USC's D-Line: Improvements vs. Minnesota's Spread Offense

Michael TierneyAnalyst IAugust 26, 2011

USC's D-Line: Improvements vs. Minnesota's Spread Offense

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    How will USC's defensive line play Minnesota?

    The Golden Gophers have a new O-line and a new QB trying to learn the spread. So far, things stink in Minnesota's fall camp.

    USC is using WR George Farmer as the scout team QB.

    So will USC use this game as a warm-up for Oregon? Will coach Orgeron turn the D-line loose on MarQueis Gray?

    First, let's cover basics (a primer), talk spread, then go Walter Mitty on USC's D-line.

What Is a 4-3 Defense or a Cover 2 Defense?

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    USC runs a 4-3 defense. That refers to the alignment of the defensive front seven players (linemen and linebackers).

    If a team uses four players on the defensive line (two defensive tackles and two defensive ends), they have four men on the D-line. This leaves three to man the linebacker positions.

    Pro football teams typically run a 4-3 front (shown as the black Xs), or a 3-4 front.

    A Cover 2 defense implies two safeties, usually a strong safety and a free safety, in conjunction with two cornerbacks. CBs cover wide receivers that run pass patterns.

    This leaves seven players to cover the defensive line and linebackers.

    USC runs a Tampa 2 defense, which is a form of Cover 2, but one defensive tackle is more of a nose tackle and the middle linebacker drops into pass coverage. This scheme was developed by defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin for the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    The Tampa 2 usually runs a 4-3 defensive front.

What Is a Nickel Formation?

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    Nickel Formation

    In passing situations, an extra defensive back is substituted for a linebacker to play what is called a "nickel" package (pictured).

    This nickel defense utilizes five defensive backs (from nickel = 5 cent piece).

    Nickel coverage is also used when the offense is using an additional wide receiver as it matches an extra cornerback against the extra receiver.

    The extra defensive back (cornerback or strong safety) is often called a nickelback (shown in the diagram as the darker blue squares).

    In essence, the Tampa 2 becomes a 4-2-5 scheme. The 4-2-5 removes a linebacker from the standard 4-3 to gain the extra nickelback (defensive back).


    Dime Formation

    In very obvious passing situations (like when the offense has 3rd-and-forever or is using four wide receivers), a "dime" package is used to cover additional receivers.

    A dime formation replaces both outside linebackers with cornerbacks.

    The sixth defensive back is known as the dimeback, just as the extra defensive back in the nickel formation is called the nickelback. Since two nickels gives you a dime, so that's the name of the formation.

What Is “technique?”

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    We hear “3-technique tackles” in coach-speak. What does that mean?

    It only means where the defender lines up opposite his offensive man.

    For instance, a defensive tackle can shift a few feet either way and change from a 4-technique to a 3-technique. That is, he can shift and go down in his stance, just to the outside shoulder of the offensive guard, which is location 3 (hence 3-technique).

    If he shifts a little outward and closer to the inside shoulder of the tackle, now he is in the 4 position (hence 4-technique).

    It is really that simple.

    The image above might be a little complicated. Numbering systems can vary with schemes and shading, so let's refer to the diagram below for simplified “technique” locations. The Os are the O-line and QB:



                                         O     O      O       O       O      O                 

                                           6  5  4   3  2   1 0 1  2  3   4   5    6


    Here is a list of the techniques for the diagram above:

    0-technique: Line up directly in front of the offensive center.

    1-technique: Line up on the offensive center’s shoulder (right or left).

    2-technique: Line up on the offensive guard’s inside shoulder.

    3-technique: Line up on the offensive guard’s outside shoulder.

    4-technique: Line up on the offensive tackle’s inside shoulder.

    5-technique: Line up on the offensive tackle’s outside shoulder.

    6-technique: Line up on the tight end’s inside shoulder (or about a yard or so outside the tackle if no tight end).


    Note: You can just add a zero to each number to tell linebackers where to line up. For instance, an outside linebacker might be in a 50-technique, lined up a few yards behind the defensive line naturally and to the offensive tackle’s outside shoulder.

    Note: We don’t call a defensive lineman located over or near the offensive center, a 0-technique or a 1-technique defensive tackle. They are usually strong and big (hopefully fast), and they are called “nose tackles.”

What Is “gap?”

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    When the offensive linemen come up to the line, they will take their splits, or the distance between each other. That is a gap.

    The diagram to the left depicts the gaps (or splits) between offensive linemen, from a defensive point of view (i.e. they are not numbered):

    Starting with the offensive center, the distances between him and both offensive guards on either side of him, are called the “A-gap.”

    The next gap, between offensive guard and offensive tackle, on either right or left side, is called the “B-gap.”

    The area between the offensive tackles and the tight ends, is called the “C-gap.”

    Just outside the tight end, or where a tight end could line up, is called the “D-gap.”

    Coaches don’t usually refer to an “E-gap,” but it would be just inside the offense's wide receivers.

What Are the Defensive Line’s Responsibilities?

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    Nose tackles should smack the center upon any movement of the offensive line or the ball. It is always nice if the NT knocks the center on his butt.

    The NT has A-gap responsibility (both A-gaps) to stop a dive play.

    Recognition should take the nose tackle about one second. Then he tackles the QB or RB on a dive.

    2-technique defensive tackles try to engage to offensive blockers to open holes for linebackers.

    3-technique defensive tackles should shoot the gap immediately and try to blow up the play.

    4-technique defensive tackles want to move the offensive tackle to open a gap for a linebacker stunt.

    5- and 6-technique defensive ends must contain the quarterback or running back to restricting their movement within the area of either side of the end of the offensive line.

What Is a Spread Offense?

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    The spread is an offense that stretches a defense horizontally—it spreads them out. This makes it easier for the spread QB/RB to make a play against fewer defenders nearby.

    The spread tries to limit the abilities of a defense and makes them defend the entire field. It deceives the defense by running one way while creating a diversion the other way.

    The spread relies on specific assignments for each offensive player and plays at different tempos. It uses a dual-threat QB who can execute a simple but unpredictable offense.

    Oregon's QB reads the 3-technique DT (not the nose tackle) to determine the weakness of the line.


    Goals of the Spread Offense

    1) Create mismatches by using skilled, fast guys against linebackers.

    2) Get the ball into the playmaker's hands, usually the QB, RB, or WR.

    3) Use the shotgun to see and read the defense.

    4) Make the defense defend all of the skilled players.

    5) Make the defense play in space.

    6) Simplify the O-line play to minimize mistakes.

Why Is the Tutorial Important?

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    Oregon's spread option offense—one of the more famous ones—is based on speed and athleticism, not size and power.

    USC's 4-3 defensive line played a conservative scheme in 2010 and was not successful. The results were similar to 2009 (see video).

    USC's nose tackle played a 1-technique with two-gap responsibility. His job was not to crash through, but to read the play anticipating a dive and clog it. By the time he diagnosed the play, it was over.

    USC's defensive tackle played a 3-technique, but mostly did not shoot the gap. On film it looks like he was protecting the B-gap and trying to read the play.

    USC's defensive ends played both 5- and 6-techniques, only looking to contain the quarterback or running back.

    The Trojan defensive line rarely shot the gaps, seldom blew up the play and mostly got pushed around by Oregon's smaller, faster offensive line. Sometimes it appears that the D-line was in the way for USC's linebackers efforts to make a play.

    Wait-and-see does not work against an offense based on speed. A spread option offense needs to be attacked in the backfield before the speed and athleticism can make a difference.

Nose Tackle: Read the Dive While Crashing the Line

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    Monte Kiffin used a 4-3 with his NT lined up in a 1-technique keeping two-gap responsibility (A-gaps), which leads to tentative play.

    Without the push or backfield disruption to blow up the handoff, there were very few tackles for losses or sacks.

    Is DaJohn Harris (6'4", 305) big enough to knock Oregon's freshman center, Hroniss Grasu (6'3", 274), on his butt? You bet he is.

    Is Harris fast enough to shoot the gap and blow up the backfield play? Without a doubt. 

    Do you think Auburn nose tackle Nick Fairley was concerned about two-gap responsibility? Do you think he played NT tentatively? Check the video and see.

    Pay attention, DaJohn Harris. You two Christian Tupou, Antwaun Woods and J.R. Tavai.

    If the NT does not immediately feel run blocking, then he should shed the center and blow up the backfield.

Defensive Tackle: Just Shoot the Gap and Crush the Quarterback

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    Minnesota and Oregon don't have Alabama's offensive line. Other than the QB and RB, the Ducks/Gophers don't have serious skill position talent.

    That isn't a knock on Oregon; rather, it's a compliment to their coaching.

    Their linemen are somewhat on the smaller side. Their offensive system is run-based. Plays are more likely a QB or RB run. Last year Oregon ran 50 times out of 82 plays. Oregon passed 32 times, but only 19 were completions. And that was with wide receiver Jeff Maehl.

    Minnesota's offense will also be based on MarQueis Gray's running. With that said, George Uko should play like Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus. Marcell also had the assignment of blowing up the spread handoff. And he was great at it (see video).

    Why shouldn't Uko and Armond Armstead have some fun?

Defensive End: Look for Contain While Crushing the QB/RB

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    For those of you who played football, remember your D-line coach telling the ends to "contain?"

    That is, unless you faced a triple option or a spread. Then he said "contain first, then always punish the quarterback if he comes your way."

    USC had only one sack against Oregon. Most of Oregon's offense is based on Darron Thomas' reads and speed, so getting more sacks is asking a lot. 

    But it only takes about one second for an end to feel pressure and find the QB/RB.

    USC's DEs should be turned lose like Aldon Smith was at Missouri (see video). Smith went to the 49ers in the first round (seventh pick overall in the draft).

    Wes Horton, Devon Kennard, Nick Perry and Kevin Green can all play like Smith. They are all just as big, just as fast, just as smart and just as talented.

Who Is Minnesota's New Quarterback?

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    MarQueis Gray transitioned from playing wide receiver last year and should be among the most highly regarded dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation. Gray's athletic ability is unquestioned and his live feet will keep lots of plays alive. He'll have to with three new starters on the offensive line.

    New head coach Jerry Kill said he is comfortable handing the starting QB job to Gray, whom he "feels is a better passer than people realize."

    Often with an inexperienced QB, a coach will water down the playbook and rely a bit more on the running game.

    But every report from their August 20th scrimmage said Gray did not play well.

    MarQueis has about one week to make all of the necessary corrections. Bobbled snaps, happy feet in the pocket and some bad throws or no throws on far too many plays is the word from the Golden Gophers camp.

    USC should be looking forward to changing up the D-line strategy against a team they can afford to practice their schemes with.

Prediction: USC 48: Minnesota 6

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    Minnesota at USC

    Saturday, Sept. 3, 2011

    12:30 p.m. (PST) on ABC


    Game Prediction: USC 48, Minnesota 6

    Minnesota has new unsigned head coach Jerry Kill, a new coaching staff, a new quarterback, a new offensive line and a new season. Last year’s loss to the South Dakota Coyotes, a FCS program, was partially due to the terrible defensive line play and a lack of a pass rush. Minnesota finished dead last in the nation in that department, and their special teams play was a disaster. To top it off, the Gophers' top running back, DeLeon Eskridge, has up and left the team, as did their tight end, Tiree Eure. The Gophers have had injuries and a sloppy summer.

    Minnesota will be totally overmatched in this opening game against USC. Gopher D-Line

    Minnesota at USC will be interesting to watch at 12:30 pm. Later at 5 p.m., watch how LSU's D-line plays against Oregon.


    The big question: Will DL coach Ed Orgeron turn his D-line loose on Minnesota to prepare for Oregon?