Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The 3-4 And All Of The Differences


In the next few days before the Super Bowl, I want to examine the 3-4 defense in depth so that we can all have a good feel for what Dallas has done - and more notably what they haven't done - in the same scheme as both teams who are playing for a Lombardi Trophy in this very city.

15 teams (10 in the AFC) are scheduled to utilize the 3-4 in 2011. But, as we have seen, the variations of how to run a 3-4 are infinite. Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau run two styles that are amazingly inventive and at times, flat out risky. Wade Phillips, on the other hand, ran a 3-4 defense that preached pressure and aggression, but it my estimation, the 3-4 we saw in Dallas was more about making sure that they were careful to not give away a big mistake rather than roll the dice.

Part of running a truly high-octane defense that can set the tone of a game and intimidate an offense often stems from being willing to roll the dice and live with the fact that if you believe in a "Cover 0" blitz, there is a time or three where you are going to be caught with your hand in the cookie jar. You will get occasionally get burned. But, you are willing to do that to do what you do.

Phillips, in Dallas, might tell us that he never took chances because he thought that would be suicide. I would love to talk with him on this topic, hoping to get a modicum of honesty and frankness from a guy who never would be frank on issues of this nature. but, We are left to assume. So, I assume that he was never aggressive with exotic blitzes because he didn't trust his personnel and wasn't willing to live with the consequences of miscast defenders in a compromising position.

But, as important as personnel always is, I also believe that a coordinator like LeBeau, Capers, Jets Head Coach Rex Ryan, or new Cowboys Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan is at their core who they are regardless of players. I believe that they are going to do what they believe in and slowly weed players out who cannot carry out their master plan. Find players who can and then do what you do.

I hope you have had a chance to examine Gerry Fraley's piece on the topic of Rob Ryan's 3-4 scheme as told by Pittsburgh OC Bruce Arians and QB Ben Roethlisberger. They seem to believe he likes to bring the heat.

"It’s confusion," Roethlisberger said on Tuesday. "For me, it was chaos. For them, I’m sure it’s organized chaos. If you have players that can play within that system, you’re going to get a great defense."

Ryan also likes to become "exotic," on third downs, Arians said. According to Arians and Roethlisberger, Ryan showed more variety than ever in those situations this season.

That could show as 10 defenders in a standing position. That could show with linebackers at the line and linemen dropping 12 yards off the line of scrimmage in pass coverage. It could mean as many as eight defensive backs in the game.

Wow. That gets me excited just thinking about it.

But, Roethlisberger brought up the best point. You need players that can play within that system. Otherwise, it can only be so good. I enjoy people who email me with scoffs about the unimpressive stats Ryan's defense put up in Cleveland. Here is my response - unless you can name 3 Browns defenders (without cheating) you are not allowed to scoff. He had nearly nothing to work with.

How much did Wade Phillips have to work with in Dallas? I would argue significantly more. But, there is no doubt the safety position was never where it needed to be.

Which brings me to some stats I was looking up the last few days as I pondered LeBeau vs Capers.

According to my friends at ProFootballFocus.Com, the Cowboys had 977 defensive snaps last season. Here are the pass rushes by defensive backs:

DB Blitzes 2010

Total Blitzes50

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That's right; Terrence Newman and Mike Jenkins have both blitzed 0 times in 2010 (and 0 times in 2009. In 2008, Jenkins blitzed 0 times, Newman 4 times - so in 3 full seasons with the Cowboys, Mike Jenkins has played in over 2,200 snaps and has never blitzed the QB once). That seems insane to me if only because the opposing QB never has to even consider the extreme, minute possibility that they could blitz. The Cowboys ran about as predictable a defense as one could ever run. You knew who was rushing and you knew who was not. There was no mystery. How stressful is this to game-plan against?

To offer you context for how few 50 blitzes are from DBs from a 3-4 "pressure" defense, let's compare with the 3 3-4's who advanced to the Final 4 of the NFL Playoffs:

Total DB Blitzes 2010

New York Jets351
Green Bay183

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Clearly, the Jets are insane with 351. But, what does it say about the Dallas 3-4 to always blitz the same guys (basically, linebackers)? These other defenses seem to have a concept where any of the 11 defenders could be bringing pressure at one point or another.

Here is a stat for you: Charles Woodson blitzed 106 times this season by himself. The Cowboys have blitzed DBs 114 times in the last 3 seasons COMBINED. Is this personnel? The Cowboys have had different safeties from 2008 to 2010 - Roy Williams, Ken Hamlin, Alan Ball, Gerald Sensabaugh - in those 3 seasons, and Wade never blitzed anyone - save for Keith Brooking and Bradie James up the gut. They certainly had nobody as dynamic as Woodson or Troy Polamalu. On rare occasions, Orlando Scandrick would blitz off the slot, but the Cowboys averaged about 3 a game total from their secondary, when the Jets were blitzing over 20 times a game.

Personnel? Yes. Philosophy? Yes.

In the next few days, I want to look at these exotic blitzes that make Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau the best in the business at designing the 3-4. And when they get personnel who can carry out their plans, they can help lead a team all the way to a Super Bowl.

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