In the meantime, things are working out just fine in Iowa City.