Fat Camp: Defensive fronts, Part II

After exploring the basics of the 3-4 options in last week's Fat Camp, today we’ll take a tour of the basics of the 4-3 options. This is the direction that John Fox will take Denver’s D - a zone-coverage dominant, bend-don’t-break approach that requires the offense to do the right thing over and over in order to gain territory, and that prevents the big plays that have killed Denver’s chances over the past two years. While some of that has been the lack of a running game or a ball control offense (as well as the offense's struggles in the red zone) to protect the D, the defense has been dropping to the bottom of the league for some seasons now. Having reached that final level of futility, I look for Denver to make a lot of changes over the next two years. One will be the move to a 4-3. 

The 4-3

The 4-3 doesn't really lend itself to specific formations and systems which are then named, such as the Fairbanks-Bullough and the Phillips, but there is one notable exception and there are some simple generalities. You can do almost anything with it - Indy prefers smaller, lighter DTs, for example. Of course, they also have one of the best penetration DEs in the game in Dwight Freeney, even if he's now getting older. You can also go with much bigger players, especially in the middle, and use speed players on the outside. When they say that a game is won in the trenches, you’re talking about a combination of the right personnel and the right scheme for the DL vs. the OL.

The 46 Defense

Probably the most prominent exception to the idea that specific 4-3 defenses aren’t commonly named, the 46 Defense was, in the 1980s, a masterpiece of innovation that is still being used. Developed by Buddy Ryan while he was with the Chicago Bears, it was named for the jersey number of Doug Plank, who was one of the best (and frequently, dirtiest) safeties in the game, a player that Ryan called ‘Goldilocks’, due to his long blond hair. In its time, the 46 drove people insane for two very good reasons.

First, no one had seen anything quite like it in recent memory; Bill Walsh called it the greatest defensive innovation in 25 years. Plank was a rover at safety in this defense; he frequently acted as an additional linebacker and he might rush the passer, take out the running back or drop into coverage, while the other safety would also play close to the line. The Bears would line up over the weakside of the defense (the side opposite the tight end) and put Richard Dent, Dan Hampton and Steve McMichaels directly opposite the offensive guards and center, which made trapping and pulling very difficult without opening up the QB for painful visits from the linemen.

They also put two linebackers on the strongside (Ryan named them ‘Charley’ and ‘Jack’, since they didn’t play the conventional strong and weakside placements). Chicago used a very similar approach (in certain respects) to the ‘zone blitz’ that is usually attributed to Dick LeBeau, in that the Bears would rush between 4 and 8 people out of their defensive group, with certain (and variable) players dropping into coverage. Both bump and run (used to disrupt the pass timing) and man-free coverage (a Cover 1 approach with a ‘safety valve’ player back) were used. The idea was to give the quarterback no time to set up and throw, and the receivers no time to run their routes.

Second, the Bear’s personnel was incredible - look at their 1985 season and subsequent playoff run up to and including Super Bowl XX. The '85 Bears established a record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season with 198 - it was a record which would stand for only one year, with Chicago beating its own mark by 11 points in 1986 (the 2000 Ravens now hold the record with 165 points ceded). Behind the play of Mike Singletary, Wilber Marshall and Clyde Simmons as well as the players noted above, the Bears were an unusually talented team on defense.

Their 46 approach has been recently used by the New Orleans Saints in winning Super Bowl XLIV, which means that new Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen is very familiar with it, as are Ryan’s sons, Jets head coach Rex and Cowboys DC Rob (even when Rex ran the 3-4, he applied many of the same 46 principles). The 2009 Saints often used Darren Sharper as a ‘robber’ safety in a similar Cover-1 variation that was very effective that season. The 46 counts on a lot of pressure and is often countered by throwing short play-action routes to try and make the completions before the rush can affect the quarterback.

Over/Under

Perhaps the biggest division in the 4-3 is in the the over/under formations. As Denver head coach John Fox noted, that can be done with the 3-4 as well.  It's easy to understand:  In the over, you're assuming that the offense will be running to the strongside, or passing. Therefore, you shift so that three of your four players are lined up against the strongside A gap and on over, with one DL on the weakside (and, often, a LB and/or a safety is targeted to covering weakside if the offense goes the other way). If it's a pass, you are overloading one side of the OL and should get penetration to harass the QB, and if it’s a run, you’ve taken away the strongside and forced the RB into your defenders. Arizona probably ran the over/under better than anyone during their run to Super Bowl XLIII three seasons ago. Last year, on the other hand, they were 29th in yards and 30th in points allowed. (The curse of making it to a SB is that your coaches and players will be poached by teams that will pay them more, and you’ll lose cohesion. It happens a lot.)

The 'under' is the same approach, but with the emphasis switched to the weakside. You shift all but one DL to the A gap and on over from there. It’s the same theory - you expect a run to that side or a pass, and you're overloading the weakside if it's a pass. You also bring up a LB and/or a safety to help out by rushing the passer from the side you're not protecting as much.

The 4-3 DL Players

Defensive End in the 4-3

DEs can be of any type, and most teams know what they want. For example, the use of larger DEs isn't new, but it's coming into vogue again, as evidenced by Oakland in 2010. One reason for the Raiders' improvement in 2010 was that they did something I've always thought would be quite effective - they played a 4-3 by using one or two faster DT(s) on the edges. They usually used Richard Seymour (he of the famous pull-your-pigtails stunt against Ryan Clady in 2009) - he was often on the outside, and took on the tackles, but also played the DT positions, and was very effective at causing havoc and creating mismatches when the coaches moved him. I know - I don’t like his tactics either, but he’s a heck of a player.

That's their preference, and it worked. The choice is mostly about what you want the DEs to do - act as bigger LBs, or function as somewhat smaller, faster DTs. I happen to like that second option - Marcus Thomas could give offensive tackles fits, for example, if Justin Bannan and/or a draft pick/FA are clogging the middle and Robert Ayers were at the other end. There’s no reason to paint a player into a single role if he has the skills to be used in multiple ways. Thomas does have those skills. He’s also a fine under tackle.

You can also go with the road grader DTs, if you can find them, and get your speed and your rush on the QB from the LBs (generally smaller, in this case) and/or from one or more of the DEs. The options are nearly unlimited. The Jason Taylor/Jevon Kearse body type - 6’5"-6'6", 260-265, but with a longer body, arms and legs and yet excellent power and speed is also popular; again, if you can find them.  North Carolina's Robert Quinn has been shooting up some draft boards, and Scott Wright has him surpassing Da’Quan Bowers - Quinn is a great example of this type. Some teams use smaller DEs that would be linebackers in other systems, hence John Fox’s comment that often the 3-4/4-3 question is a matter of semantics and how you use the players you have.

Basics from The Genius

Bill Walsh left behind a lot of writing, and I’ve done what I could over the years to collect as much as possible. He’s one of the many coaches that I truly admire. He weighed in on each position in an article that I found on The Sports Xchange, and I highly recommend it. Walsh used the 4-3, which is handy for this piece. As an example of his approach, here is what Walsh looked for in a DE:  he was on the other end of the scale from what Oakland is doing, so I wanted to add a different voice. His metrics on players reflected the times - he thought that defensive tackles were big at 280 lb, and back then, they were. Things have changed, but not the principles that Walsh left behind. I like many approaches, depending on your players - much of this is about who you have, what they can and can’t do and what your philosophy or identity calls for. Here’s what he had to say:

Must have explosive movement and the ability to cover ground quickly in three to five yards of space. The ability to get your shoulder past the shoulder of the tackle. This makes for a pass rusher. With that there is quickness because it sets up a lot of other things.

Upper body strength, ala Fred Dean, becomes important. Because you can start one way and when the blocker adapts to your move up the field, then you can arm over him or slug him past as Fred would do, and come underneath him.

So it takes quickness, in this case, to help make things happen.

However, you cannot be turned out -- turned to the outside, away from the play -- on down after down. So you have to have enough girth and technique so you don't get yourself off balance and are turned out play after play by the tackle.

That way you cannot recover back inside for running plays when they come your way. So that type of strength is a must.

Upper body strength is somewhat different than that of a defensive tackle. The defensive end does not come into contact with an offensive tackle until you often see what happens, or after you set him up. Where the defensive tackle has to do it right at the snap. So it does take hands to use your techniques to get past him.

There are those defensive ends who can take a tackle back into the quarterback. They can be just as effective with that as a man who makes spectacular sacks once or twice a game. Something that is not given due credit too often is the player who can take that offensive lineman back to the quarterback. Everybody keeps waiting for the pass rusher to be past somebody and make a move, where in reality you can have an excellent pass rush and not sack anybody. You break his rhythm, force him to move out of the way of his own man.

These men are basically the substance of the defensive team. Their ability to put pressure on the quarterback is a focal part of defense.

One of the advantages to using Elvis Dumervil as a DE is his ability to forklift with those long, powerful arms and push an OL player back into the QB. In many cases, it’s as good as a sack. I’ll be honest - I still prefer to use Dumervil as a rusher from the OLB, although I really don’t expect to see him playing there. While I agree that he struggles in space, it was his first year there back in 2009 and I expect him to improve in that area if given the chance. I think that it’s fair to note that he struggled to stop the run both as a DE as well as at OLB. That’s a weakness that I’m not sure the line can deal with on a regular basis, since stopping the run is a key to Fox’s defenses, and nearly everyone else’s.

Robert Ayers may get there at DE - we'll get to see. I’ve watched him when he was healthy handling playing on the line just fine. His foot never seemed quite right once it was injured, but the time off should take care of that. He can play DE, and he can slide into the under tackle slot on some plays. I think that Ayers should be fine at this position. There are a number of draft options and FA options as well, but I doubt they’d be needed on his side of the line.  Whatever the Broncos do, they will focus on stopping the run, breaking the QB's rhythm, and force the opposing offense to run successful plays over and over again to score. Fox’s approach tries to take away the big play, causing the offense to run more plays, and thereby creating more possibilities for mistakes and turnovers. Increasing turnovers has already come up as a matter of emphasis for the Broncos next season.

Defensive Tackles in the 4-3

Also according to Bill Walsh, this is the analysis of what he wanted in his defensive tackles. I think that it’s still accurate, almost 30 years later. That’s the mark of a great coach - his teachings are timeless. I’d note, however, that Walsh did not differentiate between the 4-3 nose and under tackle slots in this article - more on that below. 

Must have the girth, strength, ballast to hold off the guard, or to step into a tackles' block without being knocked off the line of scrimmage.

Quick, strong hands to grab and pull are critical. This is common with the great tackles. The hands, the arms, the upper body strength and then the quick feet to take advantage of a moving man, just getting him off balance.

You are looking for somebody who can move down the line of scrimmage and make a tackle, pursuing a ball-carrier. That would be lateral quickness in a short area, being able to get underway and move over and through people. If you get knocked off the line, or get knocked sideways or knocked off balance, you cannot play this position. You must be able to work your way through people, so that kind of strength is a must.

The best defensive tackles move the offensive guard back into the quarterback. They won't have nearly as many sacks as others, but if they can move the guard back into the quarterback, then the quarterback has to avoid his own lineman as if he were a pass rusher before he throws the ball. So this is a key ability.

There’s not that much I can add, but one thing that gets a lot of looks at Combine is whether the player has a large ‘bubble’ - his hips and rear end need to be wide and powerful. That usually helps the player’s stability - this is a player who has to be able to anchor as well as move the way Walsh describes. When Walsh talks about the ability to play without getting knocked off balance, he’s talking about a player who has that bubble. It may sound odd, but it’s essential for this position.

The Nose Tackle and the Under Tackle in the 4-3

This is an area that is often not understood by the casual fan, but it can be very important for many teams. Some teams may use their two DTs in a nearly identical fashion, and that’s how many fans view them. It can be more precise, though, and for a lot of teams, it is. You can use one of them - usually the larger - as a 4-3 nose tackle, a term that can throw the fan.

Nose tackle? That’s the 3-4, right? Actually, there is usually a nose tackle in either system, and many football people still feel that  nose guard is technically the proper term for the middle DL player in a 3-4 defense while nose tackle is used in the 4-3. If that’s the case, then the other DT is then called the under tackle. Generally, the nose tackle is played at the 1-technique, off the strongside offensive guard, while the under tackle is usually at the 3-technique, on the outside shoulder of the weakside offensive guard.

As I noted, some teams don't differentiate as much. Others use the nose tackle in a two gap role, lining up directly across from the center and deciding at the moment that the play unfolds which side to go to. The under tackle may be in a single gap approach, in which his gap is predetermined and his job is to beat his man and get into the backfield - fast.

If that’s the case, you would want a player with a very fast burst off the line at under tackle, since his primary role will often be to get to the backfield and harass the QB or stop the RB for negative yardage. You will want a player who has very powerful hands and excellent balance - he’s going to have to be able to dominate his OL player, who is often a guard, control him and get past him, which will mean an emphasis on swim, rip, and/or spin moves. I don’t want to oversimplify - each player can be used in myriad ways, and each is simply part of a larger pattern. Even so, an under tackle player should be one whose skillset includes a fast burst, some level of sustainable speed to catch the QB or RB, and who has the technique to handle the job of getting penetration.

Denver's Players and Options

With Denver apparently changing to a 4-3 system, I would like to see a 4-3 NT that is much like the 3-4 nose guard: perhaps not quite as big as the 'traditional' 3-4 NT/NG is thought to look like (although if he’s got lighter feet, there’s no reason not to), but large and powerful, a player who takes on a double team and who obstructs the running lanes. Despite the comments that Auburn's Nick Fairley tends to take plays off, he’d be my first choice if they don’t trade down from the #2 pick. Mostly, I want a little more quickness than you’d see in a 3-4 NG regardless of size. Phil Taylor of Baylor is intriguing in terms of his size - he needs to be ‘coached up’ on leverage, but he could play NG or NT if he’s still there later in the 2nd round. Denver may be looking for its next right offensive tackle then, too.

Regardless of metrics, that's the guy I need to stop the center, pull double teams if possible, forcing help from the strongside offensive guard (RG), a guy who obstructs the running lanes and permits the double A gap blitzes. The under tackle is a player that you want to be faster as well as quick, with more range than the NT - the UT is usually playing the 3-technique and with a quick burst off the line, he's the guy for analyzing plays very quickly and getting through the trash to the QB or RB. He needs excellent hand usage to shed blockers, great feet and balance, and great overall technique.

In watching a lot of film, I have begun to suspect that Justin Bannan may be nearly perfect for that under tackle role - man, he's fast. I saw him pulling down a few RBs in negative territory from behind. That's very fast, considering the RBs were going weakside and he was the LDE, bringing backside pursuit all the way from the strongside. Bannan is probably the best lineman the Broncos have and he could play either role, but I’d prefer to see him as an under tackle if possible.

Marcus Thomas also makes a good under tackle - he’s very quick for his size. I think that he was probably a little wasted as a roving 3-4 backup, although he did the job very well. He pulled a lot of double teams, but he didn't usually defeat them. As an under tackle, he's not expected to. If they do double team him, it creates an opening for the MLB or a stunt from Robert Ayers, etc. If they don't, he's quick enough to pressure the QB or take down the runner.

Any Broncos 4-3 nose tackles? Well, it remains to be seen if moving to a 4-3 will extend Jamal Williams' career by a year or two. If it does, he’s a good example of the position - he’s down to 328 as a playing weight and he’s lost some quickness, but he’s big and strong as an ox. I worry about his ability to anchor and to move laterally with freedom - perhaps too many knee surgeries? Kevin Vickerson, at 321, is very athletic; I think that he may be a reasonable option in a rotation at the 4-3 nose. As noted, if Denver gets Nick Fairley he’d be pretty much perfect, with his ability to dominate the man or men in front of him. The same goes with Alabama's Marcell Dareus if Denver can’t take Fairley, although Da’Quan Bowers of Clemson at DE is a good option, and Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller makes my heart beat faster (consider the options with Doom back and Miller at OLB on passing downs - oh, yeah!). The 4-3 nose in some systems tends to put more emphasis on attacking than he would in a 3-4 NT/NG role. That’s an individual team preference.

Conclusion

I hope that this has covered some points that will help you to enjoy the game a little more. A deeper understanding of the fundamentals, regardless of how advanced a fan is, is rarely a bad thing. The more you know, the more you will realize how much you don’t know. But by applying what you can learn, the game becomes more and more interesting, going beyond the scoreboard and the standings.

Go Broncos!

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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