The Bartlett Defense: Part 2.5 - Responding to an excellent comment

Happy Tuesday, friends.  I’ve rarely done this over the years, but I am a little short on time today, with packing, and my final month-end close ever at my soon-to-be-former employer going on.  I’m going to do Part 2.5 of the Bartlett Defense series today, rather than move to Part 3, which will be lengthy and complex.  I’ll probably write most of that in the car on Sunday, on my way to Florida, and I’ll release it next Tuesday. 

Today I want to focus on responding to an excellent Facebook comment that we received, regarding Part 2.  If you haven’t read Part 2, you should, and you should probably start at Part 1 if you haven’t seen that.  The comment comes from John Randall, who seems to really know his stuff.  His points are excellent, and in fact, I have thought of approaches to all of it.  Since his comment is so good, I am just going to let it guide me in the direction of explaining how I plan to deal with some real issues that go with trying a new approach.

John’s comment, in its entirety (edited for formatting):

A couple of observations regarding your defense. You have put a lot of thought into it and there are some excellent qualities. However - here are a few areas you'll need to consider:

1) In the NFL, playing a Free Safety in the way that you propose will have the effect of making you have to play 10 on 11. This is true all the way down to the high school level. Example: With the ball in the middle of the field (with NFL hashmarks it's virtually always a middle-of-the-field situation), the offense can employ doubles and your FS is stuck in no man's land.

And, if he does commit to the wide side of the field, NFL QBs are perfectly capable of throwing the other way. And the offense can always get a pre-snap read on the Free Safety with motion.

Also, if I, as the offensive coordinator, realize that you aren't going to use the FS in the running game, I recognize that you have committed 5 players to being "pass first" guys vs my 4 "quick" receivers. That leaves me 7 vs your 6 inside, and I can run the ball. I like those numbers.

2) An issue you face with your "closed side/open side" approach is the simple "Y trade" (the TE starts on one side and switches to the other). It's just not practical to run your defenders across the formation.

So now you have a teaching/coaching problem. Do you teach all your open side personnel both techniques, and vice versa? Especially with the new limitations on practice time, this is an issue.

I realize that some of this could be described as "who has the chalk last" stuff and I'm not just trying to be contrarian here. But there are a lot of subsurface issues defensive guys face.

The last point I'd make is that a lot of successful defense at ANY level is being able to put your unusually gifted defender in the position where he consistently can be the most effective (The best example I can think of with this principle is Troy Polamalu). Many times you just have to break your old rules and establish new ones.

I’m going to split up the comment, and approach it in pieces, sort of like the Oatmeal did to that wanker from Forbes.  Except John isn’t seemingly anything like that Forbes guy.  And I’m not taking a particularly defensive posture, and I have no interest in making myself right or John wrong, just in advancing the discussion.  Details, details…Here goes:

In the NFL, playing a Free Safety in the way that you propose will have the effect of making you have to play 10 on 11. This is true all the way down to the high school level.

I don’t think of it as 10 on 11, I think of it as 10 on 10.  The QB mostly doesn’t count in the NFL, as a player to be accounted for, because most teams are loath to have their QB run with the football much.  (I’m an NFL-focused writer, and I agree with John that the QB tends to be a bigger threat as a ballcarrier at the high school and college levels.)  My Free Safety’s job is to watch and mirror the QB, read his drop and posture, and to flow to the direction that the play progresses in, while staying in the deep middle (specifically meaning between the numbers).

The Frank’s responsibility is to keep the play in front of him, and to contest all pass plays in the deep middle.  He’s a traditional safety man, hearkening back to the run-heavy days of 4-4 and 6-2 alignments, where the three DBs would play off, and the middle Safety was the last line of defense.  This will make more sense when I get to the coverage section.

Example: With the ball in the middle of the field (with NFL hashmarks it's virtually always a middle-of-the-field situation), the offense can employ doubles and your FS is stuck in no man's land.

John is absolutely right that the NFL's hashmarks keeps the game in the middle of the field.  This defense is specifically designed to make it hard to throw the ball from 2-by-2 “doubles” sets.  That’s the problem I’m trying to solve – the problem of getting carved up by Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees.  The primary coverage scheme that I’ll be proposing is a cooperative matchup zone, which I haven’t talked about specifically yet.  There’s a lot to come on that topic, and that’s where this gets the most interesting.  In any case, the FS will be assigned not to cheat to either side of the field, and they don’t care a bit about what the outside receivers are doing, as long as they stay outside.  The Frank is focused on the inside of the field and on inside-breaking receivers only, similar to a traditional Cover-3 look.

And, if he does commit to the wide side of the field, NFL QBs are perfectly capable of throwing the other way. And the offense can always get a pre-snap read on the Free Safety with motion.

No defender will ever be assigned to directly  follow a receiver in motion.  Moreover, I don’t really care if the offense knows what I’m running, because this is about execution and making a guy hit tight windows; it's not about tricking anybody.  Nobody tricks Brady, or Manning, or Brees, or Rodgers, and teams that rely on tricking them are asking to get beat most of the time.  The better approach is to try to understand what they want to do, and then disrupt the angles and timing of it.  You have to ask yourself, are you happy running that trickery stuff, and beating the Raiders and the Browns, or are you trying to win Super Bowls?

If a 2-by-2 look turns into a 3-by-1 look through motion, there’s a minor alignment adjustment, and a major rotation adjustment.  I’ll get into the specifics of that once I’ve fully explained the matchup zone concept, because it wouldn’t make much sense beforehand.

Also, if I, as the offensive coordinator, realize that you aren't going to use the FS in the running game, I recognize that you have committed 5 players to being "pass first" guys vs my 4 "quick" receivers. That leaves me 7 vs your 6 inside, and I can run the ball. I like those numbers.

I would like those numbers too, if I was getting those numbers - defensively, I am not planning on allowing 7 on 6, though.  My concept relies quite heavily on the inside DBs, identified as Lance and Rob, being able to come up strong in the run game and make tackles on the edge.  Obviously, these guys aren’t LB-sized, and even the LBs aren’t big guys, so the premium is on making blockers miss, and wrapping up ballcarriers.

Admittedly, playing the way I want to play is risky against a good running team, but it is based on the calculation that good running teams are mostly not good teams in this era of the NFL.  Further, a decision has been made that it’s better to encourage the opponent to run, and take a few lumps there, than it is to sell out to stop the run.  What happens to a running team when they take a holding penalty on first down, and get off schedule?  They’re going to be punting soon, that’s what.

John isn’t considering my Lance and Rob as legit run players, and I get that.  I’d need to find the right guys to make it work, and really, I don’t think there’s a huge market for the kind of athletes I want – tall, long, fluid guys who can tackle very well.  I expressly want tweeners for this role, and tweeners tend to be undervalued. 

John sees 7 on 6, and I see an every-down commitment to an eight-man box, even if two of the players are safety-sized.  My big guys up front need to make it work, and my smaller guys really need to miss some blocks and make some tackles.

2) An issue you face with your "closed side/open side" approach is the simple "Y trade" (the TE starts on one side and switches to the other). It's just not practical to run your defenders across the formation.

So now you have a teaching/coaching problem. Do you teach all your open side personnel both techniques, and vice versa? Especially with the new limitations on practice time, this is an issue.

The closed side is set upon the initial alignment of the offense.  If we see the Y trade, our closed side just happens to be on the weakside of the formation, and the Opie LB will be alerted to watch for a run to the defense’s open side.  John is absolutely right that there’s a coaching issue with asking defensive linemen to switch been two-gapping and one-gapping, and I’d never want to do that. 

The calculation we’re making is that two-gapping the side of the line where the power TE lines up is smart, because offenses tend to like to run to that side more than to the weakside.  It’s usually the right side (offensively), because QBs are right-handed, and it’s an easier side of the field to throw the ball to, so it’s the side that offenses like to flow the action to.

If the Y trades out to the open side, the defense will have a built-in check, with the Opie LB taking a hard step outside at the snap, and reading run or pass.  If the read is front-side run, he’s assigned to take on the Y with power, and try to force him into the backfield.  That’s not normally what I want a LB doing, but it will be needed occasionally.

I realize that some of this could be described as "who has the chalk last" stuff and I'm not just trying to be contrarian here. But there are a lot of subsurface issues defensive guys face.

I don’t take this as contrarian at all, or as adversarial in any way.  I don’t think any defense can cover every inch of any field, and my approach is to try to do the best possible job covering the stuff that the best offenses most want to do.  I want the Saints and Patriots and Packers to have to beat me by running the ball.  If they can do it, good for them. 

Of course, I’m assuming that I have a top-notch offense too, or else I most probably wouldn’t be competing for Super Bowls anyway.  I want the other team to throw the ball less efficiently than my team can.  I believe that that will usually lead to victory for my team.

The last point I'd make is that a lot of successful defense at ANY level is being able to put your unusually gifted defender in the position where he consistently can be the most effective (The best example I can think of with this principle is Troy Polamalu). Many times you just have to break your old rules and establish new ones.

This point is well-taken, and I’m definitely looking for premium players in a few key places, as discussed in Part 1.  I am focused on a thought process, and a clear-minded decision about what’s most important.  If I can get a Troy Polamalu, then I’d do my best to turn him loose.  If I had some merely competent guys executing a focused scheme, though, I like my chances too.

That’s all I have for today, friends.  I’m off to clean and pack my bathrooms.  I won’t likely write for Friday, but we’ll be on to Part 3 next Tuesday, and it will be lengthy and complex.  Have a nice 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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