Find out how Coach McLaughlin compartmentalizes the teaching of his “Big Kat,” the strong safety/linebacker type in the Bengals four-down defensive scheme into three distinct reads. He details the progressions he uses to train his players to play run and pass vs. spread offenses.
By Garrett McLaughlin
Buffalo State College
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Perhaps the single biggest storyline from this past NFL postseason was the emergence of the spread, zone read offense. Players like Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III, and Russell Wilson proved what many of us already knew – that no matter the level, an option based offense that forces the defense to cover the entire field horizontally and vertically puts the defense at a distinct numbers disadvantage.
In addition to the schematic problem defenses face, the spread offense also utilizes fast, hybrid type players that pose numerous issues for defenses to scheme against. The modern trend has become to use a quarterback that is dangerous not only with his arm, but also with his legs, in conjunction with ultra-fast running backs who are not only skilled at finding seams through the defense on the ground, but can also run precise routes and be a threat to catch the ball coming out of the backfield. Additionally, gone are the days of bulky tight ends that function more like an additional offensive lineman. Now, tight ends are longer, lankier athletes who are asked to not only block, but also be a threat to catch the ball and make a defender miss. Indeed, the spread has gone from a “gimmick” offense run by few teams in an era when pro-style, two-back traditional offenses dominated the football landscape, to an offense that seems to be more the norm than the gimmicky exception.
The onus now falls onto us as defensive coaches to find the best way to combat this disadvantage. At Buffalo State, our answer to the offense’s fast, hybrid players is our own fast, hybrid players. Thus, the Big Kat position was born. These Linebacker/Safety hybrids (named the Tiger and Bengal) play at a position that would be generally identified as an “overhang” player to offenses, normally lining up five yards by five yards from the end man on the line of scrimmage (EMOL). As coaches, we’ve found that use of these players is the best way to control the zone read and jet sweep running game, bubble/tunnel screens, and the slot driven passing game that are hallmarks of the modern spread offense. Our staff believes that because that area is so critical, our defense needs to have players that just specialize in dominating that space.
Evaluating Overhang Personnel
When attempting to recruit a player to fit these positions, the first thing our staff looks for is flat out playing speed. As mentioned previously, spread offenses are trying to stretch the field and create extra space for themselves by formation and putting a bunch of little fast guys in the game, so our defense must try to constrict this space by spreading our formation out and putting faster guys on the field as well.
The next two critical traits that we look for in recruiting Big Kat’s is physicality and change of direction ability. It is absolutely critical that our Big Kats are able take on blocks from tight ends and fullbacks, rush the passer, and tackle in the open field. In addition, Big Kats must be quick-twitch athletes who can change direction and reach full speed in an instant to react to the plethora of plays they will get thrown at them. If you possess those three qualities, you can play Big Kat for us.
Once the Big Kat has properly aligned himself and gets his read steps right, he must now understand what he is reading. Our Big Kats read the EMOL to the backfield to determine run or pass. If he gets any kind of run read, he will always force the football (in our terminology, to have “force” means you are keeping the football inside and in front of you and aggressively making the ball carrier cut back into our help defensively), and if he gets a pass read, he will always drop to the #2 receiver (counted outside-in). As a defensive staff, we always try to keep it as simple as possible for our guys in order to allow them to play fast and instinctive defense.
The three basic reads our Big Kats can get are EMOL down, EMOL out, or pass. The next three sections will talk about how our Big Kats react to these reads, and the last section explains how they deal with any kind of option look. Any kind of pressure scheme that sends our Big Kat as an outside rusher does not change his reads.
Click on the link below for a sneak peak at the video that is available exclusively to our Insiders members. This one looks at reading Down blocks by the EMOL.
By utilizing the Big Kat hybrid Linebacker/Safety in the Buffalo State defense, we are able to dictate the flow of the game and take away many of the things that make modern spread offensives so effective. By keeping the defense simple, our athletes are able to run, react, and play with great speed and tempo, and the defense caters to their best talents.
Thanks for the informative article. What do you have your Big Late do vs a non-spread (2 back) formation? We play teams that run spread and power formations using the same personnel making subbing for personnel difficult. Do you ever run into problems using speedier players as you Big Kats against 2 back formations?