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”.



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.

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.


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.

Keith Goldner is active this season both on Advanced NFL Stats and his own blog, Drive By Football. As he has updated his Markov Chain model (see also here), I’d suggest finding Keith’s new articles on either of these two sites. In my opinion, Keith’s work on his expected points models is a must read for anyone who wants to learn analytics, because he’s perhaps the best at making sure that readers can understand how he sets his models up.

Jene Bramel is a good follow if you like in game analysis on Twitter. After the Cowboys 24-17 victory over the Giants, this tweet caught my eye, where Jene mentions a Bear front.

A Bear you say?

I never found that Bear, but at 5:18 in the second quarter – one of the more interesting drives in the game, from the standpoint of a defensive front junkie – we see this:

Two down linemen, but six players at line depth and two at linebacker depth give this front a Bear like feel.

Diagrammatic representation of the front at 5:18, 2nd qtr. Bruce Carter is the linebacker between T and TE.

Though this is formally a nickel front, and there really isn’t a 3-0-3 diamond here, there are a couple things of note. There are six players across the line. Bruce Carter is in the gap between the RDE and the R (rush linebacker), just inside the tight end. Sean Lee is at the 50 behind Bruce (a few yards in front of the left offensive tackle), and another player is in the other 50, a few yards in front of the right offensive tackle. The “lineman” in the two point stace, to the left of the nose guard in this view, isn’t playing a 5 technique as much as he is playing a 3, and the whole front looks as if Rob Ryan is guessing a run to the left side of the line.

That’s exactly what happened. The Giants ran left. Bruce Carter defeated his block and the run gained almost nothing. And it’s almost pure stubbornness to run a running back into the heart of this kind of formation.

Otherwise, I saw plenty of 2 and 3 man fronts, and at one point, perhaps a 4 man front.

After the game, I found that the day of the game, Chase Stuart had this article online, comparing the relative skills of Eli Manning and Tony Romo. And no, it isn’t the usual media fawning exercise.

Update: for more Rob Ryan fronts, this thread has screen shots of the first 10 Ryan fronts of the season.

Both Rex and Rob Ryan are known to use the Bear front, otherwise known as the double eagle, and in its 1985 incarnation, the 46, and  in preseason week 1 year 2011, both brothers flashed some double eagle with 8 man line.

The image above is the most famous Bear of the night, as Jon Gruden mentioned it, but  the very next play featured a Bear with a flexed nose tackle.

Rob’s double eagle had 5 down linemen instead of 6, but the 6 players along the line, and two players at linebacker depth and over the tackle leads me to designate this the first Bear the Cowboys have run under Rob Ryan.

It’s a short book, very much an outline as much as it is anything, and that is both this book’s blessing and curse. It’s a blessing because it’s packed with ideas, and it’s something of a curse in that the details of implementation are often left up to the reader. For the fan, it’s perhaps an easier read than Ron Vanderlinden’s tome, and so I think much more suitable for the curious but casual fan of defensive technique.

For those who aren’t familiar with the double eagle flex, it’s worthwhile noting  that this is an 8 in the box defense closely related to the 46 employed by the Ryan family. There are 5 men along the line, including one flexed 3 technique tackle. The strong safety, or rover, is a hybrid player, and I’ve depicted him below as a linebacker. But much like many run oriented modern defenses, this player has to both play linebacker technique and also defend the pass.

It wouldn’t be a recent review on “Code and Football” if we didn’t provide the reader with a diagram, so this is my representation of the Double Eagle versus the Ace formation, three wide.

Ace formation versus double eagle flex. High School field. DBs funnel receivers into FS.

Note that both the boundary corner and the rover are supposed to funnel their men into the free safety.

The book is 98 pages long, packed with shifts, mods, stunts, all described in that  brief synoptic style.

From  the blog “Compete in All Things” comes  this nice little quote:

 The 3-4 has a lot of moving parts, more so than just about any other defense, and often has changing responsibilities with regards to force, contain, spill, all those terms we love to use to define good defense….


    The 3-4 is a seven man front to start. The actual front alignment varies quite a bit, with some teams preferring a 4-0-4 head up approach with slanting and stunting, and others preferring an ‘under’ front variation (9-5-1-3-5), and yet others running a 3-0-3 double eagle front

which, because I just think it’s cool, I’m going to illustrate:

3 different 34 fronts. The base front is on top, an over shifted front in the middle, and the double eagle front obtained by "Eagling" the DEs and ILBs (i.e. having them swap facing linemen) is on the bottom.

This dovetails  in with another neat quote, this time from Coach Huey’s board, on a thread devoted to what an Eagle defense is.

 “eagling” was often used to describe either the Okie tackle going in over the guard and the LB going out over the tackle, or in the 4-3 the end going out over the TE or over a ghost TE, and the OLB going in over the tackle…

To note as well, for all you 46 aficionados out there, Coach Huey has a seven nine page discussion of the 46 that’s been going on for almost four years now.

This is the  third of a series on drawing football diagrams, and this time we’ll be talking about drawing the defensive side of the ball. For now, we’re going to have the offense going “up” the image and the defense going “down” the image. It’s easy enough to invert. Draw the offense the way we show in Part 2, rotate the result by 180 degrees, and then add your defensive players. In the old days, the defense was indicated with triangles. Most football bloggers, however, like to use fonts with names on them for the defense. The problem with fonts is that fonts are often tied to an operating system, so using them well requires some familiarity with font families. A good introduction to font families is here. And to note, Helvetica is installed as part of Image Magick, so if you want a no nonsense solution that should just work, set your font to “Helvetica-Bold”.

Since we are using Image Magick to generate our graphics, we can add color at will to our diagrams, and so one convention we’re going to follow for now is to use shape and color to distinguish offense from defense. offenses will be in white, defenses in yellow. Other conventions we could use are:

  • Using different shapes for linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs.
  • Tilting the defensive symbol to indicate a slanted lineman.
  • Shading the offensive lineman to indicate a shaded orientation on the  part of the defensive player.

For now, we’re going to use this image as the basis for our defenses. We’ve spoken about the Desert Swarm, a kind of double eagle defense, here.

Arizona versus Washington, 1992. I formation versus Desert Swarm. Whip (flex tackle) on TE side of formation..

And these are our attempts to duplicate that photograph. Obviously one corner and the free safety position are a product of speculation.

Defense in yellow, using symbols. Slant lineman denoted by tilt of triangles.

This graphic is a text based representation of the defense.

Helvetica-Bold is the font used here.

The images as displayed above are about 3/4 their actual size, so double click on them to see a full sized image (unless you’re using Chrome, in which case you’ll get a huge image).

Font notes:

To list the fonts that Image Magick can use by name, use the command (Win32/64 cmd window or Unix shell):

convert -list font | more

fonts that are not listed here can be accessed by direct path to the font file itself. In Ubuntu/Linux, the Fontmatrix utility can be a big help in seeing which fonts are good and determining the font path.

In this article, the example code is going to be given in Perl, using the Image::Magick module.

Code samples:

Previous parts of this article:


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