It's hard for a football defensive coordinator to be creative on first and second downs.
But third downs are where a coordinator can let his imagination soar.
First and second downs are paint by numbers. But third downs are a blank canvas, a chance for a coordinator to really express himself.
"It's artistic," University of Wisconsin senior strong safety Jay Valai said of third downs.
UW coach Bret Bielema, a former defensive coordinator himself, uses more basic football terminology to express a similar philosophy.
"We play what we do on first and second downs," Bielema said. "On third down, when we get you in a situation where we feel we can kind of dictate what's going on, we like to be multiple."
Being "multiple" is coachspeak for changing things up, mixing coverages and — the thing fans love to hear — dialing up different blitzes.
For the UW football team, that all falls under the jurisdiction of the Badger package, which is what it uses in obvious passing situations. The electricity on the sidelines — even in practice — when the coaches call for the Badger package is palpable.
"I know our kids get excited when they hear it," Bielema said. "They like to run on the field and take it with a little bit of energy."
Given the problems the Badger package gave the offense during much of camp, there could be a lot for the defensive players to be excited about.
"It's very interesting," sophomore guard-center Travis Frederick said. "First time we saw some of the new stuff — we saw it last year a little bit but they've put in some new stuff — it was pretty difficult (to handle).
"We saw it the first time and pretty much whiffed on it."
Borland's time to shine
The Badgers led the Big Ten Conference in run defense and tied for the lead in sacks at 37 with Penn State last season. That's a potent combination.
"When you can do both of those, you feel pretty good about your base (defense) and your sub packages," defensive coordinator Dave Doeren said.
"We don't have Ohio State's four D-linemen, so we have to concoct some things. (The Badger) allows us to move some things around."
The basics of the Badger, which has been used the last couple seasons, is three defensive linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs.
Last year, the three linemen usually lined up in down positions, while linebacker Chris Borland jumped around and rushed from a two-point stance. The package also offers a variety of players who can blitz from different vantage points.
"It enables them to bring a lot of different people from a lot of different places," right tackle Josh Oglesby said. "They have some great rushers in that package; Borland, especially, is probably one of the best pass rushers in the conference."
As a true freshman last year, Borland had five sacks, which was second on the team behind senior O'Brien Schofield's 12. Borland's ability to time the snap and get a jump on the offensive lineman is uncanny.
But what's going to happen if Borland is more of a marked man on third downs this season?
"We'll see what people want to do to him," Doeren said. "Obviously, there was O.B. and him (last year), people had to worry about. Now, there's (defensive end) J.J. (Watt) and him.
"When (linebacker) Mike Taylor gets back, there's going to be a third guy. If Louis (Nzegwu) is healthy, there's another guy. Jay Valai and (free safety) Aaron (Henry) have been moving around pretty good in that package, too."
Borland doesn't seem too concerned about being a marked man in the Badger. That's because all of the changes Doeren has made to it this year.
"It's going to be different," Borland said. "It's not the same defense it was last year. I expect a little bit of that (attention). But it being a different defense, coming from different ways and different schemes will help out."
‘It's very creative'
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Badger is its versatility.
"The biggest thing to me as a quarterback is I can say they've done a really good job of mixing up their package," senior Scott Tolzien said. "There's times when it's two-deep (coverage) and man underneath, all the way to no safeties and everyone's coming — and everything in between.
"I know it limits our play calling and it limits me, because I'm not sure what's coming and they're doing a really good job of disguising stuff. It's a tribute to the coaches and a tribute to the players for doing a good job disguising and making it all work."
With Taylor's status for the opener at UNLV on Saturday night in doubt due to a knee injury, the personnel in the Badger has still not been set. The primary linemen have been Watt, Nzegwu and junior defensive tackle Patrick Butrym.
The linebackers have been Borland, senior Blake Sorensen and junior Kevin Rouse, though redshirt freshman A.J. Fenton was making a late push in camp and could have a role.
The five defensive backs include the starting secondary and junior Devin Smith, the nickel back.
"It's very creative," Valai said. "(We're) coming at you from all kinds of angles, different coverages, from man to zone, to zone blitzes to man blitzes. You have to be on your Ps and your Qs when you're going against us in the Badger."
With the loss of Schofield, the coaches might have to be more creative in terms of finding a pass rush, though Doeren said it's too early to know that for sure.
"We'll see," Doeren said. "I think we're ready for both. If we have a good four-man rush, then we're going to help our DBs as much as we can. If we don't, we're going to have to utilize the different pressures to create (a pass rush)."
The search for weak links
Of course, the best third-down defense won't matter if opposing offenses can't be stopped on first and second downs. That's why last year's run defense was so important.
"That's what we talk about: ‘You guys like this (Badger package)? You've got to get better on first down,' " Doeren said.
The offense did a better job of handling the blitzes as camp went along. But opposing offenses won't have as much time to work against it.
"We were able to get some adjustments. Coach ‘Bo' did a great job of looking at the film, figuring out what we were going to do," Frederick said, referring to offensive line coach Bob Bostad. "Now, we can pick it up a little bit.
"(But) it is really difficult and I'm excited to see what happens on the field with it."
Doeren acknowledged it's nice to let his creative side show a bit on third downs.
"It's fun," he said. "I think the players enjoy it, too. We try to find the weak links on the offense, or protection problems, and coverage situations we need to help guys with and it gives us the flexibility to do it.
"You can't really (be creative) on first and second down and be sound. But it gives you a chance on third down, when you have better tendencies, to take advantage of some things."