With the pervasiveness of the "spread" offense, coaches at nearly every level are trying to figure out the best way to defend this type of attack.
With the idea that the offense is trying to spread a team out, defensively, many schools have sought out better ways to stretch their base defense, so that simply the alignment pays attention to some of the problems this quickly-growing offense poses.
The 4-3 defense has become almost the standard for football teams nowadays, coaches looking at the potential of having an effective four-man line backed up by three linebackers, the two on the outside being the more athletic of the trio.
What has become quite apparent when facing these offenses, however, is if your front four can't get penetration and put pressure on quarterbacks who are mostly lining up in a shotgun formation, the effectiveness of the linebackers changes dramatically.
And like most philosophies in football, and that's on both sides of the ball, it becomes a numbers game.
The 4-3 became the standard, because before the epidemic-like growth of the spread offense, defenses based much of their philosophy on defending a run-first mentality. While teams can still run very effectively out of the spread, the idea as to how to minimize the effectiveness of this offense came down to reversing the mind-set to a degree.
For many teams who now use the 3-4 defense, the down linemen basically become gap-control, where their primary focus is to occupy the offensive line.
The nose tackle has two-gap responsibility, covering the gaps on either side of the center. And the two defensive ends occupy the gaps on either side of the tackle. The idea is not necessarily for the defensive linemen to get penetration. It's first and foremost a design to let the four linebackers, all ideally very athletic with good side-to-side speed, become the focal point in how they are trying to disrupt the quarterback.
One key advantage of this alignment is that while it's a base 3-4 front, you will often see the defensive coordinators rush four players to the ball. Out of this formation, that gives you the luxury of being able to come on a blitz from either side, without being forced into man-coverage.
Being able to disguise the blitz in such a way is very effective, because a quarterback has a very small window of time to make his decisions, and if you disguise the blitz well enough, it puts the QB in lower percentage situations when they are trying to get rid of the ball quickly.
Also, if one of your outside backers, which is generally lined up closer to the line of scrimmage as it is, does come on the blitz, instead of having just the one inside backer taking up that zone between the hashes in the short field, you have two, whose job it is to stay inside to stop the run, but will ideally have the athleticism to move around within those zones quickly once they recognize the play as a pass.
Head Coach Bill Callahan said of Kansas State 's defensive philosophy, that it varies in how the formation is set up, but its multiplicity is impressive. "It's interesting. They have a different mix of the "34" and the "42", so we are going to see both the odd and even front," he said. "When you play a 34 defense, they give you a lot of different combinations of stunts and blitzes that go along that alignment. They can two-gap. They can one-gap. They can bring both backers from the outside, both backers from the inside - a combination thereof or all of them."
There is a downside to this defense as there is with any defense, and like all others, it's dependent on the execution of its personnel.
If the three-man front can't occupy those linemen and execute their gap responsibility, the linebackers will have to spend more time guarding against the inside runs. The backers have to be able to run-free, for a lack of a better way of putting it, which means that the three down linemen have to occupy at least four of the offensive linemen, if not all five.
Otherwise it becomes a domino effect, one linebacker having to go away from being able to read and react to a play and having to mind for potential weaknesses on the interior of the line. You then have the other inside linebacker covering a third of the zone instead of a quarter of it as they do in ideal situations.
The more ground one player has to cover, the more of an area there is on the field which is vulnerable for an offense to try and take advantage of if they can.
And teams who see this type of base front are going to try and maximize what they can do with an inside running game, because simply from the alignment of this defense, the inside comprises the path of least resistance.
Some teams have had success with that philosophy against Kansas State this season, Oklahoma State in particular, which was able to rush for almost 330 yards, mostly utilizing the mind-set of staying inside and running downhill. And that was with senior nose tackle Steven Cline, who was lost to the Wildcats for the season last week, during the third quarter against Iowa State . Cline ended the season with 24 tackles, 2.5 sacks and one interception.
His spot will be taken over by junior Steven Balkcom, who is similar in weight to Cline, both tipping the scales at around 280 pounds. But Balkcom is 6 foot tall, compared to Cline, who is 6-2. Balkcom has played in all nine games this year and has 14 tackles to his name and one quarterback hurry.
The Husker Head Coach took notice of the Wildcats losing their anchor in the middle, but remarked that his back up and help on the outside, aren't bad themselves. "I see a tough-physical defense (and) a very competitive front," Callahan said of KSU. "They lost their nose tackle, but they have a hell of a nose tackle as their back up.
"They've taken on a lot of different styles of offenses in recent weeks. The I-formation from Colorado , the spread from Baylor and I thought KU did a pretty good job spreading them out. So, it's interesting all the styles they have had to defend, so it's going to be interesting to see how they match up against what we've got this Saturday."
Husker quarterback, junior Joe Ganz will fortunately not be going into his first start of the year against this type of defense, because of all the different looks they can give you at the line. Kansas , which Ganz faced last week, actually gave Ganz a few more zones than expected to exploit, the first-time starter throwing for over 400 yards and four touchdowns. Ganz had four interceptions as well, but three of those came in a situation where the Huskers were behind considerably on the scoreboard and the inexperienced QB was obviously pressing, trying to make plays which simply weren't there. With that game under his belt and providing the Husker defense improves, he'll hopefully not be put in a similar situation.
Like any system out there and on either side of the ball, its success will always be dependent on the personnel it has. The KSU defense has quality outside backers, especially junior Ian Campbell, who tore up the conference last year, ranking second in the league in sacks, totaling a whopping 11.5.
Because of his move outside, his numbers have gone down, but Callahan sees him still as one of the more potent defensive weapons you'll see. "Campbell, I think is a premier defensive end in this conference. Another fellow, ninety-five (Rob Jackson) – both guys have the ability to squeeze the pocket and put pressure on the quarterback."
Kansas State ranks second in the conference in sacks with 25 on the season. They are led by junior linebacker Reggie Walker, who has three on the year.
Like any defense or any offense trying to be effective against one, your philosophy has to override theirs. Kansas State's will ride on the three-down linemen trying to occupy as much of the offensive line as they can, and the linebackers will either feed off their success or be relegated to duty inside if there is a lack of it.
The Nebraska offensive line has steadily gotten better throughout the season, both in blocking the run and protecting the quarterback. But instead of facing down-to-down a four-man line as they are used to, and knowing that there will be someone coming off the edge, those situations will be much harder to read and defend against, because they won't know when it's coming or where it's coming from.
That puts the onus on the quarterback to make the right calls at the line and on the linemen themselves to recognize where the pressure is coming from. And obviously, the tight ends and backs will be required throughout the course of the game, to chip some of these guys on the blitz.
Because the blitz can come from so many spots and is a little easier to disguise in this formation, everyone's head is going to have to be on a swivel, making sure to try and avoid the rush and expose the open zones on the field.