Special Packages

Gameplan: Return of the .38 special? – Inside Texas

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After a recruiting visit in Austin, 2023 defensive back Jamel Johnson revealed an interesting nugget of information he’d received from defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski.

“He said I fit good into his defense. Sometime they run seven-man DB, so you’re going to play here if you like that.”

A seven-defensive back personnel set is quite the package and certainly one solution for making the most of a deep group of defensive backs. It’s also a good recruiting pitch to be able to explain to young defensive backs why they could have confidence in playing early. Rather than a general, “everyone has a chance to compete here!” or the true but perhaps not particularly exciting, “come play early on special teams!” you can point to real playing time for freshmen on important downs.

You don’t just use those packages for recruiting though, they have real value in attacking offenses. The Longhorns changed their season in 2017 with the “lightning package,” a 3-2-6 lineup they could play on 1st and 10 as easily as on 3rd and 9. Texas’ “.38 special” package in early 2019 was another gamechanger before it was tragically undone by a rash of injuries in the secondary.

Defenses can erase opportunities for spread offenses to easily find matchups and space to throw the ball into by flooding the field with defensive backs. Then there’s a flip side to this coin as well. A defense can also apply pressure up front with packages stocking the field with bigger, explosive guys at defensive line or linebacker. Will Muschamp introduced Texas to the world of modern defense in 2008 by moving running back Henry Melton and linebacker Sergio Kindle to the defensive line while spinning down big defensive end Lamarr Houston into a tackle, then playing with five defensive backs behind them. To spread out the Longhorns, offenses had to be able to handle Houston, Brian Orakpo, Kindle, et al. with just five or six blockers and still be able to find space and matchups with three corners and Earl Thomas on the field.

Today we’re going to look at a few packages Kwiatkowski may have in mind for dictating terms to Big 12 offenses.

Return of the .38 special?

The .38 special package was a short-lived experiment in 2019 designed to maximize Texas’ overabundance of good safeties. The set-up was unreal, it was a collection of speed and athletic talent unlike any you’ve ever seen take the field for a defense.

The three-down “3” in the 3-8 (.38 special) included outside linebackers Jeff McCulloch and Joseph Ossai as stand-up defensive ends and Malcolm Roach in the nose as the zero-technique. Then Texas had eight off-ball defenders who were all defensive backs (although technically DeMarvion Overshown was playing his current position of middle linebacker) with three cornerbacks and five safeties.

This unit picked off Joe Burrow when he was backed up on his own goal line early in the game against LSU but was compromised by injuries even before the end of the game. Texas was unable to play the .38 on the fateful “3rd and 17” moment where the game was lost. They were also done in throughout the game by the lack of skill out at cornerback. Todd Orlando’s exotic pressures drawn up with all the big, explosive defensive backs hanging around the box couldn’t make up for an inability to cover the Tigers 1-on-1 down the field.

If you glance at the 2021 Texas defensive roster, you’ll notice they again have a large number of solid defensive backs and many of them are holdovers from the days of Orlando’s “lightning” and “.38 special” packages. If we were to take Kwiatkowksi’s words to Johnson as indicative of what’s in the playbook for Texas in 2021, it’s not hard to imagine a seven-DB package from the current roster make-up.

It could look something like this:

Texas could flank Ojomo (or the best interior rusher) with outside linebackers like Ray Thornton and the next best of Jacoby Jones, Ben Davis, or Ovie Oghoufo. Behind them you have DeMarvion Overshown, Brenden Schooler, and B.J. Foster around the box. All of those guys can play in the box and blitz and everyone but Ojomo could potentially drop into coverage. Back in coverage Texas could play three cornerbacks and then a pair of safeties.

This would very much be a passing downs package, you wouldn’t ask this crew to hold up on 1st and 10 against anyone in the Big 12, but a dominant third down package is immensely valuable.

If there was a contest where Kwiatkowski wanted an every down, base package with multiple defensive backs, like Orlando’s 3-2-6, he could try something with slightly bigger personnel as he did at Washington against Mike Leach. His base dime look for the Apple Cup would play the Jack with two defensive linemen in a 2-3-6 package.

Something along the lines of this…

…basically a 2-2-7. You get Foster as the “Joker” safety where he excelled as a freshman, replacing the X-backer in the 2-4-5. In this set Texas has some more size on the line to hold up if an opponent runs the football, but they have more flexibility and fewer holes in coverage than in the base 2-4-5. Or they could sub out the nickel and move Schooler back to safety to make a 2-3-6 if keeping David Gbenda or another true linebacker on the field makes the unit stronger overall.

There’s several different configurations Kwiatkowski could concoct against offenses trying to substitute for extra receivers on 3rd down or otherwise trying to win by spreading Texas out and throwing it 50 times. If you don’t disincentive him from sticking with the same 11 players every snap he’s not going to do so.

You couldn’t play these games against Tom Herman’s Longhorns because they stayed in 11 personnel and could run power run sets or empty spread sets without substituting. Many Big 12 teams don’t have flexible, hybrid personnel to allow them to mimic this approach. They will substitute in receivers or blockers and make plain their intentions, usually on downs where the situation (3rd and 8, or 3rd and 1) already makes their intentions obvious. If you have a multi-defensive back package you can deny those offenses a chance to find any easy matchups.

Texas once again has depth in the secondary to build something like the .38 special, which if it hadn’t fallen apart due to injuries might have made for a wildly different season in 2019. A base dime defense is less likely due to Kwiatkowski’s emphasis on match coverage and having a guy like Overshown at linebacker, both of which already make the 2-4-5 pretty flexible. So the Longhorns don’t really need anything like Orlando’s 3-2-6, but something like the .38 special could be immensely valuable.

Getting big in the red zone

Texas doesn’t just have a plethora of solid defensive backs to rotate or sub into the game. They also have several big, athletic options along the defensive line. In fact, they are facing a potential dilemma come fall if sophomore Alfred Collins flips a switch and consistently reveals the NFL 3-technique he’s shown flashes of becoming. Moro Ojomo is already putting together a “draft me!” skill set at the same position and Keondre Coburn and T’Vondre Sweat give the Longhorns two more huge assets at nose tackle.

Kwiatkowski has a few good blitzing athletes at linebacker who can bring some size and explosiveness off the perimeter along with bigger box safeties in Schooler and Foster. Plus he has
the scheme to help put it all together. Here’s a set he would utilize in the red zone or against teams playing with bigger personnel at Washington, drawn up with Texas defenders:

Baby shark = Jamison, Black Panther = Ojomo

There’s a million ways to draw this one up as well. It’s a 46 front, which Kwiatkowski showed from his nickel package in the spring game. In the spring game he’d slide the jack inside to a 4i or 3-technique and drop one of the linebackers down on the edge like a second X-backer opposite the normal X-backer. The design of the 46 is basically to have a defensive lineman over all five offensive linemen, making it difficult to double team anyone and applying pressure across the entire front.

With the abundance of defensive tackle talent, Texas could sub out the Jack (or bump him outside where I have drawn DMO) to get whichever of Collins or Ojomo is on the bench onto the field. The priority is to get five guys on the line of scrimmage who are major problems for the offensive line. Texas could play with the Jack and X-backer outside of the three defensive linemen with Overshown and another linebacker at their normal inside positions. Or they could bring Overshown on the edge rather than a Jack or X and use a third linebacker or one of the safeties as an inside linebacker. All of those variables can change in accordance with the relative strengths of the roster in a given year. The constants are creating a 5-2 front before the snap.

The foundational contest of offense versus defense between the tackles is a three-on-three battle between the guards and center for the offense and the nose tackle, 3-technique, and inside linebacker on defense. Either side can bring in more players but doing so incurs a bill which will inevitably come due. To win on offense you need to be able to control the point against the two defensive tackles and release someone up to hit the inside linebacker before he’s diagnosed the play and comes flying through the running back’s best window.

A good nose tackle complicates the situation by commanding a double team which frees up the inside linebacker. A great linebacker serves you by arriving too quickly and precisely for the line to have time to make any headway on the tackles, and a great tackle serves you by whipping the guard and forcing the offense to bring a tackle into the fray to avoid a negative play. Now it’s 4-on-3 for the offense but you’re playing short-manned somewhere else.

The 46 front brings in an extra tackle and creates two problems. It becomes extremely hard to double-team the nose and you are really in a numbers crunch on offense if one of your guards can’t reliably hold up 1-on-1 against one of the defensive tackles. It’s not enough to be good at center or guard, you need to be pretty good at all three spots or you can get into trouble in a hurry.

So if both Alfred Collins and Moro Ojomo should end up putting together draftable play at defensive tackle, this set becomes a total nightmare for offenses. You wouldn’t use it between the 20s because you’re giving up some speed and flexibility in coverage to bring another defensive tackle into the interior. In the red zone where the offense runs out of space and needs to overpower you either in coverage or at the line of scrimmage, it becomes a fantastic way to make the line of scrimmage a hellscape for Big 12 offenses.

Trying to overpower this front is not going to be easy. Here’s a double-tackle version of 46 defense against “the touchdown play” Texas used for four years under Tom Herman to pile up scores in the red zone.

The offense can only double-team one of the three defensive tackles and the tight end better be able to block DeMarvion Overshown (or whomever is lined up at outside linebacker) 1-on-1. In this example the offense double-teams Coburn and the left tackle and right guard have to win 1-on-1 against Collins and Ojomo. Even if this doesn’t result in Longhorn defenders shooting into the backfield, the odds of clearing out a lane for the running back which can’t quickly be filled by free flowing off-ball defenders is very low.

Even in a quarterback run scheme where the offense can get a numbers advantage, the angles don’t make it easy to keep Coburn or a 3-technique from winning a 1-on-1 and wrecking the play before it starts.

Outside the defense is relying on man coverage, but this is already typically the case in the red zone. In this set at least you get more bang for your buck inside. If the offense is a greater threat to beat man coverage than to power it in with the run game you can drop the outside backers into passing lanes now and again or just not use this package unless they commit to playing extra blockers. Against spread teams with a power run game you can deny them access with a set like this and/or apply a lot of pressure in the pass rush if they want to try and throw it in.

Packaging the Big 12 into a box

Two problems Big 12 teams aren’t well equipped to solve, 1) when they can’t hunt a slower defender in space and 2) when they can’t protect a slower offensive lineman from facing a top athlete 1-on-1.

The dime (and smaller) sub-packages can present the first problem to opponents, the 46 fronts with extra defensive linemen and/or linebackers on the field is useful for bringing the second challenge.

Most Big 12 teams aren’t loaded with high quality talent at every position. If you’ve watched Oklahoma in the Lincoln Riley era you’ll have seen them dominate games in three fashions. First of all, with a perennially fantastic offensive line featuring future pros at three or more positions. Teams don’t really attack them up front, they are just hoping to survive.

Secondly, with elite wide receivers Riley will move around and match up on overwhelmed defensive backs, or attacking run/pass conflicts, or working against defensive coverage rules to run free into the secondary.

Finally, their recent success has owed a lot to putting a pair of linebackers and three defensive linemen on the field together who can run some 46-style fronts of their own and obliterate blocking schemes by always having a 1-on-1 matchup in which their athlete is positioned to blow by some poor sap.

One of Kansas State’s great tricks under Bill Snyder, other than the quarterback run game, was having a million schemes under their belts to enable them to always get help against an opponent’s best players while creating space and matchups for their own top athletes.

Big 12 offenses in general have the Kansas State approach and use spread formations and run/pass conflict to set up their best players to look great while minimizing the exposure of the more limited athletes on the team. Save for against the teams which use tempo to protect themselves, which are less common now Texas Tech has fired David Yost, eliminating or exacerbating matchups is potential kryptonite for Big 12 offenses.

Texas is a bit short on really savvy, inside linebackers who can split the difference between serving as frontline warriors against the run and also being present in the passing game. This needn’t necessarily matter though because they can overwhelm Big 12 offenses before they get started by packing top defensive linemen into the box or erasing any matchups on the back end with extra defensive backs as the situation requires. Kwiatkowski has shown a knack for both of these tricks and it’s a good bet he’ll be putting together some packages in the fall to achieve this result.

Cover photo courtesy of Texas Athletics


History major, football theorist.