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UCLA Football: 2012 Spring Preview - Mora & Spanos' Defensive Scheme

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With spring football approaching, it's time to take a look at the position groups, starting with the defensive line. But as I was writing this post, I couldn't do so without getting into the new scheme that we will be running, at least as best as I can tell.

Overall, based on the position changes, and based on where Defensive Coordinator Lou Spanos has coached and the schemes he has been involved with as a defensive assistant, we expect to see a base 3-4 scheme.

There are some important differences between the 3-4 and the 4-3. The 3-4 has been trendy in the NFL recently:

Nothing's hotter in the NFL right now than the 3-4 defense. A few seasons ago, five or six teams used the 3-4. This year, 15 are employing the look -- Ticonderoga-class nose tackle, two big defensive ends whose first assignment is to strip blockers, four quick linebackers whose job is to make the plays.

There's a lot to be said for the 3-4. It creates zone-rush uncertainty, since there's one fewer defensive lineman and one more linebacker, and linebackers are better dropping into coverage. It tends to emphasize speed over strength, which can help in a pass-wacky era.

Although the 3-4 has not been as popular in college, some expect that to change. One of the reasons NFL teams prefer the 3-4 is that it can be easier to find pass-rushing outside linebackers than pass-rushing defensive ends.

It would not surprise me at all to see 20 or more teams running a 3-4 by 2015 (or even sooner). There are a couple of reasons why the 3-4 is gaining in popularity. The first is that it's really hard to find quality DE in the draft--guys that can consistently get pressure on an opposing QB. By going to a 3-4 you can reduce (but then you need to find a monster of DT to be your nose tackle). The second (and more important in my mind) is that the 3-4 allows defensive coordinators to be much more creative in their schemes and make it that much harder for opposing offenses to counteract.

Despite the many teams using it in the pros there are only about a dozen Division I college teams that use the 3-4. I would expect that number to increase dramatically over the next several years since college football tends to follow the same trends as the pros.

So, it looks like the Bruins will be one of those teams making the switch.

It makes sense that one of the first things Jim Mora asked himself after he was hired was how he's going to stop all the offenses he'll be seeing in the Pac-12. There are pro-style systems at Stanford and across town. Then there's the Oregon spread/blur, the Rich Rod's spread option, and Mike Leach's Air Raid.

Defensive Coordinator Lou Spanos talked about the defense earlier in March. The discussion was not particularly in depth, but Spanos did note that the defense will not be exactly the same as the defense from his time with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and also that there will be a base package, and additional packages for each week's gameplan.

So, how are Mora and Spanos planning to attack the spread?

The spread comes in many flavors, whether it's Urban Meyer's spread option, the Texas "zone read", or the aerial circus Mike Leach runs at Texas Tech. Deep down, they all share a common foundation: spread the defense across the entire field and look for a seam, a mismatch, or a mistake to exploit.

Nobody has really found THE antidote for the spread, though many coaches have theories on how you combat it. Responding to the spread requires a combination of three factors: speed, fundamentals, and being disruptive.

Speed. One of the things the spread does it try to put more speed on the field and exploit it in space. We expect that Jim Mora and Lou Spanos plan to try to counter the speed in space with defensive playmakers. The theory of attacking the spread with the 3-4 is that, you have one fewer down lineman, so you should have more speed on the field with 4 linebackers instead of 3, provided you can find can the defensive lineman required for the 3-4. The blockeating defensive ends who can also apply some pressure, and especially the nose tackle, who really needs to be a beast. Fortunately, it seems we have found our monster defensive tackle in Ellis McCarthy. More to come on that in the defensive line preview.

The easiest way to beat the spread offense is to "out-athlete" it. The spread is trying to put more athletes on the field than you have on defense; you need to respond in kind.

Another way the 3-4 can help is with the disruption, as we'll get into in more detail later. But basically, you have 3 down linemen, instead of 4. So for a four man rush, in a 4-3, it's always going to be just the four down linemen, unless you want to drop a lineman into coverage. In a 3-4, you rush the down linemen, plus...anyone else you want. Usually a linebacker, and probably more often than not an outside backer, but it can be any linebacker, a safety or even a corner, and you still have 7 guys to cover the receivers. Rush 5 (a combination of OLB and ILB, ILB and SS, or whatever else), and you still have 6 in coverage.

A little background from Smart Football about the Dick LeBeau's Pittsburgh defense will help us with a better understanding of what we might see:

Capers, as defensive coordinator for the Steelers, coached with LeBeau back in the early 1990s, where Capers and LeBeau conspired to implement their madcap 3-4 zone blitz schemes that would help LeBeau land in the NFL Hall of Fame.

LeBeau knew his defenses needed to evolve:...the general but imperfect rule was that a four man rush meant zone, while a blitz meant man-to-man.

So LeBeau began experimenting with schemes that showed blitz looks — and did in fact rush defenders from unexpected places — but nevertheless dropped a minimum of six defenders into zone coverage. To LeBeau, this was the perfect remedy: depending on the coverage you put behind the blitz, you actually were playing a very conservative were being aggressive, albeit in a very controlled sense.

According to Layden and LeBeau, Arnsparger kept using the term "safe pressure" to describe the zone blitz, words that stuck with LeBeau: the zone blitz isn’t a kamikaze defense, it’s sound football, with an element of disruption. LeBeau would go on to develop these ideas for the next couple of decades....

And here is the key for why an odd front (3-4 or 3-3) can be better for the "safe pressure" defense than an even front (which might use the zone blitz as an effective play or gimmick, but can have a hard time using it as the bread and butter of the defense):

the basic concept is not new at all: confusing the offense with respect to which defenders are dropping and which are blitzing (this goes back at least fifty years), while playing relatively safe coverage behind it. It’s also not true that a defensive lineman must drop into coverage for it to be a zone blitz; plenty of effective zone blitzes don’t use that tactic. Indeed, it’s one reason why the 3-4 and the 3-3 and other multiple defensive back and linebacker formations are great with the zone blitz — you don’t have to drop the 300 pounder into space where, beyond the initial surprise, he’s a liability.

So that's what we expect from the base defense. Three down linemen, get more athletes and more speed on the field, attempt to disrupt and confuse the offenses by bringing pressure, but try to keep the defense behind the pressure pretty safe and make where the pressure is coming from unpredictable. We'll look into who will be playing the various positions in later posts.