Early down pressures have become a hot topic in the coaching world as more offenses are beginning to use analytics to structure their calls. For a modern defense, attacking an offense with pressure while holding coverage integrity is becoming a crucial piece of the defensive puzzle. Defenses opt to play Cover 1 to “X-out” any potential RPO threat and force QBs to run into loaded boxes.
The three-safety system is also starting to pick up steam as a base way of defending every type of offense, even “heavier” 12 and 21 personnel packages. Look across the college landscape, and what was once a novelty in Ames, Iowa, four years ago has become a “norm” at the lower levels. Outside of Ames, San Diego St. has been running their variation of the Odd Stack for decades under former Head Coach Rocky Long since 2009 (now New Mexico DC with a disciple of his in HC Danny Gonzalez).
The Aztecs’ three-safety defensive style is different from the Cyclones Tampa-2 based system and is much more complex in terms of how they adjust to particular looks. According to PFF, the system is pressure heavy, as SDSU finished in the top 10 in blitz rate in 2020. New DC Kurt Mattix hasn’t skipped a beat since Long left for Albuquerque. San Diego St. uses a mix of five and six-man pressures in front of man coverage to suffocate offenses on early downs. Bringing pressure on early downs allows the defense to stay ahead of schedule, making the offense predictable on 3rd Down.
One pressure the Aztecs used in their game against BYU illustrated what an early-down pressure should look like. For many three and four-down defenses, replacement pressures (Creepers) have become a popular way of attacking offenses. In a Creeper pressure, the defense brings a second or third-level defender and drops out a first-level defender into a zone (or as a RAT for crossers). Running these pressures allows the defense to hold coverage integrity (seven-man drop) while applying pressure on the offense.
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Another trend in college football is the use of Cover 1 when sending five or more. By running man coverage, defenses are ensuring there is no WR without a man on him. As the QB scans for leverage or “gift” read to throw an RPO, he sees no gaps in the coverage. Newly appointed Texas Head Coach Steve Sarkisian in this year’s Nike Coach of the Year clinic explained that the modern offense needs to carry concepts that can defeat both man and zone because of how defenses are beginning to shift their schemes.
San Diego St. aligns with this trend on defense and sends 5+ defenders regularly. Man coverage is ran behind many of their pressures to maximize the scheme. Running an Odd Stack (3-3-5) also allows the Aztec defense to play with leverages and send players from all over the defense. The use of line stunts is a bonus too, and you can play with the blocking of the O-line.
Below, the Aztecs used a pin-loop stunt along with edge pressure to create mismatches upfront for the BYU offensive line. “Pin” refers to the technique used by the Mike LB in the pressure. His goal is to engage a gap with tempo to hold the blockers on him. Then, with the O-line engaged, the DE will “loop” into the next gap. Bringing edge pressure along with the stunt can play with the blocking if the Center sticks to the Nose in the middle of the formation.
Before the ball is snapped, the Mike will creep down to a “mugged” position on top of the LG and insert with tempo into the B-gap. Off the edge, the DE will “stab” to the LT, ensuring his eyes are on him while the Will runs a ROSCOE or Rush-Outside-Contain path (COP for a D-linemen). The LT now has to decide how to play the two defenders coming at him. If the LT traces back with the DE, the Will is unblocked, which happens in the clip.
As the DE ripped across the LT’s face, he traced back and overtook the Mike. You can see the Mike pause and hold his gap; this is referred to as a “pin” technique. Though the LG took the looping DE, there was no one for the Will LB. As a result, the Will was able to work around the LT and sack the QB. For the Aztecs, this pressure is called WOLF SWITCH or THUMBS (the stunt). WOLF tags the pressure to the boundary or way from the RB (weak). When a defense gets man-blocking, as shown in the clip, looping or twisting stunts are a great way to attack the pass-protection.
For coverage, the Aztecs used a Cover 1 concept with the middle-safety or “Aztec” position as the post-safety. As the RB flared pre-snap, the Sam took him. BYU attempted to throw a screen or an RPO where the QB could run the ball if the Sam took the RB. In the case of the Cougs, the Sam took the RB, and the Will was left unblocked. A win for SDSU on an early-down with BYU backed up.
As stated prior, early-down pressures need to be universal in their usage, meaning they have to defend the run and the pass. The Aztecs’ pin-loop pressure does just that. Below, BYU runs a Stretch play from an 11 pers. 3x1 formation. Typically, the Stretch is to the TE in this formation, but the Cougs opt to run the play weak. As a result, the THUMBS stunt works to perfection, and no one blocks the DE.
SDSU’s stunt works because of the pressure from the Mike and the movement from the Nose. The Mike engages the Center while the Nose brings the RG with him as he is zoned. With the Center and RG occupied, there is no one for the DE looping into the A-gap. With the whole line zone-blocking to the weak side, the THUMBS stunt is almost unblockable. Even if the RG would have kept coming, the DE had leverage and could have ricocheted upfield, cutting off the RB.
Again, the coverage was Cover 1. Since the Cougs were aligned in an 11 pers. look, the Aztec Safety was able to mug the open B-gap while the Sam stayed in his stack. No O-linemen could come off their block, and both defenders were uninhibited as they traced the RB back to the weak side. Practical and straightforward, the pressure allowed the Aztecs to leverage the blocking of the BYU O-line against them and cut off any “gift” read pre-snap for a quick strike RPO pass. Another win on an early-down for Mattix and the Aztecs.
Pressures like WOLF SWITCH 1 allow the defense to attack the offense while holding coverage integrity. The pressure, in particular, can easily be converted into a Fire Zone (MOFC) or half-field Zone (MOFO). Winning early-downs is a topic that will only grow in popularity as defenses play catch-up to the ever-changing offensive scenes around the country. With more offenses playing fluid with their play calls and adjusting to what they see from the defense, Creepers and five-man pressures like the one illustrated are an easy and effective way to attack an offense on early downs.
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