February 2011

It’s the 2011 division playoffs. The Jets have just scored and the Patriots have the ball. The Jets are lining up in a 3-3-5. The right defensive end is number 70, Mike DeVito, an undrafted free agent out of Maine. The right outside linebacker is Bryan Thomas, number 58, a 6 foot four inch 260 pounder from UAB who was once a first round draft choice. This is not a defense designed to stop the run. Hence the Patriots run.

The blocking scheme is going to require the Pats to “reach out” to block their opposing numbers. The guard goes for the defensive end, the tackle for the OLB.  This tandem blocking is similar to what the whole line is doing in this photograph, from Tim Layden’s excellent book:

As the play develops, there are problems with both blocks. It isn’t soon before Bryan Thomas has the LT’s hips perpendicular to the line of scrimmage, and therefore the tackle has no control over Bryan. The guard has been beaten; Mike has taken an inside move and is about to shed the guard. Two players converge on the running back, who, before the collision, begins to guard himself against the impact.

Want more? Check out the game highlights on Nfl.com.

I’ve just begun to look at  this game, and it’s not as rich in exotic fronts as some. There are plenty  of orthodox 3 and 4 man fronts. The Jets made plenty of use of the 4-2, but on occasions, both teams would use the two man, or nickel front. This image is of a 2-3 by the Jets. I don’t recall  having seen a 2-3 before seeing this one (I’m sure it’s been used). The result of the play was a sack of Tom Brady.

Even Bill Belichick, the defensive genius, the master, will use the two man front these days.

I’ve been reading a coach’s blog recently, since Blitzology has clued me into this resource, and on Coach Hoover’s blog are clinic notes for a Bill Belichick clinic. Not often guys like me get to hear  the words of a football genius, even in truncated form. To quote the article:

Football – all starts up the middle. Is played from the inside-out (Off, Def, Special Teams).

I’d  argue that’s true when you put a team together too. You put it together from the inside out. You need the right kind of defensive tackles, or in 3-4 setups, nose tackles. Miami thought so much of their up and coming nose tackle Paul Soliai that they franchised him.

When looking at the history of the Dallas Cowboys, Tom Landry always had a superb defensive tackle to anchor the defense, whether it was Bob Lilly or Randy White. The decline of the Cowboys defensively in the late 1990s can be tracked by the loss of decent tackles; they really had no answer for the loss of Chad Hennings. Dallas struggled until Bill Parcells acquired Jason Ferguson. 1980s Chicago had Dan Hampton. The New York Jets have a tackle I’m a huge fan of, Kris Jenkins. Pittsburgh? The Texas ex, Casey Hampton. The Green Bay Packers? B. J. Raji. Pittsburgh thought so much of Hampton they drafted him a full round above where the draft pundits placed him that year.

You need your anchor in the middle, whether he be supernaturally quick and penetrating (Lilly) or the rock of Gibralter (Hampton).

Can you name the defensive tackles of  the Atlanta Falcons? Their offense seems good enough to me to win it all. I don’t get the same warm fuzzies from the Atlanta defense. Atlanta head coach Mike Smith has a defensive pedigree and I wonder if he’s just getting it all accomplished with coaching mirrors. Some defensive studs would make me feel that they have the foundation to be more than a playoff Cinderella. Question is, while poised on the last third of the first round, how do they dig out, say, the next Ed Reed or even the next Patrick Kerney.

After looking at the film highlights available for the Cleveland Browns in 2010, you can see that Rob Ryan uses a broad array of defensive fronts, depending on down and distance. In short yardage, Rob will use traditional goal line defenses, but also the 46 front. Whether he’s using a “pure 46″ or a newer “zone 46” is anyone’s guess, but the front itself is unmistakable.

He uses a lot of traditional 3 and 4 man fronts, but he also uses nickel fronts ( 2-4) and psycho fronts (1-5) and also “cloud” schemes (no down linemen). Nickel fronts arise when, from the 3-4 you replace a defensive end with a rush linebacker. Psycho fronts happen when both defensive ends in a 3-4 are replaced with a rush linebacker. You can also go from a 4 man front to a nickel front by replacing both defensive ends with rush linebackers. I’ve seen substitutions that look like 4-3 over and under defenses where the weak side DE has been replaced with a rush linebacker. These end up appearing as if they are very shifted 3-4 fronts.

In this particular capture, the looping rusher ends up outside the rush linebacker facing the opposition LT.

This is a psycho front versus Cinncinnati

And this a particularly good shot of a nickel front versus Tampa Bay.

The two man line is in particularly heavy use versus New Orleans, so I strongly recommend perusing the highlights of that game.

Related Articles:

The first is Smart Football, the second is Blitzology. No, I haven’t explored them very deeply. I’m just happy to have found something a little more cutting edge than the books I have been reading. Going through the diagrams here, I’ve been able to update my Dom Capers post and move on from there. But just to give you an idea of the look:

This book is a classic, and it’s a shame that it hasn’t been reprinted. Dr Z, Paul Zimmerman, was the original video wonk, the guy who charted football games, who got his head into the trenches and tried to give the fans the deeper view of the game. A college football player and minor leaguer, it was when he was a sports writer for the New York Post that he wrote the first version of this book. Revised in the 1980s, just before the heydey of the Chicago Bears, you get plenty of quotes from people like Don Shula, but also quite a bit of text from Bill Walsh.

Anyway, his chapter on running backs is an etch-onto-your-body all time must read. His two page diagram on the progression of defenses through history a total delight (one page of that is shown below).

Now, one thing I’ll warn you is that Dr Z has a tendency to really love his older football. His hope that somehow the single  wing would reemerge in football was second to none. There is some serious irony in the fact his stroke happened before he could really talk about things like the modern Wildcat. He wasn’t all that fond of modern spread football and all this passing that was happening in the 1980s.

Back to the running back chapter. These two paragraphs set the framework for a great great read.

They come into pro football all instinct and nerve, without the surgical scars on the knees or the knowledge of what it’s like to get hit by a 230-pound linebacker. They burn brightly, and by the time they’re 30 or so they might still be around, but they’re different players. They know how to pass-block, and they can run their pass routes without making any mistakes; they can block in front of a ballcarrier, and they run just well enough to be considered runners. They dive – and survive.

Running back is a position governed by instinct, and many of the great ballcarriers were never better than they were as freshman pros. It’s the most instinctive position in football, the only one in which a rookie can step in with a total lack of knowledge of everything except running the football, and be a success.

This guy was a great sports writer. I’m not the only one who thinks so. Peter King wrote this homage on the SI site, which, once again, I’d consider a must read.

Before I get too sentimental – his stroke was a crying shame – let’s just say the paperback can be purchased through third parties on Amazon and it’s a beg borrow or steal kind of book for the hard core fan.

This will be a brief review of defensive fronts shown by Green Bay during their playoff victory over Atlanta. I’m doing this because Dom is a hot commodity, courtesy of  his #2 ranked defense. I’m mostly interested in defensive fronts, so this is a study of the fronts that can be gleaned from the 6 minute highlight video from nfl.com. There are 6 of these in all. 2 of these were short yardage fronts and so we’ll just skip those. We’ll concentrate on the four remaining fronts that we can see.

This line has 3 men in a 3 point stance, a fourth in a two point stance. Number 95 (or is that 96?) is over the LG, the NT is over center, the LDE is outside the tackle in a slant, pointed as if he’s going to crash onto the RG.  A fourth player is in a two point stance just outside the tackle and inside the split end.

This one is either a 3-3 or a 2-4, depending on whether you consider the third player in the “RDE” position an end or a linebacker. Update: per this article in Blitzology, this position is called a Rush Linebacker. Note the wide spacing of the 3 along the front, as the “ends” are outside the OTs.

Matt Ryan gives up an interception in the end zone on this play, due to excellent play by Green Bay’s “other” cornerback, Tramon Williams. The front resembles a 3-4 front with the NG removed from the line, and LBs playing extremely deep. The 2 lineman appear to be playing in the “B” gap. Note: This article from Blitzology cover this particular Dom Capers front. Check out the first diagram.

Matt Ryan gives up an interception for a touchdown on this play. Note that not a single lineman is in a 3 point stance. Note the wide placement of the DEs, outside their opposite offensive tackles. The uniform numbers for A J Hawk (50) and Desmond Bishop (55) are visible perhaps 5 yards behind the LOS. Before the snap, the NG tried, but never quite made it into a 3 point stance.

In a previous blog article, we reviewed this book. But in terms of those of us who are 46 wonks, it has a lot more to say in the rich set of interviews provided for the fan. We’re going to explore those comments a little deeper in this second, companion blog article to the first.

The first point to make is that the text in this article is quite good. Jaws accurately describes how the Bears lined up in the 46 on page 161 of the Ballantine hardback. The diagram, however, on page 169 leaves a lot to be desired. Well, it’s simply wrong.

In comparison, we’ll show you the first page in Rex’s book, which is correct.

If you’re using this blog as a 46 reference, this won’t come as a surprise to you, but the mismatch between text and diagram is disorienting. On  this page,  however, is a critical passage.

Let’s be clear though: The 46 could not be an every-down defense. The better NFL offenses could still make big plays if it was used too much, so its risk-versus-reward ratio was deemed too detrimental for Chicago to run it for an entire game. But Buddy dialed it up frequently enough (often 30 to 35 percent and sometimes more) to keep quarterbacks guessing.

The defense, in other words, was one of many in Ryan’s pocket. The point ultimately, Jaws and his interviewees argue, was confusion.

Another critical passage, is the effect of modern spread formations on the effectiveness of the “pure 46″. We’ll quote Doug Plank this time:

The tightly packed eight man fronts from our day just can’t succeed as a base defense against spread formations. Offensive coordinators came to the conclusion fairly quickly that unless they spread defenses out, their quarterbacks were going to get hit again and again. That isn’t acceptable today…

Jeff Fisher’s role – this will be difficult to quote and be accurate, because this book uses the phrase 46 to both mean the defense and the philosophy behind the defense – in the  evolution of  46 style defenses is described in a Brian Billick quote as follows:

Fisher was the first to adapt it to the modern game. He came up with zone concepts that appeared to give the same look as the original 46 – but weren’t – and that created a new set of problems for offenses.

Of the people truest to the principles of the 46, the authors of this book point to the late Jimmy Johnson, the defensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Jaworski is a video nut, and his love of breaking down video is the initial impetus for this deep study of seven football games. If the book were only that, however,  it wouldn’t be the rich stew of information that is finally served to the reader. He relies heavily on interviews, excerpts of which are added throughout the book. In fact the interviews, in my opinion, make this book more than the actual breakdowns, which often are of games that aren’t great theater. His pre and post game analysis is also exhaustive, and those really are the “can’t miss” parts of this book.

Sid Gillman was in many ways Ron’s mentor. So he leads off with Gillman, and then analyzes Gillman’s blowout victory over the Boston Patriots in 1963. It was an exclamation point in the career of Gillman, a sign of his football genius. But it’s not the most interesting game to see broken down, because it’s such a rout. I found this section to be the slowest part of the book.

It recovers nicely in the second section of the book, perhaps the best. It speaks of Bud Carson and his effects on modern defense, analyzing the 1974 victory of Pittsburgh over Oakland in the AFC Championship that year. The game was close, and the interviews were excellent throughout  this section.

The occasional diagram is scattered throughout the book.

The remaining sections touch on Don Coryell and his offensive contributions, Bill Walsh and his offense, and then three defensive wizards: Buddy Ryan, Dick LeBeau and then Bill Belichick. The Buddy Ryan section has interview material good enough I’m going to break it out in a separate blog post. Finally, at the end, Ron and his coauthors talk about what they see as upcoming  trends. They talk about the increasing sophistication of offenses and defenses, the “quickness” with which trends manifest in the modern game, the increasing size and speed of the modern athlete, the degree to which the availability of video changes everything.

Throughout, Ron ties his history into the book, weaving any personal knowledge of the men discussed into the text. That said, this is the book of an older wiser man, rather than an impetuous youth. And so though Ron loves his past, bleeds Eagle green, in some respects it’s more a Kermit green, kinder, nicer, gentler, more gracious.

For a book with such a simple initial focus, the scope of topics discussed is pretty far ranging.  I suspect this book would work better with a companion video, and given  that two coauthors work for NFL films, I wouldn’t be surprised to see something like that eventually appear.

Rating? Not the best general audience book. For an X’s and O’s minded fan, however, this book is a terrific 7 course meal.

Richly detailed and particularly good at teasing the man out of the myths, Rick Maraniss’s epic biography of Vince Lombardi is a book I consider a “must read” for the serious NFL fan.

Copyrighted in 1999, the list of praise for this book fills two pages just inside the cover, and the book was a New York Times best seller. Still relevant today, I believe, it’s as significant a book as Robert W. Creamer’s biography of Babe Ruth, “Babe”.

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