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The tight end of the modern defense

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Cutting edge defensive coordinators like Brent Venables have been building their defenses around mobile hybrids that can relocate to wherever offenses try to create space and run/pass conflicts with hybrid tight ends.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The defining feature of a given offense tends to be what they do at the inside receiver positions. Everyone plays skill athletes on the perimeter that are aiming to beat cornerbacks 1-on-1 in space when they get the opportunity, even if different players go about beating those cornerbacks in different fashions. Everyone also plays five OL, that’s a universal trait with zero exceptions to date, save for Stanford who occasionally uses six or seven.

In the RPO spread era, the most popular personnel grouping is an 11/20 personnel hybrid set-up with a QB, RB, two outside receivers, a slot receiver, and then a guy that is primarily a blocker who can ideally line up off the ball as an H-back or fullback and then on the ball as an in-line TE. They also often flex that player out, even if only to run distracto-routes designed to hold the attention of skilled defenders while more talented targets work in space or against favorable matchups. Using a defenses’ alignment rules against them to get a corner covering a flexed out fullback while a linebacker is left on a receiver is a favorite trick these days and won the Super Bowl for the Patriots.

The more that hybrid player can do the better off his offense will be, but in the RPO era teams love to have a guy there that is particularly effective blocking for the run game since that creates the 1-on-1 opportunities outside for their receivers in the RPO or play-action passing game.

Defense is all about stopping what the offense is trying to do, so defensive personnel and schemes always just reflect what’s going on on the other side of the ball. One of the best ways to understand an offense is to observe the personnel packages and schemes that defenses are using to try and stop them. While the hybrid TE player is often at the focal point of the offenses’ strategies, he’s starting to have a counterpart on the defense.

The nickel linebacker

Brent Venables has had this figured out for as long as most anyone in the game. Confronted with Florida State’s singleback offense in the 2000 national championship game they famously moved safety Roy Williams to nickel rather than using a linebacker and matched him on the slot, helping them shut down Heisman winner Chris Weinke in a 13-2 victory.

The Sooners had to make another similar adjustment years later. They lost the 2008 Red River Shootout after Texas surprised them with a four-receiver set that replaced the TE with star receiver Jordan Shipley and played him just off the line in trips formations that made mincemeat of their middle linebacker while the nickel linebacker was outside covering another slot.

In 2009 the Sooners were much better prepared and had a package designed to take away what had been a way for Texas to undo their defensive structure in 2008. When Texas went four-wide, and at times even when they played in 11 personnel with a TE, the Sooners kept middle linebacker Ryan Reynolds on the bench and bumped their nickel Keenan Clayton inside to middle linebacker while a freshman DB named Joseph Ibiloye played the nickel linebacker spot.

With Clayton playing in the nickel and at depth, they could defend the y-stick option routes that had torched them in 2008 without giving up the ability to play a cover 2 bracket over the boundary outside receiver, where Texas had taken to deploying Jordan Shipley.

Incidentally, Texas would barely scratch out a win in that game after mixing some downhill run game and even more spread spacing designed to allow them to attack somewhere else with other receivers.

Ten years later Brent Venables still regularly has one of his best players playing the nickel linebacker position and he’ll move them inside as needed if the offense tries to go small to attack a traditional inside linebacker. The 2017 Clemson defense was often led by Dorian O’Daniel and then he was replaced in 2018 by the remarkable Isaiah Simmons.

The personnel challenge teams face is the need to have someone on the field against the 11/20 personnel RPO spread systems everyone is running who can hold up in coverage against an inside slot receiver underneath and then still be able to arrive as an extra man against the run game.

The plus one in the run

Against the hybrid two-back rushing attacks of today’s offenses, the nickel’s standard down job is often to serve as a plus one in the run game, depending on how teams divvy tasks. Sky quarters teams like Auburn have the nickel stay with the receiver if he does something like running a bubble screen on the perimeter of a power run scheme, cloud quarters teams (like the ones that play with the tite front) have him come off the edge to force the ball in or make the tackle if the RB is spilled.

If teams want to employ that style of coverage at all then the nickel needs to be a physical presence in the run game and may need to take on blocks by that hybrid TE/FB in the box. If they want to keep him outside he’ll still likely have to bring a physical presence on the perimeter when the offense sends their TE/FB out there to run rubs or blocks for their skill players to get loose in space.

The trick is that offenses are looking for that “plus one in the run fit” player and attacking him by making him play coverage. A great nickel LB deployed in that role can generate a 2-for-1 for the defense, moving around to confuse the offense about whether he’ll be inserting himself on the perimeter or on the edge or even splitting the difference after the snap and trusting his quickness and diagnostic skills to arrive where needed.

If that happens, offenses can move on to the next phase like Texas did against Oklahoma where they spread the defense further and move the focal point. They can even do that from 11/20 personnel sets if that hybrid blocker is capable of running half-decent routes from a variety of slots. The Y-back below is the TE/FB hybrid:

You see formations like this regularly now, wide varieties of trips formations (three receivers to one side) because they can often move the nickel away from the action and basically transform the middle linebacker into a de-facto nickel linebacker by putting him in space and creating run/pass conflicts for him by alignment.

There are varying tricks for defenses to adjust to that approach but they all involve having a second player on the field that can serve as a sort of nickel linebacker. There are three main options.

One is for the free safety needs to be able to balance his coverage responsibility with the ability to drop down and defend an interior gap. Like how the nickel can create a 2-for-1 if he can sit on the bubble screen and still close and make a tackle on the edge on a run, a free safety can have a similar effect if he can sit on the “glance” pass option to the solo-side receiver before closing and fitting the run in the box.

Another option is for the nickel to be able to do what Keenan Clayton did for Oklahoma or what Isaiah Simmons sometimes does for Clemson and slide inside to the middle linebacker spot. If defenses are regularly spreading the nickel out wide then he becomes more a pure coverage player like another cornerback and defenses might as well sub a cornerback in while the nickel moves to a spot that can actually impact the play in the box.

One other choice is for teams to play nickel linebackers at multiple positions, like TCU essentially does under Gary Patterson. Every spring Patterson moves a safety or two down to linebacker to fill out his rotation there. Last year’s starting LBs for the Frogs at the year’s start were Ty Summers, who recently ran a 4.5 at the combine, and then the even faster Garrett Wallow who was a converted safety. No matter which way you try to spread out the Horned Frogs you just find more players that have the athleticism to balance run/pass conflicts. Washington employs this approach as well and Ben Burr-Kirven was one of the quicker middle linebackers in the country, teams tried to spread him out and he had an unreal 176 tackles.

A match for the mobile tight end

The name of the game amongst many a spread offense now is to rely on these hybrid blockers to move the focal point around from the same personnel grouping and hunt matchups for their run game or better skill targets. Defenses need hybrids to match and the nickel LB/DB with the diagnostic skills and speed to play the pass-first before closing and being a good tackler in the run game is one of the most precious commodities a unit can put on the field.

Teams need this player to either be capable of playing multiple positions to handle the way that offenses can move their own pieces around to create conflict or else to field multiple versions of this player throughout the middle of their defense.

A hybrid player that gives the defense a 2-for-1 by handling the run/pass conflicts created by RPO spread teams can erase the easy leverage and yardage those teams create for their offenses and can save a defense from yielding the 1-on-1 matchups outside or lighter boxes that lead to explosive plays. Venables and Clemson have it figured out, other teams will need to do so as well to keep up. Those FB/TE hybrids seem harmless enough, but if a defense can’t adjust to the balance they create for the offense with their own hybrids then they’ll start pulling jenga blocks out from the structure.