Tuesday, July 21, 2009

4-3 and 3-4 Defenses, Part Two

by: Matthew Heuett

Defensive Ends in the 4-3

The defensive ends both line up in similar positions (on the outside shoulders of the tackles in the 5-tech), and both are primarily pass-rushing positions, but not many people know that the two DE positions require somewhat different players. But before we get to that, it helps to keep in mind that the right defensive end lines up across from the left tackle, while the left defensive end lines up across from the right tackle. A bit confusing, I know, but those left and right labels depend largely on whether you’re looking at things in the same direction as the offense or the defense.

The right defensive end, lining up as he does on the weak side, gets a steady diet of one-on-one matchups. Unfortunately for him, those matchups come against the left tackle, who is typically the best offensive lineman on the team since he has to protect the quarterback’s blindside. To compensate, the right DE is generally the fastest player on the d-line, combining a quick first step with enough moves and savvy to get around the left tackle to pressure or sack the quarterback.

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Daryl Tapp is fast and athletic enough to be a good right DE in the 4-3, but he tends to run hot and cold. If he’s going to earn the starting job then he needs to produce on a more consistent basis. Lawrence Jackson will be his main competition for starting right DE, but he too needs to step up his production, as the measly two sacks he managed in his fourteen starts in ’08 just isn’t going to cut it (in his defense, ’08 was his rookie season, and DEs don’t typically put up big numbers their first year in the league). In a recent article by Clare Farnsworth for Seahawks.com, the other d-linemen listed for the right DE position are Nick Reed, who seems to be fast enough for the job, but very light at 247 lbs (4-3 DEs are typically 260-290 lbs), and Cory Redding, who seems like an odd choice for the speed-intensive position. Granted, Redding did start his NFL career as a 4-3 DE for the Lions, but that was at left defensive end, not right. Who knows, perhaps it’s just a typo on Farnsworth’s part, or maybe the Seahawks’ coaches know something about Redding that we don’t -- we’ll just have to wait and see how things shake out in training camp.

The left defensive end lines up on the strong side, so he needs to be a bit bigger and stouter than the right defensive end. Even so, the left defensive end almost always registers far more sacks than the faster, more explosive right defensive end. Seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? I’d explain, but John Morgan over at Field Gulls beat me to it with a post he wrote last year on the same subject:
Traditionally, the left defensive end is the stouter, less pass rush-oriented compliment to the explosive right defensive end. Despite that, left defensive ends like Patrick Kerney, Julius Peppers, Jared Allen and Aaron Kampman are consistently among the top sack producers in the NFL. Some of that might be a simple, meaningless confluence of talent at the right defensive end position, not indicative of any larger trend. But some it might also be explained by the changing nature of the tight end position in the modern NFL.

. . . .

Back in the days of the Flying V, the tight end was little more than an extension of the offensive line. Blocking has stayed an essential duty of the tight end until recently. More and more “tight ends” do not play the tight end position. Players like Dallas Clark and Antonio Gates are as much slot receivers as tight ends. Despite a de-emphasis on blocking by tight ends, most teams still put their inferior pass blocking offensive tackle on the right side. Therefore, left defensive ends typically face inferior competition.
So, there you have it: the right defensive end is faster but has to face elite left tackles, while the left defensive end faces less-talented right tackles and tight ends who are more like receivers than blockers these days. Patrick Kerney is the clear-cut starter at right defensive end, and hopefully he can return to the same level of production he had for Seattle in ’07. We’d better hope so, because the backups listed for the position in Farnsworth’s article are Baraka Atkins, a third-year player who is decent in run and pass defense but hasn’t shown much in the way of pass rush skills, and Brandon Miller and Michael Bennett, both of whom are more likely to be practice squad prospects than serious contenders for the active roster. Unless either one of the latter is a Strahan in the rough, I would expect to see someone on the right DE depth chart moved over to fill the position before either Miller or Bennett got the nod.

Linebackers in the 4-3

Linebackers in the 4-3 come in three flavors: the middle linebacker (also known as the Mike linebacker), the strong-side (or Sam) linebacker, and the weak-side (or Will) linebacker. Let’s start with the middle linebacker, since it’s one of the main innovations of the 4-3. Along with assisting the d-line with some bone-crushing, run-stuffing tackles, the Mike linebacker is the quarterback of the defense, altering everything from individual defensive player assignments to coverage schemes on the fly to adapt to the offense’s game plan. Combine those traits with the pass coverage responsibilities that later became a part of the position with the development of the Tampa-2 and you’re looking for a player with a rare combination of power, athleticism, leadership, above-average football instincts, and a willingness to spend hours upon hours studying film.

Luckily, Seattle already found just such a player in the ’05 draft: Lofa Tatupu. His main backup last year (actually, he was the main backup for every linebacker position) was D.D. Lewis, who may not be as good a Mike as Tatupu but still did a serviceable job in his week nine start versus the Eagles (of his seven tackles, three were for zero or negative yardage, one was after a 3 yard gain, and three were after 5-6 yard gains). Second-year man David Hawthorne is listed on the depth chart as a Mike, but while he’s shown the physical tools to be a good linebacker in the NFL we simply haven’t seen enough of his play to know if he has the instincts and discipline to lead the defense effectively.

The strong-side linebacker usually lines up either behind the line of scrimmage somewhere opposite the tight end or directly on the line of scrimmage in the 7-tech. His main job is to make life miserable for the tight end, whether that means wrestling through the TE’s block to tackle the running back or swatting down any pass he tries to catch. However, since the position focuses more on stoutness, hitting and strength over speed and ball skills, the Sam linebacker tends to be the weakest of the three LBs in pass coverage. For this reason, the Sam is almost always the linebacker that gets replaced by an extra defensive back in nickel packages. A slot receiver can pose a difficult challenge to the Sam, especially if the Mike is too busy elsewhere to help him out in coverage, but his ability to intimidate receivers with punishing tackles helps even the odds somewhat. The Sam is used in blitzes periodically, but not as often as the Will or Mike linebackers.

Leroy Hill is a prime example of the archetypal strong-side linebacker: strong, tough to block, and loves to leave an imprint of his facemask on the chests of anyone who tries to carry or catch a ball in his vicinity. Unfortunately, he also fits the mold with his deficiencies in pass coverage (in particular, he has a tendency to bite on routes designed to lure him away from his zone of responsibility), but he balances that with an above-average ability to wreak havoc in blitzes (7.5 sacks in blitzes off the strong side in ’05). More concerning is his durability, as he’s missed several games due to injury over the last few years, including the last four games of the ’08 season.

Hill’s backup D.D. Lewis performed admirably when called upon (he was the starting Sam in Seattle before Hill took the job from him, after all), but he has durability concerns, too--he spent most of the ’04 and ’06 seasons on injured reserve, and last year he missed the last two games of the season. Lance Laury is listed on the depth chart as a Sam, but when both Hill and Lewis were out in weeks 16 and 17 last year, the team opted to start Will Herring over Laury despite Herring being more of a weak-side linebacker. Read into that what you will.

The weak-side linebacker typically lines up in the backfield behind the right defensive end and the 3-tech. His job is more coverage-oriented than the other two linebackers, so Wills usually have the best ball skills of the three and tend to be lighter and faster than the Mike or Sam. Along with covering outlet receivers in the flat and slot receivers in the weak-side middle, sniffing out screen passes, and taking down running backs on runs to the weak side, the weak-side linebacker also blitzes far more often than the Mike or Sam. Why? Well, partly because of the Will’s greater speed, and partly because the o-linemen on his side of the field should be too busy dealing with the right defensive end and the 3-tech to block him. Even if he doesn’t get the sack, a Will who continually puts pressure on the quarterback forces the offense to commit another player to block him, either with a tight end on the line or a running back to play bodyguard in the backfield, hopefully leaving one less potential ball carrier for the rest of the defense to worry about.

The starting Will linebacker for the ’09 season will be Aaron Curry. His play in college proved he has the speed and coverage skills necessary for the position, and his ability to rush the passer (based on reports from the OTAs) completes the package. His potential is exciting, but right now it’s just that: potential. Curry needs to be able to produce in regular season NFL games, and hopefully we won’t have to wait too long to see him do just that. D.D. Lewis was the main backup for the Will position last year (hell, at this point it might be faster to point out who Lewis wasn’t backing up last year), although I’m not sure if he’s ever played the position. However, if his career stats are anything to judge by (one sack in seven seasons) then it doesn’t appear that Lewis excels at rushing the passer. The other two potential backups for the Will linebacker are Will Herring, who has shown excellent speed and coverage skills in his limited opportunities on the field (remember, he did play safety for most of his college career), and Dave Philistin, an undrafted rookie free agent who is competing for a practice squad berth.

Okay, that’s enough for one day. Tomorrow in part three we’ll look at the strengths and weaknesses of the 4-3, introduce the 3-4 defense, and examine how defensive ends and tackles are used in the 3-4. Also, I hope you’ve all been taking notes, ‘cause there will be a test on this later (sorry, teacher humor).