Odd Front: Leveraging the Strong Side Run Game
By Mike Kuchar
Senior Research Manager
One of the most appealing aspects of playing an odd front is that it is a “mirrored” style defense – both sides of the front look exactly the same. By definition, an odd front means that you have three down lineman – with the offensive guards uncovered. We’ve found that the odd front defense, which has been a staple for years at the NFL level thanks to coaches like Bill Belichick and Dick LeBeau, are being utilized more by high school programs now as their base defense. Although 69.8 percent of coaches utilize more of a 3-4 base, rather than a 3-3-5 base, we will cover both structures for the purpose of this report. Structurally, for the most part, you have a zero technique nose that’s head up on the center, along with two defensive ends that are either in inside or outside shades on the offensive tackles. There are two inside linebackers, two outside linebackers, two corners and two safeties. Its symmetrical structure makes it the scheme of choice to play spread formation teams. We’ve found that even 32.8 percent of four down lineman defenses employ some form of odd front defense, mainly in passing downs (when coordinators expect wide open sets).
This is all well and good when lining up against open offenses, with two man surfaces (a guard and tackle to either side of the center) because the offense is just as balanced as the defense. But an issue presents itself when offenses start to break balance by using three or four man surfaces – with the inclusion of the tight end. No longer can an odd front be balanced. Creating an extra player, means creating an extra gap in the run game. So you need a defender to leverage that gap – who you put there is up to you, but we’ve found that these are the most common ways to get an extra hat in the gap:
- Stunt or angle the nose guard into the play side A gap
- Drop an outside LB to “cover up” the tight end and play the extra gap to that side
- Slant or angle the entire defensive line to penetrate gaps to the strong side
- Drop a deep safety pre or post snap to play more of a 3-3-5 structure
- Over shift into some form of four down front, reducing the DL into the three-man surface
While all of these can be effective, we selected coaches’ most popular methods and provided insight into how they accomplish them.
Case 1: Techniques/Movements to Get the Nose Into the Play Side A Gap
Since the nose is the anchor of any good odd front (just ask the Patriots Vince Wilfork about that) we’ll start there. The nose is as vital a player in the odd front as the 3-technique defensive tackle is in any even front (a little foreshadowing for later). We’ve found that one of the common misconceptions when implementing this defense is that you need a mammoth nose like Wilfork in order to be successful. This is entirely untrue. When playing this scheme you have two options when playing that nose – you can cover him up on the center and play double A gaps in a boxing match – quick hands, quick feet. If you base him up, a guy like Wilfork would win every time. Your other option is to move that nose every snap to gain an advantage by using his speed. In fact, 69.5 percent of our readers prefer to move that nose post-snap rather than have him lock horns with the center and play a two-gap technique. Travis Bark, the defensive coordinator at Linn-mar High School in Cedar Rapids (IA) feels he doesn’t have the size to match up, so he stunts out of necessity. “We slant him every down depending on tendencies that we get,” says Bark. “We don’t want those guys staying put. We don’t line up with those monsters up front.” Bark has two calls – “slant” which tells the nose he is slanting to the strength the call, which will usually be the tight end surface. Or he will have an “opp” or opposite call, which takes the nose away from the call. Of course, the linebackers behind them will need to replace the gaps vacated so if the nose is in the strong side A gap, the weak side LB has the weak A gap.
While this sound like terrific clinic talk, it’s essential that coaches teach their defensive lineman how to slant and angle. When compiling our research, we’ve found some coaches spend the time teaching visual keys when stunting and some do not. Jeff Devanney, the head coach at Trinity College in Connecticut, has had one of the top defensive programs in Division-3 for the last five years and leaves nothing to chance when coaching up his stunting lineman. Devanney moves his nose guard 75 percent of offensive snaps and teaches a six-inch drive step to the next adjacent lineman. He talks about getting hands into the gap he’s stunting and watching for two possible reads:
- If the center goes away, put your hands on the next adjacent lineman and push/pull to flatten him out.
- If the center comes at him, get hands on, decipher whether it’s a scoop or cutoff or double team block and bury our inside leg into center and get his shoulder lifted.
While DeVanney talks more to his players about reading gaps (which 46.6 of our coaches agree), Bark, on the other hand, gives his kids a visual aiming point, such as the near hip of the next adjacent linemen they are stunting to. “If the hip goes away, they need to be aware of a pull and kick scheme,” says Bark. “We want to get into the gap and create a mess in the backfield. I want them to go to the action.” What if Bark guesses wrong on his call? “If the center blocks back on the nose’s hip it’s an outside play so I teach them to rip through high and fight against pressure into that A gap and get outside. The other way I’ll teach it is to feel pressure, and spin around. If I’m slanting right and feel pressure on my left hip, I post left elbow, pop the right elbow and spin back around across his face. I never was a ‘spin guy’ but we worked it enough and I wasn’t going to tell them to stop making plays. The kids were good enough to vary the rip and the spin. It kept those OL guessing.”
Perhaps, no one coaches the slant/angle technique better than Ron Burton, the defensive line coach at Air Force Academy. What makes Burton so efficient at teaching the slant is because he has to, he has no choice. His d-linemen consistently compete against offensive lineman in the Mountain West Conference who are bigger and stronger, so it’s a necessity to use speed to beat them. According to Burton, his nose guard annually is the average of 6-0 to 6-3 and weighs in the ball park of 250-260 pounds. He has him head up the center, crowding the ball in a four point, shoulder width stance. He calls it “numbers to numbers, eyes to eye” to make sure he gives nothing away. He tells his nose his eyes must stay focused as to not give any movement away. When he does angle, he teaches the following coaching points to the nose guard:
- Aiming point is the hip of the near guard
- Hip away – look for any back-side threat such as a down block
- Hip to – attack, knock him back and maintain gap responsibility
- Do not get reached, do not get cut-off
Case 2: Handling the Three Man Surface With an OLB
Ask any offensive coordinator and he’ll tell you that the C gap is the most alarming deficiency when playing and odd front structure, and it’s exactly where coordinators are going to attack. There are volumes of football lore written about running the off-tackle schemes against 3-4 or 3-5 defenses, mainly because you get a stout tight end matched up with a hybrid safety type, which is what most of those odd teams employ to handle those tight ends. Surprisingly, the coaches we talked with echoed the same sentiment.
“Those safety types are the toughest position to coach and the least coached position,” says Bark. “They are the force players, yet need to defend play-action routes. Sometimes it’s tough to have it both ways.” Bark teaches his safeties to play a “loose” nine-technique, on the outside shoulder of the tight end, that way they don’t have to play so physical on the down block, yet it’s important he blows up anything that comes his way. “We give him the freedom to creep down pre-snap but he must get there,” says Bark. “He tries to get hands on the tight end to stop the inside release. He tries to squeeze and restrict the C gap because it blows wide open if they get the inside LB sealed.”
While Bark’s safety types may be interchangeable, Devanney plays a field defense at Trinity in his 3-4 schemes. He has what he calls the “Hawk,” a more physical player align to the tight end or field, while his “Bantam” lines up opposite. Even though the Hawk is more of stand-up defensive end, more suited to defend the tight end surface, Devanney still feels it is a challenge to coach. “The outside linebacker is the hardest position to coach in the odd front defense, it’s a lot like the corner technique,” he says. “If you have no idea what formation you’re playing than you’re not effective. You need to scan the field and understand what schemes can present themselves your way. You need to know if there is a tight end or a FB off set from me.”
The Hawk plays a tighter technique (what he calls outside shade), matching his inside foot with the tight end’s outside foot. This is done because in DeVanney’s quarter’s scheme his safeties are his force players, which 39 percent of coaches prefer to run with the 3-4 front. But, if he gets two wide to the field, now that same outside linebacker will be the force player. It takes a ton of coaching, according to Devanney. “We tell that Hawk to the field he can never be reached whereas the split-side can, we just tell him to kick the crap out of the tight end.”
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Case 3: Handling the Three-Man Surface With Movement
In order to get help to the three-man surface, Devanney will drop his strong safety and blitz the front side backer in his star concept (Diagram 1). It is essentially the same adjustment teams have made with the 3-3-5 defense in order to get eight run defenders in the box. The difference lies in stemming your movement pre-snap or post-snap. Although Ron Roberts, the head coach at Delta State University in Mississippi, runs more of a 3-3-5 by personnel, he often has five defensive backs in the game at one time – he morphs into a 3-4 look pre-snap just to catch the offense off guard.
In order to protect the run game vs. a tight end surface, Roberts will stunt post-snap into what resembles a traditional Over front (Diagram 2). Roberts has his strong side defensive end, who will start head-up on the tackle in a four technique, stunt away from the tackle into the B gap. The nose, who starts in a zero technique, stunts into the weak side A gap while the other defensive end has C gap control. Essentially, he’ll end up with a reduction (3-technique) to the play-side by that stunt, which is the traditional set-up for a four-down team. Sure, this may not sound so unorthodox, but what is different about what Roberts does is instead of having that safety-type play the tight end like we mentioned before, he will drop his strong side outside linebacker to play in a 3×5 alignment to the tight end. Not only does it provide for a better match-up, but now because of the safety sitting in the alley, he doesn’t need to play force.
“The toughest thing to teach is trying to get those safeties in your odd front scheme to rush and cover,” says Roberts. “The problem in the 3-4 is teaching those kids to both rush and cover. If you play the safety on the tight end, now he’s essentially a rusher. These kids might not be athletic enough to do that. But because of our blitz package, our outside linebackers (L and R) know how to rush. So they are B gap players unless they have a tight end, then they are C-D gap players. We just let the safeties (Diamond and Nitro) cover the flat guys. In order to coach his outside linebackers to play both C and D gap in the run game, Roberts trains their eyes to read the tight end’s block. “We call it a crash 9 into the C gap. Any reach or turnout by the tight end we play “sky” and he slides his head into C gap (Diagram 3).
In order to change it up, we may go “bronco” and have the safety slide back inside to the C gap and have the outside backer play force (Diagram 4). The key is both those players must be reading the tight end.”
Roberts teaches his defensive line to “read on the run” while they are stunting. Although it takes a ton of reps to perfect, he finds they are always in the right spot when the ball is snapped. “If I’m stunting into a three-technique then the offensive guard is still my key,” he says. “If I’m stunting into a five-technique than that offensive tackle is my key. All I will do is take a lateral step with my play side foot, we call it a J-step, while keeping my shoulders square and read the nap of the neck of that guard for his block. I don’t like them penetrating without understanding blocking schemes. Then you just get up the field and take yourself out of the play.”
Sam Honeyman, the defensive line coach at Hellgate High School in Missoula (MT) runs a 3-4 but walks his outside linebackers up on the line of scrimmage to hold leverage against three man surfaces. He plays his nose head up on the center with two, five techniques (who flop based on strength call). Against any time of three-man surface run game he wants to keep his ends outside and compress the C gap by jamming shoulders and working up field. One of his most productive strong side blitzes has been what he calls Tornado (Diagram 5) where the outside linebacker to the tight end side will creep up knocking him off course. Since he’s the force player, he can’t be reached. He reduces the play-side defensive end into a 3-technique pre-snap (a little different than Roberts does) and he’ll execute an exchange with the nose who is now a shade technique away from the tight end. “Our rule is that the one technique always goes first. He rips off the ball and crosses the center’s face with the aiming point being the strong side guard’s hip. Our reduced end is off the ball, we make him back up a little pre-snap, but he “cuts the fat off a steak” and goes through the weak A gap. We bring our Mike LB on a read stunt, he’ll delay two seconds and read the center’s butt and go towards the center’s butt. If that center blocks back, like he may on gap schemes, the A gap is wide open for a run through.”
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Football is football, defense is defense. It is still just a numbers game. Perhaps Ron Roberts said it best in his interview with me when he said (and I paraphrase here, sorry that I can’t include the Southern drawl) “Every odd front team wants to get into four-down to protect the run game, particularly against tight end surfaces. It’s just a matter of how you do it.” So, you can slant, angle, move or shift. You’re playing the odd front for a reason – to balance your numbers in the pass game and to disguise your pressure package. But if teams want to line up and go nose-to-nose in a boxing match, I think you need to find a way to get numbers to your advantage.
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