If you’ve been paying attention to the news from Tallahassee this week, the phrase “gap control” has been impossible to miss. Last weekend the Florida State Seminoles travelled to Dallas to take on the Oklahoma State Cowboys and — after a very promising start — struggled to put the Pokes away.
One of the biggest reasons for that? Gap control.
“When they started moving the football, [it] was very similar to what we did last year. If you remember early in the year last year even Timmy [Jernigan struggled with this] — as crazy as this sounds — we were so aggressive trying to make plays that we didn’t stay in gaps,” said head coach Jimbo Fisher on Monday.
“Early in the [game], the first two, three, four drives we did [handle our assignments]. Then we got momentum and all of the sudden it was a D-tackle, it was a nose [guard], it was a ‘backer. I mean it wasn’t just one guy. We’re in the gap control, we’re sound– they ain’t got no where to go — all of the sudden a guy says, ‘I’m going to make that play,’ so he snatches his guy and goes over here and all of the sudden [there's] a little seam and he cuts back for five yards.”
Added junior defensive tackle Eddie Goldman: “As a football player you’re going to want to make plays but one thing you have to understand is you have to make plays within the structure of the defense. [That's] the right ways to make plays. And when you catch yourself trying to make plays selfishly it can backfire.”
As Fisher alluded to Monday, this is not a new problem. Florida State had a similar issue at the start of last season — one that eventually culminated in BC running back Andre Williams gashing the Seminole defense for 200 yards — before the message sank in and the defense started to play assignment-sound football.
It’s a very fixable problem, but it requires a team to play with a lot of discipline and focus– one player playing out of position is all it takes to crater an entire play.
What is Gap Control?
To understand gap control you have to start by understanding techniques and gaps. A technique is where a defensive player — usually a defensive lineman — is going to line up on the play. Gaps are the lanes between the offensive linemen that the offense is going to try to run through.
Take a look:
When you hear somebody say that a lineman is playing a certain technique, this is what they’re referring to. You may hear a commentator say that a nose tackle is playing a zero technique. That means that he’s lined up right over the center. If a defensive end is in a five technique it means he’s lined up with his inside shoulder over the outside shoulder of the tackle. It’s all about where you’re supposed to be lining up.
A gap is the lane the offense is trying to create. Each defender on a given play is assigned a gap responsibility and it is his job to fill said gap and either make the play if the ball-carrier comes to him, or reroute the play to someone else.
“When you’re on the outside looking in — talking in terms of when reporters and the fans look in on a football team — they don’t really know the intricacies of what we do,” said Goldman before the season started.
That’s why before the season one of the big narratives was about Mario Edwards Jr. and his sack totals. Anybody that doesn’t know how Florida State’s defense works could look at a five star defensive end only recording three and a half sacks and have a negative opinion of Edwards.
But that’s just flat-out wrong.
“It bothered me to a point because in high school I got sacks, I was a pass-rusher, but in this defense it’s not really my job,” said Edwards. “Sometimes I have to eat a block so someone else can make a play, sometimes I have to long-stick so that the safety comes down. Just different little things.”
Added Goldman: “In high school it was just put your hand in the dirt and go. You get to college and there’s different schemes that you have to follow by so that the defense works correctly.”
Oftentimes Florida State’s defensive linemen are not tasked with simply pinning their ears back and pursuing the passer. Rather, because of Florida State’s pattern-matching coverage scheme — one that features a lot of man-to-man elements once the DB’s make their reads — FSU’s D-line is typically tasked with trying to keep contain on a quarterback, collapsing the pocket and forcing throws.
Florida State did not lead the country in interceptions last year simply because its defenders are all ball-hawks. No, FSU was able to apply pressure while keeping the quarterback in the pocket and taking away his escape lanes. That forces throws. If a defensive end is playing a five-technique (inside shoulder lined up over the outside hip of the tackle), he can’t just crash to the quarterback once he sheds his blocker. That potentially opens a seam for the quarterback to escape through and — with DB’s and linebackers running with their men in coverage — it could lead to a nice gain for the opposing offense.
Instead the end is taught to collapse the pocket while keeping contain. That might not lead to a sack, but it’s just as disruptive because it speeds up the quarterback and forces him to make a decision.
Sometimes that’s forcing a pass, sometimes it’s forcing the QB to throw it away and sometimes it’s making him turn to run and allowing another defender — who is where he’s supposed to be in the overall assignment — make the play.
“Sacks don’t equate to greatness,” Fisher said earlier this month when asked about Edwards. “You’d better go watch that film. You watch that film? That guy’s a heck of a football player. You watch when the draft comes around where he’s at.”
Putting it all Together
On Saturday night when Florida State started to have problems was when its defenders stopped maintaining gap responsibilities and started free-lancing.
A lot of times you’ll hear the term ‘free-lancing’ used when a player goes outside the rules of his defensive system, leaves behind his responsibilities and seeks out the ball. When you play an assignment-based defense like Florida State, there’s no room for that.
“All football and defense is gap control. Everyone has responsibilities. The thing is you have your gap, but you can’t go jumping out of it and be greedy and want to make a play… You have to stay in there and then learn to play within the scheme and go,” Fisher said. “When it’s there, it’s there. When it’s not in your gap, it ain’t there. It’s called discipline.”
“When you match routes down the field, man to man — like we do in coverage and get all those interceptions — when you break out the quarterback runs for 30 yards. You have to understand what coverages you’re in, how you rush.”
Have you ever heard Fisher say, “the play don’t care who makes it?”
He’s an offensive-minded coach, but he’s not really talking about offense. The quote is applicable, sure, but he’s talking about defensive assignments. It’s one of Fisher’s favorite expressions. On Monday, Fisher expounded on it a little:
“Don’t get bored with doing your job and making the smart play.”
Translation: Stick to your assignment, be where you’re supposed to be and this won’t happen again.
“It really hasn’t been a problem [this year in practice] but I mean, you know, once you’re in the heat of the battle some things can unexpectedly go wrong,” said Goldman, before offering how easy the problem is to fix. “Just follow the rules and do what the defense tells you, stay in your gap, trust your teammates — your linebackers — to be there and you should be fine.”