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Conversations With The Coach: The Front Seven vs. Uncovered Offensive Linemen

Two weeks ago a conversation that I had with The Coach about the edge play of the Notre Dame defense led to a great post and follow on discussion.

That parlayed itself into more conversation last week about Gap Control along the defensive line. There were a ton of great comments and questions on that post that brought up many topics that The Coach would actually like to cover in greater detail.

Over the weekend he and I discussed the order in which we should tackle those questions and we came to the conclusion that the next logical discussion item should be centered around how the front seven deals with uncovered offensive linemen.

Enjoy the post and don’t hesitate to jump into the conversation in the comments. The Coach will check back in to answer questions in the comments and if you raise a question that really gets him going it just might end up being the topic of one of these posts down the line.

The Coach

Last week I was checking some of the comments on the post about Gap Control. There were several good questions, but there was one that particularly interested me concerning uncovered linemen and what the defensive front does about them. So, I'm glad you thought that we might discuss that topic this week, Whiskey. Here it goes.

Let me give you a little background first. When I was coaching, we ran a 4-3 look on our defensive front and I personally coached defensive tackles and the middle linebacker. I had the pleasure of coaching a great Middle Linebacker in Brian Jones, who is now a college football analyst and commentator for CSN, and former UT and NFL linebacker. As I said last week, in a 5-2 or 3-4 look, the inside linebackers are lined up on the offensive guards, who are uncovered. The inside linebackers read those guards.

In a 4-3 front, like we used to run, the middle linebacker is lined up on the center and reads him intently. I have to confess again, that my experience is with a 4-3 and not a 3-4, so I will speak based on what I know about inside linebackers reading uncovered linemen and not specifically about how it is done in a 3-4, and more specifically, how it is done at Notre Dame. I will do a quick review of gap responsibilities (as per last week's post) and then cover how I think that inside backers read uncovered guards.

Then, I will speak some on specific things that I noticed after reviewing last week's Notre Dame - Pittsburgh game film. I will keep my discussion very basic, because I want all levels of readers to "get it" and have fun learning a little football. I am not trying to impress anyone as most of us that visit this site don't aspire to be professional football coaches.

Again, in the 4-3, everyone on the front 7 has a gap or gaps that they are responsible for. Those gaps are lettered. A gaps are the center/guard gaps. B gaps are the guard/tackle gaps. C gaps are the tackle/tight end gaps and D gaps are the "space" outside the tight end. In a base 5-2 or 3-4 look, the noseman is aligned on the center's nose and is responsible for both A gaps. The defensive ends are aligned on the outside eye of the OTs and are responsible for C gap. The outside linebackers are lined up on the outside eye of the tight end and are responsible for D gap, as well as pass rush and pass coverage. They have a lot to think about.

Inside linebackers are aligned on the offensive guards (who are uncovered) about 5 yards off the ball and are responsible for B gaps. Inside backers read the guards. The reads are fairly simple and there aren't very many of them.

Guard Base Blocks - The guard fires straight out at the inside linebacker. This is just old fashioned head knocking. The inside linebacker must step up with authority and take on the guard with his outside arm, leg and head in B gap. He has to do this while reading the flow of the ball. If the ball is coming to his B gap, he has to defeat the OG and fill B gap. The ball may not be headed anywhere near his B gap. If it is headed elsewhere, like closer to "the edge" or to the other side of the formation, the ILB can pursue without engaging the OG.

Inside backers are generally quicker afoot than OGs and their alignment 5 yards off the ball make it difficult for an OG to cut him off from his pursuit. The ILB's pursuit angle is always inside-out. He cannot overrun the football and he must be constantly checking for the back to cutback as he pursues. Again, all of that being said, if the guard comes straight out at him and the ball is behind the OG, the ILB has just got to step up, defeat the guard and fill B gap. Very basic.

Guard Doubles Noseman - This is very common and happens a lot. Any time the guard blocks down on the Noseman, the ILB has to step up into the space where the Guard was. That guard is not doubling the Nose because he is handy. The ball is likely headed to his side of the formation. If there is a fullback in the formation, he is probably assigned to lead block on the ILB and the tailback will be right behind him. If that is the case, then the ILB must take on the FB, just as he would a guard who is firing out on him, defeat the block and fill B gap. This is a big job for the ILB because B gap has gotten very wide now due to the guard blocking down on the noseman. This is just hard nosed football as well.

If there is no FB in the formation, the ILB still has to step up to where the guard was. Here, coaching philosophies may vary. Some coaches might tell the ILB to "run through" B gap looking for the ball. Other coaches might tell him to be a little more cautious as he crosses the line of scrimmage, so he doesn't fall victim to a trap block from the opposite OG (who is also uncovered). It is not common for an ILB to get trap blocked by a backside guard or tackle unless the ILB plays close to the line and runs aggressively through B gap when his guard blocks down on the nose.

It is also possible that the backside guard will pull across the formation, behind the center and the play side guard who are doubling the nose and turn up into the play side B gap. In this case, now the ILB has to take on this back side guard who has pulled and turned up into the play side B gap. In any event, regardless of what happens after his OG doubles down on the nose, the ILB must step up into B gap to fill that space and take on whatever blocker may show there.

Guard Blocks Out on the Defensive End - You wouldn't think that the OG would do this much because the DE is aligned on the outside eye of the OT and is responsible for C gap. However, I saw it happen a few times in the ND-Pitt game. Anyway, the ILB treats this block the same as he would if the OG blocked down on the noseman.

Guard Pulls - Here, the OG pulls and crosses the formation behind the center. In this case, the OG is going to trap the opposite side DE or lead on the sweep. The ILB must pursue the ball to the other side of the formation in this situation, but he must check each gap along the way looking for the cutback. Of course, he must check his own B gap for cutback before he leaves. As he pursues, he also has to be aware that the opposite OG is also uncovered and may be coming out to cut him off from pursuing, so he has to keep one eye on the ball and one eye on the opposite OG.

Guard Pass Blocks - ILB must drop back into his hook zone and play pass defense.

These are the basic reads for an ILB reading an uncovered OG in a 3-4 look. Again, I never coached this defense, so my discussion may be a little speculative. I based my discussion on what I know about how defensive fronts work and how offenses try to attack them. That being said, let me tell you a little about what I noticed in re-watching the ND-Pitt game.

It was difficult to see well, with just trying to rerun plays on my DVR with the TV remote, so I had to run them back over and over. Pitt routinely lined up with one tight end and one split end. They liked to run the ball to the tight end side. They did this all day. In response, ND slid their split side DE and Noseman toward the Tight End side of the formation. The split side DE moved down to the OT's inside eye, making him responsible for B gap. The Nose moved to the centers shoulder on the tight side of the formation, thus making him responsible for only the tight side A gap.

In this alignment, the split side ILB was responsible for the split side A gap. The tight side DE seemed to align as he usually does, on the OT's outside eye, but, on the snap of the ball, routinely fought across the OT's face and squeezed down B gap on the tight side. That made the tight side ILB responsible for C gap on that side of the formation.

Bottom line - ND varied their gap responsibilities along their defensive front. This created some situations that I think Pitt found difficult to handle. With both DE's squeezing down both B gaps, things got pretty jammed up in the middle. With ND's noseman lined up practically in A gap on the tight side, he tied up, and routinely defeated two blockers on each play. This freed up both ILBs to pursue to the ball without spending a lot of time reading uncovered guards or defeating guards on base blocks. The tight side guard was uncovered, but had to help the center with the noseman on every play. The split side guard was uncovered, but the split side DE was squeezing down B gap on that side, so the OG had to help with the DE instead of base blocking on the ILB. I saw ND vary their alignments and gap responsibilities even further against Pitt's wing back formation. I won't go into what I saw there because this post is already going to be too long.

During the entire game, I never saw an OG fire out on an ILB, so the ILBs never had to take on a guards base block. ND created this situation by moving their DEs and NT slightly and varying their gap responsibilities so that the OGs always had to help block them.

I only saw the FB lead block into B gap on the iso play one time. ND's #5 stepped up into the space and the stuffed the FBs block aggressively, just as I am sure he is coached. With the DEs pinching B gaps, there was just nowhere for the back to run and ND's nose muscled his way in to finish the play.

Pitt only ran about 4 different running plays during the game. One play in particular, they ran over and over again and it accounted for at least half their running plays. They ran it with some success. On that play, they were attacking C gap on the tight end side of the formation. The tight side OG and C double teamed the nose who was aligned in A gap on the tight side. The tight side OT drove the tight side DE down inside as he was squeezing B gap. The TE tried to kick out the OLB. Pitt then pulled the back side OG and led him into the tight side C gap behind the FB's lead block with the tailback following that convoy.

That meant that the tight side ILB had to fill C gap, and take on the FB and the pulling guard to make the play. The ILB had a hard time with that. Pitt picked up a lot of yards with that play and busted two long runs on it that I remember. They ran it about a jillion times. ND had a good game plan for it however, with varying their front alignments. The one thing that kept that play from turning into a track meet was the fact that ND's OLBs did a great job of jamming the TE's block and squeezing down C gap to a small space. There wasn't much room there for all those people, FB, G and TB, to run through. Good job by those OLBs.

I could go on and on here about more particular things that I saw on the replay of the game, but, like I already said, this post is too long already. I hope it made sense to you readers. I tried to keep it basic. There are at least 11 guys playing on the line of scrimmage plus two ILBs and a blocking FB. Trying to create a written description of what they are all doing on any given play can end up looking as confused and chaotic as it does on the field. I hope you enjoyed it.