Over the holiday season, I took on a little project. I decided I would take a look at the scheme incoming Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko employs. I charted 111 defensive plays from games against Clemson, FSU and Temple. Through this I was able to get a good sense of how Elko coordinates a defense.

Base Defensive Alignment

As has been widely reported, Elko’s base defense uses a 4 man front, with 2 linebackers, a rover and 4 defensive backs. In the plays I charted, Wake Forest lined up in a 4 man front 72% of the time. Although the base 40 front is used in all situations, it is primarily called on 1st and 2nd down. In the plays I charted, a 4 man front was used 86% of the time on 1st down and 88% of the time on 2nd down.

This screen shot gives us a good look at Elko’s base defensive alignment. We’ll start closest to the ball with the defensive line (green arrows). The first thing to note is the stand-up defensive end (green star). Generally speaking he lines up to the weakside.  For the most part he is a rush end, but will drop into coverage every now and then. This is very similar to the way Notre Dame used the weakside defensive end position under Brian VanGorder (BVG).

The two inside linebackers (yellow arrows) have similar responsibilities to linebackers in the BVG era. They are asked to fly to the football against the run, blitz on a regular basis, cover man to man and drop into zone coverage. The rover (blue arrow) is supposed to be the wildcard in this position group. I have to say, I charted the alignment of the rover and it was actually a little boring (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). The rover usually lines up exactly where you see him in this screen shot, to the wide side of the field, over a receiver. The rover in Elko’s 40 front is similar to the SAM linebacker in BVG’s defense. The primary difference is that the rover in Elko’s defense is asked to play man coverage more than the SAM in BVG’s defense.

This screen shot shows a pretty standard alignment for the secondary with corners to the outside and two deep safeties (red arrows). However, this is where things get interesting. The safeties in Elko’s defense are very active. In many ways they are more like rovers than the actual rover position.

Safety Play

Pre-snap we see the same base alignment highlighted in the previous screen shot. 4  linemen (green arrows), 2 inside linebackers (yellow arrows), 1 rover (blue arrow) to the wide side lined up over a receiver with 2 corners and 2 deep safeties (red arrows). The player to keep your eye on is the strong safety (red star).

The safety we were watching has moved from depth (red star) towards the line of scrimmage (red arrow, red circle) and will provide extra help with the run. A pretty logical strategy when Dalvin Cook is on the other team. It was clear that using safeties to stop the run was an important part of the game plan against Florida State. On the plays I charted, a safety came from depth towards the line of scrimmage or blitzed 60% of the time.

Take a look at the play clock (bottom right of the screenshot, yellow circle). In the plays I watched it was common for safeties to stay at depth for as long as possible before moving down. This was a tactic designed to make “check with me” offensive play calling a little less effective. As an FYI, Cook ended up getting stuffed for no gain on this play.

Having a safety come into the box wasn’t just a wrinkle for the FSU game. Moving the safeties towards the line of scrimmage was a consistent theme in the plays I watched. Here we see Wake Forest in another two deep safety look. However, the other safety is starting to move down this time (red circle). Notice how this move also happens as the play clock is winding down (yellow circle).

The safety is in the box (red circle) ready to provide immediate run support.

Yup, that’s a safety taking on a fullback at the point of attack (red circle). The last minute adjustment allowed Wake Forest to get an additional defender to stop the run. Although it isn’t ideal to have a safety taking on a fullback on this type of play, he ultimately did a good job and helped cut the play back to the inside where the linebacker was able to make the tackle for no gain.

I don’t want to give you the impression that moving safeties towards the line of scrimmage is the only way that Elko activates his secondary. He also likes to blitz from depth. His favourite is to have a safety come late (red circle and arrow) and follow a blitzing linebacker (yellow arrow, yellow star).

Just after the snap of the ball the safety is sprinting towards the line of scrimmage (red circle) and the linebacker is starting his blitz (yellow arrow). The safety will follow the linebacker for as long as possible and then break off at the last second trying to get into the backfield unblocked.

This screenshot illustrates something else that stood out to me. Elko’s defenses seem to be exceptional at timing blitzes. In this case, the ball isn’t even to the quarterback yet (blue circle) and the linebacker is already partially across the line of scrimmage (yellow arrow). I’m not sure if this is something Elko coaches or if this group of players is just good at timing snaps, but I sure hope we see this sort of timing in South Bend next year.

The blitzing safety is unblocked and makes the tackle behind the line of scrimmage (red circle). This type of blitz is pretty simple in that it is designed to overwhelm a single blocker. However, it appeared to be highly effective. When I watched film it was rare that I saw this blitz get picked up by the offense.

Final Thoughts

Elko uses a system that is rooted in a base 4 man front which the players clearly know well. I thought the rover was going to be the wildcard, moving around and giving the base defense a different look and some unpredictability. Turns out I was wrong. The rover’s responsibilities are pretty static in the base defense. When Elko wants to change things up and add some wrinkles on 1st and 2nd down he tends to stay in a 4 man front and activate the safeties. It’s hard to predict what they will do on any given play. They might stay deep, they might come down towards the line of scrimmage, they might play man to man or they might blitz.

At first glance this base defense appears to be similar to what Brian VanGorder used at Notre Dame. In fact, I even saw defensive ends and defensive tackles dropping into coverage! Don’t worry though, there is little question that Elko takes a much different approach to coordinating the defense compared to Brian VanGorder. Elko uses a lot base defense with some nice wrinkles, whereas BVG used a lot of wrinkles with a bit of base defense. The VanGorder approach often led to a defense that looked confused and a step slow. By contrast, the Elko approach often results in a defense that plays fast and aggressive.

Don’t be fooled by the apparent simplicity of the base defense though. Elko has a few tricks up his sleeve. In the next article we’ll see the rover get into the act and take a look at some of the more exotic fronts he uses, especially on third down.