Defenses try to put brakes on the option

Shaw Media file photo
Crystal Lake South's defense stops Prairie Ridge running back Brent Anderson last season at South.
Shaw Media file photo Crystal Lake South's defense stops Prairie Ridge running back Brent Anderson last season at South.

CRYSTAL LAKE – Crystal Lake South football coach Chuck Ahsmann noticed a trend after recent postseason games against Carmel, Cary-Grove and Prairie Ridge. All three ran the triple-option offense. All three games ended in losses for the Gators.

But instead of pouring over game tape, dissecting the intricacies of each offense, he looked toward the other side of the ball: defense. What he found was the 3-3-5 alignment.

“All three of those teams run this defense,” Ahsmann said. “We said there must be something to it.”

Developed by Joe Lee Dunn in the 1990s and made famous by Charlie Strong when he was a defensive coordinator at South Carolina in the early 2000s, the 3-3-5 defense gets its name from its three down linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs.

Three of the defensive backs are in the traditional mold – small, quick defenders. The other two are “hybrid” type athletes who could play strong safety or outside linebacker. (Think Steelers safety Troy Polamalu). Their athleticism allows them to cover the flats, blitz, provide run support or help in coverage.

The strength of the 3-3-5 defense is that it gets more fast, good-tackling defenders on the field at the same time – something that becomes even more important with the uncertainty of the triple option. By stacking the linebackers directly behind the three down linemen, blockers have a harder time reaching the linebackers, which makes it more difficult for quarterbacks to read defenders and make decisions about what to do with the football.

The Gators switched to the 3-3-5 about five years ago. The new tactic is a start, but it is by no means a fix-all when it comes to stopping the option. Part of the challenge is that defenses don’t see it that often and it’s hard for a scout team to replicate it.

“What you’re familiar with in practice every day helps,” Chris Schremp, coach of triple-option team Prairie Ridge, said. “It helps the game planning for the coaches, too. You can kind of figure out pretty easily what your own defense can stop.”

No matter what defensive alignment a team runs, most coaches agree that stopping the triple option comes down to assignment-based football. For example, the inside defenders may be responsible for the fullback, no matter whether he has the football or not. The outside linebackers take care of the quarterback. And the perimeter defenders cover the pitch man.

“If they all do their assignment, then we should hold our own pretty well,” South defensive coordinator Rob Fontana said. “If they make a mistake, it could be a big play.”

Even when every defensive player executes his assignment, the offense can rattle off a big gain by adjusting its plays slightly. For example, let’s assume the strong safety is responsible for the pitch man during one particular game plan. An option team can recognize this and borrow a blocker from another part of the field to take him out of the play. Suddenly, what was a 2-yard loss a play ago becomes a 25 yard gain.

“It’s kind of a chess match,” Ahsmann said.

Oh, and then there’s the pass. Don’t forget about play action.

“You get disciplined and you’re focused on stopping the run,” Ahsmann said. “The safety is flying up to stop the pitch man, and all of the sudden the tight end is streaking up the field.”

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