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By Mike Kuchar Senior Research Manager X&O Labs mikek@xandolabs.com

Now that spring football has firmly entrenched itself in the college football landscape, most X&O Labs researchers are out pounding the pavement for the newest trends and innovations in the coaching industry.  Your first evidence of that will be our report next week on the midline option – we already have our "bugs" planted at Coach Ken Niumatalolu’s spring practices in Annapolis.  So, instead of bringing you a full-fledged report on a topic this week, we’ve decided to respond to inquires based on our readers, which in essence of our mission statement.

We’ve been contacted by a number of coaches who were interested in researching different ways to defend the Ace formation.  For clarification purposes, the ace formation (Diagram 1) is based out of 12 personnel (two tight ends, a running back, and two receivers).  While it may seem like a symmetrical, balanced offensive formation – it can be very deceiving.  It provides numerous problems for defenses.  The problem we wanted to delve into was training those third level players like safeties and corners to effectively play fast in the run game.  The Ace formation puts a ton of stress on the defense because it forces those safeties to become involved in support.  Since we were pressed for time – traveling does that to you – we reached out to a couple of close friends on the defensive side of the ball asking them about how they defend the Ace formation.

While it may seem like a no-brainer concept on paper, running the ace formation is pointless unless you have the tight ends to do it.  Therefore there are two primary reasons why offenses line up in the Ace Formation:

  1. It creates an extra gap in the run game – from the tight end to the back-side tackle; there are usually a total of seven gaps for the defense to defend in the run game.  A gap is defined as the spacing between offensive linemen.  A double tight end formation presents nine total gaps that the defense must account for.  While most defenses can account for seven gaps by placing an additional eighth defender (like a safety) it becomes even more difficult to place nine in the box against eight defenders.
  2. It creates the presence of four immediate vertical threats – if both tight ends can get downfield in a hurry, defenses can be caught in a bind.  While it may be true that teams line up in Ace to run the football, those that have the ability to throw the ball (like Boise State) can be scary good.

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But before you start your game planning to defend 12 personnel, according to the coaches we spoke with there are some important questions that need to be clarified.
  • What is their run/pass tendency? Compiling this percentage could be as simple as staying in two high (verse high percentage pass teams) or one high (verse high percentage run teams).  We all know football is a numbers game, so getting an extra hat down either by rolling your safety or by moving the front, could be an effective answer.
  • Where is the blocking tight end? Many teams, particularly at the high school level, are lucky to have one dominant tight end let alone two.  In fact, we’ve found that many offenses will change personnel into 12-personnel just to create another gap – regardless of how effective of a blocker he is.  So we suggest setting the front to the dominant tight end and let them run into the teeth of your defense.
  • Can their tight ends/receivers get vertical in a hurry? If they can, you have issues – no question.  But in reality, most tight ends can’t.  Out of traditional quarters or halves coverage (which of course is most synonymous with two deep shells) chances are your safeties will be matched on those tight ends.  As long as the safeties can clean up their run/pass reads, playing them vertical should not be a concern.  If they even decide to go vertical.  Most tight end routes break at 8-10 yards and with a quarters safety over the top, you have plenty of leverage to play those routes.
  • Can your third level players successfully fit on inside runs? As Mark Hendricks, the secondary coach at James Madison told us, it’s a lot harder for your safeties to make a tackle outside-in than making one inside-out.   This means that safeties are geared to making plays on the perimeter, particularly in two-high looks.  Offenses can negate that by cutback runs like zone, forcing your safeties to make plays.  Since you need a safety to account for the extra gap inside, there really isn’t a schematic solution, just a fundamental one:  Teach your safeties how to tackle in close areas.
  • Can you play the edge (D gap) effectively? This was interesting to our research staff.  We figured many coaches would preach about canceling the gaps inside the tackle box effectively.  While this was true to a certain extent, coaches found it just as important to make sure the perimeter runs are cleaned up.  The majority of the coaches we consulted felt you need to have an immediate presence in the D gap – which means having an outside linebacker or walk-up backer play outside shade of the tight end (9-technique).  This puts immediate pressure on the perimeter, and doesn’t allow any type of second level climb like you would have against a 7-technique on zone schemes.
  • Do you need to have an automatic check defensively? Most coaches have common checks for empty, trips and ace structures.  But the key is to have more than just one.  Without question, if an offense sees you check beforehand – especially if you’re no huddle – you’ll be in trouble.  Just get all the legwork done based on tendencies and you won’t be forced to show your hand.
All this said, there are really three offensive concepts we’d like to focus on defending when it comes to the Ace formation – the zone run game, the boot/naked concept and any other nub side runs.  We realize that an offense can produce a myriad of problems out of this set.  We’ve found these three give the guys we spoke with the biggest headaches.

Case 1: The Zone Run Game This particular scheme could be a problem because of the extra gap.  One of the more common adjustments that Darian Dulin, the head coach at Coffeyville Community College (KS) makes is what he calls a Tight 4 alignment (Diagram 2).   In the Tight 4 alignment, Dulin accomplishes all of the vital information that is mentioned above when defending the Ace sets.  Based out of a 4-3, quarters coverage structure, Dulin plays with his Sam and Will linebacker on 9-techniques on the outside edge of the tight end.   Most of the time, these two backers are two yards outside the tight end.  Since they are contain players, it’s essential for those backers to be there.  He’ll play with the two ends in five techniques and the two tackles in 2i techniques, or inside shade of the guard.  The Mike is at 6 yards deep in a true middle linebacker set.

According to Dulin, the key player is the Mike backer. On zone read schemes, the Mike is a fast flow player, playing the B gap away from the back, while the back-side safety plays the B gap to the side of the back.  This is vital for zone read teams that like to run the QB.  But in order for the safety to play the B gap as an inside fitter, he plays at 8 yards.  "We just tell him to be slow on his read, because he’s got the edges taken care of with the Sam and Will," says Dulin.  "We just tuck him into the box and be a cutback player to QB player.  Stack and fit is what we tell him."

Since Dulin plays some under-front, with a walk-up Sam, that player is comfortable playing in that position.  But we questioned whether a Will linebacker, who usually is a "box" player in a 4-3 defense against single width, could play that technique with a good deal of efficiency.  After all, his line of sight changes and now he’s playing on an edge – a spot he’s not accustomed to.  If this is a concern for Dulin, he’ll play more with two 7-techiques and keep the core intact.  Those LB’s could stay in the box.  The Will and Sam could both be in 50 techniques, with the Mike zeroed up (Diagram 3).  That way the Will doesn’t feel uncomfortable playing a 9-technqiue.

Case 2: Runs Back to the Nub or Boundary Side Teams at higher levels of football have made a staple out of running into the short side of the field, and the tendency is starting to trickle down to lower levels.  Once defenses start to declare their strength to the field or dominant tight end, offenses will begin to attack the weak.  Sure, there might be less real estate there, but it’s a better personnel match up for them, particularly if your best players are away.  Van Malone, the defensive backs coach at the University of Tulsa, plays more of a field/boundary defense out of a two-deep shell and feels that the boundary side run game could be an issue against Ace.   In Tulsa’s new 4-2-5 scheme (the Golden Hurricane have been an odd front outfit for years) the Bandit safety plays to the boundary. Tulsa can either play him at normal safety depth or roll him to a hip-by-hip position 3x3 yards off the tight end (Diagram 4) which they like to do more often.  It’s his job to play the D gap, which means he needs to be active.  "He needs to show up in the run game," says Malone.  "The tight end to the boundary presents a big problem with the zone and stretch weak.  If he does start to show up, teams will find a way to crack him with the wide out, forcing the corner to make a tackle."

While offensive coordinators will salivate for the opportunity to have the corner matched one-on-one with their back, Mark Hendricks savors it.  He knows it’s exactly what offenses want, so he works daily with what he calls his nub drills.  A nub side of the formation is any three-man surface without a tight end (Diagram 5).  In the Colonial Athletic Association, where Hendricks coaches, many teams will line up in Ace, then motion to trips, forcing the corner to be alone with the tight end on the back side.   So, what he tells his corners is to play at 5x5 off the tight end and read the "V" of his neck for two possible run reads:

  • Tight End Down: Here the corner just bounces his feet, and as Hendricks calls it – he becomes ready to "trigger."  This means he is fast flow like a bat out of hell (excuse the cliché) into the backfield.   He has to attack everything from outside in.  He can’t step outside to gain leverage.  If there is any second level puller his way – indicating any power or counter – the corner fills and rips the thigh board off the puller, taking out his outside leg and forcing the play back inside.
  • Tight End Arcs: Here, the corner arcs on the perimeter player, which on a nub side would be the corner.   Hendricks tells the corner to "hard joint" the tight end, meaning he attacks his breastplate with his inside hand while keeping the outside hand free to play force.

Researchers’ Note: You are reading the summary version of this Research Report. To access the full version of this report – including the corresponding Statistical Analysis Report featuring the raw coaching data from our research – please CLICK HERE.

Concluding Report:

Again, since we’re on the road this week, wanted to make sure you got your weekly dose of X&O Labs.  Perhaps just a teaser until next week’s in-depth report on the midline option scheme.  Thanks again for reading and please don’t hesitate to reach out and talk ball with us.

Copyright 2011 – X&O Labs



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