Art of Deception: Scheming from the 30 Front

When Florida quarterback Rex Grossman stepped to the line of scrimmage against Tennessee in the 2001 showdown at the Swamp, he must have been tempted to rub his eyes, hoping to clear his vision, like a quarterback on cough syrup watching late-night game film.

Otherwise, it was impossible to explain what was appearing before his eyes. Was it a hallucination or did Tennessee's defense actually morph from its 3-5 alignment into a 2-6 in the instant it took 6-6, 300-pound tackle John Henderson to abandon his down position and transform into a standup middle linebacker — poised to pressure the passer or absorb the short middle zone where his height, width and wing span posed an uncommon obstacle.

Suddenly, instead of simply playing football, Grossman was engaged in a high stakes shell game as Tennessee's D ingeniously took on different looks, going from a base four-man front into a 3-4 and into an eagle look. The sometimes reviled 3-5-3 mustang package suddenly had only two defensive ends in the down position, then at the snap of the ball the Vols sent six men after Grossman with an overload on the right side that sprung Jabari Greer on a corner blitz. Florida's timing was disrupted, the ball deflected and intercepted with 3:03 remaining in the first quarter. Tennessee quickly converted the turnover into a touchdown and a 14-0 lead.

The bold move caught the Gators by surprise and their high-powered offense sputtered when Steve Spurrier stepped on the gas. The Vols had seized the initiative and wrestled away early momentum. They would capitalize on the early advantage and, ultimately, beat the Gators at their own game, by forcing Florida into a catch-up mode. Once the Gators dumped their ground game, Tennessee's D turned up the heat and Grossman never found that fun-and-gun tempo to which Florida's offense likes to march.

Instead, the Gators vaunted offense became a one-dimensional attack that lacked the balance needed for tactical superiority. Tennessee's 34-32 victory ended Florida's home win streak over the Vols that stretched back to 1971. It also demonstrated UT defensive coordinator John Chavis' ability as an innovator and underscored the importance of deception on defense in a era of high-powered offense.

Those latter revelations might reveal a lot about Tennessee's defensive approach this season, specifically regarding the Vols use of the 3-4 scheme. It was something Tennessee planned to implement last season before injuries blunted its stinger. The alignment only made a fleeting appearance as Tennessee's rebuilt defensive front proved solid and the linebacker corps was depleted by the loss of Kevin Burnett, Kevin Simon and Robert Peace.

The 3-4 would take some pressure off Tennessee's untested tackles while shifting the load to the linebackers which comprise the Vols deepest and most talented unit. It would also afford Chavis an opportunity to stretch his imagination and disguise his strategic intent. The aim is to prevent opposing quarterbacks from getting a pre-snap read and changing to a pre planned and well rehearsed option. Now instead of simply checking the safety and reading the coverage on the corners, the quarterback has to decide who's the drop linebacker and who's the rush linebacker. Or will both outside linebackers drop in coverage while an inside backer blitzes up the middle? Or will both LBs storm the pocket from the edge collapsing the QB's arc of protection and invading his comfort zone?

Without a reliable pre-snap read an offense is deprived of a substantial portion of its game plan and forced into alignments that require shifts of personnel. The more speed a defensive coordinator has at his disposal, the better the deception works and the more likely the offense will be stuck with a play that is defeated before the snap.

Suffice it to say: it's next to impossible for an offense to find a rhythm and sustain long drives under such unfavorable conditions. The key to making such a defensive scheme work is designing the proper run fits for the front seven which normally entails single-line movements with one of the tackles slanting or shading the strong side. Sometimes the entire front line might slant at the snap, but this stunt makes it more difficult for the linebackers to maintain their run fits. In either case, the purpose is to take the gaps taken away and force the runner to go east and west. That allows the defense to use its speed in pursuit.

Perhaps the best thing about the 3-4 vs. 4-3 is that the principles remain the same — only the personnel changes. That means defenders are familiar with their responsibilities and instinctive in their movements. In either scheme, the onus is on the corners to stay locked in man coverage allowing an extra defender to come up in run support or to rush the quarterback.

Playing press coverage on the corners means applying pressure up front. The two processes are indivisible; the success of one is dependent on the success of the other. Basically, you're charging your corners to maintain effective coverage thus allowing the D-line time to collapse the pocket. The combination should take away the seven-step drop and force the offense into shorter pass routes. Eventually the offense becomes so condensed it implodes.

During Chavis' tenure as defensive coordinator, UT has always been among the SEC leaders in run defense and quarterback sacks. The Vols have also been susceptible to big plays which is the risk you run with press coverage and deploying a safety in run support. However, you're willing to give up the occasional big play to force offensive inconsistency.

In addition to the 3-4 Tennessee will likely make liberal use of the Mustang package which features six DBs with three down linemen and a pair of linebackers. The Vols might also use the nickel package with five DBs and three linebackers given the strength and versatility of their LBs. Jonathan Wade and Mark Jones cover a lot of ground in little time, making it difficult for passers to pick out open receivers or establish any rhythm.

A nickel package also allows Tennessee to attack the passer with a pair of linebackers and three down linemen. Considering that two of those linemen will be defensive ends, the Vols can put four speed rushers in hot pursuit from the snap of the ball while leaving another backer in the middle to defend the draw. Either the dime or nickel looks permit the Vols to use a combination of man and zone coverage which further confuses quarterbacks and creates turnovers.

This season Tennessee doesn't have the proven players in the middle to this point it has enjoyed in the past, so the key to making the pressure defense work might be in Chavis disguising his schemes while getting his best athletes on the field. That makes the three-man front an intriguing alternative and practical solution.

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