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IUFB 2023 Preview: 4-2-5 and the Husky
Tom Allen is expectedly doubling down on the 4-2-5 with Matt Guerreri. Let's track the system's post-2016 history and the Husky position with it.
Recently, I wrote about new Indiana co-defensive coordinator Matt Guerreri. It was quite a deep dive into his career so far and what he could do with the IU safeties room, and it also discussed how current Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles brought Guerreri on to help teach the 4-2-5 defense in a quick manner.
There are a ton of new faces on the defense, so it’s a great time to revisit the system Indiana runs defensively and get an idea of who might play significant positions and what that says about those players and the staff. What went wrong last season? What went right? How does it all compare to the 2020 defense, when Indiana was firing on all cylinders on that side?
@HoosierKnight1 on Twitter (shoutout to a loyal reader) asked if Husky is such a good idea for this defense if there might not be the required talent on the roster, so I also zoom in on that specific position and its history within the defense.
Read three previous IUFB 2023 Previews, if you’re new to BSB:
What to Note on Indiana’s Defense during Week 1
Who is playing Husky, obviously. Expected to be Noah Pierre but might be a new face given the needs of the position. How does he play off of the other two safeties?
Who is playing free safety. Free safety is extremely significant in the 4-2-5 scheme, and Bryant Fitzgerald wasn’t the ideal fit there in 2022. Whoever plays free safety Week 1 has a ton of trust from the coaching staff and will be asked to do a lot.
Who is playing Linebacker No. 2 next to Aaron Casey. A 4-2-5 scheme puts a lot of pressure on safeties and linebackers, so both LB positions are significant. It seems there will be a rotation of Lanell Carr, Myles Jackson, and Anthony Jones at Bull and possibly the second LB spot, with multiple OLBs on the field at once quite often.
Who is playing Bull (opposite side of D-Line as Andre Carter). This position is crucial in covering the weak side and will aid the free safety up front. It seems like Anthony Jones will be playing most of the snaps at this position.
How active are the safeties? Most 4-2-5 systems lean hard on safeties; Indiana fans saw this in 2020 when the safeties made game-changing contributions nearly every week and last season when the safeties showed regression. Who is playing safety, where are they aligned pre-snap, and how involved are they in various facets of the defense (blitzing, pass rush, havoc, etc.)?
Read below for why these are significant notes to look for when watching Indiana play Ohio State on Sept. 2.
The 4-2-5 Scheme
When I was working for Eleven Warriors, an Ohio State coach once recommended Throw Deep Publishing because, like him, I was a football scheme nerd. So I turned to them and Football Advantage – another football scheme publication recommended to me by a college coach – to help explain the 4-2-5 scheme for this. Read their general explainer here, and carry on for an Indiana-specific explainer.
As has become fairly common knowledge to Indiana fans since Tom Allen brought the 4-2-5 to Bloomington in 2016, the 4-2-5 uses 4 DLs, 2 LBs, and 5 DBs, with a hybrid safety-linebacker (Husky at Indiana) and a hybrid defensive end-linebacker (Bull at Indiana). As TDP says, the Husky must be athletic enough to “be able to cover in man, take on a pulling guard, and rush the passer against a much bigger offensive tackle.” This is why Marcelino McCrary-Ball – the first Husky at IU and last listed at 6-foot, 214 pounds – was such a good fit for that spot.
The elevator pitch of the 4-2-5 would likely read as a high-powered, aggressive defense naturally built for disguise and versatility with athletic defenders who prioritize instinct and resulting in increased takeaways, decreased time in the pocket, and quick pursuit of the ball. If you thought of the Indiana 2020 defense, then you’re on the right track.
As you will read below, the 4-2-5 requires not only great play from the Husky, but also from safeties and linebackers. We saw this in Micah McFadden, Jamar Johnson, Devon Matthews, and Cam Jones. Tiawan Mullen and Jaylin Williams’ seasons added to the effect.
As TDP explains, the strengths of the 4-2-5 are as follows:
The 4-2-5 allows a spread formation to be covered while maintaining 6 defenders in the box and while staying in base defense. A basic 4-3 or 3-4 would lose a box defender to a spread formation.
Because of the ability to stay in base defense, there is no coverage that can’t be played from the base 4-2-5 alignment. This means there can be tons of disguises before the snap, and if a defense has versatile DBs, it could be extremely multiple in its coverage concepts.
Another principle idea behind the 4-2-5 is increased pressure on the offense, given the opportunity to always rush four and also the hybrid safety-linebacker position in the Husky. Creative blitz packages, as IU used when Kane Wommack was DC in 2020, are a major advantage with this scheme.
In 2020: Indiana’s creative blitz schemes created a ton of Pass Rush Production - a stat created by PFF to measure production per pass rush snap. Individually, Indiana placed 8 players in the top-100 in the Big Ten, and Micah McFadden and Cam Jones were in the top-10. Wommack’s ability to get his secondary involved in these schemes also increased confusion, which is a common wrinkle in the scheme — dropping safeties down in line with LBs pre-snap. IU’s havoc rate from the secondary was a blistering 9.4%.
In 2022: Indiana placed 5 players in the Big Ten top-100 for Pass Rush Production, and Noah Pierre and Aaron Casey were in the top-10. A major contributor to this was in how little the secondary was used in pass rush. In just 8 games in 2020, 5 of 6 regular-contributing DBs reached double-digit pass-rush snaps, and in 12 games in 2022, only 2 DBs reached double-digits. Indiana’s overall havoc rate was nearly 6% less than 2020, and its havoc rate in the secondary was just 5.2%. This certainly wasn’t the only difference, as IU’s pass rush grade was 128th in the country.
In 2023: Tom Allen brought in Andre Carter, kept Aaron Casey, and added some pass rush presence in Lanell Carr and others at LB, so that increased pass rush presence should help in this department. Losing Wommack has hurt the pass rush quite a bit, and one must point to scheme as a reason why. His blitz packages were stellar. Indiana meeting this required pressure by the 4-2-5 scheme is one of my biggest concerns for the defense in 2023.
The 4-2-5 can stop the run and the pass in base alignment, but a note not mentioned by TDP is that its strength is in stopping the run. Many teams, Indiana included, will drop safeties down into linebacker-adjacent positions pre-snap to disguise defensive looks, control gaps, and gain position.
In 2020: Indiana’s run defense grade was 48th nationally and allowed the 5th-fewest yards per game on the ground in the Big Ten. Because of this, teams elected to throw into a defense ranked No. 1 in passes defended and No. 2 in interceptions. Indiana saw the 5th-fewest rushing attempts defensively in the Big Ten that year.
In 2022: Indiana graded 48th nationally in run defense again, and actually gave up fewer line yards per rush and had a lower EPA per rushing play than in 2020. What Indiana allowed in 2022 that it didn’t in 2020 were big plays on the ground – 4th in the Big Ten in most 10+ yard rushing plays allowed, 2nd in most 20+ yard rushing plays allowed, and 1st in 30+ yard rushing plays allowed.
In 2023: Tom Allen bulked up his defensive line a bit, but *gestures to line yards per rush* this wasn’t the primary issue. Gap control *gestures to big plays allowed* was the issue. The secondary must be improved or the rushing defense could be worse, and that’s a nightmare scenario for a 4-2-5 defense.
And the weaknesses:
The 4-2-5 defense is asymmetrical, so offenses can scheme to the weak side with more ease than against other defenses.
What this means is that the safety opposite the Husky – typically the free safety – must have plus-instincts, versatility, and a high amount of spatial awareness and ball skills. Indiana plays its free safety all over the field, typically recording more snaps in the box than any other DB as well as in his own position. This spot is arguably as important to Indiana’s defense as the Husky, because of the Husky’s existence. Jamar Johnson talks about it briefly in his interview with NFL.com here.
In 2020: This was Jamar Johnson. We all know what he did, but he recorded the second-best Defensive Grade on the team and recorded 42 tackles, 4 interceptions, and 4 PBUs in just 8 games. He had the second-best Defensive Grade on the team.
In 2022: This was Bryant Fitzgerald (and also Jonathan Haynes and Josh Sanguinetti). Fitzgerald recorded the 25th-best Defensive Grade on the team and was spotted by the 28th- and 29th-best grades. In Fitzgerald’s defense, his skillset wasn’t that of a free safety, like Johnson’s was, and I’m genuinely confused why he played the position in the first place except as a chance to get him on the field with Noah Pierre at Husky.
In 2023: If Noah Pierre remains at Husky, Tyrik McDaniel could be a good presence at free safety. Sanguinetti could get a shot there again too, which would not be a good sign. Or Guerreri could go with a younger guy, like JoJo Johnson, Phillip Dunham, or James Monds.
The Bull does a good job of countering this asymmetry. The hybrid defensive end-linebacker can pull out into coverage or claim a wider gap than a typical defensive end. Ohio State is implementing this position for 2023 at the moment, called the Jack, as it furthers its 4-2-5 scheme.
In 2022: This was a combination of Dasan McCullough and Alfred Bryant. Bryant earned the third-highest PFF Defensive Grade on the team from this position, so it is crucial.
In 2023: Kasey Teegardin, who is now coaching the Bull position, conveyed a chance that transfer Oregon LB Anthony Jones will be playing here, which makes sense given his frame (6-4, 265 pounds) and his versatility, as coaches have noted. This could also be a role that Lanell Carr or Myles Jackson rotate into, since it seems clear that there will often be two OLBs on the field at the same time. Phillip Blidi and LeDarrius Cox (who earned the second-worst PFF Defensive Grade on the team in 2022) will be important playing next to the Bull.
Due to the scheme’s reliance on versatile defenders at several positions, the personnel tends to be smaller, creating issues against bigger opponents.
A general note on 4-2-5 schemes is that they can allow big plays when not executed correctly. This possibility on any play is a known flaw of the system anywhere it’s run. Jim Knowles, with his No. 3 ranked Ohio State defense last year, even suffered this at times.
In 2020: Even with its renowned defense, Indiana allowed big plays of 10+ yards (10th in Big Ten), 20+ yards (11th), and 30+ yards (10th). A good counter to this was Indiana’s No. 1 redzone defense and No. 1 turnover margin in the conference.
In 2022: Indiana’s defense actually recorded a lower EPA per play than it did in 2020; however, the big plays of 10+ yards (13th in Big Ten), 20+ yards (14th), and 30+ yards (13th) persisted at even higher rates. They also ranked 6th in redzone defense and 12th in turnover margin.
In 2023: The big plays will happen; that’s a product of the scheme. But if Indiana improves its nationally terrible secondary performance from 2022, tighten up on redzone defense, and create more takeaways, this will undoubtedly increase. The rest can’t be described in data and figures; it’s in on-field execution.
The Husky position has varied in its service of the Indiana defense. Only four players have claimed the position since its arrival with Tom Allen in 2016 – Marcelino McCrary-Ball, Tony Fields, Bryant Fitzgerald, and Noah Pierre.
As you can see above, the Husky position is difficult to execute, both in scheme and on the field.
The position, regardless of who has played, has remained largely the same. Husky will rush the passer about 30-50 times in a season and spend the remaining snaps split between rushing and coverage defense. Each year, the Husky spends roughly 150 fewer snaps on the field than the other DBs and, when effective, makes more stops – offensive plays busted due to individual effort – than the other DBs. The typical reception percentage allowed at the position is low-60s. A Husky, when compared to the free safety on the opposite side of the field, will typically have slightly less ball skills but increased pass rush skills and will be fairly larger in size to battle inside.
This is the template McCrary-Ball created. He was one of the most sound tacklers in the conference during his time, and, when the position was in its first few years, he and Tony Fields executed it as Tom Allen envisioned, peaking with McCrary-Ball’s 2018 season when he posted the best Defensive Grade on the defense, recorded the second best coverage grade, tied for first in stops, was second in sacks, was first in tackles for loss, and was third on the team in tackles.
In the four seasons following, though, Husky has been tough to execute. This could be attributed to many things. First, McCrary-Ball saw a ton of regression within the position as his career progressed – for example, he made 22 stops in 2018 but just 5 in 2021. Second, the defense in its entirety, particularly the secondary, has regressed since 2020, and even that defense succeeded in spite of Bryant Fitzgerald at Husky (PFF tackling grade of 45, 2 pressures in 25 pass rushes, 73% reception percentage allowed, 9 stops). Third, Indiana hasn’t had a player on roster with the skillset to play the position. If the ideal size is McCrary-Ball (6-foot, 214 pounds), the closest on the 2022 roster were Fitzgerald (6-foot, 205 pounds), Bryson Bonds (6-1, 205 pounds), and Jordan Grier (6-foot, 202 pounds). One can see by looking at the names why Noah Pierre (5-11, 180 pounds) got the job. Add true freshman Amare Ferrell (6-2, 210 pounds) to that list with no real changes to the others, and that’s who’s closest to McCrary-Ball’s size and skillset on 2023’s roster.
Pierre’s statistics weren’t as bad as some before him. His Defensive Grade was average for the team, but his missed tackle percentage – as detailed here – was lower than any previous Husky, while his total stops finished tied with Myles Jackson at 14th on the team. His pass rush was certainly effective (8 pressures on 36 pass rush snaps), and he finished fairly average in coverage for past Huskies, allowing a 64% reception rate and one touchdown (Tiawan Mullen led the team with 8 TDs allowed). It’s tough to blame Pierre, though, when considering how interconnected a defense is. The breaking points in a 4-2-5 defense are the safeties; if an assignment is blown defensively, the Husky and/or free safety are often placed in difficult positions.
When thinking about Husky and its role in this defense, it’s seemed like Indiana has forced inadequate skillsets into the position because of its significance to the scheme. McCrary-Ball clearly had a skillset to scheme the position, but when he showed struggles in 2017, it was free safety Tony Fields (5-11, 205 pounds) who replaced him because of his experience, despite Husky and free safety being fairly different positions. Fitzgerald seemed closest to the Husky archetype outside of McCrary-Ball but lacked the athleticism for coverage and lateral speed. And Pierre, even though he plays bigger than his size, is 35 pounds lighter than McCrary-Ball, which hurts when facing bigger opponents.
To make the 4-2-5 work, Husky must be present, though Ohio State is experimenting with Sonny Styles (6-4, 230 pounds) at the spot, stretching how big an effective Husky (or Nickel, in OSU’s case) can be. But again, that’s an asset to scheme for, not just a spot filled. I’m not suggesting Indiana do what Ohio State is doing because Styles is an outlier, but if the 4-2-5 is to remain the system used, there should be a plan for the position.
I’m curious how Matt Guerreri schemes that spot in 2023 and who fills it, if not Noah Pierre.