Defense


I’ve been lucky recently. Bill Arnsparger’s book tends to cost closer to $100 than a penny, but an inexpensive copy appeared and I grabbed it (even the Kindle version is around fifty dollars). Compared to Homer Smith’s book, this is less a compendium of diagrams, concepts and ideas and more of a handbook on how to organize and play football defense. It is at times synoptic, at times terse, something of a densely annotated outline. Bill is fond of capital letters, acronyms, and motivational slogans. He also needs to learn to spell “Wilkinson”.

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As a defensive handbook, it’s full of fronts, pass defenses, pithy comments, and a fair amount of defensive gold. He talks about which pass defenses should be paired together. He’s good at finding ones whose reads would be the same to a QB but whose collective actions would be quite different (Cover 2 with his Two man coverage, for example).

As befits a handbook, nothing is beyond the ken of the curious mind. It’s in the depth of the material where it can be daunting. It feels like those sophomore survey courses where the instructor tries to teach everything. Clearly, a lot of time and effort have been poured into the collection of material in the book to make it a cohesive and workable system.

His approach to the history of defenses is pretty original. He starts with the wide tackle six, and between what Jones and Wilkinson have said about the wide tackle six, what Jones and Wilkinson have said about four and five spoke contain, what Homer Smith said about the evolution of the 8 man line, and this delightful Rod Rusk quote from Doctor Z’s tome:

We had trouble with Atlanta’s one back. I was very tempted, but I didn’t have the guts, to line us up in an old fashioned wide-tackle, six-man line, an old 6-2 defense. It keeps going around and around in my head. You can do it with nickel people. The defensive ends are strong safeties, then you’ve got four linemen inside them, then the two inside linebackers are, well, inside linebackers. I still might do it. You might see a lot of people going back to old ideas next year.

Is this the time when the modern 4-2-5 was conceptualized? I’m really intrigued by this train of thought.

Later he points out that the wide tackle six, if you put one of the linebackers at the nose on the line, becomes a kind of seven-diamond.

Seven-diamond, as it stems from the wide tackle six. Pull the right tackle and replace him with a linebacker, and you get something incredibly similar to the later 46 defense.

Seven-diamond, as it stems from the wide tackle six. Pull the right tackle and replace him with a linebacker, and you get something incredibly similar to the later 46 defense.

And then talks about how similar this seven-diamond is to the 46 defense.

It's interesting that Bill spends most of his time re: the flex defense discussing the play of the offside (flexed) end.

It’s interesting that Bill spends most of his time re: the flex defense discussing the play of the offside (flexed) end.

Later, he talks about the Tom Landry flex defense, and rather than focusing on the tackle up on the line, he discusses a flex strong and the pursuit play of the weakside defensive end. He never outright says it, but considering that he later discusses the development of his 53 and over/under 4-3 and 3-4 defenses, it’s hard to lose the impression that the weak side end, often handling the weak side A gap in pursuit, was a factor in his later 3-4 setups. Did he see it as a step towards a 3-4? Was the weak side flexed end a poor man’s “3-4 linebacker”?

With the notes I’ve shown so far, I’m really only scraping the surface of this book. I get the feeling a good coach could, in many ways, start and end with this book, and not suffer very much. If you’re a fan, the book is expensive enough that you should wait for an inexpensive copy. A defensive coach might actually find reason to buy this one as an ebook, and keep it around.

I am much more of a defensive historian and front junkie than I am an offensive specialist, but all that said, if you’re like me and really want to know how the various defenses evolved, then you could do a lot worse than the first twelve pages of Homer Smith’s book. What Doctor Z did for the history of the 7 man line in professional football, Homer Smith does for both the 7 and 8 man line in both college and pro football in his first chapter.

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A page from his phenomenal first chapter.

A page from his phenomenal first chapter.

The book is worth buying for the first chapter alone.

That said, as this is a playbook, the book is dominated by diagrams and concepts. It’s a very conceptual book. It’s heavy with categories and many lists of things to know and do. As an example, it has an appendix of pass techniques you can use to achieve separation. There are, by my count, 29 listed, in three broad categories.

He talks about things like simplifying reads, so that QBs have a binary decision tree instead of a five-six part list. That sounds to me like practical advice. He discusses kinds of pass defenses and how to recognize them. There are sections on time outs and time management, and when to go for 2 points. He talks about pass protection schemes, inside and outside runs, blocking schemes, and a lot of things I’ll never have the time to delve into.

But his excellent diagrams, often of defenses, are enough for someone like me to call this book a classic, and make me recall the various philosophy lectures I’ve heard, particularly on the Greek concept of arete. This, indeed, is an excellent book.

While digging for T formation information (see my last article), I picked up two books discussing Army football. The first was Randy Roberts’ “A Team For America”, a good book that discusses Earl Blaik, his development of Army football, and ends with the 1945 season, in which Army went undefeated and beat Navy in the Army Navy game. But from the context of football history, at least as useful is Mark Beech’s book “When Saturday Mattered Most”.

This book focuses on the Black Knight’s 1958 season, the last in which Army went undefeated. So you have Earl Blaik introducing the Lonely End formation, and the effect the formation had on the game. The book touches on the problems Earl was having with depth, the majesty of Pete Dawkins’ Heisman winning season, and well, a whole lot more. The book is heavily driven by player and coach interviews, and I think, does the topic plenty of justice.

For the football historian, though, there are plenty of small comments that help establish the nature of football in the late 1950s. For example, the Black Knights had been playing the 5-4 Oklahoma, but Earl wasn’t very happy with it. (1)

Against opponents with superior size and depth, sticking with the Oklahoma seemed as self-defeating as continuing to run the offense from the T formation, since the key to the scheme was for defenders to hit and control the offensive blocker in front of him. The Oklahoma Defense, in other words, was “impact football”. Blaik instead wanted an aggressive defense that attacked the ball with speed rather than trying to control the line of scrimmage.

All I can say is that the issue of the Oklahoma being a big, powerful man’s defense is older than the mass switch to the Miami 4-3 in the 1990s.

The formation chosen for the 1958 campaign is also interesting. Earl Blaik has been experimenting with unbalanced lines, and along with the unbalanced line, they added a “far flanker”. This was a split end positioned fifteen to twenty yards away from the main formation. The backfield would be a Bears or Power T, or perhaps a brown formation, with Pete Dawkins, normally a halfback, stationed as a wingback on the strong side. Though perhaps not the original intent, this broke the “four spoke” contain strategies of the day, and led to a very powerful rushing attack.

We’re going illustrate this, so readers have a better understanding of what was going on. A 5-2, with players positioned as per assignments in Gomer and Wilkinson (up to and including the flexed nose guard), would look something like this.

A 5-2 as it would have been played versus a Power T. The cornerbacks are 3 yards from LOS and 4-5 yards laterally from the ends. It creates a de facto nine man line.

Fig. 1. A 5-2 as it would have been played versus a Power T. The cornerbacks are 3 yards from LOS and 4-5 yards laterally from the ends. It creates a de facto nine man line.

With cornerbacks 3 yards deep and within 4-5 yards of the ends, you can easily see how the Oklahoma got the game the 5-4. As Beech explained, the 5-4 against a traditional Power T gives you effectively a nine man line. (2)

The formation Earl Blaik used became known as the Lonely End formation, a phrase coined by the journalist Stanley Woodward. The flanker had to be covered or else he would run wild. A typical adjustment of 1958 would look something like this.

The far flanker of the lonely end formation, with a corner shadowing the flanker, opened up runs to the strong  side of the field, as the corner could not contain.

Fig. 2. The far flanker of the lonely end formation, with a corner shadowing the flanker, opened up runs to the strong side of the field, as the corner could not contain.

The problem now is, the cornerback is too far away to help in run contain. Yes, he can cover the far end, but he really cannot function to contain end runs to his side. Further, if the end went deep, he would take two defenders, a cornerback and a safety, with him. The four spoke contain was broken. (3-4)

The answer emerged roughly concurrently with the appearance of the Lonely End formation, as Homer Smith notes in Mark Beech’s book: (5)

I was manning the phones on the sideline in a game when I was the freshman coach at Stanford in 1958, and somone we were playing, I forget who it was, was using the inverted rotation. We didn’t know what the heck was going on; at least the coaches didn’t, and I sure didn’t. It was that new, that surprising.

In the inverted rotation, also called an overshifted secondary, a safety would drop to linebacker depth and station himself 3-5 yards outside the line, and function as a contain man. This player at linebacker depth later became known as a monster or rover back, and is commonly seen in eight in the box defenses to this day, including the Desert Swarm defenses of current Army coach Rich Ellerson.

The inverted secondary (or  overshift, or monster) was the answer to loss of contain by the far cornerback. This kind of defensive scheme became known later as the 5-2 Monster.

Fig. 3. The inverted secondary (or overshift, or monster) was the answer to loss of contain by the far cornerback. This kind of defensive scheme became known later as the 5-2 Monster.

Innovations of formation and defense weren’t the only changes Mark noted. He points out that to deal with the complexities of the line assignments, that line coach Bill Gunlock installed an area, or zone blocking scheme. This dates area blocking to a time before Vince Lombardi becomes head coach of Green Bay. (6)

So all told, in summary, this is an important book for a couple of reasons. It tells a nice story of Earl Blaik’s last season, and further, it gives enough detail about the football of the times to get in on the problems of a football coach in the late 1950s, the kinds of solution required to solve the problems of the era, and then enough detail to help piece together the evolution of both football offense and defense.

I recommend this book a lot, a worthy read.

Notes

Fig 1. The DT shade over the tackles is probably a little exaggerated. Jones and Wilkinson describe it as almost across from the tackles, but I didn’t read “outside shoulder of the tackles”. In modern notation, it isn’t quite a 4, but not quite a 5 either. The DTs above are shown as a 5, so a bit exaggerated in terms of their placement.

References

1. Beech, Chapter 3.

2. Beech, Chapter 1.

3. Beech, Epilogue.

4. “Feet plus Pete Dawkins”

5. Beech, Epilogue.

6. Beech, Chapter 3.

Bibliography

Beech, Mark, When Saturday Mattered Most: The Last Golden Season of Army Football, St Martin’s Press, 2012.[ebook]

Jones, Gomer and Wilkinson, Bud, Modern Defensive Football. , Prentice-Hall, 1957.

Staff, “Feet Plus Pete Dawkins”. February 2, 1959. Sports Illustrated. retrieved August 2, 2013.

Wilkinson, Bud, Sports illustrated football: defense, Lippincott, 1973 .

Wyatt, Hugh, Earl “Red” Blaik – Chapter 9 The Lonely End Excites a Nation, retrieved August 2, 2013.

I’ve been reading a ton of books. One of these is Robert W. Peterson’s “Pigskin”, which has been an interesting read so far. I’m roughly in the late 1940s in this book, which starts with the beginning of professional football and ends with the NFL championship in 1958. What has caught my eye are Mr. Peterson’s comments about the spread of the T formation in the 1940s. He describes the Bears 73-0 NFL Championship victory over the Redskins. Later, when describing the switch of the Redskins to the T in 1944, he gives this accounting of the state of the football world in 1944: (1)

By that year, more than 50 percent of college teams has converted to the T formation. So had most pro teams. Henceforth, the old single-wing formula of “three yards and a cloud of dust” as the ideal offensive play would go the way of the rugby ball in pro football

The adoption was not immediate upon the end of the 1940 season, however, and teams, coaches, and whole conferences that were successful with the single wing (or Southwestern spread) tended to stick with it. For example, in Tom Landry’s autobiography, he notes that Texas made the switch in 1947, after Dana Bible retired.(2) Y. A. Tittle’s memory of the conversion is (3)

If I remember correctly, the first Southwestern conference team to switch to the T formation from the single- and double-wing formations was Rice University, followed by Georgia and Louisiana State.

The quote above mixes the SEC and the Southwest conference, but still.. LSU switched in 1945. I’m just not sure which of the 50% of college football teams were converting. Army and Notre Dame are well known early adopters, but as a counterexample, in 1947, Fritz Crisler won a national championship with a single wing offense at Michigan.

Dan Daly, when discussing the effects of the 73-0 Bears win over the Redskins, noted:(4)

Only one other NFL team, the Philadelphia Eagles, switched to the T the next season. And as late as 1944, both clubs that played in the championship game, the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants, used the single wing or some variation.

Paul Brown, the head coach of Ohio State from 1941 to 1943, was the first coach to see Don Faurot’s split T in action, in his very first game as Ohio State’s head coach, but then says of his game with Clark Shaughnessy’s Pittsburgh squad in 1943 (5)

It was my first real look at the T formation with flankers and men in motion, however, and it was the kind of football I later assimilated into my own system with the Browns.

So from 1941 to 1943, the “Bears” T was largely unknown in the Big 10. Paul Brown then learned the T while serving in the armed services. In 1946 and 1947, in the first two AAFC championships, Brown’s T was pitted against the single wing offense of the New York Yankees.(6)

As Dan Daly notes, the lack of players trained in the new offense slowed the T formation’s spread.(7)

In the early ’40s, the Bears and the Eagles – the only two T-formation teams – drafted an unusual number of Shaughnessy’s Stanford players because the Cardinal were the lone major college team using the offense.

Dan Daly later writes (8)

By the end of the decade, though, five out of seven college teams played some form of the T. Suddenly it was the single-wing Steelers who were having trouble finding players to fit their system.

And it does make sense. There were some early adopters who ran into Luckman, or Shaughnessy, or former Bears quarterbacks and coaches, but a lot of coaches learned the T while serving in the armed services during the war, coaching or playing in service teams. So it wasn’t the early 1940s when the transition occurred, as far as I can tell. Instead, it was the mid to late 1940s when the T became dominant. The conversion was not “immediate”. It took 3-4 years to gain steam, and a decade for it to dominate.

Notes

There were only ten pro teams in 1944, and it’s entirely possible that most NFL teams were running a T by 1944 (By my count, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, and Cleveland are using the T by 1944. Green Bay and New York are not. The other four – Brooklyn, Boston, Detroit, and Card-Pitt – I’m not sure of). Green Bay switches to the T in 1947, New York in 1949.

Army’s first use of the T is in the 1941 Army-Navy game.(9) Notre Dame had Halas’s players assist with the conversion in 1942. Clark Shaughnessy coaches Maryland in 1942 and then Pittsburgh in 1943.

1944 is an unusual year to use as a baseline, because so many coaches and players were in the armed services. That may in fact have aided the transition, as so many coaches with a traditional single wing background found themselves coaching alongside experts in the T on service teams.

For those who have never read Ron Fimrite’s article in Sports Illustrated about the Stanford Indians’ 1940 season, just do it. It’s one of the great short articles on football. The link is given in the bibliography.

References

1. Peterson, Chapter 8.

2. Landry and Lewis, p. 74.

3. Tittle, Chapter 5.

4. Daly, Chapter 3.

5. Brown and Clary, p. 101.

6. Brown and Clary, pp. 181-182.

7. Daly, Chapter 3.

8. Daly, Chapter 3.

9. Roberts, Chapter 2.

Bibliography

Brown, Paul, and Clary, Jack, PB: The Paul Brown Story, Atheneum 1980.

Daly, Dan, The National Forgotten League: Entertaining Stories and Observations from Pro Football’s First Fifty Years, University of Nebraska Press, 2012. [ebook]

Fimrite, Ron, “The Melding of All Men, Suited to a T”, September 5, 1977. “Sports Illustrated”. retrieved July 28, 2013.

Holland, Gerald, “The Man Who Changed Football”, February 3, 1964. Sports Illustrated. retrieved July 28, 2013.

Johnston, James W. ,The Wow Boys: A Coach, a Team, and a Turning Point in College Football , University of Nebraska Press, 2006.

Landry, Tom, and Lewis, Gregg,Tom Landry: An Autobiography, Harper Paperbacks, 1990.

McGarr, Elizabeth, “The Top 20 Greatest Moments”, August 20, 2008. “Sports Illustrated”. retrieved July 28, 2013.

Peterson, Robert W., Pigskin: The Early Years of Pro Football, 1997. [ebook]

Roberts, Randy, A Team for America: The Army-Navy Game That Rallied a Nation at War , Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, reprint ed 2011. [ebook]

Tittle, Y. A, and Clark, Kristine S.,Nothing Comes Easy: My Life in Football ,Triumph Books, 2009. [ebook]

Zimmerman, Paul, in “Letters”, December 22, 1997. “Sports Illustrated”. retrieved July 28, 2013.

In a previous post, we noted that the “two gap” 3-4 doesn’t extend back to the origin of the 5-2 Oklahoma, as Jones and Wilkinson, 1957, didn’t coach a pure two gap system. It was a hybrid 1 gap 2 gap system, with only the nose guard two gapping.

Looking for post-Wilkinson 5-2 Oklahoma philosophies is difficult. The article by Norris and Harper in Defensive Football Strategies (American Football Coaches Association), dated 1974, already shows the influence of Jimmy Johnson’s “upfield pressure” philosophies. Linemen 1 gap to the play side and purse from the offside. Jimmy Johnson was the Oklahoma defensive line coach from 1970 to 1972. Fogie Fazio’s article on the 50, dated 1980, in the same book, has clear 1 gap responsibilities.

Since we know Parcells coached a two gap 3-4, that’s our starting point. We’ll consider Parcell’s career, using Bill Gutman’s biography as a reference.

The first mention of a defense is on page 36, where they discuss the 52 Invert Defense. Quoting Tom Godfrey

It was a defense that dictated to the offense, not a traditional sit-and-read defense. When the ball was snapped we were moving, and that caught people off guard. All five linemen were moving one way or the other, and the secondary moved opposite to them.

Bill Parcells was an assistant at Wichita State at the time, and he taught this defense to his old high school. But confusing, slanting, pressure 5-2s aren’t read-and-react two gap 3-4s. This isn’t the defense he took to the Giants.

His next stop is at Army, where his old high school coach had assembled a terrific staff, and where he meets Bobby Knight. From there, he goes to Florida State, where he runs into Steve Sloan, whom he follows for some time. There is a stay at Vanderbilt, and then three years at Texas Tech (1975-1977). In discussing the middle of this period, Steve Sloan says

In 1976 he became more creative. He went to an even front, something not many college teams were doing then. He ran a lot of slants and gave the offense different looks.

Needless to say, the 3-4 isn’t an even front.

Parcells then spends a year at the Air Force academy as their head coach, spends a brief period as a linebacker coach with the Giants, gets out of football briefly, and then in 1980 joins Ron Erhardt with the Patriots, where Hank Bullough was the defensive coordinator, and one of the architects of the conversion of the Pats to the 3-4. This moment seems seminal to me.

As Bullough says of the Pats introduction to the professional 3-4,

We were the first. We had gone through a tough season in ’73 and our defensive line wasn’t very good. We had drafted Steve Nelson and Sam Hunt and they were two good-looking kids at linebacker, and I said to Chuck, “Let’s go to the 3-4,” and that’s what we did.

I believe the trail of evidence now moves from Bill himself to something known by the awkward phrase Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 defensive system, a kind of gobbledegook that makes “arm talent” seem svelte by comparison. Again, the questions that come to mind are: did it start out as a pure two gap 3-4 or was it a hybrid 1-gap 2-gap system, like Bud Wilkinson’s? If the latter is true, when did it evolve into a two gap 3-4? Could there have been prior art?

If we just Google’s ngram viewer to investigate, we see that the phrase “3-4 defense” first appears in 1970.

The phrase "3-4 defense" enters the corpus of books that Google has scanned  in 1970, and then steadily gains usage.

The phrase “3-4 defense” enters the corpus of books that Google has scanned in 1970, and then steadily gains usage.

There isn’t a lot of time to develop prior 3-4 art, if the ngram is correct. And for all we know, the ngram is initially tracking the discussion of three man lines in prevent defenses.

Bibliography

Cardofo, Nick, “Recurring Scheme“, September 5, 2003, Boston Globe, retrieved July 14, 2013.

Gutman, Bill. “Parcells: A Biography“, Carroll and Graf, 2000.

Bill Parcells has an enormous hold on the  hearts and souls of football fans, ranked, for example, in this poll as the sixth best coach of all time. People take his declarative statements as edicts. Parcellisms, made more accessible to the  masses, comprise a substantial part of Pat Kirwin’s book,  “Take Your Eye Off the Ball”.  And  one of the notions of that’s beginning to take hold is that Parcell’s theories of  how the 3-4 should  be played are getting etched in stone as the way it always was played. Without proving it, people are labelling the two gap 3-4s as the “true” 3-4. Other 3-4s are somehow, “not true”.

The origin of the 3-4 is well known. It’s a 5-2 Oklahoma where the defensive ends can stand up and have pass responsibilities. The differences between the two are merely semantic. So if you want to know what the true 3-4  is, you need  to know what the  true 5-2 is, and  the best place for that is the 1957 text of Gomer Jones and Bud Wilkinson, labelled  “Modern Defensive Football.

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In  it they describe some amazing defensive concepts. They are excellent teachers, and I’ve never seen anyone explain force and contain concepts as well as they do. They do it for four man backfields and three man backfields (what they called the four and five spoke contain units). And they also describe the 5-2, which they call defense 72.

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Jones and Wilkinson’s Defense 72. Players are named as if they are playing a 6-2 defense, which was the recommended front for a single wing opponent. Note the hybrid defense end/cornerback in this scheme.

Some things to  note about these older defenses. Linebackers are much closer to the line  of scrimmage, pretty tight in fact. This can more easily be seen in old newsreel footage. If you can find, say, video of early 1950s Oklahoma and Notre Dame, linebackers are often within a couple yards of the line of scrimmage. An Oklahoma from this period looks something like this.

524_Okie

Now, what about the gap assignments? We’ll note that the modern notion of gap control is a relatively recent phenomenon. I explored this in a letter exchange with Coach Hugh Wyatt. He would date the phrase to about 1979, with Monte Kiffen the first known user of the term. The phrase “gap responsibility” is used by late 1960s, so notions of gap management in the late 1950s are stated in terms of  things  the offense must never do.

And other  than the nose guard, what must never be done is the opponent must never block you in. This makes it clear: of the 7 line assignments, 6 are one gap assignments. The original 5-2 is largely a one gap defense.

It is interesting to look at the responsibilities of the nose guard, the only one with responsibilities on both side of his opponent. As Jones and Wilkinson say (note that since they labeled all the players as if  they were in a 6-2 front, the nose guard is called the right guard in this scheme):

Right guard:  Line up  head up with the offensive center about 2 to 2 1/2 feet off the line of scrimmage. Vary the strength of your charge from play to play. Occasionally, charge hard into the center and attempt to knock him back. Most of the time, charge with enough force to control the offensive center. Basically, you must never allow the center to cut you either way. You must control both sides of the center, maintaining your ability to move to either side.

Not only is the original  5-2 largely a one gap defense, the center is flexed. This is a far cry from the modern version of 300 to 340  pound behemoths maintaining gap control across the whole front. In other words, the two gap 3-4 was an evolution from the original 3-4, and further, the one gap 3-4s are more in tune with the  original 5-2 than is the “true” 3-4.

So when did the two gap 3-4 evolve? Now, I’m curious. It’s documented, for example, that Parcell’s notion of outside run contain isn’t the same as older notions. Older contain strategies (such as the one in Jones and Wilkinson) tend to  keep runners inside the contain unit. Parcells was content. however, to run the sweep or pitch out of bounds.

Did Parcells invent it? Or was it already common in colleges by the time he arrived in the NFL? Going from one one gapper to three isn’t that much of a reach, especially if your team has three large powerful linemen. But glancing at a couple articles in AFCA’s “Defensive Football Strategies”, articles on the 5-2  originally published in 1974 and 1980,  you see one gap responsibilities being taught, even for the nose guard.

I’m not an old coach, who would have this information buried in his bones. But there is more to college football defense than a two gapping 5-2, and the paths from the past to modern times more complex than many realize.

I’ve been getting some decent feedback from the pass defense images I’ve made, so I’ve decided to extend this series for now.

Cover Zero and Man Free

In Cover Zero, all the defensive backs have assignments, and so there is no “free” safety. This is good for blitzes, but can be weak if your defensive backfield lacks the ability to cover for any length of time. In this image, the stippled lines represent an assigned ‘man’.

Cover Zero, Tampa Under front, ace backfield.

Cover Zero, Tampa Under front, ace backfield.

The coverage “man free” or “one free” is a defense where the free safety is a free agent, able to defend or double cover or safety blitz, as the need arises.

man free, Miami 43 over front.

man free, Miami 43 over front.

Cover  1

Cover 1 keeps the free safety back in a deep zone. Otherwise, coverage beneath is man to man, or perhaps a mix of man and zone.

Miami 43, shade front, man plus cover 1 by the free safety.

Miami 43, shade front, man plus cover 1 by the free safety.

Cover 2 and Tampa 2

Back in the day, Cover 2 was also called the double zone, because both outside receivers had a form of double coverage. There are references that claim the 1963 Chicago Bears played a form of a double zone and confused the heck out of people. This is significant because most folks were only playing rotating zones, if that (see the Cover 3 section).

Cover 2 from Miami 4-3 over front. Cornerbacks jam then fall into zones.

Cover 2 from Miami 4-3 over front. Cornerbacks jam then fall into zones.

Cover 2 is famous for having a hole in the middle. But if you have a  fast, agile middle linebacker, as the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers did, then you can have him race down the middle and split the deep zone into three, forming  what is known now as the Tampa 2 defense.

Tampa under front, Tampa 2 zone defense. Modeled on the diagram in Matt Bowen's Tampa 2 article.

Tampa under front, Tampa 2 zone defense. Modeled on the diagram in Matt Bowen’s Tampa 2 article.

Cover 3: rotating zones versus the modern Cover 3.

In the early 1960s, when you said zone coverage, by default you meant  this, and only  this:

Tom Landry's 4-3 Inside, showing a 1960s era strong side rotating zone. Strong side linebacker and   left cornerback jam before falling into zone.

Tom Landry’s 4-3 Inside, showing a 1960s era strong side rotating zone. Strong side linebacker and left cornerback jam before falling into zone.

This kind of defense was abused in Super Bowl III, where Baltimore’s rotating zone became a sitting duck for a still  mobile Joe Namath. By the 1970s, usage of this defense fell away, as it was too easy to diagnose.

The Cover 3 we will show here comes from a Stack 44 setup, achieved when a 4-3 Stack (Miami 4-3) overshifts the secondary. Some people call the defensive back at linebacker depth a monster or rover, and these kinds of defenses, with three defensive backs at backfield depth, naturally lend  themselves to Cover 3, with three deep backs.

Cover  3 from a Stack 4-3 monster.

Cover 3 from a Stack 4-3 monster.

QQH coverage

This is quarters-quarters-half coverage, what some folks call Cover 6 (Cause Cover 2 plus Cover 4 equals Cover 6). Note how it changes the complexion of the related Cover 3 from above.

Quarter quarter half coverage from a  Stack 4-3 Monster.

Quarter quarter half coverage from a Stack 4-3 Monster.

Cover 4

Also called quarters coverage. This is a kind of prevent defense.

Quarters coverage, from a  Tampa 4-3 under front.

Quarters coverage, from a Tampa 4-3 under front.

This is a follow up on my three part article, “Drawing a good diagram of a football field“. After trying for some time to automate arrow drawing, I’ve come to the conclusion that using GIMP, an arrow drawing plug-in, and GIMP’s path tool (a way to draw both straight lines and curves) are adequate to handle this problem.

Needed:

1. Diagram Drawing Tools (see my three part series here, here, and here).
2. A copy of GIMP. It’s free and available on Windows, Mac, and Linux.
3. Some experience with layers on GIMP. Start by searching “How to use layers in GIMP”. There are some nice Youtube videos that can get you started here.
4. This article is also really good: “How to Draw Arrows in Gimp”. Get the arrow plugin, install it, and read the instructions.
5. Look further at GIMP pathing with the search: “using path tool in gimp”.
6. For dashed and dotted lines, search using this phrase: “dashed lines in gimp”.

Some notes about drawing diagrams. If you’re using Windows shell to draw, then you’ll have no issues with Image::Magick. If you want to use the Perl interface to draw, then switch to Graphics::Magick, a fork of Image::Magick. Image::Magick has bugs when used with Perl.

When drawing arrows on a 640×480 diagram scaled in the way I’ve been scaling them, a length of wings setting of 15 and a brush width of 2 works well. This can be paired with path lengths of 5.0 pixels and will do nicely.

Tampa under front, Tampa 2 zone defense. Modeled on the diagram in Matt Bowen's Tampa 2 article.

Tampa under front, Tampa 2 zone defense. Modeled on the diagram in Matt Bowen’s Tampa 2 article.

Tom Landry's 4-3 Inside, showing a 1960s era strong side rotating zone. SAM and   left cornerback jam before falling into zone.

Tom Landry’s 4-3 Inside, showing a 1960s era strong side rotating zone, an early Cover 3. SAM and left cornerback jam before falling into zone.

Drawing a zone drop.

Load your diagram. Add a new transparent layer. Make sure you’re drawing on the transparent layer. Use the rectangle select tool (letter “R”). Choose a region to highlight as a zone. At this point select the bucket fill tool (shift B) and then select the color for the bucket fill. Use a foreground fill and set the opacity to about 50%. If your field is light green, use a dark green to fill the zone.

If you have more than one zone to add, add them all now.

Once complete, select all (important) and add another layer. On this new layer, add a path from the middle of the zone to the player. Select Tools -> Arrow (you added the arrow plugin, didn’t you?). Adjust arrow length of wings and brush width and draw the arrow. Repeat as needed.

If the path isn’t straight or you need a bar to create a “jam”, just use the path tool as needed.

If you want to add text or label the diagram, I’d suggest adding another transparent layer and putting the text above the main, zones, and arrows.

Once done, save the file as a GIMP native file and then again as a JPEG file. The second save will cause an export, crunching all the layers down to one image.

Miami 43, shade front, man plus cover 1 by the free safety.

Miami 43, shade front, man plus cover 1 by the free safety.

Drawing man to man coverage

The trick here is to use the path tool to make a stippled (dotted) image. Choose a path from the defender to the player to be defended. When you choose stroke path, choose a line type (there are many). I like the stippled pattern, as it’s unlikely to be mistaken for a solid line.

I’ve spoken a lot about Dana Bible’s 1947 text called Championship Football. It was my Dad’s old book, from his days as a high school player in 1940s Texas. Because football was a lingua franca in middle and high school, once I found it alone on the shelf I devoured it. And I find it surprises me when the average sports writer, or even a coach, doesn’t know what that book knew about formations before the T (1). So we’re going to summarize.

I’ll note that Hickock Sports has a nice summary of these old formations, but be warned, their history of the old defenses is quite broken. The best summary text for pro football defense from 1930 to about 1950 is Steve Owen’s small readable text, My Kind of Football. Paul Zimmerman, the former New York Post and Sports Illustrated writer, is also quite accurate in his accounting of NFL defense history.

Strengths and weaknesses below are taken from Bible’s summary of the formations.

1. Single Wing.

Single wing,  based on diagrams in Dana Bible's book. 6-2 set up as best I can with only diagrams and without video.

Single wing, based on diagrams in Dana Bible’s book. 6-2 set up as best I can with only diagrams and without video.

Notre Dame box, based on diagrams in Dana Bible's book.

Y formation, unbalanced line, based on diagrams in Dana Bible’s book. By mistake I originally called this a Notre Dame box.

This is a power formation, usually with an unbalanced line, and always with an unbalanced backfield. Everyone is on one side of the tailback. This leads to issues in pass protection, and therefore, the single wing was not considered a good downfield passing formation.

Strengths: power running, end runs, short passes, plays to the spinning fullback (spinner series), quick kicks.

Weaknesses: weak side running, unbalanced pass protection, lacks deception.

2. Double Wing.

There were many double wings back in the day. This is one with an unbalanced line, obtained by moving a single wing blocking back to the left wingback position.

There were many double wings back in the day. This is one with an unbalanced line, obtained by moving a single wing blocking back to the left wingback position.

These are formations, balanced or unbalanced, that have two wingbacks, sometimes three. The two inside men can be arrayed as a tailback and fullback, or a tailback and blocking back. Dutch Meyer had one formation where there were twin tailbacks at equal depth to the other.

Strengths: excellent passing formation, attack is balanced, deceptive, can easily quick kick.

Weaknesses: susceptible to crashing defensive ends, running plays are slow to the point of attack, weak as an inside running formation, difficult to master.

3. Short Punt.

Bears shift into a short  punt formation, 3rd quarter, 1956 NFL championship.

Bears shift into a short punt formation, 3rd quarter, 1956 NFL championship. Note they didn’t shift into a single wing.

Short punt, often described as the shotgun of its day. This formation was favored by NFL star Benny Friedman.

Short punt, often described as the shotgun of its day. This formation was favored by NFL star Benny Friedman. Recognition points for coaches: balanced line, backs on both sides of the tailback.

This is a balanced formation with backs on both sides of the tailback. As in the single wing, as many as three backs can take the pass from center.

Strengths: balanced formation, deceptive ball handling, good lateral passing attack, excellent passing formation, ideal for the quick kick.

Weaknesses: lack of flankers make it hard to run off tackle, not strong weak side outside, far better passing formation than running.

4. Long Punt.

Long Punt formation. Similar but not identical to short punt. Backs are tighter to the line to black, ends are more spread, tailback is 10 yards behind line. Based, as all diagrams here are, on Dana Bible's book.

Long Punt formation. Similar but not identical to short punt. Backs are tighter to the line to black, ends are more spread, tailback is 10 yards behind line. Based, as all diagrams here are, on Dana Bible’s book.

Largely when you’re in this formation you are punting. Occasionally, the center might hike it to the fullback and the punt is faked.

A short summary of the history of NFL defenses to 1960.

Before 1933, it’s the seven box and seven diamond that predominate. 1933 leads to a slimmer football and liberalized passing rules. This brings us the 6-2 as the primary defense, and the 5-3 as a passing defense/anti-T defense. In 1940, the success of Clark Shaughnessy inspired Ts brings more and more use of five man lines. The 5-3 is considered the best defense against the T by the middle 1940s. Later 1940s gives us Greasy Neale’s 5-2. Five man lines are the base defense of the NFL by 1950. 5-3 can easily been seen played in video of the 1950 NFL Championship, as Cleveland has been using it as their base defense.

Early fifties tend to 5-2s. NFL championship games featuring Detroit show good examples of 5-2 defenses. In 1956, New York uses the 4-3 throughout the NFL championship. The Chicago Bears show no sign of a 4 man line, and plenty of examples of middle guard play (that ends any claim of Bill George only playing MLB from 1954 on). By 1957, almost everyone plays the 4-3. I don’t recall Cleveland playing it, but I saw Detroit play it plenty in video of the 1957 Championship. At this point, Paul Zimmerman’s recounting of the history appears to be dead on.

Notes.

1. The T formation is actually quite old, so we’re using this statement to mean before the Clark Shaughnessy inspired T formations that began to take over football in 1940.

Bibliography.

Bible, Dana X., Championship Football, Prentice-Hall, New York, 1947.

Lamb, Keith, The Evolution of Strategy, in Total Football II: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League, Carroll, Bob, Gershman, Michael, Neft, David, and Thorn, John, editors, Total Sports Inc, 1999.

Owen, Steve, My kind of football;, David McKay, 1952.

Zimmerman, Paul, New Thinking Man’s Guide to Professional Football, Harper Collins, 1984.

Dan Daly’s “National Forgotten League”: Just buy it. Read it. If you’re a historian, you’ll like how he tries to put each decade in context. If you’re an analytics guy, then his analysis of scoring patterns over the decades will come as a pleasant surprise. Dan Daly has a Twitter account and it is worth following.

Zone blitzes before the word “blitz” was coined.

In this passage in the Sammy Baugh biography Slingin’ Sam, Baugh recalls the 1935 TCU-SMU game (1):

They did some things I hadn’t seen before. They’d throw up a six-man line with two linebackers, so they had eight guys pretty close to the front. If they all came, they had a pretty good pass rush, but you had to call your blocking for six men coming. Sometimes the linebackers would come, but someone else would drop back. They usually had four men  protecting that short, eight-or nine-yard area, But we never knew which ones.

The emphasis in the quote is mine, but it sure sounds like a zone blitz to me.

The Wikipedia and the 5-3 defense.

I’ve been sticking my nose into the Wikipedia, cleaning  up their entry on the 5-2 defense, and also trying to fix situations where statements are outright incorrect (No, Tom Landry did not invent the 4-3 to stop Jim Brown.  Tom used the 4-3 as the Giants’ base defense in 1956. Sam Huff’s bio, “Tough Stuff”, makes it clear that both the 4-3 Inside and 4-3 Outside were in place by 1956 (2).  Jim Brown entered the league in 1957. Let’s just not go there, even if there are sites that claim otherwise).

But as it turns out, the Wikipedia has no entry for the 5-3 defense, which I’d like to add, and I’m faced with a quandry. Who invented it: Steve Owen, or Clark Shaughnessy? I’m not sure. The Wikipedia entry for Clark Shaughnessy claims he did, giving a reference to the book “Wow Boys”. Steve Owen claims he did in his autobiography, and gives dates (first used 1933, in a game against the Bears)(3). I have “Wow Boys” on order, so we’ll see.

5-3-3, circa 1947. Dana Bible described it as the best defense against the T formation.

5-3-3, circa 1947. Dana Bible described it as the best defense against the T formation.

Deal is, by 1947, it was regarded, by Dana Bible no less, as the best defense to the T formation. The Cleveland Browns used it as their base defense at least as late as the year 1951 (4).  Steve Owen refers to the 5-3-3 as the Browns base defense in his 1952 autobiography. The  book “Total Football II” claims the Browns were using the 5-2 as their base defense by 1954, so sometime between 1952 and 1954 they switched.

On the origin of the 5-2 Oklahoma

“Total Football II” has this interesting passage (5):

After their first championship, the Eagles played the annual College All-Star game and won 38-0. The All-Stars’ coach was Oklahoma’s Bud Wilkinson, who took Neale’s defense back to the Big Eight and tinkered with it. Eventually, Wilkinson’s 5-2 had the ends standing up like linebackers.

The interesting thing about this claim is that it is falsifiable. If Oklahoma played the 5-2 Eagle as late as the 1948 season, they already knew about the defense. If the Oklahoma was played before 1949, then the story above is false. Partial confirmation of the date, though really not indicative of prior knowledge, is this quote from “Forty-Seven Straight” (6):

It was in 1949 that Bud and Gomer devised the Oklahoma Defense, a 5-4 that was a completely new concept. “It has since been used extensively in professional football, and still is today,” says Pop Ivy. “We had been in the Eagle Defense, named for the Philadelphia Eagles. In it the linebackers played on the offensive ends. But it was Bud’s idea that, since linebackers, playing on tight ends, can’t see what’s going on, no key is given. ‘Let’s move our linebackers in on the offensive guards and move our defensive tackles on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackles and key on the offensive guards’, Bud proposed. ‘The guard will pull, or double-team, or do something to tell us what the play will be.’ As soon as the offensive guard moved, we know what to do.”

This passage is useful in a lot of ways. It establishes that the Oklahoma is a keying defense that was in use in 1949, 7 years in advance of Landry’s 4-3. It also suggests that reading keys is prior art, something people were already doing at the time. It suggests a way to falsify the claim of Total Football II: find video somewhere of Oklahoma football in 1948, and look for a 5-2 Eagle.

The 5-4 before there was a 5-4.

Bud Wilkinson’s 5-2 is often referred to as a 5-4. Bud himself often called it a 5-4. But in Dana Bible’s book there is this short passage, showing a noticeably different 5-4.

5-4-2, circa 1947. Note the wide spacing of the linebackers, compared to the Oklahoma.

5-4-2, circa 1947. Note the wide spacing of the linebackers, compared to the Oklahoma.

Notes from the book ’63

The book ’63 is an oral history of the 1963 Chicago Bears. Maury Youmans did the interviews, Gary stitched the interviews into a comprehensible narrative. Because it’s largely an oral history from a lot of perspectives, it’s terrifically useful as a snapshot into what was happening at the time.

Mike Ditka on the 46 defense (7):

Buddy Ryan had a system; it was the 46 defense. You basically are coming with eight men up front. You’re playing an 8-3, that’s what you’re playing.

Ritchie Petitbon on George Allen becoming defensive coordinator late in 1962, replacing Clark Shaughnessy (8):

I thought when George Allen took over it was a good move. Clark was a genius, but he was so smart that most of us didn’t know what the hell was going on. George simplified things, and we obviously had a lot of talent on that team. I think it made all the difference in the world.

In my opinion, George Allen relates to Clark Shaughnessy as a defensive coach in much the same way Joe Gibbs is indebted to Don Coryell. Both showed the systems of their mentors could win big in the NFL.
~~~

Notes and References.

1. Holley, Chapter 4.

2. Huff and Shapiro, p. 50.

3. Owen, p. 178.

4. Brown and Clary, p. 220.

5. Carroll et al., p 463.

6. Keith, p. 55.

7. Youmans and Youmans, p. 209.

8. Youmans and Youmans, p. 11.

Bibliography.

Bible, Dana X., Championship Football, Prentice-Hall, New York, 1947.

Brown, Paul and Clary, Andy, PB: The Paul Brown Story, Atheneum, New York, 1979.

Holley, Joe, Slingin’ Sam: The Life and Times of the Greatest Quarterback Ever to Play the Game, University of Texas Press, 2012 [ebook].

Huff, Sam and Shapiro, Leonard, Tough Stuff, St. Martins Press, 1988.

Keith, Harold, Forty-seven Straight: The Wilkinson Era at Oklahoma, University of Oklahoma Press, 1984.

Lamb, Keith, The Evolution of Strategy, in Total Football II: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League, Carroll, Bob, Gershman, Michael, Neft, David, and Thorn, John, editors, Total Sports Inc, 1999.

Owen, Steve, My kind of football;, David McKay, 1952.

Youmans, Gary, and Youmans, Maury,’63: The Story of the 1963 World Championship Chicago Bears, Campbell Road Press, 2004.

Zimmerman, Paul, New Thinking Man’s Guide to Professional Football, Harper Collins, 1984.

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