Defensive Fronts: Odd, Even, or Both?

With an entire new defensive staff on board at Washington, there are lots of questions and speculation from Dawg fans as to what they will be running on that side of the ball. Will they be a 34 or will they be a 43? We'll see with spring ball but it really doesn't matter what your base is because you really need a multiple defensive package to survive in this conference anyway.

Defensive Coordinator Justin Wilcox and linebackers coach Peter Sirmon are both coming off coaching stints at Tennessee where they had to have a defensive package that could adapt against what they saw offensively in the SEC. Offenses are distinctly different in the Pac-12, and both coaches will tell you the overall quarterback play in the Pac-12 is much better than that in the SEC (There could be as many as 2- 3 first round QB picks coming out of the Pac-12 this year, with upwards to 5-6 QB's selected overall).

I don't care what they say about the SEC being the premier conference in college football; the Pac-8/10/12 has traditionally turned out as many great quarterbacks as any league in America.

Even with great quarterback play, in order to win out west you still have to stop the run first. That usually takes an eight-man front, or at least having great fill players who can play in space (safeties and linebackers). The spread offenses obviously put a lot of stress on a defense being able to defend from sideline to sideline.

There are odd defensive line fronts like a 34, a 52 or 35, or any front where you have a man right on the nose of the center. If you have a dominating noseman he will usually demand a double-team, otherwise he totally disrupts an offense. The top rushing defenses in this conference last year were Stanford, USC, Utah and California, and all of them played one or all of these odd fronts. Stanford and Cal used the odd front as a base and slid it over to form an even front as a disguise. All of these teams held opponents to under four yards per rushing attempt, and they all finished with winning records.

The odd, or three-man front, also allows you the option to move the defensive tackles from outside nose of the offensive tackles to outside shade of the guards and create a double eagle, or 46 Chicago Bear look, covering both guards and the center. One of the real advantages of any of these defenses is that it keeps someone in the face of the offensive center. If you can get a mismatch there in terms of size or strength then it requires the offense to use a guard to help the center, therefore freeing up a linebacker. I think odd fronts are the best for stopping the run and for blitzing, because they usually have four to six men (in an "up" position) along the second layer of the defense.

Most of the time an "even" look, or four-man front, is shaded on the guards for single gap responsibility (usually towards the run strength), but they can be "over" to the wide side or to the tight end. This puts the two inside defensive tackles shaded one way or the other, or even "reduced" into a tilt on the backside of the center with two defensive ends also in a down position. Most of the time the defensive ends will play outside shade of the end man on the line of scrimmage, but can also align "wide" and give themselves a better angle on pass rush.

All defensive fronts start with a base read on the man immediately in front of each defensive lineman, but they can be also have pre-determined gap or slant stunts. In that way, an odd front can also become an even front with single direction gap control.

Essentially you get a better pass rush out of an even look simply because four is always going to be better than three. However, you can always add one or two - or even three or four - of your second-level players out of the odd look so then it gets back to what you are trying to play on the back end, or secondary.

Certain defensive fronts have been popular over the past decade, but the reality is nobody is doing anything different than many decades ago. An "over" 43 with a cover-2 or cover-4 zone behind it is probably the popular defense used in college.

Whatever your secondary call is often dictates the kind of pressure you can use and who applies that pressure. The easiest way to use pressure is with a man-to-man behind it or a man/free where your centerfielder (safety) is still playing a deep middle zone, so they could still help cornerbacks over the top if they needed help.

Philosophically, you can be a 2-deep, 3-deep, or a 4-deep zone team, or you can be a man-to-man team with specialty zones in terms all of those other coverages. Each coverage must have adjustments built in for 3x1 wide receiver sets, unbalanced sets, 2x2 sets, two tight end sets etc… Each call also has built-in adjustments, including any motion, shifts, or movements once the offense reaches the line of scrimmage.

Many coverages are actually combinations of two different concepts; for example, the use of cover-2/man - meaning the two safeties are taking deep halves and the underneath players are all hooked up man-to-man. Washington has been a 2- and 4-deep team the last decade, whereas we used to be more 3-deep and Man/Free with our variation of a cover-2. This often dictates what fronts you can use by numbers alone.

One of the major differences between what Washington has done defensively for the past decade or so and what we used to do in the eighties and nineties was that we played our cover-2 with the two corners taking inside leverage positions and back peddling inside to a 2-deep look. We would "rob" the number two receiver to the strong side, with one safety leaving the other to be a run filler. That gave us an 8-man front.

Coach Lambright took an offensive attitude to defense and forced the offenses to react to, at least honor the threat of a blitz as often as possible. What he wanted was the offenses to worry more about what we doing rather than the other way around. If you didn't account for all our rushers then we were going to hit your quarterback in the mouth. We attacked opponents' pass protection schemes by bringing one more guy then they had blockers, and we worked it with lots of man-to-man and man-combo coverages on the back end. We usually led the conference in tackles for loss and sacks. It was known as an "attack" philosophy, and the Husky fans ate it up.

Coach Lambright used a combination of an Over-4 with the Chicago Bear 46 defense, which essentially was a 5-man front covering the center and 2 guards - which we called Tuff. We blitzed a lot out of Tuff and almost always played Man/Free behind it. We would line up to inside shade of the tight end and play him man-to-man with the outside linebacker. That made it a 6-man front.

That all changed with Rick Neuheisel. Washington used a "Read, React, and Contain" defensive philosophy, and it has essentially remained that way through five straight defensive coordinators. Washington also went to an "over 43 front" because it fit well with the cover-2 or cover-4, which had also became the base coverages for the secondary.

Because of the spread-option and changes in offensive philosophy over the past decade, it has become more and more difficult for the defenses to catch up. The spread forces you to play in space, because you have to stop the bubble screen on the outside, while at the same time being option sound away from it. Most of those offenses come out of a zone blocking scheme, so offensive linemen have a simplified blocking system. Defensive football is all about matching up. You can't let the offense out-number you, but at the same time you want to have both a rush and coverage. The 43 gives you a 4-man rush with a 4-deep behind it.

One of the obvious drawbacks to a cover-4 is that you have to keep everything in front of you. This is precisely why it looked like Washington's secondary was so "soft". Cover-4 is a let-them-catch-it-in-front-of-you-but-not-behind-you philosophy.

What is difficult for today's defenses is that you really don't get a chance to huddle up and regroup anymore. Up-tempo football forces you to make calls to your whole defense, rather than sending defenses through your middle linebacker or free safety. Offenses let you show your hand, and then they change their call accordingly at the line of scrimmage.

If your base is a 30 (3-3-5) or 50 (5-2-4) then your front players automatically line up on the center and two tackles with outside backers either on or off the line. They can then "move" to an even front or shift so that your defense is overloading the offense rather than the other way around.

By having both fronts, including the various odd or even short yardage packages, prevent packages, and special defenses, the opponent's offense needs to prepare for all those looks and practice against all your pressure looks. This is where disguise comes in, and again you are using a mix of two different things by essentially acting like you're doing one thing when you're really doing another.

You can only do that if you have a multiple front and coverage package. That is precisely why I think we will see a multiple defensive approach by the Huskies and hopefully increase the pressure while at the same time getting the Husky crowd back into the games.


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