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Skyler Cracraft's WSU chalk talk: The how's and why's behind the front 7 shifts on Cougar D

PULLMAN – The pre-snap movement Cougar Nation has seen from the Washington State front 7 on defense is one of the key components to defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s scheme. It’s actually something Grinch has been running from the day he first arrived in Pullman. But it’s been seen far more frequently this season than last. Here are the how's and why's behind the ever-shifting Cougar defensive front.

Many teams across the country run some sort of movement or shift by the defensive line and/or front seven -- but at different levels of complexity. It’s one of those tools where if you’re going to use it, you have to execute it well and it has to become second nature – or you don’t want to run it at all.
One thing is certain in my book – there aren’t many similar to what Grinch does at WSU when it comes to shifts. We’ll get to that in a moment.
Simply put, shifting the front seven pre-snap can cause a lot of issues for offensive coordinators. There are a lot of moving parts, and with less than a week to prepare for each game – it can take an extensive amount of time to be able to dissect, understand and teach players exactly how such an animal works. If offensive coordinators can’t fully flesh it out within the short time frame of game week, it’s pretty tough for them to coach how to beat it – especially when it comes to an offensive line.

“We do very simple things for our guys that look quite hard for the guys that are looking at it," linebackers coach Ken Wilson told me after Thursday's practice. "So while our guys are moving around a little bit, they know where they’re going.”
On every play, each offensive lineman has (obviously) a blocking responsibility. But when the defense moves around before the snap, it changes each blocker’s job – it suddenly forces them to prepare for movement, and sometimes just a heartbeat before the snap.

If the offense isn’t prepared for the shift, it’s usually a win for the defense – Cougar fans saw this several times vs. Oregon where there was eye-popping penetration upfield and multiple plays stopped in the backfield. Sometimes the WSU front didn’t even need to shift, just the possibility of it did damage of its own.
Here’s a look at one of the shifts the Cougs ran against the Ducks:

That's a lot of moving bodies. And that doesn’t even include what might happen after the snap – with stunts, twists and/or blitzes. So you can see how complex the whole package can become for an offense. The amount of possibilities Grinch can run here are nearly endless. And that is by design.
Grinch can shift the defense and play straight up, with no blitzes or stunts – or – he can shift the defense, then run twists and bring an extra man on a  blitz – or – he can line up in the base without shifting and bring the house – or – he can shift the front, then drop eight into coverage … and on and on.
The point here is that Grinch can run any play he wants, and shifting the front seven only adds to the confusion for offense (and its coaches).

“We feel like it puts more pressure on other offenses -- and it kind of makes our defensive play more of an offensive play, each play," said Wilson. "...Any time you can move the front and put hesitation in offensive linemen and you can move guys around and just slow them down -- ‘cause they don’t quite know where you’re going, they can’t just tee off on your front and on your 'backers," said Wilson. "Sometimes we move them, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we stunt, sometimes we don’t - we change our fronts up. And all of those things, while it takes a little more teaching for our guys.”
Something important to note: The defense does not shift on every single play no matter what, although I’m sure it has felt that way to some viewers this season. I’m sure there is some target percentage number for the amount Grinch’s defense shifts pre-snap --  just as there’s a percentage for the amount of times he wants to blitz during the formulation of that week’s game plan. And that’s something else o-coordinators have to prepare for.
But Grinch is having his front 7 shift more than ever before. Many teams move their front seven pre-snap, but not often to this degree. Grinch wants this technique down to a science among his charges, and he reps it with the Cougar players every single day in practice. I’ve seen it more times than I can count while covering practice for
Grinch’s body of work at WSU shows that his front seven scheme works (for the most part, no scheme is ever perfect). Last season the Cougs ranked No. 8 in the land in tackles for loss, and No. 2 in the Pac-12 (7.8).  On the other hand, they ranked 92nd in rushing defense – so there were, and are, clearly still kinks to work out.
One thing to consider about the defensive shifts when it comes to Saturday’s game vs. Stanford. Card head man David Shaw remembers very well how much trouble the Cougar defense gave him last year.
“Defensively, you know as our film last year attested – they took it to us pretty good,” Shaw said post-practice on Tuesday. “They have guys now. They have big guys, physical guys up front. They have an interesting scheme. It’s a different scheme – a lot of movement that causes offenses fits. They are a good football team.”
To me this sounds like Shaw might still be a little concerned about all the “movement.”
Come Saturday, we will find out just how ready the Cardinal are for these Cougs. There’s a lot on the table for WSU in this one. And for Stanford too -- although one could also argue Stanford’s playoff hopes, and Pac-12 title dreams, have become reverie with one loss already in Pac-12 North play.

RELATED STORY: Wednesday's CF.C practice report


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