I'm not sure how many of you read smartfootball.com, the essential football strategy site run by Chris Brown, but you should. Chris is a maestro of football strategy and is a fantastic read, no matter your knowledge level. He frequently breaks down different offenses/defenses/plays that are either effective or popular. While he tends to focus on schemes that are trendy (i.e. Paul Johnson flexbone, spread option variants, the evolving spread shotgun triple option, Wildcat plays) he stuck with the Blue and White for his most recent piece over at Dr. Saturday.
What does Chris have to say about Dear Old State's defense?
Well, mostly that we play a lot of Cover 3, and we are very good at it.
But once you peel back the layers you see the biggest holdover of them all for Penn State's defense: They are maybe the last, great "Cover 3" team -- i.e. their base coverage is a three-deep, four under zone defense.
But, like Draper's suits, while Penn State's defense might be a throwback, it works so damn well because they get all the little details right.
Well, pardon my French, but we already knew that.
What Mr. Brown so eloquently explains is why the Cover 3 works so well and how it integrates nicely with the front seven and the run game.
Fronts and coverages are tied together, which is the reason Bradley and Co. like it so much: They can get in an old-school eight-man front, and with a zone defense every defender has their eyes on the football. Contrast this with man defenses where members of the secondary might have their backs turned on option plays (deadly) or pass plays (can't see the ball in the air to make interceptions or breakups).
There are a lot of routes that are supposed to beat Cover 3, but very few get open against Penn State.
Anyone who played high-school football probably played at least some Cover 3, for a lot of those reasons.
Personally, my HS defensive coach, while he didn't play under Bradley (his son did, he wore 40 and was OK as a linebacker) might as well have. I can attest to all of those advantages. We always stuffed the run and played the pass well, regardless of the talent present.
Another component of the Cover 3 is a belief in a style of defense. When you put three d-backs deep, you're not giving up long gains unless they are stupid or physically inadequate. Essentially, what Bradley does, and what Coach Connor did, was to "dare" offenses to drive the field on their defense.
Putting together a 15-play, 70-yard drive is clearly more difficult than completing a single pass 30 yards downfield that is run by the receiver into the end zone. Penalties, missed assignments, drops and turnovers all generally conspire to end a long drive before it reaches paydirt. This makes forcing teams to go on extended drives generally an effective defensive strategy if your guys can hold up all game without tiring.
But that's not all. What you've likely noticed is that Penn State almost never brings a Jim Johnson-esque all-out man coverage blitz. It's generally a zone dog: some combination of five players go for the quarterback, the other six play Cover 3 with three underneath.
The other biggest part of Penn State's defense is its robust zone-blitz package. JoePa's staff has a variety of blitzes, though they have a cardinal rule: Once a zone blitz is called, it will be run; no checking out of it at the last minute.
Brown also works in some history behind the position nicknames for the linebackers and the "hero," and goes through the history of the defense under Joe while also tossing some big compliments in the direction of the defensive assistants.
The article was a preview of the game with Michigan, but it's still a great read for anyone who wants to know more about the success of our 'D' and has an interest in Xs and Os. I would also recommend checking Smartfootball.com religiously for more great stuff like this and following Chris on Twitter @smartfootball.
Oh, and for what its worth, Andrew Quarless' touchdown came with UM playing "Tampa 2" coverage, as Ezeh was forced to get depth with Quarless between the two deep safeties. Brown tossed out the "Tampa 2" as a 'fad' defense. Just sayin'.