OREGON STATE DEFENSE: FIFTH DOWN AND TEN

BEAVER NATION HAS watched, frustrated, as the Oregon State D struggled to handle today's diverse Pac-12 offensive attacks. Former DC Mark Banker’s stop corps enjoyed a period of dominance as his gap-cancellation scheme, featuring a ferocious pass rush, suffocated Pac-10 pass-happy pro sets. But then came the spread option, and the Pac-12. So what's in store for BeavFans under Gary Andersen?

Note: This story was originally published right as news broke that Kalani Sitake had been hired as the new defensive coordinator at Oregon State. We didn't want it to get lost in the shuffle so we're republishing it, and we're making it free.

Not that long ago, the Beaver run defense was stout, year in and year out -- built on fast outside linebacker-types like Keith Ellison, a former JUCO safety. 'Take safeties and make them outside linebackers, take outside linebackers and make them defensive ends. Get as many wide body defensive tackles as you can to eat up space in the middle of the line and string the play to the sidelines.' It worked well.

But then came the offensive schemes that preyed on overaggressive defenses... then came the cutback lanes that sucked those fast outside linebackers down into the wash so they can hit the corner. The speed, the '11 hats swarming to the ball,' the strength of Banker’s 4-3 scheme suddenly became a liability.

Indeed, the defense built on the tenet of stringing plays to the sideline and winning the speed contest was now facing an offense that sought to turn the game into a track meet in winning the race to the corner.

To be fair, there were other factors. Banker once rigidly insisted that he did not need a nickel package, that the 4-3 base defense he used was the best option and he wanted his best defense on the field at all times. But after being repeatedly scorched by slot receivers going against outside linebackers, Banker brought in some nickel packages -- and the Beaver defense again enjoyed a period of success.

And it’s possible Banker was even now on the verge of putting together another wrinkle that would allow the Beavs to run with the lightning pace Pac-12 squads that are today so en vogue. In fact, up until Noke Tago and Jalen Grimble were taken down by some (highly) questionable techniques taught by USC’s o-line coach that effectively shuttered the rest of their 2014 seasons, the OSU defense had managed to raise some eyebrows.

Unfortunately, the Beaver offense couldn’t get off the ground. But that’s another conversation for another day.

So now the Beavers under new head man Gary Andersen find themselves at a bit of a crossroads. Andersen has not yet landed his defensive coordinator, so naturally there's been loads of speculation about the future of the defensive base set. Initially, the speculation was that Andersen plans on using a blitz-heavy 4-3 defense but the cognoscenti keeps seeing different signs…

...Signs that CGA will eventually install a 3-4 defense as he reinvents, and puts his own stamp on, the Oregon State Football program.

Andersen has repeatedly shown throughout his career a bright, innovative defensive mind. He was the architect of Utah’s ferocious defenses under Urban Meyer, orchestrating the upset of Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. He has built stout defenses at Utah State and Wisconsin, and it stands to reason that he will boost the Beaver defense as well.

For the chalkboard junkies, we are pretty well-acquainted with the 4-3 defense but what do we know about the 3-4 defense? Well, if you’re interested, here is a history lesson.

The “original” 3-4 defense was Bud Wilkinson’s Okie 5-2 front. See, prior to the offensive renaissance that was the forward pass, offenses typically only threw the football a handful of times per game. The 5-2 front was the staple of defenses all around both college and pro football. Defensive lines basically mirrored the offensive line - there was a defensive center (nose guard), two defensive guards, and two defensive tackles.

As offenses evolved to add new “gimmicks” (like lining up receivers out wide and throwing the ball more than five while times a game) you would see defensive centers dropping back to cover short passing routes over the middle. Eventually they stopped dropping back and just began lining up a few yards off the line of scrimmage - and the definition of the middle linebacker allowed the one-gap 4-3 defense to crawl out of the primordial ooze.

But the Sooners’ head man had a different idea. Instead of dropping his center back, Wilkinson favored dropping both guards back to play inside linebacker, leaving his remaining 3 defensive linemen with two-gap responsibility. The center had both A-gaps, the ends had B- and C-gap responsibility on their side of the line. Bud called it the “heads up technique” - the defensive lineman would mirror the offensive lineman and read the play through the man. If the offensive lineman stepped left, he stepped left and maintained his two-gap responsibility. The guards were left uncovered.

You may find yourself wondering what the upside is to this fundamental change - here comes your AHA! moment: Offenses of the day were utilizing off-tackle runs and (drumroll please) option attacks that were dominating the college football landscape in those days. Big and fast running backs like Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson were taking over college football and the Okie 5-2 gave defenses a leg up in defending the edge by commanding double teams, and freeing up linebackers to make plays on the ballcarrier by eliminating potential blockers.

And it worked. It worked extremely well against the ground-oriented offenses that dominated both college and pro football. Three yards and a cloud of dust between the tackles was quickly giving way to Franco Harris and the Juice outrunning defenses to the edge and turning the corner, where they faced defensive backs instead of defensive tackles and their combination of size and speed made them a difficult matchup. Now, the 3-4 gave defensive coordinators leverage to play with -- they had their outside linebackers walk down to the line of scrimmage and create a 50 front (3 interior linemen and 2 big hybrid defensive end types in a 2-point stance).

So offenses in turn evolved. Savvy offensive coordinators realized that a two-gap technique only gives a defensive lineman one tool in his toolbox to attack the passer: A good bull rush.

There’s a funny thing about that: Bill Parcels called it “Planet Theory." As in, there are only so many human beings on the planet that can fill that role. It’s not easy to find a guy big and strong enough to overpower the man in front of him, be able to control the gap on both sides of him, and then quickly shed the one (or two) blockers he is currently occupying and get to the quarterback. You don’t just bebop down to the Defensive Line Depot and toss a couple of Vince Wilfork's into your cart.

See, the Okie 5-2 version of the 3-4 defense is a conservative, containment defense. It’s great at grinding the run game to a halt, but you give the opposing QB all day long to go through his reads.

Enter Bum Phillips, the man who brought “He can take his’n and beat your’n, or he can take your’n and beat his’n” (speaking about Bear Bryant or Don Shula, depending on who you ask!) to the long list of great one-liners in the history of football. The iconic Texan, who coached the Houston Oilers into one of the NFL’s premier franchises during the 1970’s, took the two-gap scheme and put his own spin on it by making it a one-gap scheme.

The fundamental difference with Phillips' scheme is that instead of having all three defensive lineman play heads-up technique, he slid at least two, and sometimes all three, of his defensive linemen into the gaps. This allowed the defensive linemen to work their way into the backfield more aggressively, similar to the 4-3 defense that Beaver fans have become accustomed to in the last two decades since Jerry Pettibone and Bronco Mendenhall took their 3-3-5 with them at the conclusion of the 1996 season.

Bum played off the evolution of the defense as common sense, saying that coaching isn’t that complicated. “If you don’t got something, find something you do got.” Bum didn’t have three two-gap players, but what he did have was four really good linebackers, so he built a defense around that strength. Bum’s take on the 3-4 inspired copycats around the league - the NFL has always been a copycat league - but the real mad science experiment with the 3-4 was the Denver Broncos’ “Orange Crush” defense, under legendary defensive coordinator Joe Collier.

The Orange Crush was really the first multiple-front defense and was inventive in both alignment, lining up 3-4 personnel in what amounts to 4-3 formations. with the 3-4 over and 3-4 under, and in execution. Even when Denver lined up in the Oklahoma front, they still slanted to a single-gap assignment. It was a defense that was extremely effective against the run, but it came about at a time that the NFL was becoming a passing league, and Collier’s defense ranged from inconsistent to porous against the pass.

One could argue that the Denver 3-4 was ahead of its’ time (or maybe that there are no new ideas in football - what was old will someday become new again). By 1995, nobody in the NFL was running the 3-4 - it was seen as an archaic defense that gave way to the attacking, pass-rushing style of the 4-3. But a funny thing happened, as offenses featured more four- and five-receiver sets ... the rigid structure of the 4-3 began to be exposed. And particularly by slot receivers in the 4-wide sets.

If the line could protect just long enough to get the ball out to the receiver matched up with an old-school linebacker, it was off to the races. (At this point I would like to apologize in advance for dredging up memories of WSU fifth-year wide receiver Scott Lunde having the game of his life, blowing Beaver LB Trent Bray’s doors off repeatedly in Pullman in 2003. Hey, some wounds never heal).

Back to the present, it probably doesn’t matter much whether Andersen installs a 3-4 base defense or a blitz-happy 4-3 defense, as has been reported via unsubstantiated sources. Today, the lines have blurred so much that there isn’t a single defensive look: 3-4 defenses have 4-3 alignments and 4-3 defenses under former defensive coordinator Mark Banker disguised their 3-4 look with nickel, dime, and pass rush packages. And that is unlikely to change.

But understanding where the 3-4 came from, and looking at the evolution of the formation, is fascinating.

At times it has seemed like the 3-4 defense wouldn’t be a good fit in Corvallis. Conventional wisdom holds that the only way to make it work is with a 2-gap nose tackle anchoring the center of the line. But does that still hold true?

With the game moving towards wide splits on the offensive line and speed-oriented offenses using heavy doses of read-option, this writer is not so sure it does. In fact, it might be just the opposite.

Is it just me or has anyone wondered what a guy like Obum Gwacham might have done as a 3-4 OLB, instead of a spot 4-3 defensive end? The beauty of the modern 3-4 is that there is so much more flexibility in the personnel. You can build a defense that hides its weaknesses by playing to its strengths.

A fast defensive end who struggled with getting washed out of the play at the point of attack, or getting too wide with his angle at the passer, suddenly can shine being put out in space.

How many days until Spring Ball at Oregon State again?

BeaverBlitz Top Stories