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How defenses are countering spread offenses by packing themselves in Tite

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What the Tite front is, why it’s gotten so popular, why it hasn’t taken full hold in the NFL, and what’s coming next.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Louisiana State vs Central Florida
LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

As college offenses have evolved, defenses have evolved with them. The newest defensive scheme proliferating the landscape is the Tite front. A response to the spread-’em-out, RPO world offenses now live in, the Tite front has become a ubiquitous response from defensive coordinators trying to take the wind out of offenses’ sails.

From LSU to Iowa State to Army to Colgate (the university, not the toothpaste), it felt like every school made the decision to at least try out the Tite front in 2018:

This is what it looks like.

Three linemen, two inside backers, two outside backers, and four players in the secondary, with some linebacker adjustments depending on what the offense does:

One of the things you’ll notice first is how many players are inside the offensive tackles. There’s a nose tackle, two defensive ends, and two inside linebackers. The goal is to plug up everything on the inside to force offenses to win a race to the outside.

Defensive coordinators call this “spill and kill”. It rhymes.

The shortest way to the end zone is the north-south route, so defenses are fine with offenses trying to go east-west before they are able to get downhill.

This is in stark contrast with how teams defended spread offenses as they came into vogue over the last decade or so.

For most of the spread era, one of the most common ways to defend it was by going with a 4-2-5 defense that looks something like this:

In the 4-2-5, an outside linebacker moves out of the box or just gets replaced by a nickel cornerback. That “OB” can be a linebacker who covers or a true corner.

Popularized by Gary Patterson at TCU, you couldn’t find a school not running a version of it by the mid-2000s. And It’s still popular today. Alabama bases its defense out of it, and I’m not going to be the one to tell Nick Saban how to run his defense.

The 4-2-5 defenses would usually line up in either an Over or Under front — with the best defensive tackle lined up toward the strong side in an Over or the weak side in an Under.

But there’s one big problem with the 4-2-5.

Zoom in on that diagram, and you see an open B gap between a defensive end and tackle:

Offenses love to attack that spot. It puts the weak-side (or Will) linebacker in a state of never-ending conflict: should he stick around and aggressively play his open B-gap to stop the run, or should he lean towards expanding outside and playing the pass? There’s also an open A gap on the other side of the formation, but at least that side has two linebackers to support each other. On the weak side, there’s one linebacker with two responsibilities.

To a degree, this is the genesis of how teams have developed their modern RPOs the past few years. Find the conflicted defender and make him wrong. There is no Schrodinger’s linebacker. He can’t be in two places at once.

Teams could run right down the pipe when the linebacker vacated his gap, or they could throw behind his head when he stepped up to play the run:

The Tite front eliminates this perpetual conflict for linebackers.

In a Tite front, there are no open B gaps. The gaps that are open are the C gaps (outside the offensive tackles), but, again, defenses are fine with the ball-carrier having to run east-west before turning his shoulders and dashing to the end zone. Linebackers can be a little more passive and less committal as they wait for the ball to go downhill.

One of the most interesting parts of the Tite front has been the hybridization the edge rusher. When defensive coordinator Dave Aranda arrived at LSU for the 2016 season, he inherited Arden Key, a stellar defensive end. With his length and size, Key became a standup outside linebacker who could rush the passer or drop into coverage, based on the call.

Here’s how that alignment looked on the field:

And here’s how it looked in action on one play:

The Tite front does have its weaknesses, and it starts with the lack of edge rushing opportunities. That’s why it’s not a huge thing in the NFL.

Most teams align with only one true outside of the offensive tackle edge rusher. This limits the chances of getting to the opposing quarterback, especially if you don’t have a Key.

Putting three players inside the offensive tackles doesn’t give the defense enough man-on-man scenarios between defensive linemen and offensive linemen. The defense needs these one-on-ones to succeed when rushing the passer. A college defense can get away with only have 1 pure edge rusher on the field for early downs. Most Tite front coordinators will bring in a 2nd or 3rd pass rusher when they can get the offense behind the sticks.

The O-line can just clamp down and wedge the defense inside. This forces the defensive ends to work all the way outside from their inside position to become edge rushers.

Putting a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker on the field alleviates some of these problem, but teams are still missing the opposite edge rusher that 4-2-5 teams have handy.

You can get away without having a second edge rusher on the field in run-heavy leagues, which make up most of college football. You can’t get away with it much in the NFL, where the pass is now king. The pro league pays too much for edge talent to have it sit inside.

The Chargers played a few snaps of the Tite against the Ravens in their Wild Card game, and it worked against the Ravens rushing attack, which got 90 yards on 23 carries:

However, I’m not sure having Joey Bosa lined up inside for more than 10 snaps a game is something you wanna show against the pass-heavy teams of the league.

Plus, the offense can create matchup advantages by using three receivers against the Tite front. Only so many NFL linebackers can both cover and play the run well.

Iowa State and some other teams have tried to find a way around the lack of outside rush by placing defensive ends outside the tackles. The Cyclones have the ends crash inside against run plays but stay outside when they read pass.

The other weakness is that the Tite front limits the coverages you can play behind it. Teams are almost forced to play zone coverage with the C gap open. Man coverage doesn’t work, because the two outside backers can’t both be in man coverage and responsible for a gap.

LSU’s favorite zone coverage is a version of quarters coverage. The Tigers lock the outside receivers in man-to-man and then play everyone else in a two-high safety, zone defense.

That looks like this:

Iowa State, with their 3 safety defense, chooses to play a form of Tampa 2 defense.

That looks like this:

To play man coverage, LSU’s Aranda will switch into a 4-2-5 look so no linebacker is conflicted between man-to-man and run responsibilities.

Like all defenses, there are ups and downs to the Tite front. But it’s become the defense du jour.

That’s because it defends what spread offenses have evolved to be good at: picking on linebackers and then either throwing past them or running over their teammates.

Eventually, teams will adapt to playing football in a Tite world. Then defenses will adjust again. But for now, get ready to see a lot of it in 2019.