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Three Things to Know About Jim Knowles’ 4-2-5 Defensive Scheme



Heading into the season opener against Missouri State in a little over three weeks (!!), there is a lot of excitement and intrigue around this Oklahoma State football team. From the quarterback position to who’s going to replace the production at wide receiver, there is a lot of interest on the offensive side of the ball. In addition, there are many questions on defense stemming from the hiring of defensive coordinator Jim Knowles and his 4-2-5 scheme.

As the Cowboys get set to start their season, I wanted to highlight a few things that will look different in regards to Oklahoma State’s defense this season. Since both Duke, Knowles’ former team, and OSU played Baylor last season, I focused on that matchup in my analysis below.

1. Cornerbacks Playing Tight, Man Coverage

Knowles likes to have his cornerbacks in a field/boundary technique. He will take the faster, more athletic corner and put him in space, or to the field, and have the other cornerback line up towards the shorter side of the field, or the boundary. This concept allows the same defensive players to work off each other in the same areas, which builds familiarity throughout the season and makes it easier to determine if someone is aligned incorrectly.

Per, A.J. Green will most likely be lined up as the field cornerback and Rodarius Williams will play the boundary. Both players could be interchangeable at these positions, but Green is slightly faster, so Knowles will most likely put him in space.

In Knowles’ scheme, there is frequent use of man-to-man coverage. His Duke teams would run man in Cover 1 and work in a fair amount of Cover 2 and Cover 3. In this 4-2-5 defense, the cornerbacks will end up isolated on the sidelines with help back towards the inside. Knowles likes to have speed in his secondary and wants to play as aggressive as possible.

Below are a few examples of the type of man-to-man coverage Knowles likes his cornerbacks to play.


This looks quite different from how former Cowboy defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer lined up his defensive backs against the Bears.


There are pros and cons of both styles. As you can see from the videos above, Spencer gave up the short and intermediate routes to take away the deep ball. In turn, Knowles puts a lot of trust in his cornerbacks to hold their own and make a play. This can occasionally lead to the defense getting burned, but I think Green and Williams are talented enough to handle this responsibility on the outside. However, behind them on the depth chart there is a great deal of uncertainty.

2. Aggressiveness on Third Down

Aggressiveness on third down was a hot topic for Oklahoma State fans during the Spencer era. People felt the former Cowboy DC was too lax in his coverage and didn’t bring enough pressure. But this will not be the case with Knowles, as he will be in press man coverage and will dial up the blitz on third-and-long more times than not.

Below you will see Duke bringing two extra guys on third-and-7 which forces Baylor quarterback Zach Smith to make a quick throw before his receiver can get across the first down marker.


Here Knowles brings the heat again on third down and this time it leads to a strip sack and a fumble recovery for the Blue Devils.


In comparison, even though Spencer did a good job of mixing in the blitz, there were still times where the lack of pressure led to big plays for the Bears.


In the clip above, Smith has all the time in the world to throw the ball and finds his receiver in the middle of the Cowboys’ zone defense.

Similar to man coverage, this aggressive philosophy can lead to big stops for the defense and force many three-and-outs, however, it can also result in explosive plays for the offense as there aren’t as many defenders back in coverage.

3. Safeties Attacking the Run

The last point I wanted to touch on is the aggressiveness of the safeties in Knowles’ 4-2-5 scheme. The safeties will play everything more flat-footed and will often take their first step towards the line of scrimmage in anticipation of the run. They are required to be an edge defender against the rush, along with their normal responsibilities in the passing game.

The “Bandit” safety in Knowles defense is the most similar the “Star” position in Spencer’s scheme. This is where linebacker-turned-safety Kenneth Edison-McGruder will be lined up for the Cowboys. The Bandit will be the primary run-stopper at the safety position, although all of Knowles’ safeties are expected to play a role in stopping the rushing attack.

In the video below, you see almost no hesitation from the safety as he makes his move towards the line of scrimmage.


Here’s another example of the safety making a play against the run.


As opposed to Spencer’s scheme where the safeties first step is usually a bail out into coverage.


Again, Knowles style here will result in key stops in the running game, but also allows for the big play over the top if the safety bites on the run fake in the RPO-happy Big 12.

One thing is for certain, there will be no shortage of excitement on the defensive side of the ball this season. The aggressiveness will be there with Knowles and the Cowboy defense. Hopefully we see the same success with this style that Duke has seen in recent years. Knowles has shown a lot of energy in fall camp and the players seem to be buying in, so there are reasons to be optimistic as we head into the start of the 2018 season.

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