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The rise of the Aztec empire

More teams are copying the San Diego State strategy of using a rangy hybrid in the middle of the field and offenses aren’t sure what to do about him.

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NCAA Football: Michigan State at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

If you looked across at different college games in week two there was a reoccurring strategy appearing at multiple programs. If you stayed up and tuned in for Arizona State’s upset victory over Michigan State you saw it, and it wasn’t Herm Edwards’ exhortation for his team to “leave it all on the grass!”

What you saw was the Aztec warrior, standing in the middle of defenses at Iowa State, Tulsa, Arizona State, and several other schools, wreaking havoc on offensive gameplans.

We first explored the idea of the “Aztec” when studying the unique 3-3-5 defense that Rocky Long’s San Diego State has utilized to become a perennial contender in the Mountain West conference. As a brief refresher, Long’s 3-3-5 utilizes very different personnel than your typical defense. They play with three DL, all of which are generally “tweeners” who are good at slanting and attacking blocks but none of whom have the size of even your average 3-technique at a bigger program. Then there are the three LBs, each of whom are more typically sized and move around from 9-techniques on the edge, the walk-out spot towards the slot, and then back inside like a traditional inside-backer.

In the secondary they play with four DBs who are all akin to cornerbacks in that they can play some man coverage, and then a third safety who’s a S/LB hybrid that doesn’t align over the slot like your nickel hybrids but instead in the middle of the field.

The result of this guy sitting there is that the Aztecs can often get, in effect, a full-time box safety who serves as an extra man stuffing running plays without being accounted for by the offensive blocking scheme.

Bryce Love ran for 29 yards on 18 carries against the Aztecs, although Stanford eventually pulled away after figuring out that the aggressive deployment of “Aztec” safety Parker Baldwin meant man coverage outside on J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. But teams needn’t necessarily be this aggressive in order to make the most of this style.

Playing aggressive from conservative shells

TCU revolutionized the game by playing with three safeties at all times, but their tendency has always been to use their third safety over the slot in lie of a strongside linebacker. Gary Patterson wants his six-man box to control the front and spill the ball to speed, the Aztec third safety allows for several different approaches.

Iowa State essentially already uses a sort of nickel player instead of a strongside linebacker but they don’t always bring him aggressively and they don’t want their extra man to have to always come from the same part of the field.

When they first came to the Big 12, the Cyclones were really big on quarters coverages in which the outside linebackers would mind the pass if the slot receiver ran a route while the safeties would play flat footed and get involved quickly against the run.

When the safeties are playing that way the linebackers can play faster because they know that if they’re wrong, the safeties can help make them right because they’re not too far behind. But then when the Cyclones started playing from their 3-3-5/dime look with a third safety in the middle of the field, all it meant was that they could have one more guy playing the run at depth if they wanted to:

On this play the strongside LB crashes the backside but then the boundary and middle safety are both also coming hard and unblocked when they get a clear run key and because they’re coming up quick in support all three LBs are fast flowing to the football. It sets up a hard situation for the OL in which they’re having to pick up moving targets very quickly before they’ve really secured the line of scrimmage, consequently Cyclone DE Eyioma Uwazurike gets off the TE’s block and makes the stop at the line of scrimmage.

The Hawkeyes’ two lead backs combined for 32 carries that yielded 93 yards at 2.9 ypc and a sole TD. The realization that you can play good run defense from this set is going to really help propel the scheme.

As we’ve covered before, blocking schemes aren’t really designed to account for a safety that’s starting the play 8-10 yards off the ball. That same issue was a driving force for some of the dominant, Mark Dantonio Michigan State defenses we’ve seen. With the Spartan safeties sitting so shallow and triggering downhill so quickly and easily it makes it hard to block the fast flowing front and hard to pick up any real gains when you do.

The difference is that the “Aztec” safety can offer a team that same benefit while the other safeties could backpedal in cover 2, negating the risk against play-action or RPOs if the offense is a squad that likes to send their slot receivers down the seam off run action.

Speaking of the Spartans, Iowa State is also finding the 3-deep/2-under, double A-gap blitz Pat Narduzzi made famous to be a useful complement:

Before the snap this looks very much like the 2-robber scheme that Iowa State unveiled from this defense a year ago to the bewilderment of the Big 12. In the 2-robber scheme the corners play the flats, the safeties drop deep in cover 2, and then the middle “Aztec” safety robs the middle like a Tampa-2 middle linebacker.

One area of the field you certainly don’t want to throw the ball into against the 2-robber scheme is the flats. What’s the easiest place to get the ball out quickly and safely against this zone blitz? The flats.

The QB sees the middle safety dropping deep on the snap and if his hot routes are to the middle of the field he has to deal with the two traditional safeties coming downhill on those routes while reading his eyes AND he has to deal with the LBs crashing into the line directly in his face. This blitz is a devastating counter to the much more conservative base coverages, a sort of “all or nothing” approach like what West Virginia brought to the league from a similar 3-3-5 look a few years ago.

Making them earn it

Tulsa and Arizona State both used variations of this style of defense to great effect in week two. Herm Edwards hired Rocky Long assistant Danny Gonzales to bring the defense to Tempe, AZ in a surprisingly shrewd move by a head coach who seems to have a clearer and savvier plan for college football excellence than expected.

Arizona State uses Dasmond Tautalatasi as their “Aztec” safety, which they call the “Tillman” named after renowned Arizona State LB/S hybrid and American hero Pat Tillman. They moved him (Tautalatasi) around quite a bit over the course of the game, occasionally dropping him into the deep middle and at other times he’d drop into the box like on this crucial play:

The Sun Devils get immediate pressure with three pass-rushers and force an errant throw to what’s actually an open TE in the end zone. The ball is tipped and Tautalatasi made the snag. What teams like Arizona State and Tulsa are finding is that it’s much easier to play bend don’t break from this look.

Brian Lewerke threw for 314 yards at 8.1 ypa against the Sun Devils and the Spartans turned the ball over just once, on that red zone INT clipped above. Michigan State finished the game with just 13 points.

Against Tulsa, Texas put up 478 yards of offense and threw for 8.8 ypa while rushing for 5.1 ypc, yet they were also stopped on the goal line and managed only 28 points in a narrow victory. On drives in which they didn’t utilize their QB Sam Ehlinger as a rushing threat, they typically struggled to find the end zone.

Much like Arizona State, Tulsa mixed various coverages with their middle “Aztec” safety moving around to either serve crashing into the box or playing as a deep middle defender to free up other players to play aggressively.

In this instance the safety comes up to try and make the stop in the cutback only to be victimized by the lateral stretches on the outside zone play. He’s unable to fill the considerable space on the backside. Still, Tulsa made an interesting game of a contest in which the Longhorns largely dominated the game because Bill Young’s adaptation of this defense combined with Tulsa’s quick-strike Veer and Shoot offense allowed them to make the most of their more limited yardage and production.

The more speed and coverage versatility a team can get on the field the more difficult they can make it for offenses to sustain drives and finish in the red zone.

The players

San Diego State’s multi-year starting Aztec is the 6-2, 215 pound Parker Baldwin. Arizona State’s Dasmond Tautalatasi is 6-0, 203 pounds, Iowa State’s Greg Eisworth is 6-0, 200 pounds, Tulsa utilized 6-0, 190 pound Cristian Williams. The Texas defense has also made use of this style in their dime package and have utilized 6-0, 230 pound linebacker Gary Johnson back in the Aztec spot as well as 6-2, 210 pound freshman safety B.J. Foster.

The teams using smaller guys tend to hybridize the role between dropping down into the box OR playing traditional deep zone coverages. The bigger guys like Baldwin or Foster are spending much more of their time serving as more of a LB/S hybrid. It’s essentially a question of whether you want to use this “free” player to attack or to shore up the back end but typically the nature of the position rewards guys who play instinctively and tackle, more traditional football players.

One of the big challenges in the modern game against spread opponents is how to protect more traditional football players who thrive at diagnosing plays, running to the ball, beating blocks, and making tackles from being forced to play the much more modern and skill-based version of football. With the Aztec system you can set that guy up to run wild and do what he does best while you handle opposing skill players with bracket coverage afforded by giving up a pass-rusher up front or by utilizing more skill talent at other positions like strong safety.

This style is going to continue to proliferate across the game in 2018 and beyond until offenses figure out solutions for the problems that occur trying to diagnose the coverage they’re facing and accounting for that Aztec when he screams down into the box.