It’s clear that Brian Kelly was looking to Lexington for a man to run his defense. First he pursued current DC Brad White, but Mark Stoops was able to keep him in the fold. Next, he pivoted to the guy who constructed the system run by Brad White. Enter: Matt House. House is highly regarded, included being hotly pursued by Josh Heupel upon taking the Tennessee job. It’s important here before getting into this to define terms. I understand defense mostly in the languages of Dave Aranda and Nick Saban. Thus, much of the terminology I will use to describe positions, fronts, and creepers will come from the Dave Aranda system. Some coverage terminology will come from Saban (ie skate), some will be a more general label (ie 3 buzz). Up front, I will be describing linebackers like Dave Aranda does, since the front/positional structures in House’s system aren’t dissimilar to Aranda’s. To define:
Boundary Backer (B)-Boundary outside linebacker, usually walked up as an edge rusher
Rover (R)-Inside linebacker, often one over from the B
Mac (M)-Inside linebacker, often one over from Rover
Field Backer (F)-Field outside linebacker. More traditional OLB compared to the B backer but flexible, can be a linebacker or a DB depending on package.
This is not to necessarily say that Matt House is going to run this defense. It’s been a few years and he’s made another stop, so it’s certain to look somewhat different. That said, this is what we have to go on. There were no available installs, playbooks, or clinics that I could find, so determining exact rules and assignments is very difficult and will be largely inferred from tape/similar things in other systems.
Fronts/fitting the run
The dominant front in Matt House’s 2018 Kentucky system was, like Dave Aranda’s system, the tite front. The tite front consists of 2 4i technique defensive ends lined up on the inside shoulder of the tackle, and a nose lined up head up on the center. You can walk up one or both outside linebackers as well to play the edge. Matt House, like Dave Aranda, uses his B backer as an edge defender/rusher heavily.
The main utility of the tite front is to stop inside zone. The front clogs up the middle while the linebackers clean up anything that spills to the outside, which is outside the structure of inside zone. Out of their tite alignment, they will often slant into other fronts like over and under using the standup B backer as you would a defensive end in the more traditional 4 down manifestation of those fronts. This is the flexibility that odd fronts allow you, you can do both even and odd front things from odd front alignments. With 4 down fronts you are much more rigid.
It appears House liked often to use a mixture of fallback technique for the inside linebackers in their run fits and a hard inserter. I suspect that the read is often based on backfield flow. On the calls where this is the case, I suspect that if the backfield flows to you, you insert hard into your gap and attack the ballcarrier, if it flows away, you pat your feet and play the cutback. This is just what I suspect, without installs/clinics/playbooks it’s hard for me to know for sure if that’s the rule, I may be COMPLETELY wrong on this, it may just be how it looks. That said, it’s a great way to have the TFL potential of a hard inserter and the cleanup potential of a linebacker hanging back.
One cool thing Matt House did a lot at Kentucky is stemming fronts. Stemming fronts is adjusting your front alignment at the line, often in a crawl like this. It’s a great way to keep an offense from keying in on what your alignment is, as well as generating the odd false start here and there. Georgia did this to great effect this year, it’s a fun way to steal 5 yards a couple of times a game, but more importantly, it keeps you from being static.
In coverage, Matt House is a big departure from the LSU of the past few years. LSU has long been a man coverage team, from Saban to Pelini to Aranda and back to Pelini again. LSU has successfully leveraged its premier DB talent to lock on receivers in tight man coverage, eliminating any freebies underneath without worrying about being beaten over the top. This is not, however, the only way to play stifling defense, particularly against the elite passing attacks of the modern day.
Matt House, at least at Kentucky, was a big zone guy. Their coverage philosophy was fairly simple: Allocate resources to the back end to eliminate big plays and play sound, cushioned zone and zone match coverages. One can look to the NFL to see examples, on a macro level at least, of similar things. Vic Fangio, the architect of the new school of hot NFL defenses (notably employed by his venerated disciple Brandon Staley), has designed his defense around a similar coverage ideal. They play a lot of quarters. Not the tight press man quarters employed by people like Dave Aranda and Pat Narduzzi, but with corners more off the line to protect against big plays. Off of that, they will rotate safeties down into intermediate windows either to or away from the passing strength depending on the call, to take away routes like deep overs and digs that modern passing offenses depend on.
Without installs, clinics, and interviews to glean insight and specific assignments, it can be tough to tell if the exact reads and coaching points are similar to the Fangio systems, but on a very macro level, I think it is comparable and a good point of philosophical reference to understand what Matt House’s Kentucky defense was up to on the back end.
Here is an example of their zone quarters look. It is an extremely effective way of dealing with the traditional, 4-open formations, 4-verticals employed by almost every offense in the modern-day. You can cap the vertical routes with your four deep quarter defenders and if your second level defenders can get enough depth, undercut the benders the slot receivers will turn their routes into against middle of the field open coverages. Quarters is also good against concepts like Yankee (post with an over route from the other side) that are ubiquitous to modern offenses, as there is no single high defender in conflict. One can play the post while the other matches the over route, for instance. Just a good way to insulate yourself against much of the “big play” concepts that offenses like to run. This is one of House’s most base coverage concepts that he likes to live in.
The coverage that Matt House loves to lean on in sequence with their quarters stuff is 3-buzz, often, but not always, with a rotation AWAY from the passing strength. The structure of the coverage is simple, it starts in a 2-high look and one of the split safeties rotates into the intermediate window, particularly of use in cutting off deep crossing routes from the other side.
3 Buzz behind a simulated pressure, animated below. Red Arrows represent rushers, blue represents coverage responsibility. This is a very general look at what the structure of the coverage looks like. Graphic design is my passion.
Here is the play above. Notice how it squeezes the windows by LAYERING the coverage, you have bodies at all layers of the concept. Layering the coverage in such fashion is a hallmark of Vic Fangio and his disciples like Brandon Staley and Sean Desai. With cover 3 buzz that involves a safety rotation, Nick Saban, for instance, will call it “6 buzz” if the rotation is weak and “3 buzz” if the rotation is strong. So during the year, I may call it “6 buzz’’.
Another variant of their split safety cover 3 rotations is “3 sky” (or 6 sky, if it’s weak, in Saban terminology). Using “sky” as opposed to “buzz” is in reference to where the rotating safety plays. If he rotates down to play the flat as he does to the bottom here, it’s sky.
Another coverage House will run from his 2 high shells is cover 2. Cover 2 involves the corners playing the flat in either a soft, true zone technique where you straight up play the flat or a trap technique that involves reading the release of the number 2 receiver and attacking him if he is out within five yards and sinking on number one’s route from underneath if he is not. I’ve seen House run both techniques.
One of their main 3x1 adjustments looks somewhat similar to Nick Saban’s “Skate”. Skate is Nick Saban’s 3x1 adjustment out of cover 3 with a weak safety rotation. I have no idea if the reads are the same, but it looks sorta similar, especially with the weak rotation, the strong apex and strong hook buzzing out underneath the routes by 2 and 3, and the middle linebacker playing what is known as “3 up is 3.” The rule is simple, if the number 3 receiver runs over and up, he has to run with him.
Another split safety coverage they run is “quarter quarter half.” The idea here is simple, it’s quarters to one side and cover 2 to the other. Here you see the boundary corner read the eyes of the QB here in cover 2 and sink on the corner route in this “smash” concept” and squeezing the window. To the other side, the corner and safety are playing what looks like quarters.
Creepers and Simulated Pressures
If you’re examining modern defense, creepers and simulated pressures will come up again and again. As Diante Lee, successful defensive coordinator and writer/podcaster at PFF stated more eloquently than I ever could in his piece about Georgia’s hyper modern defense:
“With spread offenses in general and the RPO, in particular, investments in sending five defenders can be expensive. Chances are a defense will find more tackle-for-loss opportunities, but it comes at the cost of a player in coverage to sit in the windows of high-percentage throws underneath. Taking those away while rushing five requires a defense to play man coverage, thus landing a unit right back at square one of the quandary facing Smart and Saban in Alabama.”
Enter: Creepers and simulated pressures. The idea is fairly simple for both of these similar, often interchangeably described concepts. The object is to only bring four in the rush and drop seven into the coverage, while presenting a weird/exotic look. Typically, a player you don’t expect in the rush (ie a safety, a corner, a linebacker) will rush while a player you expect to rush will drop into coverage. He “replaces” him in the rush, this is why creepers also known as “replacement pressures.” The idea is the same for simulated pressures, but they involve, at least for my operational definition, the disguise or appearance of an outright pressure. That said, they are often used interchangeably. For instance, Dave Aranda keeps a concept known as “Spike 1 Rat” in the creeper section of his playbook while Dan Lanning refers to the same concept, which he calls “Buddha,” as a simulated pressure. So they’ll share a section. These are the mechanisms Matt House used to generate pressure, which keeps you from having to put pressure on your back end to make up for lost numbers. This is what LSU will need to do without its typical premium cornerback and safety rooms.
A favorite creeper of Matt House (and Dave Aranda, btw), is Favre 3, pictured below:
The idea is fairly simple. The nickel inserts into the rush from the field while the B backer drops out into coverage. It’s a great way to catch an offense napping and get a free runner at the QB while not sacrificing anything in coverage. It also changes the look on the QB. You can see in the Kentucky clips how it can generate a free runner into the backfield. On the back end, it’s just cover 3, with full numbers in coverage.
This looks, at least structurally, similar to a Dave Aranda creeper known as “Dew.” It’s not the right package and the coverage is probably a bit different, but the pressure structure it creates is analogous.
The boundary safety in the clip comes down and pressures off the edge with the B backer while the F backer drops into the coverage. It’s a great way to attack empty protections like these, since the B backer occupies the tackle and there’s nobody to pick up the pressure outside of him. Free runner.
This was another interesting creeper that was effective against empty protections. The mac linebacker inserts in the B gap, the nose occupies the center, the F backer rushes, widening the tackle and creating an opening the size of the Lincoln tunnel for the inserter to run through at the QB, the B backer drops out to play the flat. Behind it, they’re playing cover 3 cloud it looks like but with the backside corner locked in man. Full robust coverage and a free runner at the QB.
Creepers aren’t just a way to attack the passer, they’re helpful in generating TFLs in the run game too. Here, the Rover inserts into the backfield and gets a free run at the back.
This is the same play from the coverages section. Just as it highlights 3 Buzz, it highlights a simulated pressure. They show a “Mug” look, a pressure look with a linebacker walked up onto the line of scrimmage in an interior gap. They rush the nickel and drop the mugged linebacker and the OLB walked up outside the left tackle into the coverage. You can create the appearance of a pressure for the OL and QB by bringing the nickel here, but maintain numbers in coverage.
Here, they run something similar from a double mug alignment, which is just 2 mugged linebackers instead of 1. Another plus of a simulated pressure can trick the QB into preparing for a pressure and abandoning his progression, forcing mistakes and panic in the pocket.
Here is House running a sim pressure known as “Belly.” The two inside linebackers rush the A gaps, often crossing their paths like this, while the two edge defenders drop into coverage responsibilities. It’s a great counter to teams who are fanning their tackles wide to deal with the edges. Miss State does a nice job picking it up.
5 Man Pressures
This is not a pressure heavy defense. They rely a lot more on creepers, simulated pressures, and robust coverage resource allocation that force the QB to hold the ball, to generate their pass rush. Additionally, they had Josh Allen on the edge, so just getting him in 1 on 1 situations was enough to rush the passer.
One 5 man pressure I noticed a lot from House was this slant from the front with a loop around by the rover. The B backer (Allen, 41) occupies and forces the tackle inside and the Rover loops around him to attack the open area. It’s a great way to attack 5 man protections.
A lot of times, what they were trying to accomplish in 5 man pressures was just getting Josh Allen 1 v 1 against man protections. If they’re in an empty protection, it’s an easy way to get everyone 1 v 1, 5 on 5. If it’s 6 in the protection, the rushing linebacker will likely occupy the back, so Josh Allen is still 1 v 1 on the poor tackle. BJ Ojulari isn’t quite Josh Allen, but he can be that kind of featured edge rusher from a standup OLB position, which suits him far better than the 4 down DE role he was mostly used in under Ed Orgeron.
Excellent fire zone coverage to deal with this concept from trips nub too. Much of their 5 man pressures are fire zones, not man pressures. A common concept run out of trips nub is this 3 vert to the field, TE under to the boundary concept. The nub TE runs under on a shallow cross (pictured below), so the boundary corner here passes him to the underneath defender and zones off deep to pick off the over route from strong #3. Great call by House, forces the QB (Nick Fitzgerald, who was just awful) off the primary, making him hold it long enough for Josh Allen to dispatch his tackle and get home.
Their 5 man pressures aren’t super complicated, a lot of them are just rushes from the 3 down lineman, the edge rushing B backer, and one of the inside backers. Here, the nose occupies the guard, and the rover inserts behind him. Unfortunately they look to have busted the coverage, but the pressure generates a free runner.
Ultimately, the Kentucky defense isn’t likely to be an exact carbon copy of what we’ll get next season in Baton Rouge. He’s likely picked some things up in the last couple of years with Kansas City, watching offensive developments, all the ways coaches pick up new ideas. That said, this is the best we have to go on right now. I think it’s a good fit for both modern football and the composition of the LSU roster. It’ll be interesting to see what they do with so many pass rushing DL, as a tite front heavy system isn’t the best for generating a rush from the D lineman. We have, however, seen in this past year’s Georgia defense a team that can seamlessly oscillate between odd and even front principles, using a bunch of talented DL with diverse skillsets. Despite not being on my initial radar, (Glenn Schumann, Georgia Co-DC was my dream choice), the more I’ve looked, the more impressed with House I become. Brian Kelly’s record on DC hires is pretty sterling, so he’s absolutely earned trust on this one. Good times ahead.