Xs and Os


A writer named Steven Ruiz has an article in USA Today worth spending some time on. There is the whole body of analytical data that fronts the article. He then documents some modern wrinkles in how the pass rush is now being coached.

He spends a fair amount of time talking about the zone blitz, something that in my eyes is not new, and to be plain, was used at least as early as the college TCU-SMU games of the 1930s, the Sammy Baugh games where SMU constantly varied the pressure Sammy would see (1). Different linemen would fall out of the lines and occupy zones, and the folks rushing would vary. This story pretty much gets told in any biography of Sammy Baugh. It’s not hidden in the depths of newspapers.com.

By the 1940s, you see lineman falling back into zones in books by coaches such as Dana Bible (2). Don Faurot, in his book on the Split T, says when speaking of the pass rush: “rush at least four men. Vary the number constantly.”(3)

Patterns like these continued into the 1950s, where books by guys like Bobby Layne then talk about the changes in how the rush was generated once Tom Landry’s 4-3 came into the fore.

In the 5-2 Eagle, as Layne explains, the rush largely came from the ends and the three linemen in the middle defended the run. In the 1950s era 4-3 system, all four down linemen rushed. All the linemen were tall men, with long arms to obscure the view of the quarterback. They all rushed because the wall of arms was a big factor in preventing downfield vision. And because they all rushed, and the 4-3 was a massively dominant defense, from the middle 1950s to the middle 1970s, the notion of a variable line rush was slowly lost.

So, in the modern context, Dick LeBeau is considered the father of the ‘zone blitz’, the modern incarnation of the 1940s ‘constantly variable rush’. And further, the faked blitz, is no longer just talked about or seen. It’s not, as a 1930s coach might put it, part of the ‘bag of tricks’ a defensive player should have. The creeper, as it’s called, is a coaching point that’s integral to some defensive systems. The idea is of course, not new, as anyone who ever saw the Jimmy Johnson coached Philadelphia Eagles defenses can attest to. The thing that’s new are that these kinds of ideas are integrated into defensive systems, are coaching points. And let’s give Steven Ruiz a +1 or thumbs up for exposing all that to us.

***

Hat Tip to Doug Farrar for exposing me to Steven’s post on Twitter.

Notes and References.

1. Holley, Chapter 4.

2. Bible, p. 156.

3. Faurot, p 223.

Bibliography.

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

Faurot, Don, “Secrets of the Split T formation”, Prentice-Hall, 1950.

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

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First things first. You cannot hurt yourselves much by buying Doug Farrar’s new book “The Genius of Desperation”. I have only one complaint about it. It does mangle the history of the one gap 4-3 when it discusses the Miami 4-3 that Jimmy Johnson helped introduce into the pros. From the beginning there were one gap 4-3s. Just, the 4-3s of Tom Landry were about gap control, not hard core pursuit. Otherwise it’s a very good book. Oh yes, the first edition has some issues in the diagrams, but if he gets a second edition, perhaps those will be fixed.

Dr Z’s classic now has a Kindle edition. If you have Kindle Unlimited, you can get the book for free (for now).

Also, for a limited time, Coach Paul Alexander has a video of the back and forth of Super Bowl LIII, of the 5 UP defense the Patriots used, the tricks the Rams used, and how both teams adapted to defeat the respective defenses. Just, its now unlisted
(can’t be searched for) and it may disappear in time. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I suspect this whole narrative was kick started by an article in Cowboys Nation that invented something they called the even 4-3. That nothing prior to CN ever talked about a Tom Landry even 4-3 did not stop them, nor did books that mentioned that Tom Landry’s first two defenses were the 4-3 inside and the 4-3 outside. Again, you don’t have to believe me. Read Peter Golenbock’s book on the Dallas Cowboys. We’ll start quoting from page 47 (1).

As a player Landry would not have been presumptive enough to try to formally teach his system to the other defensive players, but as defensive coach, it became his job. He designed a defense he called “the inside 4-3” and “the outside 4-3”.

Going to stop. He didn’t call his defense the even 4-3. The names were 4-3 inside and 4-3 outside.

It was revolutionary because everyone in the past everyone played man-to-man defense. In the past brute strength had been the requisite. You lined up opposite your man, and you tried to beat the crap out of him, using a forearm or your shoulder or a headslap or grabbing him by the jersey and throwing him to one side in an attempt to get by him to make the tackle.

Note that a “gladitorial style” has a lot in common with a modern two gap. It’s a head on collision with the man in front of you.

So what were these revolutionary new assignments? Turns out we know because Vince Lombardi took the 43 inside and outside to Green Bay and those defenses he used for the rest of his coaching career. Later, a book called “Vince Lombardi on Football” was written and in that book, every assignment of every player was documented. We’ll borrow some images from my article on the 43 Flex.

TL_43_inside

To note, the 4 linemen in the 4-3 inside/outside are not flush on the line. The tackles are flexed, or about three feet behind the line.

Assignments for the line are single gaps. In the inside, the tackles take an A gap and the middle linebacker takes the B gaps. In the outside, the tackles take a B gap and the middle linebacker is responsible for the two A gaps.

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Vince Lombardi on the 4-3 inside

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Vince Lombardi on the 4-3 outside

Ok, so maybe his first defenses were one gap defenses. Perhaps the even 4-3 was a change of pace? Perhaps the Flex was a two gap defense? Again, the evidence suggests otherwise. Golenbock, quoting Dick Nolan (2).

What Tom came up with was the Flex, a combination of the 4-3 inside and the 4-3 outside defenses. On one side you’re playing an inside, and on the other side, you’re playing an outside.

We had been a strictly an inside-outside 4-3 team, like the old Giants, and then in ’64, we used the Flex as a change-up defense…

So, no, Dallas didn’t use a third defense, and neither did the Tom Landry Giants. Those defenses were one gap defenses, and so was the Flex. This can be confirmed by Lee Roy Jordan himself (1).

In a nutshell, here is the best layman way I can describe the Flex. There are eight natural gaps on the front line, and in the 4-3 that most teams were using, the four down linemen were asked to control two gaps each. In essence, Coach Landry created a picket fence look, with our right end and left tackle lined up in the conventional spot on the line but the left end and right tackle lined up a few feet off the line, giving them better pursuit angles. The linemen had to control only one gap. The middle linebacker spot now had to control the two gaps on either side of the center. The defense allowed the defensive backs and linebackers to force the play to go where the running backs didn’t want to go. It sure helped me make a lot of tackles during my career. It was a revolutionary defense and created a lot of the motion and spread offenses you see today.

If the description seems confusing, please note that hard core Tom Landry disciples describe the defense “as a QB might see it”, as opposed to the more conventional “as a MLB might see it”. So, in the description above, Bob Lilly or Randy White would have been the left tackle, whereas in conventional notation, they would be considered right tackles.

TL_43_flex

43 flex. Left to right, front is “4-2-2-5”.

Just to be sure, I got on Facebook and asked Pat Toomay about the notion that Tom used two gap defenses. He replied. To quote Pat:

In a straight inside or outside 4-3, linemen take outside shoulders while MLB has two gap. Not a good run defense, although slanting one way or another was an option for other teams but not for Landry. Hence the Flex. Outside blow-and-go 4-3 was for obvious passing situations. In 3-4 defenses, everybody up front has 2-gap. You need fire-plug linemen for that one. By comparison, Landry’s guys were tall and quick, who were required to take a shoulder rather than go head up, a battle they were unlikely to win, if that makes sense.

In summary, Tom’s defenses were all one gap defenses, where the middle linebacker covered two gaps. As Pat Toomay astutely points out, his linemen were not built to handle a two gap. They were chosen to penetrate and be disruptive. But as Lee Roy Jordan does point out, other defenses of his era did two gap. So the search for the 43 two gap really should extend to other innovative defenders of the era, which would be the Clark Shaughnessy/George Allen Chicago Bears or perhaps the elite defensive teams of the Detroit Lions. I would suggest looking to those teams using 4-3 over and under defensive fronts, as having a tackle over the center lends itself to such a scheme.

Notes

1. Golenbock, p 47
2. Golenbock, p. 233
3. Jordan and Townsend, chapter 10, “The Summer of 1964”.

Bibliography

Flynn, George L (ed), Vince Lombardi On Football, Wallynn Inc, 1973

Golenbock, Peter, Cowboys Have Always Been My Heroes, Warner Books, 1997

Jordan, Lee Roy and Townsend, Steve, Lee Roy: My Story of Faith, Family, and Football, Wood Publishing, 2017 [ebook]

I know I’m passing a judgement on fragments of two games I’ve watched, but this is a view commonly held among my peers, a bunch of generic football fans (Update: not just generic fans. See here and here and here and here and here). People feel as if a light has been switched on in their brains, and they can see a lot deeper into the games they watch. I didn’t have a feel that Tony has a mature style just yet. He’s still trying to figure out how best to get his information across. But his ability to break down plays on the fly is far above the average. The only one in Atlanta who can come close to Tony is David Archer, who coincidentally, was also an NFL quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons.

Tony is an analyst, a job separate from a play by play man. What he does generally could not be done by anyone short of a smart player or a good coach. That said, he appears to elicit quite a bit of jealousy among broadcasters, who quite simply, must have wanted the job themselves.

One example is Rick Kamyla of NBA-TV and 92.9 The Game, who upon hearing about Tony getting the gig, immediately announced that “Tony Romo is the most overrated quarterback in NFL history”, when, as far as I could tell, he could have cared less about Tony (unless he was on one of Rick’s fantasy teams).

Then there is Brent Musberger. Best I can fathom, he is of the opinion that the play by play guy runs the show in the booth, and the analyst is there to fill in audio gaps that the play by play guy cannot handle by himself. Maybe that’s the way it was back in the day, when Brent Musberger and Bryant Gumbel and Bob Costas were a trio of young “Turks”, arrogant and full of themselves. Over time most of this bunch mellowed. Perhaps Brent has been bothered enough to feel 30 all over again. Perhaps he doesn’t want to be best known for making a fool of himself over Katherine McCarron. I’m partial to the idea he clings to a notion of HOW THE SHOW SHOULD BE that’s defunct, or as Mark Twain might put it, ‘bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez’.

It is going to be near-impossible for me to be objective about Dak Prescott. He is a Dallas Cowboy and he graduated from the same high school I did. He’s probably the biggest sports star that part of Louisiana has had since Joe Delaney.

In recent years, Chris Brown of Smart Football has been talking plenty about package plays and after Dak’s performance in the first preseason game of the year, he analyzed one play from the game. It’s good enough I recommend it. Please read, it’s worth your time.

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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.

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