Editor's Note: French wrote this before Braxton Miller's season ending injury, but much of what was written is still applicable.
Last week I wrote about how Michigan State, which runs the same defensive alignment and similar pass coverage as Virginia Tech, held Ohio State to a season low of 24 points in the Big Ten Championship Game. I would expect that Foster, with four tremendous defensive backs, would be comfortable playing a quarters coverage while selling out his linebackers inside to create a six-man front.
However, Foster's linebackers are inexperienced and small. If they don't fit those inside gaps, the speedy Buckeye backs can gain huge chunks of yardage on simple read option dives. If Foster doesn't trust that his inexperienced defensive front can stop the run with a six-man gap fit, does he have a backup plan?
Clemson was the last team the Hokies played with dangerous offensive talent, and that utilized a spread scheme with both read option and single wing series. Virginia Tech played Clemson three times in a two year span, and despite having a defense that struggled early in the season, Foster put together a game plan that kept the Hokies in the game and beat up quarterback Tajh Boyd.
Foster held a supremely talented Clemson offense to under 300 yards of total offense in 2012, and he did it with a makeshift secondary. The lack of a true nickel corner forced Foster to play Detrick Bonner at nickel while Michael Cole played free safety. With so many question marks in the secondary, how did Foster stop an offense that featured NFLers like Nuke Hopkins, Sammy Watkins, and Andre Ellington?
Foster turned to his 46 defensive front, and a man underneath deep Cover 1 coverage approach to stop the Tigers. I have discussed the 46 front before. When the Hokies season seemed lost in 2012, Foster moved Alonzo Tweedy into the lineup against Florida State and played the 46 front with Bruce Taylor and Tweedy playing outside linebackers and Kyshoen Jarrett playing in a backer alignment next to Jack Tyler. Last season, Foster used a 46 front, but instead of playing a deep safety, he used a three-man triangle to the passing strength of the formation against spread teams.
Foster didn't fully commit to the 46 against Clemson, but he knew it could solve two big problems. First, it put Bruce Taylor, whose mobility was a problem following his Lisfranc sprain, in a contain alignment on the edge. This allowed Taylor to be an edge rusher and contain player without running east-west from the normal backer alignment (behind the defensive line to the boundary.) It also created a five-man defensive line where the defensive ends could play more aggressively on dive plays.
Behind Taylor, Kyshoen Jarrett moved forward into a linebacker alignment, creating a seven-man defensive front. When Clemson used a tight end, Jarrett always aligned across from the tight end. Clemson motioned their tight ends often and used them as trap blockers. Wherever the tight end went, Jarrett followed.
To the boundary, the corner either played press man or a deep third coverage. To the field side, the nickel or whip aligned on the slot receiver, and the field corner against the wide receiver. The free safety would line up about 10 yards or deeper to the field side.
In this alignment, Foster used one of three coverage concepts. He could uses a combination inverted zone, with the free safety coming forward to play a short zone and support the run while the nickel retreats deep to cover the middle deep third.
With the rover in the box and the free safety coming forward, the Hokies essentially have eight defenders to challenge the run even though Clemson is using a spread alignment.
Here is an example. Foster aligns the backer and rover to the boundary, baiting Clemson to run back to the field side. Clemson runs a inside zone with a quarterback option to keep the ball with a wham block by the H-Back. The defensive end crashes inside on the dive, but keeps outside shoulder leverage. Boyd reads keep, and goes outside expecting a big lane in the space vacated by the end, but to his surprise the Hokies stunted the mike linebacker outside of the end.
The end slides back outside, and he and the mike linebacker form a wall to force Boyd to cut back into the teeth of the defense. The free safety is flying forward at the snap to fit into the hole, and the rover follows the H-Back when he pulls. The free safety and the rover are sitting in the cutback lane waiting on Tajh.
The second coverage that Foster uses with the rover in the box is a basic three deep. The free safety rotates over the top to play deep middle and shadow the slot receiver if he goes deep. The nickel crashes inside as the free hitting alley player in run support (then backpedals to the field flat if he reads pass).
This creates the 8-man box with the whip/nickel as the alley player to the field side. Here is a great example.
At the snap, Detrick Bonner (who spent the Clemson game playing as the nickel corner) reads the buck sweep and immediately forces the edge. Michael Cole at free safety has the deep middle and has to make sure that the quarterback has handed off before coming up in run support. Again, Bonner seals the back inside into the teeth of the defense (which has more defenders than Clemson has blockers).
Finally, Bud would use man coverage across with the free safety staying deep. We are familiar with this look. The field side receivers receive press coverage by the corner and nickel. The rover shadows the tight end and takes him in man coverage. And the boundary corner plays inside leverage man to the top of the screen. The free safety is deep middle (so deep that he isn't even in the screen at the snap.)
Up front, Foster has seven players in the box, and five (or six) could be coming. On this play, Jack Tyler blitzes, while Bruce Taylor drops into a short zone where he can spy the quarterback or trail the tailback. Once the tailback blocks Tyler, Taylor is in full spy mode on the quarterback. This look really could present a challenge to the Buckeyes on short passing downs. Ohio State's inexperienced offensive line likely could have trouble picking up stunts, and the Buckeye receivers are not very good at beating good man coverage. Most of their drop back passing game features Miller scrambling until his receivers get open. This puts Deon Clarke one-on-one with Braxton Miller as the spy. If Clarke can run with Miller, the Hokies third down defense will have a much better chance of being successful.
Potential Buckeye Counters to the Rover in the Box
Playing with the rover as a linebacker helped the Hokies stay in the game against Clemson, but the Tigers did find ways to attack Foster's scheme. First, taking the rover out of the secondary leaves the talented Hokie corners on an island all game long. When the free safety has deep middle, Foster almost always has the nickel corner press the slot receiver. In the cover three, the field corner has to take the deep outside. By keeping the slot receiver near the line of scrimmage in the flat, this coverage gives inside leverage to the split end, leaving the post route wide open on the outside. In this case, the slot receiver runs a slant to take the nickel out of the passing lane. The post is wide open.
The big question that Foster needs to answer is, does he feel that Miller, who is coming off off-season shoulder surgery, can consistently make this throw. He may play the percentages and bait Miller into reading this coverage, and then using a robber to jump the route.
The other option for the Buckeyes is merely to force the rover outside of the box by formation. When the Tigers took the tight end/H-Back out of the game and aligned a slot receiver to the boundary, the rover had to slide out on him. The balanced four receiver look limited Foster's coverage options to either running a quarters coverage or man coverage. Against this formation, the free safety becomes the alley player, but with a faster receiver against the rover (presumably your worst coverage guy in the secondary) it is incredibly risky to play the free safety in close run support. That left the Hokies with six defenders in the box, and Clemson had their best success running the football against that alignment. One effective play was a lead quarterback draw.
Miller's athleticism, coupled with a lead blocker to occupy a linebacker, makes this play a scary proposition should Urban Meyer adopt it against the Hokies.
Miller really is the wildcard in this game. Last season, the Hokies defensive game plans and execution were close to flawless week in and week out. The one bugaboo was mobile quarterbacks. Rakeem Cato exposed the weakness in the monsoon against Marshall (and he came into the game without the reputation as being much of a runner.) C.J. Brown burned the Hokies on broken plays. And Brett Hundley dropping back and scrambling was pretty much the only offense UCLA could muster for a half against Foster's defense. It was baffling; especially given how well five of the same defensive linemen/inside linebacker group performed against Denard Robinson in the Sugar Bowl. With a smaller, more athletic front seven, can the Hokies contain Miller, who may be the best running quarterback the Hokies have faced? Is Miller too good for Jarrett and the inexperienced front six to corral? Or, have the Hokies become so small that the Ohio State power running game dominates the game? The blueprint on how to slowdown the Buckeye offense is evident, and I think the Hokies have the personnel that can execute it. On September 6th, we will see if the Lunchpail defense can execute that blueprint.