Notre Dame Football

In the Lab: Elko on 3rd Down

June 20, 2017

Everyone that watched Notre Dame's defense the last three years knew that they were in need of a change at defensive coordinator. Hiring the right replacement for Brian VanGorder was arguably the biggest decision Brian Kelly had to make this off season. That is saying something because he made several important decisions, but without an improved defense, those other decisions might not even matter.

There are many reasons why Kelly chose Mike Elko to fill the vacancy at defensive coordinator. Obviously his track record of coaching units that produce turnovers, get sacks, and prevent touchdowns were a big part of it. One other area that I believe was a big factor was the success Elko has had on 3rd down.

In four of the last five seasons Elko has had defenses that have ranked 4th, 29th, 36th, and 18th when it comes to preventing 1st downs. Even if you throw in his one below average season in 2013 (77th), his overall conversion percentage on 3rd down over the last five years is 34.7%. That would have ranked 21st in 2016.

One of the biggest issues with the Irish defense since 2013 has been, you guessed it, 3rd down defense. Despite having NFL Draft picks in the front seven like Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, Prince Shembo, Sheldon Day, and Jaylon Smith, they have not been very good at stopping teams on 3rd down. They finished 85th, 81st, 34th, and 60th in those years with an overall conversion percentage of 39.3%.

5% might not seem like a lot, but that can be the difference between winning and losing. It's also the difference between finishing 21st or 63rd. That's right in the middle of the rankings and about as average as you can get. Average isn't going to cut it at Notre Dame if they want to still be Notre Dame.

Enter Elko who has done more with less at both Wake Forest and Bowling Green. It's easy to say he should do well at Notre Dame because of his track record, but it's understandable how right now everyone is all about "show me" rather than "tell me". I figured I might as well show some of what made Elko's defense at Wake Forest successful last season.

I went back and watched every Wake Forest 3rd down versus Clemson, Florida State, Louisville, Temple, NC State, and Indiana. The first three were ranked in the top ten in offensive S&P+ and the latter three were ranked 28th, 11th, and 20th in passing down (2nd and 8+ or 3rd and 5+) S&P+. In other words, I watched the games where Wake played good competition that would challenge them on 3rd down.

I saw a play-caller that did a really good job of mixing up pressures without getting too complicated. He put his defenders in a position to win. I saw him utilize certain defenders in multiple ways, but not asking them to do things that they were incapable of doing.

Well, there I go again telling you about it. Let's get into showing you.

Many different looks out of a Bear front

Elko will show different fronts with different alignments throughout the game, but one thing that I noticed as a constant on 3rd down was him running a Bear front. The Bear front's origins are from Buddy Ryan's old Chicago Bears' defenses and it essentially consists of one nose tackle lined up on the center and two defensive tackles lined up at three technique (outside shade of the guard) on each side of the line. Throw in two edge players lined up outside shade of the tackles and there you have the Bear front.

Here's a 3rd and 3 versus Clemson where Wake is in a Bear front with two inside linebackers stacked behind. Elko loves to bring four or five man pressure. He makes it difficult for the protection, though, because you rarely know which four or five are coming.

He's got seven potential rushers on this play, but has his edge players play coverage while bringing the two inside linebackers on a blitz. The threat of the Rover (left edge) is what opens the Mike to come free on the blitz. The right guard and the right tackle both take the three technique and that leaves the Mike with an open run at Deshaun Watson.

It's great execution on the slant by him and the receiver and a poor job by the corner giving up the inside, but you can't argue with the design of the pressure. It worked out exactly the way it was supposed to up front.


Here's the same front with a different pressure from the NC State game. This time Elko is bringing six man pressure, but he is dropping the Rover (right edge) and he is picking up the crosser.

NC State's protection is sliding towards that way where the player dropped off, though. They have two blocking the three technique who is working his way outside and that means the player lined up on the left edge has a free run at the quarterback. The result is a worm burner because the quarterback couldn't step into his throw.

 It's a good thing that's what happened because the corner for some reason got turned the wrong way on this and it could have hit for a big gain.


Here's another variation versus Indiana. It's essentially a 5-1 look and the defense is in nickel, but with the Bear front. The Mike is blitzing and he is the 5th rusher, but that can happen because the Drop (right edge) peels off to pick up the back.

This play was completed, but it was called back due to a holding by the left tackle on the defensive right side three technique. Why did the tackle hold? Because he stepped out thinking he was taking the Drop and realized too late he needed to pick up the three technique.


It's not like Elko isn't averse to running stunts and twists up front, but playing so much out of a Bear front on 3rd down gives him so many options with his edges and linebackers that he doesn't have to get too crazy with his line moving all over the place. Players can rush straight up, but the offensive line aren't sure which players are going to be attacking on a given play.

Those three interior guys are almost always rushing the quarterback, but Elko asks his Mike, his Rover, and the Drop to do multiple things.

Simply by doing that he doesn't have to have overly use sub-packages to be multiple in his pressures and coverages. He can play base personnel or nickel and keep those versatile players in the game. And the offense isn't sure what those players are going to do on any given play.
He can play base personnel or nickel and keep those versatile players in the game. And the offense isn't sure what those players are going to do on any given play.

All about the threat of pressure

There is no doubt that Wake Forest has some individuals who were capable of winning in one on one pass rush situations, but Elko really gave those players an advantage because the offense could never be quite sure who was coming on any given play.

There always seemed to be the threat of pressure from as many as six (sometimes seven) potential rushers and that threat would often to lead to uncertainty for the protection. On this play against Louisville, Wake was in a three man line but had the option of blitzing the Mike, the Rover, or a defensive back that was lined up inside of the slot receiver.

Six could rush, but only four did with the Rover blitzing, the Mike spying the quarterback, and the defensive back carrying the slot down the seam. The right guard ends up blocking no one as the right tackle gets beat by the defensive end and the left guard gets beat by the Rover. It ends up in a sack with four guys beating the five blockers.


Here against Temple he has six he can bring and everyone is rushing. It's actually picked up really well by the line and the back, but Temple's quarterback really struggled against pressure and air mails the throw.


This is a similar call against Florida State where if the back stays in, it will be six rushing for Wake. The back leaks out, the Drop picks him up, and then it's five on five. The right guard didn't pick up the blitz and drifted out with the tackle instead. It ends up in a sack.


Adjusting to the opponent

I think a large part of the frustration with Brian VanGorder was that it always seemed to go back to he is who he is as a defensive coordinator. It was his defense that he was going to fit the players into and they were going to follow his plan even if that plan wasn't working too well. Fortunately, I don't see that with Mike Elko.

Against Clemson his defense was getting beat bad early by superior players at quarterback and wide receiver. They could not stop Watson and receivers like Mike Williams. When they left players out on an island in man coverage, it seemed hopeless and that is a big reason why Wake got down early in that game. It was slants and fades all day for Clemson.

Elko adjusted and started giving Watson different looks. It was another case of showing six and rushing three. They played zone with the field corner playing off. He sat on the route and should have had a pick six on this play.


Clemson took it to Wake early, but Elko's defense held them to 179 yards and 7 points in the second half with minimal help fro the other side of the ball.

Against both Temple and Florida State, Elko knew he needed to bring the heat on 3rd down against those two offenses. He rushed six more in those games than in the other four games combined and it was effective.

The offensive line and Dalvin Cook struggled to pick up movement up front in other games and that's why Wake did more of that in their match-up. They held the Seminoles to their lowest point total of the season.

The Mike was lined up in the B gap and beat the back one on one. Then the Rover came on a delay for finishing blow to force the football out. That opened up because of the stunt inside.


There was nothing similar to that specific pressure against Indiana because they couldn't set things up against the Hoosiers like they could against Florida State. Indiana was an uptempo team and that meant there was a lot of four man rushes and quite a bit of base defense for Wake.

They had a built-in blitz here when Indiana tried to go quick and 3rd down. The offense ended up not being prepared for the pressure and though they brought five and Indiana kept in six to block, they were confused as to who to block playing that fast. The right edge came straight through for the sack.


I came away from watching this impressed with the variety and also the simplicity of what Mike Elko did on 3rd down. There weren't defensive ends moving three gaps over or defensive tackles asked to pick up backs or tight ends. It was similar fronts, but different players rushing on different plays. It was nothing fancy on the back end asking players to do things that they aren't capable of.

It relied on the versatility of the Drop, the Mike, and the Rover. Those guys are going to have to do a bunch of different things and physically I think Notre Dame has three guys capable of doing those things really well in Daelin Hayes, Nyles Morgan, and Drue Tranquill.

I think that Jay Hayes and Jonathan Bonner are going have plenty of chances to win against some average pass blocking guards at three technique as well when they are lined up in a Bear front.

That was year three in Elko's defense for Wake and this will be year one in South Bend. We'll see how far along the defense is this year and what they can handle. I really like what Notre Dame's new DC is bringing to the table on 3rd down, though. I'm excited to see the results for the defense in this scheme that should set up a bunch of favorable match-ups when it comes to getting pressure on the quarterback.
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