French on the Bench is a new series of posts that will take a closer look at the theory, fundamentals, and scheme of Tech's offense and defense. It kicks off by detailing the inner workings of the Bud Foster Gap Defense that has baffled most of the ACC over the last 8 years. My most recent columns can now be found on the right sidebar. -- French
The Hokie Gap defense rose from the ashes of the famed "Hokie Attack" 8 man front of the 1990's. When Foster developed the concept for the Gap Defense, he looked to solve two problems. First, how do they maintain the aggressive variability of the Wide Tackle Six, but second, he wanted to stop the growing use of one back multiple receiver offenses from the West Coast to the Spread. Foster used a simple solution. He retained the terminology and many of the blitz schemes of the Attack Defense, and then moved the rover position back to that of a traditional strong safety. To the uneducated eye, the defense features two ends, two tackles, three linebackers, two safeties, and two corners just like a traditional NFL style 4-3, but Foster turns the 4-3 concept on its ear.
The Gap Defense is grounded in a simple concept. Every defensive player in the front seven has a "gap" responsibility in every defense that is called. A "gap" is an area of space on the field that the defensive player is responsible to "control." Often, in interviews with Bud Foster and other defensive coaches, you hear the term "gap fit" thrown around. Gap fit means when the defensive player hits the assigned gap, he must hold that gap maintaining the proper leverage in order to get off a block and make a tackle. The diagram below uses numbers to identify each gap. (Please note, the Hokies may use letters or other terminology to identify each gap.)
In a traditional one gap 4-3 defense, each player in the front seven has the gap in front of them with few exceptions, with examples being a variety of stunts and run blitzes that are run in small proportion to the base calls. Virginia Tech uses both their base look (which features each lineman and linebacker having gap responsibility for the gap in front of them) or a more radical stunting approach based on the talent Foster has available. On this play against UVA, the Hokies are playing a base front.
The Mike is over the center. The nose tackle is a 1 technique, the tackle is a 3 technique. The stud end is outside eye of the tackle strong side, and the end is outside eye of the tackle on the weakside. Each defender essentially has the gap in front of him. The mike linebacker has no pass coverage responsibility in most of the Hokie defenses. The defensive linemen get into the neutral zone, engage their blocker, secures their gap, and sheds the blocking using a "violent hand motion" (rip, swim, push-pull, or 45 technique). At the snap, Jack Tyler reads a key that sends him flying through the one gap. While he misses the tackle, he allows enough time for the other players to secure their gap and then pursue to tackle the UVA tailback for a marginal gain. Based on the film that I have watched, either Bud Foster calls more middle linebacker run blitzes than any coach in the country, or the mike backer has almost zero pass responsibility. Tyler is almost always coming forward at the snap except when a key has him pursuing playside. Anytime you see the mike backer dropping back, it is change up defense hoping the QB throws to a spot without seeing the mike.
Behind the defense, the Hokies secondary plays a basic robber coverage on this play. Smart Football did an excellent write up on the Hokies robber and 4-4G. In basic terms, normal defenses feature corners playing man with safeties deep to help. In a robber coverage, the safeties actually come forward at the snap while the corners bail out to a deep third. Quarterbacks, seeing the odd space develop, are often easily baited into throwing seam routes against this coverage. We will look at the Hokies pass defense in more detail in a later post.
In the above play, Jayron Hosley backpedals to his deep third at the snap. When the WR's sets up to run block (the WR's total lack of effort is a complete "UVA move"), he immediately comes up in run support. Antone Exum is moving forward at the snap, and both Exum and Hosley end up making the tackle along with Luther Maddy.
Even more bedeviling to teams that use pro-style running games, Foster uses a huge variety of stunts, hard slants, and linebacker blitzes to "funnel" the ball carrier right into an unblocked defensive player. Yet, unlike most stunts and blitzes where the defensive player is trying to shake loose to make a play, the Foster gap defense still requires the players who were stunting to maintain responsibility for their assigned gap. Hokie defensive linemen are required to have a unique ability to sometimes cover gaps that are far from where they line up, while maintaining leverage in order to prevent being knocked backwards by an offensive lineman.
The below diagram lays out a typical Hokie run blitz utilized to stop the zone run to the strong side out of an I formation. The zone run requires each offensive lineman to block the gap to the playside, moving along the line of scrimmage and maintaining contact for as long as possible with the first defender that crosses their face. The running back is supposed to take two strides playside, plant his playside leg (in this case the right leg) and select a weak spot where the defender has overrun the play. Often, a zone play to the right (which on a Madden diagram looks like it would go to the 6 gap) will actually cut back almost over the center.
- Stud End (Tyrell Wilson): Pre-Snap, the S end lines up outside eye of the boundary side tackle. The S must loop hard play-side, crossing the face of the tight end without allowing himself to get his outside shoulder blocked by the tight end. He must maintain gap control on the 6 gap and not allow the running back to get outside his outside shoulder. Ideally, the Stud end will be 2 yards deep into the backfield. The running back will see that the Stud has contain, and will not look to pull a "David Wilson" and make a break for the 8 gap. Instead he will look to plant and dive straight ahead for the inside of the 6 gap or the 4 gap, or he will plant and cut back to the center gap.
- Nose Tackle: The Nose (Luther Maddy): The nose will line up as a 1 technique, on the inside eye of the play-side guard. At the snap, the nose has the daunting task of stunting two gaps, crossing the face of both the guard and the tackle to get outside shoulder gap fit on the 4 gap. While the nose sometimes gets unblocked and can get upfield, more often than not he will make contact with the guard and tackle. Ideally he can maintain leverage without being driven downfield. If the running back looks to go straight ahead, he will see the guard and tackle jammed up and look to cutback.
- Tackle: The Tackle (Derrick Hopkins) lines up as a 3 technique, outside eye of the backside guard. The tackle will cross the face of the guard and the center, and fill the 2 gap, originally vacated by the Nose. Again, the tackle will rarely be in position to make the tackle, but must minimally plug up the gap, causing the back to look to cut back to the 1 gap.
- End: The End (J.R. Collins) will stunt to the 7 gap, maintaining contain on any reverse, bootleg, or play-action. This often creates the illusion to the running back that there isn't backside pursuit, making the backside cutback to the 1 gap the logical place to go.
- Whip: The Whip (Kyle Fuller) lines up wide, but well to the inside of the slot. The alignment is a disguise, as he has no pass coverage responsibility. The Whip blitzes hard from the 7 gap to fly through the 5 gap space. Because the line is flowing play-side, the Whip should be unblocked and should go directly to the ball-carrier.
- Mike: The Mike backer (Jack Tyler) lines up directly over the center, and blitzes against the flow of the play to fly through the 1-3 gap. The Mike will likely be unblocked, but the running back should flow directly to him, so the Mike essentially has responsibility for the 1 gap.
- Backer: The Backer (Tariq Edwards) lines at the same depth as the mike but in the guard tackle gap. The Backer disguises, looking like he is scraping play-side, but in reality, he is filling the interior of the 6 gap. Also, in goal line and short yardage, the backer and blitz the gap to try to blow the play in the backfield playside.
- Free Safety: Free safety starts in a deep third lined up 12 yards off the ball directly behind the mike. The free safety fills play-side to clean up if the running back breaks through the play-side gaps.
- The boundary, field, and rover all have pass coverage. The Hokies switch between man and cover 3. Once their keys indicate that the running back has the ball, each pursues the ball.
The design of the defense is set up to allow the Mike, Whip, or Stud DE to make the play. The movement ideally allows three Hokies to be unblocked, versus depending on the physical ability of the defensive line to beat each of their blocks at the point of attack. The potential risk is that the movement can allow for gashing big running plays if the players can't control their gap responsibility.
The end result of this 1st quarter play against UVA features Tyrell Wilson preventing the back from getting to the edge, the nose and tackle slant and fill their gaps, and Jack Tyler flies in on the blitz to make the play.
Next week, we will examine some of the basic blitz packages that the Hokies use for passing down and distance situations. If you have any questions, I will be sure to answer to answer them in the comments. From all of us at The Key Play, get off the bench and in the game.