Guide to Defenses 1
By Jene Bramel
August 20th, 2010

Part 1: Introduction and Defensive Line Play

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 all 22 players as the play unfolds. 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, Hank Stram, Bill Parcells, George Allen, Don Shula, Joe Collier, Tony Dungy, Bill Belichick, Dick LeBeau, among many, many others all cut their teeth coaching the defensive side of the ball. Many of the greatest characters of the game, from Deacon Jones and Joe Greene to Ted Hendricks and Lawrence Taylor to Mel Blount and Ronnie Lott, have been defensive players.

Those pillars of NFL defensive play are the inspiration behind this seven part series about defensive football. Each installment of the series will focus on a different aspect of defensive play, using a mix of technical concepts, playbook diagrams and the words and stories of the true characters of the game to bring the art of playing defense alive.

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

The Hardest Year of Warren Sapp's Life

At 31 years old, Warren Sapp was still 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 had been 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.

After the 2003 season, Sapp left Tampa Bay to sign with Oakland, where he moved to defensive end in the Raiders' new 3-4 defense. The result was a disappointing 2.5 sacks during a season that Sapp called "the hardest of my life." At first glance, those numbers might be dismissed as age related. But Sapp later 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?

Journeyman quarterback David Carr knew the answer.

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: "We're not scared of you as a 3-4 defensive end." Carr, whose on-field trash talking skills will never be mistaken for those of Brett Favre, said what Sapp already knew. Even the subtlest difference in alignment and responsibility can make a huge difference in a player's production. Sapp's role in the Raiders' 3-4 was significantly different from the 3-technique role he played with the Buccaneers. 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, playbooks sometimes 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. The space between the center and guard (to either side) is called the "A" gap, the space between the guard and tackle the "B" gap, and so forth.

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 often plays a 0-technique and is responsible for both center-guard "A" gaps. A defensive lineman playing an odd technique is usually 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.

Now it's easier to see why Carr was able to get to the heart of Sapp's struggles in 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 Raiders' multiple 3-4 front, Sapp frequently aligned in a 4- or 5-technique. 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. That job is critical to the success of the defense, 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 as sometimes referred to in this front, the 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 undertackles 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 under fronts during the last few seasons. Coordinators also often use the under front in their nickel packages, moving one of their defensive ends inside as a 3-technique.

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 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 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 skewed the defensive playcalling toward the under front. In Oakland, Sapp's path to the backfield as a 5-technique end wasn't nearly as easy. Relatively speaking, it was the difference between an interstate through western Kansas and a potholed city street with multiple detours and a traffic light at every intersection.

Sapp's story is a perfect introduction to the layers and intricacies of NFL defenses. As this series progresses, I'll be using Bruce Smith, Jimmy Johnson, Dick LeBeau and many others as examples as I explore the 4-3 and 3-4 fronts more deeply, discuss variations on those fronts like the Tampa-2, look at the origins of the zone blitz and 46 defense and make some observations on today's varied and vital subpackages.


I've decided to limit the fantasy discussion within the main sections of this series in this revision. But many of the defensive concepts discussed will have direct applications to IDP leagues and I'll add commentary about IDP strategy after each installment.

First, a general comment about IDP leagues. Those opposed to IDP leagues sometimes make the argument that defensive players can't be trusted from season to season and that it's a crapshoot trying to figure out which players will break out or decline from one season to the next. To which I say: If David Carr can figure out why Warren Sapp's production can fall off a cliff, so can you. If you can learn why a slot wide receiver in a spread offense has added value or appreciate why a one-cut, downhill runner with marginal vision can do well behind a talented zone blocking offensive line, you'll be able to see similar things affecting defensive players and easily learn to assess their value from year to year.

Using the Sapp story as an example, it's easy to see why a 3-technique defensive tackle will likely put up better fantasy numbers than a traditional 2-gap nose tackle. A big, quick player schemed into a single-blocking matchup against an offensive guard (the 3-technique) has a better chance to penetrate and make tackles on running plays to beat a player that's not as proficient at pass blocking to sack the quarterback than the slower, mountainous player who's reading the play from the line of scrimmage, often double teamed and covering two gaps for his defense (the nose tackle). Learning which teams use a 3-technique tackle is as easy as learning which teams run a spread offense. Find a RDT (most commonly) on those teams (HOU, IND, NYG, CHI, DET, MIN, ATL, CAR, NO, TB, STL and SEA) with quickness and some pass rush ability and you'll have found the strongest fantasy options among the league's defensive tackles. This year, that includes Tommie Harris, Corey Williams, Kevin Williams, Jonathan Babineaux, Sedrick Ellis, Gerald McCoy and Brandon Mebane.

That's not to suggest that you should ignore all other defensive tackle prospects. As we'll see, some 1-gap nose tackles in the 3-4 front and a handful of dominant talents from 4-3 teams can have value without playing 3-technique roles. But knowing how and why the 3-technique is successful helps you sort out your rankings and tiers. As the series progresses, you'll find many other situations to add to the list.

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to

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