The development of football scheme is an ever-evolving dance between offensive and defensive strategies. Offenses make adjustments, defenses react and counter-punch, offenses scheme to beat the counter-punch, rinse, repeat ad nauseum. In recent years, that cycle has seen the rise of the Air Raid and it’s offspring, which led to the widespread use of the 4-2-5, which in turn brought about the RPO to put those two linebackers in conflict. The new hotness to deal with the spread offenses is the Tite front (which is really just an updated version of the old Double Eagle defense). BYU brought the Tite front to the Palouse, but it’s far from the first time we’ve seen that particular defense.
What is the Tite Front?
Before we answer that, let’s talk about why it came about. The 4-2-5 was the original best practice against the Air Raid and/or Run and Shoot and/or spread-style offenses because of its flexibility. You could blitz from anywhere on the field, you could cover all six gaps with the six box defenders, and you could play man or zone behind it. The glaring weakness in the 4-2-5, however, was the B gap. One of the two B gaps was going to be the responsibility of a linebacker, and offenses loved to attack that in the run game. On top of that, it was too easy to exploit that conflict with an RPO look.
The Tite front solves that problem. By placing the defensive ends in either a 3 (outside shoulder of the guard) or a 4-i (inside shoulder of the tackle) technique, both B gaps are taken care of by the ends, leaving the linebackers without an inside run-pass conflict. It also makes it difficult to pull guards across formation, which cuts off some of the staple runs out of 10 personnel. As an additional benefit, it covers those gaps while actually removing a defender—or sometimes two—from the box. (This is where I remind you about the difference between numbers in the box and leverage in the box and why leverage is a much bigger deal.) That gives a defense more bodies in coverage. Of course, there’s always a trade-off. Coverages can be a little tricky behind the Tite front. It’s tough to play man coverage because of the alignment of the linebackers. The defense is also giving up C gap coverage by the ends, making it weak on the edge.
Remember the Alamo
One of the first teams to fully embrace the Tite front was Iowa State under Matt Campbell. After ranking near the bottom of the FBS in total defense in 2016, the Cyclones knew they needed to make significant changes. Being a member of the Big XII, ISU faced spread offenses virtually every week. Thus, being able to defend the multiplicity of those offenses was paramount. Eventually, the coaching staff settled on their version of the Tite front, which consisted of the three defensive linemen, three linebackers, and somewhat uniquely, three safeties.
The change paid dividends immediately, as Iowa State vaulted into the 30s on the defensive side of the ball the next season. The season after that, 2018, would see our very own Washington State Cougars run into the ISU Tite front in the Alamo Bowl. And it was pretty effective in slowing down the Air Raid, holding Gardner Minshew to his lowest passing yardage total of the season, non-Apple Cup division. It really did a number on the running game as well, considering the Mustache was WSU’s leading rusher for the game with a whopping 16 yards. Speaking of the Apple Cup ...
Jimmy Lake’s Not as Great as You’ve Been Led to Believe
Look, there are very few true innovations or innovators in college football any more. There are only so many ways left to skin this cat. Most of the advancements these days are reskins of older concepts, like the Tite front relative to the Double Eagle, or the Wildcat relative to the old Single Wing. Or there are slight adjustments to an already popular scheme. So the reality is that the best coaches are the best thieves. You take concepts that you think will work for your team, make a few adjustments here and there, and run with it.
So let’s look at the defense that UW, with Jimmy Lake as the Defensive Coordinator trotted out against the Air Raid in 2017 and compare it to Iowa State’s and ... well hey, that’s weird:
In the words of Pam Halpert, they’re the same picture.
This really isn’t meant to take anything away from Lake. He did what every good football coach does; take what works and make it yours. Lake can coach, despite the struggles he and the coaching staff in Montlake are going through this season. You don’t become a P5 head coach without the ability to coach a football team. But, at the same time, he just copied and pasted this defense. As a side note, it also really helps when you have a defense that is littered with NFL-caliber talent. Really good players can make the worst coach look like a genius. Lake just doesn’t have that level of player on either side of the ball at the moment.
That being said, knowing what I read about the head football coach there, hopefully he remains there for a long time. That would be awesome.
So that brings us up to this past Saturday. BYU brought their version of the Tite front to the Palouse, and it worked ok. WSU was able to string together a few drives, Jayden de Laura ended up with 250+ yards passing, and the Cougs had around 100 yards on the ground. It wasn’t an overwhelming defensive performance by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a decent game. Of course, coming out on top on the scoreboard helps too.
BYU took a slightly different approach to the Tite front, though, in that it wasn’t very “tite”. Instead of having their ends in a 3-tech or a 4-i, the BYU ends were in a 6-technique, lined up head-up over a phantom tight end and cocked slightly inward. Why? I imagine this is a counter to Max Borghi and Jayden de Laura. Borghi’s best work comes when he bounces outside. Aligning your ends outside either keeps Borghi from bouncing it, or slows him down significantly as he’s working to the outside, allowing for the linebackers and safeties to rally and contain him. If you look at the ISU and UW Tite fronts, you’ll notice that the end opposite of the running back is aligned wider, usually in a 5-technique, or outside shoulder of the tackle. This is to prevent the offensive line from getting leverage to the outside for an outside zone. Similarly, de Laura’s escapability is one of his best attributes, and forcing him to step up into the pocket instead of allowing him a free run to the outside limits the effectiveness of his scrambling.
How Do You Beat the Tite Front?
In my mind, there are two reasons that defensive coordinators go to the Tite front when facing Air Raid or Run and Shoot or other spread-based offense. First, it allows them to drop seven or eight defenders consistently into coverage, disrupting the timing and reads of the passing game. Second, they’re able to defend the interior runs with only a handful of defenders, using a mindset of “spill and kill.” In other words, control the four interior gaps (A and B on either side) force the runner (spill him) to outside the tackles, and let your outside linebackers and safeties clean up the mess.
But the defense willingly gives up control of the C gap to the offense. So one of the ways to beat the Tite front is to exploit that C gap. One of the ways you can do that is by pulling the tackle across formation. It’s really tough to pull guards against Tite because of the alignment of the ends and nose. But the tackles are free and clear. For all the angst about the lack of adjustments by Mike Leach in the Air Raid, I’m pretty certain that he started pulling the tackle specifically as a counter-punch to the Tite front. Another play that could cause some problems for the Tite front is speed option. If it seems like I advocate for that play a lot, it’s because I do. It’s a great change-up to the constant barrage of inside and outside zone that every spread team runs. Normally with speed option you leave end unblocked and pitch off of him. Against the Tite, I would block the end down and read the outside linebacker.
Beating the Tite front in the passing game doesn’t really require any particular adjustments. It just requires patience. The defense will often only rush three. Assuming the offensive line holds up, the quarterback is going to have time in the pocket. No defense can guard receivers indefinitely. It’s just a matter of waiting for a receiver to pop open and seeing him when he does. The first drive in the 2019 Apple Cup has a few really good instances of Anthony Gordon waiting for a receiver to come clear. You should also notice how he doesn’t force anything, even when the ball comes out quick. He simply takes what the defense gives him and methodically marches down the field. Having seven or eight in coverage is going to limit your explosives. It’s important not to get antsy and force the home run play. Which, as we’ve seen, is something that Jayden de Laura has had issues with so far.
We’ll see the Tite front again at some point in the near futue, likely in the Apple Cup. If I’m Jimmy Lake, I’m definitely carrying the mindset of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” into that game until the Cougs prove they can handle that defense. 350 yards and 19 points against BYU likely isn’t enough to change that math, but it’s a positive development. In the end, as with all things, it simply comes down to execution.