For the past three seasons, Michigan State’s top-tier defense has pushed the program from Big Ten dark horse to Big Ten favorite.
The Spartans have led the Big Ten in total defense three years running and led the nation in yards allowed per play in 2013, all without the help of a top-25 recruiting class.
If it isn’t raw talent carrying the Spartan defense to the top of the stat sheets, defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s aggressive press quarters scheme is surely a big reason behind Michigan State’s success.
The scheme may not appear unique from its alignment as it looks just like a traditional 4-3 scheme that uses four defensive linemen and three linebackers.
The differences are truly in the details. The title “press quarters” refers to the coverage scheme in the defensive backfield. “Press” alludes to the two cornerbacks, who align themselves pressed up against the line of scrimmage to play hard man-to-man coverage against the offense’s outside receivers while the safeties are responsible for the center of the field, but are aligned closer to the line of scrimmage compared to other defensive fronts. “Quarters” corresponds with the Cover-4, or four deep, scheme the Spartan defense uses in this alignment.
While the scheme may sound conservative because of its distribution of deep coverage, press quarters actually allows the safeties to play more aggressive against the run than any traditional coverage scheme.
Michigan State moved to this type of defense in a direct response to the rise of the spread offense. When offenses like Oregon’s force defenses to play sideline to sideline, defenses have to give more attention to the players outside of the tackle box, leaving them with less defenders to defend the run.
Against the run, traditional defenses are at a disadvantage simply because the offense has more players in the box, five offensive linemen and two potential ball carriers, than there are defenders, likely four defensive linemen and two linebackers. Against the pass, traditional defensive schemes like Cover-2 and Cover-3 can leave deep safeties on a proverbial island while dual-threat quarterbacks roam free in the open field.
Press quarters makes sure the safeties are involved in both pass and run defense on every play.
With added versatility to the safety positions, the defensive linemen and linebackers are free to sell out against the run and pass rush more frequently.
In the play above, Michigan State is in the traditional press quarters alignment. When the ball is snapped, there are nine Spartan defenders crashing down on the run play while the two cornerbacks play hard man coverage on the outside receivers.
The play side safety, the one towards the bottom of the image, attacks the line of scrimmage the second he notices the run.
The backside safety plays a bit more conservatively, as he is responsible for any cutbacks against the play’s direction. Against the zone read play, the running back’s path is always considered the play side, as the blocking scheme operates in that direction. The safety sees the run play, then slows briefly to analyze the backside part of the play, the quarterback keep. When he confirms that the quarterback kept the ball on the zone read play, he attacks and contributes to the tackle for a short gain.
The nickel linebacker, who starts the play third from the top of the image, is a bit more aggressive despite also being on the opposite side of the play. He is operating more like the defenders in the tackle box, who crash towards the line of scrimmage the second they see linemen moving out to run block.
At its core, Oregon’s offense looks to exploit the numbers mismatch in the tackle box. Michigan State’s scheme removes that mismatch by allowing its safeties to operate as additional defenders in the box.
On the other hand, additional defenders who play aggressively against the run leaves the defense vulnerable to big pass plays. Michigan State counters that vulnerability with a superb pass rush, often utilizing all six players in blitz packages.
If Michigan State can put an offense into obvious passing situations, the Spartans pin their ears back and attack the pocket. In the play above from last year’s Big Ten championship, the Spartans overload the left side of the line and one missed assignment quickly led to a sack.
Oregon will utilize plenty of play action rollouts to counter the rush and aggressive safeties.
In this play, the quick ball fake from the Ohio State quarterback forces the Michigan State safeties to take a step towards the line of scrimmage, giving the Buckeye receiver just enough separation downfield to score a touchdown.
Outside of play action, the press quarters defense is susceptible to leaving its cornerbacks in one-on-one matchups. With speedsters like Devon Allen manning the flanks of the Oregon offense, they’ll likely be called on a few times to attempt to beat the Spartan defense deep on Saturday.
Michigan State will be focusing on putting Oregon’s offense off of schedule, or out of favorable downs-and-distances by limiting big plays. If the Spartans can force the Ducks into predictable play calls, they’ll have the upper hand against Oregon’s speed and explosiveness. Marcus Mariota will have to find receivers underneath the quarters coverage and execute on third down to mount successful scoring drives against the Spartan defense.
With both teams’ strengths going head to head in the biggest out of conference game in recent memory, the chess match between the Spartans and Ducks promises to be an entertaining one.
Follow Josh Schlichter on Twitter @joshschlichter