clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Purdue Football: Let's Talk Defensive Scheme!

New, 23 comments

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Nickel and Dime. I get into some technical stuff to try and assuage fear of the unknown defense.

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Coach Hazell, in an effort to both win a few more football games and avoid the executioner, fired both his offensive and defensive coordinators this season. He promoted Terry Malone from tight ends' coach to offensive coordinator and pulled Ross Els out of the high school ranks (don't freak out, Els was the linebackers coach under Bo Pelini and was taking the year off after the Pelini staff was canned). I'll talk about what we might see out of Malone in a future article, but the biggest coaching question mark coming into the year is Els. How is he going to take the God-awful defense from last year and turn it into something respectable? The good news is that Purdue's defense couldn't be any worse than it was last year. We've dug down deep enough to hit bedrock, and despite our attempts to blast through with dynamite last season, we've officially hit the bottom. Now, we can just hang out at the bottom, enjoying the cool darkness, or we can begin to struggle back towards the light. It's Els's job to motivate Purdue's defense to head towards the light, and he's got an interesting plan to help the beleaguered Boilermaker defense.

First off, let me dispel a rumor. Purdue will start as a base 4-3 defense. How do I know this? When asked to describe his defense by the Big 10 Network, Els said, "We will start to operate out of a base 4-3." So there you have it, straight from the horse's mouth: Purdue will at least start in a base 4-3, which is essentially what Purdue ran most of last year, with an occasional unsuccessful foray into a base 3-4. What will change, however, is Purdue's willingness to change their defensive packages to better match up with an opponent's offense. Last season, Purdue did everything it could to keep 3 linebackers on the field at all times, even when we didn't have 3 healthy linebackers. I remember watching Jimmy Herman attempt to play football on one leg and thinking, "There has got to be a better solution than this on the roster." (Actually, my thinking was significantly more profane, but I would have several readers clutching at their pearls if I revealed my true thoughts on the matter.) This season, Purdue is taking a big leap into the new millennium and actually matching personnel. This means you're going to see significantly more 4-2-5 and even an occasional 4-1-6 look on defense, and I, for one, am thrilled.

Our base 4-3 defense will be on the field when an opponent lines up in a traditional power look. That usually consists of 2 WR, 1 TE, 1 QB, 1 FB, 1 HB, or 2 WR, 2 TE, 1 QB, 1RB. In this defense, you have 2 defensive ends (Strong Side and Weak Side) and 2 defensive tackles (Defensive Tackle and Nose Guard), a MIKE (middle) linebacker, SAM (strong side) linebacker and WILL (weak side) linebacker, 2 cornerbacks (Field and Boundary) and a strong and free safety. This defense is best suited to stop a power running, pro-style offense. Purdue can play numerous iterations of zone defense, or they can play man from this base defense . Last season, we mostly played soft zone coverage, allowing teams to eviscerate us with uncontested 5-yard completions, with the occasional long pass thrown in for good measure. This season, we have been promised more man defense. Man in the 4-3 is fairly simple against a pro-style offense. Your corners cover their wide receivers, your WILL covers their tight end, your SAM or MIKE covers the running back, and your remaining linebacker is responsible for either the fullback or the additional tight end. Occasionally you will see the strong safety drop down and cover the tight end as well, especially when you blitz a linebacker.

Playing man, in theory, should make our defensive ends more productive. Last season, our ends could barely get out of their stance before the quarterback completed a wide-open 5-yard pass to the boundary. The throw was so stunningly simple and uncontested that I'm not even sure it should count in the stat column. When you let a runner advance a base because you don't care in baseball, it's called, "fielder's indifference". Purdue should have come up with a stat called "defender's indifference" last season, because it truly looked like we didn't care about 5 yard completions and did nothing to attempt to stop them. This season, God-willing, we will be contesting those 5-yard throws, giving our defense ends more time to actually move up the field and harass the quarterback, instead of essentially just doing fruitless 2-yard sprints for an entire game. In this scenario, our corners are in press man and we either play 1 or 2 high (deep) safeties, depending on blitz scheme.

In addition to playing more man coverage, our linebackers will be playing pass first instead of run first. Last season, our linebackers played run first, looking to move forward into their gaps at the snap, and then peel off into their zones when the play ended up being pass. In theory, this should help stop the run, but it didn't. Teams were quick to adjust to our linebackers firing into the same gaps over and over again, busting big runs on simple misdirection plays and quick hitters, or simply getting an extra blocker, generally a pulling guard, into the hole and kicking out our linebacker. This season, Purdue's linebackers will be playing pass first. Instead of our first two steps being toward the line of scrimage, we will hold our position and read our keys. This should give our linebackers a chance to diagnose the play and fill holes as they occur, instead of just filling the assigned hole on every play. Hopefully, this will cut back on teams gashing us with the same middle school misdirection plays on every down because our linebackers will actually see the guards pulling and adjust instead of just getting kicked out. As strange as it sounds, playing pass first might actually help our run defense. In all honesty, it couldn't hurt, as Purdue was 13th in the Big 10, giving up 245 yards a game, playing run first with our linebackers.

While the 4-3 base will look familiar, we will be utilizing more 4-2-5 (nickel) and 4-1-6 (dime) defenses this year, in an effort to match up with offensive personnel. You will see the 4-2-5 when teams deploy 3WR, 1 TE, 1QB, 1RB. This formation, utilizes a 3rd "slot" wide receiver, instead of a fullback or 2 Tight Ends. This is generally considered a "spread" offense, and Purdue fans should be intimately familiar with this set up, since Joe Tiller brought the look to the Big10. Last season, as I mentioned previously, Purdue refused to match up, keeping 3 linebackers on the field the majority of the time, regardless of the opponent's formation. In order to pull this off, Purdue was limited to playing zone defense, because we couldn't match up with a quick slot receiver. This season, when you see 3 wide receivers, you're going to see 3 defensive backs in the game to match up. This should allow Purdue to play either man or zone, giving opponents something to think about, instead of letting them comfortably pick apart a predictable and soft zone defense.

It is intuitive to think that pulling a linebacker off the field and replacing him with a defensive back will negatively effect run defense. This, however, isn't necessarily the case. When Purdue faces a 3 wide receiver set in traditional running downs, you will see Purdue walk their strong safety down towards the line of scrimmage, once again, putting 7 men "in the box", which is a traditional front against the run. Additionally, the extra cornerback will also be closer to the line of scrimmage, giving Purdue an 8th man "in the box".

When Purdue walks the strong safety down, you will see them employ some version of a cover 3 zone against the pass. In the basic cover 3, the free safety stays deep, the cornerbacks bail out and cover the deep portion of their side of the field, the strong safety and extra defensive back flare out to cover the flats, and the two linebackers cover the middle. This should improve the pass coverage immensely. Last season, in our cover 3, we expected our 2 outside linebackers to make it outside and cover the flats; this season, we will be sending 2 defensive backs to cover the same zone. Generally speaking, you want defensive backs trying to tackle and cover wide receivers in space as opposed to linebackers.

You will also see Purdue play more man out of the nickel look. This is pretty straightforward. The 2 cornerbacks play man against outside wide receivers, the nickel back plays man against the slot, and depending on the deployment of our safeties and blitz scheme (you can either play 2 deep safeties or 1 deep safety) you will either have the strong safety cover the tight end, or one of the two linebackers will cover the tight end, leaving the other linebacker locked up with the running back. This coverage gives the linebacker assigned to the running back an option. If the running back moves out of the backfield as a receiver, the linebacker follows, but if the running back stays in to help with pass protection, the linebacker can come on a delayed blitz.

Playing a 4-2-5 has numerous advantages against a spread offense. The obvious advantage is the ability to match speed for speed on the field. It also helps combat hurry up offenses. In the hurry up spread, the offense attempts to trap a slower linebacker deployed on a run down (first down, second and short or medium) on a pass down by quickly snapping the ball and not letting the defense adjust their personnel. Matching up against a spread team on 1st down prevents them from trapping a linebacker on the field on 3rd down. Finally, the 4-2-5 is helpful in stopping those pesky running quarterbacks. Having an extra defensive back on the field increases the overall speed of the defense, and allows for faster pursuit. Also, because the linebackers are generally in the middle of the field, and not flared out to the perimeter playing zone, they have a better chance to flow to the ball, instead of getting stuck on the outside while the quarterback cuts the ball up the field.

Finally, on obvious passing downs, you will see the Boilermakers deploy a 4-1-6 (dime) defense. You'll see this when the opponent lines up 4WR, 1QB, 1RB or 4WR, 1TE, 1QB or 5WR, 1QB. This offensive formation is generally seen on passing downs where the offense needs to pick up 5+ yards. When Purdue lines up in the 4-1-6, you will see them play some version of "quarters zone" coverage or straight man. In "quarters" you will see the 2 cornerbacks bail out, dropping back to form a line with the two deep safeties, each covering a quarter of the deep field (hence the name). This leaves the remaining 2 defensive backs to cover the flats, with the linebacker covering the middle zone. You will also see Purdue play man out of this look on occasion, especially when the offense is looking for something in the 5-10 yard completion range. Again, the basics of this defense is to have the defensive backs play man against the receivers, and the linebacker to play man against either the tight end or running back, leaving the safeties deep. Occasionally you will see the strong safety move down and pick up the RB/TE so the linebacker can blitz. In a 5 WR look, you generally see the strong safety pick up the 5th receiver, with the linebacker either playing a 1-man zone in the middle, or blitzing.

How Does This Work With Our Personnel?

This is where things get complicated. Purdue has significantly more experienced depth at linebacker than it has at defensive back. The Purdue depth at linebacker looks like this:

Jimmy Herman

6'4

230

SR

Andy James-Garcia

6'0

225

SR

Evan Pulliam

6'2

225

SR

Ja'Whaun Bently

6'2

250

JR

Danny Ezechukwu

6'2

250

JR

Garrett Hudson

6'3

245

JR

Dezwan Polk-Campbell

6'3

220

JR

Markus Bailey

6'1

235

RS FR

Wyatt Cook (moved to defensive end)

6'2

240

RS FR

Sawyer Dawson

6'1

235

RS FR

Tim Faison (moved to defensive end)

6'2

210

RS FR

Semisi Fakasiieki

6'3

250

FR

First off, that's a bunch of linebackers, but consider the following:

Ja'Whaun Bently: Coming back off an ACL injury

Markus Bailey: Coming back off an ACL injury

Jimmy Herman: Coming off of 2 bad hamstrings and a shoulder injury

Dezwan Polk-Cambell: Coming off an ankle injury

Evan Pulliam: Career special teams player

For as much depth as Purdue appears to have on paper, the reality was that Purdue struggled and often failed, to put 3 healthy linebackers on the field last season. This is what I expect in terms of a linebacker depth chart this season:

4-3

WILL:

1. Danny Ezechukwu

2. Markus Bailey

MIKE:

1. Ja'Whaun Bently

2. Garrett Hudson

SAM:

1. Jimmy Herman

2. Andy James-Garcia

Notes:

Sawyer Dawson and Dezwan Polk-Campbell will both compete for the back-up SAM spot.

4-2-5:

MIKE:

1. Ja'Whaun Bentley

2. Jimmy Herman

MIKE:

1. Danny Ezechukwu

2. Markus Bailey

Notes:

Garrett Hudson  will both compete for a backup spot.

Further Analysis:

As you can see, the two linebackers in the 4-2-5 are generally both middle linebackers. They need to have the size to take on blocks and thump ball carriers. Purdue has two ideal players for these positions in Ja'Whaun Bentley and Danny Ezechukwu. Something to keep in mind, however, is that Bentley is less than a year out from ACL reconstruction. All reports seem to indicate that Bentley is doing fine, but I'm not sure he will be able to stay on the field 100% of the time, especially early on in the season. I think you will see Jimmy Herman rotate into a MIKE spot quite a bit, either to give Bentley a rest, or provide a better match-up against a tight-end/running than Ezechukwu. Having 3 experienced players rotate through 2 positions provides Purdue with the ability to keep 2 fresh, healthy linebackers on the field at all times.

4-1-6:

Mike:

1. Jimmy Herman

2. Markus Bailey

Further Analysis:

In a 4-1-6, you want your best coverage linebacker on the field. I know it seems like a bad idea to take Bentley and Ezechukwu off the field, but they are better stuffer than pass defenders. Herman and Bailey are better suited to play a one man zone, or take a running back out of the backfield. This is a perfect chance for Purdue to utilize their depth at linebacker.

Secondary Depth:

Purdue has several options to in the secondary, but most are untested.

Myles Norwood

CB

6'0

175

JR

Da'Wan Hunte

CB

5'9

190

JR

Kamal Hardy

CB

6'0

190

JR

Race Johnson

CB

5'11

190

JR

Antonio Blackmon

CB

6'0

190

SO

Mike Little

CB

6'0

175

RS FR

Evyn Cooper

CB

6'2

190

RS FR

David Rose

CB

6'0

180

RS FR

Simeon Smiley

CB

6'0

197

FR

Brandon Shuman

CB

5'11

165

FR

Josh Hayes

CB

6'0

180

FR

Leroy Clark

S

5'10

200

SR

Austin Logan

S

6'0

200

SR

Robert Gregory

S

6'1

225

SR

C.J. Parker

S

6'2

205

JR

Tim Cason

S

5'11

195

SO

Brandon Roberts

S

5'11

200

SO

Andy Chelf

S

6'0

195

RS FR

Navon Mosely

S

6'0

180

FR

Note:

Purdue has yet to put out a post spring depth chart. I'm fairly certain they won't, which is...unusual, so this is just my best guess.

4-3-4:

CB1:

1. Da'Wan Hunte

2. Myles Norwood

CB2:

1. Antonio Blackmon

2. Tim Cason

FS:

1. Robert Gregory

2. Brandon Roberts

SS:

1. Leroy Clark

2. Austin Logan

Note:

This is a blind guess. Hunte and Clark probably have their spots, but the free safety and second corner spot are up in the air.

4-2-5:

CB1:

1. Da'Wan Hunte

2. Myles Norwood

CB2:

1. Antonio Blackmon

2. Tim Cason

NB:

1. Mike Little

2. Race Johnson

Note:

Little and Johnson rotated as the first choice nickel back in the spring. Brandon Shuman is one of Purdue's intriguing true freshman, and is ideal for the nickel position. It will be interesting to see if he gets a look in the fall.

4-1-6:

CB1:

1. Da'Wan Hunte

2. Myles Norwood

CB2:

1. Antonio Blackmon

2. Tim Cason

NB:

1. Mike Little

2. Race Johnson

DB:

1. Race Johnson

2. Evyn Cooper

Note:

Shuman could also get a look at the dime spot. I think Purdue will try and get the light to come on for Cooper and will get him on the field. The dime spot would seem to be an ideal opportunity to get him some important reps.

Overall:

Purdue has the opportunity to make a big jump in defense, in what I think will be a more flexible, less predictable sceme. I think you will see more players actually play this season, which will be a positive. One of my biggest technical complaints of the coaching staff was their refusal to get guys on the field. This won't be a dominant Purdue defense, but I don't think it will be a shockingly pathetic defense either. At this point, we're looking for baby steps. If the Boilers can force a few more turnovers and have a defense ranked somewhere in the 8th to 10th range in the Big10, Purdue will have a solid shot to win 6 or 7 games.