Would you like to read 1,300 words on linebackers? Of course you would, Penn State fan!
While trying to fill my football appetite during these doldrums months between spring practice and fall camp, I came across a clip of two guys from Blue White Illustrated talking about Manny Diaz's defense compared to Brent Pry's. These gentlemen did a fine job of going beyond the coach speak stuff like "we want to be fast and aggressive, but multiple and sound in coverage" - those are wonderful buzzwords but what does it actually mean in terms of Xs and Os or coaching points?
This whole discussion is great, they go over 1 gap vs 2 gap schemes, and how linebackers in Pry's system played a bit restrained (I won't say passive, or hesitant, that's not quite fair). Against a zone run play where a back has his choice of gaps, Pry might ask his LB to hang out and wait for a RB to make his read and commit to a hole, then meet him there. Around the 6 minute mark, they talk about how Diaz's scheme is much simpler, and thus allows guys to play faster.
Before we watch this in action, let's get philosophical for a second, I mean in football terms, I'm no good at the other stuff. Brent Pry's defenses were consistently good, and sometimes labeled as Bend But Don't Suck. He kept his safeties deep to prevent home run balls, and seemed ambivalent towards giving up yardage between the 20s, happy to let college offenses try to execute multi-play drives to move the ball. Once you hit the red zone though, he would take advantage of the compressed field and pour on the pressure. This fits with CJF's embrace of advanced stats that say explosive plays make the biggest difference in the outcome of a game. During Pry's tenure, we saw plenty of games where PSU was dominated in time of possession, but thanks to explosive plays on offense (and limiting them on defense) came away with a comfortable win.
Now, lets take a look at Pry's defense in action. This is a play from last year's Whiteout win over Auburn. The Tigers are in 12 personnel (1 back 2 TEs) and WRs fairly tight to the formation. Its 2nd and 6, the RB is in a standard spread look next to Bo Nix, and they will try to run inside. PSU has 7 box defenders (4DL 3LB) to defend 7 run gaps, and 2 deep safeties. In the
gif clip* below, pay attention to how those box defenders play this run.
*Gif machine is broken, and appears to be scheduled for repair right after the soft-serve machine at McDonalds, sorry for the inconvenience
Watch the linebackers - 13 Brooks bluffs pressure in the A gap but then sprints back into a zone drop for some reason, 23 Jacobs engages the TE about 3 yards off the ball, and 12 Smith hangs in the middle and gets bodied by an o-lineman as Auburn picks up 4 yards. This is all very BBDS, LBs playing almost like safeties, keep everything in front of them, happy to give up 4 rather than 40 in order to make them execute on third down.
Out with the old, in with the new
If we get philosophical again, it's worth noting that explosive plays aren't the only metric in CJF's advanced stats calculation. Turnovers make almost as big a difference in wins and losses, and havoc plays (sacks, TFL, etc) aren't too far behind either. This is the statistical neighborhood where Manny Diaz likes to hang out, with his turnover chain and focus on making plays in the offensive backfield.
Let's look at how Diaz's "fast and aggressive" scheme works. As the BWI guys note, rather than asking LBs to wait and read where a back is going, they are simply assigned a gap and told to hit it as fast as possible. In this play vs Pitt last year, its 2nd and 7; Pitt, like the Auburn clip above, is in 12 personnel with a RB in sidecar, and they are also going to run inside. Miami has 6 and a half defenders for 7 gaps, the half is a safety playing a step or two deeper than the backers but not quite as deep as his backfield partner (more on him in a second).
Watch the linebackers again - the Mike triggers at the snap (he actually starts leaning pre-snap, which makes me think this was a run blitz call, but it illustrates my point and it's my FanPost, so I can do whatever I want), his partner's first two steps are also forward before he makes a nifty move to get around an o-lineman and assist on the tackle - which was made by that hybrid safety who, guess what, triggered really fast and aggressively, closing from 7 yards deep to make the stop right at the line of scrimmage. That hybrid safety is Amari Carter, who just signed an UDFA deal with the Bears, and he's called the "striker" in Diaz's Miami playbook. According to this the position was created thanks to a bumper crop of safeties and a need to get guys on the field who could both cover receivers and fill run gaps. In my uninformed opinion, this is the role Jonathan Sutherland will play this fall, as PSU is somewhat thin at LB but blessed with a bountiful harvest of DBs.
To vastly generalize and over-simplify, Pry's BBDS has some solid statistical footing. Remember I said he wants to make the offense execute long drives - without looking it up, take a guess as to how many FCS teams converted more than 50% of their third downs last year...go ahead...I'll wait. Ready? Out of 130 teams, only six had a better than 50/50 chance of converting a third down. Pry was content to let teams flip that coin a few times per possession, confident it was bound to come up "punt" most of the time.
Diaz, on the other hand, might tell you that not all third downs are created equal. Third and short means the whole playbook is open, and depending on field position and the whims of the head coach, they might decide to use two downs to move the chains. Diaz instead prefers to leverage the fact that everyone sucks at converting third and long, and try to put teams in that position as much as possible.
What does all this mean? Much like actual philosophy, who the hell knows - and much to this engineer's annoyance there is no right answer. Both coaches have been very successful. Pry's passivity led to a few backbreaking late game collapses, but also strangled a lot of offenses along the way. Diaz's aggression might come at a cost of giving up more explosive plays, but the benefit is generating more pressure, more turnovers, and hopefully maintains the high standards we have for defenses (especially linebackers) in Happy Valley.
I would have loved to watch Ellis Brooks and Brandon Smith in Diaz's system. I totally understand why they went to the NFL, and wish them nothing but success, but I wonder what they would have done had they stayed another year. To repeat my point above, time alone will tell which system is better overall, but if I played linebacker I would rather play Diaz's game 11/10 times.
Imagine you are Brandon Smith, you've spend your college career in Pry's system fending off grizzly bear sized o-linemen while flat footed and trying to find a running back in a mass of humanity somewhere behind him. Then Manny Diaz walks into your first linebacker meeting and says "I don't want you reading anything, just get in the A gap as fast as possible and fuck someones day up". I might be tempted to kiss Diaz full on the lips.
Now, if you're really into conjecture - and let's face it you must be if you're reading this - might this philosophical difference be the reason we just signed like 9 blue chip linebackers? I dunno, might just be coincidence.