Breaking Down Defenses
By John Norton
June 28th, 2012

Many of you may recognize this piece as it was originally penned several years back when Bob Henry and I were running Red Eye Sports. It's been updated and posted here at Footballguys a couple of times along the way and a condensed version of it was even featured in the 2005 Footballguys strategy guide. We keep bringing it back because this knowledge is vital to the truly hard core owner who is looking for an edge in a very competitive league. While at the same time it can give the casual competitor a huge advantage over the guys at the office. It's been a couple of years now, so the time has come to dust it off, do a little updating and put it out there as a refresher course for the veterans or as part of IDP 101 for those new to the footballguys experience.

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Fantasy owners and NFL fans have all heard the term product of the system at some point in our journeys. There are a slew of former high school players among us who have a basic understanding when it comes to positional responsibilities, and a few guys who played beyond high school who really get it. Yet rare is the fan or fantasy owner who never played, but is enough a student of the game to fully understand the nuances of the various schemes and/or positions within the many schemes. There is a big advantage to be gained by understanding how positional responsibilities can effect box score production. Especially when it comes to digging for middle to late rounds guys who make or break our teams. It can also be very handy when determining our best starting options from week to week. Let us journey through the various NFL defenses and take a look at the little things that can make a world of difference between them. Maybe I can shed some light for those who find themselves scratching their heads now and then when it comes to IDP production. Believe it or not, there is a method to the madness!

Offensive Formations and Tendencies

One of the many important things to understand is the effect offensive formations and tendencies can have on a defensive player's production. In most cases, the offense dictates the defensive call and game tempo on a play to play basis. Defensive coaches get into a read and react mode. They identify what personnel the offense has on the field which in turn tells them what formations the offense is likely to run. They must then try to match up the correct defensive call and personnel package. Obviously, calls change from play to play depending on the situation, but often a fantasy owner can play off a team's tendencies when making a tough lineup decision. For example a pass happy offense like the Packer or Saints (who were first and second in pass attempts in 2011) tend to spread defenses out with a wide open passing game, often utilizing three or four receivers on nearly every play. This dictates to the defense that they must play a nickel package (4-2-5) as their base defense that week. Which in turn means one of the normal starting linebackers is not going to see much action, and the nickel back becomes a candidate to lead the club in tackles for the week.

Another example would be the 2010 Cardinals who simply couldn't run the ball. Arizona's mere 320 rush attempts were the fewest in the league while their 561 pass attempts ranked in the top third that season. As a result, the top producing inside linebackers of Cardinals opponents averaged about 4.5 solo tackles a game, with only three linebackers putting up more than six against them all year. Meanwhile, despite a completely inept offense, 11 corners posted five or more solo stops against them.

Situations like this emphasize why it is so important to know what linebackers come off the field in passing situations. A good run-stuffing middle linebacker who struggles defending the pass may give you a big game against the strong running game of the Texans or Broncos (the only two teams with 500+ rushing attempts in 2011) one week and then vanish the following week versus a club like the Buccaneers or Lions who were at the bottom of the league in rush attempts last season.

Just as there are pass happy offenses that can kill linebacker production, there are run oriented offenses that make your linebackers studs but don't provide as much opportunity for defensive backs. Against this type of offense, corners that don't support the run well are usually non-factors while any quality linebacker or strong safety should be a strong play. The problem we run into here is the unpredictability of the NFL on a week to week basis. Some teams say they will run but don't consistently commit to it unless they are securely ahead or will turn away from it quickly if they have no success early in a game or fall behind.

Determining the Strong Side

It is surprising how few people really understand the term strong side. Nearly every year I have someone ask me why a fantasy productive strong side linebacker is so rare and why then is a strong safety often is at the head of the defensive back class? Let's start with what determines the strong side of the offensive formation. When the huddle breaks and players come to the line of scrimmage, the defender responsible for making the play call (usually the middle linebacker) must call out the strong side of the formation so that everyone lines up correctly. In the simplest of terms, the strong side can be identified by where the tight end lines up. However, in the pro game it usually isn't quite that simple. Double tight ends, no tight ends, balanced formations, spread formations with the tight end lined up in the slot etc, all make it a little more complicated. The term strong side is meant to describe the side of the formation that has the most blockers and/or that presents the biggest threat for the defense on a running play. The progression a defensive play caller must go through in a matter of seconds could go like this:

  • A single tight end lined up next to the tackle? Easy call.
  • If there are double tight ends or no tight ends (a balanced line), he will look into the backfield for a single running back lined up to one side of the quarterback.
  • With two backs in the backfield, the tailback behind the quarterback and a fullback to either side, the fullback side is the strong side.
  • If the backs are split behind the quarterback (pro-formation) or in a straight line directly behind the quarterback (I-formation), the play caller looks to the receivers.
  • In short yardage we often see double tight end, I-formation with strong side determined by a third tight end or receiver lined up slightly behind and outside at one end, or split wide.
  • In a three receiver set with both the line and backfield balanced, the slot receiver becomes the determining factor.
  • Last but not least, if the line, backfield and receivers are balanced, the wide side of the field is considered strong.
  • There are some situational and/or scheme related exceptions to these general rules but these are the most common reads or progressions.

    Defensive Sets

    Most IDP owners are generally familiar with the two common defensive sets used in the NFL. While there are variations of each, every NFL club is currently using one of these alignments as their base defense. There are 21 teams currently running some form of a 4-3 as their base defense with 11 using the 3-4. There are more and more clubs now employing a hybrid scheme that allows them to line up in either depending on the situation. Each scheme employs a different defensive approach or strategy, so let's examine how the various differences between these two common schemes can affect the production of the players in them.

    The old guard standard defense commonly used in the pro ranks is the 4-3-4, which means four down linemen, three linebackers, and four defensive backs. The majority of clubs continue to use some variation of this as their base defense. Many of these clubs do however, have the 3-4 package installed and will use it on occasion. Houston went to the 3-4 last season and was surprisingly effective considering that it usually takes a couple of years for a team to get acclimated and get the right personnel in place. Other clubs, such as the Browns and Broncos last year and the Dolphins this season, have made the move from a 3-4 back to a 4-3. It's very difficult for any club to be proficient in both alignments because the schemes require vastly different types of players to be successful, particularly among the front seven. The history of free agency gives us many examples of successful players switching schemes only to struggle and become mediocre players. It also gives us some examples of seemingly mediocre players finding success when switching.

    "Read and React" Versus "Aggressive"

    We often hear announcers and sports writers describing some defenses as aggressive or attacking, while others are dubbed read and react, or finesse. Of course, they are referring to the style and approach of the given defense. The descriptions make the difference in the styles seem rather obvious, but let's look at the difference in technical terms. In a read and react defense players look for certain keys in the offense as a play unfolds. Keys can be anything from who a particular offensive lineman blocks to where the quarterback takes his first step. Defenders then react to what the offense is doing. This is basically a bend but don't break defensive philosophy. The idea is to give up little bits of ground but force the opponent to run a lot of plays and count on an eventual mistake, while limiting the number of big plays an opponent makes. While there are a certain amount of reads involved in any defense, an aggressive style of defense is one that doesn't wait to see what the offense is doing. Instead, at the snap of the ball the defenders attack points on the field or weaknesses in the formation in an attempt to disrupt the flow of the offense before the play develops. For obvious reasons the aggressive style creates more big plays. By forcing the offense to call plays that develop quickly and blocking schemes that match up with the defense, this philosophy seeks to dictate play to the offense, rather than the other way around. It should go without saying that these defenses can also give up more big plays because they gamble more often. This is where personnel decisions become so important. If a team has the corners to go one-on-one with quality receivers down the field, they can afford to be much more aggressive up front. By the same token a club using the aggressive 3-4 but lacking strong pass rushers from the outside linebacker positions is not likely to have much success because the quarterback will have too much time.

    Positional responsibilities

    From here let's break down the different schemes position by position and look at the general responsibilities of each player. I say general because every defense has its quirks and slight differences, not only from team to team but from week to week and even play to play as defensive coaches work to take advantage of their opponent's perceived weaknesses. That's why they study game film all week searching for tendencies to help them develop their strategy and plan of attack. Formations, line stunts, blitzing etc, alter responsibilities on a play to play basis in some cases, particularly on the 3-4 teams where blitzing is rampant, but there are general responsibilities with each position.

    Defensive End 4-3-4 and "46"

    Supply and demand make quality ends in these schemes a very valuable commodity in both NFL and FF terms. These players are asked to provide the bulk of the pass rush so they must have speed and quickness, but they must also be big and strong enough to supply outside contain which means keeping ball carriers from getting around the corner. Vision and agility are a must as they are often the targets for trap blocks by bigger pulling guards, cut backs by motion players or double teams by 300-pound tackles and 250-pound tight ends. Offenses come up with all sorts of tricks in attempts to seal off the corner which is the key to any outside running game. Once around the end a ball carrier is often looking at a corner or a safety and the likelihood of a big gain.

    The 4-3 end will normally line up either head up or on the outside shoulder of the player on the end of the offensive line (tackle or TE). His first move is either up field to get around the outside of the blocker, or to jamb the blocker at the line and push him inside to close the running lane. The cardinal sin for these guys is to allow a blocker to cross his face which means, get to his outside shoulder. Once a blocker gets there, the defender can be turned or hooked.

    Ends that can do all these things well will play on every down are at a premium for both NFL and fantasy teams. The short list includes names like Mario Williams, Jared Allen, Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Trent Cole, and a few others. It is no coincidence these guys are often found in or near the top ten in their positional fantasy rankings. There are some other guys who could work their way into this group over the course of the upcoming season if they can continue to improve. Chris Long, Charles Johnson, Elvis Dumervil, Cameron Wake, Carlos Dunlap, and Matt Shaughnessy are among those who fall into this category.

    Dominant ends often play on the right side where they are matched up with the offense's left tackle. This is generally the opponent's best lineman as he is charged with protecting the blind side for a right-handed quarterback.

    Defensive End 3-4-4

    The end in a 3-4 scheme has less to think about than his 4-3 counterpart but his assignment is no less important. While always a plus, speed and quickness are less a requirement than having the required girth and strength to occupy space and tie up blockers. In this scheme the end can line up anywhere from the outside shoulder of the tackle to the gap between the tackle and guard. He is not responsible for contain and pass rush is a secondary consideration on most downs. The main responsibility of this position is to devour as much space and as many blockers as possible at the line of scrimmage thus freeing up players behind him to make plays. The end in a 3-4 will see constant double teams but if he can hold his position and occupy more than one blocker, he has basically done his job. In obvious passing situations 3-4 ends can be a big part of the blitz packages in that they will stunt and or bull rush in an effort to open lanes for the blitzer.

    Box score producers from this position are relatively few and far between. Very rare is a player big and strong enough to fight through a pair or more of 300 pound blockers yet fast and quick enough to make a lot of big plays. Bruce Smith was the best ever back in the mid 90s when he was in Buffalo and somehow managed to be a perennial top-five fantasy defensive lineman. Calais Campbell of the Cardinals and Justin Smith in San Francisco have put together pretty solid production in recent years and the Texans J.J. Watt was impressive as a rookie last season, but generally speaking most productive 3-4 ends are one-year wonders who quickly fade.

    In fantasy terms the top 3-4 ends of 2011 were Smith, Campbell, and Watt with only Campbell making the Top 10. Other than this trio there were no 3-4 linemen among the Top 30. Great players can overcome the limitations of the scheme to some extent and put up decent numbers, but generally it's a good idea to look for traditional defensive ends from the 4-3 scheme for IDP production. Most importantly, beware drafting a 3-4 end based on just one year's production. These guys rarely repeat.

    Defensive Tackle 4-3-4 and "46"

    The responsibilities of a tackle in the 4-3 aren't exactly complicated and are almost always determined by the play call rather than anything the offense does. In most base defenses the tackle is assigned a gap or sometimes two gaps that he is to take away. When the ball is snapped he first makes sure there is no room to run in his gap, then pursues the ball where ever it may go.

    Tackles bounce around a lot in their alignment and can line up anywhere from the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle to head up on the center depending on the call and/or offensive formation, but spend most of their time somewhere across from the guard.

    The tackle position continues to evolve. For several years the success of the Ravens and their twin tower combination of Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams had teams looking for 330-pound road graders who could stop a charging fullback with their breath. These types of players are generally assigned two gaps and have very little responsibility in the scheme other than to clog the middle of the field and shut down as many running lanes as their wide bodies can occupy. In most cases their contribution to the pass rush amounts to pushing offensive linemen into the quarterbacks face and flushing him into another defender. While they are key to the success of their own defense, many of the things they do won't show up in the box scores.

    Over the past few seasons we have seen the trend at defensive tackle swing back toward the athletic big man who can not only hold his own against the run but can generate a pass rush up the middle. There are some clubs who still use smaller (under 300 pounds if you can call that small), quicker interior linemen. These schemes usually make their tackles responsible for one run gap and are much more likely to use line stunts and other camouflage to keep blockers off balance.

    Then there is Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Oakland who have the best of both worlds - 300+ pound guys who can take on double teams but are quick and athletic enough to get after the passer or make tackles down field. Tackles like Ndamukong Suh, Ahtyba Rubin, Tommy Kelly, Geno Atkins, and Haloti Ngata are pretty rare. If you are in a league that requires interior linemen these guys can be somewhat of a priority. If your league lumps all linemen together, these players will have a far diminished value. There were just four 4-3 tackles among the top-30 linemen overall in 2011 with only Rubin and Ngata making the Top 15 in balanced scoring systems.

    Defensive (Nose) Tackle 3-4-4, 4-3 Undertackle

    While it is rare to get fantasy production from an end in the 3-4, it is virtually impossible to get it from the nose tackle position. This guy is usually well over 300 pounds and lines up over or slightly to one side of the center. A center can't snap the ball and handle a 320+ pound defensive lineman at the same time so the guard almost always combo blocks to get him out of the way.

    The nose tackle (sometimes called the middle guard) provides three very important functions for the D; anchoring the middle of the run defense, eating up 2 or more blockers, and providing the first read for the inside linebackers. On any run play the offense must neutralize the nose guard because he is the closest defender to the play at its inception. Therefore, the guard on the side the ball is going to will nearly always block down on the nose tackle. When the inside backers see the right guard come down on the nose tackle, he knows to flow that way. The most productive of the nose tackles last season was the Jets Sione Pouha who totaled 41 solo tackles with 1 sack and finished outside the top 20 defensive linemen.

    Some 4-3 schemes utilize what many term an undertackle or nose guard. This player generally has similar responsibilities to a 3-4 nose tackle and will normally have a 2-gap responsibility. He will usually line up somewhere between the center and guard and will be successful if he can occupy two blockers and a lot of space without giving ground. His counterpart, the 3-technique tackle, is usually a more mobile and athletic player who is responsible for one run gap and is generally able to make more plays in both the run game and as a pass rusher. Geno Atkins of the Bengals led all interior linemen in sacks from this position in 2011.

    Strong Side Linebacker 4-3-4

    Here is where we answer the question of why a strong side linebacker generally struggles to produce in the box scores. At a glance it would make more sense that since teams run to the strong side more often, the strong side backer should make more plays. It all goes back to the description of formations. While it's true that teams run to the strong side more often, the reason they do so is to take advantage of the additional blocker or blockers. A strong side backer often finds himself at the point of attack which means the offensive blocking scheme has accounted for him with at least one blocker and many times with two. Often a tight end and/or fullback, but sometimes a pulling guard is responsible for taking him out.

    The main responsibility of this position against the run is to defeat or at least eliminate the blockers at the point of attack so that the runner has to alter his course by cutting up early or stringing out toward the sideline. In concept this is to allow pursuit from the safeties and/or other linebackers to bottle up the runner.

    Against the pass a strong side backer is usually responsible for the short outside in a zone or the tight end or back out of the backfield in man to man. Chances are if there is no tight end or fullback, the defense will be in a nickel formation where the strong side linebacker position is basically eliminated. On many teams the strong side linebacker is not one of their better coverage guys, thus is replaced by an extra defensive back in passing situations. On other clubs it may be one of the other linebackers who comes off, while the strong side linebacker moves to an inside linebacker alignment. Some schemes, Denver for example, take advantage of a strong side linebacker (Von Miller), who is a good pass rusher, by leaving him free to blitz instead of dropping into coverage or pulling him for an extra defensive back. There are few fantasy productive 4-3 strong side linebackers. James Anderson and Chad Greenway were the only ones to make the Top 30 in 2011. Both of them were helped greatly by staying on the field in nickel sub packages.

    Weak Side Linebacker 4-3-4

    The weak side backer is in general, the second best fantasy option among linebackers. He has a little further to go at times to make plays but is often left unaccounted for in the blocking scheme. Many of our big play linebackers come from this position because they are allowed to freelance more and flow to the play with less traffic to fight through. A good strong side backer makes a perfect set up man for the weak side linebacker when he clogs the play and forces the ball carrier back to the middle.

    The weak side linebacker generally has fewer responsibilities than other front 7 positions. He is responsible for shutting down the reverse and closing up cut back lanes against the run while his pass responsibility in most zone coverage amounts to keeping tabs on relief valve receivers like backs on swing passes, short back side screens or short quick hitting tosses. These players are usually fast and athletic so some schemes give them much more responsibility in man to man coverage where they can be matched up with backs, tight ends and occasionally bigger more physical receivers all over the field.

    One side note when it comes to outside backers in the NFL, some teams are going to a set up of right and left outside backers. Instead of switching sides based on strength of formation, the defenders remain on the same side and responsibility changes with the formations. The Colts did this in years past but moved to a 3-4 in 2011. Tennessee and Seattle are a couple of others who have been known to use a right and left alignment in recent years. When putting together your draft lists, lean toward right outside linebacker in these situations. Most offenses have right handed quarterbacks and right handed tendencies, thus the right side backer will be weak side the majority of the time and will generally be the most productive.

    Outside Linebacker 3-4-4

    An outside backer in the 3-4 actually has more in common with the 4-3 end than other linebackers. He lines up outside the last man on the offensive line (often way outside), his run support duties are the same as the 4-3 end in that he is responsible for protecting the corner and turning everything inside, and he is counted on for the majority of the pass rush. However, much more is expected from an outside linebacker in the 3-4.

    Big play production from these players is the key to team success in this scheme. The 3-4 is generally an attacking scheme that counts on disruption of offensive flow to create opportunities. The outside backers can have a multitude of different responsibilities depending on the defensive play/blitz call. Their main duty is to rush from the snap and create havoc in the passing game. Other responsibilities can range from delayed rush, dropping into zone coverage, being assigned a particular player to shadow or a receiver or TE to cover man to man. These players must be exceptional athletes to be successful but intelligence, quick reaction and full understanding of the scheme are paramount.

    While these players are often very productive in the big play columns, being relegated to basically half the field seriously limits their number of tackle opportunities. Their fantasy value is largely dependent on your scoring system. They can be at the top of the list in leagues that score heavily on sacks and turnovers, they can be backups in tackle based leagues, or they can land somewhere in between if your scoring system is more balanced.

    It's not all that rare for a 3-4 outside linebacker to have a great season and land in the Top 15 in a balanced scoring league. It is however, pretty rare for that same player to repeat the following season. The past decade has given us guys like Joey Porter, DeMarcus Ware, Shawne Merriman, and James Harrison who have all had one top-10 finish. All but Harrison have fallen back into the pack the following year. Ware and Clay Matthews joined Harrison as the only 3-4 outside linebackers to finish in the Top 30 of the Footballguys.com balanced scoring system in 2010, but only Ware was able to make the Top 30 in 2011. These players are not without value, but the nature of the position limits tackle opportunity which in turn effects consistency. These positions rarely produce more than 55-60 solo tackles, so when they don't land a sack or big play, these guys often have a very poor week.

    Middle linebacker 4-3-4 and "46"

    This is the ultimate position for fantasy production because all defensive schemes are designed to funnel plays to the middle of the field. The middle linebacker is protected from blockers by the tackles, who make it tough for either the center or guards to get off the line. With Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor at tackle the Browns defense did this as well as any in the game last season. As a result, D'Qwell Jackson was able to lead the league in stops. Jackson was kept clean while the players with outside contain force ball carriers toward him. He was able to flow to the play and continuously piled up big tackle numbers. At the snap of the ball the middle backer will look for keys that tell him if the play is a pass or run. His first read is the offensive line. A pass blocking offensive lineman will stand up out of his stance as opposed to a run blocker who fires out to engage the defender. Offenses have tricks such as draw plays to disguise their blocking schemes so there are reads beyond the initial line movement. Pass coverage responsibilities will depend on the cover scheme called but once run is diagnosed, the middle linebacker usually has a single assignment, get to the ball carrier.

    Inside Linebacker 3-4-4

    For all intents and purposes the 3-4-4 is basically a 5-2-4 when it comes to the responsibilities of the inside backers, with the right inside backer basically serving as the weak side linebacker. He must stay in position long enough to cover misdirection plays, cutback runs and reverses but unless he is on a blitz he has few gap responsibilities. Once he's sure the play is not coming back to him he is generally free to get to the ball the best way he can. Without a traditional strong side backer to run interference, the left inside backer sometimes has to serve that purpose. The difference being that the offense must still commit a blocker to the outside linebacker so the strong inside linebacker doesn't see as many double teams as a 4-3 strong side linebacker. The 3-4 scheme depends on its trio of linemen to eat up enough blockers to free up the inside backers. The top producers in these schemes will generally come from the weak inside linebacker position but there are exceptions. Often it will come down to who remains on the field in passing situations. In most 3-4 schemes everyone is a blitzing option but much of the time the inside rush is provided from the right inside linebacker since there are often fewer blockers to that side of the formation.

    Cornerbacks

    Corner is one position there is not a lot to say about. The responsibilities of this position will not vary greatly from one defense to the other with the exception of teams that run a Cover 2 or Tampa 2. The responsibilities are obvious while all that changes from play to play is the coverage scheme which will be either man to man, zone or bump and run. The cardinal sin for a corner is to get turned around by a double move and/or to let anyone get behind them for the deep ball.

    Many corners don't relish the idea of butting heads with a 230-pound running back that has a full head of steam, but there are a few such as Antoine Winfield, Charles Woodson, and Charles Tillman who don't hesitate to do so and are consistently among the best tackle producers at their position. In fantasy terms the corner position can be productive but is wildly inconsistent and unpredictable. The exception to this general rule being, clubs that feature the Tampa 2 / Cover 2. In these schemes the safeties play deep and the corners are expected to contribute more to run support. Charles Tillman was the fantasy game's top corner in 2001 and is a great example of this. Most of the time he is the corner on the strong side, which gives him responsibilities versus the run that normally fall to the strong safety. My Footballguys teammate Jene Bramel has written an excellent article that specifically breaks down the responsibilities of the Tampa 2 which is now being run by several clubs. If you like this article and want to go even further into breaking down schemes, Bramel's work, especially his Reading the Defense column, is a very enlightening must read.

    Free Safety

    Often referred to as the center fielder of the defense, free safety is a big play position in many schemes, though not all clubs have the luxury of a playmaker at the position. Some are forced to strive/settle for solid mistake free play from the position. The free safety is responsible for an area of the field in zone coverage and will sometimes cover the slot receiver in man to man but is often free to roam the secondary, provide double teams on receivers and generally make plays on the ball where ever it may go. With an occasional call specific exception, he has the responsibility of backing up everyone and is expected to keep everything (meaning the ball and/or receivers in the pattern) in front of him. Demands of this position are great, the free safety must be smart enough to make the right reads, quick enough to change his mind when fooled, fast enough to make up for mistakes (either his or someone else's) and a solid tackler since he is often the last defender. He goes through a series of reads at the snap of the ball that lead him to the play but those reads are filled with ifs. Offenses work very hard to misdirect the safeties and give them false reads to confuse them. Free safeties are often quality options for fantasy owners, particularly those free safeties on clubs who are weak at linebacker. They make a lot of tackles on receivers after the catch, and are responsible to help with run support. If you can land one who contributes in the turnover category such as Eric Weddle, Kerry Rhodes, Reggie Nelson, or Quintin Mikell for example, you have a solid fantasy option on your hands.

    Strong Safety

    Normally your best fantasy option in the secondary is found here. Many strong safeties are tackle mongers. In fact there were seven of them who racked up 80 or more solo tackles in 2010 and four in 2011. They often mix a linebacker's mentality with the skill set of a defensive back. The strong safety is the enforcer in the secondary, providing big hits in the running game while supplying an intimidating presence over the middle against the pass. Clubs search for Ronnie Lott clones that have the size and willingness to take on a running back with a full head of steam, yet are nimble enough to get a grip on an elusive wide receiver in the open field. Players at this position benefit greatly by having a quality strong side linebacker in front of them. The linebacker takes out the blocking leaving the safety there to clean up the ball carrier. Some defensive schemes like to play the strong safety up near the line, tucked in behind the strongside linebacker for just this reason. Some play him so far up he is basically an extra linebacker. Some go so far as to line up the strong safety as a linebacker in nickel and dime packages. The strong safeties first responsibility is run support. On passing downs he is rarely expected to cover a wide receiver one on one and usually provides deep support in zone coverage, double team help for the corners in man to man or coverage on the tight end.

    Cover 2, Tampa 2

    The one secondary scheme that basically changes all the rules is the Cover 2 and its variation the Tampa 2. The Bears, Vikings and Bucs have used this scheme for years. In fact nearly all defenses have a Cover 2 package in their playbooks though only a few use it as their base coverage. The basic difference between the normal 4-3 and the Cover 2 is that in a Cover 2 both safeties take on free safety responsibilities with each covering a deep half of the field while the corners are asked to play more aggressively underneath. Corners usually move up closer to the line of scrimmage where they can be more physical with the receivers, often jamming them at the line and trying to alter their patterns. This is most effective against West Coast styles of offense that are based on timing. Being positioned closer to the line, the Cover 2 corner generally has a much bigger role in run support. In fact the strong side corner often takes on very similar responsibilities to the strong safety.

    Draft Hints

    With a few exceptions your productive IDPs are going to come from the defensive end (4-3), middle linebacker / inside linebacker, weak side linebacker, strong safety and free safety positions, with an honorable mention to right corners in Cover 2 schemes. These are the naturally productive positions when it comes to box scores. Any player outside of them, who is not a proven commodity, is a big risk. When considering late round sleepers turn to these positions unless you have a very good reason to look at a particular player elsewhere. Keep in mind that defensive players are very difficult to scout during the preseason so there are nearly always more quality free agents available on defense at the beginning of the season. Stock up on your hot offensive prospects in the draft, then be aggressive on defense when the season starts. Don't spend early or middle round draft picks on unproven defensive backs. There are a handful of guys each year that can be counted on. Once the Top 10 defensive backs are gone, it becomes a complete crap shoot. Corners are very inconsistent from week to week as well as year to year, so don't put too much weight on last year's production alone. Look back two or three years to be sure your guy wasn't a one-year wonder. This happens often, especially with corners.

    Best of luck to everyone this fall. When the bell rings, come out swinging and in the infamous words of the great Al Davis...

    JUST WIN BABY!

    As always, feel free to provide comments or suggestions to norton@footballguys.com.

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