Former Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards joined the Cowboys last week as a senior defensive assistant. According to ESPN’s Todd Archer, Edwards will “work with linebackers as well as focusing on sub-package defenses.” While that sounds vague, it should excite those who have closely followed the defense that was being run in Minnesota.
While Edwards didn’t call the plays on defense (head coach Mike Zimmer handles that), he was a significant member of the weekly defensive game plans according to Zimmer himself. It’s with that in mind that we break down the sub-package that Zimmer and Edwards most frequently used in Minnesota: the split mug front.
There are two very in-depth pieces from the Athletic that break this scheme down further; one by Ted Nguyen scouting the Vikings defense prior to a game against the Eagles, and another by Vic Tafur breaking down the scheme of Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, a disciple of Zimmer’s.
The split mug front is a sub-package that Zimmer popularized in Cincinnati and brought to Minnesota. It’s commonly referred to as a double A gap blitz because both linebackers line up in the A gaps. However, Zimmer rarely calls blitzes, and instead he used the split mug front to create confusion more than anything.
In the split mug front, typically there are two defensive tackles lined up in a 3-technique and two defensive ends out wide, either in a 7- or 9-technique. Usually, the two linebackers in the A gaps have to read the center on the snap to see which one bails out in coverage. The linebacker that doesn’t drop then has a couple options based on the play call. Here are two clips that show both versions.
In the first clip, the linebacker that stays in tricks the quarterback into thinking there’s a blitz, but instead he takes on the running back, who steps up in pass protection. This gives one-on-one matchups for the four defensive linemen, which allows the defensive tackle to get a sack.
In the second clip, the linebacker blitzes and, in addition to the other linebacker dropping into coverage, so does the right defensive end. At the same time, the safety comes on an outside blitz on the strong side. This overwhelms the running back, who steps up to take on the linebacker and leaves the safety untouched. As it turns out, the running back gets overpowered by the linebacker anyway, but the creative play design effectively made the back choose which blitzer he’d leave unaccounted for.
Of course, this split mug front brings with it many different things the defense can do. With defensive ends sometimes dropping into coverage and linebackers or defensive backs taking their place as pass rushers, it’s very hard to identify what the defense is doing pre-snap. Even on this play, both linebackers drop into coverage but the mere threat of the split mug front makes it easier for the defensive linemen and forces the running back to stay inside for the blitz pickup:
With Mike Nolan expected to bring more of a multiple 4-3 to the Cowboys, incorporating this split mug front could further aid their ability to be multiple. There’s the potential for one or both defensive ends to align in a two point stance, thereby highlighting the possibility of dropping one of them into coverage, while Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch man the A gaps.
In Minnesota, Zimmer and Edwards routinely paired their split mug front with pattern matching quarters coverage, which Nguyen describes as featuring “defenders look[ing] for the initial release of receivers to match how they will ultimately distribute in their route combinations.” Tafur explains further by saying “Essentially, both safeties will be asked to play the same position. They both will align deep but based on the formation or their reads can come into the box for run support, drop into deep zones, or play some man-to-man coverage at times.”
Pattern matching is, in simplest terms, a defensive version of a read-option. The defensive backs have the option to play either man or zone, or sometimes a combination of both, based on the routes the receivers run. It’s certainly more complex, and thus requires smart defensive backs with clear communication. But when run effectively, it can be hard to beat; Nick Saban, under the tutelage of Bill Belichick, came up with the concept during his days with the Browns, and both have used it at their respective programs since.
Here, you can see how the Vikings employ some of this pattern matching into their coverage paired with the split mug front. Due to the tentative nature of coverage here, the defenders play off the ball a bit in order to give them time to read the routes.
You can see that the coverage starts out in more of a zone, but as the receivers break into their individual routes they get picked up by a defender. This makes it hard for a quarterback to get a read on what the actual coverage is, and combined with the confusion induced by the split mug front, it can wreak havoc on an offense.
Having spent the last six years in Minnesota, Edwards is certainly well-versed in the split mug front and it’s unlikely that he wouldn’t at least be lobbying for Nolan to incorporate it into their sub-packages. There’s obviously a lot more that Edwards brings to the team, but the split mug front is almost a signature of the defense he helped run in Minnesota, and it could become a focal point of the Cowboys’ multiple defense going forward.