HydRob 101: Understanding Rob Ryan's Many-Headed Defense

In the spirit of Air Garrett 101, I decided to take a look at our defense. As a disclaimer, this post was largely the result of reading through the comments on Kegbearer's defensive line explanation, and noticing the relative mystery surrounding how defenses are structured. The following is my attempt to shed some light on Hydrob.

Hydrob = Hydra (many-headed monster) + Rob (organizer of said monster). I noticed there's no dominant nickname, so I had to make one up.

The first thing we'll cover is terminology for defensive assignments. This will make the majority of this post, other defensive posts, and football-speak in general much easier to understand. Later, we'll identify player positions and skill sets for this defense. Finally, we'll try to dig into some Xs and Os to explain why this defense is so effective.


(Yes, those are little Eaglets.)

Note that on the above diagram, between the little birdies (which represent offensive linemen), there are letters to the left, and numbers on the right.

Gap Assignments: There are six main gaps in an offensive line. Between Center and Guard, on either side, is an A gap. Between Guard and Tackle, there is a B gap. Finally, between Tackle and Tight End (even if the TE isn't really there) is the C Gap. These gaps are labelled in red on the left side of the diagram.

There are two main assignments for defensive linemen in any defense: 1) 1-Gap Penetration; 2) 2-Gap Contain.

Single-Gap Penetration: In this situation, the lineman pins his ears back. On the snap, he quickly steps into the gap. He sheds the block as quickly as possible, and destroys everything between him and the quarterback (including a ball-carrier, on running plays), and then gently escorts the quarterback to the turf (to avoid a penalty/ejection/fine for violence). In our old system, this was Jay Ratliff's job. This was never Marcus Spears' job, nor was it Igor Olshansky's. Go ahead, check the sack numbers, they will confirm this. Single gap penetration can be used as an effective change of pace when an offensive line is consistently double-teaming the two-gap players. For example, if Marcus Spears is being doubled by the Guard and Tackle while trying to watch his A and B gaps, he can become a single gap penetrator, attacking the A Gap, and leaving the Tackle blocking air, while the Guard is over-matched. This is something that we can expect from Rob Ryan, and we will consequently see what Spears is truly capable of.


Marcus Spears Penetrates the C Gap (play negated, as Spencer is being held)

2-Gap Containment: This is the blue collar assignment we saw Spears and Igor routinely handed during the games of yesteryear. As a contain-er, the defensive lineman attacks the body of the offensive lineman between the two gaps he's been assigned to. Typically, Marcus would receive B and C responsibility on the defense's left side. He would attack the opposing tackle, and try to get his arms under the opponent's pads. The goal is to be in position to: a) Drive the lineman back into the pocket; and b) Be in position to quickly shed the block and make the tackle on either side. This assignment is said to be the most physically demanding in football, as the goal is to physically dominate and effectively nullify a 300+ pound athlete (and, often, another, as 2-gapping often means being doubled), discarding him when necessary to devour a relatively fast, and powerful in his own right, ball-carrier. This is the run stuffer. This is the space eater. To succeed in this role is to be a beast of a man.

The final skill set, which is often overlooked, is length and jumping ability. In the event that the quarterback is not sacked, the 2-gap linemen must be able to jump high, with his arms in the air, and take away passing lanes. This subtle difference can lead to deflected balls (which are likely to be incompletions, if not interceptions), and, less noticeably, a higher-arcing pass, with more hang-time, which equates to more time for the defensive backs to locate and intercept the ball. (Note: My early searches for "2-Gap Spears" resulted in pictures of fat Britney. Yikes.)


Marcus Spears and Igor Olshansky stand up the opposing linemen, "eating space" to allow the edge blitz to succeed. Ratliff rushes the right A gap. This is an example of "sending more than they can block," a common Ryan theme, by utilizing 2-Gap linemen with rushing linebackers.

Defensive Alignments: Defensive lineman (and linebackers, albeit further back), align themselves relative to the offensive line. Knowing his assigned position, the defender simply needs to locate the lineman and stand over the head, inside shoulder, or outside shoulder of that man. The assignments are as follows:

     0 Tech: Head up on Center. Typically 2-gapping both A gaps. Standard 3-4 Nose Tackle position.
     1 Tech: Shoulder of Center. Typically will penetrate the same side A gap.
     2 Tech: Inside Shoulder of Guard. Typically penetrating the A gap, with a more direct route to the quarterback.
     3 Tech: Outside Shoulder of Guard. Typically 2-Gapping the A and B gaps. Standard 4-3 DT position.
     4 Tech: Inside Shoulder of Tackle. Typically penetrating B gap.
     5 Tech: Outside Shoulder of Tackle. Typically 2-Gapping the B and C gaps. Standard 3-4 DE position.
     6 Tech: Head up on Tight End, or where Tight End would be. Typically rushing the quarterback. Containment responsibilities. Standard 4-3 DE position.
     7 Tech: Inside Shoulder of TE. Typically rushing the passer.
     8 Tech: Completely Outside of TE: Typically containing the outside, occasionally playing  the flats in a zone.
     9 Tech: Outside Shoulder of TE: Typically rushing the passer, especially when the TE is known to pass protect.


San Diego lines up in their 3-4 Defense (while failing to prevent Gronkowski's Touchdown). Note that the positions of the men on the line of scrimmage, especially the defensive line, essentially give away their assignments. Look for the extra linebacker to clean up anything in the A or B gaps, and the two spread inside backers to fill the C Gaps.

As a note, it's nice to look at other 3-4 defenses in order to allow us to see that Wade's way is not the only way. In this particular example, the NT is 2-Gapping while the DEs and OLBs penetrate. In contrast, Wade would have the NT and OLBs penetrate while the DEs 2-Gap. While the generalization is often made that 3-4 DEs don't have opportunities to make sacks, many fans argue against that (and rightfully so), giving examples of 3-4 DEs who approach double digits annually. Allow me to refine that generalization, and explain the difference between our DEs production and other teams'. 2-gap players don't get sacks. It's that simple. If you are expected to contain two running lanes, you are not also expected to get to the quarterback. In our system, the DEs are 2-gap players. As many of us know, Wade was averse to change and unpredictability, and, therefore, our DEs were exclusively 2-gap players. Any sack that comes while in a 2-gap assignment is gravy. Not allowing a runner through either of your holes is the meat and potatoes.

In the Hydrob, we can expect to see a mixing of assignments designed to both confuse the offensive line and empower the blitzers. Gone are the days where, on every play, you can watch our Ends plunge headfirst into opposing tackles and wait...and wait...until the play comes their way. Yes! Now, we can watch in anticipation, trying to guess who will do what and smiling gleefully at the possibilities that come with each and every snap. The Cowboys defensive series' will no longer be the time to go fix a sandwich, or grab a beer. Ideally, they'll be no more than 3 plays each, ending in turnovers or punt returns. If not that amazing, they will at least be entertaining to watch.

Above, while breaking down alignments, I gave a preview of what you can expect a player to do based on which Technique he's in. Follow that guide while watching our game film, and you'll be correct over 90% of the time. With Rob Ryan, it isn't so easy. His defense has a poker face. He won't give you a 'tell' and allow you to predict which players are rushing, dropping, penetrating or 2-gapping. A player may line up in the 3 Technique, but rush the A gap on a stunt. This, in itself, is a vast improvement over our past defense. Deception is key.

Linebacker Assignments: The key to a 3-4 system is the linebackers. With all of the possibilities (6 gaps, 19 techniques) there are on the defensive line, the linebackers have the same, and more. Append to the list of responsibilities zone coverage, man coverage, and spying.

Zone Coverage: The most dangerous thing a linebacker can do, from an offensive perspective, is drop into a zone (excluding the pass rush, of course). When a quarterback makes his initial read of the defense, he looks at their alignment, and any "tells" and tendencies that he learned from film study. From this information, he determines who is blitzing, who is in zone, and who is in man. When a deceptive (read: HydRob) defensive player convinces the quarterback that he will be blitzing, the quarterback imagines a hole in the defense. The receiver makes a hard cut inside, beating the corner, and the quarterback throws the ball as the receiver comes out of his break. The deceptive linebacker puts his hands up and begins running the other way for 6 points. Believe it or not, linebackers account for most interceptions thrown by good quarterbacks. The fact that they can 'hide' along the line of scrimmage and then sneak out into a shallow zone is incredibly dangerous. In order to present this opportunity for the defense, linebackers must be adept at zone coverage.



Sean Lee capitalizes on a disguised zone coverage. Look for Rob Ryan to hand him and Bruce Carter a number of similar opportunities in the years to come.

Man Coverage: Athletic linebackers are key components to any defense. When they're athletic enough to cover backs, tight ends, and even receivers, one-on-one, their value increases dramatically. If you happened to read my Air Garrett 101 posts, you would remember that a primary goal of Coryell-style offenses is to force the safeties to choose between helping on the deep ball, or helping in man coverage. As a defense, having capable man-coverage linebackers allows you to use your safeties in any way you see fit, without being forced into any one role. When any one of your linebackers can be covering any one of the offense's skill players, the complexity of the quarterback's reads grows exponentially. The passing lanes that, against some defenses, may be assured, are suddenly obscured by not knowing who's covering which receiver. Running a slant to beat a corner who gives a decent cushion isn't a guaranteed completion if the man covering him is actually the outside linebacker. In fact, it becomes more of a pick-6 situation. Disguising where your coverage is coming from is equally important in forcing turnovers as disguising where your blitz is coming from.



2 Cowboys Defenders playing man coverage against the Giants (Far left, top right Cowboys)

Spying: The ultimate playmakers on a defense are sometimes assigned to 'spy.' Spying is essentially playing man-coverage on the quarterback. The defender mirrors the quarterbacks movements, and watches his eyes. His job is to close on the pass if it is thrown, or stop the quarterback if he decides to run. Spying is likely the most mentally challenging assignment on the defensive side of the ball. The defender is in a mental chess match with the quarterback, and then requires the athleticism to get to the ball once its path has been decided. Playing Philadelphia twice a year, expect the Cowboys to frequently put a spy on Michael Vick. A quarterback that can run traditionally demands the respect of a spy, which helps to ensure retribution for any rushing attempts (spying linebacker = head on collision with a running quarterback).



Michael Vick will have trouble escaping when Bruce Carter is spying on him. Note: Image was taken from a Shutdown Corner article about spying on Michael Vick.

Secondary Assignments: Believe it or not, the secondary players can hold essentially any of the duties that the linebackers have. The key here is proportion. A cornerback will obviously have many more snaps in coverage than he will blitzing the B gap. A safety has the most potential for versatility, as his position allows him to inconspicuously line up anywhere from directly over Center to directly over a Wide Out. There are no 'new' assignments available for defensive backs, so I'll keep this section short. However, if you don't like Nnamdi Asomugha's ability to blitz the quarterback, then you have to consider that there is no 'complete cornerback,' especially in this defense.



If Asomugha does come to Dallas, how will NumberGate pan out? (He and Mike Jenkins both wear 21)

DEFENSIVE POSITIONS: In this section, we'll discuss what we can look for in defensive RRKGs (Rob Ryan's Kinda Guys). The key point, as mentioned numerous times above, is versatility. If a player is only good at one thing, the offense will expect him to do that one thing, and 9% of the defense's mystique is lost. Field a whole squad of one-dimensional players (something Phillips likely wouldn't hesitate to do), and the result is a defense that, based on their alignment, can only run one play. Pretty easy to beat that.

Side note: I don't like to use traditional terminology, as it can confuse more casual fans. However, for ease of use and increased educational value, I will use the traditional position nomenclature for 3-4 personnel.

Defensive Tackles:

Are expected to play big. They require skill playing both one-gap and two-gap assignments. Their most important attribute is Strength. Dominant strength in order to play two gaps will compensate for any perceived lack of size. It is much easier to be 305 pounds and freakishly strong than it is to be 330 pounds and deceptively quick. Ratliff is ideal. He is quick enough to crash one gap, and strong enough to fill two (although not on every down, which won't be required).

They are not expected to rush the edge with any frequency. They don't need to have incredible top end speed, or possess strong coverage skills. However, if by some turn of events one of our Tackles shows this ability, don't be surprised to see it used on occasion.


Defensive Ends:

Are expected to fulfill the same responsibilities as a DT. They have the added responsibility of occasional edge rushing, and, due to their normal position being farther away from the quarterback, they need to be slightly faster in order to close the distance when they rush. 300 pounds is ideal, although as small as 285 pounds, with elite strength, is acceptable. Height is a benefit.

They are not expected to rush the passer on every play. They are not required to have outside containment against the run (which is usually done by OLBs).


Outside Linebackers:

Are expected to be adequate in every aspect of defensive football. They are the primary pass rushers. They occasionally will play man-to-man against slot receivers, flexed tight ends, and backs. They are at times delegated zone coverage responsibilities, defending against screens, slants, hooks, and crossing routes.

They are not expected to spy on the quarterback, except in the case of a double spy (one on each side), because they generally start off on a far side of the formation. Were the quarterback to roll the opposite way, they would be left out of position.


Inside Linebackers:

Are expected to be primary coverage and spy linebackers. Their position requires the greatest range (speed) of all linebackers. They will clean up any runners that make it through the line (they consistently lead their teams in tackling). They frequently are assigned man coverage on backs and tight ends. They play zones in order to seal off the middle of the field.

They are not expected to cover wide receivers. If an inside linebacker moves all the way to the outside of the defense, there is little mystery as to why it's happening. He's either in man coverage on that receiver, or playing a zone somewhere nearby.



Are expected to be primary man coverage defenders. Of all positions, they spend the greatest amount of time covering receivers. Their primary variance is between man and zone coverage, or inside and outside (relative to the body of the receiver) leverage. They are generally the least versatile defenders.

They are not expected to blitz, except from the slot. They also never spy, and rarely help against the run.



Are expected to do everything, with small exceptions. They play extensively in coverage, but are also viewed as integral parts of the run defense. They blitz relatively frequently (and, usually, successfully). They play zones, man-to-man defense, and occasionally will spy on the quarterback. They are expected to be tremendous athletes in relatively small (200-225-pound) packages.

They are not expected to play 2-gap defense on the line. First of all, they're in no way large enough to dominate an offensive lineman, and, second, there is simply no need for that. A Safety is fast enough to split a gap in the line and get to the quarterback before he finishes his drop.



In this, the final section, I will try to apply everything we just covered while analyzing a play from Rob Ryan's defense.



This play can be found at the 3:56 mark of this episode of NFL Playbook.

Yes, the play ends up being a run, and the under-talented Cleveland defense, in a zone, stands no chance against the Ravens dominant line. Finding successful Cleveland highlights, however, is difficult. Finding plays representative of what will happen here is impossible. Take a look at what Rob does here.
1) DT Athyba Rubin (at 330 pounds) fills the two A gaps.
2) DE Titus Adams (at a Ratliff-esque 305) attacks the strongside C Gap.
3 + 4) The two ILBs assume short zones and read the backfield
5) OLB Benard rushes the strongside edge
...and now it gets interesting...
6) Hydrid DE/OLB Matt Roth (at 280 pounds) plays weakside C Gap. As there is no End, he attempts to fill the role of two players, the WOLB and the WDE. Think of Greg Ellis, and you understand what this guy's about. Anthony Spencer might be able to do something like this, which allows...
7) DB Adams, an extra Defensive Back, comes in to keep an eye on Ray Rice
8) CB Joe Haden plays on an island against the secondary receiver
9) Trusting Haden, SS Abram Elam plays centerfield
10) FS Ward plays deep right, to give help to...
11) CB Sheldon Brown, who is lined up on the number 1 receiver.

Every player's unique skillset allows this defense to be called. Without Matt Roth's size, they need another lineman on the field. They are afforded the luxury of a third Corner/Safety to keep tabs on one of the better backs in the NFL, or simply to stalk the middle of the field. Joe Haden's cover skills allow the safeties to completely ignore his side of the field, and give extra help against a team's primary threat.

Almost every play you see run next year will be in one way or another unique from what we've seen in the past. Rob Ryan is a Defensive Coordinator who plays to the strengths of his players. No one will be given an assignment that they cannot handle. I won't claim to be able to predict any of Rob's playcalls, but we can all have fun doing our best. The possibilities are endless in this defense, and I hope to at least have given you the tools with which to dream.

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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