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By Mike Kuchar, Senior Research Manager, X&O Labs


See what Mickey Matthews has to say about the 4-2-5 Concept that they ran during his time at James Madison and now at Coastal Carolina. The exclusive interview is here...

By Mike Kuchar
Senior Research Manager
X&O Labs
Twitter: @MikekKuchar


Interview with Mickey Matthews: 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.


Mike Kuchar (MK):  What has changed most in the 4-2-5 defense today from when it was a 4-4 defense?  How has it progressed?

Mickey Matthews (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. 

MK:  Describe the personnel types of your three safeties.

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.

MK:  Do you find yourself getting away from traditional Robber Coverage concepts and moving more towards Quarters and Halves principles in this scheme?  If so, what are the offensive circumstances that cause you to adjust?

MM:  You really have to tweak Robber against one-back sets, particularly on the hash marks.  We actually turned our Quarters coverage into Bandit coverage with our safeties.  It was double robber (robber to both sides).  We called it Bandit because the Safety on both sides are reading the number two receivers.  You’re really just reading routes with your two safeties.  It looks like Quarters pre-snap, and may turn into Quarters versus four vertical.  When we would get 2x2 formations, the corners would run with the outside receivers against four verticals, they would not midpoint (Diagram 3).  Robber is effective best versus two-back sets because you got nine defenders against the run.  They play run first and play action fast second. 


MK:  What is the most efficient way to handle "Jumbo Personnel" or double tight end sets?

MM:  Our Weak safety will be the primary support player to the weak side - he is key.  He will end up 3 yards outside defensive end and three yards deep.  We don’t play him as tight as some other teams.  We’ve found that when we line him up looser, he’s able to diagnose the play quicker and get involved in toss sweep or power to that side.  The corner to his side will get back inside at 7-8 yards.  His thought process is that he’s going to fill where needed.  The Weak Safety must be aggressive. We’d play a one-technique with the defensive tackle and play a 7-technique with the defensive end.  Sometimes we’d move the corner up to force the run if he’s the better player than the Weak Safety.  One of those players must play the B gap and one must play the D gap for force.  Against some tight end/wing alignments strong, we like to move our strong side defensive end into a 9-technique alignment to protect against that wing.  We’ll also tighten our Strong Safety to account for that extra gap.  The Strong Safety becomes a C gap player.  We try to plus our linebackers over to the strong side.  The Mike linebacker may also have to play both the A gap strong and the B gap weak (Diagram 8).   We’d even substitute our Weak Safety with another linebacker to get bigger people out there.  Just get three linebackers in the game to match personnel.  Don’t be hardheaded.  Get bigs-on-bigs. 


MK:  How do you teach your corners to play a "cheat halves" technique in Robber coverage?

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 receiver.  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:  Is there a disadvantage to using this scheme?  How do you combat it?

MM:  I think you ask a lot of your Strong Safety because he has to adjust to formations.  Your three safeties are asked to do a lot during the course of the game.  They really have to be prepared to handle everything.  That is why most programs that run the 4-2-5, have one coach that works with all the safeties.  They need all the attention that they can get.

MK:  What advice would you give coaches that are looking to implement this system for the first time?

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. 


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