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Nebraska Football: Decoding Bob Diaco’s 3-4 Okie Front

What’s the new Nebraska defense going to look like? We start with a tutorial on our new coordinator’s base defense.

NCAA Football: Navy at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

I was just getting into my car on Wednesday evening to leave work when I looked at my phone to see that a friend of mine had texted me that Banker had been fired. With a wide-eyed look of surprise on my face, I quietly got into the driver seat of my 4Runner and began my usual ritual of checking various Nebraska message boards and Twitter for any information.

The firing of the Connecticut Yankee Mark Banker was a shock, as I thought he had done more than a serviceable and adequate job with the defense considering the lack of defensive talent he had at his disposal. As I drove west on Dodge on my way home from work, I began to ponder the implications of Banker’s firing and his potential replacement.

Although it sounds horribly self-aggrandizing, two things immediately popped into my head when considering potential replacements for Mark Banker:

1- Banker’s replacement is going to be a big name guy, as you don’t fire a reasonably decent DC unless you’ve got a home run hire; and,

2- I suspected there would be a philosophy shift in defensive scheme towards the 3-4, as I have maintained that Riley’s platitudes that he heaped upon BYU’s defense in 2015 could be indicative of a potential change, as the 3-4 is perfectly suited to suffocate B1G west division offenses, while maintaining flexibility within philosophy and scheme to slow down the spread to run attacks of B1G east division albatrosses like Ohio State and Penn State. I’ll try not to strain myself from patting myself on the back too much here, but I digress.

Additionally, the 3-4 defense will be a game plan nightmare for opposing offensive coordinators in having to switch up blocking rules in one week’s time in addition to changing blocking angles on zone blocking, confusing young offensive linemen as to who comes off of the combo block, the fundamental steps and techniques of the block, etc. For example, Iowa had much success against Banker’s 4-3 alignment climbing to the second level with their center getting a clean shot to cut-off Josh Banderas’s pursuit.

Within the 3-4, the nose guard will seek to occupy the center and prevent him from climbing to the MIKE. Many coaches state that it is imperative to find out what your most formidable opponents do schematically and then develop your scheme in accordance to what gives your opponents the most trouble.

Because of the shift in defensive philosophy and scheme, this will be the inaugural Decoding Diaco and I will introduce the positions along the defensive line and the most common defensive fronts Nebraska will use within Bob Diaco’s 3-4 “No Crease” defense. By the way, if you google “Bob Diaco 3-4 No Crease Defense” you will find an extremely insightful write-up that will explain some scheme specific tenets of Diaco’s defense.

Okie Front

3-4 Okie Front Ryan Reuter

The Okie front is aptly named so because of the fact that this particular 3-4 alignment is identical to the old Oklahoma 5-2 defense created by Bud Wilkinson. Nebraska also ran the 5-2 up until the last radical shift in defensive philosophy and scheme in Lincoln with the switch to the 4-3. Although the base alignments of the 3-4 Okie front and the Oklahoma 5-2 are identical, the difference lies within lining up athletes in those various positions in the 3-4 Okie. The Okie front is Diaco’s base front for his 3-4 defense, so it’s best that we all get real familiar with the intricacies of the Okie.

Defensive Line: Well, first off, I hate to break it to y’all, but Diaco’s scheme uses the gap-control philosophy, better known as the 2-gap, rather than the 1-gap gap pressure philosophy of Mark Banker. As you’re reading this at home you’re probably shaking your head and cursing the 2-gap gap control philosophy and I don’t blame you, as we all share collective experiences of watching gap control defenses get eviscerated under Mark ‘Bo’ Pelini from roughly to 2011 AD to 2014 AD. However, something to consider is that this particular brand of gap control will be coached and recruited to by a coach in Bob Diaco who has had consistently high results, even at UConn with their inherent talent disadvantages; which displays to me two things, 1-Diaco recruits linemen who fits his criteria of gap control defensive linemen, rather than the low-hanging fruit on the recruiting trail that were often complete overhaul projects; and 2-that Diaco will adjust his scheme rather than dig his heels into the ground in acts of defiance and hubris.

Without further ado, let’s get down to business discussing personnel.

0 Technique/Nose Guard:

The 0 tech/nose guard has a woefully thankless task of occupying blockers in the middle of the defense and drawing double teams from the center and one of the offensive guards. In order to successfully execute his assignment, the nose guard line-up nose to nose with the center, with little to no staggering of his feet. When the ball is snapped, the nose guard will key on his primary reads of the center and direction of ball movement, in addition to his secondary read of both offensive guards in order to diagnose play direction.

Once engaged with the center, the nose guard will attack with both hands on the center’s inside chestplate while locking out his own arms to gain separation from the center. The nose guard will then take a short jab step toward the play direction and control the center’s playside shoulder, while keeping his own shoulders as square as possible to the line of scrimmage. If the nose guard draws a double team from the center and one of the guards, he will attack the guard while maintaining good pad level and standing his ground. If all else fails, the nose guard is coached to drop his outside/playside hip and create a pile of humanity at the line of scrimmage by dropping to the ground. Two less offensive linemen usually means that you’ve got a great chance at having a linebacker running free.

As you can see, the nose guard has an absolutely thankless task, but he is absolutely essential for defensive operational success. The best example of the archetype for the gap control nose guard would be guys like Vince Wilfork, Dontari Poe, and even Vincent Valentine. Finding a nose guard will be absolutely essential for Diaco here in Lincoln and I think that guys who could reasonably step into and compete for that role are guys like Peyton Newell and class of 2017 recruits Deontae Watts and hopefully Damion Daniels, should Daniels end up choosing Nebraska. Although this was originally suggested in jest by our fearless leader Brian Towle, the idea of moving Jailen Barnett to nose guard is an extremely intriguing prospect. Barnett definitely has the measurables of a nose guard and is said to be an absolute mauler as an offensive guard once he locks onto defenders, but struggles to move laterally as he has weight issues. If Barnett could maintain excellent pad level and functional strength, while improving his footwork, I think he could be quite an hombre in the middle of the defensive line.

5 Technique/Defensive End:

Quite possibly the most confusing position of the 3-4 defense, as most people struggle differentiating whether or not they have more defensive tackle responsibilities or more defensive end responsibilities. Essentially, the 5 technique defensive end is tasked similarly to the nose guard to be a gap control player and clear the way by occupying blockers for linebackers to go and make a play. The 5 technique defensive end will line up usually with his inside foot splitting the offensive tackle’s stance, although he can also widen his inside foot to being just slightly inside of offensive tackle’s outside foot.

His responsibilities in terms of gap control will be dependent upon which direction the play goes, so if the offense runs toward his side, the defensive end will be responsible for the C gap, while if they run away from his side he will be responsible to squeeze the B gap and pursue the ball. In passing situations, the DE will be responsible to contain the QB and form a sort of pocket as to not allow the QB to escape from pressure. As for the technique that the 5 tech will use, he will read the block of the OT that he is lined up across from and engage him while maintaining outside leverage, securing the C gap while not getting hooked by the OT.

The 5 tech defensive end is generally a very explosive athlete with excellent functional strength to maintain gap control. Although 5 tech’s will have much more production in terms of tackles and sacks than the 0 tech nose guard, it is exceedingly important to note that the pass rush of the front three in the 3-4 defense is designed semantically to develop from inside-out rather outside-in like the 4-3 defense. This is because there is not enough leverage from their pre-snap alignments to allow them to really attack the pocket, as they are directly in front of the blocker, not shaded to one side of the blocker. Because of this inside-out nature, defensive linemen in the 3-4 will generally form a pocket around the QB as contain rushers, while the apex predator outside linebackers are turned loose to hunt quarterbacks. So this fall when you’re bemoaning the fact our front three aren’t piling up the sacks against QB’s, just remember that sacks by the front three in a 3-4 don’t generally occur.

As Bill Belichick says, “don’t hold players accountable for what the scheme does not support.”

Salient advice, Bill.

The NFL archetype for the 5 tech position would actually be a guy like Ndamukong Suh, with athleticism to spare and excellent functional strength. But guys like Suh don’t grow on trees. A better example would be Chris Jones of the Kansas City Chiefs. Basically, the 5 tech position is more similar to a 3 technique defensive tackle in a 4-3 scheme. For Nebraska, I would say that the Davis twins, Khalil and Carlos, are natural born 5 technique defensive ends, as they possess excellent athleticism and functional strength.

Before we go on to discussing linebackers, I will say that the interior three defensive linemen generally need to be 6’5” or shorter, as they will normally be going against shorter interior offensive linemen with excellent pad level. Because of this, I tend to be at a bit of a loss while predicting where behemoths like Mick Stoltenberg and Daishon Neal fit into the defensive scheme due to their excess height.

Interior 3-4 defensive linemen being shorter than 6’5” is not written in stone by the Football Gods, but it is prevalent nonetheless, as many coaches want every advantage in terms of pad level and leverage. In order to be an adequate 5 tech in this scheme, Mick Stoltenberg would have to completely fix his propensity to play with high pad level, which has resulted in getting driven off the line of scrimmage at times this season.

Outside Linebackers:

In the Okie front, the two outside linebackers, Cat and Dog in Diaco’s nomenclature (while I subscribe to the WILL and SAM distinctions) are both apex predator athletes who are tasked with a variety of responsibilities. The Cat will line up on the side away from the formational strength call and will be the guy that is used as a defensive end with his hand in the dirt in the occurrence that the Blackshirts shift into a 4-3/Even front for their nickel package. With this in mind, you can surmise that the Cat must rush the QB like a big cat running down a zebra.

In addition to pass-rushing abilities, the Cat ‘backer must also drop back into pass coverage, often times against speedy slot receivers and backs coming out of the backfield. The Cat’s final responsibility will be to secure the backside on run plays that go away from his side of the formation, as he will predominantly watch for the cutback, bootleg, or any other against the grain kind of run play. All in all, the Cat may be among the most integral pieces of the 3-4 defense, because of the multitude of roles that he plays.

The NFL archetype for Cat linebackers would be James Harrison and Justin Houston. For Nebraska, I believe that someone like Pernell Jefferson or Collin Miller could fit into this role as natural pass rushers.

Across the formation from the Cat is the Dog linebacker, aka the SAM. The Dog will still play the run and rush the QB, but he will mainly be tasked with dropping into coverage, usually against the tight end, since the Dog lines up to the formational strength call. On occasion, when offenses line up their formational strength to the boundary, the Dog may end up being tasked with covering speedy slot receivers, similar to the Cat.

Against the run, the Dog is a two-gap, gap-control player who is responsible for both the C gap and the D gap, the respective weak-side and strong-side gaps of the tight end. The Dog is much more likely to defend the against the pass in coverage rather than rush the QB in passing situations, although he still will rush the QB on occasion.

The NFL archetype for the Dog linebacker in my opinion is similar to Dee Ford or Tamba Hali of the Kansas City Chiefs, while the best fit at this position for Nebraska would be Marcus Newby who has proven that he is a capable coverage defender against Wisconsin in 2015. The amount of nickel package that Nebraska played this season cut into playing time for Marcus Newby.

Inside Linebackers:

The inside linebackers are similar to one another in their responsibilities, but differ in terms of alignments and various other tasks. The MIKE linebacker will line up to the strength of the formation with the Dog ‘backer and is regarded as the QB of the defense. Conversely, the other inside linebacker, the Mo, will line up away from the formational strength.

Both of these players will read the blocks of the offensive guards after the ball is snapped. Different angles of blocks by the offensive guards will necessitate a different response from these MIKE and the Mo. For example, if the offensive guard steps wide to the sideline and looks to target the playside/outside shoulder of the inside linebacker, this will be read as an outside run and the inside linebackers will scrape to fill their respective gap responsibilities in order to maintain gap integrity. As with the other positions within the 3-4, the MIKE and Mo pursue plays from inside-out in attempt to first take away the shortest path to travel for the ball-carrier before spilling the run to the outside and letting the cavalry clean up the play.

The inside linebackers should be instinctual and athletic; with enough ballast to fill gaps quickly against downhill running games, while being athletic enough to snuff out screens, draws, sweeps, and QB runs. Because of the attention that gap control defensive linemen demand from blockers, inside linebackers are the primary run-stoppers of the 3-4 defense, afforded the opportunity to pursue unencumbered to the football, provided the defensive line does their job.

Inside linebacker play is essential for success. The archetypes for this position in the NFL would be Brian Cushing and Derrick Johnson. For Nebraska, I feel like right now these positions would likely be occupied by Chris Weber and Dedrick Young, if you were to go off of seniority. However, names like Greg Simmons and Avery Roberts may quickly emerge in spring football and into fall camp.

The 3-4 defense will be quite a change for Nebraska, although I do not foresee the change to be detrimental. The differences aren’t so much schematic as philosophical, as you will see in my next write-up about the variations that stem from the 3-4 Okie front.

Before anyone bemoans the 3-4 defense and its gap control nature, I will say that any philosophy of defense can be successful when it has a comprehensive plan that is executed by the coaches administering it. If we can pair the recruitment of elite athletes with excellent teaching of technique and scheme, we will have excellent defenses under Bob Diaco.