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Summer of Spags: the Mint Front

The Summer of Spags continues with a look at a defensive variant that can defend against the run or the pass on early downs.

Super Bowl LIV - San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Welcome back to the Summer of Spags!

Last week, we covered amoeba fronts — an off-speed dime look. Now we’re going to dive into another sub-package variant that Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo could utilize in place of his early-down nickel looks: the Mint front. It has become a staple in the collegiate ranks, as NCAA coordinators try to slow down the spread-out, RPO-heavy offenses they see on a week-to-week basis.

Let’s get to it!

The concept: Mint front

“Spread ‘em out and run the ball.”

It’s a popular adage in today’s pass-heavy game. We know that the passing game is much more efficient than rushing, so when offenses do want to run the ball, they prefer to do it against the lightest boxes they can. In order to do this, the offense will utilize 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers) or 10 personnel (one running back and four wide receivers), spacing out their receivers to stretch the defense as much as possible. This not only puts the offense’s best weapons on the field, but also gives the offense advantageous box numbers in the running game.

In the modern NFL, defensive coordinators have to navigate this problem more and more frequently; gone are the days of multiple tight ends and extra blockers as the primary offensive personnel. As a result, the base defense is becoming less and less prevalent. The rise of the nickel defense as the true base defense has led some of the best minds in the country (like Nick Saban and Kirby Smart) to adopt variants to help shore up the run defense on early downs — while keeping the defensive personnel necessary to stop the pass.

Enter the Mint front — a nickel variant of the Tite front in the Saban coaching tree — as a potential solution. Against four-down defenses, spread offenses typically attack the open B-gap. On “give” RPO reads, the running back then has a natural soft spot to attack, putting him easily into the second level. If the defense is primarily playing the pass with its outside linebacker, the give to the running back puts him in the open gap — and the open field.

The Mint front plays off of these natural keys, attempting to control every gap against the run. It shifts two defensive linemen to a 4i alignment (on the inside shoulder of the offensive tackle) and puts the nose tackle head up with the center. A JACK linebacker — a stand up EDGE — plays opposite the slot cornerback. The WILL linebacker aligns behind the nose tackle, but shaded to the JACK. Finally, the MIKE linebacker will align in a 50 technique, head up with the strong side tackle at the second level.

This natural alignment allows the two 4i defensive linemen to close the two B-gaps that the spread offense naturally wants to attack. The nose tackle “lags” over the center, getting a piece of the blocker before knifing back across — and forces a double team in the A-gap. This frees the WILL linebacker to shoot the opposite A-gap without a climbing blocker attacking him. The JACK and MIKE linebackers collapse to the C-gaps to control the edges of the defense.

Every gap is controlled. This forces the running back to travel East/West — the opposite of what the “give” in an RPO is seeking to do — right to the safeties and slot defenders in the alley.

The alignment also makes the conflict player (the player the quarterback reads in an RPO to determine run or pass) either the MIKE or the slot cornerback — rather than the faster WILL linebacker. Both the MIKE and slot are instructed to “hang,” waiting for the quarterback to either “give” or “keep” on the RPO; this also plays into the typical RPO rules — and can force the quarterback into handing off into what he perceives to be a lighter box. That’s what the defense wants the offense to do: put the running back into a wall of closed gaps.

In order to successfully run a Mint front, the defense needs a versatile defensive line. A typical nose tackle will suffice, but the defensive ends and JACK linebacker need to be able to cover multiple responsibilities along the front.

The ends must be able to control an interior gap against the run, but also be able to win with a containment rush against the pass. The JACK linebacker, on the other hand, must be able to set a hard edge, rush the passer from a wide alignment and be able to drop into coverage. This typically means a DE/OLB hybrid who would normally be standing up in a 3-4 defense.

On top of their individual Mint responsibilities, the defense’s ability to shift to (and from) Mint and four-down nickel alignments is also key; if the offense knows the formation by the personnel on the field, the defense is doomed before it starts. This means that the line must stay flexible. A defensive end may have to kick inside to 3-technique in a four-down defensive line. They may also have to rush from a 7-technique on the outside.

Due to their alignment, Mint fronts can struggle to gain consistent pressure from its three and four-man rushes — which leads to more blitzes and stunts. But Mint lends itself well to unpredictable pressure packages — particularly with a dynamic WILL linebacker who is able to shoot an interior gap. Pin and pop stunts are also common out of Mint fronts, which get the JACK linebacker free into an interior gap.

The front is truly dynamic, helping to stop the run without sacrificing coverage personnel. While traditional “pass rush above everything” enthusiasts may not be on board with the formation, it might be a wrinkle we see the NFL use more often as an “off-speed” shift on early downs.

How it fits the Chiefs

Spagnuolo and defensive line coach Brendan Daly love versatility along their defensive line. In 2019, we saw Spagnuolo routinely kick his defensive ends inside to rush from a 3-technique alignment. In their base defense, we also sometimes saw the Chiefs move Chris Jones — a smaller defensive lineman than Spagnuolo typically prefers — to the outside.

Derrick Nnadi would thrive as a nose tackle in a Mint front. Nnadi has exceptional lateral agility — and can remain strong when working across the face of an opponent without losing ground. He can also hold double teams in front of him, which would free up the WILL linebacker to slip the gap behind him — especially a linebacker like Willie Gay Jr., who has excellent body control and burst. Jones would make sense to man one of the defensive end positions; his ability to shift from 3-technique in a four-down front to the 4i alignment in a Mint front would make him an ideal fit.

After that, it gets a bit murkier. Frank Clark needs to be on the field. He is comfortable rushing from a two-point stance and can set a hard edge, giving him a case to play the JACK linebacker role. But he’s slightly less comfortable dropping into coverage — one of the JACK’s major responsibilities. While he could handle all the tasks given him in a 4i alignment, the role would not maximize his strengths.

There are similar concerns about Alex Okafor and Tanoh Kpassagnon, but Spagnuolo seemed more comfortable dropping them into coverage. In 2019, Kpassagnon got plenty of rotation on the inside against the pass, but wasn’t asked to defend interior gaps against the run. Both would likely be the best fits as JACK linebackers if Clark is moved inside as part of a Mint front.

2020 fifth-round draft pick Mike Danna is a player who could potentially fit in both spots. Danna played all over the Michigan defense. He could be an ideal candidate to shift inside to 4i to control an interior gap. Conversely, Spagnuolo and Daly have both spoken about his coverage ability. Daly even went as far as to bring up discussions with linebackers coach Matt House about Danna, pointing to some flexibility with the player.

In a Mint front, the Chiefs would have options that could form a strong defensive line, keep Willie Gay Jr. free from blockers and limit the ground that Anthony Hitchens would have to cover as a MIKE linebacker. Spagnuolo likely prefers a stronger pass rush than the front usually offers, so it wouldn’t be a significant component to the defense — like it is in Kirby Smart’s Georgia defense. But the pieces the Chiefs have could allow them to use this variant well on early downs against RPO-heavy teams. The Mint front could be a wrinkle that Spagnuolo throws out to keep teams guessing — particularly later in the year.

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