Coach Thier highlights the various fronts that his staff uses to create different looks for offenses.
By Jason Thier
University of Montana Western
Editor's Note: At 24 years old, Jason Thier became the Defensive Coordinator at The University of Montana Western in 2011. Prior to coming to UMW, Thier spent two seasons at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D. In 2010, he helped coach the team to a 10-1 regular season record and the NCIS South Division Championship. In his young career he has coached five all-conference players and one all-region player, at both the linebacker and safety position. Thier played at Truman State University where he was a three-year starter at linebacker, earning All-MIAA Defensive honors his senior year.
There is no question that the game of football is in constant motion. It is a continual machine of change. Each year it seems like there is a new offensive scheme that is gaining momentum and earning the reputation of being unstoppable. It then spreads like a wild fire across the country, traveling with coaches from team to team, conquering the game one conference at a time. Because of this, defenses are forced to adapt and adjust to combat all the latest and greatest offensive trends. This process is cyclical: offensive minds come up with new ideas and defensive minds find ways to stop them. However, there is one thing about football that will never change: it is a game of numbers and match-ups. A team’s ability to gain the numbers advantage and create favorable match-ups has a direct correlation with their ability to achieve victory.
That is one of the main reasons why we have chosen to run a 3-4 defense here at Montana Western. It garners the ability to eliminate offensive mismatches and exploit match-ups of our own. It also gives us the ability to line up and adjust to all offensive schemes and formations. Being a base 3-4 team, we ran 46% of our plays last season out of reductions fronts (four fronts using a linebacker as the fourth linemen). It is the flexibility to move in and out of reduction fronts that gives the 3-4 defenses the adaptability to defend all offensive attacks. In order to be successful playing in reduction fronts we have to do a great job of teaching our linebackers to play on the line of scrimmage. This article is going to be two tiered; first I am going to focus on how we teach our linebackers to play on the line of scrimmage and secondly I am going to introduce you to the multitude of reduction fronts we use in an effort to eliminate mismatches.
Stance and Technique
When playing up on the line of scrimmage we want our linebackers to be physical and aggressive, attacking blockers and delivering contact. In order to do so, a linebacker's stance when playing on the line of scrimmage must be low, powerful, and comfortable. Regardless of which stance you choose to use when playing a linebacker on the line of scrimmage, above anything else it must incorporate those three things. If a player is not comfortable in his stance, his first movement will be to get comfortable, creating wasted movement. Our goal is to eliminate all wasted movements. If the player is not in a low and powerful position to engage a blocker he is at a disadvantage to give up ground immediately on the snap. Last season we started the year with our linebackers using what we call a HIP stance when they were playing on the line.
Fundamentals of the HIP Stance
- Eyes are keying the near shoulder of the man you are shading. Read his tip to determine the block (To, Away, Back).
- Inside foot is up, the back toe is to the heel of the front foot, and the feet are slightly inside of the shoulders.
- The knees are bent, shoulders are back, and chest is big.
- The hips are aligned with your aiming point (usually the outside tip of the man you are shading).
- Hands are relaxed in front of your body ready to strike.
- The first step is a six inch power step with the inside foot, into the crotch of the man you are shading. Be careful not to over stride. Violently fire your inside hand to the V of the neck and outside hand to the shoulder of the offensive player. Step and strike should happen at the same time.
However, after our week four game we noticed that instead of stepping with the inside foot to engage blockers, our players were stepping backward with their outside foot to absorb contact. We also noticed that on the snap our guys were lowering their pads and repositioning their base. This indicated a lack of comfort and proper pad level. We then decided that we needed to make a change. We decided to put our players in a better position to be successful and to accomplish what was most important about playing on the line of scrimmage: being low, powerful, and comfortable. We then implemented what we refer to as the WAR stance.
Before I go into the different reductions fronts that we use I must explain how we personnel our linebackers. Before the days of the spread offense it was easy to have cookie-cutter linebackers, all interchangeable with one another. With offenses doing a great job of getting athletes in space in today's game, it is our job as a defense to do the same. Within our scheme we want to be able to match personnel with the offense, big with big and speed with speed.
We call our four linebackers the Bull, Wolf, Mike, and Sam. The Wolf is our field outside linebacker. He should be more of a linebacker/safety-type player. The Wolf needs to be athletic in space, good at open field tackles, and solid in coverage. This is a great position for that safety which is not quite fast enough but is strong and physical. The Bull is our boundary outside linebacker; he should be more of a linebacker/defensive end-type player. The Bull needs to be good on the line of scrimmage, a capable pass rusher, and able to play in the box. This is a great position for that smaller athletic defensive end. The Mike is our weak inside linebacker. He is our true inside backer type player. The Mike needs to have the best instincts of all the backers, play extremely well inside the box, and have some range in coverage. The Sam is our strong inside backer. The Sam should be your best overall linebacker. He needs to be a jack of all trades. Out of all the backers he is going to be the one who is asked to do the most; therefore, he needs to be intelligent and savvy. Setting up our personnel the way we do allows us to eliminate most match-ups we don't like and create the ones we do like. It also allows our players to use the skills sets they are best at and confident in.
Knowing how we personnel our backers will help you understand why we run so many different reduction fronts. Again, each front is used to help us keep the match-ups we believe can give us an advantage. One reason why reduction fronts are great out of the 3-4 defensive is because they force an offense to learn how to block all their run plays against three man, four man, and five man fronts. This can force an offense to limit what they run because they do not have enough time to practice how to block it all. Another reason why I like reduction fronts is because it aligns all your players in shades verse the run. If you have a young player or player that struggles with movement, it places them in a gap and lets them play fast. Reductions fronts also make it easy for backers to align to 3x1 formations when the ball is on the hash. This helps take away leverage the offense can gain versus a three front. Finally, reduction fronts out of the
3-4 are valuable because they help disguise zone blitz and drop a linebacker from the line of scrimmage instead of dropping a defensive lineman.
We use the Bear Bryant terminology when talking about our defensive line alignments or techniques. It is with that terminology that we dictate where our players line up in our different reduction fronts (Diagram 3). We implement seven different reduction fronts throughout the course of the year. That does not mean we use each front in every game; instead, we chose the fronts we think will work best and practice those to prepare for our opponent. We can run all of our line stunts out of each front. When we teach our line stunts we teach them by the technique not the player. Our seven base reduction fronts are as follows: Under, Short, Over, Sting, Wide, Even, and Bear. We also use a front strength and coverage strength when in reduction fronts to guarantee that the Wolf goes to the multiple WR side in the middle of the field.
Under and Short
The Under and Short fronts puts our defense in a front shifted to the weak side. The 3 technique is weak and the 1 technique is strong. To an opposing offense the two fronts look exactly the same, but where they differ is in the personnel playing each technique. In Under it is the weak-side outside linebacker that becomes the fourth player on the line as the weak 5 technique, bumping the defensive line to the strength (Diagram 4).
In Short, the Sam becomes the fourth player on the line as the 1 technique strong, making the nose the 3 technique. You could also choose to play the Sam as the 3 technique if you like that match-up more (Diagram 5).The Under front is good when the ball is on the hash versus 10 and 11 personnel because it puts the Bull on the line in most cases (our best rush linebacker). By calling it on a hash it allows us to keep a two linebacker box, with the Mike not needing to push outside of the box into the boundary. It also gives us the possibility of an athletic mismatch with our linebacker versus most offensive tackles and a quicker player running line stunts. Of all the reduction fronts, we are in Under the most. The Short front is a good call in the middle of the field versus 10 personnel when you want to be in an Under front look. It allows you to keep your outside backers outside the box in space to take away screen threats, and it gives you a mismatch of a faster linebacker on a slower offensive linemen. Depending on what coverage you like to run, it also can place the force players in a favorable leverage position to begin with.
Over, Sting, and Wide Fronts
The Over, Sting, and Wide fronts puts our defense in a front shifted to the strong side. The 3 technique is strong and the 1 technique is weak. Like Under and Short, to an opposing offense the three fronts look the same, but where they differ is in the personnel playing each technique. In Over it is the strong-side outside linebacker that becomes the fourth player on the line as the strong 5 technique versus a two man surface or 9 technique versus a three man surface, bumping the defensive line away from the strength (Diagram 6).
The Even front puts our defense in a balanced front. The weak-side outside linebacker becomes our fourth player on the line as the weak 5 technique. The weak end plays a 2 technique, the nose plays a strong 2 technique and the strong end plays a 5 technique (Diagram 9). From Even you have the ability to easily slant into the Over or Under fronts once the ball is snapped.
Since Even makes the weak outside linebacker the fourth rusher, it is great in all the same situations as Under. It is also good in true pass situations since you can easily run mirrored line games.
If you are going to run a 3-4 defensive it is simple by getting into reduction fronts to become multiple and to obtain the most from your personnel against any offensive structure. However, it does not matter which reduction fronts you use or how many, if you do not teach your linebackers how to properly play on the line of scrimmage. I hope that you are able to take something from this article and that it will help you and your program as you compete in the future. Thank you again for the opportunity to share this information.
What you’re missing…
X&O Labs Insiders members will gain full access to Coach Thier’s full length clinic report on including:
The edge stance that Coach Their used with his first-level linebackers which cut opponents offensive productivity by 100 yards per game.
A video tutorial on how he teaches his OLB’s the hard edge technique, the chase and squeeze technique and line games and pass rush.
Coach Thier’s "Sting" Front variant, an adjustment used to defend strong side run schemes.
Coach Thier’s "Wide" Front variant, an adjustment used to defend perimeter schemes.
Coach Thier’s "Bear" Front variant which defends 12 and 22 personnel groupings.
Plus video on all of these concepts.