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.

An early 4-3 from the 1956 game between the Rams and the Bears. The Bears tie the game at 7-7 on this play.

LA Rams in an early 4-3. Note the flexed defensive tackles.

LA Rams in an early 4-3. Note the flexed defensive tackles.

Though Zimmerman suggests extensive widespread adoption of the 4-3 in 1957 after the Giants championship, perhaps some clubs were jumping on the bandwagon a little earlier than that. The flexing of tackles, similar to Tom’s Landry’s 4-3 inside, may have been borrowing via film study. Sid Gillman was a well known film junkie during his days with the Rams (1).

We’ll continue with three interesting quotes from Paul Brown’s 1979 autobiography (2).

The first quote covers the 5-2 Eagle..

Neale had built a fine, wing T running attack around Van Buren, the NFL’s rushing champion, who had gained nearly 3,000 yards in three seasons. He had also designed the Eagle Defense, a concept that had become very popular in the NFL. It was built with a tight five man line, two linebackers to jam the ends as they tried to release downfield, and four defensive backs, which was innovative in pro football at the time.

The thing to note is the role of the two linebackers. So, in comparison to Eagle defenses today, very often you’re going to find linebackers in Earle Neale’s defense playing a 6 or 7 technique, instead of a 50 (See the image in my previous 1950s article).

Next, Steve Owen’s 6-1.

…we noticed that if we kept our two setbacks in to block when their ends came on a pass rush, their only linebacker, Jack Cannady, could not effectively cover the short passes. Conversely, if their ends did not come in on a pass rush, we could release our two backs into the short areas away from their coverage. The key in either case was to throw short and not to try and challenge them with our deep passes.

And of Tom Landry’s defenses circa 1958.

New York, under its defense coach, Tom Landry, had built its great defense utilizing the same “flex” concept Landry still uses with the Dallas Cowboys. Its key is the great discipline it exacts from each lineman and outside linebacker. They must control and stay with a defined area – whether or not the play comes to them – long enough for the middle linebacker and defensive backs to give support making the tackles

I’ll note that Paul Brown is assuming that the “flex” concept is identical to gap control, a common element in all the major Landry defenses. We discuss the differences between Tom’s New York defenses, the 4-3 inside/outside, and his later 4-3 flex, here.

I’ve read big chunks of the two Sam Huff autobiographies out there. The later book, “Controlled Violence”, affirms that the 4-3 inside and 4-3 outside were in place by 1956, though in this book Sam suggests that he convinced Landry to have the defensive tackles make sure he was protected (3).

At first, he wanted me to play off the center and then pursue, but that caused me to get caught up in traffic, and wouldn’t allow me to make the tackle. I came up with an idea, and asked Landry to try it out.
“Why don’t you let Mo and Rosey Grier take care of the middle and let me go with the flow of the backfield?”
Tom liked the idea and put them both in a four-point stance. Neither one of them was happy about the move, but it worked.

He also suggests that Tom was in on the ground floor of the keying defense.

In the old days, a team would line up in the 4-3 and focus solely on the ball. The genius of Tom Landry changed that. He told us to watch the way the backs lined up and to watch which side of the field the tight end and flanker were lined up. These became the keys to what the offense would do once the ball was snapped.

I’m not certain how quickly knowledge of Tom’s keying practices became widespread. But even in 1964, Huff’s understanding of the 4-3 inside and 4-3 outside made him valuable when traded to the Redskins, and his coach was having him teach the defense to his peers.

Detroit and their adoption of the 4-3.

Detroit in a 4-3,  1957 Championship game. Note DTs in a 3 technique, unlike the New York Giant's 2 technique.

Detroit in a 4-3, 1957 Championship game.

Joe Schmidt says (4)

The New York Giants were the first ones to play the 4-3 defense.

The Lions are supposed to have taken up the 4-3 in 1955 (5), and the best description of why comes from Rand

Though coaches realized the 5-2 left a hole in the middle, that posed no problem as long as the strong-side linebacker jammed the tight end.

“Then they started pulling the tight end off the line of scrimmage and using a slot situation,” Schmidt recalled. “I’d just pound the tight end — then you were allowed to do that. As a result, they pulled him off the line to give him more freedom so he could escape and get into the pattern more.  What happened then is they started pulling me back once in a while and we’d go into a 4-3. It evolved from necessity.”

So how could the Lions have  followed the Giants if they adopted the 4-3 in 1955? The forward to Sam Huff’s first biography, written by one Tom Landry, provides clues (6).

Middle linebacker was a new position in pro football in the 1950s. I had been developing the “4-3” defense for the Giants in those couple of years before Sam’s arrival.

Sam Huff was drafted in 1956. A couple years before that would be 1953 or 1954. So, if Detroit saw film of the Giants in 1954 playing a 4-3, perhaps that spurred their adoption as well.

~~~

Notes and References

(1) Katzowitz, Chapter 8.

(2) The three Brown quotes are from Brown and Clary, Chapter 9 page 197, Chapter 10, p 218, and Chapter 11, p 253.

(3) both quotes from Huff, Clark and Gifford, Chapter 2.

(4) D’Annunzio, Chapter 15, page 152. I’d love to give more of this quote but it is relatively incoherent.  I think what Schmidt is trying to say is that Detroit was using a 6-1 from the day he arrived. Schmidt  then notes that he had played middle linebacker in high school and college. Further, the quote would suggest that the 6-1 experience made the switch to 4-3 middle linebacker relatively easy.

(5) D’Annunzio, Chapter 4, page 51 and Rand, Chapter 4, page 36. If Detroit thinks they adopted the 4-3 in 1955, what to make of the Brown’s claim that Detroit was playing a 4-3 in 1952? Perhaps the Lions thought they were playing a 6-1 at the time.

(6) Huff and Shapiro, page ii.

Bibliography

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

D’Annunzio, John A When the Lions Roared: The Story of The Detroit Lions 1957 NFL Championship Season, CreateSpace Publishing, 2011.

Huff, Sam and Shapiro, Leonard, Tough Stuff, Saint Martin’s Press, New York, 1988.

Huff, Sam, Clark, Kristine Setting, and Gifford, Frank Controlled Violence: On the Field and In the Booth, Triumph Books, 2011 [ebook]

Katzowitz, Josh, Sid Gillman: Father of the Passing Game, Clerisy Press, 2012 [ebook]

Piascik, Andy, The Best Show in Football: The 1946-1955 Cleveland Browns – Pro Football’s Greatest Dynasty, Taylor Trade Publishing, 2006 [ebook]

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

Rand, Jonathan Riddell Presents: The Gridiron’s Greatest Linebackers, Sports Publishing, 2003.

In 1947, defensive theory in football had not yet advanced to the level of offensive theory. I’m saying this because the focus of defensive line play was gladitorial in nature: you would beat the man in front of you, pursue the ball carrier and tackle, preferably with the best form possible. Adjustments were rare. People had to accommodate man in motion but that was about it. The notion of a defensive key isn’t even talked about (1).

In the late 1940s to mid 1950s, defensive linemen were somewhat interchangable, and there were no specific guidelines for the sizes of defensive tackles, defensive ends, or middle guards. The roles of these linemen weren’t as detailed and specific as they are in modern days. There were big powerful immobile linemen, and smaller, faster, more nimble linemen. And though people like to think of linemen falling back into zones as a modern invention, the tactic was used in Steve Owen’s 6-1 Umbrella, and sees time in the pages of Dana Bible’s book:

Linemen falling back and into coverage was a common tactic in 1947.

Linemen falling back and into coverage was a common tactic in 1947.

The idea, therefore, of a middle guard falling back into coverage wouldn’t have caused anyone in 1947 to blink an eye. So when you have a middle guard with sprinter’s speed, a guy like Bill Willis,

Cleveland Browns all pro middle guard Bill Willis (1946-1952). As big as the centers of his time with sprinter's speed.

Cleveland Browns all pro middle guard Bill Willis (1946-1952). As big as the centers of his time with sprinter’s speed (2).

the idea that he should be a part of coverage would have been expected. Good linemen would fall back from the line and into coverage when the situation demanded. Linemen rushed yes, but behaved more like modern linebackers when they had to.

“He often played as a middle or noseguard on our five-man defensive line, but we began dropping him off the line of scrimmage a yard because his great speed and pursuit carried him to the point of attack before anyone would block him” (3)

So why is this important? It’s important because the dominant defensive front from 1950 or so through 1955 is a five man front, often a 5-2 Eagle. An example comes from this screen shot of video of the 1953 NFL championship

defensive_front_1953_NFL_championship

when diagrammed, would look something like this:

Typical five man front from early 1950s NFL football.

Typical five man front from early 1950s NFL football.

And therefore, the appearance of 4-3 fronts, as a product of a middle guard digging into the “bag of tricks” a lineman was supposed to know, should have been expected. 4-3s would have appeared as a poor man’s prevent defense, or as a response to specific game events, like quarterbacks throwing the ball just over the head of Chicago’s middle guard, Bill George.

…in a game against the Philadelphia Eagles, George made a now historic move that permanently changed defensive strategy in the National Football League.

On passing plays, George’s job was to bump the center and then drop back. George, noting the Eagles success at completing short passes just over his head, decided to skip the center bump and drop back immediately. Two plays later he caught the first of his 18 pro interceptions. While no one can swear which middle guard in a five-man line first dropped back to play middle linebacker and create the classic 4-3 defense, George is the most popular choice.

This game dates to 1954. Andy Piascik’s book claims that in the regular season game between the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns in 1952, the Lions employed a 4-3 (4). I’d suggest though, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, that these 4-3s fall into the form of an adjustment to the 5-2, as opposed to an integral coordinated defensive system.

The deal is, by 1956, Tom Landry, as the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants, has a 4-3 that isn’t anyone’s adjustment to something else. It’s a full blown base defense, a creation of his own hard work and imagination. It’s a largely 1 gap, keying defense, with distinct assignments to the linemen. Linemen have to fill gaps and keep the offensive line from getting to the middle linebacker. The middle linebacker roams, tackles, covers his two gaps. The initial Landry defenses have been lavishly detailed in the two volume text “Vince Lombardi on Football“, because these were the defenses Vince took with him to Green Bay.

And while what video I can watch in the period from 1948 to 1955 has yet to yield a single 4-3, the Giants live in it in the 1956 Championship game, and after some initial five man line in the 1957 Championship game, Detroit soon switches to a 4-3 and stays in it.

All this lends credence to the words of Paul Zimmerman (5)

Here and there the 4-3 popped up around the league. The Eagles got into a form of it when they had their middle guard, Bucko Kilroy, stand up, though at 258 pounds he hardly had true middle-linebacker responsibilities. The Redskins tried it, lifting middle guard Ron Marcinak and substituting a linebacker, Charley Drazenovich.

Landry graduated from player to player-coach to defensive coach under Jim Lee Howell. Vince Lombardi ran the offense. In 1956 the Giants drafted a tackle from West Virginia, Robert Lee Huff, nicknamed Sam, who had been born to play middle linebacker in the 4-3, and that became the Giant’s official standard defense. By 1957 everyone was in it.

So the real question is, how much of this 4-3 defensive system was prior art? Not the positions, mind you, but the components. The keys, the coordination, the pieces? I think the minimum you need to make such a defense are these three elements.

1. Film study. Without it you can’t really predict trends.
2. Two platoon football. Otherwise, you’re teaching one player offense 80% of the time.
3. A modern coaching staff, with full time assistants.

It’s very clear that Paul Brown’s staff with the Cleveland Browns has these three elements in the 1950s, but I don’t see signs that they were unusually innovative on defense. Instead, what you see are things like references to three man single safety backfields (6), and signs that they were working within the status quo of the times.

One resource I’d love to get my hands on is the writings of the former Cleveland Browns linebacker, Hal Herring (7). He played for the Browns for three years, starting in 1950. Later, he wrote a dissertation that was titled “Defensive Tactics and Techniques in Professional Football.” I’m not close enough to a research library to know if it can easily be obtained, but back in the day when I was writing my own dissertation, we had to make dissertations available to just about anyone who wanted a copy.

Update: correction on the Bill George date.

~~~

Notes and References

(1) Keys and tells are different beasts. A tell is Dan Fouts giving away run or pass in 1979 with his feet placement. An example of a key is a person whose actions tell you where to go and what role to play when you do. Tells have been part of football forever, akin to stealing signs. Keys are elements of the game that have to be built into the defense and coached.

(2) Image from Special Collections, Cleveland State University Library.

(3) Paul Brown, quoted by Goldstein.

(4) Piascik, Chapter 11. The exact quote is:

“I think the 4-3 defense originated with him [Parker] and his coaches,” Dub Jones said of the Detroit team that so stifled Cleveland in that first ever meeting between the two teams. “They threw that in our face in ’52 and it was tough for us to cope with, having not faced it.”

(5) Zimmerman, Chapter 6.

(6) Brown and Clary, p 220, has this interesting blurb regarding the 1951 NFL championship:

For several years, our secondary had never declared a strong side of our opponent’s offensive formation until it saw which direction the fullback was going, and though we had gotten by with this strategy, it put a great burden on Cliff Lewis, the middle safety in our three-man secondary.

(7) Piascik, Chapter 8.

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.

Goldstein, Richard, “Bill Willis, 86, Racial Pioneer in Pro Football, Dies”, New York Times, Nov. 29, 2007, accessed Jun 7, 2013.

Piascik, Andy, The Best Show in Football: The 1946-1955 Cleveland Browns – Pro Football’s Greatest Dynasty [ebook]

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

I haven’t done many Xs and Os articles recently, and this one isn’t going to be explanatory in and of itself. Instead, its going to be a set of links pointing to Tampa 2 and Cover 2 resources. I’d like this to be a living document, at least over the short term, which means I reserve the right to rewrite, amend, and add to this list. If you are a coach or interested amateur, feel free to let me know more sources and resources that I can add.

What you’ll see here in order is a link, perhaps a short summary of the scope of the link, and perhaps a short quote from the link. I might borrow a diagram or two from the link, if I think it will help the reader.

Obviously this is driven by the hire of Monte Kiffen and Rod Marinelli by the Dallas Cowboys. Rob Ryan was fired recently. The reasons are part of still heated discussions, but given subsequent hires, it’s easy enough to suggest that the powers that be among the Cowboys want better execution all round. That the Cowboys offense was more prone to penalties and miscues than the defense is a position many Cowboys fans take, and that faction treats the firing of Ron Ryan as a kind of scapegoating.

Whether true or false, we’re just trying to gather under one roof, resources on this defense, notes useful to fans and coaches alike.

Before beginning, we’ll mention some things that should be any any defense aficionado’s bag of tricks: the multipart articles on defense by Jene Bramel, a copy of the Jaworksi, Cosell and Plaut book, and of course, Tim Layden’s quality introduction to modern football concepts. If you have never seen the Smart Football blog, you should, and if you’re looking for information on stunts and modern zone blitzes, the Blitzology blog seldom disappoints.

A variety of other Xs and Os links are on the sidebar.

Football Times on the Tampa 2

Scope: introductory. Diagrams may not be accurate, as they display an even front.

From Football Times article. Yellow regions are holes in the zone of a stock cover 2. Tampa 2 lets MLB drop deeper, covering middle yellow, and allowing safeties to move zone coverage closer to end lines, helping close intermediate gaps.

Inside the Playbook on the Tampa 2

Scope: Introductory. Matt Bowen was a NFL defensive back, and knows coverages well.

Matt’s diagram of a Tampa 2 coverage, 4-3 over, with a stunt on the strong side.

Wikipedia on the Tampa 2

Scope: introductory. Article is self contradictory on the history of the defense.

The personnel used in the Tampa 2 are specific in position and required abilities. All positions in this defense place a premium on speed, and often the result is that they are all undersized by league standards. The defensive linemen in this scheme have to be quick and agile enough to create pressure on the quarterback without the aid of a blitz from either the linebackers or the secondary, with
the defensive tackle in the nose position having above-average tackling skills to help stop runs.

The Fifth Down Blog on the Cover 2 and Tampa 2

Scope: Introductory. Jene Bramel’s coverage of the Monte Kiffin system.

Daily Norsemen on Minnesota’s Tampa 2

Scope: nicely done introductory level discussion of the back 7 responsibilities in the Tampa 2

While they will generally all be tailored to one gap attacking from the 4-3 front … the back seven will have to display a wide variety of skills in order to execute the full defense.

This is distinct from some 3-4 systems (and other 4-3s), where the varied looks and confusing schemes imply a high degree of
flexibility from all players, but in fact does not require as much individual diversity at key positions.

ESPN News Article: fewer and fewer Cover 2 teams

Scope: news article, reporting teams moving away from Cover 2 because safeties can’t hit as hard anymore.

The Core Positions in the Tampa 2

Scope: Introductory, newspaper blog. Bears-centric. Reporter repeating what a coach has told him.

Stampede Blue on the NT position in the Tampa 2

Scope: Introductory, with emphasis on the Colts and their history with 1 technique DTs in the Tampa 2.

Bryan Broaddus on the Tampa 2

Scope: Introduction. Some discussion of where current Cowboys fit into a Tampa 2 style scheme. Historically accurate.

In terms of the Tampa Bay personnel compared to this current Cowboys squad, think of DeMarcus Ware as Simeon Rice, Bruce Carter
as Derrick Brooks, Sean Lee as Shelton Quarles and Barry Church as John Lynch, with Jay Ratliff as Warren Sapp. I don’t believe
the coverage part will be a problem for Carr and Claiborne, but how physical they can be trying to do those things I spoke of
in funneling runs inside or playing the run when he gets to the outside will be important.

How to coach the MLB drop in Tampa 2

Scope: coaching thread on message board.

That middle position isn’t manned by the true MLB type that the Miami 4-3 was predicated on. Like these guys have said, he’s 6 yards back and has different responsibilities too.

Pass Coverage in the Tampa 2

Scope: Coaching blog, and article. MLB, CB, and S responsibilities.

General coaching thread on the Tampa 2.

It is not a viable every-down coverage, due to the fact that you basically are giving up the entire 0-10 yd zone from hash-to-hash without resistance, so if a team just hits the TE & RB’s over the middle, they can kill you with 8 yd gains every snap.

Tampa 2 versus the spread

I was surprised when I found out that The Tampa 2 wasn’t the same thing as the 4-3 Over Cover 2. Went to a COY clinic in Orlando a few years ago and Monte Kiffen was the speaker. It looked more like a version of the WT-6(*) than a version of the 4-3 Over. I’m still not real sure about that thing.

Not Tampa 2 specific, but interesting in contrast

On Pete Carroll’s Seahawks 4-3

Scope: Introductory to intermediate.

Shakin’ the Southland on the Miami 4-3 and descendents.

Scope: Intermediate.

Offensive Football, busting the Cover 2

Shakin’ The Southland  (Clemson football blog) on the Cover 2.

Scope: intermediate, with plenty of video.

Almost any article by Chris Brown of Smart Football has football coaches as its primary audience. Advanced fans can glean some insight as well.

Chris Brown on Peyton Manning’s favorite play: Levels

Delayed Slant from the  Smash

Beating Cover 2 from Trips.

~~~
* presumably, wide tackle 6.

We got the Split-60 from Coach “Erk Russell” in 1984. It was the WT-6 on the Strongside and the Split-4 on the Weakside. They called it the “Junk Yard Dog” defense. Coach Russell said that it took the best of the WT-6 and the Split-4.

We got it, squeezed down the Strongside into a 50 that we were more used to and I’ve used it every since as a Gap 5-2. Wish I’d put it in print, but I was just a coaching pup then and just thought it wasn’t anything special.

Now they call it the 4-3 Under and say that Monte Kiffen is credited with it. Same defense that Coach Russell ran at Georgia with a few little wrinkles. I guess some things never change.

The Dallas Morning News has a cute article, about how the first defensive call by Rob Ryan on the first defensive play of the first preseason game of Dallas in 2011 was the 43 Flex. I recall watching that play and thinking “psycho front”. And yes, Ryan has 4 players along the line of scrimmage and 3 players at linebacker depth, but what we’re going to do in this article is talk about about Tom Landry’s first two defenses, the 43 inside and 43 outside, and how they then morphed into the flex, to better use the talents of their All-Pro defensive tackle, Bob Lilly.

Dallas-Miami, SB VI, 4-3 inside line setup.

43 inside/outside. Inside, DTs rush "A" gap. Outside, "B" gap.

If you have the set “Vince Lombardi on Football“, then you have perhaps the best resource I can locate on the 4-3 inside and the 4-3 outside. Pages 174 through 185 cover these two defenses. The physical setup of the defensive line is the same in both cases. In the 4-3 inside, the defensive tackles rush into the “A” gaps and the middle linebacker is responsible for both “B” gaps. In the 4-3 outside, the defensive tackles rush into the “B” gaps and the middle linebacker is responsible for both “A” gaps. The front, from the offenses left to right, is a “5-2-2-5” alignment, with the tackles head up on the offensive guards, and the ends on the outside shoulders of the tackles. The middle linebacker is 1.5 yards deep, the strong side linebacker is nose onto the tight end if the tight end is separated, suggesting strong side sweep.

Vince Lombardi on the 4-3 inside

Vince Lombardi on the 4-3 outside

The ideas for the Flex came about after Bob Lilly’s move from left defensive end to right tackle. Dick Nolan describes it as one half of  the line playing a 43 inside, one half playing a 43 outside. To note, the  tackles in the inside/outside are flexed. In Tom Landry’s Flex, however, it depended on which side of the offense was “strong”, or likely to be  the side players would run to. Bob, in Peter Golenbock’s book, describes it as follows:

If I were on the weak side, I’d be head-up with the guard, right on the line of scrimmage, whereas the tackle on the other side would be three feet back. George Andrie would be right over the tackle and instead of being on his outside shoulder, he’d be head-up, three feet back. He would be keying my guard. I also keyed my guard.

Dallas flexed. DLT on the LOS because offense is strong left.

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

As Dick Nolan explains

Let’s say the other team tries the old Lombardi sweep. When that guard pulls and that center tries to choke back to get Lilly, he can’t get to him quick enough because Lilly can just go around him, and the center will fall down on his nose trying to block him. Lilly will be running right behind their guard, and Paul Hornung will be running the ball, and Paul Horning can’t come back, because  if he does, he’ll be running right back into Lilly…

To guard against the counter, the off side defensive end now plays a 4 technique as opposed to a 5. That end is responsible for the weak side gap that the off side defensive tackle has left behind.

When introduced, it caused a lot of confusion,  because Dallas soon came to  be able to play the  43 inside/outside from the Flex set. That was the upside, as no one knew what they were actually playing. The downside is the weak side defensive end’s pass rush was effectively stuffed whenever the Flex was played. By the late 1970s early 1980s, it became almost automatic for teams to pass when they saw the Flex. Consequently,  as Charlie Waters explains in Golenbock’s book, the Flex was played less and less.

In the 1990s, Dallas switched to the Miami 43, versions of which are still played today. A derivative of the Miami 43 is Ron Vanderlinden’s Stack defense, discussed briefly here.

And now we have Rob Ryan’s 43 Flex. No, it doesn’t look a bit like the Tom Landry defense, but does resemble, somewhat, the double eagle flex defenses that were popularized by Dick Tomey and Rich Ellerson. A screen shot and a diagram of Rob’s defense follows.

Rob's 43 flex, first play of preseason. Denver appears to have an 8 man line.

Rob Ryan's 43 Flex

Notes: updated due to typos, and a very nice article on Blogging the Boys that identified each player along this front. Further, the blog Compete in All Things has some Xs and Os on the modern 43 Flex.

Ron Vanderlinden is a defensive coach, who was with the Colorado Buffaloes national championship team, then spent time at Northwestern University, coaching for their 1995 Big 10 Champion, before moving on to coach linebackers for Joe Paterno’s Penn State Nittany Lions. In this book he describes the Eagle and Stack defenses, the Eagle being the 4-3 defensive scheme he learned and developed while at Colorado, the Stack being Ron’s term for a defensive scheme derived from Jimmy Johnson’s Miami 4-3. The defense he describes is thus a melding of  two schemes, one better suited for strong running teams (the Eagle) and another better suited for spread formation passing teams (the Stack). In this, there is an analogy between Tom Landry’s 4-3 inside and 4-3 outside formations, the melding of which led to the 4-3 flex.

In depth detail on a 4-3 defensive scheme, this book is highly recommended.

This book describes in depth a very successful college program and defense, and as befits a book that describes a whole coaching system, it begins with a certain set of drills, pursuit drills in the very first chapter. After describing drills it them proceeds to the player profiles required for the various positions in the Eagle. Once complete he then gets into the Eagle Defense (4 chapters), the Stack (4 chapters), fusions of the two (2 chapters), 3 chapters on positional technique, and then 3 chapters on special situations, such as goal line defense. As such, in the wealth of practical detail, the book resembles a college textbook, and has a level of difficulty akin to a sophomore organic chemistry text, or a junior level biochemistry text.

This is a good coaches book, and for the casual fan, it should be skimmed and used as a reference. There are discussions of schemes I’ve not seen before, such as Cover 7, or Cover 5:

2 safeties close to LOS aid in run defense. 2 deep strong side DBs cover 1/4 of field, while weak side DB covers 1/2. FS has TE (light blue) and post responsibilities.

The Stack defense, though generally an umbrella defense, more easily allowing 4 deep coverage, can easily be converted into a 4-4.

To note, Ron  has his own unique nomenclature for offensive gaps (1 for “A”, 3 for “B” and so on), one that makes the gap assignment align with the defensive technique. His use of 6, 7 and 9 technique I found confusing, but that’s because the standard technique assignments aren’t consistent once you get to tight ends (I would have thought them to be 6, 6i and 7 respectively, but consistency is just a hobgoblin of small minds)..

If you own exactly one book on the Dallas Cowboys, I’d strongly suggest this one be your book.

The essential oral narrative of the Dallas Cowboys.

Peter’s book is an oral narrative, composed of dozen of interviews of the “critical players”, and thus similar to, say, Studs Terkel’s “The Good War“. The book is organized in chronological order, from the foundation of the franchise to the middle 1990s. It’s not really a tell all book, though it interviews people who were very pro franchise and others who didn’t care much for their treatment (the linebacker Rodrigo Barnes, for example). It is rich in detail, exhaustive, but an easier read than its 838 pages would suggest. For the historian, comments about the way Tom Landry was blocking when the franchise began would be useful to those tracing the origins of the zone blocking scheme. We’ve talked about the specific quotes involved in our review of Pat Kirwan’s book.

Along with Pete’s book, I would also recommend this set of DVDs

along with this set of 10 Cowboys games.

These videos, along with the book, would aid any fan in tracing the nature and character of the franchise over the years. The one place where the book appears to be lacking is in any coverage of the Miami 4-3. While a ton of interviews touch on Tom Landry’s contribution to the 4-3 defense, such as the flex defense, coverage of Jimmy Johnson’s Miami 4-3 just isn’t there at all. That, I’d suggest, is the largest open hole in the Golenbock book.