D-Line Zou: Will Missouri Keep Their Defensive Line Dominance?

Facing both player and coaching personnel changes, the Missouri Tigers’ defensive line dominance is officially threatened. But, as Mark Schofield writes, they still have the roster and the schemes to continue to dominate if they execute. In this piece, Mark analyzes the different schemes the Tigers use to fluster opponents. 

Over the past few seasons, the Missouri Tigers developed some impressive talent along the defensive front. With players such as Kony Ealy and Markus Golden coming through Columbia, as well as two consecutive Southeastern Conference Defensive Players of the Year in Michael Sam (2013 and 2014) the Tigers are known for their defenders up front. Their success at this position has led to the nickname “D-Line Zou.” But this trend will be tested this season. The Tigers expected to return four starters to campus for this season, but talented defensive end Walter Brady was kicked off the team, and Harold Brantley was ruled academically ineligible. Explosive defensive end Charles Harris returns, as does nose tackle Josh Augusta.

In addition, after nearly 15 seasons as the defensive line coach at Missouri, Craig Kuligowski left Columbia for the sunny beaches of Miami, taking the same position under new head coach Mark Richt. Missouri replaced Kuligowski with former Arizona State DL coach Jackie Shipp, but a big question facing the Tigers is whether they can replicate the success of years past without the coach largely responsible for the development of “D-Line Zou,” as well as the losses up front. The task ahead of the Tigers was outlined in this piece by Ollie Connolly at SECCountry.com, that focused on Harris. But with some of the other players on the roster, and the implementation and execution of some of their favorite schemes, Missouri has the potential to maintain this level of excellence up front.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Twisted Games – Interior DL Twist

One of the schemes that the Tigers implement up front are two different stunts or twists. The first is an interior defensive tackle twist, between the two insider defenders along Missouri’s four-man front. On this play against South Carolina, the Tigers 4-2-5 nickel defense shows Cover 2 in the secondary. The Gamecocks, facing a 2nd and 6 just outside the red zone late in the game, have the quarterback in the shotgun and 11 personnel on the field, using dual slot formations:


Here is what the interior DL twist looks like on paper:


The edge rushers both rush straight upfield on this play. Nose tackle Augusta (#97) aligns as a 1 technique just on the right shoulder of the center, and at the snap he attacks the left shoulder of the center, twisting into the opposite A Gap. Rickey Hatley (#95) starts the play lined up in a 3 technique on the outside shoulder of the left guard. After the snap he lets Augusta cross his face, before attacking the opposite A Gap:

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Hatley is able to push the right guard nearly back into the quarterback, and both Harris (#91) and Brady (#56) bring pressure off the edges. Their penetration forces an early throw that falls incomplete. Some teams call this a “Nat” stunt, because the nose tackle attacks first, with the tackle looping in behind.

On this play against the Arkansas Razorbacks the Tigers use the DT twist for a good stop against the run. The Razorbacks face a 1st and 10 on the Missouri 30-yard line, and quarterback Brandon Allen (#10) lines up under center with 21 personnel on the field in a tight i-formation to the right. The Missouri base 4-3 defense is in the game:


The Tigers line up in an over front, putting Hatley in the A gap using a 1 technique, over the left shoulder of the center. Freshman DT Josh Moore (#18) aligns as a 3 technique, just on the outside shoulder of the RG. Harris is in a 5 technique on the outside of the left tackle, while Brady is in a 5 technique, head up on the tight end. Note the positioning of the freshman DT, who lines up a bit behind the rest of the defensive line. Similar to the previous play, Hatley crashes to the inside, aiming for the opposite A Gap. Moore lets the NT cross his face before looping behind him, into the A Gap on the other side of the football:


The Razorbacks run a delayed handoff, and Moore is able to split between the center and left guard and stop this play before it starts:

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This interior twist is a great way to confuse the interior blocking, as well as give the defensive tackles a bit of a burst upfield as they bend their run. As these two plays indicate, they can both pressure the pocket in the quarterback’s face, or stop running plays before they even get a chance to develop.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Dual TE-X Stunts

Tackle / end exchange stunts are another staple of defenses, at both the collegiate and professional levels. Missouri runs these as well, but likes to up the ante running dual TE-X (tackle/end exchange) stunts on each side of the line on a given play. Here in their contest against Kentucky, the Wildcats face a 3rd and 9 on their own 30-yard line. Quarterback Patrick Towles (#14) stands in the shotgun with pro formation to his right and slot on the left side of the field. The Missouri 4-2-5 nickel shows Cover 3 in the secondary:


On the right side of the defense, DT Terry Beckner, Jr. (#79) lines up in a 3 technique, on the outside shoulder of the LG. He aims for the B Gap at the snap, and as Beckner dives inside Harris loops behind him, aiming for the A Gap. On the other side of the field the same dance plays out, with Hatley aiming for the B Gap and Marcell Frazier (#16) circling behind:


Kentucky blocks this fairly well, but the defenders move the pocket enough to influence a high throw from Towles:

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The QB does not fully step into this throw, and the pass sails over the head of the intended target, forcing the Wildcats to punt.

Here is the same design, from their game against South Carolina. Both defensive tackles attack the B Gap while the defensive ends loop in behind them, aiming for the A Gap:

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The defense does not get a sack here, but they move the pocket enough and force an early checkdown. With the Gamecocks facing a 3rd and 16, the defense will take that every single snap.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Against The Run

Here are two plays that exhibit how this defensive front is effective against the run, whether due to scheme or execution. The Tigers were ranked 28th in the Football Bowl Subdivision against the run last season, allowing 132.8 yards per game. This first play shows one of the ways they can slow the running game through scheme, by using a DL slant to the strength of the offensive formation.

In their game against Arkansas, the Razorbacks face a 3rd and 10 on their own 43-yard line. The offense puts Allen in the shotgun with three receivers to the left side of the field, including a tight end lined up in the wing. The Tigers have a 3-3-5 package on the field, with linebacker Donavin Newsom (#25) aligned in a two-point stance over the wing tight end:


Newsom drops off the line at the snap, and the Tigers only rush three defenders. They utilize a slant to power, with all three defensive linemen angling toward their right:


This is termed a slant to power because they all cut toward the strength of the offensive formation. On this play, Arkansas runs a counter trey. The left tackle, center, right guard and right tackle all block down toward their left, while the wing TE and the left guard pull:


The RB takes the handoff and looks to cut toward the right, behind the two guys pulling in front of him. But Augusta stops this play dead in its tracks:

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The NT cuts between the RG and RT, and the tackle tries to execute a block on him, but the big nose tackle is able to get past him and stop this play in the backfield, forcing a punt.

Sometimes, the scheme and alignments in a four-man front simply require the defensive linemen to occupy as many blockers as they can, closing rushing lanes and allowing the linebackers to flow to the football and make the tackle. On this play against Arkansas, that is exactly what happens. The Razorbacks face a 1st and 10 on the Missouri 15-yard line, and line up with 12 personnel on the field and Allen under center, in an Ace formation. The Tigers have their base 4-3 defense on the field using an Over front, with the 1 technique and the 7 technique defenders on the right side of the offense:


Arkansas tries a power run to the left side, but watch as the defensive line for Missouri collapses into each gap, occupying the linemen up front:

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Not only do they prevent blockers from working to the second level, the DL also takes away any potential hole for the running back, who is held to a minimal gain on this first-down carry.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]A Disciplined, Well-Coached Group

Rush lane discipline is one of the ways you can determine how well-coached a defensive line is. As defensive linemen, there might come a moment when you think you can get to the QB for a sack if you vacate your rushing lane. But against athletic quarterbacks, it is imperative that you stay in your lane and not give the quarterback an easy escape route – and free yardage with his legs.

During the 2015 Nike Coaches Clinic, Chris Casey of George Fox University gave a presentation on defensive line play. Casey is the head coach and defensive line coach at the Division 3 school, and the points he made on rush lane integrity are universal:

If you are a four down lineman rush team, as soon as you get one of your inside rushers across the nose of the quarterback, you have three defenders on one side of the ball and one on the other. That creates a natural throwing lane for the quarterback. The University of Arizona did a study on that over a several year period covering 1000 snaps in college, high school and the pros. They found that when that happened the quarterback ran the ball all the way to the safeties.

When we rush the quarterback we have an aiming point that keeps us in the proper lane. The rusher leaves the line of scrimmage, makes his move, gets in his lane, and focuses on his aiming point…If the quarterback scrambles, the defenders do not lose their aiming points. They want to stay in the throwing lane and vision of the quarterback…The goal for rushing the quarterback is to put him in a box. We want to squeeze the box so he cannot step up and has no running or throwing lanes. (32-33)

This play comes from Missouri’s game against South Carolina. The Gamecocks trail by seven early in the second quarter, and they face a 3rd and 5 on the Tigers’ 18 yard line. The offense aligns with quarterback Lorenzo Nunez (#19) in the shotgun and pro formation to the right, slot formation on the left. The defense keeps its base 4-3 defense on the field, and they show Cover 2 with both cornerbacks in press alignment before the snap:


The offense bring slot receiver Pharoh Cooper (#11) in jet motion, and he runs a swing route to the right. Nunez takes the snap, fakes a handoff and looks to throw. The Tigers are content bringing only four rushers on this play, and initially the blocking is sound:


The left tackle has locked up Harris on the end, while the other three rushers are contained for the moment. You will notice that each rusher, for the moment, has maintained their rushing lane.

Nunez does not like what he sees, and he tries to slide to the left and out of the pocket. But the defensive front prevents him from escaping to this side:


Rather than ducking to the inside and trying to beat the LT for the sack, Harris maintains his outside leverage over the quarterback, preventing Nunez from escaping toward the sideline. Inside, the defensive tackle closest to the QB is taking away any escape route to the inside.

Still looking for a place to go with the football, the quarterback now tries to escape to his right. But the backside defenders maintain their lane integrity as well:


At this point, DE Brady faces a pivotal choice. He could try and dip to the inside as well, to aim for Nunez and the potential sack. But he stays upfield and keeps contain:

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By staying upfield and to the outside, Brady cuts off any potential escape. This forces Nunez to stop in the pocket, and take his chances downfield:

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The pass falls incomplete in the end zone, and should have been intercepted.

This play is a great example of a four-man front keeping their rushing lanes and not giving the QB a way out. This play shows great discipline in the players, as instilled by their position coach. But that leads us to the elephant in the room. The talent is there up front, and the schemes highlighted here are still available to coach Shipp. But we will not know for sure if the same level of excellence will be maintained in Columbia, until the fall.

Editor’s Note: The article originally listed the nose tackle as Joe Augusta. His name is Josh Augusta. Thanks to M Rock Nation for the correction.

Follow @MarkSchofield on Twitter.  Buy his book, 17 Drives.  Check out his other work here, such as how Alabama passes to attack the flat, or Tennessee’s use of the double post concept, or how LSU runs play action.

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