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FSU football DC Harlon Barnett setting his defense up backward

Front to back, back to front— time to set the defense right.

NCAA Football: Florida State at Boise State Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

There is an old maxim in defensive football coaching: coverage determines the front.

That is to say, a defensive coordinator should work from back to front. The back end is where defense should begin. Former FSU football head coach Jimbo Fisher always said defenses should be run this way.

Defensive coordinators usually come from a background coaching defensive backs and linebackers for this reason. All of the current great defensive minds in college football come from the back end: Nick Saban, Mark Dantonio, Kirby Smart, Brent Venables— the list goes on.

The first two of the list are where we will focus, because of their influences on FSU’s past and present. Saban and Dantonio worked together at Michigan State in the late 1990s, with the former being the head coach who turned that program around. Both have also been the head man for current Seminoles defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett, Saban for a year in 2003 at LSU (when Jimbo Fisher was on staff), and Dantonio for over a decade.

The pair both subscribe to similar defensive principles, with quite different methods of implementation. Saban’s defense is based out of a middle of field closed (MOFC) man-matching zone scheme, using an extra defender in the box to combat opposing rush attacks and featuring mixed fronts. Dantonio bases his man-match zone out of a shallow quarters scheme with the middle of the field open (MOFO) and using nearly exclusively even (four down linemen) fronts. Both coaches use liberal amounts of zone pressure to unsettle opposing quarterbacks.

The key here? Both set their defenses up back to front.

In 2018, Florida State did not field a great defense. 37th in defensive S&P+ rankings, Harlon Barnett’s debut was disappointing; the previous year, he helped guide his alma mater and previous employer to a top-15 finish his final year in East Lansing.

Barnett did so by following the principles of his prior boss and mentor. Lot of quarters coverage, four down linemen, and zone pressure. Coverage determining the front.

But this has changed drastically in 2019. For the worse.

Barnett has shifted the defense to feature a lot of odd fronts, with three down linemen. There has been a significant amount of change in the back end to suit the shift up front. On its face, the change made some sense. FSU lost the disruptive presence of Brian Burns and needed to find a way to generate pressure in the pass rush.

Barnett chose to chase that pressure by changing the front. This seems logical, but it had a nearly catastrophic consequence: it disrupted the back end.

Run fits change when the front changes. When you have an even front, the two inside linebackers have relatively simple run fits. That doesn’t necessarily change when you change to an odd front. However, in addition to changing the run fits, the inside linebackers have to start taking offensive guards head on.

This new task is difficult for even the best linebackers to tackle (pun intended, because I like dad jokes). Famously, Ray Lewis had his worst season when the Ravens switched to a 3-4. The next year, after firing their defensive coordinator and returning to a 4-3, Lewis went right back to the Pro Bowl.

On top of changing run fits, FSU has dramatically changed the way it plays coverage to suit these new fronts. Instead of the man-match zone that has made Saban and Dantonio legends in their careers, Barnett has oversimplified the defense and begun playing a significant amount of spot-drop zone.

Without getting too technical (as there are many resources online and not enough space in this particular column), man-match zone and spot-drop zone are significantly different. Man-match zone is based on the principles of pattern reading. That is to say, the distribution of the receivers is what dictates how the back end plays in coverage. Spot-drop zone is precisely what it sounds like: defenders drop to particular areas, rather than working based on receiver routes.

Barnett has moved away from what the last two decades of his career were built on. Pattern reading has been dispatched for spot-drop zone. Even fronts have been eschewed for odd fronts.

Barnett has abandoned what he, his former Michigan State colleague Mark Snyder, and their mentor Dantonio have all seen propel their careers to the top levels of college football. He has made a significant mistake deciding to run their defenses from front to back rather than back to front.

If Barnett cannot realize he made a mistake changing from front to back to generate pass rush, his time in Tallahassee may be limited. The differing run fits and coverage schemes he has implemented in 2019 have caused confusion among position groups that should be allowed more help (linebackers) or allowed to run the coverages they had been coached to in 2018 and prior (for defensive backs).

Let the coverage dictate the front. Not vice versa.