Fat Camp - Sometimes a Sam isn’t just a Sam

Happy Friday, friends.  Today we’re going to talk about defensive schemes and why the people making noise about Von Miller being more of a fit in a 3-4 don’t really know what the hell they’re talking about.  Yay!  Ted is going to tell us all how much smarter he is than the football MSM.  That’s never happened before, right?  (Don’t answer that.)

Anyway, let me start by reiterating a point that I made on Wednesday.  The term 4-3 simply means a personnel grouping, consisting of four defensive linemen and three linebackers.  It’s not a scheme, in and of itself; there is no monolithic 4-3 concept that everybody who uses four linemen and three linebackers employs.

John Fox keeps hinting at the fact that the base personnel grouping is pretty meaningless to strategy, but our friends at the Denver Post are too thick to realize what he’s saying.  They only know what they know, even if it’s wrong.  A guy like Jeff Legwold, who passionately bases his opinions on what “most/many NFL people” tell him, doesn’t even know what “5-technique” means.  Obviously, neither does John “The Professor (At Bonita’s School of Toupee Design)” Clayton.

Longtime readers know this, but 5-technique simply means that the defensive player aligns his head on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle.  It indicates nothing about the rest of the front, or about the size or playing style of the player.  It’s simply a landmark-based location for a player to align himself.  If you ask the average football writer, though, it means “3-4 Defensive End.”  That’s completely incorrect.  Here’s one solid website’s take on identifying alignments.  I wouldn’t personally use the “I” designations that they use, but it’s extra detail, and some coaches probably find value in it.

Back to scheme – What makes up a scheme?  Have you ever thought about that?  I think it’s easier to comprehend on offense, because most people have a somewhat better feel for it, and I think it’s generally better explained, due to its relevance to fantasy football (which, of course, I avoid).  If you ask me, scheme comes from about five factors:

  1. Positional size/speed prototypes in player acquisition, including tolerance for variation
  2. Choice of base personnel grouping (for roster balancing)
  3. Choice of core repetitive concepts, and the specific coaches to teach them
  4. Preference for use of sub packages to accomplish specific goals
  5. Preference for repetition or dynamic game-planning

My thesis is that a 4-3 is not just a 4-3, and likewise, a 3-4 is not just a 3-4.  Understanding these five variables will help to illuminate the differences

1.  Close your eyes, and picture a Defensive End.  What do you see, in terms of measurables?  Is there a difference, in this regard, between a Left DE, and a Right DE?  If you ask the Colts, they’ll tell you that a DE is 6-1, 230-250 pounds, and runs the 40 in less than 4.7 seconds.  If you ask the Steelers, a DE is 6-5, 310 pounds, and it’s fine if he’s a 4.9- or 5.0-second guy.  The Seahawks and Ravens like one of each, a big guy at Left DE, and a smaller, quicker one at Right DE.  The Giants collect Defensive Lineman, and they want big guys who are as fast as possible at their size. 

Also, if there’s a great player who doesn’t fit your normal prototype, do you take him?  There’s a really good argument to be made for doing so, and an equally good one for not doing so.  A team has to know where they stand, though.

These size/speed prototypes are used throughout the roster, and they end up informing what the scheme becomes.  Of course, these decisions aren’t made in a vacuum, and they’re geared to fit well with the decisions being made in the other variable areas.

2.  What kind of front do you feel most comfortable using?  If you could go either way, do you think it’s easier and/or more cost-effective to staff quality defensive linemen, or quality linebackers, given your prototypes?  The truth is, that answer depends on your prototypes and where they fit among the league-wide supply-and-demand landscape.  When there were only three 3-4 teams in the NFL, it was pretty easy and cheap to find the specific players for it.  Now that teams are about half and half, the pricing has changed, and it will continue to do so, within a dynamic marketplace.

3.  Would you rather heat up a QB or make a team go down the field in small chunks?  Coverage-wise, do you prefer zone or man-to-man?  How comfortable are you with dropping a safety into the box and playing an eight-man front?  Do you prefer a defensive lineman to occupy blockers, or penetrate?  Should a linebacker play downhill into gaps, or flow sideline to sideline?

This is all of the tactical stuff, and it plays into what kind of players you acquire, how you combine them into situation-driven groups of 11, and how you align them on the field pre-snap.

4.  Some coaches love to stay in their base groupings, because they feel like it puts their best 11 players on the field.  Other coaches substitute liberally, based upon the situation and (especially defensively) what the other side is showing in terms of personnel grouping.  If the offense runs out three WR, most defenses will send in a CB for a LB.  The Steelers often won’t, because they trust their LBs in zone coverage.  Offensively, the Colts substitute very little and mostly stick to 11 personnel.

5.  Some coaches game-plan heavily for every different opponent they play.  Bill Belichick and Mike Shanahan are well-known for this, and a good case can be made that it keeps the other team guessing what you’re going to do and reduces the chances you’ll get into easily-identifiable tendencies.  The converse argument is also valid, and says that you should get good at a few things and do those things repeatedly.  Some defensive playbooks have the same 30 plays in them every week, and other teams will use 300 different ones in the course of a season.

Each of those variables has a lot of sub variables, and you can see that none of this is as simple as the average John Clayton would tell you.  Did you hear the one about Mario Williams being made the biggest OLB in NFL history?  I yawned, because it begs the question, what really is an OLB?

Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme plays almost exactly like a 4-3 Under scheme.  It’s a one-gap, penetrating approach, unlike the Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 that, say, the Patriots run.  The open-side OLB is much like a standup DE, and he isn’t asked to drop into coverage very much.  I would personally use Mario Williams as a DE on the open side, but if Wade think he can do the DeMarcus Ware stuff, good luck with that.  In either case, Mario Williams is a great player, and the idea is putting him in a position to make great football plays.

Thus shall it also be with Von Miller.  He’s obviously a centerpiece talent, so while deciding what the Broncos’ defensive scheme is going to be like, don’t expect the coaching staff to decide that Von is just going to be the typical 4-3 Sam who is there to play the run and comes off the field in sub packages.  That would be a misallocation of resources, and everybody should realize that. 

A lot of people are getting stuck on “Sam”, though, and thinking that Miller is going to be deployed like he’s in the most non-essential position in a 4-3.  That’s emphatically not going to happen. 

Do you remember last year when the Raiders bought Kamerion Wimbley from the Browns for 20 cents on the dollar?  Wimbley had had a good rookie season as a 3-4 pass rusher and then tailed off.  When the Mike Holmgren regime came to Cleveland, they gave him away for a small price, and everybody asked why the Raiders would trade for a “3-4 OLB” when they play a 4-3. 

The Raiders promptly installed Wimbley at Sam OLB and asked him to do all of the things a Sam does.  He played the run well and even did a little bit of coverage work.  The Raiders also blitzed him a lot, and he got nine sacks, which was the most for any 4-3 LB in the NFL.  The Raiders’ effective use of the Sam in getting after the QB was a big key to their improved defense in 2010.

I’ve said this before, but blitzing is different than pass rushing.  Rushing the passer is a man against a man, and the offensive lineman knows you’re coming.  Elvis Dumervil is a pass rusher, whether his hand is on the ground or not.  He’s going to have a man who’s charged with blocking him, and he’s working to whip that man.  Many “3-4 OLBs” are also pass rushers; their main function is to sack the QB.

I see Von Miller more as a frequent blitzer than as a pass rusher.  Offenses often won’t know if Miller is coming or covering, and that element of surprise, combined with Miller’s speed and quickness, will make him really tough to handle.  As a standup blitzer, Miller can be schemed open very frequently.

You can line Miller up outside Dumervil, have him take one zone-step backward at the snap while Dumervil rushes hard to the outside, and then bring Miller hard on a slight delay through the B gap.  The Left Guard is never going to pick him up, and the Left Tackle has his hands full with Dumervil.

How about running a double A-Gap blitz with Miller and Nate Irving?  I like the idea of letting him pick his gap in a 3-3 Nickel look or zone blitzing with him out of that.  The point is, there are a lot of things you can do to get Miller after QBs from a base 4-3 defense.  I said this on Draft day, but the only constraint is Dennis Allen’s creativity.

By the way, I’m by no means suggesting that Miller should always be going after the QB.  I think Miller has a lot to offer in coverage as well, and that mixing up when he’s coming and isn’t coming will only serve to maximize his per-play effectiveness.  I don’t think there’s a TE in the NFL that Miller can’t cover, and he can definitely hold his own with any slot WR too.

Remember, pass rushing is a low-return activity.  Most pass rushers attempt to sack the QB 450 times a year out of the 550 pass attempts that their team faces, and the best ones get 15 sacks.  To me, the best outcome for Von Miller would be 275 blitzes and 275 drops into coverage while being on the field for all 550 pass attempts Denver faces.  As talented as he is, if you do that, you have a really good chance to still get the 15 sacks and also to have 100 tackles and 5 interceptions a year.  When John Elway said that Von Miller is a once-in-a-decade player, I agreed with him.

I’m going to keep going with this in the next few days, moving schedule permitting - because I’m out of time for today, but not done.  As always, if you have any questions, please ask away in the comments.  Have a good weekend, friends, and I’ll see you early next week.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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