If you paid attention to the defense during the Red-White Game last month, you probably noticed the Oklahoma Sooners spent most of the scrimmage playing a four-down defensive line.
In some circles, that qualified as a notable development. The esoteric subject of DL alignments became a point of contention in Norman last season. The Sooners primarily based their defense out of coach Brent Venables’ preferred 4-3 scheme, but he mixed in three-man fronts on occasion. Mixed describes the results as well.
Given that the Sooners will likely dabble with three-down fronts again this year, let’s discuss what we saw in 2022.
Schemes featuring three-man fronts come in different flavors, and the Sooners primarily used two last season.
- One nose tackle and two defensive ends;
- Three linebackers (Mike, Will, Cheetah);
- Three high safeties;
- Two cornerbacks.
Broadly speaking, the idea behind the 3-3-3 is that using five defensive backs is no longer good enough versus spread offenses. Instead, Ds often need six coverage players to slow down the most potent attacks. (The use of “coverage players” in this instance is intentional, as these defenses tend to feature one or two hybrid safety-linebackers.) Of course, the defense has to take some beef off the field to make that work.
The image above of the OU defense in a 3-3-3 comes from the October matchup with TCU, and it illustrates one of its major selling points. When opponents line up three receivers to one side of the offensive formation, defenses playing conventional schemes can either put a weaker pass defender in coverage to that side of the field or shift over a safety. The 3-3-3 alleviates that problem by taking a defender out of the run box and subbing in an extra coverage player.
OU shut down a putrid Nebraska offense the first time it used a 3-3-3 defense last season. Things went poorly after that. OU played a 3-3-3 two weeks later against TCU, which put a 55-24 beating on the Sooners. OU went with the same strategy the following week against Texas in the Red River Rivalry, and again the squad got stomped, 49-0.
When four becomes three
At other points throughout the season, the Sooners played a three-down front using 4-3 personnel. Here’s an example from the Oklahoma State game:
In the image above, the Cowboys are using 10 personnel lined up in a 2x2 spread formation with a running back in the backfield to the boundary. OU is playing 4-3 base personnel. Defensive tackle Isaiah Coe shifts out to the end spot across from the inside shoulder of the right tackle. Defensive end R Mason Thomas bumps out towards the alley on the boundary side of the offensive formation.
Similar situation later in the season against Texas Tech:
The Red Raiders have 11 personnel in the game with a tight end split wide to the boundary (top of the screen). Defensive end Ethan Downs sets up in the alley to the boundary, while the other DLs align in a three-down front.
In both cases, moving the DE into the QB’s throwing lane on short routes takes away the quick passing game without pulling a safety down closer to the line of scrimmage. The flip side is that it lightens the run box and takes a pass rusher out of the action.
Lessons for 2023
It’s easy to understand why seeing the Sooners in a three-down front last year caused so much heartburn around Norman. OU was playing three-man fronts in embarrassing losses to TCU and Texas – blowouts in which the Sooners allowed a combined 104 points and roughly 1,300 yards of total offense. Meanwhile, OU ended up in a three-down front often enough in games like the 51-48 loss to Texas Tech to sour observers’ opinions of it even further.
But it seems misguided to blame the scheme for OU’s inability to slow down the best offenses it faced last season. TCU and Tech ranked fifth and 17th nationally in Offensive SP+ in 2022, respectively, and UT wasn’t far behind them at 28th overall. Those offenses might have blistered the Sooners even worse if they had countered with more four-down alignments, given how poorly OU covered playing three-man fronts.
Moreover, OU’s defense didn’t exactly thrive in four-down looks. The same issues showed up either way – weak pass rush, shoddy tackling, et cetera.
Looking ahead, OU does have some reasons to believe these schemes will work better in 2023. First, the coaching staff upgraded the personnel on the edges. Whereas DEs Reggie Grimes and Ethan Downs were two of the most heavily used players on last season’s squad, they will find more competition at their spots from players such as transfer Rondell Bothroyd and five-star freshman P.J. Adebawore.
Second, the Sooners should improve at safety. Much like the situation at defensive end, returnees will find themselves competing with promising newcomers for snaps. For example, lack of depth at the position forced Key Lawrence to play through nagging injuries for the entire 2022 season, but he’ll have to beat out players such as Texas Tech transfer Reggie Pearson and stud freshman Peyton Bowen to stay on the field this fall.
Finally, Venables has a disruptive new piece to move around the board in linebacker Dasan McCullough. The lanky Indiana transfer practiced in the spring at the Cheetah position played last year by DaShaun White. White played the role like an inside LB asked to cover in space. With McCullough, OU could play something akin to a 3-3-5 in which he blitzes from a variety of angles and alignments.
Naturally, opponents will dictate how OU uses the three-down defensive schemes this year. While they remain a work in progress, expect them to be more effective this time around.