Wednesday, June 11, 2014

5 strategies teams use to choose players for their defense

The college football schedule can often present some challenging struggles for a program that intends to build their roster around defensive excellence.

Consider Bob Stoop's Oklahoma Sooners; they play nine of their 12 games every season against the Big 12 conference, which is almost entirely dominated by the spread offense and particularly the Air Raid strains that are taking over Texas football.

If Oklahoma wants to have any kind of successful season they need to win the games on their schedule...but achieving success against their non-conference slate or against likely opponents in a 4-team College Football playoff could potentially pit them against power-run oriented teams like Alabama, LSU, or Stanford. So how do they build their defensive roster in a way that allows them to handle the variety of personnel match-ups that opposing teams will present?

There are four main approaches to defensive roster-building that seek to answer this question:

1). Shrink the field

Some teams build their teams by simply trying to get the fastest team possible on the field and relying on team speed to attack opponents, rally to the ball, and essentially shrink the field so no offensive player finds a match-up advantage or leverage to operate in for more than a small window of time before the defense converges on him.

Gary Patterson's TCU Horned Frogs are a perfect example of this approach as they rely on 4-2-5 base personnel that has at least five defensive backs, including three safeties, on the field at all times. They'll also play speed at cornerback that can run deep with vertical routes.

Even in their fronts the Horned Frogs target linebackers who can change direction and run in underneath coverage, defensive ends who are aligned wide and are often athletes bulked up and deployed to terrorize the edge, and even defensive tackles who have the lateral quickness to stunt and play blocks outside-in.

In all of their tactics, TCU is looking to handle opponents by playing speed everywhere and racing to where they think the ball will be, and then where ever the ball actually goes.

The 4-3 Over defense popularized by the Jimmy Johnson Miami Hurricanes really launched this tactic into the modern era, the Gary Patterson 4-2-5 TCU defense is largely a modern take on it.

3-3-5 defenses that are aggressive in calling blitzes often fit under this heading as well.

2). Man the trenches!

Other teams have one major priority in choosing their defensive roster, to have big people up front who can carry the load for the rest of the team and allow different types of athlete to have success behind them.

Notre Dame's defenses under Bob Diaco are one prime example, the Gary Andersen 2013 Wisconsin Badgers are another. By having 2-gappers in the front and sturdy linebackers controlling the action up front and allowing the four DBs in the secondary to primarily concern themselves with keeping the ball in front of them, these teams can play the ultimate "bend don't break" approach.

The key is having a nose tackle who can command double-teams and control the spaces between the tackles along with defensive ends who can collapse the pocket and protect linebackers from seeing OL advance and meet them at the 2nd level to open up creases for the running back.

3-4 defenses are often prone to applying this principal in choosing the players for their roster while the 4-3 Under defense also tends to value bigger bodies who can protect the linebackers.

3). Fireproof

Given the modern spread coach's love of playing versatile personnel and finding mismatches to attack with RB/WR or TE/WR hybrids, some teams prefer to choose defensive personnel around the principle of having match-up proof players across the defensive front and back end.

The Seattle Seahawks are a great example. With large and athletic players like 6'3", 232 pound strong safety Kam Chancellor, 6'3", 195 pound cornerback Richard Sherman, 6'1" 207 pound cornerback Byron Maxwell, or blazing fast, 5'10", 202 pound free safety Earl Thomas, it's hard to find match-ups to attack against the Seahawks.

"Fireproof" defenses often rely on a lot of single-deep safety coverages such as Cover-3, Cover-1, or Fire Zone blitzes that will basically amount to man coverage.

The Fire Proof defense outnumbers the running game, puts big, athletic people against your weapons and basically says "come at me, bro!"

Across the front, the Seahawks are also very match-up conscious. Although they primarily play a 4-3 Under front, they choose their pieces up front based on competencies with particular spots across the DL in different packages chosen for skills like "run-stopping," "2-gapping," or "pass-rushing." Ideally, the Seahawks always have the right pieces on the field to match up against whatever the offense is likely to bring.

Fireproof teams often use a lot of Fire Zone blitzes that bring five rushers because their LB corp and secondary, being chosen largely for their size and athleticism, are often adept as either pass-rushers or holding up in pattern-matching coverage against an offense's athletes.

4). Outsmart 'em

University of Central Florida head coach George O'Leary ironically wants the smartest team he can find. His Knights play a variety of different defenses and disguise their intentions before the snap from the offense.

The overriding theme with his players is that they always understand what the offense is doing and how they will respond to it within their own diversity of calls. Just try and speed up the pace against the Knights and see what happens. They don't need to constantly stare at the sideline for calls or guidance, they know what they're doing and they're ready for what you're doing.

Some teams try to achieve a similar result by having as simple a defensive scheme as possible but the Knights are able to maintain a certain degree of complexity in their system because they make sure to recruit players who are smart enough to handle it.

5). Just get the best football players

Of course there are always teams that will look to choose find the best players to fulfill different roles, much like how the Seahawks choose players for their defensive line. Rather than attempting to have a unified vision for their defensive personnel, these teams just worry about having good players who might be effective due to any number of physical or mental attributes.

A team like KSU gets a lot of mileage by simply making sure that they find players who can handle the main tasks of their system. Can you fulfill the main competencies of your position? You're eligible? Nah, I don't care what you look like, come to Manhattan!

Any of these strategies can work, when applied well and consistently, assuming your team has access to the players needed. Recruiting turf plays a large role as well, teams better make sure that they can get a cast of >6'0" DBs to come to their school before they embrace a "Fireproof" plan for building a defense.

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