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The Ultimate Guide to NFL Defense

  Posted 5/29 by Jene Bramel, Exclusive for Footballguys.com

It's said that defense wins championships. But it's offense that drives television ratings and merchandise sales. Television broadcasts focus on the path of the football rather than showing an entire play unfold. More often than not, it's the quarterback and his skill position players that attract the attention of most football fans. Football phrases like "seven step drop" and "pulling guard" and "West Coast offense" are easily recognizable terms for even the most casual of football fans. Meanwhile, the unrecognized beauty of the 11 man defense of professional football, the ultimate team sport in many respects, remains the ugly stepsister to its offensive counterpart.

But it shouldn't be.

Defensive football is every bit as exciting and interesting as offensive football. Some of the greatest (and most eccentric) minds to walk an NFL sideline got their start as defensive innovators. Greasy Neale, Tom Landry, Bum Phillips, Buddy Ryan, Bill Parcells, George Allen, Don Shula, Tony Dungy, Bill Belichick, Dick LeBeau, among many, many others cut their teeth as defensive coaches.

If you've ever been confused about the real differences between a 4-3 and 3-4 front, wondered what a three-technique tackle was, wondered why the 46 defense has become a rarely used historical relic or just want to learn a little more about defensive football, read on. While we'll liberally sprinkle some IDP applications in sidebars throughout, the primary focus of the guide will be to bring some love for defensive football to all fans of the game.

This won't be a dry, Wikipedia-like entry. We'll have some discussion of technical concepts and playbook diagrams when needed, but use the words and stories of the true characters of the game to bring the art of defensive football alive.

We could start our journey in any number of places, but we'll begin with a story about Warren Sapp.

The Worst Year of Warren Sapp's Life

Warren Sapp was in the prime of his career in 2004. He was a seven time Pro Bowler and the Defensive Player of the Year in 2000. He was the anchor of a perennial top five defense playing defensive tackle in Tampa Bay. From 1995-2003, he averaged nearly 50 solo tackles and 8.5 sacks per 16 games - extraordinary numbers for an interior defensive lineman.

Before the 2004 season, Sapp signed with Oakland, where he moved to defensive end in the Raiders' new 3-4 defense. The result: 2.5 sacks during a season that Sapp called "the hardest of my life." Those numbers can't be dismissed as age related. Sapp rebounded with another double-digit sack season in 2006 after moving back into a more familiar defensive tackle role. What made Sapp so successful in Tampa Bay but hate life during his first season in Oakland?

We'll let David Carr deliver the punchline.

After one of the rare occasions that Sapp got close enough to sniff Carr (or any quarterback in 2004) and began sniping at the young quarterback's ability to read defenses, Carr apparently snapped back, "You need to be a 3-technique." Translation: "I'm not scared of you as a defensive end." Carr, who will never be mistaken for Brett Favre, voiced what Sapp already knew. Even the subtlest difference in alignment and responsibility can make a huge difference in a player's production. Sapp's new role was significantly different. His Pro Bowl numbers (and ability to effectively intimidate) were paying a heavy price.

But exactly why did Sapp's numbers take such a nosedive in his new role? What's a "3-technique" anyway? What so hard about life as a 3-4 defensive end? To answer those questions, we need to take a quick detour and have a short technical discussion of defensive line alignments and techniques.

Defensive Alignments and Techniques

Both Bear Bryant and Bum Phillips have been credited with developing a system of numerical alignments for defensive linemen. Bryant himself credited Phillips with the innovation. While the intent is the same, different playbooks may vary slightly on the theme above. In the majority of systems, even numbers denote an alignment that is head-up or helmet-to-helmet on an opposing offensive lineman while odd numbers denote an offset alignment, i.e. over the inside or outside shoulder of an opposing lineman. Letters describe the spaces, or "gaps," to either side of each offensive lineman.

It may seem silly to fuss over the distinction between a helmet-to-helmet and over-the-shoulder alignments - after all, they're only a few inches apart - but those few inches make a big difference in how a defensive lineman must approach his job.

In most defensive fronts, a defensive lineman playing an even technique is responsible to play the gap on either side of the offensive lineman opposite him - a 2-gap technique. The traditional space-eating nose tackle plays a 0-technique and is responsible for both center-guard "A" gaps. A defensive lineman playing an odd technique is responsible only for the gap directly in front of him - a 1-gap technique. A 3-technique tackle aligns over the outside shoulder of an offensive guard, responsible only for the "B" gap opposite him. Most traditional 3-4 defensive linemen play 2-gap techniques (though not all as we'll see later) and most current 4-3 defensive tackles play 1-gap techniques.

Enough technique talk, let's get back to the trash-talking odd couple of David Carr and Warren Sapp. Why was Carr able to get to the heart of Sapp's struggles with one sentence? As a 3-technique tackle matched up against a guard and responsible for only one gap, Sapp was free to explode off the ball and play the run in his gap on the way to the quarterback. Those responsibilities were a perfect match for his natural size and athletic ability. In the Raider multiple 3-4 front, Sapp frequently aligned in a 4-technique (some playbooks may refer to this as a 5-technique) role. Responsible for the gaps to either side of the offensive tackle, Sapp had to hesitate for a split second and read the play before working his way upfield. More often than not, Sapp (as most 3-4 ends are expected to do) became a glorified blocking dummy, fighting double teams and holding the point of attack. An important job, but very different than his days as a penetrating all-around force.

But that's not the whole story. It's rare to see a defensive tackle have multiple double digit sack seasons and still more rare to see one win the Defensive Player of the Year Award. While Sapp is unquestionably a once-in-a-generation talent, the Tampa Bay defense put him in a prime position for success.

How the "Under" Front Made Warren Sapp a Star

All 3-technique tackles are not alike. Defensive coaches continually search for ways to make their defensive linemen more effective. One of those ways, which was later adapted to the Tampa-2 defense by Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin, was to slide the defensive tackles away from the strength of the offensive formation instead of playing them in even alignments over the offensive guards. This "undershifted" front makes it very difficult for the offensive line to double team the 3-technique, or in this case, undertackle.

Here's how the differences look in the playbook and on the field:

With the strong side (TE side in this diagram) guard essentially uncovered, the defensive line has shifted away, or undershifted, from the strength of the offensive line. The strong side defensive tackle plays over the shoulder of the center and the weak side end plays a loose 5-technique outside the tackle, leaving the weak side defensive tackle (our 3-technique/undertackle) isolated against a guard. In many ways, on passing downs, you've schemed yourself a third defensive end.

Sapp wasn't the first player to ride the undertackle position to NFL fame and fortune. Before the birth of the Tampa-2, the Minnesota Vikings (under Floyd Peters and Kiffin) paired defensive end Chris Doleman and undertackle Keith Millard in a stunting under front defense. In 1989, Millard set a record for sacks by interior defensive linemen (18) that still stands today.

The lineage of great undertackle includes many of the league's other most successful pass rushing defensive tackles. John Randle, the first undertackle in what would become the Tampa-2 defense, racked up nine consecutive seasons of ten or more sacks. La'Roi Glover's 17 sack season in 2000 came as an undertackle. Kevin Williams, Rod Coleman, Vonnie Holliday, Tommie Harris? All have had very successful seasons playing 3-technique on defenses frequently using underfronts during the last five years. The Giants nickel pass rush that used four defensive ends to wreak havoc on offensive lines early in 2007 frequently moved Osi Umenyiora or Justin Tuck into undertackle-like roles.

IDP ASIDE

The implications of our discussion of undertackles should be crystal clear. While conventional wisdom suggests ignoring defensive tackles altogether for IDP roster purposes (and rightly so in most cases), you can now see why and when it's acceptable to deviate and target this special class of defensive tackles. As we hinted above, nearly every team that uses the Tampa-2 frequently (now just IND, CHI, BUF, MIN and in smaller doses than in prior seasons) should be scouted for an undertackle worth rostering. Be on the lookout for other 4-3 teams that aren't Tampa-2 teams, but use some undershifted fronts like the New York Giants, Seattle, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Houston and Carolina. Watch for mentions of undertackle and 3-technique in each team's defensive line discussions and be alert for those 4-3 depth charts that list one of the two DTs as a nose tackle. Very often, the other tackle is a 3-technique.

It's not at all uncommon to see a previously marginal talent explode for big numbers as an undertackle - as Cory Redding and Jovan Haye have in recent seasons. Vonnie Holliday's renaissance in his early 30s was directly attributable to his move to undertackle in Nick Saban's defense in Miami.

With the Tampa-2 defensive scheme no longer the hot defensive fad it was earlier in the decade, 3-technique tackles may be harder to find. But quick, powerful, penetrating tackles won't go the way of the dinosaur. Expect to see more teams scheme the underfront into their nickel packages. As Mike Nolan did in 2008 in San Francisco and the Arizona Cardinals did under Clancy Pendergast, the 3-technique tackle in an underfront may become a common sight among the newer 4-3/3-4 hybrid front defenses beginning to take over the league. Watch for players like Glenn Dorsey or Robert Ayers to work into 3-technique roles in their team's new hybrid schemes. Brandon Mebane (SEA) or Adam Carriker (STL) may also see more time in 3-technique roles under new defensive coaches in 2009.

For the most part, the mainstream NFL media uses the terms undertackle and 3-technique tackle interchangeably. But it's not just the Tampa-2 playbook that includes shifted fronts. And those that do may shift both ways - over or under.

The "over" defense also uses a 3-technique tackle, but as you can see in the above diagram, that tackle is now shifted to the strong side. The offense has three players (including the TE) to block the end and tackle on the strong side. The 3-technique in the over front is still an aggressive, gap-penetrating player, but has just a little extra to overcome to make plays.

The Dungy-Kiffin playbook had both under and over shifted fronts in the 1990s, but Sapp's unique ability to penetrate and wreak havoc significantly skewed the defensive playcalling toward the underfront. In Oakland, Sapp's path to the backfield wasn't nearly as easy. Relatively speaking, it was the difference between the interstate and a potholed city street with multiple detours and traffic lights every block.

Pass Rushing Stardom At 3-4 Defensive End: There's Bruce Smith And, Well, There's Bruce Smith

Okay, that's not really fair. But to become a star defensive lineman in today's NFL, you need to be a pass rusher. Most football fans will remember and recognize players like Houston's Ray Childress, Oakland's Howie Long and St. Louis' Jack Youngblood, all of whom enjoyed great years as pass rushers as 3-4 defensive ends. Six pure defensive ends have had more than 120 sacks in their careers since the NFL began tracking sacks as an official statistic.

  • Bruce Smith 200
  • Reggie White 198
  • Richard Dent 137.5
  • Michael Strahan 132.5
  • Clyde Simmons 121.5
  • Simeon Rice 121

Only one, Smith, played the majority of his snaps as a 3-4 end. Smith also had the benefit of a favorable 3-4 playbook, one that allowed him to play many of his snaps like a 4-3 end. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's close the book on Warren Sapp first.

There are two major flavors of the 3-4 front that we'll flesh out in more detail later, but the most common 3-4 in the 1980s and early 1990s was the 2-gap 3-4, or the "true" 3-4 as some coaches call it. Both ends helmet-to-helmet on the offensive tackles, nose tackle head-up on the center. Three defensive linemen against five offensive linemen (and the tight end) playing 2-gap technique. The 2-gap 3-4 asks its linemen to hold the point of attack and try to draw double teams to keep the offensive linemen off the linebackers. The clog-the-line-of-scrimmage space-eater is a much different animal than the gap-shooting undertackle. Warren Sapp was a square peg in a round hole.

It wasn't quite that bad for Sapp, though. There's another school of 3-4 defensive coordinators. Starting in the late 1970s, a small group of defensive coordinators started to play a 3-4 front with 1-gap techniques. Despite the 3-4 personnel, those 1-gap 3-4 schemes played a lot like a 4-3 front. Each lineman aligned on a shoulder of their opposing lineman, allowing them to play a more aggressive technique. The Raiders used a lot of 1-gap principles in 2004.

Though Sapp played a lot of 1-gap technique, he still went from being a catlike 300 pounder isolated on a guard to a guy expected to hold the edge against a very good left tackle. It didn't help that the Raiders didn't have much of a pass rushing threat at OLB to help.

How was Bruce Smith able to rack up more than 170 of his 200 career sacks as a 3-4 defensive end?

Playing in the 1-gap 3-4 under Wade Phillips had something to do with it. Playing with a front seven that included Ted Washington, Phil Hansen, Cornelius Bennett and Bryce Paup certainly helped. But the list of 3-4 ends talented enough to play the run and wreak havoc in pass rush is extremely short. Jack Youngblood, Howie Long, Leslie O'Neal and Neil Smith all had great years in the 3-4, but none had the peak or the longevity that Bruce Smith had.

Bruce Smith was simply a once-in-a-generation talent.

IDP ASIDE

The roadblocks to top statistical production for 3-4 defensive linemen are pretty well known now by most IDP veterans. Still, a closer look at the schemes themselves shows why defaults can be tricky. It's almost certainly correct to ignore all 3-4 nose tackles unless you're in a deep league with a tackle heavy scoring system that requires defensive tackles in the starting lineup. There will occasionally be a 3-4 nose tackle that tops the 40 solo tackle plateau and adds a couple of sacks. Jay Ratilff and Shaun Rogers broke the mold in 2008. More often, but still uncommonly, a 3-4 end will put up 50 solos, as Kenyon Coleman did last season. Some of those ends can put up decent sack numbers. Most of those ends, like Marques Douglas in the mid-2000s, will come from defenses that play a lot of 1-gap technique along the three man front (i.e. SD, DAL, SF) or use plenty of four man fronts on passing downs. Don't worry if you find yourself ignoring some pretty good players. Like many of the league's name shutdown cornerbacks, the IDP prospects of the name 3-4 defensive linemen are often limited. The consensus best 3-4 end in the league today, Richard Seymour, has had more than six sacks only once in his career.

There's really two take home points here. First, avoid all 3-4 defensive linemen (except in the most tackle heavy scoring systems) other than quick and explosive ends in 1-gap 3-4 fronts. Second, if you've rostered the 2-gap 3-4 breakthrough defensive end of the year (Aaron Smith, Ty Warren, Kenyon Coleman), sell him to the highest bidder.

The 4-3 Front

Though the foundation of a great defense is its defensive line, let's drop back from the line of scrimmage and consider the entire front seven. There are a lot of multiple front playbooks in today's NFL and plenty of specialized defensive playcalls, but the bulk of the base defensive snaps in the league are taken from a 4-3 or 3-4 alignment. The NFL is a cyclical league and the tide has changed somewhat over the past five seasons, but the majority of the league's defensive coordinators still use a four man defensive front.

Since the devil is in the details of these defensive schemes, it's worth a cursory understanding of how the 4-3 front has developed over time. Those of you who find historical discussions boring can skip a few paragraphs and we'll be back to today's NFL. Those of you who want to know how the legacies of Tom Landry and Jimmy Johnson are still a major part of today's game should stick around.

The 4-3 defensive front, like so many innovations on the defensive side of the line of scrimmage, was borne out of necessity. The Giants' Steve Owen and one of his very good defensive backs - Tom Landry - saw Paul Brown killing five and six man fronts with his spread backfields and passing schemes and drew up innovations to get three defenders off the line to close down passing lanes. The result - flexing their ends and creating a middle linebacker - gave them the ability to counter those passing offenses with better coverage schemes. When Sam Huff (who came to training camp as an offensive lineman) began wreaking havoc from the "middle linebacker" spot, the 4-3 became the defense of its day. (As an aside, it should be noted that the Bears' Bill George and the Lions' Joe Schmidt were playing very similar MLB positions at the time.)

Today's 4-3 schemes aren't much like Landry's original 4-3. Those old school 4-3 fronts used a lot a 2-gap technique on the line and fell out of favor in the 1970s when offenses began outflanking them with speedy running backs and a variety of new passing attacks. Though the "Stunt 4-3" of Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain and the burgeoning Over/Under fronts in the late 1970s-early 1980s were successful schemes in the late 1970s and 1980s, the defenses of the 80s would become mostly 3-4 fronts.

Around that time, however, a 4-3 revolution of sorts was happening in the college ranks. Simplicity was key. Size no longer mattered. Speed and aggressiveness ruled the day. The new, "college" 4-3 was winning multiple national titles. Eventually, it would begin winning Super Bowls.

The "Miami" 4-3 Front

Okay, so it might be a stretch to call Jimmy Johnson the lone driving force of the move back to the 4-3 front in the 1990s, in college or the professional ranks. But the attacking style of defense he brought to the NFL from his days as a college coach continues to impact the league today.

Johnson knew he couldn't recruit successfully against the big schools in his first head coaching gig at Oklahoma State. So he recruited athletes - football talent and size was nice, but speed and athleticism were what he wanted. He simplified the 4-3 scheme to a bare bones approach. No reading and reacting, no controlling your gap assignment. Instead, he coached his players to attack, penetrate and swarm along the front seven and used simple zone coverage in the secondary. He took safeties and made them linebackers. He turned linebackers into speedy, edge rushing defensive ends. Within ten years, a huge number of college coaches followed suit and turned out the players (and coaches) that would change the face of defensive football in the NFL.

So, what exactly is the "Miami" 4-3 front anyway?

From a pure playbook perspective, it's nothing special, exotic or complicated. Johnson assigned everyone in the front seven a gap to attack, aligned the defensive line in an over front with the SLB off the line of scrimmage, flared his defensive ends a little wider than the more traditional 2-gap 4-3s of the day (note the strong side end in a 9-technique), played a lot of Cover-2 in the secondary and only rarely blitzed.

But it was the attitude and team defensive speed that drove the scheme's success.

Johnson wanted his athletic defenders exploding off the ball into their gaps. He had his front four crowd the neutral zone as much as possible without drawing penalties. The linemen were to make the offense react to them while they "read on the run" rather than simply controlling their gap then reading keys to decide what to do next. The wide alignment of the ends allowed them to get upfield quickly to get to the quarterback or disrupt a running play in the backfield. If they weren't successful, they either forced the play back to the MLB shooting his gap or pushed the play out to the pursuit, where again a LB shooting his gap could make the play. Those smaller, speedier linebackers would theoretically be protected by a couple of massive, but still quick defensive tackles that were disruptive enough to keep the linebackers (and the MLB in particular) clean to stop the run and create negative plays. The edge rushing line and swarming Cover-2 shell was designed to create turnovers against the pass.

The last two sentences hold the key to Johnson's philosophy. The aggressive nature of this 4-3 front might allow some big plays, but the negative plays and turnovers gave the ball back to the offense quickly and with good field position if the defense itself didn't score. It worked.

As Johnson's scheme succeeded, he was able to recruit better and better athletes and eventually work his way to the NFL. As so often happens, copycat programs in college churned out players who fit the scheme of the day. The NFL became a 4-3 league again.

The Miami 4-3 has holes. The smaller ends and OLBs can be exploited by a good rush offense. Overpursuit can be an issue. Zone coverage is often a problem if you don't have the athletes to rush the passer. As we'll see with the Tampa-2 and the 3-4 in years to come, when everyone's running the same scheme, finding enough talent to go around weakens the whole. Though there were a myriad of other reasons, those deficiencies partly account for why Johnson's assistants never amounted to much as head coaches.

But the era of undersized defensive players succeeding in 4-3 fronts is still going strong and its legacy is directly traceable to the success of Jimmy Johnson and the 'Miami' 4-3.

IDP ASIDE

If you've got any IDP experience at all, you're aware of the most common default used to decide which defensive players have the most value:

4-3 MLB > 4-3 WLB > 4-3 SLB

But if you're still reading, you're probably coming to the (correct) conclusion that defaults aren't good enough and that a deeper understanding of the schemes can eliminate much of the guesswork when you have close decisions to make. Put simply, all 4-3 MLBs (and WLBs or SLBs) are not alike. A MLB in an aggressive, read-on-the-run 4-3 may have different potential than a MLB in a Tampa-2 scheme or a less aggressive, read-and-react 4-3.

In 2007, D.J. Williams drove that point home with authority. Despite concerns that a stud talent like Al Wilson had never put up big solo tackle numbers and that career OLB Williams was struggling to find himself as a MLB, the Jim Bates preferred Miami 4-3 showed yet again that its MLB is a near lock to finish with 95+ solos. From Ken Norton, Jr. to Zach Thomas to Nick Barnett to Michael Barrow in the pros to Ray Lewis and Jonathan Vilma (among others) in college, that scheme had a history of making stars out of its middle backers. Understanding the potential of the scheme made Williams a strong top ten consideration as early as May of last year, and a much safer LB1 option than many felt comfortable projecting for him. The stat line improvement may not be so dramatic for Barrett Ruud in 2009, but having Bates as his new defensive coordinator could push his solo tackle numbers even higher this season. 110-120 solos isn't out of the question if Ruud stays healthy.

Can you get by just safely grabbing the most talented LBs available? Probably. But then you miss out on grabbing a player who you can draft a full tier below their expected production (i.e. D.J. Williams or Freddy Keiaho) or risk drafting a player a full tier above their expected production (i.e. A.J. Hawk). Those are the decisions that can mean the difference between a 7-6 team that loses in the first round of the playoffs and an 11-2 championship favored juggernaut.

Most IDP owners eventually became aware of the added value in the WLB position in Tampa-2 defensive schemes. It was clearly the biggest "default buster position" when projecting IDPs in recent years. But it's not the only one. The changing landscape of defensive football is generating a new default busting IDP. Teams are looking for linebackers with size and versatility in coverage to match up with the league's third down backs and big tight ends. Instead of playing them at WLB and moving them into a coverage role on passing downs, coordinators are installing them on the strong side (or as a full time LLB aligning to the strong side more often than the weak side). These every-down strong side linebackers, like Michael Boley, David Thornton and Derrick Johnson in 2007 and Chad Greenway in 2008, are starting to challenge the long-held default that strong side linebackers see too many blockers to put up big IDP numbers. The Texans drafted Brian Cushing to fill a similar role and this season's top predraft linebacker prospect, Aaron Curry, may also become an every-down SLB with good IDP value.

To summarize, here are some underrated 4-3 situations that may be overlooked by casual IDP owners:

  • Instinctive MLB in an aggressive, read-on-the-run philosophy behind two big defensive tackles.
  • All-around talented MLB in a Tampa-2. (Certain T2 WLBs are on the verge of becoming overrated).
  • SLB with elite ability to elude blockers and the coverage skill to secure an every down role.

The Tampa-2

The Tampa-2 has become one of the hotter trends in defensive scheming over the past few seasons, rivaled only by the ongoing proliferation of multiple front, hybrid 3-4 schemes. The Tampa-2 isn't a particularly new idea, however. It's a variation of a coverage scheme that has been around for decades - Cover-2.

Before we get into specifics, it's worth a quick look at a few different coverage definitions to underline exactly why the Tampa-2 is different.

  • Cover-0 - Man coverage without help.
  • Cover-1 - Man coverage with a free safety playing "centerfield".
  • Cover-2 - Zone coverage with both safeties responsible for their deep half of the field. Often referred to as "Two Deep" coverage.
  • Cover-3 - Zone coverage with both corners and a safety responsible for a deep third of the field. Sometimes referred to as "Three Deep" coverage.
  • Cover-4 - Zone coverage with both corners and both safeties responsible for one quarter of the field. Usually referred to as "Quarters" coverage.

For those of you who like diagrams, here's what the Cover-2 looks like.

Though it looks simple in that diagram, playing Cover-2 is not. The linebackers are usually assigned route responsibilities within their "zone" - i.e. an OLB is responsible for a given WR's curl route. The corners must be aware of how many receivers are running routes to their side of the zone. While they'll often pass a deep WR off to the deep coverage, there are situations where a corner remains responsible for the deep sideline.

There are a few problems a defense faces when playing Cover-2.

  1. Cover-2 teams must have very talented safeties and a solid pass rush. Each safety has to be able to cover an entire half of the field. They need range, closing speed, tackling skill and enough run-pass recognition ability to not get fooled by play-action. It's extremely difficult for one man to handle the deep middle and the deep sideline. Having an average safety behind a poor pass rush that gives the quarterback time to wait for the deep routes to develop is a recipe for disaster.
  2. The Cover-2 can also be beaten by flooding one side of the zone with multiple receivers running routes on multiple levels. Force the safety, corner or outside linebacker to make decisions on which receiver to cover and another route may be left open. That was made painfully clear to the Washington Redskins last year when the Cowboys used Terrell Owens, Patrick Crayton and Jason Witten to pressure one side of the Redskin Cover-2 with a combination of sideline, seam, out and deep middle routes.
  3. Cover-2 teams, by definition, put only seven players in the box and are susceptible to the run. They hope to successfully take away the run without dropping a safety into the box. A team that wants to run Cover-2 because their corners struggle in man coverage but can't stop the run with the front seven is in major trouble.
  4. Cover-2 teams, by definition, can't blitz a linebacker frequently. The linebackers and corners can take more underneath zone responsibility, but the pressure must come from the front four. As mentioned above, a Cover-2 that can't generate pressure goes from a bend-but-don't-break style of play to one that gives up big plays in bunches when the deep routes come open downfield.

With two tweaks to the Cover-2 schemes of the 1970s and some shrewd talent assessment, Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin greatly increased the success rate of the Cover-2. The Tampa-2 was born.

You can almost hear the discussion in the Vikings' coaching offices.

Monte Kiffin had previously collaborated with Floyd Peters in Minnesota and helped make the "Under-Over" 4-3 a great success for Chris Doleman and Keith Millard. Tony Dungy was a Bud Carson Cover-2 disciple, and saw the successes of the Steel Curtain's speedy linebackers, disruptive defensive line and physical corners firsthand as a defensive back for the Steel Curtain in the late 1970s. When Dennis Green brought them together in Minnesota in 1992, a new defensive philosophy was born.

Dungy knew that he needed to bring pressure from the front four to run an effective Cover-2. Kiffin had great success using the under front a few years back with Millard and Doleman totaling nearly 40 sacks between them. Dungy watched Joe Greene destroy interior offensive lines. Pairing the under front with the Cover-2 made sense.

They knew that the downfield offenses of the day could put enormous pressure on the soft spots in the Cover-2 zone. But Dungy had the privilege of watching two enormously talented linebackers - Jack Ham and Jack Lambert - range all over the field in coverage and run support. Those two may have provided the inspiration for the simple, but major tweak in the Cover-2 - sending the "Mike down the pipe."

Kiffin and Dungy schemed to drop their middle linebacker straight down the middle of the field ("the pipe") to take away the soft zone in the deep middle of the field and allow the safeties to get to the deep sideline more easily. They dropped their corners off the line of scrimmage more than the usual Cover-2 alignment. That allowed them to disguise coverage, roll defenders to protect zones during the rare blitz and keep blockers off the corners on rush downs.

To pull it off, they needed players with very specific skill sets. They needed explosive edge rushers who could get to the quarterback, run defense was secondary. They needed a special MLB who was stout enough to play the usual run support role but athletic enough to drop in coverage and make plays. They needed a rangy WLB who could tackle and cover. And they needed safeties that could cover to play alongside corners that were best in zone coverage and not afraid to support the run.

Dungy and Kiffin worked on their new scheme in Minnesota, and parlayed their success into a head coaching/defensive coordinator partnership in Tampa Bay. There, the duo inherited Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks, Hardy Nickerson and John Lynch, all very well suited for their new scheme. In subsequent seasons, they added Simeon Rice, Ronde Barber and Donnie Abraham. The rest is history - nine consecutive seasons finishing among the NFL's top ten defenses, seven of them in the top five, a Super Bowl title in 2002 behind the league's top ranked defense and a far-reaching web of assistant coaches successfully taking the scheme around the league. At last count, 25 percent of the teams in the NFL have head coaches or coordinators who can be directly traced to the Buccaneer defensive coaching staff of those years - IND, TB, CHI, DET, MIN, BUF, KC and PIT. Not all of those teams run the Tampa-2 exclusively, but that's a coaching tree rivaling that of Bill Walsh or Bill Parcells.

How The Tampa-2 Defense Made Stars Of Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber

We've covered Warren Sapp in great detail already. The under fronts often used in the Kiffin-Dungy system were a perfect fit for his skills and Sapp took great advantage. But Sapp wasn't the only player to benefit from the tweaks in the Tampa-2 system. Certainly, Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber had the talent to become All Pro performers. But, like Sapp, their talents were put to their best use under Dungy and Kiffin. Here are a few reasons why.

  1. The 'under' front protects the WLB well.
    Here's the under front diagram from above with the linebackers included.


    If the nose tackle engages the center at all, the weak side backer is free to flow to the ball after ensuring that his gap (the weak side center-guard gap, or A gap) isn't threatened. With the SLB and MLB dealing with potential blocks from the TE, FB and an OL, the WLB will be in position to make a lot of plays.

  2. Ballcarriers are "spilled" toward the WLB.
    Dungy and Kiffin's philosophy preaches a turn back or spilling concept in run support. That is, a defender taking on a block knows where his most likely help will be and turns or spills the ballcarrier in that direction. Since the WLB is often free in an under front, he's frequently the teammate to whom the running back gets sent.

  3. The WLB has more coverage opportunity.
    Traditional 4-3 schemes leave most of the man coverage responsibilities to the strong side linebacker or strong safety. The WLB needs to watch certain routes on early downs and will frequently defend a screen pass, but doesn't usually make bunches of tackles or on-ball plays in coverage. With the underneath zone responsibility, including some of the area vacated by the MLB that drops toward the deep middle, the WLB in a Tampa-2 4-3 gets more coverage opportunities.

The list of weak side backers who have parlayed their time in Tampa-2 schemes to great success is growing longer with each passing season. Derrick Brooks, David Thornton, Mike Peterson, Cato June and Lance Briggs have all had big impacts on their respective defenses in Tampa, Indianapolis and Chicago. Ernie Sims, Chad Greenway and Freddy Keiaho are the heirs apparent.

But it's not just the weak side backer that gets more opportunity to make plays in the Tampa-2. Like the Cover-2 zone cornerbacks that came before them, the corners in Tampa-2 schemes often get their jerseys dirtier than their counterparts in other schemes.

Hardcore football fans of defensive football are aware that cornerbacks Barber, Charles Tillman and Antoine Winfield, among others, have perennially finished among the top tackling defensive backs. In fact, over the past three seasons, cornerbacks have made 70 or more solo tackles 28 times. Over 28 percent of those "seasons" have been turned in by players on teams that use primarily Tampa-2 coverage. The top tackling corner in 2007, and, in fact, the top tackling defensive back, was a Tampa-2 CB. The #1 and #2 overall tacklers at CB in 2006 were Tampa-2 cornerbacks. And the #2 and #3 overall tacklers at CB in 2005 were Tampa-2 cornerbacks. You'll get no argument from me that some of that is sampling bias. Tampa-2 teams prefer physical and willing tacklers. Since those physical and willing tacklers are the most successful run support cornerbacks, it shouldn't be surprising to find them atop the rank lists. But consistently rivaling some of the better strong safeties in the league with 80+ solo tackle seasons (five Tampa-2 CBs in the past three seasons, compared to two from the non-Tampa-2 crowd)? It's more than just sampling bias. The scheme plays a role.

  1. The turn and spill concept benefits the corner.
    In much the same way as it helps the WLB, the corners are often the "help" when the front seven can't make the tackle. The playside corner gets the bulk of the extra business - often the strong side corner - but both corners get increases in run support opportunity.
  2. Tampa-2 corners play off the ball further than their traditional Cover-2 colleagues.
    The extra yard or two difference may make a difference in avoiding blocks. That distance also allows plenty of opportunity to make tackles on receivers that catch the ball "underneath" the coverage. Without an extensive review of game data, it would be hard to tell whether the extra run support opportunity or higher likelihood of allowing short receptions accounts for the bump in tackle numbers. It's probably either or both, depending on the skill set of the corner in question.
  3. Tampa-2 safeties are responsible for the deep zones.
    Though they don't have to cover quite the same amount of ground as their straight Cover-2 counterparts because of the help they get from the MLB in the deep middle, both safeties still must align well outside the box before the snap. Some Tampa-2 safeties have enough speed and instincts to have an impact in run support (i.e. Bob Sanders, Mike Brown, Donte Whitner), but many will struggle to rack up tackles near the line of scrimmage. Along with the spill concept, the alignment of the safeties also increases the tackle opportunity of the Tampa-2 (and Cover-2) corner.

    IDP ASIDE

    The implications of the slight differences between a 4-3 philosophy that uses more Tampa-2 coverage than man should be easy to see. The playbook changes allow some Tampa-2 WLBs to equal or better the tackle production of the MLB on their own teams and many MLBs on other 4-3 teams. Tampa-2 corners with the right skill set often make as many tackles as some of the league's better strong safeties and are commonly the highest tacklers in their team's secondaries. Many Tampa-2 safeties will struggle to make enough tackles to be consistent IDP values.

    Tampa-2 players don't have to be All-Pros or future Hall-of-Famers to have big IDP upside. Some are league average talents with a specific skill set allowing them great success in their particular scheme - system players if you will. The Vikings' Cedric Griffin was the league's leading tackler among defensive backs in 2007. Cato June wasn't nearly as successful switching roles after moving from Indianapolis to Tampa last season.

    Look for edge rushing weak side defensive ends, quick right defensive tackles, weak side linebackers with range and cover skills and corners who have shown a willingness to tackle and have good ball skills. Not every CB or DT or WLB will have elevated IDP value, but the opportunity is there for the right talent to take advantage. It's one of many instances where you can break away from the simple defaults many IDP owners cling to and greatly benefit.

The 3-4 front

Let's leave the four man front behind and move on to the 3-4 front, which has now surpassed the Tampa-2 and become the hottest defensive trend in the NFL today. It's not quite that simple, though. Just as there are multiple variations of the 4-3 front - Tampa-2 under fronts and zone coverage, 'Miami' fronts and aggressive gap attack philosophies, gap control read-and-react schemes, etc - there are different philosophies of the 3-4.

We'll start again with a little historical flavor. It's probably not a stretch to suggest that most think of Lawrence Taylor or the Pittsburgh Steeler zone blitz concept first when someone mentions the 3-4 front. In truth, the 3-4 in the NFL has a much richer history than that.

Unlike the 4-3, which was first designed and successful in professional football, the 3-4 got its start at the University of Oklahoma in the 1940s (and probably sooner). It wasn't until the mid-1970s, when teams were looking for ways to contain big speedy running backs and combat the downfield passing schemes that were gaining favor, that the 3-4 took hold in the NFL as an every down defense. A number of teams were at the forefront of the 3-4 revolution, but each made the transition in very different ways.

Hank Stram hid linebackers directly behind his three down lineman in a "stack" formation. Don Shula and Bill Arnsparger used a three man line primarily to get eight men back in coverage. The Dolphins called it a "53" after the jersey number of their fourth linebacker, Bob Matheson. The Patriots, under former Oklahoma coaches Chuck Fairbanks and Hank Bullough, used a two gap concept on the line, preferring to contain offenses rather than risk an overly aggressive philosophy. Meanwhile, the Oilers were running a much more aggressive, one gap 3-4 under head coach Bum Phillips. All had success. By 1980, almost three quarters of the defensive schemes in the NFL had three down linemen. And, like today, there were plenty of variations on the 3-4 theme.

There were the aggressive Oilers and Saints under Bum Phillips, the Dome Patrol under Jim Mora in New Orleans, the opportunistic, swarming 3-4 schemes of the Dolphins' No Name and later Killer "Bs", the not-as-aggressive-as-you'd-think New York Giants of Bill Parcells and Lawrence Taylor, the (original) multiple front schemes of the Orange Crush in Denver and others. Though the philosophies and tendencies varied, the underlying concepts that made the 3-4 popular were the same.

The 3-4 gave coordinators the flexibility to blitz or drop into coverage without changing personnel. Versatile linebackers like Lawrence Taylor or Robert Brazile or Rickey Jackson or Ted Hendricks could rush the passer or drop into coverage effectively. Teams could disguise their blitzes and coverages easily and disrupt the timing and rhythm of the passing attacks that were gaining favor in the league. The outside linebackers could walk up to the line of scrimmage and create a five man front of sorts to help contain the big, quick running backs of the day. Stud running backs like O.J. Simpson or Franco Harris would find it a little more difficult to get outside against the 3-4.

Not surprisingly, the flexibility of the 3-4 front is driving its resurgence today. While there's no question that the "scarcity" of the scheme is part of the reason for its current success, the versatility of the 3-4 makes is attractive when defending the pass-heavy attacks of today's offenses.

Although it's an artificial construct, we'll divide today's 3-4 fronts into three families for our discussion. Nearly all of the 3-4 coordinators in the league today draw concepts from each philosophy (i.e. most teams use both 2-gap and 1-gap alignments), but we'll pigeonhole some recent teams into a given "family" for effect. We'll look at the differences between 1-gap and 2-gap 3-4 philosophies, and discuss the multiple front and zone blitz philosophies that grew out of the 3-4 front.

The "True" 3-4

"The 3-4 defense is what the Giants used to play. There was a nose tackle, two defensive ends lined up on the tackles, two outside linebackers and then two [inside linebackers], both covering the guards. One of those linebackers is a fourth rusher. That is the 3-4 - the only 3-4 defense."
-- Charlie Weis, former assistant coach to Bill Parcells

The "only" 3-4 defense? What would Weis call all the other 3-4 schemes in the league today with three down linemen? Granted, it's mostly an argument of semantics, but Weis (and others) would argue that a true 3-4 defense is one where the three defensive linemen are responsible for every gap on the offensive line - a 2-gap line. They'd call the other variations - the Phillips variations, the Collier and Belichick variations, the LeBeau and Capers variations - hybrid schemes of a true 3-4, since they frequently use 1-gap alignments that are the hallmark of modern 4-3 fronts.

All this talk about gaps again. Is it really that big a deal? Absolutely. Though the box scores and stat boxes of the 3-4 schemes often look the same - OLB with big sack numbers and (usually) less notable defensive linemen, the underlying philosophies are very different.

Let's look at the "true" 3-4 first:

People chuckled at John Madden's description of Parcells' 3-4 as a "double bubble" scheme a few years ago, but it's a good visual to keep in mind and a term often used by defensive coaches. The 2-gap alignment leaves both offensive guards uncovered by defensive linemen - a "bubble". Each ILB covers the "bubble" left by the defensive line.

This kind of 3-4 requires a specific class of player. The defensive linemen have to be monsters, able to handle the lineman in front of them and control the gap to either side. Ideally, they're disruptive enough that the guards have to help block them. The inside linebackers need to be big enough to take on a guard on every play if the linemen aren't good enough to keep them clean. It's Parcells' "Planet Theory" - i.e. there are only so many men on the planet big and athletic enough to play defensive lineman in the NFL. To some extent, that theory also applies to the linebackers in a 2-gap 3-4 scheme. Guys like Dat Nguyen sometimes won Parcells over, but he wasted no time in drafting bigger players with a little less speed like Bradie James and Bobby Carpenter and Kevin Burnett to replace smaller players like Dexter Coakley.

Parcells liked the 2-gap 3-4 for many reasons. Its design makes it more difficult for the offensive linemen to get an angle on his defenders. It makes it easier to drop eight men into coverage and prevent big plays. It makes it easier for an OLB in a two point stance to get an angle in pass rush and generate pressure with just four rushers and avoid the coverage risk of an all-out blitz.

But the 2-gap 3-4 front is more difficult to play in today's NFL. Those planet-like defensive linemen are getting harder and harder to find. Players generated by today's college defenses are built for speed. How many can hold the point of attack against a monstrous OT and control two gaps? Not many. How many 245-250 pound linebackers are agile enough to elude a guard on every play and still close down on a RB with 4.45 speed? Very few.

As a result, the majority of the 3-4 fronts gaining favor today are based on the 1-gap schemes designed by Bum Phillips or those that use other wrinkles to bring pressure and disguise coverage. Other than Parcells' Cowboy and Dolphin teams in recent seasons, every other contemporary 3-4 has strayed from the 2-gap 3-4 in one way or another. The true 3-4 front has become a dinosaur of sorts as an every down defense.

Bum Phillips and the 1-gap 3-4

To hear Bum Phillips tell it, developing his version of the 3-4 defense wasn't rocket science:

"Coaching is pretty simple really. If you don't got something, find something you do got. Really we didn't have but one [defensive lineman] - [Hall of Famer] Elvin [Bethea] - until we got Curley [Culp] in the middle of that season. Then we had two. What we did have was four real good linebackers so all I done was find a way to get our best players on the field."

Like the Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 scheme that was taking hold in New England at the same time, Phillips was looking to contain the run and create mismatches in pass rush. Though Phillips based his scheme on the same concepts that the New England coaches did, he favored an attacking style. He used a number of one-gap techniques in his front seven, stunting and slanting his lineman to cause pressure and using an OLB - "Dr. Doom" Robert Brazile, who was LT before Lawrence Taylor came into the league - frequently as a fourth pass rusher. In many ways, Phillips' scheme was a 4-3 with four players in a two point stance.

That attacking, aggressive style of play has stood the test of time better than the read-and-react style for much the same reason that the under 4-3 has. It allows players to attack the offense, specifically by disguising its fourth (and fifth or sixth) pass rusher and the coverage behind. In fact, there are a lot of underfront concepts in the Phillips 3-4.

Unlike the true 2-gap 3-4 in the last post, there's no clear "bubble" in a 1-gap front. The strong side end slides down in the guard-tackle gap and the nose tackle slants to the weak side center-guard gap. The weak side end may or may not be head-up on the tackle, sometimes aligning in a 5-technique.

Again, for the reasons we've talked about in prior posts about Bruce Smith and Warren Sapp, moving the defensive lineman just a few inches changes the philosophy entirely. By comparing the two diagrams, it's easy to see how the mindset of the defensive linemen changes. It's clear that the two inside linebackers can be, if the linemen are disruptive at all, better protected from the blocks of interior linemen. You can see the lines of attack for a delayed ILB blitz or how each OLB might get a jump by shifting one defensive end to the outside of an offensive tackle.

IDP ASIDE

We covered the importance of avoiding most 3-4 defensive ends above. Briefly, even in tackle heavy scoring systems, you should consider rostering only those defensive ends who are quick and strong enough to consistently get off blocks. Usually, they'll play for teams that play a lot of 1-gap responsibility (DAL, SD, SF in 2009).

But the fear of the 3-4 in IDP circles, which was once rightly reserved for the defensive line, had also recently been pervading the linebacker group. It's not hard to pinpoint what happened. After a 128 solo tackle season in 2005 in his first year as a starter, Jonathan Vilma saw his solo tackle production plummet in 2006 after the Jets moved to a 3-4 front. Ignoring the numbers of Ray Lewis, Keith Brooking, Jamie Sharper and Donnie Edwards earlier this decade, panic set in - even amongst longtime veterans of IDP leagues. Putting the bulk of the blame on the scheme, IDPers projected Vilma's failures to extend to all 3-4 ILBs - including one Patrick Willis. We all know how that turned out. The same blind spot hurt owners who ignored Jerod Mayo in 2008.

Enough of the cautionary tale. It is reasonable to be wary of some 3-4 ILBs. They will face more offensive linemen blocks than many of their 4-3 counterparts. They'll have direct competition from their teammate at the other ILB position. Some may not play in all nickel packages. However, as we've seen above, some 3-4 fronts behave very much like 4-3 fronts. In fact, most 1-gap 3-4 fronts allow the WILB (by convention the RILB) the opportunity to match a 4-3 MLB in tackle production. Crossing a 1-gap 3-4 WILB off your draft boards or dropping them a tier or more due only to "3-4 fear" will often be a huge mistake.

How big a mistake? Well, in 17 player-seasons between 2002 and 2008, the RILB out-tackled the LILB in a 1-gap 3-4 front 14 times. In those 17 player-seasons, the RILB has topped 100 solo tackles 11 times and had more than 90 solos 13 times. 75 percent of the time, the team RILBs have combined for 90 or more solos. The average number of solo tackles for the 1-gap RILB in that data set. 99. A huge mistake indeed. Be wary of the rare RILB that doesn't play every down (i.e. Matt Wilhelm and Akin Ayodele in 2007 and 2008). But file away the lessons taught by Vilma and Willis.

Even 2-gap ILBs can have above-average IDP value. Again, it's usually the WILB that holds better value, but the disparity isn't as great. Chris Draft, Jay Foreman, James Farrior and Andra Davis have all held LB2+ value in recent seasons. Bradie James was a stud during the second half of 2008. In all 3-4 fronts, but particularly the 2-gap and hybrid fronts, an ILB that can get off blocks and contribute in coverage (and pass rush) is going to hold value. The 2-gap 3-4 can be a hindrance, though, so the skill set and responsibility within the defense is important.

What does that deeper understanding of schemes predict for 2009? It would strongly suggest that D.J. Williams and Patrick Willis are good bets for big production. Assuming the Steelers provide enough tackle opportunity, Lawrence Timmons should have good value. Plenty of 2-gap and hybrid 3-4 ILBs should continue to be productive - Channing Crowder, Jerod Mayo, Bart Scott, D'Qwell Jackson, Karlos Dansby, Derrick Johnson among others. And we'll need to watch the Dallas defense very closely during the preseason. Keith Brooking has been productive as an every-down WILB before (2002 in Atlanta). If he plays in the nickel, he could be a sneaky sleeper and cut down on the numbers Bradie James was putting up in late 2008.

The under shifted 3-4 front, with or without a 2-gap end, is just one of many potential variations a coordinator may align his front seven. There are all kinds of potential alignments. In fact, a coach influenced by both flavors of the 3-4 might be tempted to meld both concepts with traditional 4-3 ideas and create a monster playbook with more than 50 fronts. And pull it off with amazing success.

The Belichick "Hybrid"

There's no simple diagram or playbook quirk that defines Belichick's scheme. Rather, it's the complete lack of one. Belichick, in a very short span of time early in his career, was introduced to many different defensive schemes at the professional level. Belichick was exposed to Maxie Baughan, who ran George Allen's complex 4-3 scheme that was full of pre-snap adjustments. He briefly coached with Fritz Shurmur, who would follow Allen (and others) who used a lot of nickel schemes as a base defense. He worked with Joe Collier, who turned a troublesome set of injuries to his front seven into Denver's vaunted Orange Crush - maybe the original multiple-front scheme. All of that before gaining fame and respect under Bill Parcells and the true 3-4 in New England and New York.

The key to the success of Belichick's style of play is flexibility of personnel. To be able to effectively switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 to a dime defense and all points in-between requires versatility at nearly every position. Players have to be able to run and cover and hit. Linemen have to be strong enough to hold the point in the 3-4, but get upfield in a 4-3. Defensive backs have to be very good in zone coverage but competent in man coverage when needed. It requires a special skill set, but also an above-average football IQ. Compared to the base Dungy-Kiffin scheme, which likely started with as little as three or four fronts and a couple of zone coverages, Belichick's hybrid is a maze meant to confuse and confound.

Another important difference in Belichick's defense is philosophical rather than playbook. Most coordinators identify the weaknesses of an upcoming opponent and gameplan to take advantage. Belichick specifically seeks to take away the strength of an offense, forcing them to operate out of their comfort zone. In a league where you may face a power offense one week and a spread offense the next, the versatility of the multiple front playbook is the only way to pull off such a philosophy.

Three paragraphs and nary a playbook diagram may not seem like we're shorting one of the most successful playbooks of all time. But consider that nearly everything we've discussed and will discuss before we're through just scratches the surface of Belichick's playbook. In reality, there's not a revolutionary innovation to highlight. It's the versatility and philosophy and depth in gameplanning and having the players to execute that vision that makes the scheme work.

The Zone Blitz

Depending on who you believe, the zone blitz had its beginnings...

...on an airplane in 1988, when Dick LeBeau was furiously scribbling on napkins trying to draw up new ways to get pressure and confuse quarterbacks

...in the USFL in 1987, when the staff of the Philadelphia Stars (most notably Jim Mora, Dom Capers and Vic Fangio) assisted in developing a new blitz scheme that had been devised by another Stars' staffer (John Rosenberg) who had...

...in the 1986 National Championship game, with a defensive assistant at Penn State who confused Miami's Vinny Testaverde into throwing five interceptions with a complex array of zone coverage and blitz calls.

Whatever the true origins, the zone blitz had its moments in Cincinnati (led the Bengals to SB XXIII) and New Orleans (the Dome Patrol studs), but wasn't widely hyped as a defensive strategy until LeBeau and Capers ended up as assistant coaches in Pittsburgh and refined it into an every down defense in the early and mid-1990s.

To hear Dick LeBeau tell it, the fundamental concept of the zone blitz scheme has its roots in conversations he had with two pretty well known names in the sports world - Bobby Knight and Bill Arnsparger. LeBeau and Knight were friends at Ohio State as students and shared a philosophy of aggressiveness, or as Knight would put it, "pressure on the ball." When Arnsparger, the architect of two historically good Miami Dolphin defenses (the "No-Name" squad of the undefeated 1972 season and the Killer Bs in the 1980s), mentioned during a meeting before LeBeau's fateful plane ride home that he was always "just trying to find a safer way to get some pressure," the fuse was lit.

Arnsparger's line cut to the fine point of pressuring the quarterback. Unless you get to the quarterback, an all-out blitz leaves too many holes in the coverage. The risk-reward of a big defensive play versus giving up a big play to the offense has a razor-thin margin. With Arnsparger's thought in mind, LeBeau began designing ways to get maximum pressure on the quarterback as safely as possible.

The result was the fire zone scheme. Confuse the offense by disguising your pass rush. Make a four man pass rush function like an all-out blitz. Play zone coverage behind the blitz so that a mistake in the secondary doesn't result in a big play. Disguise your zone coverage so that a quarterback's usual sight adjustment leads him right into an unexpectedly covered route.

The basic concept - an exchange of an expected pass rusher for an unexpected one - is relatively simple. The type of exchange and number of players involved in the rotation can become very complex.

The above diagram shows a single player exchange, defensive end for linebacker. You can see how bringing both OLBs at the snap looks like a five man pass rush - but it's not. The DE-OLB exchange asks the end to threaten the offensive tackle with a quick step toward the pocket, then quickly drop into coverage. If executed properly, the OLB should be able to threaten the pocket, while the end drops into the zone that the quarterback would rightly read as open by sight adjustment for his hot route. The simple exchange looks like a five man "blitz", but allows the defense to generate blitz-like pressure with full zone coverage behind.

Here's a more complicated example. Two exchanges - seven men threaten the line at the snap, but only five players rush the passer leaving a three under, three deep zone coverage look. The Steelers will sometimes run similar looks with only two linemen in a two-point stance in their nickel package, where the OLB becomes a standup DE at the line of scrimmage and a slot corner takes the place of the blitzing OLB above.

Zone blitz concepts can be run from a 4-3 front as well, if you've got the athletes to do it. Capers ran such a scheme from a 4-3 in Jacksonville, but had the luxury of studs like Tony Brackens and Bryce Paup. Both Capers and LeBeau prefer the 3-4 as a base for their fire zone schemes, as the extra linebacker adds a better athlete and a wider spectrum of potential blitzes.

Like any other defensive scheme, even with stud personnel, the zone blitz is beatable.

  1. Run the ball.
    Backs with good vision that can see the seams on a play when a blitz has been called can be successful against the exchanges. Draw plays can be particularly effective (as can screens) if the right seam is open.
  2. Plenty of play action.
    The linemen still must play the run. The extra half step gained by holding the exchange lineman from dropping into coverage can prevent the lineman from beating the receiver to the fire zone.
  3. Move the pocket.
    Mobile quarterbacks that read well have a better shot at avoiding the pass rush.
  4. Max protect on the line.
    If enough players are asked to protect the pocket, it's difficult to defeat the blocking scheme with exchanges and overload blitzes.

    IDP ASIDE

    There aren't any significant changes to the IDP value of the front seven of a team that runs a lot of zone blitz. An inside linebacker with good coverage and pass rush skill becomes a little more attractive than other 3-4 2-gap ILBs - expect Lawrence Timmons to take advantage of his skill set in Pittsburgh. Corners see a bump in value because of the frequent Cover-2 that is played behind the front seven. Outside linebackers in the fire zone get plenty of all-around opportunity and, while inconsistent on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis, can have big tackle and peripheral stat seasons - witness James Harrison last year, who followed Chad Brown and many others as 3-4 OLBs who topped 70 solos on their way to top twenty finishes in balanced scoring systems. And most obviously, any player from a zone blitz defense gets a bump in big play value and scoring systems that reward big plays.

Though some of the copycat defenses weren't as successful as the Capers and LeBeau original, the fire zone scheme has stood the test of time. Unlike the 46, which has gone the way of the dodo as a base scheme, the zone blitz remains sound enough to use as an every down defense. It becomes a chess game. You max protect, we'll feign the zone blitz and drop eight into coverage. You roll your quarterback out and we'll bring corner blitzes from a two deep shell. All teams have some 46 and zone blitz in their playbook as an aggressive change-up call, but most offensive coordinators would choose to face the 46 rather than the zone blitz.

It seems counterintuitive that a scheme praised for its aggressive nature was born out of a desire to be safe and protect against the big play. But it's well-planned and calculated aggression that consistently wins the day. When compared to another scheme meant to wreak havoc all over the field, the fire zone defense starts to look like just another vanilla defense.

The "46" Defense: Why One Of The Best Defenses Ever Has Become A Relic

Though he died just before the 46 defense peaked in Super Bowl XXIV, you can't help but hear John Facenda's voice whenever you see video of or read about Buddy Ryan and the "Monsters of the Midway" defense.

"Blitz is defined as a sudden, savage attack.
It is indeed all of this.
Send more defenders than the offense has blockers to absorb.
From the left side,
From the right side,
From up the middle they come.
All with blood in their eye.
All with one idea.
Get the quarterback.
Get "The Man."

Most descriptions of the 46 defense talk about pressure. For Ryan, it was more than that. He was sending six defenders on almost every play, except when he was sending seven or eight. The persona of the scheme and its parts was meant to be relentless, intimidating and destructive. His defense set scoring and yardage records. In one season in Houston, Ryan's Oiler defense knocked nine starting quarterbacks out of games either with injury or because of poor play. He punched offensive coordinators on national television, put bounties on the heads of opposing players and didn't hesitate to butt heads with Mike Ditka.

Despite all that, no one considers using the 46 as anything other than a changeup front in today's NFL. Coordinators still believe in pressure, but rarely use the 46. Why? What was so great about the Bear 46, but couldn't stand the test of time?

Well, let's start with a diagram the most common 46 alignment.

Points of interest:

  1. The 46 isn't a 4-6 front. Ryan apparently was incapable of calling any of his players by name. He'd give them nicknames or just call them by their number. The 46 defense was named for Doug Plank, the Bear SS and jersey number 46. The 46 is an eight man front with six men on the line.
  2. Most think of the 46 as an exceptional pass rushing scheme. And it was. But the scheme was just as devastating against the run. Ryan put three monster linemen opposite the three interior offensive linemen. One nose tackle aligned head up on the center, and two very solid end/tackle players were aligned in a 3-technique opposite both guards. If the line didn't make the play, they effectively occupied enough blockers to keep both second line defenders (including HOF MLB Mike Singletary) free to hit whatever came through. It was all but impossible to run against the personnel the Bears had in the mid-1980s. Teams were forced to throw and throw often.
  3. When they threw, they had to deal with pressure from anywhere and everywhere. While Ryan would sometimes choose to fall back in coverage from the 46, he usually brought the house. Both OLBs (Wilbur Marshall and Otis Wilson) were stud pass rushers and Richard Dent was aligned wide to crash down the weak side. Add in the interior pass rush of Steve McMichael and Dan Hampton, who flanked Refrigerator Perry, and there wasn't a weak link anywhere on the six man front.
  4. The strong safety came down in the box and played like a linebacker. Ryan frequently mixed up his 46 fronts by switching one OLB and the SS interchangeably.

But the personnel was the key. Ryan started tinkering with the scheme in 1982, but it wasn't until Dent broke out in 1984 and Marshall and Perry began contributing in 1985 that the 46 really hit its stride. And the 1986 team, which wasn't coordinated by Ryan, may have been even better than the team that flirted with perfection in 1985.

Ryan had very good personnel in Philadelphia and Houston. But the 46 gradually fell out of favor as teams began to exploit its primary weakness - an undermanned secondary. If you protected well enough or had a quarterback with a quick, accurate release - or both - you could get rid of the ball before the pressure got to the pocket. West Coast offenses and premier quarterbacks strafed the 46 with big plays. Even in its best seasons, the Bear 46 was giving up very high yards per completion numbers. The big plays eventually sunk the scheme as a base defense. Which isn't to say that Ryan was just a one-hit wonder. He was instrumental in designing the Jet defense that helped Joe Namath pull off the upset in SBIII and later had a big role in the development of the Purple People Eater lines in Minnesota. The 46 just became too risky to play every down.

The 46 made a small comeback with Gregg Williams in Washington and Rex Ryan in Baltimore recently, but has again fallen back into only rare usage as a change of pace front. It still influences the schemes in Baltimore, Tennessee, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Minnesota and New York (Giants).

It sure was fun to watch while it lasted, though.

IDP ASIDE

Though it's not likely to be relevant often in future seasons, the 46 scheme does elevate the potential value of a few players. Like the zone blitz scheme, nearly every player along the six man front has some increased big play value. More specifically, both outside linebackers and the defensive tackles are likely to get a better than average number of free shots at the quarterback. The MLB, though well protected, may not get the big bump in value that may be expected if teams run away from the clogged middle or pass more frequently against the six man line. The SS who comes down into the box, however, should see more tackle opportunity and increased value as a result. Meanwhile, the free safety is stuck as a deep, roving cover guy and will struggle to put up meaningful tackle results. Much of the fall in the tackle production of Ed Reed is traceable to the Ravens' increased use of the 46 in recent seasons.

Nickel Schemes And Other Subpackages

This is the era of specialization in the NFL. Slot wide receivers, third down running backs, goal line runners and pass catching tight ends are becoming more and more important of the success of today's offenses. The defensive side of the ball is no different. Situational edge rushers and pass rushing defensive tackles, linebackers leaving the field on passing downs and, of course, nickel corners. Because NFL offenses are operating out of multiple wide receiver sets more than ever, NFL defenses are specializing on passing downs more often in response. Teams used to substitute a third corner (or fourth in the "dime") for a linebacker on third downs and morph into a 4-2-5 (or 4-1-6) look. Today, there are as many exotic nickel packages as there are defensive fronts.

In what has becoming a running theme in this series, any number of defensive minds are credited with creating and developing variations of a nickel defense. Clark Shaughnessy was devising and naming defenses with any number of defensive backs in the 1950s. He likely coined the term "nickel" defense. A secondary coach in Philadelphia drew up a package with a fifth defensive back called the "Chicago Special" as a way to better cover Bear TE Mike Ditka. However, it was George Allen who is widely thought to have developed the schemes that used five defensive backs as a natural extension of his complicated coverage schemes. Allen was a defensive assistant under Shaughnessy in Chicago and undoubtedly observed how Philadelphia tried to defend Ditka.

Those schemes were often straightforward 4-2-5 looks. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, another defensive guru, Fritz Shurmur devised the "Big Nickel" (aka "Wolverine") 4-2-5 defense. Shurmur used the scheme to great success against the juggernaut 49ers, but often used it as a base defense in later years when his linebackers were beset by injury. The Big Nickel allowed Shurmur to get an extra safety-linebacker hybrid into the lineup. Depending on his personnel he could cover and pass rush with the secondary personnel, but still support the run, all while disguising which coverage his defense would play. The Big Nickel has made a comeback in recent seasons, particularly against stud receiving tight ends like Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez and Todd Heap.

Over the past few seasons, however, defensive coordinators have taken the nickel in different directions to disguise coverages and pass rush. A number of teams have gone to a 3-3-5 nickel package on passing downs recently, notably Arizona, Minnesota and some of the 3-4 teams. But the hottest wrinkle might be a defense Ron Jaworski has referred to as the "creep" package.

The "creep" puts only one or two lineman in a three point stance, usually over the center, leaving the rest of the six man front to wander around the line of scrimmage until shortly before the snap. Quarterbacks often struggle to set their protection or get a pre-snap read. Offensive linemen struggle to call out assignments or plan blocking angles. At the snap, the "creep" essentially becomes a zone blitz concept without down linemen. Bill Belichick and Dick LeBeau having been using similar packages for years, but Buffalo, Cincinnati and the New York Jets used variations at times last year. The "creep" isn't the best run defense for obvious reasons and has some of the same weaknesses that the zone blitz schemes have, but don't be surprised to see more of it as the trend toward disguise continues in the multiple-front happy 21st century NFL.

IDP ASIDE

Some IDP information services have minimized the importance of knowing whether or not a defensive player stays on the field in nickel situations in recent seasons. Don't believe it. Using data generated by fellow FBG Doug Drinen's Data Dominator, it's easy to see that a player who comes off the field on passing downs takes a sizable hit in opportunity.

Per the Data Dominator, teams pass more than they run by a 55-45 margin. Teams pass more than they run on 2nd-and-6 or longer, 3rd-and-2 or longer and 4th-and-2 or longer. Taken together, teams pass more than they run on nearly 40 percent of all offensive downs. Seem hard to believe? Football Outsiders' game charting data has suggested that in recent years, more than half of the league's offenses use a 3-WR set at least 47 percent of the time. Many beat writers have quoted defensive coaches who note that they use subpackages nearly as often as their base defense.

That's not insignificant. Using league averages and a conservative estimate of how often a defense might use its nickel personnel on the "passing downs" above, a defense might align in the nickel as much as 15 percent of its snaps. Extrapolated over a full season, a player that leaves the field on those downs will see eight less snaps per game and 134 less snaps over a full 16 game season. That's a lot of tackle opportunity left on the field.

The statistical manipulations translate to the boxscores and year-end IDP rankings. Last season, the top ranked linebacker in FBG scoring who left the field in passing situations was Napoleon Harris. He finished 35th. In 2006, the top-ranked POUND who left the field in most passing situations was Leroy Hill. He ranked 56th. Andra Davis saw a huge decline in numbers after he entered a run-pass platoon with Leon Williams in 2007 and 2008. Curtis Lofton's lofty expectations in 2008 were never reached after he was unable to win an every-down role as a rookie.

Similarly, teams that play a lot of nickel defense, whether it be because they're constantly ahead of their opposition or have a stout rush defense can see small bumps in value for their nickel corners. The Cowboys and Rams have had nickel corners with very good matchup value recently. But no player and team illustrate the point better than the Carolina Panthers and Richard Marshall. Because the Panthers use a lot of nickel schemes (and because Marshall has a perfect skill set for box score production), Marshall has finished among the top 25 defensive backs in both 2006 and 2007 despite starting only a small percentage of his games.

If you haven't already, familiarize yourself with each team's nickel linebackers and the term every-down backer. There are many instances where rostering and starting a replacement level player is hard to avoid. This isn't one of them.

When you take a deeper look at today's defensive schemes and their historical backgrounds, the dual nature of defensive football gets hammered home. Sometimes described as simple and brutal, defensive football is every bit as complex and intricate as its offensive counterpart. DeMarcus Ware, James Harrison, Ed Reed and others have proven that the defensive side of the ball has its share of exciting playmakers. There has been strong interest in the league's better defensive minds to fill open head coaching jobs over the past two seasons. It's much more than the ugly stepsister it often seems to be.

Take the time to learn a bit about defensive football. The effort will make your Sunday afternoons even more enjoyable.

As always, questions, comments, suggestions and corrections are welcome by e-mail at bramel@footballguys.com.