Inside Mike Pettine’s Playbook Part Three: Defending The Spread

When the Buffalo Bills hired former New York Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to the same position, there were rumblings among fans regarding what type of defense the team would operate in 2013.

Pettine has been coaching in the National Football League since 2005, where he joined the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive coaching staff and has learned the ins and outs of Rex Ryan’s 3-4/ 4-3 “Under” defense.

Upon researching the various defensive formations that Pettine has utilized throughout his coaching career, I came across a clinic in which he delivered information on his personal defensive philosophies, plays, coverages, etc.

Over the next week or so, will be exploring Pettine’s defense in an 8-10 post series. Enjoy!

The spread offense has made the move from college football to the National Football League in recent years, leading passing and receiving statistics to inflate drastically. The spread is quickly taking over many NFL offenses, due to the fact that the three-to-five wide receiver sets the offense creates mismatches for defenses.

While Mike Pettine is an aggressive defensive coordinator that prides his defenses on pressure, he has a plan for defending the spread, as well as the read-option that took the NFL by storm during the 2012 season.

Defending the Spread Attack

Pettine’s No. 1 question when game-planning for a spread-oriented offense is “What Are They Trying To Accomplish?” Does the team want to move the chains quickly, or are they looking for big, explosive plays?

Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers: Just one of several teams the Bills will face in 2013 that employ spread type offensive looks. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers: Just one of several teams the Bills will face in 2013 that employ spread type offensive looks. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Depending on the type of offenses the Bills will face during the 2013 season that employ spread looks (primarily the New England Patriots, Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers and the Jacksonville Jaguars), Pettine will need to have specific game-plans depending on the opponent.

Pettine’s second question regarded the quarterback’s pre-snap reads, and whether they are counting in-the-box defenders or reading the middle of the field (linebackers and safeties).

Quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Drew Brees are capable of making both of these reads and are two of the best in the game at adjusting protections and calling audibles at the line of scrimmage.

Sub Front: Rush

Here is one of Pettine’s plays that he operated when facing a four-wide receiver set. The play is out of a sub “flex” package, utilizing a 4-2-5 defensive front, meaning four defensive linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs.

Sub Front: Rush

As you can see this is a bit of an exotic look for a defensive line, as they are spread out wide. This is effective because it forces the quarterback to locate where the rush is coming from, while the offensive line makes protection calls.

The right defensive end is lined up at the nine-technique (on the outside shoulder of where a tight end would be lined up). The two defensive tackles are both playing the three-technique (the outside shoulder of the offensive guard), while the “open end” or left defensive end is in the wide-five technique (outside shoulder of the right tackle).

This front provides a four man rush from wide angles, much like the Philadelphia Eagles did under former defensive line coach Jim Washburn, but should really only be utilized in obvious passing situations.

Base Invert Alignment: Invert 2

Invert Alignment: Invert 2

While this isn’t the exact play pictured above, the Invert 2 is the concept on which it’s based on when facing a four wide receiver set.

Here, the right defensive end playing the nine-technique would attack the “C” gap (outside shoulder of the offensive tackle), while the right defensive tackle playing the three-technique penetrates the “A” gap (between the center and left guard.

The left defensive tackle, who also is playing the three-technique attacks the “B” gap (outside shoulder of right guard) and the “open end” at the five technique rushes the quarterback through the “B” gap.

The pressure brought on by the defensive ends from a wide stance forces the interior offensive lineman to account for multiple pass rushers.

Outside cornerbacks (Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin/Aaron Williams) will play press-man coverage on the opposing “X” and “Z” outside receivers.

The inside linebacker, presumably Kelvin Sheppard due to his coverage ability drops into a hook zone, while the defensive back/nickel linebacker drops into the “curl” zone to defend the “Y” slot receiver/ tight end.

Depending on the personnel, another defensive back or linebacker would do the same to defend the opposite portion of the field, while the two primary safeties stay in “Cover 2,” meaning they are each responsible for one half of the field.

Defending The Spread/Read Option

The fifth point of Pettine’s method of defending the spread offense questioned whether the opposing offenses run any form of the option.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton burst onto the scene in 2011, rushing for 706 yards and 14 touchdowns. In 2012, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III took the NFL by storm, as Kaepernick rushed for 415 yards and five touchdowns, while Griffin III gained 815 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground.

As the NFL has shown to be a “copy cat” league, it’s plausible to assume that more teams will be running versions of the option in the 2013 season.

Given that Pettine’s clinic was delivered in 2005, the fact that he was already preparing for the option in the National Football League should be seen as a good sign to Bills fans.

While the playbook doesn’t have any coverages/plays/fronts to defend the option, a fellow NFL fan (Atlanta Falcons) named Zach Kidd (@GBBZach) has been exploring different ways of how teams could defend the option

Kaepernick is lined up in the pistol formation with a fullback and tight end opposite him and two wide receivers split out wide, indicating that the option is coming. The Falcons are in a three man front with two edge rushers.

The premise of this is that the left edge rusher would spill out to his left, playing “contain” meaning his responsibility is to focus on Kaepernick if he runs the option off the right side. The free safety (Jairus Byrd in the Bills’ case) would come on an outside blitz in the direction of the left tackle. This could allow the three down linemen, along with the right edge rusher to eat up the offensive line, allowing Byrd a free shot at Kaepernick.

While this is merely just a concept, you can be certain defensive coordinators around the league will be busting their tails all offseason long developing different ways to shut down the read option that became a big part of offenses in the National Football League.