While most people are drawn to the NFL by the appeal of offensive power, with nimble footed running backs, dominant wide receivers and surgeon like quarterbacks, the other side of the ball is no less fascinating. Defense makes up half of the NFL roster, and it is an essential half at that.
For those new to the game, or perhaps those who have watched for a while but would like to be better educated as to what happens to the part of the team that almost never has the football, this piece is designed to take some of the phrases you may have heard bandied about by commentators (or on games like Madden), and offer a brief explanation as to just what they mean. If you are wanting a full breakdown of the 1985 Chicago Bears 46 defense blitz package, I’m not your guy.
A team’s base defense is the formation they line up most often, and usually at the beginning of the game. If in doubt, this is the alignment a team will rely on. In the NFL, there are two main defensive alignments, the 4-3 (four defensive linemen, three linebackers) and the 3-4 (three defensive linemen, four linebackers).
The 4-3 defense relies on the front four to rush the passer (tackle the quarterback), leaving the other seven players to deal with pass catchers and run support. The coaches most partial to using the 4-3 as their base defense are the Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, Los Angeles Rams DC Greg Williams and Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll.
The 3-4 differs from the 4-3, by having just three defensive linemen. Their primary assignment is not to rush the passer, but to occupy blocking offensive linemen, leaving the outside linebackers (OLB) to get after the quarterback. 3-4 defensive linemen are often bigger than their 4-3 counterparts, as they will often have to deal with more than one offensive linemen. Main disciples of the 3-4 are Wade Phillips of the Denver Broncos, Romeo Crennell of the Houston Texans and Rex Ryan of the Buffalo Bills.
Taken from the German word “Blitzkreig” meaning “lightning war”, blitzes are situations where a defense will send additional players to sack the quarterback. Originally called “red dogging”, schemes using two or more players were known as blitzes. Nowadays, all situations in which additional rushers are utilised are known as blitzes. The most common players to be used to blitz are linebackers, while defensive back blitzes are not as common. This is because it removes a player from the pass coverage, leaving a gap a quarterback can exploit if he can avoid the pass rush and get a pass off quickly.
Defensive coaches like Dick LeBeau (longtime Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator, now a defensive coach with the Tennessee Titans) used what is called the “zone blitz”. This is a situation in which players usually expected to rush the passer will instead drop into pass coverage, allowing a linebacker or defensive back to get after the passer. This element of deception can lead to confusion for the quarterback, causing him to rush his throw or wait too long to get his pass off.
So that’s how most teams look to get after the passer. But what about the different ways then try and defend the pass, should the quarterback manage to avoid getting sacked? Again, there are two main schools, Zone Coverage and Man Coverage.
In zone coverage, players are responsible for defending a set part of the field, covering and tackling any pass receivers that come into their “zone”. There are different types of zone coverage, with the main two being Cover 1 and Cover 2. Cover 1, often termed “One High Safety”, has one of the two safeties staying far downfield, while Cover 2 is similar, but with both safeties staying deep, dividing the deep field between them. A popular variant of Cover 2 is known as “Tampa 2”, utilised by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Like Cover 2, the two safeties will sit back, dividing the field in half, but the middle line backer will “sit in” in front of them, covering the middle of the field. Blitzing out of zone coverages is risky, as it can leave gaps in the open field for receivers to get open, but if all defenders patrol their zones properly this can close around defenders, eliminating big plays.
Man coverage, or “man to man defense” is generally more aggressive than zone coverage. Every potential receiver has a defender assigned to cover them, hence “man to man”. Using this method, teams are able to use their best defensive players to cover and track an offenses best player. Darrelle Revis of the New York Jets has been one of the best cover corners of the 21st century, while Deion Sanders was probably the finest cover corner of the last. The major flaw of man coverage is that it only takes one player to get beaten, or make a mistake, and there will be six points on the board.
NICKEL AND DIME BACKS
Occasionally, in passing situations, an offense will have more specialist pass catchers on the field than they would normally have in their base offense. In this situations, defenses will substitute a defensive linemen or a linebacker for an extra defensive back. This player is called a nickel back, and a team is set to be in “nickel” when five defensive backs are on the field. When there are six, it is called a “dime” defense. Defensive backs are generally smaller and quicker than linebackers and linemen, and are better equipped to cover faster receivers.
SEVEN/EIGHT MEN IN THE BOX
The “box” is also known as the tackle box, and is the area surrounding the line of scrimmage, stretching from the left offensive tackle to the right offensive tackle. Seven men in the box means that a team has seven players close to the line of scrimmage, in the case of a 4-3 team this would be the four lineman and the linebackers. If a safety is playing close to the line of scrimmage, this is called eight men in the box. This is often used to stifle or even stop a strong running back. Should the box be unable to stop a running back, this can lead to a big running play as the nearest free defender is usually way down field (one high safety).