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Summer School 2020: The Air Raid Killer defense

Could the Giants adopt a college defense in 2020?

Los Angeles Chargers v Miami Dolphins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

So far in our Summer School series I’ve taken a look at the Bear Front and the 46 defense it’s based on, and from there we spun that forward into the modern Tite Front.

While I’ve been concentrating on the front seven, Nick Falato has been breaking down the strengths and weaknesses of the most common coverage shells.

Now I want to (just a bit) bring the front half and the back half together and look at a complete defensive scheme. We’re going to be taking a look at the “Air Raid Killer” defense, a scheme which could figure into how the New York Giants play defense in 2020.

This scheme, also referred to as the stacked dime or three-down dime, was born in 2017 in Iowa State. That year the Cyclones started the year with a 2-1 record as they entered their idle week. That might seem all well and good, and most teams would probably take the break to assess their first three games and fine tune their game plan as they went into conference play.

But that one loss wasn’t easily ignored by head coach Matt Campbell and defensive coordinator Jon Heacock. They gave up 44 points at home to in-state rival Iowa in a 44-41 overtime loss, and the coaching staff took it as a sign that they needed to change something as they went into Big XII play. They didn’t just change something, they decided on a course of action which easily could have been career-threateningly stupid, but wound up being courageous and inspired.

They scrapped their entire defense and rebuilt it from the ground up.

“Everything we knew, we shoved it off the desk and basically started from scratch,” Heacock said in an interview with The Athletic

When Iowa State started the 2017 season, their defense was based on the 4-2-5 nickel concepts which has become something of the base defense at both the college and NFL levels. Instead of starting with even that foundation, the coaches took a vote of their best 11 defensive players and then created a scheme to put them on the field together as often as possible.

They ultimately hit upon a formation with three down linemen, three linebackers, two cornerbacks, and three safeties.

The 3-3-5 defense wasn’t wholly new in the college ranks. West Virginia had been using it under Art Briles since early in the 2000s and San Diego State has long used a similar scheme. But to switch schemes in the middle of the season is practically unheard of. And in doing so, Iowa State hit upon a formula which proved difficult for the notoriously offense-happy Big XII teams to counter. Over its remaining 10 games, Iowa State held its opponents to an average 16.6 points less than the Cyclones scored against their other opponents — including offensive juggernauts like Baker Mayfield’s Oklahoma (15.2 points less than their season average), West Virginia (15.8 points less than average), and Texas Tech (23.1 points less than average). In 2016, the Cyclones fielded the 88th-best defense in college football, but in 2017 they were ranked 26th and 38th in 2018.

Other teams quickly took notice and we have started to see other teams adopt many of Iowa State’s principles, from Texas to Alabama.

What does the Air Raid Killer look like?

I’ve wanted to write about this defense for a while, but there’s a reason why I waited until after writing about the Bear and Tite fronts. I’ll get into both why I waited and what makes this defense unique, but first I’ll just show you.

The Air Raid Killer (or as Iowa State calls it, the 3-3-3 defense) is built on a Tite Front, reaping all the benefits of that front when it comes to stopping the run. If you remember — or click on the link above — the Tite Front became popular when dealing with Air Raid or Spread Option offenses because it allowed defenses to lock down the interior run game, which many Spread and Air Raid teams are built upon. However, the Tite Front’s greatest strength, concentrating seven defenders inside the tackles, is also its weakness and teams could still find yardage by attacking the flat through the air or with relatively common counter or split zone running plays.

Iowa State stumbled upon a scheme which accounts for that weakness. By spreading their linebackers out, Iowa State is able to account for outside runs without having to worry about players having to navigate misdirection or bodies around the line of scrimmage. They’re able to do so by replacing one of their inside linebackers with the “MS” or “middle safety.”

The middle safety is a hybrid who blurs the lines between traditional safety and linebacker. By replacing the linebacker with a speedy coverage player, Iowa State is able to cover enough ground to justify keeping their outside linebackers wide. With their outside linebackers wider, they can act as force players and account for the C-gaps outside the tackles.

The middle safety also allows a great deal of freedom in calling coverages, with his range and athleticism effectively allowing him to be used as a “fireman,” lending help where it’s needed.

Spread and Air Raid offenses frequently play 10 or 20-personnel, fielding four receivers or a pair of running backs. Some, like Washington State or Texas Tech under Kliff Kingsbury played those formations much more frequently than the 11-personnel commonly seen at the NFL level. They do this to try and force the defense into personnel mismatches and create opportunities through the air or on the ground. To respond, some defenses have moved to a dime (six defensive back) personnel set as their base defensive formation. They will often replace one of their outside linebackers with another hybrid safety, giving themselves another dynamic athlete in the middle of the field who can cover more ground and give them more options.

Conventional wisdom would hold that a nickel or dime defense, and particularly one with such a light box, is practically inviting opponents to run on it. Likewise, with that many small players the defense has to be sacrificing its run defense, right? Well, let’s take a quick look at the scheme in action.

Defending the run

We’re going to start out by taking a look at how a dime defense, with what appears to be, just a four-man box, can effectively defend the run.

If we remember back to our look at the Tite Front, we’ll recall that blocking a shade technique is onerous for offensive linemen. The angles are awkward and they need to be precise in their execution or the longer, athletic defenders will be able to get penetration. By using the Tite Front, with a 0-technique nose tackle and a pair of 4i-techniques, this scheme is able to effectively account for the left and right B-gaps (the B-gap is a favorite running target of spread offenses against traditional defenses), as well as one of the A-gaps. Likewise, by having the outside linebackers — or WILL linebacker and nickel defender, as the case may be — outside of the tackles, it gives them the ability to close down and force runs to the outside toward the sideline.

This effectively limits the offense to a single unchallenged gap, whichever A-gap the nose tackle doesn’t occupy. However, the 3-3-3 scheme accounts for that as well. Because the defensive line has occupied most of the gaps, the MIKE linebacker is free to read the running play and flow along with the running back. The defense can likely anticipate that the offense will take the path of least resistance through the A-gap, or follow the runner to the outside without having to navigate as many bodies as with a true Tite Front. This does place a burden on the middle linebacker to read the offense quickly and accurately, as well as to act on that read without hesitation,

Here again, we can also see the value of the middle safety. The middle safety is able to act as support and backup for the second-level players, helping to secure the tackle or to fill a gap if the the MLB read the play incorrectly.

Against the pass

If you are playing a nickel or dime package, odds are that you are anticipating defending the pass. And considering the pass is the primary way in which the ball is moved in the college and NFL levels, nickel defenses have become the norm.

The 3-3-3 or Air Raid Killer defense, offers a diverse and versatile personnel set and alignment which allows the defensive coordinator to call a variety of coverages.

This defense is often paired with what is, essentially, a Tampa-2 defense.

The middle safety essentially plays the same role as a Tampa-2 middle linebacker, dropping into robber coverage under the two deep safeties. This serves to take away the middle of the field, which is normally vulnerable in Tampa-2.

The 3-3-3 scheme can be paired with most coverages, though coordinators tend to favor zone schemes. Zones allow defensive coordinators greater flexibility to cover the large swaths of the field threatened by modern spread offenses. It also allows them to get creative with blitz design.

And this is one final area in which the innovation of the middle safety shows its worth.

The middle safety allows the defensive coordinator to blitz either outside linebacker or the inside linebacker while having a player in position and with the athleticism to come down and take their coverage responsibilities or fill run fits.

For example, the defensive coordinator could send the inside linebacker down through the left A-gap while the offensive line contends with the outside linebacker and defensive line. A-gap blitzes can be particularly disruptive as they have the potential to produce quick pressure right in the quarterback’s face. But if they’re picked up, they can weaken the middle of the defense and be exploited for a quick pass.

Here, however, the middle safety is in position to come up and fill that void. With the defender on the offensive right dropping back into coverage, this quickly looks a lot like a modified version of a Fire Zone Blitz.

How this could apply to the Giants

We have been finishing these pieces off by talking about how a scheme can be countered. Instead, I wanted to take a look at how this scheme could be adapted to the Giants’ current personnel. I also want to give a shout-out to Mark Schofield, who took his own look at Iowa State’s defense and how Bill Belichick is already adapting those concepts to the NFL in 2018.

Given that the Giants now have two former Patriots coaches who were around for that (head coach Joe Judge and outside linebackers coach Bret Bielema), this certainly seemed like a worthwhile concept to examine in detail.

So let’s return to our schematic of the “base” 3-3-3 defense.

We’ll start along the defensive front with Dalvin Tomlinson (94) filling the role of nose tackle while Leonard Williams (99) and Dexter Lawrence (97) lend their length and explosiveness to the 4i techniques. All three players are capable of commanding double teams and penetrating gaps.

Lorenzo Carter (59) is the SAM linebacker, lined up so he could either rush or use his athleticism to cover the tight end. Oshane Ximines (53) is the rush linebacker on the opposite side. Note: Markus Golden could still sign with another team, as of this writing.

Free agent addition Blake Martinez (54) is almost certain to be the starting middle linebacker.

James Bradberry (24) would man one cornerback spot while either Sam Beal (23) or DeAndre Baker (27) could man the other.

The middle safety role falls to Jabrill Peppers (21), as he has always been at his best when playing a hybrid safety/linebacker role. Julian Love (20) would be the coverage safety behind the rush linebacker, and rookie Xavier McKinney (29) fills the final safety role as what would traditionally be the strong safety.

This is, obviously, all conjecture at this point. But with Spread and Air Raid concepts taking over the NFL, it would behoove the Giants to pay close attention to the innovations being made at the collegiate level. Particularly with them set to play teams like the Arizona Cardinals and Baltimore Ravens in 2020. It remains to be seen how well the team could get coaches and players to buy in, or how well they would fit into their (projected) roles in this defense. But it’s fun to think about at this point in the calendar, and a useful exercise for taking a look at a defense we haven’t seen much of at the NFL level.