As I mentioned last week, I spent a portion of my holidays charting 111 Wake Forest defensive plays from 2016 games against Clemson, FSU and Temple. In the previous post we looked at the base alignment incoming Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko uses (link here). This time we are going to take a look at the alignment he likes to use on 3rd down.

In the plays I charted Elko used a 4 man front 86% of the time on 1st down and 88% of the time on 2nd down. However on 3rd down, this trend changed to a 30 front 86% of the time.  The typical pre-snap alignment on 3rd down had 3 down linemen, with 2 linebackers and a rover near the line of scrimmage. Out of this look, Elko will rush the passer with 3, 4, 5 or 6 players.

I also mentioned in the last article that I was surprised at how predictable the rover position was. Generally speaking he lined up on the wide side of the field, over a receiver and played coverage. On 3rd down this changed. The rover lined up in a variety of locations. Sometimes he would drop into coverage, sometimes he would blitz and sometimes he would play a spy technique. Let’s take a look at the film and I’ll show you what I mean.

Here we see a pretty typical 3rd down alignment for an Elko coached defense. We have 3 defensive linemen (green arrows), 2 linebackers on the line of scrimmage (yellow arrows) and the rover lurking near the line of scrimmage (blue arrow). One of the unique features of this 3rd down look is the defensive ends often line up wide. It is common to see one (or both) of the defensive ends outside of the offensive tackle like we see in this screen shot (green star).

At first glance this seems like a pretty standard 3rd down defense. Rush 4 drop 7. What makes it unique is that the 4th pass rusher is not a defensive lineman (green arrows) it’s the rover (blue arrow). There isn’t anything fancy about the blitz, the rover just has to beat the guard one on one.

The rover was able to defeat the guard (blue arrow). This prevented Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson (orange circle) from stepping up into the pocket. As a result Jackson ended up being sacked by the defensive end (green arrow).

Here we see a similar look against Syracuse. 3 down linemen (with wide defensive ends, green arrows), 2 linebackers close to the line of scrimmage (yellow arrows) and the rover lurking in the middle of the defense (blue arrow). The big questions is who will rush the passer?

Elko decides to get aggressive and send 6 rushers. He uses 3 defensive linemen (green arrows), 2 linebackers (yellow arrows) and has the rover loop around (blue arrow) to confuse the blocking scheme.

The scheme worked and Wake Forest ends up with a linebacker (yellow arrow) and the rover (blue arrow) against one blocker (orange arrow).

The quarterback is able to get the ball off just in time. Although it didn’t result in a sack, the scheme was pretty effective, the rover was able to disrupt the timing of the play and get a hit on the quarterback (blue arrow).

A familiar defensive alignment on 3rd down, 3 linemen (green arrows), 1 linebacker (yellow arrow) and a lurking rover (blue arrow).

This time Elko only rushes 3 (green arrows) and drops everyone else into coverage. To add an extra wrinkle he mixes up the underneath assignments. The linebacker started around the yellow star, but instead of dropping straight back, he dropped across the formation (yellow line). The rover uses a similar technique, starting at the blue star and dropping across the formation (blue line).

In this example, Elko is playing a little cat and mouse with the best quarterback in the country Deshaun Watson (orange circle). Watson is checking with the sideline and they are changing the play call to take advantage of the single coverage at the top of the screen (orange arrow).

Initially, Wake Forest lines up with 3 down linemen (green arrows), 2 linebackers crowding the line of scrimmage (yellow arrows), a lurking rover (blue arrow) and a safety added into the mix (red arrow).

Elko must have been smiling on this play. After Clemson changed the play, he moved the safety (red circle) from the red star towards the receiver who was single covered (red arrow), to provide double coverage (red lines). The rover (blue arrow) rotated from the blue star to occupy the location vacated by the safety.

Elko and the defense fooled Watson on this play. In fact you can see Watson (orange circle) looking at the safety that fooled him. The game of cat and mouse worked and Clemson was forced to call a timeout.

Final Thoughts

There is no doubt that Mike Elko’s 3rd down defense is a lot of fun to watch. It’s aggressive and variable. As well, we finally get to see the rover used in different ways. Hopefully this scheme leads to 3rd down success for Notre Dame in 2017.