Some of my favorite articles have been written in the offseason. It’s the perfect time of year to take a deep dive in to the X’s and O’s and break down film and look at scheme. It’s hard to do something like that during the season. Between watching live games, scouting opponents and reviewing tape, I can’t ever really get down to the core of what I write about.
Every writer has their “thing”. Some writers love the draft. They type up all sorts of scouting reports and break down every little thing surrounding the draft, sometimes year round. Some love to take a look at personnel moves and break down what GMs are doing to make the team better. Others have great opinion pieces. Me? My heart has always been with film and the xs and os of football.
When I started writing here at Pack To The Future, I had one goal: to try to educate Packer fans on what really goes in to the scheme. I always felt like we had surface level knowledge of scheme in football. In the past couple of years though, I’ve been thrilled to see people start to take a dive in to the film and look for themselves. I’d also like to thank those of you who always read and support my articles. I don’t say it enough, but it means the world to me to know that there have been people supporting me from the beginning.
Because it is the offseason, I sometimes like to take a look at scheme across the league. Since the LaFleur hiring I’ve been writing mostly articles over the new offense. I finally had to scratch the itch I had and write over some defense. I’ve written plenty about Mike Pettine and Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme, but I’d like to take a dive in to the 4-3 defense this time.
In the NFL, every defense is a base 3-4 or 4-3 team. While we do see a lot more nickel and dime than we have in the past, these 2 schemes are still the pulse behind every defense. There’s not as much variation on defense as there is on offense. Offensively we see a number of schemes. Everything from the west coast offense, to the spread, to the run heavy attack. Defensively, again, the core is either the 3-4 or 4-3. In college we’ve started to see more 4-2-5 and 3-3 defense spring up over time, but there is no way you could get away with making that your base defense in the NFL.
The idea behind the 4-3 defense is night and day from the 3-4. In a 3-4, coaches like to bring pressure from a number of different angles to keep the offensive line guessing. A 3-4 defense, at its base, has 3 guys with their hand in the dirt and 4 linebackers lined up in different positions. Most offensive coaches know that a defense will usually send at least 4 rushers. When facing the 3-4, they just don’t know where that 4th rusher will come from. In a 4-3, however, they know the 4 that are usually rushing because they have their hand in the dirt and their ears pinned back.
A typical 3-4 coach likes to create pressure to force the quarterback to make a bad decision. The idea behind their scheme has always been to “force the issue”. The 4-3 still emphasizes pressure, but allowing their 4 best rushers to do it down after down. This can also be beneficial to them in practice. Defensive lineman don’t have to waste time working on drops in to coverage and adjusting to different offensive formations. They know their alignment and get in to position to execute their rush.
The foundation of every defense is the front. This is why you will almost always see coaches preaching alignment and technique pre-snap day 1 of training camp. Blitzes and coverages will fall in to place only after a sound understanding of each front is established. Many blitzes and coverages stem from these fronts, so we know it is the heart of every defense. I’ll break down a number of different fronts I saw in the Wild Card game this past season against the Cowboys and the Rams to help give you an idea of what a 4-3 defense looks like pre-snap.
The over front is one of the most common fronts associated with the 4-3 defense. When you think of all the great 4-3 teams like the 90’s Buccaneers, the 70’s Steelers and the 90’s Packers, they ran a ton of plays from this look. The first thing you should notice is the alignment of the defensive lineman. In the over, the defense will have a player in a 3 technique, which means he is shaded on the outside of the offensive guard. This player will always be shaded to the strong side of the formation in the over look. Notice the 2 receivers to the wide side of the field. This usually is key for defenses setting the strength of the formation. If balanced, the strength is usually set to the wide side of the field.
On the short side, we see a player in a 1 technique, which means he is shaded on the center. The 3 tech and 1 tech are the key players in an over look. The ends are lined up on the edge and will, according to the coordinator, either force the play inside or spill it toward the boundary. This also varies with what offensive formation they are playing against.
The opposite of the over front, as you’ve probably guessed, is the under. Here, the 1 tech is not the player shifted to the strength and the 3 tech plays the weak side.
As you’ll see in both these pictures, the linebackers can be shifted around in a number of different ways. In the first picture, you’ll see that they are in a stacked alignment. Here in this picture, #55 is playing as the Sam linebacker and #54 is the Will. The Cowboys roll both the nickel and strong safety in the box and bait the Rams to throw the ball. As you can tell, this 8 man front is hard to run on. On this particular play the Cowboys ran man coverage behind this look.
Here is another example of the under look, only this time against 10 personnel. Both the 3 and the 1 tech remain the same, but the Cowboys still balance the numbers on with this look. It is crucial for defenses to always match an offense player for player. If they find themselves out numbered, it could be an easy pick up for the offense.
This look is all too familiar with Packer fans. Notice how both the 4-3 and 3-4 defenses can show the same look. The double A has become widely popular across the NFL in the past couple of years. Both the interior defensive lineman line up in a 3 tech, slightly tilted in, and it gives them nice aiming points at the snap of the ball. Both the Sam and Will linebackers are rolled up on the line of scrimmage. This is the part where it gets fun. A coordinator could do one of the following:
- Blitz both the Sam and Will
- Drop the Sam, rush the Will
- Drop the Will, rush the Sam
- Drop both the Sam and Will
- Rush the Sam, drop the end, drop the Will
- Rush the Will, drop the end, rush the Sam
The possibilities are endless. This has easily become one of the favorite looks solely because all of the things you could do from it.
Here we see the same look with the interior defensive lineman, only now both linebackers (linebacker and dime in this case) are at their normal alignment. It still allows for a good pass rush from both of the 3 techs. This is one of the most popular fronts in long yardage situations. It lets all of the defensive line pin their ears back and get after the quarterback.
A great front to use, especially when the defensive coordinator knows it’s a sneak, is to use both the interior defensive lineman in the A gap. Against a dive this look could also cause a back to bounce outside, spilling him towards the defensive ends. It allows both the Sam and Will linebackers to roam free and find the ball and sniff out the play. Usually 3rd/4th and short is the only time we see this look.
Its been a long offseason so far, even with the draft around the corner. Nevertheless, I still go to the film daily to break down tape and get a feel for what teams are doing around the league. While a lot of my time is spent watching Packers film, I still like to get a feel for what other teams are doing around the NFL. This is also a good measuring stick for how the Packers defense is doing.
Don’t think of this offseason as one of the most boring periods of football. Think of it, rather, as a way to become a more educated fan.
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