When we first compiled our research on the 4-2-5 defense, you (our readers) had specific questions - so we provided specific answers by going right to the source- selecting three of the more prominent coaches that run the scheme (all of whom you asked us to contact). Mike Kuchar (MK), our Senior Research Manager, spoke exclusively with each of them - asking them YOUR questions, and their responses.
By Mike Kuchar
Senior Research Manager
When we first compiled our research on the 4-2-5 defense, you (our readers) had specific questions - so we provided specific answers by going right to the source- selecting three of the more prominent coaches that run the scheme (all of whom you asked us to contact). Mike Kuchar (MK), our Senior Research Manager, spoke exclusively with each of them - asking them YOUR questions, and their responses are below. Our goal was to get a FBS coach, an FCS coach and a smaller level coach.
Bud Foster (BF)- Regarded as one of the top defensive minds in the game, Bud Foster enters his 26th season at Virginia Tech. The 2006 Broyles Award winner has helped mold nationally ranked defenses on a yearly basis during his 17 years as a coordinator. Foster, who was a finalist three previous times (1999, 2001, 2005) for the award given to the nation’s top assistant football coach, has gained a well-deserved reputation as one of the nation’s most respected defensive coaches.
Mickey Matthews (MM)-During his 13 seasons, Mickey Matthews has firmly established James Madison University football among the nation's leading Football Championship Subdivision programs. While becoming the winningest coach in JMU football history, he has led the Dukes to an NCAA championship (2004) and to five other playoff appearances (1999, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2011). Matthews three times has been National Coach of the Year (1999 Eddie Robinson Award by The Sports Network; American Football Coaches' 2004 award; 2008 Robinson Award and an award by Liberty Mutual) and was Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year in 1999 and CAA Coach of the Year in 2008. Matthews said he learned the scheme directly from Gary Patterson and his staff both when Patterson was at New Mexico State and TCU.
Chris Brown (CB)- Chris Brown entered his third season as head coach of Fort Hays State in 2013. Brown came to Fort Hays State from Washburn University, where he served as the defensive coordinator and defensive secondary coach from 2002-2010 and assistant head coach in 2010. Before coming to Hays, Brown helped Washburn compile a 62-41 record in his nine-year span with the program, which included two NCAA playoff appearances and two bowl wins. In his time at Washburn, Brown coached the 2009 and 2006 MIAA Most Valuable Defensive Players and guided two players selected in the NFL Draft (defensive tackle Trey Lewis-6th round 2007, and cornerback Cary Williams-7th round 2008). Brown also coached six All-Americans, 20 all-region and 41 All-MIAA selections at Washburn. His defense led the MIAA in turnovers gained in three of his final four seasons there, including a school record-tying 23 interceptions in 2007.Brown learned the scheme from sitting down with Jerry Kill, now the head coach at the University of Minnesota and with studying what Bud Foster was doing at Virginia Tech University. Brown was actually a three-time All-American at Free Safety in the 4-2-5 defense as a collegian at Pittsburg State University.
MK: What has changed most in the 4-2-5 defense today from when it was a 4-4 defense? How has it progressed?
BF: We’ve gone around and around with this. The Whip position (Field Safety) for us has become more of a hybrid for us. The Rover (Boundary Safety) and Free Safety haven’t changed a lot for us. We’re playing more with a true safety type guy. We’d like him to be physical enough to force the end run, but with the way offenses are designed now, you can play some man coverage with him and not put up a “red flag” by changing personnel and brining it a Nickel package. This way, you’re always playing with a Nickel package. Offenses now just spread you around and match up. Those outside backer/safety players are most important.
MM: We went from a 4-3 to a 4-2-5 because of all the one-back sets we’re encountering now. It’s easier to adjust with a 4-2-5 than a 4-3. If you’re in a 4-3, one of your outside backers must become an adjuster, so it ends up being a 4-2-5 anyway against spread sets.
CB: The game on offense has changed; it went from a ‘ground and pound’ philosophy to more of a pass happy game. Now we have smaller, outside linebackers/safety types that play that position. Years ago, those players were true rush linebackers with hardly no coverage responsibility. Now these guys are safeties that can still play man to man coverage, play half field coverage and set the edge in the run game.
MK: Describe the personnel types of your three safeties.
BF: When we recruit our Whip’s (Field Safety) those are a variety of skill sets. We look for guys that can run and have some toughness because you want them to be able to blitz and force the run. You’re looking for a big safety or a running back in high school because those are your better athletes. We’d even look for QB’s because those are some of your smarter players and better athletes. We’ve even had receivers in the past play that position for us. We spill everything to them, so they need to be open-field players and have the ability to cover people in space. Our Free Safety is a flat foot reader and alley player. He must carry number two in the seam as well as play the Drag and Dig routes. He needs to also be a factor in the run game. We try to have one more defender than they have a blocker. Our free hitter must be the Rover, Whip or Free Safety.
MM: What we call our Strong Safety is our hybrid. He’s half-safety and half-linebacker. He has to take on blocks and be at the point of attack. The Strong Safety doesn’t have to be in space as much as our Free Safety. We keep our Free Safety out of the box. He’s not as big and not as physical as the Strong Safety. There is no protypical size. We’ve had tall ones and short ones. These Strong Safeties are like tweeners for us. The Weak Safety doesn’t have to be as physical. For us, he’s usually 75 percent out of the tackle box and 25 percent in the tackle box. The Strong Safety is usually 75 percent in the tackle box and 25 percent out of the box. Our Weak Safety is more of a pass defender for us. He’ll be a hash player for us at times.
CB: We don’t have the depth that some guys do at the Division 1 level so we just try to find safeties that are a little bit bigger than can play the Strong and Weak Safety position. Offensively, spread teams put their best receivers in the slot position so those safeties are usually between 6’1’- 6’3’ and range from 195-215 pounds but they must be able to run to the ball. Sometimes, we’ll have a kid that can play the strong side against a tight end so we’ll have a true Strong Safety so there will be years where we will play with one. But teams will flip their tight end so much against us that we’ll just mirror those kids. The Free Safety is kind of a different animal. He’s a QB for us- he has to know our coverage and get us lined up. He doesn’t have to be fast kid, but he must be a smart kid and an athletic kid. He’s a player that can rob coverage and get the weak side in lined. He is a traditional Free Safety for us because we play a ton of cover three. I actually coach the safeties even though I’m a head coach because that position is what I played and what I’m used to coaching. They are that important in this scheme.
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Join X&O Lab’s exclusive membership website – Insiders – gain full access to Mike Kuchar’s interviews, which includes:
- Why these coaches are moving towards Quarters and Halves coverages in replace of Robber concepts.
- The most efficient ways in which these coaches are handling “Jumbo” personnel or double Tight End sets.
- What these coaches are saying is the “biggest disadvantage” of using the 4-2-5 system and what they are doing to combat it.
MK: How do you teach your corners to play a “cheat halves” technique in Robber coverage?
CB: We tell those corners to cheat up inside another two yards from their normal alignment- which is right inside the numbers. They are usually 7-8 yards deep depending on the player- his speed or how well he gets back. We don’t teach the baseball turn because we want him to be able to see where the QB is throwing the ball. If it’s 2x2 we will cheat them inside another yard or two. We want to make that QB throw the outside throw- it’s a long throw and our corners should be able to get there.
MM: They have a mid-point technique based on what number two is doing. The thing is when you do that you’re coverage becomes soft on number one. So now what we’ve done is tell those corners to play a bump and run style to prevent the quick game. We’ve gotten more to getting those corners more involved in the quick pass game. If we are playing a cheat halves technique, we want them on the upfield shoulder (inside shoulder) of the wide reciver. They will take three slide back steps to diagnose the play and read out from there. Our goal is to get a midpoint position between number one and number two Everything is based on number two.
MK: What dictates your strength on defense in terms of front and coverage?
BF: We will set our Whip to the field and our Rover away to the boundary. Those guys are specific players for us- we don’t rotate that.
CB: We typically set our front strength to the tight end. Our secondary strength will go to side with the most receivers. We don’t go field and boundary. We don’t want to a lot, we want to do simple things the right way.
MK: Which types of coverages do you use mostly with pressure?
CB: We’re a zero blitz team. We do some some stuff, but we’re mostly zero behind it. We’ll usually send both inside linebackers or send both safeties off the edge.
MK: What advice would you give coaches that are looking to implement this system for the first time?
BF: I’m sold on it.
MM: I think it’s a great move defensively if you have a lot of those hybrid safety/linebackers that are good blitzers. If you don’t have true safeties or true linebackers, it allows those kids to play that normally wouldn’t see the field in a three-linebacker structure. We had a player that was 5-9, 215 lbs. that ran a 4.7 who was a really good football player. He wasn’t fast enough to play corner or big enough to play linebacker or very good out in space to play safety. It turns out he was our Strong Safety when we won the FCS National Championship in 2004. He was a good blitzer and was explosive. Playing Strong Safety made his career. We used to kid him and tell him if it weren’t for the 4-2-5, he never would’ve played. If you got guys like that and you’re trying to fit them into a 4-3, then you probably should consider the 4-2-5.
CB: You need to have three pretty good safeties or outside linebackers and you must have corners that can play a deep half technique. You have to have corners that can cover some ground.
Editor’s Note: This information was part of a special report conducted by XandOLabs.com on the 4-2-5 defense. The full length research project can be found through the links below: