Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Can the 2015 Kansas State defense bend without breaking?

In an era of up-tempo offenses, more and more defenses are starting to make choices to design their approach to encourage quick possessions by the opposing offense that returns the ball back to their own offense via a turnover, punt, or kickoff.

The Art Briles Baylor Bears are such a team, and while they rely only varieties of quarters coverage like Kansas State does, the approach is wildly different. The Bears are always looking to get extra players into the box to stop the run, pressure the pass, and force the issue. They want to scrap and keep the decision away from the scorecard.

Snyder-ball is the philosophical anti-thesis to the Briles-era Bears. His offense is going to take their time, work the jab, and slowly pummel you. Meanwhile their defense is entirely uninterested in turning games into shootouts that the offense lacks bullets to engage in. Snyder's defense is always looking to make sure they are in sound defensive position to stop the big play and force the offense to work their way down the field and then hammer the ball into the end zone.

Since execution is the name of the game, they are also very simple in scheme in comparison to the Bears, otherwise they risk the chance that an offense can actually successfully march down the field due to their own errors or imperfections in technique.

The K-State defensive scheme

This is the preferred response of the Wildcats against a 2x1, Spread-I type set such as you regularly find in today's game:

This is typically known as "cover 6" and it combines quarters coverage to the field where the corner and strong safety each play a deep 1/4 of the field. In reality, the Wildcats pattern match out of their schemes so the field corner and strong safety are responsible vertical routes by the Z and Y receivers while the middle linebacker takes the third receiver to release into the strongside. On the opposite end, the free safety and boundary corner play cover 2.

K-State can also play some cover 4 with the free safety playing run-force and the boundary corner focusing on deep routes against looks like this:

K-State can use a lot of discretion when determining which of these two options to go with on the weakside because one of their corners, Danzel McDaniel, is the best run-support cornerback in the league if not the nation.

At 6'1" and 205 pounds he's ideally suited for playing as a run-force cornerback. It would be unsurprising if KSU chose to play their corners as "field and boundary" in order to keep him there but they've instead opted for another wise tactic: to line them up in accordance with their match-ups against the opposing receivers. However, when they play cover 2 to the boundary with McDaniel over there opponents might as well give up on attacking them.

It's very difficult to run the ball on the Wildcats when they're in this set because they are very disciplined and effective in both forcing the run and getting their deep pass defenders to run the alley and provide secondary support.

However, if you line up in a trips set than the Wildcats become much easier to run the football on since their conservative nature pushes them to rely on this scheme:

This coverage adjustment to quarters is called "special" and it involves erasing the outside receiver with man coverage by the corner and then playing the same pattern read coverage you see in the diagrams above with the nickel serving as the de-facto corner while the #3 receiver (H in this instance) is matched on short routes by the middle linebacker and the strong safety on vertical routes.

On the opposite side of the field the boundary corner and free safety are still free to play whatever combination K-state wants against a given opponent. "Special" is arguably the most coverage sound of all quarters trips coverages and is the preferred option of Nick Saban.

There are a few things to note with the coverage though, one is that by making it a fundamental part of the defense you are requiring that your nickel be capable both as a run-force defender AND a coverage cornerback. It'd make sense to move Danzel McDaniel over to the position for that reason but this doesn't seem to be in the cards. Another adjustment that K-State used in the past back when Ty Zimmerman was the strong safety and a very young Randall Evans was the nickel was to have them switch places with the nickel moving to the deep strong safety spot while the strong safety (Zimmerman) played outside over the Y receiver.

Another important consideration with this coverage is that it requires a lot of range from the middle linebacker, even if you have the field end stunt inside to the B-gap to try and help spill runs outside, as the Wildcats did at times in 2014.

In 2014, KSU often had Jonathan Truman play the middle linebacker position against trips sets so they could have his speed out there rather than asking Will Davis or Dakorey Johnson to cover all that ground. In this role the player is really more of a box safety than a true linebacker. If the Wildcats had a big box safety on the roster it'd make sense to play dime against trips and use him at linebacker.

Truman had 124 tackles on the year while playing this position but only 4.5 tackles for loss and a single pass break-up. In other words, while he was getting to the ball carrier and making tackles, he wasn't making many drive-killing plays.

Finally, the Wildcats will mix in some cover 3 although it's clearly not at all their preferred strategy and serves mostly as a change-up that allows them to keep the middle linebacker in the box or as a base coverage when they bring +1 blitzes. This brings us to the 2015 personnel and the difference between a defense that bends and a defense that breaks.

How the K-State defense survives taking punches

K-State plays in a 4-2-5 alignment on the vast majority of their snaps, with only two major sub-packages that have seen much usage in the last few years. A true 4-3 package with a sam linebacker that replaces the nickel against offenses using bigger formations (fewer than three receivers seems to be the rule of thumb) and an alternative 4-2-5 third down package that substitutes the sam linebacker for the nose-tackle (and maybe the DT as well if he's not a great pass-rusher) and deploys him at DE while one of the ends moves inside.

The strength of their team comes from their ability to execute their base schemes in these simple packages that generally keep the same 11 players on the field together, and their ability to lock down the middle of the field with rangy players at safety and linebacker.

The caliber of play that Kansas State gets in the middle of the field from their three inside DB positions is crucial to their "bend don't break" strategy since they have to be in lockstep running to the football with leverage and denying easy throws to the middle. Last year's unit looked very promising early because of the fearsome threesome they had at these three inside DB positions with Dante Barnett (strong safety), Travis Green (free safety), and Randall Evans (nickel).

Green was eventually injured and replaced by the much more athletically limited Dylan Schellenberg and then transferred out of the program. True sophomore Kaleb Prewett figures to take over at that spot.

Randall Evans moves on after starting at nickel for three consecutive seasons. Converted corner Nate Jackson and longtime back-up Donnie Starks are the current favorites to win this job, smart money is on senior Nate Jackson. The potential problem here is that while Evans was small at about 6'0" 190, he was at least a very physical player who didn't shy away from contact and was plenty effective forcing the run.

His potential replacements are even smaller with Nate Jackson standing at 5'11" 185 while Starks is listed at 6'0" 180 and is probably closer to 5'10". It's hard to play the edge as well as Evans did at that size. Perhaps one of these guys has Tyrann Mathieu's quickness and physicality on the edge but it remains to be seen. If they do...obviously K-State will be in great shape here.

As I've hinted in describing Truman's numbers from 2014, the K-State defense can't get by with just fielding solid role players at every spot who can do their job and little else. If your plan is to go the distance with Apollo Creed and either win a knockout late or win by decision then you can't just take punches the entire match.

The KSU defensive approach requires athletes that can make plays while adhering to the strict discipline of the scheme. Linebacker is a place where this has to be true as these players regularly have opportunities to diagnose plays and make tackles in the backfield or near the line of scrimmage.

Currently the Wildcats have a large number of players that could be expected to be reasonably good as role players who understand run fits and how to pattern-read from their base coverages. Returning part-time starter Will Davis is such a player and seems to be the favorite to take over for Truman while former sam linebacker/3rd down specialist Elijah Lee has been moved to weakside linebacker.

This new tandem may upgrade the run defense as they go 6'3" 218 pounds (Lee) and 6'0" 224 (Davis) whereas last year the KSU LB corps weighed in at 6'3" 205 (Johnson) and 5'10" 210 (Truman) and could be more physical and explosive in the box. The big question is whether either of them can handle running in space as Truman was regularly asked to do in 2014.

The Wildcats also depend on getting a pass-rush from the defensive ends. These guys are certainly helped by the fact that the Wildcats are very meticulous and skilled in pattern-reading in cover 4 or cover 2 and forcing the QB to either hold the ball, try to throw it outside the hash marks, or work his way down the progressions to the check downs.

The 2012 Big 12 champion K-State defense got 17.5 sacks combined from ends Adam Davis (7) and Meshak Williams (10.5). In 2014 they did reasonably well with 21.5 sacks from their top four pass-rushers with Ryan Mueller leading the way with 6.5, the Jordan Willis/Marquel Bryant timeshare across from him adding 10.5, and 3rd down specialist Elijah Lee adding 4.5 more.

The Wildcats usually end up seeing at least one DE emerge in a big way every season. With Willis and Bryant both returning, along with former Kansas HS star Tanner Wood who could be dominant at the position before he's finished his college career, you figure KSU will get the needed pass-rush.

They also have been getting a respectable push from 3-technique DT Travis Britz who should have a strong senior year playing next to returning nose tackle Will Geary.

Geary is one of the fun but typical storylines that comes out of Manhattan every year. He's a former walk-on that stands at about 6'0" flat, if even that, and weighs just a little under 300 pounds. He's a former state wrestling champ and clearly finds that the skills learned in that sport translate to battling double teams at nose tackle. As a redshirt sophomore, Geary is going to be around for years to come helping the Wildcat DL cover up their linebackers.

The counter-punch

A fascinating aspect of the 2015 KSU defense is how often they use the blitz to attack opponents now that Elijah Lee is playing weakside linebacker. One of the Wildcats preferred ways to attack opponents in 2014 was to bring Randall Evans off the strongside while stunting Ryan Mueller inside into the B-gap, which the senior defensive end excelled at doing.

In 2015 the Wildcats may be stronger at bringing the weakside blitz with Lee.

That's about as simple as blitzes get but you get Elijah Lee, one of the DEs, and Travis Britz potentially attacking only two offensive lineman with very favorable angles.

Blocking this blitz would require either a really good zone protection scheme from the offense, a quick pass to the flat against KSU's good corners (if it's McDaniel over there I think the receivers would prefer that you didn't), or using the RB to pick up Lee on the blitz. None of those are particularly appealing solutions.

The only issue here for KSU is that they already have a pretty effective weakside blitz option by bringing McDaniel off the boundary edge. It's always nice to have multiple players that can be used to attack an offense but the Wildcats could really use a good blitzer on the strongside at middle linebacker, nickel, or strong safety. Again you wonder if the Wildcats should consider moving McDaniel to nickel and increasing the angles from which they can attack the offense.

However DC Tom Hayes chooses to attack opponents though, he should be able to do it more effectively with both cornerbacks returning, Barnett ball-hawking from the middle of the field, and Elijah Lee factoring into the equation as a blitzer.


If we could sum up the KSU defensive strategy it would be:

1. Lock down the middle of the field with athletic linebackers and safeties playing a limited number of pattern-read coverages with the same personnel all the time and running to the football as a group.

2. Protect these athletes with a sturdy DL that can generate a pass-rush and eat space inside.

3. Kill drives by forcing the offense to throw inefficient passes outside against good corners or else inflicting negative plays through the pass-rush or extraordinary play from the inside core.

The Wildcats actually look stronger on points two and three than in many previous seasons with most of the questions concerning whether they can replace their losses at linebacker and safety and get the same kind reliable play from the up and coming athletes on the team that they got from players like Evans or Zimmerman.

If you're willing to give Snyder the benefit of the doubt there then you have to consider the possibility that this could be one of the Big 12's best defenses in 2015.

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