What's In A Defensive Scheme

As any experienced IDP owner knows sometimes the defensive scheme that a player plays in can be almost as important as the players’ individual skills set. So what kind of scheme should we look for when selecting and starting IDP players? First it is crucial to know the difference between schemes and recognize which players excel in those schemes.

The 3–4 defense incorporates three defensive linemen, two defensive ends, and one nose tackle, who line up opposite the other team’s offensive line. Those three players are responsible for engaging the other team’s offensive line, allowing the four linebackers to either rush the quarterback or drop back into coverage, depending on the situation. While the role of the defensive linemen is fairly consistent, the role of the linebackers allow for flexibility and versatility in the 3-4 scheme, and give defensive coaches nearly limitless options to confuse the other team’s players and coaches. Depending on the situation, any number of linebackers can blitz, fake a blitz, “spy” the quarterback or running back, or cover receivers. In key situations, a rush linebacker may be sent to cover the flat on the opposite side of the blitzing defensive back; this is called a “zone blitz”. The defensive line is made up of a nose tackle and two defensive ends. Linemen in 3–4 schemes tend to be larger than their 4–3 counterparts to take up more space and guard more territory along the defensive front. As a consequence, many 3–4 defensive linemen begin their NFL careers as 4-3 defensive tackles, as younger players typically do not possess the size, weight, and strength to play on a 3-4 defensive front. They must be strong at the point of attack and are aligned in most cases head-up on an offensive tackle. First and foremost, they must control run gaps. Size and strength become more of a factor for linemen in 3–4 defenses than in 4–3 defenses because they move primarily within the confines of line play and seldom are in space using athletic ability. Ideally 3–4 DE’s should weigh over 300 pounds and be able to beat double teams by getting a push. The 3–4 nose tackle is considered the most physically demanding position in football. His primary responsibility is to control the “A” gaps, the two openings between the center and guards, and not get pushed back into his linebackers. If a running play comes through one of those gaps, he must make the tackle or control what is called the “jump-through” from the guard or center who is trying to get out to the linebackers. The ideal nose tackle has to be much bigger than 4–3 DT’s, usually weighing 330 pounds or more. The base position of NT is across from the opposing team’s center. This location is usually referred to as zero technique. The two DE’s flank the NT and line up off the offensive guards.

In a 3–4 defense, four linebackers are positioned behind the defensive line. The linebacker unit is made up of two inside linebackers flanked by two outside linebackers. The OLB’s often line up closer to the line of scrimmage than the ILB’s, but may also be positioned at the same depth or deeper in coverage than the ILB’s (though this is somewhat rare). There are two types of ILB’s, the “Mike” (for strong side) and the “Will” (for weak side). The Will typically is the more athletic linebacker, who can blitz, drop into coverage, play the run, and “spy” the quarterback. The Mike is typically the stronger and larger of the two linebackers, and is used almost like a Fullback on the defense. He takes on and occupies blockers for the Will, allowing the Will to flow to the ball and make tackles. The 3–4 also has two types of OLB’s. The Joker, Jack, or Elephant is usually the primary pass rusher. Depending on the scheme, the Joker can be on either side of the defensive formation. He must be an excellent pass rusher, and has to be able to beat both stronger right tackles and rangier left tackles off of the edge of the formation. The other 3–4 OLB does not have a specific designation. Like a Sam linebacker in a 4–3 scheme, the other 3–4 OLB must be able to cover, blitz, and play the run. Strengths of the 3–4 include speedy ILB’s and OLB’s in pursuit of backs in run defense and flexibility to use multiple rushers to confuse the quarterback during passing plays without being forced into man-to-man defense on receivers. Most teams try to disrupt the offense’s passing attack by rushing four defenders. In a standard 4–3 alignment, these four rushers are usually the four down linemen. But in a 3–4, the fourth rusher is usually a linebacker, though many teams use a safety to blitz and confuse the coverage, giving them more defensive options in the same 3–4 look. However, since there are four linebackers and four defensive backs, the fourth potential rusher can come from any of eight defensive positions. This is designed to confuse the quarterback’s pre-snap defensive read. A drawback of the 3–4 is that without a fourth lineman to take on the offensive blockers and close the running lanes, both the defensive linemen and the linebackers can be overwhelmed by blocking schemes in the running game. To be effective, 3–4 linebackers need their defensive line to routinely tie up a minimum of four (preferably all five) offensive linemen, freeing them to make tackles. The 3–4 linebackers must be very athletic and strong enough to shed blocks by fullbacks, tight ends, and offensive linemen to get to the running back. In most cases, 3–4 OLBs lead their teams in quarterback sacks. Usually teams that run a 3–4 defense look for college “tweeners” meaning defensive ends that are too small to play the position in the pros and not quite fluid enough to play outside linebacker in a 4–3 defense, and end up being utilized as 3–4 outside linebackers. According to former NFL coach, and current defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, 3–4 linebackers “are a little bit cheaper, and you can find more of them,” while “it’s harder to find defensive linemen to play a 4–3 and pay for all of them”.

Now that we have covered everything there is to know about the 3-4 scheme, let’s dive into the 4-3 scheme. In a 4-3 scheme there are two defensive tackles used. Teams whose base front are an “over” or “under” front will have a nose tackle in this scheme. In schemes whose base set is an even 4–3, there is no nose tackle. Instead there is a left and right defensive tackle. When teams don’t have a nose tackle, the tackles line up face on the offensive guards. The nose tackle is generally slightly larger and stronger and plays a shade or head-up technique in which he lines up on either the outside shoulder of the center or in the middle of his body depending on which way the strength of the play is going. The nose tackle’s primary job is to stop the run and take on the double team, which is getting blocked by both the center and the weak-side or pulling guard thus freeing up the linebackers to make a play. The second defensive tackle (simply referred to as the defensive tackle, under tackle or three tech) is generally a bit quicker and faster than the nose tackle, ideally weighing close to 300 pounds but quick-footed enough to shoot through a gap at the snap. He plays a three technique, meaning he lines up on the outside shoulder of the strong side offensive guard. The job of a three tech is to prevent the run, keep the guard off linebackers, and rush the quarterback on pass plays. The defensive end’s primary role in the 4–3 defense is to get to the quarterback and create pressure. The 4–3 DE’s are the smallest of the entire defensive line due to their emphasis of speed over strength. They still need to be strong enough to fight their way past offensive tackles, yet quick enough to pursue the running backs on runs to the outside. Ideal 4–3 defensive ends are athletic and agile and their strength is getting up the field quickly and they usually weigh between 255 and 295 pounds. Right ends, who line up against the offensive left tackle and attack from the blind side of a right-handed quarterback, are usually the best athletes on the line, combining a large frame with quickness and agility to outflank blockers who are bigger and heavier. Defensive ends generally play the 1 gap technique, though will occasionally be forced to play a 2 gap in the event of a TE pinching in to block on run plays. In most schemes, they are also responsible for keeping the quarterback from rolling out of the pocket to make big running gains.

In a 4-3 scheme there is only one inside linebacker, so he is called the middle linebacker, sometimes known as the “Mike” linebacker. He must be as smart as he is athletic, because he acts as the “quarterback of the defense” and is often the defensive leader. The primary responsibility of the “Mike” is to stop the run, though he will often be asked to fall back in zone coverage in pass protection; man to man pass coverage has him assigned to the fullback typically. The MLB is often the largest and strongest of all of the linebackers.

The 4–3 defense relies on having a sure tackler at the middle linebacker spot. Most notably, Monte Kiffin’s “Tampa Cover 2” scheme makes high demands on the MLB, requiring they to have above-average speed, and additional skills to be able to read the play and either maintain his central position to help the outside linebackers cover short passes, drop behind the linebackers in coverage and protect the zone of the field behind the outside linebackers from 11–20 yards out, or run up to the line of scrimmage to help assist in stopping the runs. Luke Kuechly is a prototypical “Mike” linebacker. As in the 3–4 defense there are two outside linebackers in the 4–3. These outside backers are known as the strong-side and weak-side linebackers. The strong-side, or “Sam” linebacker, is so named because he typically sticks to the strong side of the defense, across from the tight end. The “Sam” does his fair share of blitzing; however he also needs to play the run and take on blockers, making him a bigger linebacker on average than the weak-side linebacker. He will usually be relied upon to cover the tight end or potentially a back out of the backfield. The weak-side, or “Will” linebacker, generally plays on the weak side of the formation and has more freedom than the other LB’s, often blitzing the quarterback or guarding against the screen. He also has heavy coverage responsibilities, making a good number of today’s “Will” linebackers former safeties.

So what does this all mean for the defensive backs? Defensive backs are a bit of an interesting group. By far the least productive fantasy unit on a consistent basis, these players are less affected by schemes and more so by matchups. Coverages can vary from play to play, and weekly game plan to weekly game plan, so it’s not as if there are two clearly defined defensive back schemes like the 4-3 and 3-4. On most plays the defensive back is in coverage, meaning that most downs they have to defend a pass, intercept a ball, or make a tackle, they are dependent on the quarterback throwing it their way. This is why elite NFL cornerbacks such as Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman are often terrible fantasy options; no one wants to put the ball near them if they can help it. The secondary generally uses four defensive backs. Two of these are safeties, and two of them are cornerbacks. A cornerback’s responsibilities vary depending on the type of coverage called on any particular play. The corners will generally line up 3 to 5 yards off the line of scrimmage, usually trying to “Jam” or interrupt the receivers route within the first 5 yards. A corner will be given one of two ways to defend the pass, zone or man-to-man. In zone coverage, the cornerback is responsible for an area on the field. In this case, the corner must always stay down field of whoever they are covering while still remaining in his zone. Zone is a more relaxed defensive scheme meant to provide more awareness across the defensive secondary while sacrificing tight coverage. As such, the corner in this case would be responsible for making sure nobody gets outside of him, or down field of him, in cases where there is no deep safety help. In man coverage, however, the cornerback is solely responsible for the man across from him, usually the offensive player split farthest out. The free safety is responsible for reading the offensive plays and covering deep passes. Depending on the defensive call, he may also provide run support. He is positioned 10 to 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage, toward the center of the field. He provides the last line of defense against running backs and receivers who get past the linebackers and cornerbacks. He must be a quick and smart player, capable of making tackles efficiently as well as reading the play and alerting his team of game situations. The strong safety is usually larger than the free safety and is positioned relatively close to the line of scrimmage. He is often an integral part of the run defense, but is also responsible for defending against a pass, and especially against passes to the tight-ends.

I have built a graph detailing which teams played in which defensive schemes in 2017, as well as each teams coverage scheme, current defensive coordinators and head coaches. (Which can be viewed by clicking here.) It is evident that being a productive fantasy player on the defensive side of the ball has as much to do with a player’s positional designation and the scheme that they play in as it does their talent level. Do not make the mistake that many make and draft using last year’s top performers lists. Do your homework! Make sure you research who has changed teams or positions. Read up on teams that have a new defensive coordinator and are going to employ a new scheme. If you are just getting your IDP feet wet or are an old pro, remember not to get caught up in the name recognition game, because scheme matters.