By now we don’t have to ask about the merits of NFL offenses adopting college spread concepts. They’re here in the NFL, have been in the league for a couple years, and are being used to great effect. The question now isn’t whether or not college concepts will work in the NFL, but how can NFL defenses adapt and slow down them down.
In a previous piece in our Summer School series I wrote about the Bear Front and how its concepts formed the basis for one of the most popular defenses against the Spread Offense. That defensive front is the “Tite Front” and it has grown out of an evolution of Buddy Ryan’s concepts, most notably the Bear Front.
After years of speaking in terms of 4-3 under vs. over defenses, or 1-gap 3-4 fronts vs. 2-gap 3-4 fronts, fans can be forgiven for reacting to something like the “Tite Front” with a resounding “wait, the what-now front?” So, as we did with the 46 defense and the Bear Front, we’ll first look at what the Tite Front is and where it comes from, then get into its strengths and how teams try to beat it.
What is the Tite Front?
Like many other innovations we have seen in the NFL in recent years, the Tite Front has its roots in college football. Defenses across the NCAA struggled — are still struggling — to come up with answers for the Air Raid, Spread and Option offenses which dominate the college landscape. Offenses fielded by schools like Texas A&M, Baylor, West Virginia, Washington State, and Oregon pushed the envelope of how fast and how explosive an offense could be. They also managed to do so in a way that let schools which didn’t have dominant recruiting classes compete and win.
But it wasn’t one of college football’s defensive juggernauts that came up with the best answer yet to those offenses. It wasn’t Alabama, LSU, Penn State, Michigan State, or Stanford that hit upon the genesis of the Tite Front. It was Chip Kelly’s Oregon Ducks.
When Kelly and defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti arrived in Oregon, they installed a defense that was similar to the old 46 (or Bear Front) defense. To make their fronts more versatile and account for some of the weaknesses of the Bear Front, the Ducks would play around with their alignments, mixing 3- and 4-technique defensive tackles instead of having each down lineman directly cover an interior blocker. However, the core concept of out-numbering offenses stayed the same and it was effective for the Ducks.
The Ducks made the change from the Bear Front to the Tite Front with the recruitment of a pair of unique defensive tackles in DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead.
(Note: I haven’t found a concrete reason why the “Tite” is called the “Tite.” The most likely I’ve come across is that it is short for “Tackle Inside Tight End”).
Armstead and Buckner are virtual clones of each other at 6-foot-7 and (roughly) 295 pounds apiece. They are undeniably good players, but also have uncommon physical traits for defensive tackles. Rather than being squat, powerful players who win with leverage, they are long and athletic and built more like massive EDGE players than defensive tackles.
But sometimes moving away from a positional archetype is a good thing. Oregon transitioned from the classic Bear front to a more balanced front and lined their “defensive ends” up at the 4i technique with a 0-technique nose tackle in the middle. And with that, what became known as the Tite Front was born.
What the Tite Front looks like
Looking at the Tite Front, you can see the similarities to the Bear Front, with three down linemen inside the offensive tackles. However the basic Tite Front doesn’t walk an edge and safety down to the line of scrimmage to overload the strong side of the offensive formation. Instead, it keeps a balanced formation which is better able to deal with spread offenses.
You could also be forgiven for looking at the 4i-0-4i Tite Front and thinking it’s just the old 2-gap 3-4 front. But while a Tite Front with three down linemen might look like a slight variation on a 3-4 front, there are two very big differences which make it such a headache for offenses.
The first is the alignment of the defensive ends. In a traditional 2-gap 3-4 front, the defensive ends play the 5-technique, lined up across from the offensive tackles’ outside shoulders. In the Tite Front, they are 4i-techniques, lined up across from the tackles’ inside shoulders. While moving a couple feet might not seem like a big deal, shade techniques (namely 4i and 2i) make for very uncomfortable blocks for offensive linemen. Traditional blocking schemes struggle to account for them cleanly — are they the tackle or guard’s responsibility? What about the linebackers and EDGE players? The blocks themselves are at an awkward distance and angle.
The other difference is that this is a one-gap defense.
Like the Bear Front which forms the foundation for the Tite Front, the Tite is an aggressive defense. It is designed to attack and disrupt offenses. One of the best ways for a defense to do that is to attack gaps.
Rather than simply using the defensive line to occupy blockers with 2-gap techniques, the Tite front accounts for every gap.
Obviously this is greatly simplified and presented with a “base” defensive personnel set, without secondary players, and without offensive skill position players. Responsibilities would obviously shift as circumstances dictate.
But where a 2-gap 3-4 front would use the defensive line to occupy blockers while the linebackers rally to the ball, the Tite Front seeks to attack the gaps through which backs have to run and rushers can find paths into the backfield. It plays to the athleticism of its personnel to disrupt high-powered offenses.
Why use the Tite Front?
The Tite Front has become one of the go-to alignments for defensive fronts for a couple of reasons. Like the Bear Front, it is commonly called to stop running plays, but it is also a versatile front which can be used against the passing game.
Because the Tite is primarily thought of as a run defense alignment, that’s where we’ll start. Looking at the diagram above, we can see how the Tite works to create a series of one-on-one matchups and less than favorable conditions. Like the Bear front, the Tite concentrates defenders inside of the offensive tackles. With the two 4i techniques taking care of the B-gaps, the nose tackle and inside linebackers to account for the two a-gaps on either side of the center.
We can also see how the use of shade alignments and 1-gap scheming makes for some awkward blocks. Former offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz talked about how difficult it was to block 2i technique linemen as a guard.
“The 2I is perfect for splitting a double team on the front side of a zone play. The guard has to be perfect in his footwork. He needs to step play side, but not too far, because he has to get a piece of the 2I defensive tackle to allow the center to take over the block.
“It’s hard to put into words how difficult that truly is. As a guard, that was the toughest block I had. I hated it. Your first instinct is to false step: Step backwards in order to maintain some power when you hit the 2I. When you false step, you give up on getting to the linebacker. And because you’re thinking about getting a shot on the 2I, you’re often too slow getting to the linebacker. The 2I can thus hold both players, the guard and center.”
While Schwartz isn’t talking about the Tite Front, it does shed some light on the difficulties offensive tackles and guards face when blocking 4i defensive tackles. The block itself is difficult, and that makes it that much more difficult for the lineman to climb to the second level if the scheme demands it.
Let’s take a look at how this specifically frustrates the spread offense.
Spread offenses are predicated on using personnel and alignment to force defenses to cover more area — spreading them out and attacking where the defenders aren’t. Specific passing game philosophies do this in a variety of ways, but they all pair well with the inside zone running scheme.
With receivers and tight ends forcing coverage players to defend horizontally as well as vertically, and wide offensive line alignments forcing defensive lines to spread out, spread offenses put a lot of stress on defenses. Spread schemes are able to create gaping canyons between the tackles when playing traditional defensive alignments. And because the Inside Zone is able to blend the athleticism of an outside zone scheme with the power of a man-gap scheme, it is very difficult for a defense with an interior that is spread thin to counter.
The Tite Front accounts for that by not playing the offense’s game. Where spread offenses try to force defensive fronts to cover more area, the Tite concentrates five defenders over three interior linemen and challenges the offense to figure it out. This forces offensive tackles to look inward instead of toward the edge and also makes it difficult for offenses to find much room up the middle. That forces running backs to try and bounce inside runs to the outside, slowing the offense as a whole and allowing EDGE players and perimeter defenders the chance to rally to the ball or string it out to the sideline.
The Tite front is a balanced formation, and while that doesn’t give the defense a natural numbers advantage on either side of the formation, it does give it the flexibility to adapt to the ambidextrous nature of modern offenses.
Spread offenses are typically run out of 11, 10, or 20 personnel packages. Few collegiate Spread (or Air Raid) teams run multiple tight end sets as they try to use smaller, more athletic personnel to force defenses into sub-packages. The Tite Front, however, still manages to give numerical parity, even when in sub-packages, which is a (relatively) favorable condition for offenses.
It isn’t a perfect defense — there’s still no such thing — but it does account for what most Spread or Air Raid teams want to do most on the ground, which is a good start.
The passing game
The athleticism and versatility of the Tite Front lends itrself to defending the pass. One-on-one matchups are as valuable for pass rushers as they are for run defenders, particularly when the defense can force the offense to have to execute perfectly.
Given the athletic advantages most defenders enjoy over most blockers, pass rushers are expected to win one-on-one opportunities when they can be arranged. Ideally, the Tite Front is able to go a step beyond that and create opportunities for an unblocked rusher.
Going back to the diagram above, we have potentially six rushers with just five blockers, and that’s a recipe for a quarterback pressure in most situations. Of course, unless the offense is running an empty set, there’s going to be a running back and a tight end somewhere in that offensive formation, and that gives the offense the option of devoting extra blockers to frustrating the pass rush. But even so, if the defense is able to force the offense to use a tight end or running back to stop a pass rusher, that’s a matchup the defense should expect to win.
And while the Tite Front is a 1-gap defense, it shares a similar balance with 2-gap or Over fronts. This gives it a similar unpredictability for when defensive coordinators want to send extra pressure.
Playing to both the Tite Front’s strengths in both run and pass defense, the Tite Front is often paired with a Cover 4 scheme in the secondary. The Cover 4 helps to account for the amount of area the defense isn’t covering at the second level by concentrating defenders inside of the tackles. Zone coverage is also useful for run defense as it keeps defenders’ eyes in the backfield and makes it harder for offensive players to lock in block. Likewise, because zone coverage is more flexible than man coverage, it allows for creative and unexpected blitz packages. The use of zone coverage, and a Cover 4 in particular, is a stark departure from the Bear Front or 46 Defense, which relied on Cover 1 schemes to prevent quick passes.
Beating the Tite Front
On the ground
The Tite Front evolved from the Bear Front, and it shares a pair weaknesses — Changing the math, and runs to the edge.
Pulling guards are effective against a number of defensive fronts, but the balanced nature of the Tite, along with the use of shade techniques, makes it better able to deal with pulling guards than some other alignments. So we’re going to take it a step further and add misdirection to the mix. To be able to run on the Tite Front — as with the Bear — the offense needs to gain a numbers advantage on the play side. The best way to do that is to bring a blocker from the backside around to give the offense more blockers than the defense can bring defenders.
The Counter is a relatively old play, which was born in the 1970s in the University of Nebraska, and perfected in the early 1980s, when Washington Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs “stole it” (his words) after watching Nebraska’s film.
The Counter works by first asking most of the offensive linemen to run block in one direction, then bringing a lineman (and tight end, H-back or fullback if the formation has one) to pull back against the grain of the blocks. Hopefully the defense reacts to the blockers and flows to one side of the field while the running back runs away from the blocks (counter), and the pulling blockers create a numbers advantage on the side to which the running back is actually running.
Due to how the Tite front concentrates defenders in the middle of the field, it can be difficult for defenders to work back through the trash if they initially bite on the misdirection of a Counter play.
Offenses can also mix Counter runs with Split Zone runs to gain a similar numbers advantage and misdirection without the need to use a pulling guard or tackle. Where the Counter is built on man-gap principles and is frequently in conjunction with Power run plays, the Split Zone is built on (predictably) zone blocking principles. In this case the tight end, fullback, or H-back coming across to pick up the unblocked defender on what would appear to be the backside of an outside zone play to the opposite size.
While the two plays use different blocking philosophies, they share a similar style and can be combined to catch a Tite front off guard.
Through the air
The most common way that offenses attack the Tite Front is through the air, particularly when it’s played out of a “Base” personnel package.
I mentioned above that the Tite is frequently — almost always — paired with a Cover 4 scheme in the secondary. Nick Falato recently penned a brilliant breakdown of the Cover 4 and it’s vulnerabilities to our Summer School series, and I encourage everyone to go back and read that for the primary ways to attack this defense through the air.
Concentrating on the front seven itself, the major flaw of the Tite Front is easy to see.
Assuming the defense is just rushing four and playing a Cover 4 scheme, it would ask one of the inside linebackers and EDGE players to sprint out to cover the left and right flats while a single linebacker covers the hook/curl zone. That presents a number of potentially nightmarish mismatches for the defense. Most obvious, by putting an EDGE in the flat it creates the possibility of forcing that player to cover a tight end or running back out of the backfield, which is a matchup any offense will exploit every time for easy yardage.
Asking the WILL linebacker to cover the other flat is potentially problematic as well. It requires a linebacker with the athleticism to get there in time to do anything, and that level of athleticism — to be able to get from an A-gap to the numbers in time to affect a quick pass, is in short supply. Likewise, the MIKE linebacker might be forced to cover the middle of the field on his own, potentially putting him in coverage on running backs, tight ends, or slot receivers.
None of this is to say that the Tite Front is a bad defense. It offers a number of advantages, particularly against Spread offenses. Putting long, athletic defenders in positions where blockers need to be perfect to account for them, as well as taking away the foundation pieces of many offensive schemes can’t be underestimated. This is just the next iteration in the never-ending chess match between offensive and defensive coordinators. The Tite Front was innovated to take advantage of a new breed of defensive lineman and attack the weaknesses of modern offenses. Now offenses are adapting to exploit the weaknesses of the Tite Front.
Defensive minds have, of course, adjusted to those adjustments, but that’s a topic for another post.