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.
Should Cowboys Consider Trading for Disgruntled Packers S Josh Jones?
Despite their insistence that upgrading the safety position was a top offseason priority, the Dallas Cowboys haven't really done much to improve the backend of their secondary. They did sign former Minnesota Vikings and Cincinnati Bengals Safety George Iloka as a free agent and drafted Donovan Wilson in the sixth-round in this year's NFL Draft, but neither player looks like a clear-cut upgrade at this point. Fortunately, there's still time to find Xavier Woods' counterpart for 2019.
Xavier Woods is the only clear-cut starter at safety currently on the Dallas Cowboys roster. Other than that, your guess is as good as mine as to who starts opposite him this season. With that in mind, the Cowboys should be keeping all of their options open, including acquiring players who get released or even making a trade for someone they like. The latter is what I want to talk about today.
A potential safety who could be put on the trade block that I'm kind of intrigued with is Josh Jones, who has reportedly requested a trade from the Green Bay Packers.
Packers safety Josh Jones is skipping the voluntary OTAs and working out in Florida because he's hoping to be traded, a source told ESPN. The source said the 2017 second-round pick believes it would be best for both parties if they parted ways. Story coming on ESPN shortly.
Josh Jones clearly sees where he stands with the Green Bay Packers after they signed Adrian Amos in free agency and drafted Darnell Savage Jr. 21st overall in the 2019 NFL Draft, thus his absence from OTA's and trade request. He understands the business and knows he's not going to see the field much behind those two, meaning his best chance for playing time would be in a different uniform.
It's not all that shocking Jones has requested a trade. Even before the Packers added Amos and Savage he wasn't receiving a lot of playing time. He's just never seemed to fit into what Green Bay was trying to do on the backend of their defense. It may be in the best interest of both parties to mutually part ways. This is where the Dallas Cowboys come in.
I believe Josh Jones is exactly the type of safety Kris Richard would like to pair Xavier Woods with on the backend of the Cowboys defense. He fits the criteria Richard likes in his defensive backs as far as size, length, and speed are concerned. And, he also has the kind of skill set/mindset to become that Kam Chancellor "enforcer" type of strong safety.
Josh Jones is at his best when he can play around the line of scrimmage, much like Chancellor was during his time with the Seahawks. But, Jones also has the ability to be a factor in coverage as well. The only real question here is whether or not he's an upgrade over the likes of Jeff Heath, George Iloka, and maybe even rookie Donovan Wilson?
In all honesty, I don't have the answer to that question. Josh Jones really hasn't received a fair opportunity to prove himself in his first two years in the NFL. I believe the skill set is there to start in the league, but there's not much there to back up that belief.
Personally, I'd be willing to part way with a late round pick if I were the Cowboys to acquire Josh Jones. I like the idea of bringing him in to work with Kris Richard and allowing him to compete for the starting job next to Xavier Woods. This is exactly the kind of low risk/high reward move Dallas likes to gamble on, and it could potentially pay off in a big way.
Where do you stand? Should the Cowboys consider trading for Josh Jones?
How Can The Cowboys Force More Turnovers In 2019?
2018 seemed like the beginning of a new era. A defensive era. For the first time in years the Cowboys were able to consistently lean on their defense during games, staying alive even as their offense sputtered and limped through stretches early in the season.
The defense was downright prolific some weeks. They carried the Cowboys to an inspiring home victory over the New Orleans Saints to put them in prime position to make the playoffs. They dominated the Wild Card game in key moments, making key stops and holding the Seahawks to just 22 points in the win. They featured one of the league's best individual pass rushers in DeMarcus Lawrence, an All Pro cornerback in Byron Jones, and one of the league's most exciting young linebacker duos.
For all of this success, this defense still lacked one thing. Takeaways.
The Cowboys forced only 9 interceptions in 2018, ranking 26th across the league. In fact, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch was actually tied with Xavier Woods for the team lead in interceptions with just 2. When it comes to total takeaways the Cowboys' defense was a little better off, though, finishing 16th in the NFL.
Part of the "problem" seems to be their philosophy. The Cowboys have finished 26th, 24th, 27th, and 31st in interceptions dating back to 2015. They've also finished 9th, 25th, 18th, and 19th in team defense DVOA over that same stretch. Clearly there was an improvement in total defense in 2018, but neither their team defense nor ability to take the ball away has been strong since 2015.
The bigger problem, really, is a lack of luck. While this sounds like a cop-out, takeaways often do come down to just that. Of course putting yourself in the right place at the right time to benefit from a batted pass or overthrown ball matters, but those bounces finding the right hands is usually a matter of luck.
Turnovers are incredibly volatile year to year, and as much as you'd like your players to "make their own luck," randomness does play a part here.
You can certainly argue the Cowboys have done their best this offseason to increase their chances at takeaways, however. By trading for defensive end Robert Quinn, re-signing DeMarcus Lawrence, and adding talented players to the middle of their defensive line as well, Dallas has put an emphasis on getting after the quarterback and corralling the opposing running game. Putting pressure on quarterbacks can force them into quick decision making or bad throws, which could in turn breed interceptions.
This is far from guaranteed, though. Plus the Cowboys play against some of the league's top quarterbacks this year, which hurts their chances of taking the ball away further.
In the end the Cowboys will need both the skill of their pass rushers and defensive backs to put them in good positions, and luck to smile down on them, if they'd like to turn around their takeaway numbers in 2019. And after all, this demoralizing trend has to reverse itself at some point, doesn't it?
Will It Be The Cowboys, Or Another Team, Who Pays Byron Jones After 2019?
After having his fifth year option exercised for the 2019 season, cornerback Byron Jones enters a contract year this Fall.
Jones inarguably had the best year of his career in 2018: earning not only his first Pro Bowl selection but also Second Team All Pro honors for his performance. Doing it all without an impressive stat sheet, Jones was able to let his film speak for itself throughout most of the year, and he became the number one cornerback we'd all hoped he could be when the Cowboys decided to take the freakishly athletic defensive back in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
This contract year is quite unique for Byron Jones, however. Next offseason the Cowboys will be forced to re-sign and extend just about all of their key contributors on both sides of the ball. DeMarcus Lawrence already got his contract, but Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, and others still await their deals. Deals which the front office has all-but explicitly promised will come.
This leaves Jones, the former first round pick and now former All Pro, generally considered to be the odd man out. So while 2019 is a contract year for Byron Jones, he may be earning himself a contract from a completely different team.
Jones has had an interesting road to this contract season. One which would be a shame for the Cowboys to waste. Moving between cornerback and safety during the first three years of his career, Jones fell out of the coaches' good graces while playing out of his most natural position. Under Kris Richard's new regime, though, Jones had his best season to date. He looked to finally be comfortable in his role, and was now playing for a coach who believed he could be a special player.
Now that Byron Jones has found his place in the Cowboys defense, and has earned his way into conversations with the league's top cornerbacks, he's likely priced himself out of the Cowboys' future plans.
It's funny how that works out. Of course, Jones should go get paid, and I'd never fault a guy for maximizing his value on the market. But there's a good chance the Cowboys make the mistake of allowing a premier cornerback to walk out of their building next offseason. But if they want to retain players like Elliott and Cooper, they may not have any other choice.
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