It's no secret that defense was an area of struggle for Texas Tech in 2014. Wallerstedt resigning, Mike Smith giving us a shred of hope, TCU annihilating that hope, and the hiring of David Gibbs made for one hell of a wild ride this past year. The difference between David Gibbs and the past 6 defensive coordinators that we've had over the past 7 years is that Gibbs comes in as an already experienced Defensive Coordinator with a system that has proven to succeed. From the outside looking in, he runs a 4-3 system with a stand-up rush end. However, after watching some of his older games, I think we'll see much more of a 4-2-5 look that he employs against spread offenses, which the Big XII is chock full of.
Let's take a look into what the base 4-3 might look like
Here we have Gibbs's Houston Cougars squaring off with the South Florida Bulls in 2013. According to what we're hearing out of spring practice and the pre-spring practice depth chart (which can be found here), we're more than likely going to see Pete Robertson in the Rush End position, played by #81, or the man on the far right of the line with the white towel. According to the depth chart, Sam Atoe will be playing the strong side position, or the linebacker on the far right, outside of the tight end. Mike Mitchell and Micah Awe will be policing the middle of the field, with a smattering of Tevin Madison, Nigel Bethel, Justis Nelson at corner, and Payton Hendrix, Keenon Ward, Jalen Barnes, and Derrick Dixon playing the safety spot. Now that we have a good idea of where everyone will be on the field, let's look at how the defense actually functions against a run-oriented attack.
Right off the bat, the first thing I notice is the urgency of the Rush end and Strong Side linebacker and the patience of the other two linebackers over the middle. The weak side end reads his keys and stays flat to the line of scrimmage, anticipating the almost inevitable trap block that is coming from the guard from the other side. This, as we've seen in the past, is a skill right up the alley of Branden Jackson, who I believe will fit nearly perfectly into this role. As soon as the Middle linebacker sees that the guard is crashing down and the end is staying flat to the line of scrimmage, he comes flying in to try and hit the hole at the same time that the defensive end engages the pulling guard. Unfortunately for the linebacker, he won't get to make the play either, as the Bulls have a fullback in the formation to lead block for the running back. On the other hand, fortunately for the Cougars as a whole, the Weak Side linebacker has read his keys as well, and is following the pulling guard to the hole to mop up whatever's left. The Strong Side linebacker and the Rush end are "squeezing" the formation down by pressing into their blockers, but still maintaining outside leverage. This ensures that a quick cutback hole won't open up between the tackles and also maintains outside leverage to the point where they can disengage to go chase the running back if he cuts outside of the tackle box completely. USF actually blocks this well, as the Cougar defenders are taken several yards off of the line of scrimmage. The Weak Side end is the man who ends up making the play before the linebacker gets there, but it's a very good thing he did because it looks as if the Middle linebacker lost his engagement with the fullback.
The final observation that I have on this play is that in Gibbs's base 4-3, it is incredibly varied. It looks like a 3-4, plays like a 5-2 "Bear", but ultimately functions as a 4-3 with a linebacker "over" the strong side edge. Let's check out another play from the USF-Houston game.
Here we have a 1st and 20 for the Bulls, which normally is a pretty big passing down. In order to take off the ball a split second faster, the Rush end switches from his regular 2-point stance into a 3-point stance. The Cougars are playing a true balance set, in which we see the Strong Side linebacker drift back into what we would typically consider a 4-3 defense. The first example we worked with is countering an off-balanced run formation, this defense is clearly called to counter a trips formation in a passing situation, as the strong side linebacker is more than likely playing off of the line of scrimmage to help the corner and safety deal with the three-receiver formation. The Bulls go in motion, and as it's a little to late to audible and switch stances from a 3-point to a 2-point or a 2-point to a 3-point, the Cougars remain in their formation. We don't get to see much of the pass coverage, but as the ball is thrown we see pretty much the same formation we started out in, only spread out and deeper.
The Cougars are trying to bait the quarterback into making a mistake. They're keeping every receiver in front of them, there is a split second of the frame that shows the linebacker's drops, and the Weak Side linebacker has dropped deeper into coverage in order to counter the motion receiver running a medium depth route on his side. The Middle and Strong Side linebackers are in shorter coverage in response to the running back coming out of the backfield. The quarterback ends up throwing to his outside receiver who is running a "post" route into the middle of the field. The ball gets to the receiver a tad bit behind him, but still in a solid throw. However, this is where we see the entire concept of the defense come to fruition. As the ball gets to the receiver, the safety, #16, is in perfect position to make a play on the ball. He connects with the receiver as the ball gets there and jars it loose, causing an incompletion. He was in the perfect position to capitalize on the quarterback making the minuscule mistake of throwing the ball a little bit behind the receiver. When people say that David Gibbs's defense capitalizes on mistakes, this is what they mean. They make the offense be perfect on every single play in order to move the ball down the field. The Bulls had good blocking, the receivers ran great routes, but one tiny mistake by the quarterback makes the play fall apart.
This normally would be the end of the breakdown, but this isn't the type of defense that Gibbs has employed every snap during his tenure at Houston. The second set of plays comes from a 2013 game against Blake Bortles and the UCF Knights.
This is the first play of the game against UCF, where we first see what the coordinators have schemed up for each other. On the very first play of the game, against UCF's high powered offense, Gibbs lines up in a 4-2-5. The player furthest to the left looks like he may be a linebacker, but the player in that position is #23 Traevon Stewart, a defensive back. He's playing much wider than a linebacker would, and at the time of the snap his eyes instantly go to the slot receiver. The bootleg play Bortles runs is a success for 9 yards despite no one on the defense clearly missing their assignments, but the intent is clear: Gibbs is going to attempt to slow down the Knight's passing attack by replacing one of the linebackers in his 4-3 system with an extra safety, making it a 4-2-5.
The 4-2-5 element of Gibbs's defense works almost exactly like the 4-3 format with one key element missing: an edge player. The safety that replaces the linebacker is naturally there to help in pass defense, not to hold the edge against the run, making it slightly susceptible to runs out of the spread formation by definition. The exact next play UCF runs is just that, a handoff directed at the right side of the defense.
The defense lines up with the Rush end to the left and the safety to the right, and at first shows blitz with one of the linebackers at the tight end side of UCF's Single Set Back formation. The linebacker comes back into coverage, and the safety creeps up the line, attempting to disguise his blitz while still getting a head start on the tight end. As soon as the running back gets the ball he sees this, and begins to cut back towards the middle. The next thing the running back sees is the absence of an edge player, as the Rush end has mistakenly gone too far upfield. Ironically, this is what typically happens to the safety in the 4-2-5 defense, not the Rush end, but it has the same effect. The safety is generally playing way too far away from the tackle box to make an impact on the edge, allowing the running back to hit right outside of the tackle. The running back makes a beeline for the edge, and if it hadn't been for a very athletic play by a defensive lineman to trip him up, he would've hit the secondary with a full head of steam. We've seen how the Gibbs 4-2-5 can be troublesome against the run, now let's watch a play where it succeeds against the run.
Here we see another formation that looks like a base 4-3 with a stand up rush end. However, one glance at the personnel that are lining up where the linebackers would tell us that it's a 4-2-5 base with the safety (#13) rolled down to provide extra run support or blitz. Based on the fact that he runs straight at the shoulder of the tackle despite being lined up outside of the Rush end, and that the middle linebacker hits the same gap a split second later, we can comfortable infer that he is on a called blitz. He meets the running back in the backfield and brings him down handily. The benefit of lining up in the 4-2-5 for Texas Tech is that we can get our very aggressive safeties in a situation where their speed will absolutely punish people. When I watch this play I can definitely imagine Keenon Ward charging into the backfield to cause havoc.
All in all, based on what I see out of Gibbs's defense when put in situations where they have to defend high-octane offenses and the general offensive capability of the teams in the Big XII, I think we'll see a lot of this 4-2-5 variant in the future. My favorite thing about the Gibbs defense is that while it varies in look, the main reads and values seem to remain the same. In order to compete in the future, we need consistency out of a defense that in the past would perform admirably for a quarter and a half or so before tiring out. I think Gibbs's tendencies to play a lot of players, his scheme in general, and his teachings on the combination of patience and aggression will go a long way into pumping some life into the defensive side of the ball here on the South Plains.