Football 101 - Defensive Line (Part 3)

This is the eighth article in a series of articles where I will talk about the basics of Football 101.

In the last article I decided to talk a little about why the defense needs to do a better job in this new Pass Happy NFL by showing what the offense was doing, but in this article I will get back to the defensive side of the ball after the jump.

First a little background on some of the things I want to emphisize when you are reading these articles about the defensive schemes and the effect they have on why teams change schemes on both sides of the ball.

They change the schemes because they want to do a better job of having the upper hand in this chess match that is going on between the Offensive Coordinator and the Defensive Coordinator who are in my view the most important coaches when it comes to determining the outcome. The down side to this changing of schemes is the loss of the "Continuity" of having the players get more and more knowledgable in a particular scheme, and thus continue to get better and better as a defense. The Steeler Defenses were really good when they were known as the "Steel Curtian" because they had played the same scheme for years and years.

The reason again why changing schemes and tweeking them is because changing the scheme has the single greatest impact on which team has the upper hand.

UPDATE 3-25:

I want to futher illustrate the impact that both the Offensive Coordinator and the Defensive Coordinator have on the wins and losses. Changing Schemes has the biggest effect, can be both in a positive way and a negative way, and then the next biggest impact is a micro view of the scheme called the "Game Plan."

One game last year against the Eagles, it was clear to me and to a lot of other people that the biggest reason we got killed was the game plan put forth by Rob Ryan. He deceided to try to take away both Deshawn Jackson and Jeremy Macklin and not let them beat us by trying to double cover them most of the game. This plan left the Eagles with the underneath stuff and allowed Leshawn McCoy to kill us. After the game Rob took the blame for choosing a poor game plan and vowed to do better the next time. I for one think he will. The Coordinators sometimes choose the wrong adjustments, and then other times teams will adjust their game plan at half time and you see a completely different outcome in the second half.

Now, for all of the "It is all about execution" proponents, keep in mind that all of the players in the NFL can execute at a consistanty high level or they wouldnt be here, and of those the ones that grade out the highest are the starters. So to put it on a scale of effect on the outcome of a game, if a team is executing at say their normal 7-8 out of 10, and they improve as much as possible, you still wont see the shift in the impact of a game as much as you do when teams change the game plan, or even more important the Scheme and that is one of the things I want to have taken away from these articles about the different schemes.

Plays are designed to gain a certian amount of yards, (If executed perfectly, because the defense is also executing), and most plays are getting the yards they were designed to get. A QB sneak, part of the game plan or playbook, is designed to get 1-3 yards depending upon the defensive alignment and execution of the defense, and it usually gets what is expected or it wouldn't be in the playbook or the game plan.

It is why "trick plays" can often win a game by themselves. Scheme!


Let me give you just one example:

The Week prior to the start of the 1950 season, there was a game between Paul Brown's Cleveland Browns of the old "All-American" Football Conference, and the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles were playing a Defensive scheme devised by Earle Neale that was designed to hold in check the high octane running games of the NFL at that time. The Eagle scheme was very popular for several years. The "Eagle" was essentially a 5-2 scheme.


Paul Brown's strategy was to draw the linebackers away from the middle of the field by sending the running backs out wide. Since the two Linebackers were assigned to cover the running backs, this opened up the middle of the field. The result was a "shocking" 35-10 victory.

Then Steve Owen of the Giants came up with a counter to what the Browns were doing on offense, when he divised what eventually became the 4-3. It was essentially a 6-1 front with what was called an "Umbrella" secondary scheme. If you look at the CB's and Safteys above you can see how those 4 DB's form an "Umbrella" as well.

Here is more on Steve Owen.

The 6-1 was designed to stop the great Jim Brown and Brown said it was the toughest defense he ever faced. Landry was able to make this defense transform into what became the 4-3 because he had the perfect "Mike" linebacker that could roam sideline to sideline in "Sam Huff."


The defensive thinking at that time was to "Contain" first and "persue" second. This meant the defense would contain the ball carrier so as to force him into the middle where the persuit would get him. Tom Landry realized that the goal was backwards and changed it to persuit first and contain second and eventually fine tuned the 6-1 Umbrella into what we now call the standard 4-3.

It was set to have a solid alignment on the side with the tight end and with the "Sam" linebacker over the TE and the DE over the Tackle. Now, keep in mind that while most of us think of the "Stong Side" as the side the TE is on, in more technically correct terms, the Stong Side is actually the side that the offense has the numbers advantage.

Next, rather than getting too detailed here, ( I will save that for a later article), I should point out another important fact to remember. The real differences in a lot of the defenses since the origional 4-3 that Landry is credited by many to have invented, is the idea of "gap" control. And more specifically a "One Gap" player, or a "Two Gap" player, or even a "One Gap" defense or a "Two Gap" defense and whether the defense is an "attacking style" like the one that Jimmy Johnson had at the University of Miami, or the normal 4-3 two gap that is more of a "read and react" type of defense.

While most traditional 3-4 defensive linemen play a 2-gap technique (though not all, as we’ll see later) and most current 4-3 defensive tackles play a 1-gap technique, in todays NFL most defenses play a combination of the two.

The importance of this can not be over stated because the choice a Defensive Coordinator makes can make or break a Defensive Lineman's career. The most famous case of this scenerio is what happened to Warren Sapp when he went from Tampa where he played the "Under-Shift" "3-Technique" DT, and when he went to Oakland they had him switch to a "5-Technique" DE. The same thing could happen to Jay Ratliff if he ever gets shifted to DE. And this may well be the reason the Cowboys have not switched him out to DE.

First lets look at why it is important to understand the difference between an "Under-Shift" and an "Over-Shift" before we look at what happend to Sapp.

When a 4-3 defense is neither in an under-shift or an over-shift, you will see the two DT's in a "2-Technique" alignment, while the two DE's are in a "4-Technique" alignment.


In the classic 4-3 "Under" alignment below, you will Notice that the 4 defensive linemen are shifted away from the Tightend, the "Y" receiver. You will notice that if the "Weak side" DE does an outside rush that the "3-Technique" DT will also be able to do an outside rush because the "Blind Side" Tackle will have moved out of the way of the DT to try and cut off the DE. This "3-Technique" DT alignment that was used by Tampa and was called the "Tampa Two", made Warren Sapp famous and he put up huge sack numbers because he only had to worry about one gap and he could pin his ears back and just get after the QB. But when he got to Oakland and was made a regular "5-Technique" DE, he was not able to be near as effective.


On the "Over" alignment show below, you will notice how the Defense front 4 has shifted towards the TE side, the "Y" receiver in this case.


So, to sum up this article, we see that when we are talking about a defense, we are usually talking about where the front 7 line up, and also if they line up in a "One Gap" or "Two Gap" alignment, and if they are in an "Under" Shift, (Shifted away from the TE), or if they are in an "Over" Shift, (Shifted to the TE side.)

In the next article, I will continue with the Defensive Line (Part 4).

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