So easy, that Brian VanGorder could do it
Before getting into the detailed portions of Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense, you have to understand the general scheme that is the base from which it flows. As with everything, knowing its history will give you insight into the present.
So, let’s get in the way-back machine and take a look at what this 4-2-5 really is and why its development has taken hold the last few years. What we will talk about today is its history and overall breakdown against the run and duties upfront, before getting into individual coverages next week. The main point of this article is not to impress with the complete breakdown of the defense, that's been done countless times all over the message boards of the Notre Dame football universe, but to impress on how understandable this scheme is for anyone to digest. Sometimes finding the heart of a scheme or philosophy in football will reveal as much as any game film. Think of this as the introduction portion to a class on the 4-2-5, now, make sure all cell phones are on silent and vibrate mode.
Originating from coverages that were developed out of the old 4-4 defense, its main purpose is to offer an effective measure to maximize your talent on defense when you don’t have dominant interior lineman. The 4-4 originated in the 1940’s as a way to cover the “T” formation and allow the wide defensive ends to drop into coverage out of a 6 man line. Later, it was effective against the wishbone and option offenses that pressed the interior defense and put pressure on the edges. Those option offenses were the first “spread” schemes to come along and test the wide portions of the field to stretch the defense out. As the game progressed toward the spread concepts that incorporated more pro sets and passing, the 4-4 evolved into the 4-3 design that Jimmy Johnson utilized to put more speed on defense to combat the offenses evolution.
That 4-3 transitioned into what you see in the 4-2-5 today. Basically, trying to not only put speed on the field, but limit substitutions needed for coverage in the spread. In the 4-2-5 you have an answer for any formation the offense has because the necessary personnel are already on the field.
This is a defense designed for the recruitment of quick and athletic defenders. As noted over the last few recruiting cycles, the Fighting Irish have had a difficult time getting a dominating presence at defensive tackle. The 4-2-5 that Elko is installing is not predicated on a run stuffing 3-tech, but sound principles along the line and having two linebackers in the middle to help shore up what may be a weakness in the middle of the line.
This defense is simple. It’s one that is based on a coverage system that is easy to call and limits the amount of information to process, allowing for more time spent on technique and development.
By its numbered sequence you can divide this defense into 2 distinct parts. The front 6 and the back 5. They are individual from each other with different line calls.
The front 6 is responsible for the 6 interior gaps, and are designed for the tackles to either be head up or shaded on guards outside shoulder. The defensive ends are wide, which allow them to attack up field and get pressure on the edge. The 2 ILB’s shore up the interior gaps by either stunting inside the tackles, or off their hips when they angle into the gap. Either way, the goal here is run support and putting bodies in holes to not only bring pressure, but limit running lanes and cut backs. This is a simplistic explanation for sure, but in reality every line call begins with this discipline. Another wrinkle here is that the front 6 can also be covering the 6 gaps from different angles and switch up on responsibilities.
One issue you will find with the 4-2-5 is that it often leads to inadequate matchups against the run if an offense runs from a 2 back set. What Elko does to offset this is slide the linebackers down to the strong side and bring the Weak Safety up to fill the box. This allows for more bodies close to the line, and as we will see later, not affect the coverage called for the back 5.
An even easier way to look at this (especially on Saturdays when you are trying to watch the game and process what’s going on) is that the more people an offense has in its “box”, the defensive ends will slide in covering the tackles more head up, and the 3rd safety hybrid will creep closer to help manage containment- again, without losing its fundamentals in coverage. Ideally, with the 6 interior gaps accounted for, the safeties and corners are taught to read the receivers and not the OL to determine run or pass. In doing this, they can either collapse the edge or push the run wide to allow for pursuit of the back. In most offenses today, especially the spread, the offense will rely on the wideouts to block and not just run off the DB's with a false route (thus the reason for the back 5 to read them instead of the line to recognize what's happening).
This is the beauty of the 4-2-5. Its flexibility allows for transitioning in on the defensive front without losing its coverage discipline. A huge advantage of this defense is that it has the ability to read and matchup with what the offense is doing without having a huge library of schemes to remember. Of all the things discussed here, that last point is most important.
This defense fits what Notre Dame can do well, and will allow for instruction on how to be a better football player and not need at Ph.D to understand the defense they are running. Mike Elko has brought this philosophy to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and it is about damn time.