The Bartlett Defense: Part 1 - Personnel and alignment

In football, I’m an offense guy, going way back to when I was a kid.  I’ve always thought deeply about the passing game, and been able to really see concepts, and understand why they do what they do.  This is despite not playing the game at a high level, or coaching at any level above Pop Warner.  I just feel offense, and as such, I’ve read dozens of books written about offense and watched hundreds of games, and the result is that I can do what I do with the subject matter. 

In transitioning out of my current job, I have a couple of visitors in Cleveland to document my processes, and one of them paid me the compliment Monday of saying that I do a good job of explaining complicated things.  I appreciated her saying that, and really, I think that it stems from the writing I’ve done on football sites over the last four years. I know what knowledge I ultimately want to share, and I plan out a logical way of getting there, all while making sure all of the important interim knowledge points along the way are disseminated in an order which makes sense, and which lays a strong foundation for holistic understanding of the major knowledge item at the end.  Like Lester Freamon said, we’re building something here, and we’re building it from scratch, and all the pieces matter.

I’d been thinking over the weekend about what I should do to entertain myself and my non-wanker readers over the next month, and I decided that I would do something that no football writer has ever done, at least to my knowledge.  I’m going to invent a defensive scheme from scratch - a scheme which is specifically designed to combat the best offenses in use by the NFL today.  It will include a language, naming conventions, read concepts, and defined schematic principles.  By the time I’m done, it will be something that could be coached and used, if I weren’t so interested in making money that I’d decided not to coach football anytime soon.

Stupidly, all defenses in the NFL seem to be described as either a 4-3 or a 3-4, as if there are only two monolithic defensive schemes in use in the NFL.  This defense will be neither a 4-3 nor a 3-4, and I don’t intend for it to borrow much from the most generic form of either.  (I am going to borrow a couple of concepts from two of the best defensive minds in the NFL, in Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll, though.) 

What should I call this new defense? Oooh!  Oooh!  I know.  Let’s call it the Amoeba defense, because nobody has ever named a scheme after an amoeba before.  If it’s creative, it’s cool to liken it to an amorphous organism, right?  Actually, I’m going to call it the Bartlett Defense, because it cracks me up to think of readers who will criticize me for being full of myself for naming something that I invented after myself.

Those same people would want to fellate the founder of a business who named it after himself, of course.  It’s kind of like getting bitten by a dog, suing for a million bucks for pain and suffering, all while being the kind of person who loves to prattle on about right-wing favorite topics like tort reform.

Anyway, the Bartlett Defense is going to solve a specific problem, which is THE problem in defensive football today.  That is that offenses are able to dictate to defenses through the use of sub packages and variations in alignment, and they can resultingly get the defense into bad matchups.

My new concept is going to begin by solving that problem, and the foundation to how it will do that is with a completely new approach to defensive personnel groupings and alignment.  That’s going to be Part 1.

The rest of the series will lay out as follows:

  • Part 2: Principles for 100% defensive soundness
  • Part 3: Reads and thought processes
  • Part 4: Running game principles
  • Part 5: Base pass calls
  • Part 6: Blitz calls
  • Part 7: Adjustment principles

Personnel Groupings

Offensive personnel groupings are generally designated by a two-digit number system, wherein the first digit reflects the number of RBs, and the second the number of TEs.  You can derive the number of WRs from the equation WR = 5 – RB – TE.  You occasionally see a learned football guy use a word-based convention, with Matt Bowen coming to mind.  He calls what I would call 11 personnel Posse personnel.  My way is more widely used, and it’s what I know, so it’s what you get from me.

The following are the possible groupings that offenses present, and what personnel grouping adjustments they generally force from conventional defenses.

Offensive Grouping Personnel Defensive Grouping Rationale
00 5 WR Dime (6 DB) 5 WR requires 4-5 CB
01 1 TE, 4 WR Dime (6 DB) 4 WR requires 4 CB
02 2 TE, 3 WR Nickel (5 DB) 3 WR requires 3 CB
03 3 TE, 2 WR Base (4 DB) May see Nickel for good TEs
10 1 RB, 4 WR Dime (6 DB) 4 WR requires 4 CB
11 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR Nickel (5 DB) 3 WR requires 3 CB
12 1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR Base (4 DB) May see Nickel for good TEs
13 1 RB, 3 TE, 1 WR Base (4 DB) May see Nickel for good TEs
20 2 RB, 3 WR Nickel (5 DB) 3 WR requires 3 CB
21 2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR Base (4 DB) Will usually be base
22 2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR Base (4 DB) Will usually be base
30 3 RB, 2 WR Base (4 DB) Will usually be base
31 3 RB, 1 TE, 1 WR Base (4 DB) Will usually be base
32 3 RB, 2 TE Base (4 DB) Will usually be base

So, the offense is going to decide how many WRs to put in the game, and it forces a traditional defense to send in a corresponding number of CBs.  In almost all cases, the extra WRs are better than the extra CBs, just because CBs are harder to find than WRs.  Complicating matters, if a team has more than one good TE, like the Patriots do, a defense is forced to choose whether to adjust its personnel to Nickel or stay in Base when confronted with 12 or 22 Personnel.  Neither choice is a good one.

My answer to this problem is to rethink defensive personnel groupings and archetypes from the ground up.  Let’s talk personnel in a specific way and give them names.  I need 13 specialized starters, and then 10-12 backups for those players.  The following 13 paragraphs will introduce the positions I’m staffing for, and will lay out physical and mental parameters for them.

Closed-Side* DE (Chuck) – This player must be big and strong, and we’re looking for minimums of 6-3 and 290 pounds, with a preference of 6-5 and 305 pounds.  Base strength is key, as this player will be two-gapping most of the time.  We prefer a bit more mobility than some 3-4 DEs, but the player must be very stout and powerful at the point of attack.  Model – Red Bryant, Seattle Seahawks

* - The closed side of the defense generally matches up with the strong (unbalanced) side of an offensive line. As follows, the open side generally matches up with the weak side of the offense.

Closed-Side DT (Nate) – This player will be another big/powerful two-gapper, and it’s definitely a premium position in this scheme.  In practice, this will be a Nose Tackle type who is no different than a player that any 3-4 scheme would love to have in the middle.  He’s going to align in several places on the defensive line, but the key skills are power, the ability to maintain leverage, and to occupy blockers.  Model – Vince Wilfork, New England Patriots

Open-Side DT (Oscar) – On the open side, this defense is going to play one-gap football, and this player should be the traditional 3-technique player that you see in many 4-3 schemes.  The Oscar needs to have good penetration skills, as well as some ability to anchor in the running game.  The size characteristics are similar to the Chuck DE, but quickness is more important than strength at this position.  Model – Nick Fairley, Detroit Lions

Open-Side DE (Stan) – This is the premium hybrid pass-rusher that every defense wants.  Size and track speed are less important than pass-rushing skill, but generally, I want a player who’s 6-4 and 270 pounds, and who has long arms.  I value intelligence at this position, more than maybe other defenses do, because on an outside run to the closed side, the Stan DE will be assigned to take a downfield pursuit angle to the closed side.  (More on this in Part 2).  This is a player who is half traditional Sam LB, and half 4-3 DE.  Model – Von Miller, Denver Broncos

Closed-Side LB (Clyde) – This is a run-and-hit LB, the type that has fallen a bit out of favor, as defenses have gone away from the Tampa-2, so you can buy them cheaply right now.  Speed and tackling ability are very important, as are intelligence and zone coverage ability.  We’re not going to ask the LBs to cover much in man-to-man, but they’ll frequently be in zone.  Of the two LBs, the Clyde will be the less physical player, which is opposite of the thinking of having a Sam on the strong side.  The reason is that the closed-side linemen are two-gapping, so it should be less likely that a blocker gets out on the Clyde.  Model – Derrick Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs

Open-Side LB (Opie) – This is the same type of player as the Clyde, doing basically the same job.  As mentioned before, the more physical player of the two LBs will be the Opie, but at its core, this position features another run-and-hit guy.  Again, we need speed, tackling ability, intelligence, and zone coverage ability.  Model – Chad Greenway, Minnesota Vikings

Left CB (Lou) – We don’t necessarily need All-Pro CBs to play this defense, as you’ll see once we start getting into coverage concepts.  This position can be staffed by taking players in the second and third rounds of drafts.  The key positional traits here are man-to-man coverage ability, ball skills, and tackling ability.  The CBs will play some zone, but through good coaching, that’s a more developable skill.  Model – Jabari Greer, New Orleans Saints

Right CB (Rick) – This is a very similar player to the Lou CB.  We’re not going to look to pay big money to CBs in this defense - so young, talented, coachable players are what we’re looking for, with the same traits we already discussed.  Model – Janoris Jenkins, St. Louis Rams

Left Inside DB (Lance) – This is the matchup safety that I talked about last week.  It can be a tall and physical CB (which is preferable), or a quick Safety.  We need versatility between man and zone coverage, tackling ability, and excellent recognition skills.  Model – Sean Smith, Miami Dolphins

Right Inside DB (Rob) – The Rob is no different archetypally than the Lance.  Model – George Iloka – Cincinnati Bengals

Free Safety (Frank) – This is the traditional centerfielder-type of Free Safety, and we have to consider it a premium position.  We need a player who can range from sideline to sideline and can quickly read where plays are going.  Along with the Nate, the Frank is the key to the defense being balanced, by being consistently excellent in the middle of the field.  Open-field tackling is very important, and box play is less important, because we’re virtually never going to ask the Frank to go down into the box.  Model – Ed Reed, Baltimore Ravens

Pass Rush Specialist (Jack) – The Jack will replace the Chuck DE in likely passing situations, playing 20-25 snaps per game.  90% of the time, his assignment is going to be to get around the edge and rush the passer, with the other 10% typically being coverage responsibilities in fire-zone calls (more on that in Part 5).  We don’t really care that much if the Jack is multi-skilled, but we need him to be very strong in the one key skill of rushing the passer.  Model – Bruce Irvin, Seattle Seahawks

Extra CB (Eddie) – The idea of a substituted nickelback is less important in this scheme, because we’re playing in nickel all the time, with what amounts to three safeties.  The Eddie will be the primary backup to the Lou and Rick CBs, and will come in the game when offenses go to four-WR sets, replacing a LB.  Model – Aaron Williams, Buffalo Bills


In the front, you may have gathered that we’ll align based on designating an open side and a closed side.  That includes the four defensive linemen and the two LBs.  In the secondary, we'll simply play left and right, and the Frank plays in the middle.  The secondary is going to align in a 1-4 umbrella look on every snap, regardless of the call, like so:


Note that we’re aligning the Lance and the Rob closer to the line of scrimmage than we do the CBs.  They’re effectively going to be the seventh and eighth players in the box with our 4-2 front.  Bringing the whole picture together, here are all 11 players:


We have an every-snap eight-man front, with three very large front players, one medium-sized DE, two small/fast LBs, and two physical Safeties.  The key is the two matchup safeties, who are going to serve the dual roles of linebackers and defensive backs.  We’re going to get into some specifics on how to do that, beginning with run fits in Part 2.

I’ll start the Outro with a bottom-line thought on personnel here.  We’re saying that having a specifically assigned Sam LB in a 3-4, or a Mike LB in a 4-3, or a Strong Safety in any scheme isn’t necessary.  We want some specific traits, like tackling ability from all 11 players, effort, ball skills, toughness, and intelligence.  We also want endurance and durability, because we’re not  planning on substituting situationally much based on offensive groupings.  Let’s revisit our chart from above.

Offensive Grouping Personnel Defensive Grouping Rationale
00 5 WR Extra (6 DB) 5 WR requires extra CB
01 1 TE, 4 WR Extra (6 DB) 4 WR requires extra CB, mostly
02 2 TE, 3 WR Base (5 DB) Base is appropriate
03 3 TE, 2 WR Base (5 DB) Base is appropriate
10 1 RB, 4 WR Extra (6 DB) 4 WR requires extra CB, mostly
11 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR Base (5 DB) Base is appropriate
12 1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR Base (5 DB) Base is appropriate
13 1 RB, 3 TE, 1 WR Base (5 DB) Base is appropriate
20 2 RB, 3 WR Base (5 DB) Base is appropriate
21 2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR Base (5 DB) Base is appropriate
22 2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR Base (5 DB) Base is appropriate
30 3 RB, 2 WR Base (5 DB) Base is appropriate
31 3 RB, 1 TE, 1 WR Base (5 DB) Base is appropriate
32 3 RB, 2 TE Base (5 DB) Base is appropriate

Since our Base group has five DB, it’s good against most offensive personnel groupings.  We’re not worried against two good TEs, whether the offense runs or passes, and we feel fine about covering three WR as well, with either man or zone concepts.  When the offense goes to four or five WR, we simply replace one of the LBs with the Eddie CB.  When we’re pretty sure there’ll be a pass play, we bring in the Jack for the Chuck, and maybe move the Chuck down to replace the Nate inside.  That’s the whole substitution pattern, beyond occasionally subbing for a tired player.

Check back on Friday, when we’ll present Part 2 and establish some principles which will ensure that we’re always 100% sound on every defensive call.  You may never see this defensive scheme on a football field, but it sure is going to be fun to think through and discuss.  See you Friday, even those of you who hate me.  smile

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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