Inside Army's Double Eagle Flex Defense

In speaking with media before facing Army, Tulane head coach Bob Toledo described the Army double Eagle flex defense. "They run a double-eagle flex defense that he installed when he was at Arizona. They called it the `Desert Swarm' at that time. I've coached against Rich numerous times, and I'll tell you what, it's the single most difficult defense we faced."

Fans always discuss the unique triple option system Army runs but sometimes fails to appreciate how unique the Black Knight defensive system is in college football. The defense was originally designed to defend in the pass happy Canadian Football League.

Rich Ellerson was introduced to the concepts as an assistant under Don Matthews for the British Colombia Lions After leaving to become the Calgary Stampeders defensive coordinator in 1986 Ellerson expanded and developed the system. After joining Hawaii's staff the defense was improved and the amount of coverages were increased.

The true double eagle flex was born in 1992 when Rich Ellerson brought his defensive template to Arizona and teamed up with defensive coordinator Lindy McDuff. Nicknamed the "Desert Storm" it dominated the PAC 10. Featuring four first-team All-Americans including Tedy Bruschi the Desert Swarm allowed just 8.9 points a game in 1992.

The '92 team allowed fewer than 10 points in seven out of 12 games. In 1993, the defense allowed a nation-best 30.1 rushing yards a game and collected 59 sacks, Arizona pounded and shutout Miami in the Fiesta Bowl. After becoming head coach at Cal Poly Ellerson's system produced school records for sacks and three consecutive Buck Buchanan award winners for the best defensive player in Division 1-AA. In 2009 after being hired as Army's head coach the double eagle flex once again brought immediate results. For the year the Black Knight s finished 16th overall in total defense. This unit was extremely well coached and finished an impressive third in team pass defense in the nation despite featuring a defensive backfield that had only pedestrian speed.

Let's look at how the player align themselves in the base flex formation. The glamour position in the double eagle flex is quick defensive end. This was the position NFL star Tedy Bruschi played when he recorded 20 sacks in 1993. At Cal Poly future NFL player Chris Gocong won the award in 2005 playing quick defensive end when he set a Division 1-AA season-record with 23.5 sacks and led the nation with 31 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

At Army the success continues as Josh McNary won honorable mention All -American and has set the Army all time record for sacks. The quick end lines up in a ghost 7 technique. He controls the weak side C gap and collapses the back against strong side runs. He is the primary pass rusher against the drop back pass. The quick end needs to be the best pass rusher.

Ellerson's defense has the strong side defensive tackle, bandit tackle, who plays a 3 technique and controls the B gap. The 3 technique is when the bandit tackle lines up in the B gap, but shifted over a bit towards the guard. You need quickness at that position because a 3-technique tackle is supposed to run through his gap immediately. He is a one gap player. His job is not to block or get tied up in a block, but rather to be athletic and get himself into the offensive backfield and disrupt the play.

Sophomore Jarrett Mackey has done a solid job at bandit tackle this year. The 6-2, 230 pound Mackey is undersized but is quick, rangy with good lateral quickness. Jarrett Mackey impressed at quick end during spring practice playing in place of McNary who was out recovering from off season shoulder surgery. Mackey is playing out of position and has been overmatched at the point of attack at times like the Temple game. However, as Rich Ellerson said he didn't want to have is one of the best defenders on the Army roster standing on the sidelines.

In the double eagle flex the nose tackle acts more like a traditional 3-4 nose guard. The nose tackle plays a 0 technique and at times is responsible for both A gaps to each side of the center. Mike Gann plays this position well. What's unique about the flex is they will slant their nose into the different gaps giving the center and guard various looks.

The other defensive end is senior Marcus Hilton. This is strong side defensive end plays a 7 technique. The "7" Technique has the defensive end line up at the inside of the tight end end, keying the offensive tackle His first responsibility is to jam and read the tight end. If the tight end blocks his job is to beat the block and find the ball. If the tight end releases and the offensive tackle blocks down he needs to close on the trap block. Otherwise Hilton should read and react. In the double eagle flex the strong end controls the C gap which is the gap between the tackle and tight end against the run. The defensive end contains the quarterback when he passes.

Moving to linebacker the quarterback of the defense is the whip linebacker. The whip is a lineman/ linebacker hybrid. The whip lines up just off the line with his toes even with the back of the nose tackle. The whip is responsible for securing the B gap against the weak side runs and the pursuit of strong side runs. His assignments vary against the drop back pass, but he does a lot of stunting. Losing junior Andrew Rodriguez to a back injury hurt Army at the whip position this year. Rodriguez was a smart, active playmaker. He was one of the best players on the defense in 2009 and was never out of position. He also made sure everyone else lined up correctly. His replacement sophomore Nate Combs suffered a season ending knee injury on the first defensive series of the year. Currently junior Chad Littlejohn mans the whip linebacker position. Littlejohn is a solid tackler but lacks athleticism and the instincts Rodriguez and Combs brought to the position.

The Mike linebacker is the double eagle flex's best run stuffing linebacker. The Mike linebacker plays like a traditional middle linebacker. He lines five yards off the line of scrimmage and just inside the offensive tackle. He is responsible for containing the outside on weak side runs and against strong side runs. He is responsible for protecting against the cut-back. Against the pass, the Mike linebacker covers his near back. The Mike linebacker is Army team captain Stephen Anderson Anderson is a tough, aggressive and super intense Mike linebacker who flies to the ball. It will be tough to replace him after he graduates.

The rover is a linebacker/defensive back hybrid who is positioned five yards off the line. The rover is just opposite the Mike linebacker and inside the opposite offensive tackle. The rover is responsible for containment on strong side runs as well as plugging any open gaps. On weak side runs, he gets downhill and protects against the cut-back. On passing plays, the rover covers his near back against two back sets. He is responsible for the extra receiver in aceback formations. For the last two years Steve Erzinger has started at rover. Erzinger had his finest game, dumb roughing penalty aside, in the Black Knights last game with Rutgers.

The base defense for the double eagle flex is Cover 1. Cover 1 uses one safety in deep coverage. The Cover 1 has the strong safety play closer to the line. This is commonly referred to as a defense having "eight men in the box" which simply means a combination of seven linemen and linebackers and a SAM safety closer to the line. This helps explain why historically the double eagle flex is a difficult defense to run on despite it's origins as a defense to defend against the pass in the Canadian Football League.

The secondary setup is pretty basic with a field cornerback and boundary side corner. The field corner is the most demanding position to play in this defense. The field cornerback has to be the best cover man because he will often be one-on-one with the best receiver and have no safety help. Those playing the field corner position at Army most often draw the ire of fans on the Black Knight Alley forum. Mario Hill received the grief last year when we was beaten a handful of times and Antuan Aaron who has been inconsistent is this year's target.

When asked about the corner play Rich Ellerson stated "maybe our expectation (after taking the Army job ) that the corner position (in the flex) may have been a concern. It really hasn't been. It's been well played." The boundary corner is typically responsible for jamming at the line of scrimmage and funneling the receiver to the free safety. Josh Jackson and Richard King have split time most of the time here.

The free safety typically lines up eight to twelve yards from the line of scrimmage and has center field duties against the pass. He also has to get up quick against the run to play the alleys. Donovan Travis despite not being a burner does an excellent job. Army' s pass defense struggled earlier in the year when Travis had shoulder problems that has limited his playing time. The strong safety is actually a hybrid safety/linebacker. Donnie Dixon is a solid player against the run but isn't that fast and struggles often in pass coverage. The Sam safety will line up in an 8 technique, usually line up outside tight end. Against a blocking tight end, the SAM safety secures the D gap. The gap outside of the tight end or between the offensive tackle and wide receiver. Against the pass, the SAM safety jams the tight end and funnels him inside to the free safety.

The double eagle flex features multiple fronts and blitzes. It is a pressure defense designed to confuse linemen and disrupt blocking schemes. Up front the defensive line employs a lot of stunts, slants and twists designed to create quick pressure. The double eagle flex is a rare defense that is very hard for offenses to read and exploit. The defense's multiple eight man front has made Army a much better team defending the run and creates a lot more sacks and negative plays than they did in the Brock and Ross eras.


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