Run Defense Concerns

Now, having talked about how this formation could help in coverage, one question that has likely already occurred to many is how on earth do you stop the run with three deep safeties? After all, the Panthers struggled to stop a stiff breeze on the ground last season, and that was with either one or two deep defenders – how is starting with one fewer player in the box going to help anything?

Well, there is one advantage to a three-safety formation when it comes to defending the run, in that – at most of the time – there will be at least one safety who is diving towards the line of scrimmage as part of his coverage responsibility. This means that while the defense does initially start with a man down in the box, as long as they can force the ball outside and towards the crashing safety, they are able to replicate a two deep safety look; it is also important to note that the third safety replaces the nickel corner, not a linebacker.

From a personnel point of view, this is actually a grouping better suited to stopping the run than the usual nickel defense. It really can work well:


However, what this does require is a really thoughtful pairing of gap fits with coverages, and while this is not something that is unique to this formation, it is more pronounced when this formation doesn’t get that right. The downside of this approach is that the offense knows that the defense is going to have to try and funnel the ball towards one of the safeties, and that there are only so many ways of doing that – so by looking to target outside runs, they do have a chance of getting to the outside before the safety can get down to seal the edge.

The flip side of this is that as outside runs can go in one of two directions, the offense runs the risk of therefore looking to run the ball right into the teeth of the defensive shift:


Where this formation is vulnerable against the run, and the form of coverage that I think will cause some issues at the NFL level outside of obvious passing situations is the cover 3 where all three safeties drop deep and where there is no natural run support, this is not something that is likely to go well in the NFL as this is essentially what would happen if you just took a defender out of the box:


While this formation absolutely can hold it’s own against the run with careful design and pairing of coverage and gap assignment, it is also important to understand that there are some limitations to this formation that cannot be overcome and there are some times when it should not be tried, which are likely to be more relevant and pronounced at the NFL level than in the pass-happy Big XII. 

This is really one of three important points that need to be made about the transition to the NFL outside of any conceptual Xs and Os.

This is not a formation you can roll out on every play against every opponent and expect things to go well. While this can be the core of what you look to do defensively, given the time that NFL teams have to prepare compared to college, this is going to have to be only a part of what Phil Snow brings to the Panthers defensively, rather than the whole playbook. Teams that look to use additional blockers and teams which are more run-focused are going to require him to go away from this look, at least at times, and while I do think the Panthers are going to spend a lot of time in what is essentially a nickel personnel grouping, the third linebacker is not going to be a purely ceremonial position, but rather one that varies in importance week to week.

Against Arizona’s four and five-wide heavy offense, this is a great defensive approach, but when you face the Rams and their downhill rushing attack and multiple tight ends, you will need to show the awareness and humility to adapt to the offense you are facing. This is also relevant on a snap-by-snap basis. 

While this formation does have huge potential, it will need to be developed beyond what Snow ran at Baylor, where they did vary coverages significantly but largely alternated between different forms of cover 3 and man coverages. With more time to prepare and install, more talented players and more time to adjust each week, Snow would do well to continue to build upon what he did at Baylor in order to explore the true potential of this formation.

I think Snow is capable of taking this step, but this isn’t something that can be taken for granted – but judging from the raves his former players have about him, Snow has the knowledge and the foresight to do it. 

“His knowledge is just unmatched,” former Baylor defensive lineman James Lynch said about Snow at the Combine. “It’s just unreal what he knows, and he was kind of like the coach where you could meet with him all day. He was there basically 24-7, I would say. He would sleep in his office and make sure he was ready for us and we knew what was going to be on Saturdays. He was the best coach we had.”

The 4-2-5 is not a solution to every problem defensively, and it certainly isn’t a solution suited to every situation – if the Panthers roll it out every play, every game, it is not only going to make things very easy for teams to plan for, but is going to be exposed through its limitations. Like a lot of concepts in the NFL, if Snow uses a hammer to solve every problem because he has a hammer, not because the problem needs a hammer, that is going to end badly, but if he can continue to use the spanners and saws that other NFL defenses are familiar with, while also having a hammer to bring out when the problems merits it, he has a chance to take the Panthers’ defense to a new level. 

(Top Photo Via Jerry Larson/Waco Tribune)



Vincent Richardson on Twitter
Vincent Richardson
Analyst at Riot Report
Astrochemist, bartender and jazz drummer; I also watch a lot of football. Areas of interest include play design, player evaluation and data-driven analytics. Twitter: @vrichardson444