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Stopping players, not formations: Part II, matchup quarters

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NCAA Football: Big 12 Championship-Texas vs Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

A reoccurring theme in the NBA playoffs these days is the selective non-guarding of specific players. Ever since the San Antonio Spurs picked on Dwayne Wade in back to back NBA Finals, offensive players that can’t shoot have become a resource for defenses trying to figure out how to stop superstars like Steph Curry, LeBron James, or James Harden with help defense.

Spread out defenses in football have similar options to turn to in order to try and handle the tactics of the best spread offenses. What seems like “junk” defense is going to become increasingly common in big games and postseason matchups. In part one of this series I mentioned the need for teams to be able to devote their best defenders to the specific role of matching up on the star players for opposing offenses. Here in part two we’ll be be diving into the NBA style of simply leaving people “unguarded.”

The big rematch of 2018

The 2018 season was the first in college football history in which we got a rematch of the Red River Shootout between Texas and Oklahoma. With the addition of a conference championship game despite the league only having one division, we’ll probably see these two programs rematch a lot in the coming years. On the one hand, it’s a little cheap to turn what’s perhaps college football’s best rivalry game which already takes place at a neutral site and make it potentially irrelevant to the question of who wins the Big 12. But on the other hand, rematches offer the opportunity for really precise adjustments and tuneups by the coaching staffs that can make for some really entertaining games. That was certainly the case in 2018.

The Red River Shootout, or round one, was a true classic thanks to a 4th quarter surge by the Oklahoma offense that tied the game up before the Longhorns pulled it out with a game-ending FG drive. Before that surge, it was very nearly a total beatdown as the nationally underrated Texas team completely blasted a flawed Oklahoma defense while thwarting the Sooners’ explosive offense with their dime package on defense.

What really burned Oklahoma was how easily Texas was able to run the ball. Their two main RBs combining for 105 yards on 19 carries at 5.5 ypc while QB Sam Ehlinger added another 18 carries for 84 more yards at 4.7 ypc with three rushing TDs and a few short-yardage pick-ups. From there, star receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey added nine catches for 133 yards and a score (and he threw another one as well) and Texas got up by as much as 45-24 before Kyler Murray initiated the comeback. After that loss Oklahoma fired DC Mike Stoops and promoted Ruffin McNeil to try and salvage the season. McNeil struggled through much of the rest of the year before putting together a plan that allowed Oklahoma to come out ahead in the rematch and win the B12 championship.

The principal challenge against Texas was stopping their three-pronged standard down attack, which included the run game behind first team “fullback” Andrew Beck, the 6-4/220 pound flex tight end Lil’Jordan Humphrey, and then 6-6/220 pound outside receiver Collin Johnson. Texas was also effective on third down and medium or more isolating Humphrey and on third and short powering the ball to Ehlinger but Oklahoma really just needed a better plan on standard downs to give their own potent offense a chance to outscore the Horns. McNeil’s solution, borrowed partly from the Oklahoma State staff from their upset win over Texas, was to choose to leave some of the Longhorns “unguarded.”

Not literally of course. You can’t leave players wide open before the snap against spread teams or else they’ll pass it to them for free yardage. However, there is a sense in which defenses can change up their schemes to de-emphasize the “non-shooters” which are best understood in football terms as the guys that aren’t transformed into touchdown threats if you play them in man coverage. Modern defenses are designed to give the various defenders rules to follow so that they can always outnumber whatever the offense wants to do. The 4-2-5 “match quarters” defense is designed to help a unit always be “plus one” in the run and the pass. Some defenders are turned into half defenders against both the run and the pass and they have to make quick decisions and good reads to ensure that they can arrive where help is needed.

But the Sooners couldn’t count on halfway present defenders to stop Texas’ run game, they were too weak up front and inconsistent at LB. They also couldn’t count on halfway present defenders to stop up Humphrey, he was simply too overpowering. So McNeil did the math and determined to always be plus one against the run (seven defenders for six blockers) and to always be plus one against Humphrey (two defenders for one receiver). That left two defenders for the remaining two receivers and they didn’t get safety help.

In the rematch Humphrey caught seven balls for 51 yards and a score, the Texas RBs had 13 carries for 46 yards, and while Collin Johnson punished the man coverage with eight catches for 177 yards and two TDs while Ehlinger still ran 12 times for 66 yards at 5.5 ypc with two scores, they had to work left handed throughout the game and only managed 27 points. In particular, Oklahoma was able to create enough hesitation to inflict three sacks, one of which was a fourth quarter safety that killed Texas’ chance at taking the lead (it was 32-27, OU) and gave the Sooners a possession they used to mount a 6:27 TD drive that iced the game.

Ehlinger and Johnson were both beat up going into the game and while each put forward some game efforts, Texas just wasn’t ready to efficiently match the Sooner offensive machine without their run game and Humphrey all humming.

“Matchup” quarters

One of the beauties of a quarters defense is that it can afford a team flexibility in where they distribute their numbers. The goal is to be flexible after the snap, but it can offer flexibility before the snap to a team that is willing to embrace the extremes of spread strategy with the way they allocate their resources against different teams.

Oklahoma opted for a “load the middle” strategy against Texas’ offense, which was strongest between the hash marks thanks to their sturdy run game with senior “y-back” (TE/FB) Andrew Beck and then Humphrey. OU played from a base 4-3 defense with junior “sam” linebacker Caleb Kelly on the field. They’d been burned a lot in league play trying to get away with that set but they moved cornerback Tre Norwood to strong safety behind him to replace the rotation of freshmen who’d been getting roasted in that spot in previous weeks.

Their goal was to always be plus one against Humphrey and plus one against the run, so they typically vacillated between the following coverages:

Sam linebacker Caleb Kelly was about 6-3, 230 while free safety was manned by the 6-2/210 Robert Barnes so the Sooners were always bringing a bigger guy into the run fit to help outnumber the Longhorns. That worked well and regularly bailed them out of multiple spots where the Texas OL was shoving the Sooner front around only for the RB to find a tackler before he could make a big gain.

Meanwhile they had to pull every formational trick in the book out to find Humphrey some space against the constant bracket coverages he’d find.

Against other spread teams the concerning point might not be the run game and the potential of play-action to the slot but instead perhaps the run game and then shots to that solo-side X receiver. In that event, when the stakes get high enough you’ll often see a team embrace either extreme to either side of the formation:

Mixing cover 2 with what often amounts to cover zero is essentially an embrace of the extreme stress that spread teams can put on a defense. Good defensive teams normally like to drill their team in good base defense, teaching them a few fronts and coverages and how to address common offensive concepts from those few defenses. But when an opponent has players that you can’t stop with good fundamentals and they have them isolated in space due to spread tactics, it’s not a good idea to try and cover everything.

This cover 2/cover zero showed up some back in 2015 when the Baylor Bears were torching teams by throwing to Corey Coleman as a solo-side WR (1363 receiving yards and 20 TDs) or running the ball (two RBs ran for 1k yards for them that season) when teams split their defenders too wide trying to cover it all up.

Eventually K-State figured out that they were better off playing man coverage on every receiver not named Corey Coleman, and erasing him from the Baylor arsenal with a consistent cover 2 bracket. It was normal for those Baylor offenses to have a receiver facing a cover 2 bracket like that not even bother to run a route but instead save his legs since the ball was going elsewhere. It made sense, but it also allowed K-State to choose to remove him from the game.

That meant they then gained an extra man up front to prevent the normal gaping holes that Baylor was accustomed to sending runners through. K-State went to this strategy late and lost 31-24 but Oklahoma borrowed from it in a road win the next week in Waco. Texas installed the Baylor offense in 2016 and often saw this same blueprint as an answer to their version of the scheme.

One of the toughest challenges for defenses is from teams with a pair of outside receivers that can win over the top AND are paired with a QB that can accurately hit the one lined up on the far hash with a fade or comeback. It’s fairly common for teams to respond to trips formations by leaving the outside receiver to the wide side of the field “unguarded” either by having the CB over him quickly helping off him from an deep zone or by playing him in man coverage and yielding a 1-on-1 matchup in order to get a plus one elsewhere. Leaving a slot “unguarded” is much trickier because of his proximity to the QB and the greater ease there is in hitting him on any manner of option or vertical routes.

Faced with a dilemma like this in 2017 against an OSU team boasting Marcel Ateman and James Washington as their outside receivers, TCU mixed in this robber coverage:

Instead of asking the safety to try and play over the top of the Z receiver, the corner played a sort of deep 12 technique shaded to the Z while the strong safety and nickel played underneath. That way the QB couldn’t beat them over the top with a go or a post easily against the corner while there was still help underneath on the hitch-in, slant, or comeback.

There’s a lot of ways to move the pieces around, the key is to get a 2-over-1, 3-over-2, or 4-over-3 where there’s a particularly dangerous receiver to ensure that he can’t easily find space to work in. Aiming to be matchup proof at every spot is nice but it’s just not feasible against the caliber of skill talent present in the game these days.

With a multiple package of quarters coverages, a 4-2-5 team can be reasonably capable of always playing with a plus one advantage over up to two threats, one of which can be a RB. Anything more than two threats and you run out of numbers without switching to a three-down structure that allows lots of “drop eight” options in coverage. What’s more, to really get this approach right a team needs everyone to be capable of holding up with virtually zero help if they’re facing an offensive player deemed as a no. 3 or no. 4 threat. This can’t work if the no. 3 offensive threat can consistently whip the defender playing him without help, just as NBA teams can’t help off great shooters.

Some teams will shade help partway to the major threats but at the highest levels, that’s often not enough anymore. You need to devote true double teams to the stars and force a team to prove they’re ready, willing, and able to beat you with their left hand. You see these sorts of tactics most often in postseason battles or season-defining contests like rivalry games, it may become the new norm as teams work out ways to slow down HUNH spread offenses.