Bud Foster received national recognition for the way his Bear defense surprised and shut down Urban Meyer's vaunted spread rushing attack in 2014. The Virginia Tech–Ohio State rematch is around the corner, and it's the perfect time to dive deep into the X's and O's behind the Bear package. If you read TKP's film breakdowns from last year, you have a good idea of what the Bear package is all about... but at TKP we don't settle for good. My goal is to enable every reader to be an expert on the Bear defense by the time we kick off against the defending national champions.
What Is The Bear Defense?
By the end of this article, you should be able to recognize the Bear package as soon as the defense gets aligned. It's an easy defense to spot because of the unique alignment of the five-man defensive line.
The three interior defensive linemen are the key to spotting the Bear defense. Those three players are bunched together because they are aligned overtop the center and both offensive guards. If that unique look doesn't catch your eye, the two defensive ends who are standing up on the very end of the line of scrimmage should. When Foster first displayed this defense against Ohio State, the analyst recognized the unique defensive front immediately. It only took him one snap to bring the audience's attention to the defensive set up. By focusing on the interior of the defensive line, you should be able to spot Foster's Bear package just as quickly.
If there are five defenders on the line of scrimmage, and three of them are covering up the center and both guards, more than likely it's the Bear.
Move away from the line of scrimmage, and next you'll notice the mike linebacker is always in the box and aligned over the center. This allows the mike to move sideline to sideline in run support. With five defenders on the line and the mike in the box, the final five defender's alignment are determined by their pass coverage responsibilities. For every wide receiver that the offense flexes away from the line of scrimmage, the defense has to take a defender out of the box to matchup with that receiver. If an offense has three wide receivers in the game, Foster will normally bring his nickelback on to cover the slot receiver and keep his rover in the box to cover the tight end.
The alignment of the free safety depends on how aggressively Foster wants to attack the run game. If Foster is concerned with a mobile quarterback rushing the football he can drop the free safety into the box. The free safety will allow Foster to quickly outnumber any run blocking scheme. This is the tactic we saw him take against Ohio State, and it explains why OSU could only run the ball when a young defense made mental mistakes.
If Foster is less concerned about the quarterback run-read game than he is the pass game, he will leave the free safety out of the box and ask him to protect the deep middle of the field. The mike and defensive ends will share responsibility for the running back in man coverage. Foster experimented with the depth of that safety, often leaving him 20 or more yards away from the line of scrimmage. This gave the safety time to provide support on lazy deep balls down the sideline, a tactic which lead to several interceptions over the course of the season.
Defensive Line Personnel
The most essential component of the Bear defense are the three defenders which bunch together in the middle of the field to cover offensive line's three interior blockers. Bud Foster's base defense operates with only two defensive tackles on the field, so in order to get into a Bear alignment he has to do some rearranging. Foster will shift one of his defensive tackles into a "zero-technique" (meaning the defender is aligned directly in front of the center) and the other tackle aligns in a three-technique (aligned on the outside shoulder of the guard). To cover the other guard, Foster moves a defensive end into a three technique. The last defensive end will stay wide on the end of the line of scrimmage and typically stood up. For the fifth defensive linemen, Bud Foster drops his backer (Deon Clarke) onto the line.
Once you know what you are looking for, it's quite easy to spot the Bear package. Here is a perfect example of the defense shifting from a more traditional four linemen look into the Bear.
Tech's personnel is four linemen and two linebackers. Before the snap, the defensive line shifts over to place a tackle on the center and the defensive end on the guard. Deon Clarke steps up as the fifth lineman and the field defensive end widens out to get the necessary leverage to turn anything back inside. Western Michigan is forced to settle for a low percentage throw down the field, one that even if completed still was unlikely to lead to an immediate touchdown. If Foster's gamble doesn't pay off, he can set up shop on his 40-yard-line and see if the offense will get lucky again.
I spent a lot of time this offseason researching the Bear defense, reading every article I could find and watched lots and lots of film. I re-watched every snap Tech's defense took this past season, and if the defense was in the Bear, I probably saw that snap 3-4 times. I've learned a lot and have formed a lot of opinions about the defense and I plan on sharing that knowledge with all of you. Now that we all know what the Bear is, my focus will turn to more interesting topics. What is the Bear's strengths? What are it's weaknesses? How did Ohio State try to combat it later in the season and will those adjustments work if Foster trots out the Bear against them again? How did Foster adjust his scheme to fit different offensive schemes and personnel?
The primary reason Foster employed the Bear defense against spread rushing teams was because of its ability to shut down the interior rushing game by formation. Foster's Bear forced offenses to shy away from running inside by eliminating the different tactics offenses use to gain blocking advantages inside. This baited offenses into predictable play calls and allowed Foster to funnel plays towards his most talented players.
Success Against Interior Blocking Schemes
The ability of the Bear to shut down most modern interior rushing schemes comes from it's trademark five-man defensive line. The five-man front makes it very difficult for offensive lines to create double teams at the point of attack. Without the advantage of getting even a momentary double team, offensive lines struggle to create seams in the defensive front for a running back to squeeze through.
The lack of double teams is an opportunity for the defensive line to defeat their blockers and blow up plays in the backfield. The way that Bud Foster aligns his personnel in the Bear leads to personnel mismatches. Most guards and centers aren't used to blocking Tech's quick defensive tackles. Keep in mind that one defensive tackle is going to be a defensive end that is shifted towards the middle of the line. This means that you often get Ken Ekanem or Dadi Nicolas matched up with a guard. The explosion these two get off the ball often overwhelms the guards and leads to great penetration up front. On the rare occasion when an offensive guard manages to hold his own against Ekanem or Nicolas, the other center and guard have to deal with Luther Maddy and Corey Marshall (two of the most explosive tackles in the ACC) in one-on-one blocking situations as well. It's a recipe for defensive chaos that yields offensive disaster.
The other benefit of the Bear is the inability for the offense to account for all second level defenders.
The Bear is particularly effective against teams which use the inside zone blocking rules because of the wall of defenders up front. For a refresher course on inside zone blocking rules, check out either French's William & Mary offensive film review last season, or Joe's zone read refresher. In a basic inside zone run, there will be zero double teams and the middle linebacker will be untouched. Here we see two examples of Duke attempt to run an inside zone against the Bear, and in both cases Andrew Motuapuaka is completely unblocked as he meets the running back in the hole.
Battling Zone Read
Spread rushing offenses like Urban Meyer's use the inside zone read as the staple of their offense. This play is able to create a double team against the Bear by leaving a defensive end unblocked, but Bud Foster is a genius and has developed a way to use that double team to his advantage. Foster will have his defensive ends always force the quarterback to hand the ball off while also building a wall of defenders where the running back wants to rush. Foster is able to form this wall by stunting his nose guard through one A-gap and run blitzing his mike through another. This will force the running back to cut back into the arms of the defensive end the offense was originally trying to read.
Battling Man Blocking Schemes
Most coaches (including Urban Meyer) resort to man blocking when facing a Bear front, relying on down blocks and pulling linemen to create gaps for their running backs. This tactic had more success than the inside zone, but only barely. Most of the success came from offenses with rushing quarterbacks who simply outnumbered the defense at the point of attack.
The five defensive linemen again cause the main problems for the offensive line using a man blocking scheme. In order to pull a guard, the rest of the offensive line has to make very difficult down blocks against very quick defensive linemen intent on getting upfield. On Ohio State's very first snap against the Bear, they tried a quarterback draw with an offensive guard pulling to lead the way. The other three playside linemen (the center, guard, and tackle) aren't able to secure their blocks and Corey Marshall gets the penetration to help blow up the play.
Later on in the red zone, we again see Ohio State attempt to use a pulling lineman as a lead blocker. This time the offensive tackle isn't able to secure his down block against Dadi Nicolas and the pulling guard can't even make it into the hole. Dadi eats up the tackle and the pulling guard, allowing Chase Williams to remain unblocked and make the play.
Two Man vs Three Man Surfaces
If the defensive line isn't able to blow up the play in the backfield, the defense is still in a good position to shut down the run because of the Mike linebacker's ability to read the play. Foster, like all great defensive coaches, has found a way to keep things simple for his linebackers to enable them to react decisively. When a lineman pulls towards a two man surface, the Mike attacks the outside shoulder of the puller in order to funnel the runner back to the middle of the field. If a lineman pulls towards a three man surface, the Mike attacks the inside shoulder of the puller to funnel the runner towards a free hitter on the perimeter.
This simple rule on how to handle pulling linemen in man blocking schemes is the key to Bud Foster's Bear package. If the Mike linebacker makes the correct read, he will always either make the tackle for a minimal gain or spill the ball carrier towards a teammate who can do the same. However, if he makes a mistake as simple as attacking the wrong shoulder of a blocker he runs the risk of allowing a big play.
On the previous play we see the ramifications of a bad run fit. It's a quarterback draw with a man blocking scheme, the running back is the lead blocker here. Andrew Motuapuaka has to attack the outside shoulder of the back in an attempt to push the quarterback inside towards Kyshoen Jarrett. Instead, Andrew attacks the block head on and cuts off Jarrett's angle on the quarterback. A back-breaking long touchdown run is the result.
When facing a particularly potent rushing attack like Ohio State's, Bud Foster wouldn't hesitate to walk his free safety into the box to provide an additional body for run support. Foster's Bear defense, which already has an inherent advantage against interior rushing schemes, becomes almost impossible to run against inside when he decides to overwhelm the blockers with an extra safety.
This willingness to load the box and rely on single coverage across the field is what separates Bud Foster's Bear defense from everyone else's. This willingness also gives me confidence that Ohio State will once again struggle to run in between the tackles this year. Pundits and fans alike are quick to point out that Ohio State had success against other teams which ran the Bear against them, and to a certain extent they are correct.
Eleven Warriors posted a fantastic article on some of the "Bear beaters" that Urban Meyer instituted after the Tech game, and these plays allowed Meyer to run the ball against the Bear.
The success that Meyer had against the Bear on the ground came against defenses that didn't drop an extra safety into the box though. These schemes all fall apart once the defense has the offense outnumbered at the point of attack. Simply put, if Bud Foster wants to take away the interior rushing game of Ohio State he can do that. Once he does, Urban Meyer will have to rely on his quarterback and wide receivers to beat the best man coverage secondary in the country at its own game.