Film Room: Notre Dame DC Marcus Freeman Brings Versatility

Marcus Freeman uses a lot of different looks on defense, and they all combine together to make a dominant defense
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Notre Dame hired Marcus Freeman to run its defense, and Freeman steps into a defense that has been very productive the last four seasons. It's also a defense that loses some very important players.

Freeman built Cincinnati into one of the nation's better defenses despite inheriting a unit that was giving up almost 30 points per game when he was hired.

Freeman has a philosophy that should allow for a smooth transition to Notre Dame, and for a smooth transition for Notre Dame players into his system. In part one of my film room breakdown of Freeman's defense, I look at his overall philosophy, with an emphasis on the different looks he shows.


Freeman employs a defense that is very similar to that of Lea from a big picture standpoint. It's a gap sound defense that is meant to keep everything in front of it, it is geared towards limiting big plays and it's geared towards shutting down the run game. Flying to the ball, playing with good angles and resetting the line of scrimmage in the defense's favor are basic tenets.

What I've seen on film at Cincinnati the last three years shows it's a defense that is more linebacker oriented and less safety driven. The safety position is very important, but not as much responsibility is put on the shoulders of the safeties in Freeman's defense. The linebackers are used more as weapons in this defense relative to what we've seen at Notre Dame.

The front is used to shoot gaps in order to get penetration. Being gap sound is vitally important, but Freeman uses his line to attack, which serves two key purposes. One is it resets the line in favor of the defense, but it also forces offensive lines to stay more engaged on the line, which makes the play of the linebackers more effective.

At Cincinnati, Freeman began with a base four-down line, but he adjusted to more of a three-down base in his last three seasons. His "base look" is a 3-3-5, which is three down linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs. The fifth defensive back at Cincinnati was more of a pure safety than a rover/linebacker like we saw at Notre Dame.

What must be understood is that the 3-3-5 isn't a philosophy, it's just a personnel set. His philosophy is adaptable to different personnel groupings, and at Cincinnati I saw Freeman constantly mixing up his personnel, and it was always dependent on the personnel. There were weeks we saw Cincinnati go almost exclusively with 3-3-5 personnel, there were weeks we saw a lot more four-down looks and at times I even saw them use more 4-3 personnel.

What this means is Freeman will base his personnel choices at Notre Dame based on the strengths of his roster, and it means he can adapt week to week depending on what type of offense he is playing. That is HUGE for a modern day defensive coordinator, and shows why he was so effective at Cincinnati.

Let's take a look at the different looks we'll see from the Freeman defense, based on his Cincinnati film.

BASE 3-3-5

3-3-5 vs Tulsa

In this clip you can see the base personnel grouping that Freeman employed at Cincinnati. You can see three down linemen (DE - defensive end, DT - defensive tackle), three linebackers (LB), three safeties (S) and two cornerbacks (CB). This is often based in what is called an odd front, where the DT will line up over the center, and the DE's will line up over the tackles.

The DE will adjust their alignment depending on the call, sometimes lining up on the outside of the tackles, sometimes lined up on the inside shoulder of the tackles.

Whether or not he flips the linemen in regards to formation or field strength depends on the tempo at which the opponent plays. Playing in the AAC means Freeman had a lot of experience against tempo offenses, and he's developed a great method of playing against those teams.

Here's another variation of the 3-3-5 that we'll see from Freeman.

3-3-5 TIGHT

3-3-5 Strong vs Tulsa

From the 3-3-5 personnel we'll also see Freeman show a four-down look where he walks the linebacker off the edge. He'll either walk the linebacker down late, or he'll just line him up there right away.

In the clip above we see Cincinnati still in an odd front look, but out of this look Freeman will also show more of a traditional four-down look.

Here's another look out of the 3-3-5 that was effective for Cincinnati.

3-2 BOX

3-2 Look vs Houston

This is a look that Cincinnati uses against the really up-tempo, pass-oriented spread teams like Houston and UCF. It's the same personnel, but they will put the linebacker further outside of the box to better protect against the perimeter runs, perimeter screens and quick perimeter pass game. The out of the box linebacker is also effective playing the intermediate zones in the pass game.

As I mentioned, this is often used against UCF, and Cincinnati beat UCF in each of the last two seasons. In fact, in the last two seasons Cincinnati held UCF's explosive offense to its lowest yardage total of the season. Cincinnati held UCF to just 359 yards, which was its second lowest offensive yards total of the last four seasons. Only LSU held UCF to fewer yards.

4-2-5 BASE

4-2-5 vs Tulsa

Freeman has used plenty of 4-2-5 at Cincinnati in the last two seasons. Not just 4-2-5 alignments out of 3-3-5 personnel, but pure 4-2-5, which means four down linemen (2 DE, 2 DT), two linebackers and five defensive backs. The clip above is from the AAC Championship game against Tulsa.

You can see Cincinnati in an over front in this look, which is basically what you call a four-down alignment where the three-technique (outside shade on the guard) is to the strength of the formation or to the field. Notre Dame, for example, is more of an under front, which means the three-technique (Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa) would be away from the strength or to the boundary, and to the same side as the drop end.

Cincinnati runs both over and under fronts from its four-down lines, and will also show both when it shows four-down looks out of 3-3-5 personnel. Based on the games I broke down the over front is used more than the under looks.

Cincinnati doesn't use many exotic line games, and I don't see many pure DL twists, but they do a lot of aggressive slanting, and they'll run a lot of stunts with the linebackers. That means a DL will start in one gap and quickly slant into another gap at the snap, and the linebacker will then slant into the gap the DL was lined up in.

4-3 vs. GEORGIA

4-3 vs Georgia

When Georgia went to its two tight end looks in the Peach Bowl, Cincinnati countered with 4-3 personnel, which means four defensive linemen (DE, DT) and three linebackers. I loved seeing this, because it was yet another example of Freeman being flexible enough to adjust based on what gave him the best chance at stopping an opponent.

Cincinnati held Georgia to 45 rushing yards in that contest.

This is very, very important at Notre Dame. Unlike Cincinnati and every other top program, Notre Dame isn't in a conference. Notre Dame's schedule is made up of teams from at least four different conferences every year. The Irish face a lot of different offensive teams, and that requires a great deal of flexibility. 

For example, one area where Notre Dame struggled the last two years was when it faced mobile quarterbacks. Fortunately, Notre Dame didn't face a lot of mobile quarterbacks, but the defense was not able to adapt to that. Freeman's defense shows the ability to adapt to that kind of quarterback, and in the very next week it can adapt to an offense that doesn't use quarterback runs.

All of that will help Freeman tremendously at Notre Dame.

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