Breaking Down NFL Defenses
- In search of productive fantasy players
Posted 8/23 by John Norton, Exclusive to Footballguys.com
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
JUST WIN BABY!