Last week I posted up a bit about our first opponent's offensive coordinator and the type of scheme we can expect out of them. Today I'm going to look at VT's defensive coach and scheme.
Virginia Tech's defense has played at a consistently high level for years now, dominating the statlines in the ACC and across the country in several years. Last year, a down year for VT, they were ranked 10th in the country in Defensive S&P+, and 24th in Defensive FEI. From 2004-2008, their defense was especially dominant, finishing in the top ten every year in Total and Scoring defense. Most years, VT's defense is the engine of their success, and any shortcomings from the defense will doom their season.
Bud Foster currently serves as defensive coordinator. He came with Beamer from Murray State back in '87 and has been the DC since 1996 (if there's one thing Beamer loves, its continuity). They've consistently ran what they call an "attack defense", which is a gap control defense based of of four defensive linemen, two inside linebackers, two corners, a safety, and two hybrid DB/LB players termed the Whip and the Rover. This system allows them to be extremely multiple without having to change personnel.
This page hosts some scans from the late nineties VT playbook. They've changed a bit, of course, but a lot of the info is still pertinent, and it also has some good info on their core defensive philosophies. As Foster notes:
"Our main objective is to pressure the offense by creating chaos with multiple fronts, stunts and coverages. It is a scheme that looks complicated, but yet is very simple."
And they do stick to that objective. One thing you immediately notice about this defense is how may different looks they run out of it, and the variety of stunts, blitzes, pressures, etc. The base formation usually looks something like this:
M and B are the inside linebackers. W is the "Whip" linebacker/ Safety hybrid position, R is the "Rover", an OLB that has the build and skills of a corner. The rover is always lined up to the field side (the larger side of the field) or to the side of passing strength, and the whip lines up on the boundary side. These two hybrid positions are what make this defense work, by bringing up players into the box that are at the same time playing against the run, capable of dropping back into pass coverage, or rushing the passer.
One thing that is noteworthy about this defense is the ease with with different coverages and blitzes can be ordered up to confuse opposing offenses. From this base, they can rush only the front four and drop seven into coverage, with the Whip and Rover taking the flats, the ILB's covering the short middle zones, and the corners and free safety playing deep thirds. Or the blitz can come from either of the four linebacker spots or even from the corner. Whip and Rover postions often blitz when lined up over a slot receiver or tight end. Often they will drop six or seven men into coverage, I've even seen them rush only two on third and long and have nine men in zone coverage.
Most of the time, though, VT will rush the four down linemen, one of the hybrid OLB's, and play two deep with the corners while the safety plays robber and the res of the defenders play zone underneath. If this is too much lingo, perhaps a diagram will help:
There are, of course, endless possible variations on the basic lineup, and this is why the Va. Tech defense has historically been so good. They present an ever-changing and confusing picture for the opposing QB, forcing him into making poor decisions and preventing the offense from getting into any sort of a rhythm.
The following screenshots are from last year's VT vs. FSU game. This is a 3rd and long situation, and Kramer here decides to rush six, while dropping four db's back into deep coverage and one tackle into a short zone.
Here we see the pre-snap formation. You can see the Mike linebacker in the middle of the field and the Rover and Whip lined up on the line of scrimmage. FSU here is out of the shotgun, single back, three receivers right and one left. Unseen is the weakside corner and the safety, who is lined up behind the playside corner and backer. Notice that the DB's are all playing back off the line, which for VT usually means zone coverage. If they are playing man, they will usually line up on the line of scrimmage to play bump and run technique.
RIght away you can see that something might be wrong for FSU here, as there are seven VT defenders ready to rush the QB and only six men available to block.
After the snap, the RB drops down to pick up the blitzing Whip. The weakside DT stunts to the inside shoulder of the OT while the Mike goes outside. The Rover, DE, and DT on the playside all rush upfield. The DB's all drop into their zones.
In the next frame, you can see the athletic Whip attempting to leap over the RB at the bottom of the screen, the MIke routing around the OT, and the DT on the playside dropping back into short zone coverage.
The DT can clearly be seen sitting back in his zone, and the Whip has almost cleared the RB. The Mike, of course, is barreling at the QB unblocked. Up in the upper left corner of the screen, you can see and FSU wide receiver, alone and uncovered, with the closest DB 4 yards behind him. The QB doesn't notice him, though, probably because his eyes are focused left, on the blitzing Mike.
And here the Mike sacks the QB for a loss of eight. You can still see the receiver on the top left, who was never picked up, and had the QB had time, he would have surely found him open.
That is the strength of this defense, though, creating confusion by bringing pressure from different places and positions. This causes the opposing offense to be unsure about their assignments and blocking calls, and leads to poor decisions and frustration from the QB. With all of those bodies in the box on every play, they are also always strong against the run.
To counter Alabama's balanced and powerful attack, VT will have to pull out all the stops and throw every exotic blitz and coverage package they have at us. Hopefully we will be able to get some mismatches on Amari Cooper and Chris Black by lining up these speedy guys where a safety or Rover is forced to cover them. Running the ball is going to require that our guys follow their blocking assignments and rules closely, because we will rarely have a numbers advantage in the running game.
Since Bama will be breaking in three new offensive line starters, this VT defense could make this game more interesting than it otherwise would be. It all comes down to how well the OL has come together over spring practice and fall camp. If they are communicating well and playing as a unit, we should be able to hold off the Hokies and their attack defense.
* There is a whole lot of info on the VT defense out there, so this 1200 word piece barely scratched the surface, so forgive me if I left anything out. Hopefully, I got all of their terminology correct and the X's and O's in the right spots. I'm sure you guys will let me know in the comments if I got anything too badly off. Also, writing a post on this SBnation editor is an exercise in frustration, and leads to much cursing and gnashing of teeth. Maybe I'm doing it wrong, I dunno, but the preview function WILL NOT WORK, so I hope all the pics and formatting comes out ok.