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Conversations With The Coach: Edge Play

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As most of our regulars already know I am a coach’s kid. In the interest of time I won’t rehash my upbringing in painstaking detail but if you are in any way curious as to how I ended up writing this blog in my mid 30’s the back story is right here.

The very short version for those that don’t know and don’t have the time to back track when I was growing up my Dad was a Texas HS Head Coach that also happened to be a huge Notre Dame Fan. Now jump to the present.

These days my Dad is retired but he spends his fall Saturdays in West Texas sitting in front of 3 TV’s absorbing every down of football that he can get his hands on. The vast majority of our conversations are about Notre Dame Football or some other topic that is College Football related. X’s and O’s come up regularly.

Earlier this week our own Eric Murtaugh wrote a wrap up on the Stanford game that got me thinking about the edge play of the Notre Dame defense. I shot Dad an email and asked him what he thought about it. He had already deleted the Stanford game off of his DVR but did offer his two cents on edge play in general. That led us to a conversation about edge play in general and how it applies to the current Notre Dame defense.

I thought that you all might enjoy it so his thoughts are below. If you do let us know, it may help me coerce him into sharing his thoughts with us more often.

The Coach

I have actually been thinking about your question since I read it this morning. Again, I can't give an intelligent answer on ND specifically without reviewing some game film and I don't have any. I can say a few things about "edge" play vs. outside runs.

1. Someone has to turn the play in. There are only two people that can do that, in most cases, in a 5-2 (modern day 3-4) look. They are the outside linebacker and the corner. These days, corners have become so cover conscious and DCs have become so cover conscious, that they don't ever expect corners to play force contain on perimeter runs like sweeps and tosses. On most snaps, you usually see the corner immediately back pedaling or trying to run with a wideout. By the time the play develops, the corner is not in position to force a perimeter run back to the middle.

If more teams would play a true cover 2, where the corner has no deep responsibility then he can react to the run more quickly and come up and force it back in. So, that leaves us with the OLB. Unfortunately, OLBs are probably over consumed with pass responsibility as well, either as rushers or covering receivers. But, in today's game, they are probably the only guys on the field that can play force contain on a sweep.

2. Let's look at tight side, split side for the OLB to play force contain on a sweep. First of all, we agree that he is the only guy that can do it. On the tight end side vs. the sweep, the first thing that the OLB has to do is get off of the Tight Ends block. He has to do this quickly, because the next thing coming (vs. Stanford) is the fullback as a lead blocker.

The fullback wants to kick that OLB out and create a lane inside him where a pulling guard will follow and then the ball carrier. The OLB has to get off the TEs block and then go take out that fullback before he fullback can kick him out. He wants to make a pile out of the full back forcing the guard and the ball carrier deeper into the backfield and then slowing their progression up field.

On the split end side, the OLB doesn't have to beat the TE's block, but he usually has some type of cover responsibility on a slot receiver or is thinking about his pass rush. Either way, he has to take out that full back and blow up the play. What I have seen happening a lot on these plays for ND is the OLB ends up getting strung out down the line with the TE still on his body.

Usually, the corner is tied up as well with a wide receiver stalk blocking him. Now, the ball carrier has reached the perimeter with a fullback and pulling guard still in front of him and the force contain guys still locked up with their primary blockers. This is not a good situation for the D.

3. Now, all that being said, let’s assume that the force contain guy(s) do their job and force the play back in or blow up lead blockers in the backfield. The tackle has to actually be made by inside linebackers and safeties pursuing inside out. Corners and OLBs just force the play back to the guys who are pursuing from inside out.

I think that NDs inside backers do a good job of pursuing inside out. I think that the safeties are a little suspect and they, like the corners, are very concerned with not giving up the long ball, so they are slow to become involved in run support. Also, if you have a good defense, your defensive tackles (or defensive ends, whatever you want to call them in the 3-4) and nose should get involved in inside-out pursuit as well.

Their pursuit angles are deeper into the secondary than the safeties and inside backers, but they should arrive onto the scene after 5 or 6 yards. That is how the play should be made on a sweep or perimeter play by the defense.

4. Scheme and assignments have a lot to do with how these people perform. Like I said, OLBs, Corners and Safeties at ND right now are pretty concerned with pass coverage and pass rush. They might be expected to play force contain on perimeter runs, but if they spend most of their practice time defending the pass, then they won't play well vs. the perimeter run in a game.

Who knows, on any individual play, they might have been given a specific assignment which prevents them from being able to effectively defend against the sweep or perimeter run. Interestingly, it is late right now as I am typing this because I was just watching The Tony Barnhart show. Barnhart was asking Brian Jones about NDs defense. Jones made the comment that they basically are still not sure of their assignments.

These guys have gone from 3-4 ro 4-3 and now back to 3-4 and have done it under 3 different DCs in 3 years. So, if an OLB lines up for a play in which he might be expected to: 1) Rush the passer, 2) Cover a receiver or drop back in a hook zone or 3) Play force contain on a sweep or perimeter play. Do you really expect him to do any of these things very well while trying to adjust to his third scheme change in three years?

My response

Great insight all around. A few thoughts on how this is further complicated for the current ND defense.

1. I totally agree that the 4th different D in 4 years has a lot to do with it. I will always wonder what might have been had Weis just stuck with Corwin Brown's 3-4 after 2007. The Tenuta/ Brown hybrid 3-4/4-3 in 08' and Tenuta's 4-3 in 09' just got progressively worse. Now Diaco has them back in a 3-4. I think it suits them but the older LB's have to be confused. The Frosh & Sophs should benefit greatly from growing up in the system in 11' and 12'.

2. In the case of ND their two OLB's have slightly different responsibilities. The "Cat" OLB has his hand on the ground like a 3-4 DE on the majority of the snaps. As such he has obvious edge responsibilities but they also use him as a pass rusher quite often. His pass coverage responsibilities are limited.

The "Dog" or drop OLB is probably the most difficult position on their defense and the one they seem to be having the most problems with. Kerry Neal and Brian Smith both struggle at times. They have a ton of responsibility in pass coverage to start with. Smith got burned for the 1st Stanford TD pass last weekend. At the same time they also have edge responsibilities and depending on whether or not the Cat lined up with a hand down they may or may not have help from a DE.

On almost every play they have a TE or Slot receiver releasing and have to respect him while trying to read run/ pass. So about 1-2 seconds after the snap they have to choose between staying with their receiver or getting up to the LOS to defend the run. That has to be a bitch, especially in system #4 in 4 years.

Needless to say they get picked on all the time. It seemed to me that the majority of Luck's 3rd down conversions were 10 yard passes to TE's that those guys were responsible for. It is hard to fault them when they are concerned about a ground game with an extra T on their side, a FB and a pulling G.

3. All that said I think the biggest area for improvement is simply those OLBs getting off of their blocks. The OLBs on both sides seem to be getting where they need to go but don't always get off their blocks when they get there. They seem to be especially vulnerable to cut blocks. The Denard Robinson 86 yard TD comes to mind.

Now struggling to get off blocks hasn't totally killed them because in most cases their presence is disruptive enough that the ILB's are getting there to make the play inside out. The ILB's Teo #5 and Calabrese #44 are leading the team in tackles which is the way it is designed.

4. The one thing I need to get a better handle on is how those two 3-4 DE's are doing. The NT Williams #95 is playing great but I'm not so sure about the DE's Johnson #90 and KLM #89. My observations on them have suffered from my refusal to re-watch the last three games. I need to get over it and resume my Sunday morning reveiws. I will try and watch them more closely this weekend. I know Diaco's primary objective for those guys is gap control vice penetration which is also a bitch. They are looking to stand guys up and control 2 gaps in most cases. Not easy.

Welcome to my world. Want more of this? Let us know what you think.