In last week's post, I covered some of the more fundamental defensive football concepts: gaps and defensive linemen techniques. I went through an overview of how gap theory is used to choke running lanes, and we saw how defensive linemen will position themselves in pre-snap techniques to ensure the best leverage against an opposing offensive linemen.
In this week's post, I want to take those things that we learned, and actually translate them into one of the most fundamental defensive formations in football: the 4-3 over defense.
The 4-3 Over Formation
You've very likely already heard of the 4-3 defense, which is also referred to as the "base 4-3" or even the "43." What you may not know, is the 4-3 front has several different ways for the defensive personnel to line up, depending on what the defensive coordinator will call prior to the play.
Throughout my research, I'm learning that of all the different variations, the "4-3 over", and the "4-3 under" are the most common formations. In this post, we'll be focusing on the former, and take a deeper look at the latter next week.
When the offense breaks the huddle, they will come out in a specific type of personnel.
You may have heard phrases such as “11” or “12” personnel. This refers to the number of running backs and tight ends on the field. The number of wide receivers is inferred based on this number, given that there can only be 11 offensive players on the field. For example, 21 personnel means that there are two running backs and one tight end. Therefore, there are three wide receivers, a quarterback, and five offensive linemen, in order to achieve a total of 11 offensive players.
I specify this because the defensive personnel for a particular play will be determined by the offensive personnel. In the case of the 21 personnel example above, the defense will very likely come out in a base 4-3 package, as opposed to something like “nickel” or “dime” packages, which we’ll get into later.
Why? Because of the gap scheme we discussed last week.
If we have a tight end on the field in 21 personnel, how many gaps do we have? You should have counted seven (don't forget to include the gaps outside of the offensive tackle, and tight end). So in order to combat this, the defense will put out seven defenders to fill all seven gaps.
You may be asking, "What about only six members of the front-7, and a corner to fill the last gap?" With that reasoning, you'll likely be putting the corner against either the offensive tackle, tight end, or fullback; all of which are likely a winning battle against the smaller-framed cornerback. Thus, the defense will match the offense with its 4-3 formation.
With this scheme, the defensive personnel is as follows:
- 2 defensive ends
- 2 defensive tackles
- 3 stand-up linebackers
- 2 cornerbacks
- 2 safeties
The tight end is the determining factor for the defense as to which side of the offense is referred to as the strong side (or "closed" side). This basically means that if the offense is going to execute a running play, they will go to the side with the tight end because it has more players. Obviously this doesn't always happen, but that's the origin behind the strength of the formation.
Another important concept to note, generally, offenses in the NFL are based on a right-handed scheme. What I mean by this is that your left tackle is generally the better pass blocker because he protects the quarterback's blind side. This means that when a right-handed QB is standing in the pocket, he is unable to see the pass rusher coming from the side of his left tackle. Conversely, your right tackle is generally your mauling run blocker. You generally scheme up your run plays to be run behind your left tackle.
An offensive scheme will not adjust its offensive line personnel to match a left-handed quarterback. Thus, the defensive line will generally maintain its personnel alignments to match the offensive line. Having said that, if the tight end lines up inline (adjacent to) to the left tackle, that now becomes the strong side of the formation, and the front-7 should adjust accordingly.
Why is this important? Because the defense will position their front-7 based on which side of the offense is the strong side.
In the 4-3 defense, you have three stand-up linebackers, most commonly referred to as WILL, MIKE and SAM. Notice the first letter of each of these terms also corresponds to Weak, Middle, and Strong.
In the 4-3 over formation that we’re looking at, the WILL linebacker lines up on the strong side of the offensive formation, behind the 3-technique defensive tackle (the outside shoulder of the strong-side offensive guard), while the SAM will line up behind the right defensive end (pictured below). The MIKE will hover about 4 yards behind the 1-technique.
The DLs also move depending on where the strong side of the formation is. As mentioned earlier, in the 4-3 over, you have two defensive ends (DEs), and two defensive tackles (DTs). In the 4-3 over, both DEs will line up on the outside shoulder of the outer most lineman, including the tight ends.
This results in the weak side end (RDE) beginning the play in 5-technique, while the strong side end (SDE) will line up at 7-technique.
From here, the two corners and two safeties will line up based on the pass coverage assignments, which we’ll cover in a later lesson as well. For what it's worth, the secondary (i.e. cornerbacks and safeties) is showing a cover-2 look in the image above.
Filling The Running Lanes
Okay, so now we know where the players line up. What now?
At this point, the front-7 is ready for a run play to take place (recall the gaps concept). We know there are seven gaps in the image above; two A gaps, two B gaps, two C gaps, and a D gap outside of the tight end. Because of this personnel, the defense will be able to fill all holes the offensive line can create:
2017 Positional Projections
Looking towards the 2017 NFL season, I'm projecting the following players to be on the field in this formation to open training camp:
As for why I project these players this way and why they're good (or bad) fits for these positions, we'll cover that in a future post as well.
This is a very simplistic view of the base 4-3 over defense, and there is certainly variance in how players line up, coverages, etc… but, at its simplest view, this is the base 4-3 defense. In next week's post, I'm looking to cover the 4-3 under defense, how it differs from the 4-3 over, and why the defensive coordinator might choose one formation over another.
For some, this lesson is too rudimentary. To others, it may bring about a good eye opener to the base defensive formation that the Cowboys run. In future posts, I'll dive deeper into what I've learned and researched, and hope that you will learn along with me.
Neutral Perspective: Dak Prescott is NOT a 1-Man Army
It doesn’t take a lot to cause an overreaction in the NFL, and fans and the media alike can be very fickle. Thus, when the Dallas Cowboys were beaten by the Carolina Panthers in week one the discussions surrounding their title credentials began, and even more so because Dak Prescott and his Cowboys offense was only able to score 8 points. He left the stadium still looking for his first touchdown pass of the season and wondering what went wrong.
By all accounts, Prescott wasn’t great, and his quarterback rating of 81.1 reflects that. His performance left the fans concerned and some asserting there were no shades of the Prescott of 2016. Nonetheless, a quarterback has to be helped by his offensive line, and allowing him to get sacked six times shows that improvement is needed up front.
In week 2, against the New York Giants, Prescott started the game with a booming 64-yard touchdown pass to WR Tavon Austin on the first series of the game. It was a play four whole quarters of football in the making and made fans explode in celebration following the lackluster performance against CAR. Prescott's rating jumped to 95.4 and he wasn't sacked during the contest. Even still, he threw the ball for 10 fewer yards than in week 1 and was 1.5% less on his completion percentage too.
Prescott’s best defense is the Cowboys' lack of stand-out wide receivers. The loss of Jason Witten and Dez Bryant – neither of whom has adequately been replaced – is the biggest cause of this perceived fall from grace. Those departures have undeniably created a problem, but one that many great quarterbacks over the years have managed to overcome.
While the doom and gloom felt by Cowboys Nation after week 1 has abated some with a victory over New York, for a franchise that has enjoyed the often wow-worthy play of Tony Romo, Dak Prescott has a way to go yet, to say the least.
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The current situation is difficult for the Cowboys, but there are also psychological mitigations. One of these is their presence in a division with the reigning Super Bowl winners, the Philadelphia Eagles.
This has long since put the Cowboys on the back foot in the futures betting markets, with an average moneyline price of +210 that makes them the least likely team to win the NFC East division. Unlike betting on individual games themselves, the futures market is a starker reflection of a team's form, rather than the more reactionary moneyline prices on individual games.
Criticism, from experts and fans alike, always intensifies after a defeat, and starting the season off at 1-1 isn't always enough to overcome said criticism. So too will the moneyline price of the Cowboys besting the Eagles lengthen, although the rewards for keeping faith in the Cowboys to do that – if they somehow do – will be all the more greater if they proceed to underachieve.
On this episode, we are joined by Jon Cassel, a lifelong Philadelphia Eagles fan, to discuss each team in the NFC East (Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, New York Giants, and Philadelphia Eagles) going into the 2018 season. SUBSCRIBE to T2F for more football content! SUPPORT us through Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/Time2Football Follow us on social media!
Dak Prescott Needs Support Like Never Before
The likes of Cole Beasley, Michael Gallup, Deonte Thompson and Allen Hurns aren’t going to be reaching the Hall of Fame, but they are more than capable of helping Dallas score more than 8 points in a game. Take away the opening-drive shot from week 2, the only TD pass Dak has thrown in 2018, and the Cowboys scored just 13 points against the Giants. It's hardly confidence inspiring, yet.
There have been numerous points so far where the Prescott of 2016 would have found the receiver, but for whatever reason, those throws just aren’t being made with any consistency right now. That is especially bad considering the breathing room that is given by an elite level running back, which can be found in the form of Ezekiel Elliott.
Zeke got the ball 15 times for 69 yards against CAR and 17 times for 78 yards against NYG, both of which have to be less than he would have liked. Yet, the Panthers were out to stop him, specifically, and the Cowboys offensive line couldn’t cope, which allowed Elliott to lack effectiveness and their quarterback to be put to the ground half a dozen times. The opening drive against the Giants certainly helped alleviate pressure on Prescott, but it's clear that the defense beat the Giants, overall.
These, however, are problems that an offensive coordinator needs to overcome, and Scott Linehan didn’t cover himself in glory either.
Ultimately, above all else, there seems to be a bit of disunity within the offense. The receivers feel unloved, the running backs face a lot of defenders on each play, and the quarterback must improve his accuracy.
These situations are where you need creative play calling and a unique approach.
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Spirit of 2016 Can Still Make an Impact
With every defeat, the next game is hugely important, in the mind if not on paper. If the Cowboys can step up and convincingly rack up some wins, then – as ever – it will start to go quiet.
One aspect that sometimes goes overlooked is the defense. Conceding 16 points against Carolina and 13 against New York should usually be more than low enough to secure a win. Thus, if the Cowboys keep up that level of performance, then they should win a lot more games than they lose. But that's because most offenses in the NFL are capable of scoring 20-or-more points a game. With the Cowboys defense performing as they have been thus far, the onus is on the offense the close out games.
There's a reason the quarterback position is regarded far above all others, and Prescott needs to carry the team with him to keep that winning feeling in the Cowboys’ locker room.
He needs to give the opposition’s defensive line more to think about, and make them fear the pass as much as Elliott’s or his own rushing ability. That will give his receivers more confidence and Elliott more space. If his offensive line isn’t doing its job then he and Linehan need to think of ways to get the ball out quickly and on target.
Doom and gloom often surrounds any first loss of a season, but if Prescott and Elliott can work together as they did in their first win of the season, then it’s going to be very hard to beat them, especially if their defense keeps playing to such high standards as they have.
Regardless, the Super Bowl is anything but a lock at this point, and the problems need to be fixed quickly, before "distant" becomes mathematically "impossible."
Can WR Brice Butler Help Improve Cowboys Passing Game?
In a somewhat confusing move, the Dallas Cowboys decided to re-add Wide Receiver Brice Butler to the roster in order to get something more out of the passing game, which to be honest has been pretty putrid in the first two games of the 2018 season. Something needed to be done, but I'm not sure that Butler is the answer.
I'm going to agree with my fellow Staff Writer, Jess Haynie, in saying that the Cowboys decision to reunite with Brice Butler makes no sense. Jess is actually much more polite than I would've been when I initially found out about this transaction. I personally hate the move and I'm not afraid to say it. But ultimately, it wasn't my decision to make and the only thing that really matters here is whether or not Butler can help improve the passing game?
With all of the questions surrounding the Cowboys receivers, Butler's addition just adds another one. Unfortunately, we are two games into the 2018 season and the receiver position still remains the biggest unknown. No one has really stepped up their game and with the exception of Tavon Austin's touchdown catch last week, there hasn't been any big plays in the passing game.
I don't really know how Brice Butler is supposed to improve things. Is he supposed to be the "go to" receiver now? Is he any better than what the Cowboys already have on the roster? Or, will he end up being more of a progress stopper? Like I said, he just adds more questions to be answered.
I for one don't see any upside in adding Butler. Yes, Quarterback Dak Prescott has a bond with him, but nothing ever really materialized there when #19 was here previously. He showed flashes, like he has at all of his stops in the NFL, but his inconsistencies couldn't convince the coaching staff to play him more. So, what's changed?
The obvious answer here would be the subtraction of Dez Bryant and Jason Witten in the passing game. That's quite a bit of production missing that has yet to be accounted for. But again, I am still not buying into the Butler addition as a solution.
I know it sounds like I'm slamming Brice Butler pretty hard, but there was a time when I wanted to see him on the field more. Like many of you, the past few seasons I wanted to see him receive a promotion over Terrance Williams, but unfortunately that never happened. But, that was then and this is now.
Personally, I would much rather see Allen Hurns, Tavon Austin, or Michael Gallup be worked more into the offensive game plan. I just feel that we have already seen what Brice Butler has to offer and it just wasn't good enough for him to stick around before. It's time to move forward, not back.
There is a reason Butler was a free agent. I mean, he wasn't even good enough to stick with Arizona Cardinals, who probably have more problems at WR than the Cowboys. But who knows? Maybe I'll end up being wrong and he'll finally play up to his true potential and talent. Wouldn't that be great?
Now, this is just one person's opinion, but I just don't see Brice Butler improving the passing game for the Dallas Cowboys. I think the only way that happens is if Dak Prescott reaches the next phase in his development. Until then, I don't see things improving much. But, that's an article for another time.
How do you feel about the Dallas Cowboys reuniting with Brice Butler?
Despite Seattle’s Record, Sunday Is No Cakewalk For Cowboys
As Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson threw a game-ending pick six on national television Monday night, all of Cowboys Nation was suddenly giddy.
Somehow, the team which looked completely lost and inept offensively to open the season was now staring down a chance at a 3-1 start if they could take care of back-to-back winless teams.
The first of those winless foes being the Seattle Seahawks.
Though the last 5 years or so have conditioned us to believe that Seattle is a defensive minded, physical football team, more recent history suggests they’ve fallen off quite a bit. No longer are prime Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor patrolling their secondary, or are waves of top tier defensive linemen cycling through during the game.
Now, the Seahawks are defined by a shaky offensive line, a lack of playmakers on the perimeter, and Russell Wilson hero-ball.
It’s an odd, and typically ineffective formula for winning games, but it’s the one the 0-2 Seahawks are currently stuck with.
Despite all of this, however, Sunday’s game will be an important test for the Cowboys. Though they were favored by 3 points last week, this game is the first time in 2018 that Dallas is truly “expected” to win. Ironically, they come in as Vegas underdogs, but it’s difficult to find informed football analysts who are on Seattle this Sunday.
This, of course, has more to do with how poor Seattle has played to open their season, but they’ve still been incredibly competitive in both losses, losing both games by just one possession.
Going to Seattle and getting a win is a task teams have dreaded for years, even before Russell Wilson and the Legion of Boom brought the Seahawks back to relevancy.
Now when you add in factors such as this being Seattle’s home opener, and that they will be desperately fighting to avoid a potential season-killing 0-3 start, this is shaping up to be a very tough test for the Cowboys.
The young Cowboys need to handle their business the next two weeks and take advantage of 0-2 conference foes. These games will be huge down the stretch for potential playoff tie breakers and give them a chance to “fatten up” before entering the more challenging parts of their schedule.
Like two match ups with the Philadelphia Eagles, and running the rest of the NFC South gauntlet during the later months of the year.
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