The Bartlett Defense: Part 2 - Principles for 100% soundness

Happy Friday, friends.  I am taking a break from packing for my upcoming move to bring you Part 2 of my series about the Bartlett Defense, which I am inventing as I go.  Here is Part 1.

As you see, I set the stage for laying out the strategy and tactics of a defense by beginning with a personnel grouping, one which doesn’t really fit the standard 4-3 or 3-4 convention.  You could call it a 4-2-5, or a 3-3-5, or a 3.5-3.5-4, with the two inside DBs being half-LBs, but the thing is, it doesn’t matter how you identify the positions that each player plays.  It may confuse Pro Bowl voters and idiot reporters, but you can’t really worry about that when you’re trying to design a winning defense.

Today, we’re going to holistically begin to take stock of where an every-down big nickel grouping leaves us in terms of defending the whole football field.  As compares to a more traditional defense, strictly by considering personnel, the Bartlett defense is going to be more effective in covering the downfield passing game, and less effective in stopping the power run game.

Now, to counteract that run game weakness, we’re intentionally talking about using three big defensive linemen, like a 3-4 does.  We’re also going to play both inside DBs (who are bigger than traditional CBs) close to the line of scrimmage, to give us an every-down eight-man box.

We’re hedging as much as we can and trying to minimize the downside, but make no mistake that we’re perfectly willing to be softer against the run in exchange for improved coverage ability.  The NFL is a passing league, and offenses achieve at a rate of two yards per play better when they pass than when they run.  Even if this defense gives up 5 yards per carry, that’s better in the long run than giving up 6.3 yards per pass, the NFL average over the last three years.

There are always constraints to what you can do, and how covered you can be, but I think that NFL defenses employ their scarce resources inefficiently on defense.  I didn’t watch many NBA games this season, but I’ve watched a lot of the playoffs, and it’s been very interesting. 

I think the NBA is a cockamamie league with a consistently terrible and biased officiating situation.  The players are amazing, though, and if more games were left to them, it would be a great entertainment product.  What has interested me is how much better the defensive play is in this playoff season than it’s been in the past.  The best teams are really playing some great cooperative team defense.

I’ve always been an offense guy in football, but I’m a defensive guy in basketball.  In my first year living in Ohio, I coached a team of 8- and 9-year-old boys in a local rec league.  I only cared about two things: defense and hustle. I wanted all five players defending, rebounding, and hustling, and the best players on the team working to create layup opportunities.  We lost in the championship game but had a great season.  Years later, three of my kids ended up being starters for the local high school, and they all played good defense. 

Good team defense in basketball is about communication and coordination.  Certain actions by the offense dictate reactions by the defense.  A ball screen will often get a dribble penetrator by his defender, but if the screener’s man can show hard, and stay in front of the guy, he’s going nowhere.  If he can’t, and the defense knows he can’t, a hard rotation from the baseline with the screener’s man fading back into the paint can have the same effect.

I propose that an NFL defense can work the same way if it’s well coordinated, and starting today, we’re going to start getting into how that works.  Here are some principles for keeping this form of defense sound 100% of the time:

  1. First, let’s define soundness.  For our purposes, that means that on passing plays, every eligible receiver is accounted for in the coverage scheme, and on running plays, each of the eight gaps has an assigned defender.  If you think back to the Wink Martindale era, you’ll remember that not all defenses are devoted to soundness in all situations.  The Bartlett Defense is.
  1. This defense will always rush a minimum of four players, and a maximum of six players.  Three-man rush schemes are pretty worthless, and we value coverage over coming with big numbers in the blitz game.
  1. Tackling ability from all 11 players is non-negotiable.  Hitting ability is not valued highly – this defense isn’t interested in taking the penalties that go along with the kind of players who go for kill shots.
  1. The two closed-side defensive linemen will two-gap in all but the most obvious passing situations.  The closed-side LB (Clyde) will not have an assigned gap in the running game, and will be free to follow the flow of the play.  The fact that the Chuck and Nate linemen are occupying the closed-side A, B, and C gaps between them (not to mention the open-side A gap) means that the Clyde should be able to stay clean and run to the football.
  1. We define the closed side by the following hierarchy:
    1. If there is one TE on the field, the closed side is the one on which that player initially aligns.  This is the traditional “strong side.”
    2. If there are two TE on the field, and the formation is balanced, the closed side is the side of the field occupied by the more powerful run blocker, as designated pre-game in the game plan.
    3. Alternately, if the offense tends not to favor running behind either TE in a balanced set, the closed side will be designated as the wide side of the field.
  1. The Free Safety (Frank) will always occupy the deep middle of the field, and will never play in the box.  His responsibility area is between the numbers, and the outside CBs are most always going to be responsible for the deep area of the field outside the numbers.
  1. The outside CBs will always align in off coverage.  All DBs will play with neutral leverage, and will react to the releases of the outside WRs, rather than try to dictate them.
  1. The key reasoning component of this defense will be a deep understanding of football-applied geometry, and especially, the ability to quickly measure spatial relationships by eyesight.  Coaches must coach this thought process, so that players can grow to instinctively space themselves efficiently.
  1. Traditional defensive thinking involves three levels - short, medium, and deep.  The Bartlett defense breaks the field into four levels – short, full, extended, and deep.  This is based on the traditional route tree, and we’ll get deep on it in Part 5 of this series.
  1. It’s going to be hard for a rookie to play among the back seven very early on.  Like the Belichick Patriots, we value veteran traits in the areas of information processing, discipline, and execution.

Having established those ten principles, I believe that a strong schematic framework can be put in place that defends the whole field better than anybody is in the NFL, given equal personnel.  Check us out Tuesday, when I get into Part 3, which will get into specific keys that each defender is going to need to read on every snap.  Of course, I know you’ll be checking in everyday, because if you’re the kind of person who reads IAOFM, you’ll be reading IAOFM.  Have a nice weekend.

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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