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Grambling Film Review: Moving Perkins “Outside” Doesn’t Solve the Problem, And It Creates New Ones.

They’ll do anything but just put him at the Jack

A key point I made in the original piece back in the summer was that the key distinction among LBs, in the modern day, was “on-ball” and “off-ball.” As such, LSU’s definition of moving Harold Perkins to the “outside” doesn’t actually solve the problem. Harold Perkins’ rare skillset is as a pure, on-ball edge rusher. He isn’t playing Inside Linebacker anymore, but he’s still mostly playing off the ball, in fact, he’s mostly even further away from the LOS than he would be as an inside backer. Because LSU won’t move Perkins to their on-ball edge position, the Jack (usually occupied by Ovie Oghoufo), they’ve forced themselves to recreate a position that had mostly been extinct in the modern college game; The off-ball SAM linebacker. Because offenses spend far more time with 3 or more WR on the field than with fewer, defenses have completely transitioned to living in nickel as a base. In a nickel package, the nickelback is a DB, more suited to playing in space and covering slot receivers, who comes in for the SAM linebacker. Nickel can be conceptualized basically by a different body type and athletic profile playing the SAM.

LSU’s solution to their Harold Perkins problem has been to move him to outside linebacker. While that sounds reassuring to fans, LSU is not moving him to the Jack, they’re actually moving him to the SAM and living in base most of the time. Now, if you’re wondering what happened to slot receivers, the answer is simple: Nothing, they’re still usually there. The conditions that turned nickel into the new base still exist, and still present the same threats.

What It Looks Like

Despite what was billed as, and technically was a major change, Perkins still spent most of his time away from the LOS. On Saturday, per PFF, he took 25 snaps off the ball/in the slot, and 14 on the edge. While Perkins was a weapon in the pass rush, the majority of his snaps were still a waste of time.

The first rule of dealing with a slot receiver is that somebody has to be aligned over them at all times. If they aren’t, the offense would simply collect a free 15-20 yards on bubble screens every play. In the nickel packages that are again the normal, foundational alignment of every modern defense, the nickel is the guy who aligns over the slot, and as a small coverage body, he’s suited to do so. The reason that defenses barely play base (4-3-4 or 3-4-4) anymore is that you really don’t want a 230 LB run-defender/pass-rusher covering a slot receiver. Because LSU again, won’t simply move Perkins full-time to the JACK (where 2 is here), and they can’t have him at ILB...and they DEFINITELY can’t bench him, he’s gonna end up aligned over slot receivers quite a bit. See above the reason everyone lives in nickel now. A reminder that teams can see this and use it to gameplan matchups, I’d expect teams to run a lot of choice and juke routes to their slot to exploit this.

Technically, in base, the SAM doesn’t have to cover the slot. Many teams will put their SAM and JACK at each edge to create these 5-across “bear” fronts, which are common in the NFL and actually quite useful in certain situations. LSU had some success getting Perkins after the QB from these looks.

Remember, however, the first rule of slot receivers is that SOMEBODY has to align over them. When the SAM walks up to the edge like this, the only player left to cover the slot is the Strong Safety. This is VERY limiting in how you can play your coverages, as you can only really align in single-high, because one of the safeties is over the slot. You can technically get exotic and rotate to 2-high coverages, but that’s mostly only done in obvious pass situations because it’s very hard to fit the run out of, so the broad reality is single high. This creates 1-on-1s across the board with the WRs which is okay if your DBs are excellent in man-coverage, guys know about the DB room this year.

There is, however, a way to make these 5 man fronts work AND play nickel behind it:

Both: @TheHonestNFL

For that, we look to the NFL. Current legendary Dolphins DC Vic Fangio, famed for his 2-high, nickel-based defenses geared toward stopping explosives, pioneered a way to live in both of these worlds. It is a broadly applicable defense that he and his disciples play frequently against many different types of opponents. By substituting an INSIDE LB for the nickel instead of the SAM, Fangio found a way to play these 5-across fronts with the SAM on the ball while maintaining proper coverage bodies and back-end multiplicity. This would be a really good world for LSU to spend around 20-30% of their 1st and 2nd down snaps in. The bottom diagram is the Eagles, a good comparison of LSU’s skillsets up front (I’ve long compared Perkins to Reddick) With a 5-across of Perkins, Wingo, Smith, Jones, and Swinson/Oghuofo, (or Perkins, Wingo, Guillory, Smith, and Jones for extra size) it creates an imposing group that’s difficult to run on and gets after the passer, while preserving multiplicity and security on the back end.

Glimmers of Reason

It’s not all bad!!! In passing situations, LSU broke out a package, similar to Dave Aranda’s PESO, that offers a blueprint for how the defense should look all the time. The front is gap-sound and standard, so it can be played on any first and second-down. It’s simply a 2-4-5, personnel, even front look with Perkins at the JACK, and the normal JACK (Swinson here) on the other side, with Wingo and Smith in the middle. Personally, on standard downs, I’d sub out Swinson for Saivion Jones to add some more size against the run, I also think he’s generally a better player. On the back end, they’re in nickel. This ultimately solves LSU’s personnel configuration problems.

As a bonus, Jones’ body type would allow them to move between even and odd-spacing along the line without substituting (he can play both inside the OT and outside). As such they can defend different types of runs, making easier adjustments and keeping OCs off balance. They can also shift at the line and keep centers and QBs off-balance in making protection calls and determining run-blocking assignments. The point is, they can be very multiple up front without losing any soundness, and multiple on the back-end since they’re not removing coverage bodies. This and Penny would make up almost all of my standard-down snaps against 11 personnel if I were calling this defense.

This look should be the foundation, not the changeup.