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Playing On the Edge

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On the importance of setting the edge on run defense.

Back in the day, a poet named William Carlos Williams penned the following postmodern masterpiece:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

After a quick glance, there doesn’t seem to be anything special here. There are four stanzas, eight lines and something about a wet wheelbarrow next to some chickens. Yet folks in the literary world fall all over themselves praising the mastery of this seemingly simple work, and that is because while this poem seems simple, there are a remarkable amount of poetic devices intertwining with one another to create a vivid description of a moment in time. In more generic terms, there is much depth in what appears to be shallow.

That axiom holds true in defending the run. On any given play, something that seems simple—a runner trying to get closer to a first down, a defense trying to stop him—contains a remarkable amount of strategy, with each player taking a part in a larger drama.

Within that drama, an important scene has to do with setting the edge. Setting the edge means that when a runner is trying to bounce a play to the outside/sideline, it is the responsibility of someone on the defense to force the runner either up the field or back toward the middle of the field. It is a critical responsibility that often goes unnoticed because if the defender does his job, a teammate will make the tackle. If the defender fails to set the edge, the viewer often spits something at the TV about how the whole defense is trash.

Lets take a look at a play from the Michigan game where Wisconsin sets the edge and the runner is tackled for a loss:

Notice how No. 55, linebacker Garret Dooley, lines up on the end of the line of scrimmage, occupies his defender and forces the run into a Conor Sheehy tackle. If you watch a second time, look at all of the open field outside of Dooley. If he crashes toward the running back and misses, that is going to turn into a big play. If he races too far into the offensive backfield, that is going to be a big play, but he doesn’t. He tussles with the tight end and makes the running back take one step toward the line of scrimmage, allowing Sheehy to shed his blocker (also impressive) and make the tackle for no gain.

So we have a set edge, great pursuit to the ball from the other defenders and a tackle. That is some nice defense, but it takes everyone doing their job for this to work, and as we will now see, if just one player makes a mistake at the point of attack, the whole thing falls apart.

On this play, notice how No. 56 Zack Baun sets the edge, but the runner is still able to gain a significant amount of yardage. What’s up with that?

So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow, and so much depends upon No. 14 D’Cota Dixon making a tackle. He finds himself racing to the outside of Baun instead of trusting that Baun can do his job, and those two steps leave a running lane open for the back to saunter through for eight yards and a cloud of dust. You might be wondering where the brilliant Badger linebackers are, but they are beholden to defending the rush up the middle on this play, freezing them for a moment and taking them out of the action.

In the second quarter, Michigan tries to counter the Wisconsin edge setting by bringing over some extra blockers.

Michigan lines up a receiver outside of Dooley on the line of scrimmage and the tight end releases to get the outside linebacker. The Badgers do a good job of diagnosing what is happening, and Derick Tindal tries to set the edge by launching himself into the Michigan left tackle (unfortunately resulting in what looked like a serious injury for the young man), but the linebackers are occupied and Dixon again comes in a little of position and is unable to make the stop for a short gain.

so much depends
upon

setting the
edge

containing the
runner

and letting teammates
rage.