X's and O's Mailbag: Def. Schemes - Part Two

In our new weekly series, GoBlueWolverine tackles your questions about anything football. Josh Turel and Victors Club Message Board poster "CoachBt" break down the onfield X's and O's. In part two of this edition, Josh Turel goes into more detail about the pros and cons of the 4-2-5.

This week's question was submitted by Victors Club Message Board poster. "rwburns819."

Question: What are the primary differences between a 3-4 defense and what we may see from Ron English's 4-2-5 front. What are the strengths and how would an offense attack each of the weak points. Looking at our personnel, which defense gets our 11 best players on the field?

For those that missed part one of this week's mailbag edition, click here.

Josh Turel

Part of Michigan's inspiration for utilizing this system comes from Ron English’s roots in it at Arizona State. The Sun Devils ran the 4-2-5 near the end of his tenure as secondary coach in Tempe. ASU was never great on defense while running this scheme, but it did improve over time.

As coachBt indicated in part one, the 4-2-5 is a system where an extra safety is substituted in place of a linebacker. This system is already run in the Big Ten by in-state brethren Michigan State, while Indiana has flirted with it as well. Variations of this defense are run by other programs across the country including LSU, Ole Miss, Notre Dame and TCU among others.

There are several strengths to using the 4-2-5 defense. The obvious benefit is that it makes the defense more athletic, but there are definitely more obscure benefits as well. Depending how the scheme is played, it will usually allow the coordinator to have eight men in the box. The strong safety and “hybrid” backer’ play on opposite ends of the formation. They position themselves near or at the same depth from the line of scrimmage and usually wider than normal outside linebackers. The advantage of having eight men in the box is the flexibility of disguising potential blitzes and giving the offense multiple fronts and confusing looks. It also gives you an extra man to defend the run (there are two safeties and two linebackers instead of three linebackers and a safety however).

From a coverage standpoint, the defense is better equipped against the pass. Instead of the offense motioning a running back out to get a match up with a linebacker, he'll now be covered by a more nimble hybrid safety. Also, with the strong safety and hybrid back on opposite ends of the formation, the defense does not have to change much should a receiver motion from one side to the other. Therefore pre-snap confusion and checking is reduced because the defense does not have to change much, if at all.

The 4-2-5 is also better equipped to handle the three and four wide receiver sets that are now commonplace in the Big Ten. There is less substituting and the extra safety is less of a mismatch than a traditional linebacker. The system can change to a nickel defense without having to substitute. While it still may be preferable to get another corner on the field in these situations, it isn't always necessary. That allows adjustments to be made on the field instead of the mass substituting you have seen in the past.

Along with the flexibility, coordinators have a certain amount of deception available to them. Since most 4-2-5’s line up with the strong safety and hybrid safety in the box, wide of the formation, and with the free safety in a mid-field type look, it looks to most offenses like a cover 3 or cover 1…and both defenses can be played from it. The system is still capable of a two-deep coverage, robber, or other coverage’s due to the defense moving into these looks right before the snap.

In most 4-2-5 schemes, much of the responsibilities are pre-set and are not influenced much by formation (strong side) or boundary side determination. Theoretically you could go to a 4-4, 5-2, or 4-3 front without having to substitute.

The downside to the 4-2-5 is run defense. On the inside, you need to have your linebackers making quick gap reads. A player like David Harris is capable of this but it is hard to find linebackers who can fill quickly and accurately enough in this scheme. If your linebackers cannot fill quickly in this scheme, you will struggle to control the inside all game long. The dive and draw plays are known to implode this system if your linebackers aren’t strong players. Another potential weak spot is defending against the outside run. Having the safeties outside helps, but if they are not able to anchor against the run and take on lead blockers, your defense will struggle on off tackle plays and any other run to the 5 or 6 hole. If the offensive line can get a body on one of your linebackers, particularly to the play side, the defense could give up some big runs. The philosophy is run at the safeties instead of letting them track you down in pursuit. You must also have safeties that can cover. You don’t have to substitute when you go to a nickel (five defensive back) package but it doesn’t do you much good if your safeties (that includes the third hybrid safety) aren’t strong in coverage because they will sometimes be manned up on a wide receiver.

Which base defense best suits the personnel is a great question, and one the Wolverines are likely trying to answer themselves. You can probably count out the 3-4 because of the wealth of talent up front. They could use this front sparingly but don’t expect it as a base defense. I would expect to see a 4-3 team that will mix in the 4-2-5. Which scheme wins out will be dictated by getting the best 11 players on the field. I think we will have to wait to see if they feel comfortable with their safeties and if there is enough depth there to start three of them. A lot will depend on the health of Ryan Mundy as well. Most of this will probably be decided in training camp and tweaked throughout the early portion of the year.

The 3-4 and the 4-2-5 share very little from a scheme standpoint, but are alike in one aspect of their implementations, and that is commitment to the system. That all begins with recruiting. A player like Ernest Shazor or Cato June would have been ideal for the extra safety role had that system been played while they were here. The type of player you are looking for to fill the third hybrid safety role in the 4-2-5 defense is tough to find because he must be very versatile. If he is going to succeed, he has to be able to be physical, play the run well, have good size and still be able to cover. That isn’t always easy to find but Michigan does have a few candidates in incoming freshman Jonas Mouton and 2007 commit Jerimy Finch.

Be sure to check out next week’s mailbag feature. In it we answer one users questions about option routes and just what makes the difference between and three and four star recruits.

Want to submit a mailbag question? Join us on our Victors Club messageboard or in our weekly chats held every Monday night at 9pm.

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