Bo Pelini, Heavy Techniques, and Pete Carroll's Seahawks Defense
Matty F. Brown
When Bo Pelini was announced as the next LSU defensive coordinator, he was back in the conversation as a coach. The news cycle inspired me to delve deep into Pelini resources in an effort to better understand Pete Carroll’s Xs and Os.
A simple blog post led to this article. But first, let me explain the process and background.
I began by thinking about Pelini’s entire career. How had he won a national championship with the Tigers as a defensive coordinator in 2007, gone to Nebraska as a head coach, and then ended up at his hometown FCS school, Youngstown State?
In the present day, many have now doubted Pelini’s scheme working in the modern SEC. Moreover, the transition from Dave Aranda to Pelini is totally radical. Exploring Pelini’s return to the Bayeux, where once again LSU reigns supreme, naturally led to links to the Seahawks.
The obvious is that Pelini is essentially running a slightly tweaked, college-version of Pete Carroll’s defense. The schematic influence of Carroll, himself a disciple of Monte Kiffin’s Tampa 2, is obvious in every Pelini resource I’ve looked at. It’s also evident in Pelini’s résumé.
1. Pelini played safety at Ohio State from 1987-1990, spending his freshman year in Earle Bruce’s defense. Carroll served under Bruce as secondary coordinator at Iowa State in 1978 and then at the Buckeyes in 1979.
2. As his third coaching job, Pelini was the defensive backs coach at the 49ers from 1994-1996. Carroll was San Francisco's defensive coordinator from 1995-1996.
3. Pelini left the 49ers to join Carroll, who had become head coach of the Patriots, as New England's linebackers coach. They were both in Massachusetts from 1997-1999.
4. After Carroll got fired, Pelini served as Green Bay's linebacker coach from 2000-2002. The Packers’ defensive coordinator was Ed Donatelli, who coached defensive backs at Pacific University from 1983-1985. Carroll was the Pacific defensive coordinator in 1983.
Pelini’s success calling his own defenses away from Carroll’s gaze—from Nebraska, Oklahoma, to Louisiana—led to him receiving a second stint coaching the Cornhuskers, this time as the head coach. In the maiden season of 2009, his unit finished No. 1 in the NCAA in scoring and pass efficiency defense.
Pelini was lucky to miss the current meme-era by about 5 years, with images of him looking heatedly furious on the sideline commonplace.
Yet Pelini’s Cornhuskers could never get over the hump and he was eventually fired in 2014, despite an overall record of 66-27. "Big Red" consistently lost bowl games and rivalry matchups. They never achieved a season better than 9-4 and failed to win a single conference title. Why? That leads us to the aforementioned blog post, and back to the Seahawks.
In the August 2014 message at www.bighuskerfan.com, user "5xNC" summarized Barrett Ruud’s clinic at the Football 202 event that the University of Nebraska arranges before each year of Huskers ball. At the time of the talk, Ruud was a defensive intern on Pelini’s staff following an eight-year NFL career that included a brief 2012 spell on the Seahawks’ practice squad. Ruud is currently Nebraska's inside linebacker coach.
“The problems we [Nebraska] have had with play action, crossing and counter plays have stemmed from either the down lineman not playing the heavy technique or the backers not having their eyes on their keys and committing to the play action way too soon,” 5xNC wrote. “Most of the video, he [Ruud] showed us appeared to be the backers committing too soon and not watching their keys.”
Problems with play action, crossing, and counter plays? Doesn’t that sound familiar? It’s exactly the kind of stuff the Seahawks struggled with last season. These issues are often blamed on the linebackers, especially with Seattle spending a lot of time in base personnel keeping three linebackers on the field more than half of the time. (This factor is actually irrelevant as the linebackers would have largely the same coverage responsibilities, but I digress.)
Football, particularly on the defensive side, can only be played well if every player does their job. What if Seattle’s defensive line failed to consistently execute heavy techniques, in similar fashion to what 5xNC described of Nebraska 2013? This would have left the second-level defenders in a terrible working environment, a dangerous office space where play action, crossers, and counter plays would wreak havoc.
A heavy technique is the defensive tackle playing their shade more aggressively and tighter. From their tighter starting point, the defender will then squeeze the offensive lineman they face into the gap next-door.
Most common in both the Carroll and Pelini defenses is for a 3-technique, aligned on the outside shoulder of the guard in the B-Gap, to align more head up on the opposing guard in the heavy alignment. Their assignment is to try to squeeze/crush/move the guard’s body into the A-Gap on action away.
The idea is to help out the linebacker behind the heavy technique defensive tackle. The second-level defender plays off the heavy technique, taking advantage of the additional protection. They are able to read their coverage keys first, keys which will take them to their required run fit.
Essentially, the heavy technique gives the defender behind less conflict, more time, and greater space. The usage of heavy techniques gains an extra gap, meaning it works in non-gapped-out defenses such as some middle of the field open, two-high pass coverages.
In the case of the heavy 3-tech in an over front, it means that on action away, the linebacker behind does not need to worry about going into the A-Gap as the heavy 3-tech is crushing the guard into this space.
Instead, this linebacker can honor his pass-read and then slow pursue from the B-gap to the next available gap. If it were a play-action bootleg to his side, the linebacker would be able to read the tight end—his primary coverage key—and then go from there. Looking at the heavy 3-tech in an under front, the method again prevents the second level defender behind from having to fit the A-Gap on action away. Instead, they can fit the B-gap.
Hear and see the heavy over front explanation from Bo Pelini:
The Seahawks utilize heavy techniques just like Nebraska does, even extending the approach to their nickel defensive front of “Tank," as shown in the image below. Again, the idea is to keep the dudes behind clean, providing them with more time to read their pass keys and then fit the run.
So, after all this, did the 2019 tape reveal the Seahawks defensive tackles to be failing at heavy technique football?
Quinton Jefferson had an excellent season for a rotational depth piece defensive lineman, showing an ability to play 5-technique defensive end and 3-technique defensive tackle. He lost on the backside of this run though. Seattle is aligned in under. San Francisco showed action away, yet Jefferson as the heavy 3-tech was swatted aside by left guard Laken Tomlinson as he tried to squeeze the A-gap.
This left K.J. Wright naked and having to get across to the A-gap. Meanwhile, on the front side of the run, defensive end Rasheem Green took a chance inside going for the tackle for loss. Green missed. The failure of his gamble left Bobby Wagner exposed to right tackle Mike McGlinchey, with Wagner forced to become a turn back player. Coleman was able to get four yards.
Reducing down from a loose 3-tech to a heavy 3-tech also helps when running stunts from the 3-tech’s side, while also giving the defensive tackle less room to run and creating more room for any defensive end movement. Pirate, where the 3-tech and defensive end slant inwards one gap over (3-tech from B to A, DE from C to B) is a favorite of the Seahawks. The linebackers behind look to fall back to the run.
On this play, Jefferson was slow off the ball and therefore had the A-Gap initially sealed by Tomlinson at left guard. Jefferson was double teamed by left tackle Joe Staley too. This, momentarily, left Jadeveon Clowney unblocked at defensive end. Though Clowney was unable to get into the B-Gap, he managed to slant inwards to the backfield.
Yet, it was here that Clowney faced his block, a split-action from fullback Kyle Juszczyk. Clowney opted to try and make the play, rather than wrong-arming the block to spill the run to the bend read and the waiting Wright and Bradley McDougald. Once Clowney missed, Staley at left tackle had the optimal angle to climb to Wright. Though Jefferson was able to disengage back to the B-Gap with a swim move, his lunging ankle tackle only tripped up Matt Breida and the back was able to get nine yards.
Seattle did do some strange stuff that suggests they lacked faith in their defensive tackles to play heavy, or perform well. Particularly odd was their weird stunts versus wide zone that spilled the football to no one and their bizarre reduction of the weak side defensive end in over into a 4i-tech versus 21 personnel wide zone that saw the run weak cut up a gaping C-Gap.
Linebackers also struggled with their keys, looking at things they never should have needed to. Wagner—who played through injury—and Wright are at the veteran status where they almost know too much.
“It would come down to guys trusting what they are taught and reading their keys properly,” as 5xNC assessed of Nebraska's defense in 2013. Wagner and Wright were trying to compensate for defensive issues that weren’t their responsibility.
This clip against the Philadelphia Eagles in the wild card round of the playoffs is a particularly egregious example. Maybe Seattle blitzed Bradley McDougald off the weak side? Whatever the case, Wright looked to fall back to the cutback after the split-action and blitz. The linebacker was caught too far inside, losing the A-Gap.
Wagner messed up worse, getting caught inside after the run bounced. He failed to turn the run back, reach-blocked by right guard Matt Pryor and sealed inside. Wagner may have been influenced by Cody Barton setting the edge from too wide and deep of an angle after the pre-snap motion tightened the formation. Miles Sanders was able to get an explosive run.
Overall, the tape showed that the answer to Seattle's defensive struggles is not a failure of heavy technique specifically. Players were able to do it. On the defensive line, things went wrong when individuals tried to make plays outside of their assignment and missed. There isn’t a fix-all solution to the defense.
I can, though, state that the inability to properly set the edge of the defense was the most damaging problem. Pelini preaches a run fit approach of “force, lever, spill, lever.” Carroll uses phrases like “hammer in the fit, turn back, run through, turn back.” They mean the same thing.
“We were not consistent,” Carroll said in his end-of-season press conference. “Too many explosive plays of various natures. For the most part, we had problems on the edge. We had containment issues."
"We found that the offenses really put the ball on the perimeter against us a lot, that does challenge us in some ways," Carroll continued. "You’ll see some things be adjusted in the course of the offseason for that. Just the style of offense that we were up against was a little bit different than it’s been.”
Too often the force defender/hammer in the fit did not show up, with the play going outside of him. That, or the turn back player was unable to stay outside of blocks or the ball carrier. This had tremor effects on the rest of the defense. Tosses, jet sweeps, and all of the counter plays off these types of run action popped.
It was a coaching and schematic issue too, not just player related. I’ll explore Carroll’s comments on the perimeter issues soon, delving more into second-level keys while leaving Pelini to get on with what is a pivotal moment in the 52-year-old’s career heading back to the bayou.