Inside the Game: Defense 101 vs. OSU

I’m writing this piece specifically for Longhorn fans who don’t have an in-depth knowledge of the game in respect to the responsibilities and techniques of the first two levels of defense. Hopefully, this will enable you to enjoy and appreciate the Oklahoma State game (and beyond) from a different perspective.

Texas runs an aggressive gap control defense. This is a "best of both worlds" approach to getting off the ball aggressively and reading offensive maneuvers on the move. Greg Robinson's guys get off the ball hard and quick at the snap so that they can get into the backfield and disrupt plays, yet they are assigned very specific areas of control in a fluid and dynamic environment.

To better understand the areas of responsibilities, I need to show you where these are. Bear Bryant developed a numbering system so he could tell his defensive players where to line up in his variety of fronts. I’ve personally worked under three different numbering systems: Bryant’s, Phil Snow’s (when he was at ASU), and some hybrid made to "make it easier." I’ll use Coach Bryant’s, since it is the most common, and the one you will hear or read about virtually all of the time. The number given is where the defender’s helmet should align with respect to the opposing offensive lineman. It should be noted that coaches tweak this all the time, for example giving a young player a wider alignment so that he has more time to read the offensive blocking scheme. The system is the same for both sides of the center and goes like this: 0 = head up on the center, 0 strong = shade (aligned on the shoulder) of the TE side, or an otherwise designated strong side shoulder of the center, 0 weak = shade on the weak-side shoulder of the center, 1 = inside shade of guard, 2 = head up on guard, 3 = outside shoulder of guard, 4 = inside shoulder of offensive tackle, 5 = outside shoulder of tackle, 6 = head up on TE, 7 = inside shade of TE, 9 = outside shade of TE, and 8 = a technique used against an unbalanced line (2 TE ) or in some cases, a defender brought up to the LOS and positioned on a "ghost" lineman.

Coach Bryant used these numbers to align all of his front 7 defenders. He could call the alignment of the strong side end and the weak-side tackle and all of the other players could fall into place. Common calls back then were "91" and "73". The "91" call would place the strong end (called the stud) at the 9 technique, outside shade of the TE. And it would place the weak-side tackle (often called the nose tackle) at the 1 technique, inside shade of the weak-side guard. To understand how the others would fall into place, I need to mention their responsibilities by naming the gaps.

A gap is the area between two blockers. The area between the center and the guard is the A-gap, between the guard and the tackle is the B-gap, between the tackle and the TE is the C-gap and outside of the TE is the D-gap. This too, is the same on either side of the center.

In the example above, the "91" alignment, the positioning of these players takes care of two gaps. The 9 technique takes the strong-side D-gap, and the 1 technique takes the weak-side A-gap. Provided that there is only one TE, that leaves 5 gaps to be filled by 5 defenders. In a base 4-3 alignment (different than UT's), you would see the 5 defenders fall into these gap responsibilities: SAM 'backer align at linebacker depth over the strong-side C gap, the DT would align in a 3 technique in the B gap, the Mike 'backer over the strong-side A-gap, the Will 'backer over the weak-side B gap, and the end in the C gap outside the tackle in a 5 technique. The "73" call would move everyone but the weak-side 5 technique. Can you see how? Try it on paper, and you’ll get a feel for gap control defense.

By the way, the Horns play the SAM on the line in the 9 technique and the strong-side end in a 7 or a 5. It’s still a 4-3 defense, but it looks like a 5-2 without considering the alignment of the strong safety. Texas does this so to have 5 men on the line versus the run and still get 3 linebackers into pass coverage versus the pass. It’s kind of like Texas gets 8 potential players out of 7 real players. In my opinion, learning this play of the SAM position was the toughest transition from Coach Reese to Coach Robinson. That’s a tough read for SAM. He has to play strong versus run, and quickly read pass and get back to his zone or cover his man versus pass. This is very difficult in the heat of battle, and requires mucho reps. It’s great NFL training though, and we should see many awesome recruits come in and try it.

Now let’s earn those scholarships. Take everything I said about gaps, and write it in Chinese with a stutter. That’s what a good offensive coordinator is going to do this Saturday against the Horns. A good coordinator can’t be appreciated by watching the ball. Watch how he tries to create seams or creases in the Texas front. He will pull linemen, have them cross block, trap, veer, kick, zone, base, tackle-trap, trap from the inside and from the outside, double team, combo, jump through, stretch, etc. etc. (at last count, there’s at least 23 schemes!) If you don’t know what those mean, that’s OK, I’ll explain some when I write about the game. Just remember, the Horns have to control their gap REGARDLESS of who is blocking them. The Longhorn linebackers fly to the ball. One of the reasons they can do this is because they know where their help is. They know they can attack a B gap, because they know their tackle has the A and their end has the C. If these get messed up, you’ll see long runs, and then you’ll see timid fills by these outstanding linebackers.

Aaaahhh, but here’s the good news. I’ve been amazed at the learning rate that Coach Robinson has produced. With a few good rules for each position, and an understanding of "alarms" to false keys (tricks to throw off our reads or analysis), a defense can stay sound against anything an offense can throw at it. Thank God for the rule that mandates seven men on the line of scrimmage and only one in motion at a time. Those are the only anchors to these coordinators’ imagination. I’m impressed with this D's understanding of the game. When was the last time you saw a lost and confused defender? Now, can Texas stay sound and finally physically whip a physical running game from north of the border? It’s hittin' weather boys…

Tom McLaughlin has coached high school football in the Phoenix area, coaching OL, DL, LBs and serving as both a defensive coordinator and head coach. McLaughlin also contributes on the Inside Texas message boards under the handle of Hitwrapdrive. His "Inside the Game" column appears periodically during football season on

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