Don’t Stop Frontin’: The Mind-Boggling Multiplicity of NFL Defenses
In half a second, Manny Ramirez will snap the ball over Peyton Manning’s head, and Denver’s Super Bowl nightmare will be on its way. But that isn’t important right now. Right now, in the exact moment before that ball is snapped, what’s important is the group of four men about to tear after Manning — on this play and most of the 60-plus after that.
Not a single one of the four tips the scale at 300 pounds. Clinton McDonald, second from the right and the de facto nose tackle, is closest at 297. He’s also one of the three undrafted free agents in the group. Every team in the league passed on three of the four linemen starting in the Super Bowl for the best defense in football. All three have been cut during their careers — Michael Bennett, second from the left, by the previous Seahawks regime. Chris Clemons, furthest to the right, played for three teams before coming to Seattle. All this matters, but it isn’t exactly the point.
These are the Seahawks two weeks earlier, in nearly the exact same scenario. It’s their first defensive snap in the season’s most important game to date — the NFC Championship Game against San Francisco. The only difference is, well … everything. Instead of no linemen hitting the 300-pound mark, they have two. The alignment is still technically a 4-3, but Brandon Mebane (92) is lined up like a 3-4 nose tackle. “Defensive end” Red Bryant (79) and McDaniel (99) are aligned in nearly the same spot on opposite sides of the defense. The only consistent piece is ol’ Clemons (91), back on the far right side of the line.
Seattle’s base defense is technically a 4-3, but one of the defining elements of its historic 2013 defense — along with the secondary made of condors — is that the 4-3 contained multitudes. There are a lot of animals involved — Clemons plays a specific sort of edge rusher called the “Leo”; the defensive alignment against San Francisco is called a “Bear” front — but the takeaway is that the option to line up different ways against different teams never left the Seahawks vulnerable. “I think it just gives you the ability to adjust with the game,” Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn says of his team’s differing fronts. Pull the string on the back of almost any defensive coordinator these days, and the catchphrase likely to spill out will involve some version of “being multiple.” It’s the smoldering word in coaching circles for a reason. Multiple defenses work.
Of the best four defenses in the NFL last season (according to DVOA), three — the Seahawks, Cardinals, and Bills — were built on multiple defensive fronts. The fourth, the Panthers, isn’t exactly vanilla. Carolina frequently slid its $13 million franchised defensive end to tackle on moneymaking downs. For most of the early 2000s, Monte Kiffin’s Tampa 2 defense was firmly in fashion, but now it seems like more teams than ever are running a defense with some combination of hybrid alignments and techniques. Seattle plays a 4-3, but when in that Bear look against the 49ers, their interior linemen were playing two gaps — a tactic traditionally used in three-man fronts.
In a league with quarterbacks like Manning and the host of formations offenses use today, the ability to react to those tactics with games of your own is essential. “I think defense is reactionary,” says Ray Horton, the newly hired Titans defensive coordinator. “We have to react to what we see on the other side of the field. It’s critical. I think if you line up in one thing, they kill you.”
One of the advantages is particularly relevant this time of year. Take a peek at the bookends of Seattle’s line in that image from the NFC Championship Game. A quick look at the Seahawks’ roster last year would have shown both Bryant and Clemons listed as “defensive ends.” Now, look at Chris Clemons and Red Bryant. Do those two look like they play the same position? Bryant has him by about 70 pounds. Imagine watching them in a footrace.
What makes Seattle’s defense work is that it functions because the two are so different. At 250 pounds, Clemons had a hard time holding up against the run in his previous NFL stops. In Seattle, with a 3-technique tackle lined up to his side and 325-pound Bryant holding the edge on the other, he’s not asked to. While according to most definitions, Clemons is a defensive end, in Pete Carroll’s (or Gus Bradley’s) defense, he’s called the “Leo,” a typically undersize pass-rusher dependent on a bulky counterpart opposite him. There’s a reason the Jaguars signed both Bryant and Clemons this offseason. They’re two parts of a whole.
Neither Clemons nor Bryant fits the prototype of a typical defensive end, and as the league spends its final week sifting through draft options, that lack of restrictions is the multiple-defense luxury that will make the rich teams richer. As Quinn puts it, the pool of players for the Seahawks doesn’t have many limitations. “We like good players, however they come through,” Quinn says. “I think that’s one of the parts of why we like the evaluation process, of looking at college guys and free agents. You get a sense of what a guy does really well, and if he was here, ‘What would his role be for us?’”
About 10 seconds after moving on to a new topic, Mike Pettine backtracks. “Ya know what? Jerry Hughes, that’s probably the best example,” he says. The question was about players Pettine brought in that struggled elsewhere but found a home in his defense. And he’s right. Hughes probably is the best example.
The Colts drafted Hughes, a pass-rushing machine at TCU, with the 31st pick in 2010. For his first two seasons, Hughes struggled to even get on the field in the Colts’ 4-3 defense. In 2012, with Indy installing Chuck Pagano’s 3-4 defense and Dwight Freeney spending most of the season hobbled, Hughes’s snaps picked up significantly. Still, while doing most of his rushing from the left side, he finished the season with just four sacks.
Last summer, the Bills’ front office came to Pettine and asked his opinion about a trade for Hughes. When he was the defensive coordinator for the Jets, Pettine personally worked out Hughes before the 2010 draft and loved him. Pettine gave his approval, and soon after, Hughes was dealt to the Bills for linebacker Kelvin Sheppard. Spending most of his time on the right side, playing as both a standup linebacker and defensive end in reserve duties as a pass-rusher, Hughes finished the year with 10 sacks. He was arguably the most effective rusher on a per-snap basis in the entire league.
Pettine’s system during his only year in Buffalo, a year in which the Bills jumped from 27th to fourth in defensive DVOA, involved a constantly shifting combination of three- and four-man fronts. Sometimes that meant Mario Williams and Manny Lawson standing up on the outside, with Marcell Dareus, Alan Branch, and Kyle Williams in a standard 3-4 alignment. Sometimes it meant Hughes and Mario Williams with their hands on the ground, and more 4-3 than Pettine has historically favored because he felt it suited his handsomely compensated former no. 1 pick. Sometimes it meant a terrifying love child of the two, with Mario Williams at defensive end on one side and Hughes as a sort-of linebacker on the other.
The goal is to make the offense think it’s going to block pass plays. When teams line up in a 4-3 and bring the same four rushers on every play, it allows offenses to, as Pettine calls it, “compartmentalize their protections.” There’s no thinking. “When you have guys that are hybrid types, are they rushers, are they droppers?” Pettine says. “On two out of three plays, they might drop, and all of a sudden, on the third play, they become a more conventional rusher. You can still bring four rushers, but it’s an unconventional four.”
What the confusion hopefully forces the offense to do is overcompensate in areas it doesn’t need to. That’s where the little battles are fought. When the pass protection misidentifies a dropping player as a pass-rusher, it might cause the running back to stay in to block. “We look for creative ways to keep the back in without sacrificing a lot of coverage,” Pettine says. “We feel with these types of players, we’re allowed to do that.” Last year, only the Jets (Pettine’s former team) saw fewer passes to running backs than Buffalo. Only the Seahawks were more effective at defending them.
The sophistication of quarterback play has started so long before the ball is snapped that defenses have to start fighting the battle earlier and earlier. “The phrase we use is, ‘Don’t let ’em read your mail,’” Pettine says. “We didn’t want our mail being read before the ball was snapped.”
All this creativity starts out as schematic, but the value can eventually spill into every part of how a team builds and installs its game plan. The foundation of the defense is installed as early as OTAs, which Pettine is going through right now in his first season as the Browns’ head coach, but rather than learn individual jobs, players are taught the system as a concept. Every week, which role a player fills within that system can change.
“On Tuesday morning, they’re a little more on the edge of their seat when the game plan’s going in,” Pettine says. “That’s a win for us, because it keeps guys engaged. It keeps it fun. And when offenses break down those pressures, you might run it three weeks in a row, but if you switch the people, they’re going to look at it as three completely different pressures when it really isn’t.”
Having interchangeable parts forces offenses to switch off their autopilot and mitigates the impact of injuries, but it’s dependent upon building a roster of players who can fill more than one role.
“In our system,” Pettine says, “I think the lines [between positions] get blurred.” This is where defensive fronts have taken a hint not only from football history, but from basketball’s as well. The positional lines in the NBA have never been murkier than they are today. There are times when it’s hard to distinguish between the five players on the floor for the Heat or Thunder. In many ways, football is headed in the same direction. “I keep saying we’re playing basketball on grass,” Horton says. “It’s more of a spread-out, fast-paced football game. It’s high-octane offense.”
If J.J. Watt is the LeBron James of do-it-all defensive linemen, Calais Campbell is Kevin Durant. Campbell lined up in just about every position he could along the Cardinals’ defensive front last year, from nose tackle to defensive end and back again, sometimes all in the same quarter. “Some guys can play in any scheme, 3-4, 4-3, and he’s one of them,” Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles says. “When you’re that gifted and that size, I don’t think scheme matters.”
Saying that teams should find more players like Campbell seems easy, but his development over the past four years is an ideal version of what teams seeking multiplicity on defense should be looking for. A 4-3 defensive end at Miami, the book on Campbell was that he didn’t have the strength to hold up against double-teams if asked to move inside. Since then, Campbell has actually done the majority of his damage as an interior lineman; nowhere is he more devastating as a pass-rusher than when lined up as a 3-technique tackle in a 4-3.
Questions about scheme fit dropped Campbell to the second round of the 2008 draft, and his ability to transcend scheme is what’s made him one of the four or five most-impactful defensive players in football. One of Pettine’s favorite attributes of running a defense with different fronts is the lack of limitations it puts on available players. “When you look at the draft board, you can’t say, ‘Well, we can’t take that guy because he doesn’t fit us,’” Pettine says. “I’ve always been of the contention, if the guy’s a good football player, let’s take him, and we can figure out what to do with him. We don’t want to be limited or constrained by our playbook if we have a guy that can be a dominant playmaker in the NFL.”
Seattle’s theory is similar. That’s why it’s no surprise that many experts have linked Notre Dame’s Stephon Tuitt to the Seahawks with the 32nd pick in the draft. Tuitt falls in the gaps positionally. At 305 pounds, he isn’t a pass-rushing defensive end, but he’s not built to play defensive tackle either. What he might be is a Bryant replacement, a player with experience playing in a variety of fronts at Notre Dame, one who, above all, can just play football.
“That’s the beauty of it,” Pettine says. “There really isn’t a set mold of what they look like. Wherever I’ve been, whether it was Baltimore, the Jets, the Bills, we never really got into body types. We looked for guys that could do multiple jobs and kind of built the system around that.” The back end of the first round is filled with players with noticeable talents but nontraditional fits. Minnesota’s Ra’Shede Hageman is occasionally unstoppable but hard to place. Auburn’s Dee Ford is considered too small to play defensive end. So is Jerry Attaochu from Georgia Tech.
What’s encouraging for players who don’t fill the 4-3 roles that dominated the NFL a decade ago is that more and more teams are trending away from them. The Falcons brought in Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai this offseason in what looks like an attempt to use a larger variety of defensive fronts. The Bears hired Paul Pasqualoni and Reggie Herring, both of whom have extensive 3-4 experience, as position coaches and have made plenty of veiled references to a desire to be more creative in the front seven.
Just as it has in the NBA, defensive line personnel choices have become more about accumulating assets than checking off specific boxes. Having the most talented group possible has trumped having the group that fits the traditional understanding of what a defensive front has to be. The potential rewards from that method of thinking start now, with a deeper, expansive pool of potential additions, but they don’t stop anywhere close. “It also allows us defensively to almost have a chameleon-type quality,” Pettine says. “You can’t just rip the cover off last year’s scouting report against us.”