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Breaking Down NFL Defenses
- In search of productive fantasy players

All of us fantasy geeks have come across the term "product of the system" at some point in our journeys. There are a slew of former high school players among us who have some basic understanding when it comes to positional responsibilities, and a few guys who played beyond high school who really get it. Yet rare is the fan or fantasy owner who never played, but is enough a student of the game to fully understand the nuances of the various schemes and/or positions within the many schemes. IDP owners who truly understand what players are asked to do, have a big advantage when digging for those middle to late rounds guys who make or break their teams, or determining their best starting options from week to week. Hop aboard my magic carpet and lets ride through the various NFL defenses and take a look at the little things that might make a world of difference between them. Maybe I can shed some light for those who find themselves scratching their heads now and then when it comes to IDP production. Believe it or not, there is a method to the madness!

Offensive formations and tendencies

One of the many important things to understand is the effect offensive formations and tendencies can have on a defensive players production. In most cases, the offense dictates the play and tempo on the field to the defense as defensive coaches get into a "read and react mode". They see what personnel the offense has on the field which in turn tells them what formations the "O" is likely to run, then try to match up the correct defensive call or personnel. Obviously, calls change from play to play depending on the situation, but often a fantasy owner can play off a team's tendencies when making a tough lineup decision. For example, an offense like the Raiders spreads defenses out on the field with a wide open passing game often utilizing 3 or 4 receivers nearly every play. This dictates to defenses that they must play a nickel package (4-2-5) as their base defense that week. Which in turn means one of the normal starting linebackers isn't going to see much action, and the nickel back becomes a candidate to lead the club in tackles that week. When facing a team like the Raiders, a good run-stuffing MLB who is poor defending the pass, probably won't perform well. A perfect example of the other side of the coin is any Bill Parcells coached team. When the Tuna coaches a game there are two players who have immediate value. The starting running back for the Tuna and the middle linebacker of the opposing defense. Parcells never changes his philosophy. Run and play D, the wins will come. He challenges his players to be more physical than the other team and they will run the ball relentlessly, regardless of the score. The #3 receiver in a Parcells coached offense is kind of like the Maytag repair man. His slot receivers don't see the field as often as they would in other offenses. Parcells emphasizes formations that call for two TE's or a TE and FB except in more obvious passing situations. Against this type of offense, corners who don't support the run well are usually non-factors while any decent linebacker or strong safety should clean up. The problem we run into here is the unpredictability of the NFL. Some teams say they like to run, but don't consistently commit to it. They get behind a little (or a lot) and its pass, pass, pass the rest of the way.

Determining the strong side

Its surprising how few people really understand the term "strong side". Every year I have someone ask me why a fantasy productive strong side linebacker is so rare and why then is a strong safety often is at the head of the DB class? Let's start with what determines the strong side of the offensive formation. When the huddle breaks and players come to the line of scrimmage, the defender responsible for making the play call (usually the MLB) must call out the strong side of the formation so that everyone (particularly the front 7) lines up correctly. In the simplest of terms, the strong side can be identified by where the tight end lines up. However, in the pro game it usually isn't quite that simple. Double tight ends, no tight ends, balanced formations, spread formations with the TE lined up in the slot, etc... all make it a little more complicated. The term "strong side" is meant to describe the side of the formation that has the most blockers, therefore that side presents the biggest threat for the defense on a running play. The progression a defensive play caller must go through in a matter of seconds could go like this... A single TE lined up next to the tackle? Easy call. If there are double tight ends or no tight ends (a balanced line), he will look into the backfield for a single running back lined up to one side of the QB. With two backs in the backfield, and the tailback behind the QB and a fullback to either side, the fullback side is the strong side. If the backs are split behind the QB (pro-formation) or in a straight line directly behind the QB (I-formation), the play caller looks to the receivers. In short yardage we often see double TE, I-formation with strong side determined by a third TE or receiver lined up slightly behind and outside at one end, or split wide. In a three receiver set with both the line and backfield balanced, the slot receiver becomes the determining factor. Last but not least, if the line, backfield and receivers are balanced, the wide side of the field is considered strong. There are some situational and/or scheme related exceptions to these general rules but these are the most common reads or progressions for defensive players.

Defensive sets

Most IDP owners are generally familiar with the two common defensive sets used in the NFL. While there are variations of each, every NFL club except for the Ravens uses either the 4-3 or 3-4 alignment, and even the Ravens "46" is really a variation of a 4-3 front. Each scheme employs a different defensive approach or strategy, so let's examine how the various differences between these two common schemes can effect the production of the players in them. The old guard standard defense commonly used in the pro ranks is the 4-3-4, which means 4 down linemen, 3 linebackers and 4 defensive backs. Twenty three clubs continue to use this as their base defense. There is however, a growing trend with 7 clubs currently committed to the 3-4-4 (3 DL, 4 LB, 4 DB) scheme, including Pit, SD, NE, Hou, Dal, Cle & SF). The Dolphins and Raiders seem to be on the fence and plan to use both fronts extensively and the Broncos have hinted that they may look at some 3-4 packages as well. It's very difficult for any club to be proficient in both alignments because the schemes require vastly different types of players to be successful, particularly among the front seven. Free agency gives us many examples of successful players switching schemes, then going on to struggle and become mediocre players. It also give us some examples of seemingly mediocre players finding success when switching.

"Read and React" versus "Aggressive"

We often hear announcers and sports writers describing some defenses as aggressive or attacking, while others are dubbed read and react, or finesse. Of course, they are referring to the style for any given defense. The descriptions make the difference in the styles seem rather obvious, but lets look at the difference in technical terms. In a read and react defense players looks for certain keys in the offense as a play unfolds. Keys can be anything from who a particular offensive lineman blocks to where the quarterback takes his first step. Defenders then they react to what the offense is doing. This is basically a bend but don't break defensive philosophy. The idea is to give up little bits of ground but force the opponent to run a lot of plays and count on an eventual mistake, while limiting the number of big plays an offense can make. While there are a certain amount of reads involved in any defense, an aggressive style of D is one that doesn't wait to see what the offense is doing on the snap of the ball. Instead, the defenders attack points on the field or weaknesses in the formation in an attempt to disrupt the flow of the offense before the play develops. For obvious reasons the aggressive style creates more big plays. This defensive style tries to dictate the play to the offense, rather than the other way around. It should go without saying that these defenses can also give up more big plays because they gamble more often. This is where personnel decisions become so important. If a team has the corners to go 1 on 1 with quality receivers down the field, they can afford to be much more aggressive up front.

Positional responsibilities

From here lets break down the different schemes position by position and look at the general responsibilities of each player. I say general because every defense has its quirks and slight differences, not only from team to team but from week to week as defensive coaches work to take advantage of their opponents perceived weaknesses. That's why they study game film all week searching for tendencies to help them develop their strategy and plan of attack. Formations, line stunts, blitzing, etc.. alter responsibilities on a play to play basis in some cases, particularly on the 3-4 teams where blitzing is rampant, but there are general responsibilities with each position.

Defensive End 4-3-4 & "46"

Supply and demand make quality ends in these schemes rare and valuable in both NFL and FF terms. These players are asked to provide the bulk of the pass rush so they must have speed and quickness, but they must also be big and strong enough to supply "outside contain" which means keeping ball carriers from getting around the corner. Vision and agility are a must as they are often the targets for trap blocks by bigger pulling guards, cut backs by motion players or double teams by 300 pound tackles and 250 pound tight ends. Offenses come up with all sorts of "tricks" in attempts to "seal off the corner" which is the key to any outside running game. Once around the end a ball carrier is looking at a corner and the likelihood of a big gain. The 4-3 end will normally line up on the outside shoulder of the player on the end of the offensive line (tackle or TE) and his first move is either up field or to jamb the blocker down the line and close the running lane. The cardinal sin for these guys is to allow a blocker to "cross his face" which means, get to his outside shoulder. Once a blocker gets there, the defender can be turned or "hooked". Ends who can do all these things well and play on every down are at a premium. The short list includes names like Michael Strahan, Mike Rucker, Grant Wistrom, Julius Peppers, John Abraham, Justin Smith, Jason Taylor, Patrick Kerney, Charles Grant and a few others. Its no coincidence these guys are usually found in or near the top ten in the fantasy rankings. There are some other (young) guys who could work their way into this group over the course of the upcoming season if they can continue to improve against the run and become complete players. Reggie Hayward, Erasmus James and Osi Umenyiora fall into that category. Dominant ends usually play the right end position and are often matched up with the offense's left tackle, who usually protects a QB's blind side. So, generally speaking, the right end is the team's best or most complete end and usually the best fantasy producer. They are asked to be the anchor of the defensive line in terms of the pass rush and stuffing the run.

Defensive End 3-4-4

The end in a 3-4 scheme has less to think about than his 4-3 counterpart but his assignment is no less important. The need for speed and quickness are less important than having the required size and strength to occupy space and tie up blockers. In this scheme the end can line up anywhere from the outside shoulder of the tackle to to the gap between the tackle and guard. He isn't responsible for contain or pass rush since those jobs falls to the outside linebacker. The main responsibility of this position is to devour as much space and as many blockers as possible at the line of scrimmage thus freeing up players behind him to make plays. The end in a 3-4 will see constant double teams but if he can hold his position and occupy more than one blocker, he has basically done his job. Box score producers from this position are few and far between. Very rare is a player big and strong enough to fight through a pair or more of 300 pound blockers and still make plays. Bruce Smith was the best ever back in the mid 90's when he was in Buffalo and somehow managed to be a perennial top 10 fantasy DL. The Steelers Aaron Smith had one very strong season putting up 55 solo tackles and 7 sacks a couple of year back, but was unable to sustain the production. Great players can overcome the limitations of the scheme to some extent and put up decent numbers but generally it's a good idea to look for traditional defensive ends from the 4-3 scheme for IDP production.

Defensive Tackle 4-3-4 & "46"

The responsibilities of a tackle in the 4-3 aren't exactly complicated and are almost always determined by the play call rather than anything the offense does. In most base defenses the tackle is assigned a "gap" or sometimes 2 gaps that he is to take away. When the ball is snapped he first makes sure there is no room to run in his gap, then pursues the ball where ever it may go. Tackles bounce around a lot in their alignment and can line up anywhere from the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle to head up on the center depending on the call and/or offensive formation, but spend most of their time somewhere across form the guard. The tackle position has evolved greatly over the past few year, largely due to the success of the Ravens and their twin tower combination of Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams a few years back. The new rage is the 330 pound road grader who can stop a charging fullback with his breath. These types of players have very little responsibility in the scheme other than to clog the middle of the field and shut down as many running lanes as their wide bodies can occupy. In most cases their contribution to the pass rush amounts to pushing offensive linemen into the quarterbacks face and flushing him into another defender. While they are key to the success of their own defense, many of the things they do won't show up in the box scores. Evidence of this is found in the fact that just 5 tackles finished among the top 30 fantasy DL last season, while only Kevin Williams and Rod Coleman reached double digit sacks from the interior position.

Defensive (nose) tackle 3-4-4

While its rare to get fantasy production from an end in the 3-4, its virtually impossible to get it from the nose tackle position. This guy lines up over or slightly to one side of the center and is double teamed about 95% of the time. A center can't snap the ball AND handle a 320+ pound defensive lineman at the same time so the guard almost always combo blocks to get him out of the way. The nose tackle (sometimes called the middle guard or under tackle) provides three very important functions for the D; anchoring the middle of the run defense, eating up 2 or more blockers, and providing the first read for the inside linebackers. On any run play the offense must neutralize the nose guard because he is the closest defender to the play at its conception. Therefore, the guard on the side the ball is going to will almost always block down on the nose tackle. When Donnie Edwards sees the right guard come down on Jamal Williams, he knows the play is going right and flows that way. The most productive of the nose tackle last season was Kelly Gregg who managed a mark of 44-17-1.5. Those are great numbers considering the position, but hardly the kind of production us fantasy geeks need in a typical IDP league.

Strong side linebacker 4-3-4

Here is where we answer the question of why a strong side linebacker struggles to produce in the box scores. At a glance it would make more sense that since teams run to the strong side more often, the strong side backer should make more plays. It all goes back to the description of formations. While its true that teams run to the strong side more often, the reason they do so is to take advantage of the additional blocker or blockers. A strong side backer often finds himself at the point of attack which means the offensive blocking scheme has accounted for him with at least one blocker, often a TE or fullback, but sometimes a pulling guard is responsible for taking him out. The main responsibility of this position against the run is to defeat or at least eliminate the blockers at the point of attack so that the runner has to alter his course by cutting up early or stringing out toward the sideline. In concept this is to allow pursuit from the safeties and/or other linebackers to bottle up the runner. Against the pass a strong side backer is usually responsible for the tight end or back out of the backfield. Chances are if there isn't a TE or FB, the defense will be in a nickel formation where the SLB position is basically eliminated. On many teams the SLB in not one of their better coverage guys, thus is replaced by an extra DB in passing situations. There are a few exceptions to this rule such as the Lions and Chiefs who kept Teddy Lehman and Scott Fujita on the field in passing situations last season. It's no coincidence that these two were among the most fantasy productive strong side linebackers. Some schemes take advantage of a SLB who is a good pass rusher by leaving him free to blitz instead of dropping into coverage or pulling him for an extra DB. There were no real good examples of this in '04 but guys like Peter Boulware, Rosevelt Colvin and LaVar Arrington have been very successful in this style of play in the past several years. Bengals first round pick David Pollack could be the next to join this group. It's no coincidence that both Boulware and Arrington were coached by Marvin Lewis when they were most productive.

Weak side linebacker 4-3-4

The weak side backer is the second best fantasy option in general. He has a little further to go at times to make plays but is often left unaccounted for in the blocking scheme. Many of our big play linebackers come from this position because they are allowed to freelance more and flow to the play with less traffic to fight through. A good strong side backer makes a perfect set up man for the WLB when he clogs the play and forces the ball carrier back to the middle. The WLB generally has fewer responsibilities than other front 7 positions. He is responsible for shutting down the reverse and closing up cut back lanes against the run while most of his pass responsibility amounts to keeping tabs on relief valve receivers like backs on swing passes or short back side screens. One side note when it comes to outside backers in the NFL, some teams (Sea, Ind come to mind) have gone to right and left side linebackers where instead of switching sides based on strength of formation, the defenders remain on the same side and responsibility changes with the formations. When putting together your draft lists, lean toward right OLB. Most offenses have right handed quarterbacks and right handed tendencies, thus the right side backer will be weak side the majority of the time and will be your better play maker.

Outside linebacker 3-4-4

An outside backer in the 3-4 has more in common with the 4-3 end than the linebackers. He lines up outside the last man on the offensive line (often way outside), his run support duties are the same as the end in that he is responsible for protecting the corner and turning everything inside, and he is counted on for the majority of the pass rush. However much more is expected from Alb's in the 3-4. Big play production from these players is the key to success in this scheme. The 3-4 is an attacking D that counts on disruption of offensive flow to create opportunities. The outside backers can have a multitude of different responsibilities depending on the defensive play/blitz call. Their main duty is to rush from the snap and create havoc in the passing game. Other responsibilities range from delay rush, dropping into zone coverage, being assigned a particular player to shadow or a receiver or TE to cover man to man. These guys must be exceptional athletes to be successful but intelligence and full understanding of the scheme are the key. Its easy to make a mistake here and even little mistakes can be huge. Being relegated to basically half the field, limits the number of tackle opportunities so players in this position have limited fantasy value unless your league scores heavily on sacks.

Middle linebacker 4-3-4 & "46"

This is the ultimate position for fantasy production because all defensive schemes are designed to funnel plays to the middle of the field. The MLB is protected from blockers by the tackles who make it tough for either the center or guards to get off the line. Miami's defense does this as well as any in the game, keeping Zach Thomas free from blockers while forcing ball carriers toward him. He is able to flow to the play and pile up the tackle numbers. At the snap of the ball the middle backer will look for keys that tell him if the play is pass or run. His first read is the offensive line. A pass blocking offensive lineman will stand up out of his stance as opposed to a run blocker who fires out to engage the defender. Offenses have tricks such as draw plays to disguise their blocking schemes so there are reads beyond the initial line movement. Pass coverage responsibilities will depend on the cover scheme called but once run is diagnosed, the MLB has a single assignment, get to the ball carrier.

Inside linebacker 3-4-4

For all intents and purposes the 3-4-4 is basically a 5-2-4 when it comes to the responsibilities of the inside backers, with the right inside backer basically serving as the WLB. He has few if any gap responsibilities and is generally free to get to the ball the best way he can. Without a strong side backer to run interference, the left inside backer often has to serve that purpose. The 3-4 scheme depends on its trio of linemen to eat up enough blockers to free up the inside backers but three guys, no matter how good, will struggle to take out 5-7 blockers. The top producers in these schemes generally play the RILB position though it can also come down to who remains on the field in passing situations. In the 3-4 scheme, nearly everyone is a blitzing option but most of the time the inside rush is provided from the right side since there are normally fewer blockers to that side of the offense.

Cornerbacks

Corner is one position there isn't a lot to say about. This position doesn't change much from one defense to the other with the exception of teams that run a "cover 2" secondary. Their responsibilities are obvious while all that changes from play to play is the coverage scheme. Either man to man, zone or bump and run. The cardinal sin for a corner is to get turned around by a receivers move and/or let someone get behind them for the deep ball. There are some corners like Antoine Winfield, Ronde Barber and Dre' Bly, who love to come up and help with the run, but many of them don't relish the idea of butting heads with a 230 pound running back that has a full head of steam. In fantasy terms the corner position can be productive but is wildly inconsistent and even more unpredictable. The exception to this general rule comes from clubs that use a lot of cover 2. In this scheme the safeties play deep and the corners are expected to contribute more to run support. Ronde Barber is the best example of this. Most of the time he is the corner on the strong side which give him responsibilities versus the run that normally fall to the strong safety. Most clubs have the cover 2 in their play book but teams that use it often include TB, Ind, Det, Den and Chi.

Free Safety

Often referred to as the "center fielder" of the defense, free safety is a big play position in many defensive schemes though not all clubs have the luxury of a playmaker at the position. Some are forced to strive/settle for solid "mistake free" play from the position. The FS is regularly free to roam the secondary and make plays on the ball where ever it may go. With an occasional call specific exception, he has the responsibility of backing up everyone and is expected to keep everything (meaning the ball and/or receivers in the pattern) in front of him. Demands of this position are great, the FS must be smart enough to make the right reads, quick enough to change his mind when fooled, fast enough to make up for mistakes (either his or someone else's) and a solid tackler since he is often the last defender. He goes through a series of reads at the snap of the ball that lead him to the play but those reads are filled with "ifs" and offenses work very hard to misdirect the safeties and give them false reads to confuse them. Free safeties are often excellent options for fantasy owners particularly on clubs who are weak at linebacker. They make a lot of tackles on receivers after the catch, and are responsible for run support. If you can land one who contributes in the turnover category (Ed Reed, Sean Taylor, Darren Sharper etc.) as well, you have a strong fantasy option on your hands.

Strong Safety

Normally your best fantasy option in the secondary is found here. Strong safeties are the tackle mongers of the secondary. Often former college linebackers who aren't big enough to play LB at this level (Adam Archuleta, Michael Boulware, Rodney Harrison) but have enough speed to help out with receivers when called upon. The strong safety is the enforcer in the secondary, providing big hits in the running game and prowling the middle of the field on crossing routs by receivers. Clubs like the Raiders, Steelers, Bears, Eagles and Chargers are notorious for the intimidating play of the strong safeties. Players at this position benefit greatly by having a quality strong side linebacker in front of them. The linebacker cleans out all the blockers leaving the safety there to clean up the ball carrier. Many defensive schemes play the SS up near the line, tucked in behind the SLB for just this reason. Some play him so far up he is actually an extra linebacker. For several years the Rams went so far as to eliminate all but the MLB from their base defense and played Archuleta in what amounted to a linebacker role last season while bringing in additional DBs and playing an aggressive nickel (4-1-6) scheme as their base defense. The strong safeties first and foremost responsibility is run support. On passing downs he is rarely expected to cover a wide receiver 1V1, instead providing deep support in zone coverage, double team help for the corners in man to man or covering the tight end.

Cover 2

The one secondary scheme that basically changes all the rules is the cover 2. Teams that use this strategy on a regular basis include the Colts and Bucks while many clubs use it occasionally. The basic difference here is that in a cover 2 both safeties take on free safety responsibilities with each covering half of the field while the corners are usually asked to play more aggressively underneath by jamming receivers at the line and trying to alter their patterns. In the cover 2 the corners are generally closer to the line thus are also a much bigger part of the run support. This is why guys like Ronde Barber and Nick Harper tend to produce stand out tackle numbers from the corner position while studs like John Lynch don't make a big impact.

Draft hints

With a few exceptions your productive IDPs are going to come from the DE (4-3), MLB/ILB, WLB, SS and FS positions. These are the "naturally" productive positions when it comes to box scores. Any player outside of them who is not a proven commodity, is a big risk. When considering late round sleepers turn to these positions unless you have a very good reason to look at a particular player elsewhere. Keep in mind that defensive players are very difficult to scout during the preseason so there are nearly always more quality free agents available on D at the beginning of the season. Stock up on your hot offensive prospects in the draft, then be aggressive on defense when the season starts. Don't spend early or middle round draft picks on unproven defensive backs. There are a handful of guys each year who can be counted on. Once the top 10 DBs are gone, it becomes a complete crap shoot. Corners are very inconsistent from week to week as well as year to year, so don't put too much weight on last years production alone. Look back two or three years to be sure your guy wasn't a one year wonder. This happens often, especially with corners.

Best of luck to everyone this fall. When the bell rings, come out swinging and...

JUST WIN BABY!

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