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Football Concepts, Schemes, Formations: TDG Football Seminar Week 6

We talk about how Michigan State built a defense for the spread era

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Week 6 of the TDG Football Seminar. This week, we interrupt the continued anguishing over whether Mitch Leidner is a good quarterback to look at the other side of the ball. With their win over Oregon last Saturday, Michigan State has another statement win under Mark Dantonio. Whether the Spartans will be able to hang with Ohio State remains to be seen, but for the past decade Michigan State has been fielding excellent defenses. How they did it, and what lessons exists for programs like Minnesota is the subject of this week's seminar.

Defending the Spread

Apart from Gary Patterson at TCU, no other team apart from Michigan State has been able to stop the spread on a consistent basis without elite talent on defense. The Spartans are now grabbing four star recruits, but that was not the case when Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi took over the program. Michigan State built its defense on toughness, teaching, and a sound base scheme.

Spread offenses have taken over college football to such a degree that NFL scouts and coaches are lamenting the lack of quarterback development at the college level. (Jobu forbid the NFL creates an actual development league to pay athletes to learn its style). The spread works because on each play offenses present at least three challenges. First, receivers can run Go/Streak routes on any given play to stretch the defense vertically. Depending on the formation, the number of go routes can outnumber the safeties. Second, if a defense plays man coverage the offense can call crossing routes to stretch the defense horizontally. Third, assuming the QB is a threat to run, the offense can just run the ball and create a numbers advantage.

Certain teams will combine all three threats in the same play. Baylor, TCU, and Oklahoma State are three teams that come to mind. Here is an example of Oklahoma State setting up in a formation with multiple options on each play.

The play is a run if the numbers in the box are favorable, but the receivers are running routes as well in case the QB reads pass.

Michigan State's Answer

Individually, none of these concepts are new, and consequently defenses already have calls for each of them. When put together, particularly at tempo, the story is different. Defenses can frequently get out of alignment or have a poor call. Base defenses can easily be exposed by the offense.

Dantonio and Narduzzi's answer to this conundrum was to make their base defense their only defense, and teach it completely. In this regard, they are similar to old Norm Parker defenses at Iowa. The Spartans will almost always line up in a 4-3 Over with the secondary playing Quarters coverage. On television, this formation looks like the picture below.

We covered the 4-3 Over, but in short it means that the defense shades towards the offensive's strength. The secondary's Quarters coverage self adjusts to different routes. If the offense runs a go route, Michigan State follows in man. If the offense runs an underneath route, Michigan State will zone with some pattern matching.

The Spartans depend the most on their safeties, who are responsible for calling out scheme and checks. While not explicit in the diagram above, Michigan State usually starts with their safeties much closer to the box like below.

Bringing the safeties up is intentional. Narduzzi liked playing Quarters because the Spartans had nine men in the box to stop the run. Furthermore, by always playing press coverage, Michigan State consistently challenges opposing offenses. There is a practical aspect to press coverage. When a corner presses, a receiver has fewer route options.

Chris B. Brown diagrammed up the safety calls in the 2014. Notice how the Spartans look almost identical in this picture to the previous two. As discussed in the chapter, the safety either plays man coverage against a deep threat or becomes a "robber" defender whose job is to read ball and get ball.

How it comes together is that the Spartans play zone coverage that looks like man coverage, confusing quarterbacks and reads. From these principles, Michigan State can be aggressive against both options, and that aggressiveness is best seen when the Spartans choose to blitz. The quintessential Spartan blitz is the Double A-Gap blitz or Bullets.

To state my biases up front, this is my favorite blitz in all of football. It combines the notion of safe pressure on the back end with unchecked aggression from the defensive front. Moreover, the Double A-Gap Blitz is for my money the most psychologically distressing blitz for the offense. When the linebacker push into the gap, there is little question that they are coming and the offense's protections are going to get messy in a hurry. Michigan State's innovation was to place defenders to in underneath zone to take away hot routes underneath. That way the Quarterback has no bailout option. Assuming that the Spartans do not commit an obvious coverage breakdown, most of the time this blitz should end like the gif.

For further reading on this blitz, I recommend an article from two years ago from The Only Colors.

Perhaps most importantly, as the Spartans defense has improved, they have also placed more players in the NFL. Placing players in the NFL means better recruits, and better recruits means a nastier defense. As in all things, the rich get richer.

Readings For Next Week

Next week, we're going to take a page out of HipsterGopher's book and go way back to take a look at the Single Wing. Our readings are The Pop Warner Offense that Confounded Sean Payton, and Winging It