As was previously discussed, the basic role of the defensive line in a 3-4 scheme is to control multiple offensive linemen and tie up blockers. The d-line wants to free up a large, athletic linebacker corps to make plays all over the field. There are four linebacker positions in Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart's defense. Inside is a Mike linebacker that plays to the tight end, or strong side of the formation, and a Willy linebacker that plays to the weak side of the formation. Outside is a Drop or Sam linebacker that lines up to the strong side, usually over the tight end, and a Jack linebacker that lines up on the weak side of the formation. Often the Jack is in position to rush the passer.
The Alabama philosophy on linebacker play requires hybrid players. Often, Saban recruits players who have not played the traditional linebacker position in high school. Instead, they target gifted athletes, with unique skill sets, that demonstrate a high level of coachability. Similar to Bud Foster's scheme, the base 3-4 is assignment driven football, and the Alabama staff looks for players who have strengths that will lend themselves to performance in their system.
Inside linebackers in the 3-4 have very similar assignments to the Hokie inside linebackers in their base 4-2-5 or 4-4G looks. Both must be physically capable of filling gaps straight ahead, even if it means directly taking on an interior blocker. In a basic package, each inside linebacker will read the head of an uncovered lineman directly in front of him. If the linebacker reads a straight ahead run, the linebacker must step into the gap and take on the uncovered lineman violently to prevent any kind of bubble in the defense. As mentioned before, the nose tackle's job is to impede the uncovered blocker (usually a guard) as much as possible. If the nose tackle is successful, the inside linebacker makes the tackle in the hole. If not, the expectation is that the inside linebacker can defeat the block and either make the play or hold their gap fill until the scraping pursuit can make the play. In order to take on such large blockers, 3-4 inside linebackers tend to have low centers of gravity, are explosive moving straight ahead, and must have the ability to get underneath their blocker and create separation.
While Alabama's inside linebackers are not the traditional 4-3 Ray Lewis sideline-to-sideline type pursuit backer, they must also scrape and pursue wide plays, filling the appropriate gap to prevent a cutback and then flowing to the ball. Again, the linebacker reads the uncovered lineman in front of him. If the blocker fires out towards the inside linebacker's outside shoulder the inside linebacker is now reading an off tackle run and will move laterally to prevent being sealed inside. The Mike and Willy linebackers pursue inside out, with their outside shoulder staying close to even with the inside shoulder of the ball carrier. The other back side inside linebacker can also pursue but retains responsibility for the cutback.
Because of the size and strength required to play the run on the inside of the 3-4, Alabama tends to use their inside linebackers as Robbers playing an underneath zone in pass coverage. As discussed last summer, a "robber" is a player who drops into a zone after reading pass, but instead of playing an assigned area, he follows the quarterback's eyes and runs to the football. In Alabama lexicon, the robber in coverage is called "The Rat."
Alabama returns two excellent inside linebackers. Trey Depriest is a rising junior and played every down at 6-2 245. CJ Mosley returns and has been lauded as the lynchpin of the defense, but he went long stretches only playing in nickel packages last season. He is an outstanding blitzer, but at 6-2 232, he is the smallest of the linebackers. Last season, both Georgia and LSU had massive offensive lines, and they had success getting a push on both inside backers.
Alabama can trace its linebacker philosophy back to the systems of Bill Parcells and George Seifert in the 1980's. Parcells (with Bill Belichick in tow) lucked into Lawrence Taylor, perhaps the greatest outside linebacker of all time. For those of you who can not remember Taylor, he was a superior edge rusher from the Jack linebacker spot. Traditionally, NFL teams blocked blitzing outside linebackers with tight ends and running backs, but Taylor was so good, that coaches like Bill Walsh and Joe Gibbs not only started to slide blockers to his side, but often opened up interior gaps to inside blitzes by pulling a guard to take Taylor. Taylor also was a stellar pass defender, who could also drop off the edge and cover running backs and tight ends in space. He was the ultimate hybrid player.
Other teams that wanted to utilize the 3-4 to create havoc needed to find different ways to fill the Jack linebacker role. George Seifert, the defensive coordinator from the 49ers, decided to use outstanding pass rushers who may have been limited in pass defense, but who could present huge matchup problems on the edge. Initially, the 49ers version of the JACK linebacker was called the "Elephant Man", and featured an aging pass rushing monster named Fred Dean. (I strongly encourage you to read any stories about Fred Dean you can find. He was one of a kind.)
The Elephant Man either stood up in a two-point stance, or down in a four-point stance while the rest of the defensive line played a normal 3-man front with a nose tackle. The Elephant Man rarely dropped into coverage, but mostly he served as a hybrid defensive end, rushing the passer and creating chaos in the running game. Dean was replaced by the best NFL player not to be elected to the Hall of Fame, Charles Haley, who won a fistful of Super Bowl rings. After Haley departed for Dallas, the Elephant Man position became a haven for aging, pass rushing outside linebackers and ends like Ricky Jackson and Richard Dent, while Kevin Greene, Bryce Paup, and Greg Lloyd racked up sacks with other teams copying Seifert's idea.
The Jack position at Alabama is played by a true hybrid. Alabama tends to recruit 4-3 defensive ends which have spent most of their career rushing the quarterback from the edge in a down position. Those players are often explosive athletes that can get up the field on the edge, but may not be capable of taking on top tackles in the running game every play. Nick Saban and Kirby Smart use those strengths to create matchup problems and confusion with big, lengthy athletes that can rush the quarterback, use their reach to cover large spaces when backing up in a zone blitz, and move around enough wider to defeat the blocks of fullbacks and tight ends on the end. The Jack also slides down to play defensive end when Alabama uses a 4-man front, as they did almost every play against Georgia's shotgun look in the SEC championship game.
When the Hokies go into the shotgun, Alabama will almost exclusively use a 4-3 front with the Jack linebacker up as a hand on the ground defensive end to the weak side. Georgia had success running against the four man front from the shotgun by identifying the defensive end who slides inside, and running quick hitting spring draws at him while double teaming the nose tackle.
Both outside linebackers have contain responsibility in a base 3-4. Contain means that they must prevent a ball carrier from getting outside the defender's inside shoulder. Both linebackers play wide, and attempt to force the ball carrier back to the middle where other defenders can make the play.
Generally, the Sam plays to the strong side over the tight end, while the Jack lines up on the weak side outside of the tackle's shoulder. The Jack often makes the highlight plays, however the Sam is the toughest position to play in the Tide defense. The Sam plays over the tight end or slot receiver against a 3-wide look and often must cover them man to man. At the same time, the Sam has the same outside contain responsibility as the Jack, and must read the tight end in a similar fashion as an inside linebacker would read a guard to prevent being sealed inside.
Here's a play from Alabama's slugfest against LSU last season. LSU runs a interior wham play with the H-Back lead blocking on the Mike linebacker.
Jack linebacker Xzavier Dickson (highlighted) takes his initial step up the field and takes on the block with his inside shoulder. Instead of crashing inside to pursue the ball carrier, he stays in that position, because his assignment is to prevent a late developing bootleg off a fake get outside his contain. He leaves the running back to the inside linebackers, who step in and fill the hole while taking on the blocks of the LSU guards.
While Dickson completes his assignment, this is the textbook way to attack the 3-4 in the running game. LSU gets a solid double team on the nose tackle that combo's off to the right inside backer. The right guard and tackle allow the end and the Jack to get up the field slightly, but maintain contact to keep them from crashing inside. It creates a bubble in the defensive front, and the H-Back has space to lead through on the linebacker. The inside backer neutralizes the H-Back, but the bubble allows the running back to get a solid gain. At the same time, when the middle holds up, the outside linebackers are there to clean up the mess.
It isn't pretty, but running the football against the 3-4 successfully means following LSU's formula. In order to beat the defense, you must dominate the space between the nose tackle and the defensive ends and create seams. That requires aggressive, quick hitting running plays, a center who can neutralize the nose tackle with minimum help, and guards (and lead blockers like the fullback and H-Back) who can be athletic enough to violently meet the inside linebackers (or trap the defensive linemen) in the hole and get movement to create a bubble for the tailback.
LSU had a great deal of success early pounding the ball on quick hitting traps inside and had Alabama on their heels. But, LSU didn't have the passing attack to compliment the running game.
I feel good about Trey Edmunds, who has the size and explosiveness to be effective in small space. Both Zack McCray and Ryan Malleck have the size and athleticism to be effective if used to wham block. The most critical part of the matchup between the Hokie offense and the Alabama defense will be the ability for Virginia Tech guards and centers to win the battle with the nose and the inside linebackers. The Hokies must run the inside zone and the quick hitting wham to move the ball against Alabama, and I believe that wide running plays will be even less effective than we have become accustomed to over the last year.
Next week, I'll continue the series by diving into the pass defense, starting with how Alabama uses the zone blitz.