Mind The Gap

Much has been made of the defensive changes made by first-year coordinator Tony Gibson. But perhaps the biggest change was making none at all.

The Mountaineers, in switching from the odd stack scheme ran under current Arizona coordinator Jeff Casteel – for whom Gibson coached the secondary – got away from the single gap assignments into a read, then react set within the 3-4. That required a quick synopsis of where the play was heading, and multiple players to then match gap assignments. It works effectively when players make the correct decisions, and allows for more of a free flow of play at times that’s incredibly difficult to outnumber at the point of attack for offenses.

The stack, conversely, is more apt to pinpoint certain gaps for certain players during certain alignments and calls. The idea is that every gap is filled by a player, and there is no containment lost. It takes the opportunity for player error away somewhat. But it also often times has just one player in a gap, and thus increase the probability for significant gains should said defender be adequately blocked. That leads to the second underlying idea of the stack: Free up as many bodies as possible in space to run to the football. Once it’s recognized that the gap isn’t going to be attacked by an offense, the space players – usually every one not along the line or involved in the pass rush – are free to crash the play. Swarm the ball, sans much thought to backside contain outside of initial play development. The idea there is that the more bodies around the ball, the less the need to keep a player at home (again, after the initial play set-up) to fret over a reversal of field.

See ball, get ball. See player, get player to ground. And along those base ideals, Gibson has further simplified the sets by leaving players in their respective positions. There’s no more jack-of-all-trades, yet master of none. The corners remain on one side of the field in a left-right configuration as opposed to field and boundary. If you’re a spur, sam, mike or will, that’s what you are. Not a part time sam who dabbles at spur. Under Gibson, it’s mastering one position, one slot in the stack to the utmost excellence possible.

“It’s awesome. Now we are really gap sound…which makes everybody play faster. It’s less thinking and more reacting.”
– Sam linebacker Isaiah Bruce

If there are significant injuries, it’s a concern. If there aren’t, players should be better equipped, rep- and recognition-wise, to reap the benefits of a deeper feel for their portion of the defense. They should be better able to understand and mentally and physically articulate their relation to their teammates, in scheme and a space-feel ideal. The entire 11 should flow better, more like a surging sea and less like a turbulent, cascading ride over the rocks, where each individual segment isn't quite sure where it's headed until it's a bit late for change. Sam linebacker Isaiah Bruce has been on both sides, and much prefers the current approach.

"I’m settled at sam. It’s awesome,” said Bruce, who flipped from sam to predominantly spur last year. “Now we are really gap sound. It’s not so much playing multiple gaps and trying to figure out what (another player) does. It’s know your gap, he knows his gap, which makes everybody plays a lot faster. It’s less thinking and more reacting. I was very secure (my freshman year). I did no moving around. I knew what I was doing, and there was depth at every position. Then I had to move around. We went through a lot of injuries and so forth. That played a big roll.”

And reduced Bruce’s production from 94 tackles to just 43 in only two fewer games. Bruce, as a freshman, actually had more solo tackles (51) than he did total tackles (43) as a sophomore. Injuries and, thus, position moves ,were responsible for a part of it. And it remains to be seen how Bruce will handle going back to the defense for which he was originally recruited, the odd stack, when he signed with West Virginia in 2011. But for now, the Iron Mountaineer honoree seems as relaxed and eager as one could ever recall.

“I’ve never seen us have 18 linebackers on the depth chart before,” Bruce said. “Never at any point in time since I have been here. That helps us stay healthy. I feel like any one of the linebackers can play any position. We know them pretty well. But we have so much depth at every one that we don’t need to be switched around as much.”

The Mountaineers have also settled along the front, anchoring with Kyle Rose at nose – undoubtedly the most imperative single odd stack position in holding the point of attack. Just a junior, the 6-4, 298-pounder seems primed to breakout one season after playing the majority of the time at end. Now, Rose must fill the gap, literally and figuratively, left by the departed Shaq Rowell, a two-year starter who never quite blossomed into the interior force that the Mountaineers enjoyed with current NFL nose tackle Chris Neild. WVU, it might be noted, will certainly not be moving Rose to any other position.

“In changing positions from playing outside to coming inside for nose guard, it’s a different realm, a different game,” said Rose, third on the team with 8.5 TFL last season. “The biggest thing for our defense to be successful is for the defensive line to eat up blockers and they have to get pressure, when they can, with three. The linebackers have to scrape and make plays. Whatever we are, it really doesn’t matter: a 3-4, a 3-3-5, odd stack, whatever. Really what we are is an odd front defense that’s multiple. Whatever we play, we have to get pressure on the quarterback with three (lineman).”

Easier said than done, and Rose and the defensive staff recognize it. That’s among the reasons the odd stack, as run under Gibson, emphasizes pressure from a multitude of angles and positions, and often disguises from where and when the blitz originates. Overload one area, then stunt and don’t necessarily pressure from that side. Drop a lineman, bring an additional linebacker. It’s as much a designed cloak of uncertainty for offenses as it is an ability to execute soundly and not leave an area exposed defensively. It’s fine to attempt a myriad of camouflage and concealment, but if one can’t maintain proper leverage and gap control, as well as coverage on the back end, it makes little difference.

“Really, the main priority for us, as linemen, is to stop the run,” Rose said. “I, being inside, have to take up two to three blockers so that the ‘backers can make plays off that edge. With nose, I only have two (gaps) to worry about, two ways. It’s much less gap selection (as last year). With that center, I can’t let him get to the linebackers. It’s condensed for me, and not as much thinking as at end. It’s a faster reaction because the ball is right there. When he snaps that ball, be right on him. The game’s a lot quicker on the inside because I’ve got that ‘backer right on the back of me.”

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