Chris Williams recently published a piece analyzing the importance of Iowa State moving redshirt freshman Will McDonald to the strong outside linebacker position. Coach Campbell provided the sizzle for the move and indicated that the move provides additional flexibility for defense.
In my season summary piece associated with last year’s Texas game, I opined that the defense must continue to evolve in order to continue the impressive production posted in the 2017 and 2018 campaigns. This move and the enthusiasm associated with it is exactly what I was speaking about.
Below, I take a closer look at what the placement of McDonald as the heir to Willie Harvey may look like.
Will McDonald is a long, athletic player with a pass rush pedigree and apparently an ability to play in space. “Playing in space” means that the player is capable of exhibiting the speed and short space quickness coupled with the read and reaction required to make open field tackles and cover the assigned areas in zone coverage. “Pass rush ability” means the strength, agility and bend necessary to defeat a locked on blocker and free a path to a free runner or possessor of the football prior to the designed movements to gain yardage. Will McDonald is being placed in this position primarily because of his pass rush skills, but he will grow substantially in his coverage responsibilities as the season progresses.
These type of players, due to their disruptive multiple skill set, are among the highest paid in the NFL, top the All-American lists, and enhance defensive performance by an undetermined multiple. Why? Because they must be accounted for by multiple offensive blockers, which flips the numbers and spacing advantage of the balance of the defense. For instance, if a defense can create a 2 for 1 exchange with one defender, then there are 10 to cover 9 in the balance of the play. If that player is good enough to also influence the quarterback’s actions, then the defense has gained a 3 to 1 exchange and 10 beats 8 every play.
Von Miller, Demarcus Ware, Lawrence Taylor, Jadaveon Clowney, JJ Watt, Aaron Donald are NFL examples of this type of player. Some are interior line players, but require multiple blockers to account for them which creates opportunities for the balance of the defenders.
In 2016, Iowa State deployed defenders that did not have to be accounted for at all in the offensive game plan. In 2017, Iowa State deployed defenders that had to be accounted for on a 1 to 1 basis. In 2018, Iowa State brought on Greg Eisworth and Mike Rose, along with the emergence of JaQuan Bailey, where the ratio favored the defense slightly when certain blitz packages were utilized. In 2019, Iowa State will deploy Greg Eisworth, Jaquan Bailey, and Will McDonald, each of which will require a 1.5 to 2 to 1 offensive commitment and create a coverage and run fit advantage for the defense.
The Position Parameters
Willie Harvey developed, through the full utilization of his speed in open space, the ability to lock down a key RPO and check down zone through his recognition and ability to cover expanded space. In addition, his speed aided his ability to rush in a delayed blitz capacity off the edge where the offense aligned to allow him to align within an “attack range” of the quarterback. The fourth quarter against Kansas State would be an example.
However, Willie Harvey lacked natural pass rush ability and the ability to play off of or defeat an offensive lineman tasked with blocking him one-on-one. His coverage ability allowed for an advantage in coverage and freed the safeties and middle linebacker to be the primary sources of pressure.
The strong side outside linebacker (“Sam”) position in the Iowa State construct is the most pivotal and the most multiple position on the field. It can provide quick pass stopping coverage alignment and movement, or devastating pass rush scenarios in an unaccounted alignment. Where the alignment extends to a 4 and 3 position with a player with the speed to make up the 2 yard width expansion and yet drop or widen to cover stick, out, hook/curl, and slant routes, then the player must be accounted for even though ordinary offensive counting would not consider the player a “box” defender.
Now, consider that the player is capable of covering adequate space behind and to the boundary to fulfill his force or contain responsibilities from a box alignment in stack behind the end or at a 1 and 2 position outside. Now, that player becomes an accounted for pass rush threat, a read target player for the read option and RPO, and an underneath robber in a drop 8 coverage scheme. Additionally, consider that player to be capable of defeating a tackle who cannot reach him on a pass rush and cannot fit him on a run play. The offense must now provide a “chip” player or a pure double team to stop the pass rush or a check blocker or tight end who must delay or block before releasing for a second level block or pass route.
The route tree is comprised and the pass protection must take a risk that there are no other pressure players and that they can handle the All-Big 12 pass rusher on the other end.
Now, because of the skill set of the player and the alignment variance of the player with that skill set, the execution of multiple roles in pass coverage, pass rush, and edge contain, the offense is forced to adjust its preferred play to account for a single player with multiple players.
A player of this nature creates not only an offensive play calling conundrum, but allows the defensive play caller the ability to dictate the offenses available play calls by both alignment and assignment. For instance, in a 4 and 3 outside alignment against doubles or trips, an exceptional player can either…
1) Blitz off the edge from an angle that the tackle will struggle with requiring the fifth receiver to account for him; or
2) Drop in coverage either vertically or horizontally to cover the quick passes designed to control and defeat the extra rusher; or
3) Provide a disguised/influence read by appearing to take one path and dropping or attacking in another; or
4) Aid the stunt and slant game in the defensive front by altering his path and responsibility.
The position then becomes a focal point which will free up other positions (DE, MLB, S, and CB) to alternately provide coverage and pressure.
It is likely that Will McDonald will be aligned in an exaggerated coverage position, or as a 4 man defensive end, or as a stack backer. From each set, the offense will have to account for his disruptive potential in pass plays which would eliminate a pass catcher or greatly reduce the decision making window for the quarterback. Against the run, the player would provide space for the safeties (Eisworth) to run through their lanes.
Above, we see an Iowa State pressure package deployed in the fourth quarter against Kansas State. This is provided to demonstrate the creative pressure potential of the Iowa State defense and to locate the role played most often by Willie Harvey in 2018.
First, the weakside outside backer and the corner back are blitzing. Boundary pressure is deployed. The running back steps through and drops to account for the outside rush path of the outside backer. Therefore, the blitzer has occupied two blockers and the defense has compensated for its coverage deficiency. The cornerback comes inside of the backer and has a free path to the quarterback. The concept works perfectly on the blitz side.
Second, the strong side, to the field in this instance, shows JaQuan Bailey dropping in coverage as a spy or check down defender. The pressure uses only four players, but creates premature urgency for the quarterback due to the manner in which the four rush players are deployed. To the extent the offense is concerned or focused on keeping Bailey out of the backfield, the line finds itself over compensating on the strong side and undermanned on the weak side.
Finally, the McDonald spot, SAM linebacker position, is aligned in a traditional position at 5 and 5 to cut off a quick inside throw to the slot receiver. Harvey maintains inside leverage until the ball is released to the outside. He drops further than I would prefer, but with the clock ticking the quarterback rushes a throw to the second slant receiver who is well covered on the edge. Both the coverage and the pressure rotated around the strategic alignment of the Sam linebacker. That is not true on every play, but often, Iowa State will pivot its scheme around either outside linebacker in an attempt to catch the offense favoring the wrong side.
Now, consider that McDonald will be playing on the same side as JaQuan Bailey. Consider the adjustment made above to the pressure and the possibility that two blockers may not be adequate to stop a young lion and the most productive defensive end in school history when the pressure comes from the strong side. It means that additional blockers will need to be assigned, makes a spread formation more risky, and causes the play caller to favor a behind the chains play. Now, the defense begins to dictate the points of impact to the offense and the playbook is contracted.
This is a mess in my finest tradition. It is intended to demonstrate a number of options for the utilization of a versatile defender such as McDonald in various alignments. Follow the key below and chart each color if necessary.
McDonald’s position is marked by the Yellow “S” and his alignment will be indicated by the “x” in the associated color.
WHITE – The white lines indicate the actual pressure applied on the play. The noteworthy line is the movement of the running back who is unaccounted for in the coverage scheme, but is forced to become a non-factor due to the pressure.
RED – The Red “X”, the SAM backer, is aligned four yards out and two yards deep. This alignment is an attack position and potential blitz read for the offense. The Sam is in position to drop in to the slant/stick/curl zone, is in position to set the edge on any swing or outside run, and to rush 1 on 1 with the running back.
The alignment shows pressure, but the defense drops 8 with the SAM exchanging with the safety where the safety moves to a robber spot in the hook/curl zone and the SAM extends to the flat with the off corner bailing to provide deep half coverage. The free safety crashes and reads the hook to flat with the Will backer, and the Star provides deep half coverage. The press corner is in locked man with the boundary as his help.
The offense will read pressure pre-snap due to the alignment of the SAM and the defense will attempt to bait an ill-timed throw via the robber exchanges in the secondary.
GREEN – The Green “X”, the SAM backer, is now aligned two yards out and one yard off. This is a pressure alignment and pressure is coming. JaQuan Bailey and Will McDonald are aligned head up and in reach position for the tackle. The running back has no choice but to check the rush position of the Sam.
The End and the SAM are going to run a twist with Bailey taking an outside arc and bend to provide contain and upfield pressure. His arc will likely draw the running back’s block. The SAM will take an influence step forward then twist inside with abandon to provide an inside rush, pursue on run away, or blow up a run towards.
The corners are playing man on the outside. The MLB and the SS attack the vacated zone and flat from the inside and top. The free safety and star roll to the deep halves and the Will backer checks and walls the slot to the boundary in a match-up zone technique. The weak side defensive end will be one-on-one with the tackle and if Ray Lima draws the attention of the strong side guard, then the SAM backer will run free. Think the strip sack by McDonald against TCU.
ORANGE – The Orange “X”, the SAM backer, is aligned head up on the guard and one yard off. There is a second “X” indicating that Bailey is aligned in a wide nine. Bailey will have outside contain attacking the tackle in a pinch and push. Lima will fight across the center and the Sam will stunt in to the far A gap to create inside pressure. The MLB will be moving out to cover the vacated hook/curl zone and to cover the strong side B gap on a run. The press corner is blitzing like in the original play, however, the running back is likely occupied by the SAM in the middle. He again should have a clear path and with Bailey, McDonald, and the corner, the quarterback is triangulated.
The coverage has the star replacing the blitzing corner, the weakside backer checking and walling the slot receiver, the safeties playing deep halves, and the MLB and strong side corner covering the short range flat and hook/curl zone.
YELLOW – The Yellow “X”, the SAM backer, is aligned in a stack position four off stacked on the defensive end. The SAM is stressed here and must be very good in his read in order to get outside and set the edge as a toss play is invited. Consider that in the first half the SAM has been a pressure player, then the offense is likely to think he is a potential blitzer in this alignment, especially if it is feinted. However, in this alignment the blitz comes up the middle from the MLB.
In coverage behind the blitz, the SAM drops in to the hole with a shortened Tampa 2 drop. The strong side corner and safety play man on the outside. The safeties and feinted press corner roll in to three deep coverage and the weak side backer reads to the flat in match-up coverage.
Sum it Up
The demonstration of options is placed here to illustrate the myriad options available when there is an impact player placed in to the SAM linebacker position in the Iowa State defensive construct. Disguised coverage and deception in the pressure package become possible and probable.
I am reminded of my study of the TCU defense when considering the possibilities created if Will McDonald is what the staff and JaQuan Bailey say he is. TCU disguises its coverages and pressures from the outside in. TCU schemes to take away a significant tendency of each offense it plays. With a player like Will McDonald, Iowa State’s defense can evolve in to one that takes away a significant portion of what opposing offenses are trying to do.
Finally, the most important point. The Iowa State defense is constructed to prevent big plays and force an offense to grind it out against them. That motif has been very successful and has fit the personnel available. However, with the experience returning, the capabilities of the new corners (which I speculate are better cover corners than Payne and Peavy), and the presence of McDonald in a pivotal position, the Magic 8 Ball is indicating an increased level of aggressiveness.
A versatile, aggressive defense creates turnovers. Mistakes are forced and a disruptive hybrid player is key in an aggressive model. I speculate that Iowa State will be turning up the heat in 2019 and cause the Big 12 to attempt to adjust once again.