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Duck Tape: Film Study of Safeties Coach Matt Powledge

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A review of Oregon’s new co-DC during his 2021 season as Baylor’s safeties coach

NCAA Football: Big 12 Football Championship-Baylor vs Oklahoma State Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

New co-DC and safeties coach Powledge comes to Oregon after two years at Baylor and two years before that at Louisiana. Both teams had impressive turnarounds in their second season with a new staff – Louisiana went from 7-7 in 2018 to 11-3 in 2019 during head coach Billy Napier’s first two seasons (Napier is now Florida’s HC), and Baylor went from 2-7 in 2020 to 12-2 in 2021 in the first two seasons with head coach Dave Aranda. Powledge has been working under DC Ron Roberts for each of those four seasons, as the pair went from Lafayette to Aranda’s new staff in Waco in 2020.

More importantly, Powledge has been coaching in a Tite front for the last four years and has clearly put his own spin on it. Roberts and Aranda are some of the originators of the Tite front, and Roberts gave a fascinating interview a couple years ago on its basic concepts. It will be interesting to see how Powledge’s role as co-DC works given that head coach Lanning, DC Lupoi, and DL coach Tuitoti also use very similar defensive structures, but with some subtle differences. Last week I reviewed Lupoi’s time as DC at Alabama in 2018; next week I’ll review Tuioti’s film. This week we’ll examine how safeties worked at Baylor last year, when Powledge developed nickelback Jalen Pitre into the Big-12 Defensive Player of the Year.

What’s clear from the Baylor tape is that Aranda’s Tite front is both very effective and structurally almost indistinguishable from the Alabama and Georgia defenses I’ve studied this offseason, a big part of why their defense finished in the top ten in every advanced statistical system. Like the Alabama film I looked at last week, most of Baylor’s defensive wins came from an excellent defensive line that was winning the line of scrimmage. I was particularly impressed with their nose, Siaki Ika, a 4-star recruit Oregon pursued hard as a prep and again when he transferred from LSU. Football is cyclical, and I’ve studied film on just about every scheme you can imagine, but defensive linemen who are big, fast, and physical never go out of style.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Baylor Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

There are three main differences I noticed comparing the Alabama and Baylor film: first, the Bears mostly lined up the Jack OLB vs the nickelback by passing strength when it was totally obvious, but they were more inclined to use field/boundary than the Tide’s Mint front. Second, Baylor’s cornerbacks were not nearly as good as Alabama’s, and multiple times every game they’d give up long sideline passes that I wasn’t seeing on Alabama’s film … Powledge only coached safeties so that’s not really an indictment, but it did affect coverages across the secondary and it made parsing Baylor’s pass defense stats harder.

The third and most interesting difference is that the nickel was much more involved in the box, both blitzing and attacking the run. I would say Baylor played more conservatively against the run, and pursued a higher risk-reward strategy against the pass than Alabama did, and that hinged on the performance of Powledge’s safeties.

One note before we get to some video: like last week, these clips are not strictly representative of Baylor’s defensive success rates or reasons for success as I usually include when previewing a team. Instead they are illustrative of the scheme and strategic choices that depend on the safeties, and the differences between how Powledge’s unit was deployed and those of other teams’ Tite or Mint defenses. That said, I made sure everything shown in these clips happened several times over the season so they’re not flukes.

Let’s start with run defense, since understanding how the Tite front accomplishes more with less in the front is key to how the scheme is so effective against the pass. As discussed last week, it’s a “spill & kill” philosophy, using a 4i-0-4i defensive line to clog the B-gaps and force runs outside, then the backers and safeties — who start out playing at depth to give them an advantage against the pass – hustle upfield and outside to get to the ballcarrier. The Jack and nickelback on opposite sides of the formation provide flexibility – usually the former rushes and the latter drops into coverage, but sometimes that flips to keep the offense off-balance.

Against the run, Baylor in 2021 expended more of its safety resources in the box than Alabama did in 2018, while still pursuing the same basic philosophy of prioritizing pass defense. Some examples:

(Reminder - after pressing play, you can use the left button to slow any video to 1⁄4 or 1⁄2 speed)

  1. :00 – It was pretty rare that they’d pull a DB for another backer even when they were sure a run was coming, but they did make adjustments like this to up the box count, with both the nickel (#8) and field safety (#22) in the box against 12-personnel in an obvious run situation. The DE closes the B-gap then gets off his block when the back cuts outside, and the nickel off the edge is unaccounted for.
  2. :07 – Watch the nickel pre-snap as the split-out TE goes in motion – he comes off coverage and patiently waits for the center to take the nose outside, then cuts in the A-gap as the right guard can’t get to him.
  3. :25 – This is a highly representative spill & kill play – the back bounces (literally) and the nickel is waiting for him having beat the TE’s block. The boundary safety (#42) has plenty of time to get upfield to help with the tackle despite being 12 yards deep at the snap. The pass defense enjoys three over two to the field and can play aggressive man coverage.
  4. :32 – The offense has a numbers advantage here with two TEs and a WR in tight blocking, but the defense is still playing two high safeties and the nickel instead of another OLB because they’re prioritizing pass defense. Effective d-line play blows up the gap and the back has to bounce, with the nickel playing contain and the DBs have plenty of time to come upfield.

In pass defense, both Lupoi’s and Powledge’s squads used safeties flexibly – safety blitzes, dime packages, and 8-man drops into coverage to keep the offense guessing. Baylor in 2021 did all of these things more often than Alabama in 2018, however, with more aggressive blitzes offset by suffocating zone coverage, and no obvious tells which was coming. Some examples:

  1. :00 – This was somewhat unexpected, dropping the OLB so they have three over two to the boundary (the safety to that side is cut off by the camera) while rushing the nickel as the insert and using the ILB for just three over three to the field. But it pays off since the nickel drives the TE back and flushes the QB, who can’t find anything against zone coverage.
  2. :12 – Roberts talks about this exact form of simulated pressure on the podcast interview linked above. They’re in a 2-4 on this 3rd & long, having swapped a d-lineman for another OLB and one of the ILBs on the line over the center. Both OLBs drop and the ILB at depth rushes – it looks like a blitz but there’s no void in the defense, as the reverse angle shows. The back can’t handle the inserted ILB but even if he had, nothing is open between the OLBs and safeties in zone.
  3. :24 – This pressure is definitely not simulated on another 3rd & long. They’re in a 2-3-6 here, with both the nickel and dime (#11) blitzing from depth and getting the sack because the offensive line doesn’t account for them. Baylor’s playing cover-0 here, pretty unusual for a dime package, but they deal with the mesh in the middle nicely.
  4. :42 – Showing blitz again with six defenders crowding the line, but they back out all but the three linemen and drop eight into coverage. The offense is expecting man coverage and this crosser might have worked had it been, but instead it’s zone and the reverse angle shows there’s no hope for it with everything blanketed by the safeties over the top.

Finally, I charted some interesting tendencies in the safety unit related to tackling and layered coverage. They’re interrelated concepts, because having confidence that you’ve got another DB behind you frees you up to play more aggressively:

  1. :00 – Another simulated pressure here, they back out the ILB, OLB, and nickel, and the field safety is dropping even farther. This was pretty typical to how they covered running back screens – let them complete the pass but keep eyes upfield and come up quick. The nickel can fly at the RB’s feet because he knows he’s got a corner to help him out if he misses.
  2. :08 – Here’s Oklahoma (now USC) coach Riley’s famous power RPO. Watch the boundary safety – like the ILBs he initially comes up on the run, but reverses himself quickly to stay with his man (the slot receiver) behind him. He keeps the throwing window very tight, and the field safety — playing over the top since the TE stayed in to block — delivers a pretty vicious but legal hit.
  3. :29 – Baylor is back in their 2-3-6 against 3rd & long, and again they back out of their blitz look, but this time they rush the ILB instead of dropping eight. He winds up hurrying the QB and he throws inaccurately, but it’s open because the dime improperly followed the TE (the No. 2 receiver) instead of handing him off to the nickel and covering the No. 3 receiver in the flat. The nickel gives him an earful about it afterwards, and that kind of peer coaching is something I saw a lot.
  4. :40 – I had to include one of Baylor’s interceptions, since they were one of only two teams in the Power-5 to snag more than Oregon did in 2021 (Iowa was the other), including seven picks across both games against Oklahoma St. This is fairly typical to layered coverage — one of the reasons Oregon got so many as well – dropping seven and playing two high safeties gives ample opportunity to grab overthrows. Here the nickel is effectively forcing the throw to be high by disrupting the receiver, and the field safety has his eyes on it the whole time.