At this point, we've covered the concepts of defensive gaps and techniques, and then we applied those concepts to the fundamental 4-3 defensive base formation: the 4-3 over. If you haven't read the first two chapters, I would advise you do so, given that we'll be using and comparing information from them in this post. Chapter One | Two.
The 4-3 Under
The 4-3 under formation has several similarities to its over counterpart, but also some stark differences that allow it to be more useful in certain situations. Let's start with what remains the same between the two.
Both packages have the same personnel. That is, both packages have two defensive tackles, two defensive ends, three stand-up linebackers, two cornerbacks, and two safeties. In both formations, the members of the secondary will line up in the same spot for a particular coverage. For example, in a cover-2, the corners will line up on the receivers and the safeties will each cover one half of the deep part of the defensive backfield.
The last similarity between the two formations comes with the weak side defensive end (weak vs. strong sides were covered in chapter two). With both the 4-3 over and under, the weak side end will line up in the 5-technique, just off the outside shoulder of the weak side offensive tackle.
Where the formations differ is when it comes to the linebackers, and remaining three defensive linemen.
For a quick recap of the 4-3 over, the 1-technique will line up on the weak side shoulder of the offensive center, the 3-technique will take the outside shoulder of the strong side offensive guard, and the strong side defensive end will take the outside shoulder of the outermost offensive linemen (either the offensive tackle, or the tight end).
The linebackers will line up according to the defensive linemen, with the 3-technique being an "anchor" of sorts. The WILL linebacker lines up behind the 3-technique, the MIKE goes inside the 1-technique (essentially straight on with the center), and the SAM gets behind the weak wide B gap.
We can throw all of that out when it comes to the 4-3 under alignments for our front seven (excluding the weak side end).
In the 4-3 under, the 3-technique will align to the outside shoulder of the weak side offensive guard, and the 1-technique will man the outside shoulder of the center. From here, the strong side defensive end will man the 5-technique position on the outside shoulder of the offensive right tackle.
This gives us the following defensive linemen alignments:
You may be asking yourself, what about the tight end? This is where we get the major difference between the over and under formations.
By now it should be fairly straight forward to recognize the gap assignments for each of the defensive linemen. The weak side end will contain the weak side C gap, the 3-technique has the weak side B gap, the 1-technique has the strong side A gap, and the strong side end will take the strong side C gap:
Given that there are seven gaps total, let's examine the gap responsibilities of the remaining members of the front seven.
We know that the WILL linebacker always follows the 3-technique. This means that whichever side of the formation the 3-technique is on, the WILL will be about five yards behind him. Looking at the image above, we can then see that the WILL is responsible for the weak side A gap.
We also know that the MIKE plays the middle assignment, between the WILL and SAM. Thus, our MIKE will line up just inside the strong side end, about five yards off the line of scrimmage. So which gap is he responsible for? Exactly; the strong side B gap.
Last, but not least, we have the alignment of the SAM linebacker. This is where things get shaken up the most.
Up to this point, we're used to the linebackers playing about five yards off the line of scrimmage. That's not the case with the SAM linebacker in the 4-3 under. Because of the shifted formation, we're actually going to line the SAM up in a two-point (no hand on the ground) stance, in the 7-technique alignment, just off the shoulder of the tight end. This results in the SAM retaining the strong side D gap assignment:
So you may be thinking, why put the SAM down on the line? He can just cover the D gap from five yards off the line, similar to his B gap responsibilities in the 4-3 over. Let's dive into that.
Why the shift?
Let's take the most obvious perspective first: the 4-3 under allows you to have another player on the line of scrimmage, which raises your odds of a negative or neutral gain on a run play.
If the SAM has less distance to travel, he will be able to get to the point of attack (where the ball carrier crosses the line of scrimmage) in less time. This is helpful when your SAM (like most SAMs) is a slower or sluggish mover, and won't get to his gap in time.
A similar reason for moving the SAM to the line of scrimmage is down and distance. If the offense only needs a yard (or less) to gain a first down, you want to move more players closer to the point of attack to minimize the distance they need to travel to make contact and prevent the conversion.
When they say football is a game of inches, they aren't kidding.
Finally, sometimes you may have a SAM who isn't necessarily the most athletic player moving in a direction, but is big, strong, and is able to hold up against a big, 6'3"+ tight end looking to mow him over. In this case, you like your odds of sticking the SAM on him for a run play.
You have to be careful here, though, because if you're playing man coverage and the offense runs a passing play, your less athletic SAM will potentially be tasked with covering a tight end, which may be a losing battle.
It's all about match-ups.
So which do I choose?
Over the course of a normal week in the fall, the team's coaches will review tape on the upcoming opponent. They scout strengths and weaknesses, plays the offense and defense will run, personnel changes, etc.
Another thing they'll look for, is what type of play a team likes to run from a particular personnel grouping. They'll look at what type of tight end the opposing team has, and whether they like the match-up with their SAM.
The formations used all depend on the offense's tendencies, the down and distance, SAM vs. TE matchup, and the type of SAM you've got. The coaches will figure all this into the game plan for a given week, and make the formation determination throughout the course of the game.
In next week's post, we're going to dive into the "Nickel" formation, some of the similarities and differences it has to the base 4-3, and situations in which you'll run it. This is perhaps the most commonly used pass coverage that teams employ today, so next week's post is very important towards understanding defensive schemes.
Cowboys Focused on Improved Communication to Solve Road Woes at Redskins
The Dallas Cowboys are 0-3 on the road this season. Not only do you already know this, but they do as well, needing to build off a 40-7 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars in week 6 at AT&T Stadium to claim first place in the NFC East at the Washington Redskins.
Although the Cowboys were given Monday and Tuesday off, they are focused on addressing one alarming reason why the team has struggled so much on the road -- particularly on offense.
Running Back Ezekiel Elliott pointed out the Cowboys lack of communication in early season losses at Carolina, Seattle, and Houston. "Seeing the same thing," was the issue Elliott addressed when discussing the Cowboys knowing their assignments in hostile territory.
Yesterday, Quarterback Dak Prescott told the media of a meeting between players and coaches that addressed this specifically.
Dak Prescott said players & coaches held a meeting before today's practice to "address the elephant in the room," which is poor communication among the offense on the road. "I know we'll take a lot from that conversation," The QB said.
Unlike Prescott's remarks about new "wrinkles" in the Cowboys offense prior to a 26-24 home win over the Lions, this has a tangible sign of progress for an offense that made scoring 40 on the Jaguars look impossibly easy. The Cowboys season high in total yards remains the 414 amassed against Detroit, after which Prescott confessed that he simply tells the media "things" that aren't necessarily true.
The Cowboys didn't necessarily do anything new against the Lions, but they most assuredly will this week against the Redskins, at least by way of signaling and remaining in sync on offense.
Prescott and Elliott's leadership is on full display here, and their on-field impact can be attributed as closely to the Cowboys successes or failures as any duo in the NFL.
Missing is a similar impact from Center Travis Frederick, who remains sidelined as he deals with GSB.
Joe Looney's play at center has been good enough to pave the way for Elliott's 586 rushing yards so far, second to Todd Gurley at 623 yards, but his ability to call checks for the offense is understandably much more limited.
Looney deserves all the credit in the world for his strong play in place of Frederick. The Cowboys have never asked for him to be anything he isn't, a reliable depth option that earned a second contract and with it the starting center job for the time being in Dallas.
He has the full support of his teammates, Frederick included. All of this is lovely to put down in writing until Looney and the Cowboys have been forced to step on the field with the crowd against them and attempt to sustain a drive, something Frederick will unfortunately not be a part of for a long while.
If the Cowboys offense isn't going to unveil new wrinkles in the scheme, there is one wrinkle worth mentioning that's new to the team's communication on offense this season. With Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan up in the box, his play calls are sent down to first-year Quarterback Coach Kellen Moore, who has been in the ear of Prescott ever since playing with him from 2016-17.
Sure, these are things that could've been addressed before the Cowboys managed only eight points in week one, turned the ball over three times in week three, or punted away their best chance at victory in week five. The best teams in the league likely already have these things down to routine, and few would consider the Cowboys anywhere near the upper echelon of the NFL.
Following sixty minutes of football at a division rival they've won four in a row against, with an even more impressive five game win streak at the Redskins, the Cowboys could control their own path atop the NFC East.
That feels truly incredible for such a young team faced with a steep learning curve early in the season, adjusting to it on the fly as they prepare to leave everything on the field before a bye week.
#WASvsDAL: Why This Game Holds Increased Importance
It feels incredibly cliche to call the week 7 match-up between the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins a "must win." Especially for someone like me who values statistics, logic, and analytics in sports.
But when the analytics agree with the narratives, those narratives do tend to get my attention. And this week that would appear to be the case.
According to Brian Burke of ESPN, the Cowboys's week 7 game has the highest playoff probability leverage in the entire NFC, and is second to only the Houston Texans' big game with Jacksonville around the entire league.
Playoff leverage for week 7. DAL, WAS, PHI, CAR, MIN, CHI with a lot on the line in the NFC. HOU, CIN, and JAX in the AFC.
What does this mean? Well playoff probability leverage is pretty intuitive. Basically it is the difference between a win this week and a loss this week in terms of probability to make the playoffs.
For the Cowboys that number is at 27%, with a win over Washington catapulting their playoff probability over 50%. On the other hand, a loss would take a big hit to their playoff hopes just 7 games into the NFL season.
As you might expect, this game means a lot to the Redskins' playoff probability as well. Their playoff leverage this week is at 14%, but a win would mean "more" to Dallas than Washington based on the probabilities.
Fellow NFC East foe, the Philadelphia Eagles, also have a lot to gain/lose this Sunday, with their leverage sitting at 22%. According to Burke's model, the Eagles and Cowboys have the best chances of making the playoffs at this point, but if each team wins Sunday the Eagles will still have a higher percentage.
Of course a lot can and will change week to week, despite what the metrics say. The Cowboys still have two games remaining with the NFC East favorite Eagles this year, and will get another crack at Washington at home later in the season. Plus the Cowboys have a few NFC wild card and playoff contenders remaining on their schedule, such as the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons. (Yes, the 2-4 Falcons are very much alive in this crazy conference).
Still, the difference between 4-3 (2-0 in the division) and 3-4 (1-1 in the division) is huge, as is shown by Brian Burke's playoff probability leverage metric.
Cowboys WR Tavon Austin Skipping Surgery, May Return in 2018
A groin injury sustained last week against Jacksonville won't send Tavon Austin to injured reserve, at least for now. The Dallas Cowboys receiver has elected to forego surgery at this time, giving him a chance to return to action in 2018.
There was concern that Austin could land on IR initially following the Jaguars game, but he sought a second opinion this week. It appears that this new information was enough for Tavon and the Cowboys to decide that surgery can wait.
Sounds like WR Tavon Austin will not have surgery at this time after getting a second opinion on his groin injury. He could miss a few weeks, however. #cowboyswire
Austin should miss this Sunday's game with the Washington Redskins. He has been the team's punt returner this season and a useful tool on offense, playing mostly receiver but also lining up the backfield at times.
Despite his limited opportunities, Tavon is tied with Cole Beasley for the team lead with two receiving touchdowns in 2018.
How long Austin will remain out is unknown at this time. After the Washington game, Dallas will have their bye week and then host the Tennessee Titans on Monday Night Football.
Both of these are games that the Cowboys, feeling good after a blowout victory over Jacksonville, should be able to win without Austin. But they would certainly like him back for the Week 10 road game with the Philadelphia Eagles.
In Tavon's absence, Cole Beasley will likely field punts. We may see more of Deonte Thompson in the speed routes that Austin ran on offense, though Dallas could also finally see what recently returned Brice Butler has to offer.
With an expiring contract this year, Tavon will likely want to get back soon and trying to improve his stock for the 2019 offseason. Hopefully, he can still have a positive impact on his value and the Cowboys season in the weeks ahead.
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