thinking about defense

>> 3.27.2009

In the early days of the Grandmaster's reign, there was a lot of speculation about which defensive alignment the Lions would utilize.  A 4-3, which was the base alignment of the previous regime?  Or, a 4-3, which is the alignment that Schwartz used during his entire time in Tennesee?  Or maybe a 4-3, which is the alignment that Cunningham used in his past three years as the defensive coordinator in Kansas City?

Oddly, everyone started wondering if the Lions would use a 3-4.  There's good reason for this, of course: the Steelers and Patriots both heavily utilize the 3-4, and between the two franchises they account for five of the last seven Super Bowl championships.  It is, as they say, a copycat league, and now every team's fanbase loves them some 3-4.  But, why?  What is it about the 3-4 that makes it so successful?

The 3-4 is ultimately successful because it uses deception to keep the offense off balance. By relying on the massive down linemen up front to fill multiple gaps, and having two large interior linebackers who can take on and shed blockers, these "front five" become responsible for stopping the run.  The two outside linebackers can then be used to blitz.  This is where the deception comes in: either of the outside linebackers will blitz on almost every down--and the offense never knows where the blitz is coming from.

It's commonly said that offense is active, and defense is "reactive"--that is, since the very nature of defense is the attempt to thwart the offense, defense is a reaction
to whatever the offense is doing.  This left/right deception gives some of that edge back to the defense; it forces the offense to react to what the defense is doing.  Of course, this is true of a blitz from a 4-3 alignment as well; however the offense can simply assign a TE or RB to pick up the blitz, and assuming they do their job that's that.  However, with a well-executed 3-4, the blitz is coming on every down, and from every direction.  That's much less easy to handle; the TE or FB might be on the wrong side, and keeping the RB in on every passing down severely limits the offense.  With a 3-4, the defense forces the offense to account for its actions more than with a traditional 4-3, where every player's role is well-defined.

However, there are some major tradeoffs.  First and foremost, the three down linemen are each responsible for filling two running lanes.  In today's game, this means that each lineman must weigh over three hundred pounds.  The nose tackle, who lines up directly over center and is double-teamed on almost every snap, must be at least 320.  This combination of size, strength, and speed is vanishingly rare; only a handful of men on this Earth have the physical toolset to play the 3-4 nose tackle position and play it well.  Secondly, it is a physical impossibility for three defensive linemen--no matter how large--to occupy five offensive linemen, plus a TE, FB, or both.  Both interior linebackers must possess the size and strength to meet a fullback square-on, take the block, shed it, and make the tackle.  Thirdly, it is commonly thought that it is an easy transition for a smaller 4-3 DE to transition to a 3-4 OLB, however this is not necessarily the case.  You can't just stand up a DE and maintain the deception that makes this all work.  The offense must believe that the rush might come from either side--which means that they must believe that the rush might NOT come from either side.  That is to say, the ROLB must be able to come around the corner like a pure speed DE--but must also have the lateral agility and mental awareness to drop into a short zone or cover a TE man-to-man.  

Right now, the Lions lack the most critical personnel to run the 3-4 as a base alignment.  Sure, there is a surplus of  DEs: Andre Fluellen, Chuck Darby, Ikaika Alama-Francis, Langston Moore, and Landon Cohen would all make great 3-4 DEs; Cory Redding and Shaun Cody would have, too.  They also have a great ROLB in Cliff Avril.  Not only is he developing into an excellent pass rusher, he actually played OLB in college, right up until his senior year.  This makes him a perfect 3-4 DE.  Also, they now have a player who might be able to fill the most critical role: Grady Jackson, a 350-plus pound defensive tackle.  However, he is 36 years old, and in the twilight of his career.  With the next best Lions DT being sub-six-foot, 295-pound Chuck Darby, the Lions would only be able to line up in their theoretical base alignment for as many snaps as Jackson can handle, which I would think would be 35-40 snaps a game at most.  They have absolutely no linebackers that could play inside in a 3-4--or a 4-3 for that matter.  They would need to acquire two legit starters and a backup--HIGHLY unlikely at this stage of free agency, and drafting two rookies at the same position in the first two rounds would be maniacal.  Schwartz and Cunningham have each said multiple times that the 4-3 will be the base alignment.

So why did Jim Schwartz say this to local reporters last week?

"You will at times from us see 3-4 principles. You go back, last year (in Tennessee) we didn't do very much of it, but the year before we ran a lot of 3-4 alignment. Actually, we did a bunch in nickel last year. So it makes the offense prepare for a much bigger package. 

"It's easy when there's only one thing they're preparing for. When you can sort of morph in and out of the 3-4 to a 4-3 with multidimensional players, it gives you a lot more pitches, plus it spreads things out. They have to prepare for a lot more. If you're an offensive coach, it's hard to prepare for that."

Well hold the phone, that sounds interesting.  Using the guys that could play in either alignment, like Jackson and Avril, in both aligments, seems like a great way to maximize the what's-going-on deception factor that the 3-4 is designed to create.  Schwartz also said this: 

“We sort of got away (from WILL and SAM linebackers) because we saw so many shifting teams and teams get out of shifting real quick if they're moving four people and you got all these guys on defense going, are you ready yet?” Schwartz said. “But if they're moving one guy and you're flipping four, they'll just do it 60 snaps a game.

“That's why you start getting a little less compartmentalized with SAM and WILL, strong safety and free safety. If you're a strong safety and you line up to the tight-end side and that tight end motions across, you can't flip because you don't know if he's going to stop and come back and if he does you're looking bad. Guess what, if you have a 230-pound strong safety that's an in-the-box strong safety you can turn him into the free safety just motioning one guy across the formation. So it puts more (emphasis) on having multidimensional (guys).”

What's Schwartz doing here?  He's eliminating the traditional strong-side/weak-side asymmetry that usually pigeonholes each of the players in a 4-3 front seven into precast roles.  What does this do?  He removes some of the offense's active/reactive advantage by not positioning four of eleven players wholly in reflection of whatever the offense is doing.  He then tips the tables even further by hiding the side the blitz is coming from, much like the 3-4.  Finally, he tips an interesting thing with that bit about running a 3-4 nickel package.  In a 3-3-5 nickel--as opposed to the usual 4-2-5 nickel--you are trading the four-man front's run-stopping ability (obviously not really needed on passing downs) for the 3-4's deception.  In a 4-2-5, the two linebackers almost never blitz: it would leave the middle of the field wide open.  However, in a 3-3-5, one of the linebackers can peel off and blitz, theoretically without sacrificing either the ability to stop the draw or the ability to cover the short-middle part of the field.  And, of course, with sufficiently versatile linebackers, the one that blitzes could be any of the three . . . yet, you don't have the drawbacks against the run or the desperate need for huge inside linebackers, because you only line up like this in passing situations.

So let's review quickly: the 2009 Lions will run a 4-3 base, emphasizing bigger linemen up front and a symmetric, offense-agnostic approach to linebackers and safeties--much like a 3-4.  They will also mix in flexed and straight 3-4 alignments as changes of pace.  Further, they will probably show quite a bit of 3-3-5 nickel, to maximize the pass rush when the situation exposure to the power running game is minimal.  Further, the targets they need to complete their 4-3 personnel package (big-framed 300+ pound DT, 250+ pound MLB) would coincidentally be exactly the pieces they need to run the 3-4 or 3-3-5 with any regularity.

So what does this all mean?  I believe the Lions' coaches are building a 3-4/4-3 hybrid defense, exactly like Cunningham ran in Kansas City.  Remember, folks, he said that his philosophy is to "go after people". He utilized freak Hall of Fame DE Derrick Thomas as a monster blitzer from all over the field, and the Chiefs' defense was both incredibly effective and incredibly scary.  For those who don't remember, Cunningham's Chiefs were absolutely the Ravens of their day: relentless, attacking, blitzing, fearless, gambling, playmaking defenses that no offense wanted to face.  If the Lions defense could be half of what those Chiefs defenses were, the Lions really WILL have put teeth in their new logo.  Let's all raise a glass in contemplation of the day when the Lions' defense is feared--and no team can bear the thought of stepping into Ford Field.


Anonymous,  March 26, 2009 at 2:59 PM  

This was very informative. I am the biggest football fan, but sometimes get lost in all the X's and O's, and schemes, etc. This was really cool.
Keep it up, TY


Anonymous,  March 26, 2009 at 6:00 PM  

found a youtube clip of mcnabb and peppy on the george lopez show. i think peppy looks like he's in the best shape he's been in in a long time:

there's also an article on him on

Steve,  March 26, 2009 at 8:46 PM  

Ty-excellent delineation of the differences between defensive base sets, the importance of versatility, etc.

The chess match that goes on in the NFL, where offensive teams are persistently looking for desirable match-ups to exploit, demands versatility from defensive personnel, where capable, and also makes it tantamount for defense's to provide similar difficulties for offense's to have to address/adjust to.

It strikes me as just so typical of the Lions to spend three seasons getting smaller and faster, only to do a 180, and get bigger, faster, and stronger.

In regards to 3/4 v. 4/3, the fact Schwartz wants to utilize more than one scheme seems wise, especially as far as adapting week-to-week to opposing personnel goes.

My primary concern is that the Lions, who obviously have struggled on defense, may not be able to add the additional challenge of learning multiple defenses to the mighty task ahead.

I do believe that Schwartzingham will eventually utilize players to their strengths, without trying to fit square pegs into round holes, likely after this season, when they have another season to tailor their personnel and upgrade where necessary.

Axel,  March 27, 2009 at 3:23 AM  

I keep hearing people go on about the merits of the 3-4 defense. All I know is I saw a 4-3 and a 3-4 D playing in SB XLII, and I know I liked the 4-3 much better.

Ty,  March 27, 2009 at 8:39 AM  


Thanks! I'm still not nearly as versed on the X's and O's as some of the pigskin gurus on the internet (like Football Outsiders and Smart Football), but I'm learning. Glad you found this informative!


Ty,  March 27, 2009 at 9:14 AM  


Culpepper looks good there, indeed. My question has never been with his athleticism--at his peak he was practically untackleable. He was bigger than almost any linebacker, and nearly as fast. He was obviously way out of shape last year . . . but the problem isn't his physical condition. It's the fact that he's a rotten quarterback.


Ty,  March 27, 2009 at 9:55 AM  


You bring up an interesting point, and one I kind of hinted around. We've seen the Browns play the 3-4 poorly. We're going to see the Packers and Broncos try to switch to the 3-4. The problem with the 3-4 is that unless you have the defensive line to manhandle double-teams and keep the linebackers relatively clean, you will be continually susceptible to the run. You also do have to have outside linebackers who can actually GET to the quarterback, or else the deception doens't matter anyway. Also, none of this 3-4/4-3 stuff changes much of anything about the secondary--if your secondary sucks, it sucks no matter the alignment.

So it's not about running a certain scheme--it's about using a scheme which maximizes the personnel. The Lions have a bumper crop of 3-4 DEs and some 3-4 OLBs (Avril, Sims). They have a part-time NT and might draft an NT of the future. They also have a nice 4-3 DE who'd be lost in a 3-4 (White), and no middle linebackers at all, let alone two big enough to take on and shed blockers. Right now, they have neither the talent to run a traditional 4-3, nor the talent to run a traditional 3-4. What they DO have are some nice situational pieces--so, you work with scheme and matchup to utilize those pieces as best you can, in the situations where they'll excel.

It all seems pretty damned smart to me.


Ty,  March 27, 2009 at 9:57 AM  


I'm agreed in that this defense, which took three years to learn the T2 and never really did, has neither the veteran leadership nor the physical talent to run an advanced hybrid of two traditional schemes.

Still, nobody's done the 3-4/4-3 flex like Guntherball, and Schwartz has long been one of the best in the business at relating the most abstract of football concepts to players and other coaches.


Riley,  March 27, 2009 at 10:11 AM  

I love this stuff.

"Guess what, if you have a 230-pound strong safety that's an in-the-box strong safety you can turn him into the free safety just motioning one guy across the formation. So it puts more (emphasis) on having multidimensional (guys)."

So, for whatever the reason, while reading this, I kept thinking how the 6'0" - 225-pound - hard hitting - off-the-charts motor - tackling machine, Jordon Dizon might fit or not fit in this "flex" defense scenario. Does he become a strong safety? Is he fast enough for that spot? does he have enough size to cover the TE?

Riley,  March 27, 2009 at 10:12 AM  

or do the Lions go after free agent 225-pound - hard hitting - Roy Williams?

Ty,  March 27, 2009 at 10:44 AM  


I love this stuff, too! I absolutely relish getting little peeks behind the curtain like that, what real football coaches are actually thinking when they they're contemplating their next move.

Normally, I'd think you'd really be on to something with Dizon at SS--however, Schwartz's whole thing is that he doesn't want a glorified linebacker at strong safety, because all they have to do is motion a TE and suddenly your "strong" safety's a "free" safety. Dizon's not nearly near fast or agile enough to play free safety, so you're back at square one. I think Dizon will be an OLB in the new system, with the thought that he will need all of this year to develop his body and work within the system. Also, if our drafted LB is a guy like Laurenitis, I could see Dizon getting on the field in the 3-3-5 nickel with Peterson and Sims. Then either Peterson or Sims can blitz, and Dizon can play short zone or man up on the TE, like a 4-3 SAM would.


Anonymous,  March 27, 2009 at 11:58 AM  

ty .. why do you say peppy's a rotten qb? he used to light it up with moss back in the minny days and i firmly believe there's a real shot of him recreating that with cj and linny here in detroit. i say give him a chance before you write him off. i think everyone who doesn't like him will be pleasantly surprised. if i'm wrong, i'll eat my words, but i don't think i am.

Ty,  March 27, 2009 at 12:16 PM  


Here's what sums up Culpepper to me: the year he threw 41 TDs, his team went 8-8. The year people were calling him an MVP candidate, the Vikings--despite boasting a great ground game and a good defense--lost as many games as they won. Why? Culpepper. He's anti-clutch. He's never won anything that counts, even when surrounded by incredible talent. He puts up big number against weak opponents, and disappears when it matters. He'll inflate his stats with garbage-time TDs in games that were lost when his one pick or one lost fumble came at the worst possible time. His terrible decision-making, spotty accuracy, and third-down incompletions kill drives, hang his defense out to dry, and prevent victory. It used to be that his skill running the ball would keep defenses honest, but that went out the window a long time ago.

BUT his big numbers won fantasy championships, and when you looked at his line for yet another inexplicable Vikings loss, you'd go, "Hmm, 18-32 for 260, 2 TDs, 1 INT . . . wasn't his fault. Culpepper for MVP!" People always point to "but what about him throwing deep bombs to Megatron?" ANYBODY can throw deep bombs to Megatron! Orlovsky proved that just fine last year! If the game is going to be jumpball, then draft Matt Stafford #1 overall and let him play jumpball. At least Stafford has the POTENTIAL to become a winning quarterback; Duante Culpepper does not.

He's an awful quarterback, plain and simple. His passer rating of SIXTY TWO last year should highlight what I am talking about. Don't give me "the knee", his knee was fine for the first eight weeks of his last year in Minnesota, when his passer rating was like SIXTY TWO.

The Lions lost the chance to win multiple games last season when Culepper threw stupid picks; I firmly believe that with Dan-O in, we'd win at least one and maybe two of those. He is terrible, he always was terrible, he'll always be terrible.


Anonymous,  March 27, 2009 at 1:15 PM  

didn't think orlo was that good, but his supporting cast didn't help much either. i just have a feeling we'll all be pleasantly surprised with peppy this year. maybe it's just me.

David M,  March 27, 2009 at 1:16 PM  


I had a rather weird thing happen to me yesterday.

I posted 2 comments at Mlive on the most recent Lions article about the lions not picking the safe choice. I had the first two comments, and I was excited because I included my blog address at the end of my comment (like I usually do). I thought I would get some good traffic from being first to comment. Then I looked back later that day, and both my posts were gone. Im upset because 900 comments have been made on that post, so I would have gotten alot of visitors probably.
Has this happened to you before?

Anonymous,  March 27, 2009 at 3:16 PM  

I wouldnt be surprised if enough of the trolls complained about spamming, and they got deleted?

ps not cool in my opinion, but....

Ty,  March 27, 2009 at 3:20 PM  


Dan-O wasn't that good, yet he proved he could get the ball to Megatron for 50, 70, 90+ yard TDs once a game. To me, that also proves that "Culpepper to Megatron" isn't going to be any better than "Anyone with a half-decent deep ball to Megatron" . . . and since we KNOW that that's all that Culpepper's got, why waste time and reps starting him? Put someone in who MIGHT be better than just throwing jumpballs occasionally, and has a future! Someone like, say, Stanton?


Ty,  March 27, 2009 at 3:29 PM  


To my knowledge, that has never happened. I think the Mlive folks didn't enjoy the "Mlive mock draft" that spawned on the comments . . . somehow the Mlive article comments have gone from being a place to comment on the article to a ginat chat room where the whole conversation just moves to the next article when a new one goes up . . . not really my scene. If you think THAT's bad you should see the forums! I dipped a toe in that place and got out as fast as I could.

For what it's worth, my comment (with URL) is still on that thread.


Ty,  March 27, 2009 at 3:31 PM  

David --

"Dan"? Sorry, I know your name, I think I still had Orlovsky on the brain when I typed that!


David M,  March 27, 2009 at 7:12 PM  

Thanks for the suggestions Ty and anonymous.
I guess I wont worry about it anymore. I try to post thoughtful comments instead of things like "first" or whatever. What I dont understand was that I was actually giving Killer kowalski a compliment in one of them telling him how good a job i thought he was doing lately. They deleted that one strangely enough. I was excited mainly because my comment coincidentally occurred simultaneous with my stafford profile post. I thought it would be a great traffic driver. :(

I guess someone was just being thoughtless by removing my comment....

Ty, you are right to say that the comments area is just a continuous argument about taking stafford or curry LOL. Im beginning to see that there are better places to spread the word.

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