The Minnesota Vikings' electric offseason and draft have produced a crop of players that experts everywhere are reasonably excited about. Whether they're bloviating on the Cordarrelle Patterson trade or questioning the value of being the first team to select a specialist in the draft, pundits certainly are talking about the smaller-market team from Minnesota, where Minneapolis is home to the 15th largest television market in the United States (although it would be appreciably larger if the TV market was expanded to Iowa and the Dakotas).
One criticism that caught my eye—and one I was thinking about on the first day of the draft—is what the Vikings will do with two new three-technique players and a high-performing but quickly aging pass-rushing defensive tackle currently on the roster.
While I and several others defined the under tackle position as an area of need, I'm confident most fans and observers had determined it was significantly less of a need than at least four or five other positions (MLB, CB, NT, WR, OG). Most strikingly, it was the nose tackle and middle linebacker that needed the biggest upgrade for the Vikings.
While grabbing Michael Mauti—a potential first-round pick without the injury-in the seventh could have been the Vikings' strategy to deal with the middle linebacker position, I can't help but think the Vikings knew they couldn't fix every need in one draft and let the market come to them for the most part.
The grabbed the best available player at pick 23, and he happened to be an under tackle. At pick 25, they picked a highly-rated player that happened to also fit within what the Vikings needed to address (although there are some concerns that the Vikings should have also grabbed a slot corner later in the draft) and then they moved up to Pick 29 to grab what they thought was value. Whether or not you agree or disagree with the specifics of Cordarrelle Patterson's game, it should be considered the correct strategy for player acquisition, even if it wasn't the correct player: if you find someone you think is in the second-tier of talent in the draft (which is what the Vikings thought of Patterson), and they fall to pick 29, it makes all the sense in the world to trade up.
But all of this maneuvering left the Vikings without the ability to generate new impact starters with the rest of their draft. And that means some needs weren't addressed.
In an attempt to see how we can address those needs, I looked at how fronting multiple 3-techniques changes the defense. Grab a sandwich and probably a beer; this is another long article.
There are many who think that the Vikings should adapt their schemes to fit the players that they have, and there's no question that there is appeal to that. Bum Phillips invented the one-gap 3-4 defense to accommodate the talent he had, and Bill Arnsparger did the same for his version of the 3-4 (called the "53," "Killer B's" or No-Name Defense).
Some defenses are created out of necessity (Landry's 4-3 "flex" was a response to offensive schemes not his current talent—stopping wall-blocking runs) while others are created to wreak havoc and players are drafted to fulfill the roles after the system is implemented (Bud Carson's Cover 2 and Dick Lebeau's zone blitz-heavy 3-4).
Other defenses are designed specifically to fit a certain pattern, which is what the Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 was designed to do—keep the offense on the field for short gains until turnovers can be generated, while others wanted to maximize the ability of the total talent pool of the NFL instead of who they had at the time (Bill Parcells' "true" 3-4).
Some famous defenses are designed under a combination of those principles, most notable Buddy Ryan's 46 defense, which was primarily designed to create pressure on the quarterback, but couldn't be implemented without strong man-to-man cornerbacks (like Leslie Frazier) and good safeties (like Doug Plank, who the defense is named after).
But if the Vikings want to take the Bum Phillips approach, they want to find a way to put Kevin Williams and Sharrif Floyd on the same field as often as possible and maximize their impact.
"Coaching is pretty simple really. If you don't got something, find something you do got. Really, we didn't have but one [defensive lineman] - [Hall of Famer] Elvin [Bethea] - until we got Curley [Culp] in the middle of that season. Then we had two. What we did have was four real good linebackers, so all I done was find a way to get our best players on the field."
As far as I know, there's only one defensive scheme that puts two 3-technique tackles on the field at the same time, and that's Jim Washburn's "Wide 9" defense, although calling it a "scheme" may be going too far.
Nevertheless, there are a couple elements to the technique used from sets that utilize the Wide 9 technique but before we get to that, a brief explanation.
Many of us are familiar with the gap/technique terminology used by most of the football world. Nevertheless, I'll go over it again. Some technique numbers vary, but I'll go with Bear Bryant's original system:
Which is derived from Bear Bryant's Texas A&M Playbook:
The area between the center and either guard is the "A" gap. Players that line up in that gap are generally called "1-technique" players, although if they place their outside foot inside the guard's shoulder, they could be considered to play the "2i" technique, a term not used all too often.
For the most part, even-numbered techniques are "head up" over an offensive lineman and odd-numbered techniques will place a player over a gap. Commonly, even-numbered technique players will play a "two-gap" system where they will be tasked with making sure runs don't go on either side of their assigned lineman, while odd-numbered techniques are responsible for one gap. There are some exceptions: J.J. Watt will line up in the 4-technique (often popularly referred to as a "5-technique" or "base end", which makes this all more confusing) but be asked to attack and control a single gap.
The numbering system above isn't universal. People don't agree on the technique numbers, some—like those at our sister site for the Browns, Dawgs By Nature, learned directly from coaches the Bryant system. Coach Z presented both systems. For now, I'm sticking with the Bryant system, so when I say 5-technique, know that I'm referring to the outside shade of the tackle.
The "1-technique" is the source of our troubles. I detailed quite some time ago about the responsibilities of the player lined up in the "A" gap for the defense, generally called the "nose tackle" of the 4-3 defense, and they are usually tasked with drawing double teams and redirecting runners. Because they take up two blockers, they are critical for the defense to function against the run and also help enable the pass rush by giving the 3-technique lineman (the "under tackle") more free reign to move upfield.
Letroy Guion, according to Pro Football Focus, was the worst-performing 4-3 nose tackle in the league. In fact, they ranked him as the worst defensive tackle overall. While I find that their system unfairly penalizes 3-4 nose tackles and provides substantial bonuses to 4-3 under tackles, it's a good barometer to compare players with similar responsibilities. And Guion is terrible.
I've watched the majority of the 256 games played in the NFL last year, and I have to concur that Guion is extraordinarily subpar at this position. Although I predicted he would play like an average player, he found himself subject to solo blocks, far too (involuntarily) mobile in the run game and ineffective at collapsing the pocket.
One of the biggest red flags for Guion at nose tackle was the fact that he played as a 3-technique defensive tackle at Florida State and did so for a short time with Minnesota. But he really isn't cut out for the 1-technique position, despite outperforming Ayodele in 2011. Fred Evans makes for an athletic backup, but as someone who consistently loses out on competitions to start for the Vikings, and has for the last seven years, I doubt he can fully provide the caliber of player the Vikings need in the defense.
The important points here are that the Vikings may have made mistakes out of converting under tackles to nose tackles and defensive ends to under tackles and that they probably do not have a viable starting nose tackle. With Kevin Williams, the underdrafted Sharrif Floyd and the surprising seventh-round pickup Everett Dawkins, the Vikings could enter the 2013 season with two high-level under tackles and a solid backup (I felt Dawkins deserved to be picked significantly earlier) who could develop into a starting-caliber tackle in a short amount of time, the Vikings could easily go the way of Arnsparger and Phillips and try to get those two star players to play as often as possible.
There are a couple of ways to get two 3-technique tackles on to the field at the same time, but the most well-known (and perhaps most battle-tested) is the much-maligned "Wide 9" defensive alignment, previously employed by the Philadelphia Eagles and Tennessee Titans and currently being run at Detroit.
The technique is largely known for splitting its defensive ends wide enough to charge the quarterback with build-up speed, but just as often employs two under tackles (and therefore no nose tackle) on the interior line. First, I'll talk about the interior concepts and then move to the concepts for the defensive ends before moving up and trying to figure out what it means for the Vikings defense holistically.
Before that, I would like to address a couple of things about the Wide 9 before digging into its guts.
The first is that it isn't a scheme like the Tampa 2 is, it's a defensive alignment. The Tampa 2 has an entire set of principles to deal with the running and passing games and is functionally a base play that the philosophies and other plays derive from. It has clear responsibilities for all 11 defensive players on the field. The Wide 9 is merely defines the role of 4 players, although many defenses are built from the outside in.
When Washburn and Castillo ran the Philadelphia defense (and Castillo ran it far better than people gave them credit for), it was primarily a zone scheme that played around with its cornerbacks but mostly ran quarters coverage when it could. Castillo mixed in a number of Cover 3 and Cover 2 looks as well, but tried to feature its very talented cornerback corps in zone looks.
Jeff Fisher ran man coverage concepts with the Titans behind a Jim Washburn defensive line and Gunther Cunningham runs a less aggressive but more diverse man-heavy scheme at the Lions.
So there's no unified "scheme." But there are principles that will dictate responsibilities to other players that make certain coverage philosophies easier than others.
The double 3-technique is not new as part of a 4-3 front. Tom Landry's Umbrella defense in New York would often deploy two 3-technique tackles and the Chicago defense in 1954 (under the coordination of Clark Shaughnessy, but largely spearheaded by Bill George and George Connor) created its own double 3-technique 4-3 front by dropping nose guard Bill George as a linebacker.
Since then, the evolution of the 4-3, from Hank Stram's "odd" front to Jimmy Johnson's Miami 4-3, has moved to install a nose tackle and an under tackle.
The double 3-technique alignment is aggressive. It requires quick pass-rushers who know how to get skinny and read on the fly as well as players who can change directions quickly and play pursuit. There's not a huge change in this philosophy from what you saw of the Purple People Eaters in their heyday—meet at the quarterback. The defensive tackles will shoot up the gaps and will only pull back from attacking the quarterback if they see the hand off.
Ideally, this create four one-on-one matchups for the defense because the center can't slide out to protect the passer from the shooting tackles. This makes for four pass-rushers instead of three, which isn't just a simple arithmetic calculation, but a big difference in the average amount of time the quarterback has to throw the ball.
In general, quarterbacks averaged 2.76 seconds before finishing a throw, 2.61 seconds before attempting a throw, 3.78 seconds before being sacked and 4.98 seconds before scrambling. Exactly half of all dropbacks lasted more than 2.5 seconds and vice versa. Most of this is due to coverage, as the completion percentage on attempts that lasted longer than that amount of time is 12 points lower (from 67.1 to 55.2). This implies that allowing the quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly, as they are wont to do, is critical in today's NFL. Most sacks (89 percent of them) take longer than 2.5 seconds, so it is rare to be able to create quick, consistent pressure. The Wide 9 is one of the few schemes designed to do this.
In 2011, the two teams that ran a Wide 9 look were also in the top ten in percentage of "short sacks" (those under 2.5 seconds) as a function of opponent's dropbacks. In fact, Philadelphia ranked 3rd overall. I don't have data from other years, but this seems to be a consistent feature of the Wide 9 defense. More importantly, it is more likely to create interior pressure much faster and disrupt quarterbacks on a consistent basis.
The average dropback is under pressure slightly less than a third of the time (31.27 percent of the time), but the biggest difference between the most snaps under pressure and the fewest snaps under pressure was 21.5 points. Given that quarterbacks go from an average completion rate of 61.4 percent to 46.4 percent (a difference of 15 points), pressure can be dramatically important.
The difference for an average offensive line is 125 plays over the course of a season under pressure, or about 8 passing plays a game. That's one additional sack and one additional incompletion—or about 30 net yards and 2 downs a game. That would turn the average quarterback (think Matt Schaub in 2012) to a lower-tier quarterback (Ryan Fitzpatrick). It would turn an elite quarterback like Peyton Manning into a slightly above-average quarterback (Eli Manning or Alex Smith). That sort of change is worth looking into.
The most obvious weakness with the scheme involves runs up the middle—but traditional runs aren't nearly as big a weakness as the defensive line alignment might imply, because of linebacker assignment and responsibilities. But it is more vulnerable to draw runs and quarterback sneaks when the middle linebacker may not be lined up to make the play. A trap blocking set would also punish the aggressive defensive line and create larger running lanes in the B gaps as well.
By necessity then, those who employ the Wide 9 alignment will also demand their under tackles stunt and twist at the line in order to further confuse blocking assignments. Some linebacker movement will help, and I'll discuss that in a bit, but at the line, tackles will constantly need to deceive the offensive line with lateral movement into alternate gaps. Consistent, but unpredictable, movement at the line will absolve a lot of the issues with the Wide 9's inherent weakness up the middle. Again, the linebackers will be critical as well.
This implies another set of skills that the defensive tackles need to have in this system that are a bit more important here than other systems. Specifically, that they not only need to be able to shed blocks to move upfield, but also have the ability to shed blocks laterally, somewhat like two-technique defensive ends would be asked to do. Lateral agility is very important, and a quick first step is critical as well.
The ability to recognize trap plays—the most common response against the double 3-technique—is important, too. Getting under and dipping like a defensive end will be important when that happens as will change-of-direction capability. Play recognition for 3-techniques is more important in the double 3-technique alignment than in the traditional "over" and "under" 4-3 alignments because of that.
So, do the Vikings have the qualities needed of their under tackles on the roster? Again, that would be upfield push, first step, lateral block shedding, lateral agility, change-of-direction, the ability to dip under an edge and good pursuit angles.
Unsurprisingly, Kevin Williams has all of those qualities in abundance. Even knowing that his physical capability has been eroding with age, he still displays a good burst off the line, an ability to get in the backfield and solid change-of-direction skills. He's also recently shown an increased ability to work off of double teams and has always been good moving laterally, which makes him an ideal stunting pass rusher.
Sharrif Floyd has a weakness in gap discipline and works too enthusiastically to get skinny, a weakness that is largely unimportant in the Wide 9 scheme. Floyd seems much more comfortable reading on the fly then playing read-react, although he has done that for Florida. Not only is he quick off the snap, he's almost always the first to make contact and has a decent understanding of some of the leverage concepts in blocking. He has pad level problems, but he does know how to consistently rush the edge of an interior player and keep them off of their center of gravity. He has consistently improved his pad level at Florida, and I'm sure that improvement will continue.
Given how often he was used across every interior line position and the fact that he's done very well stunting for Florida, he looks to be a good fit for double 3-technique work. I'd be worried about his pursuit and change-of-direction capabilities, however, and he's not perfectly suited to the role. Despite this specific weakness, he's a good overall fit and has the speed and quickness you want in the position. He has flashed the ability to improve in this area, so he could evolve into a perfect double 3-technique under tackle.
Everett Dawkins' biggest weaknesses are also hidden by the scheme. He's not a good run defender, nor does he hold up at the point of attack, but he does show an ability to find himself in the backfield. His experience as an edge rusher would be extremely useful in the alignment. Taking advantage of slower interior linemen to find ways around any edges they might want to set will be easier for Dawkins than most interior pass rushers.
He also has the ability to push upfield with alacrity, and is extremely agile as a tackle—he can change direction perhaps better than any other defensive tackle on the team. He is a bit delayed in his reads, but I don't think this will reduce his reaction time against backfield theatrics: these defensive tackles don't have to predict what will happen, simply respond to what's happening in front of them in real time.
Christian Ballard has also spent time as an edge rusher, but doesn't have the same explosiveness as Dawkins or Floyd. Without quite the first step of the other players, I could see Ballard pushed down the chart or even off the team. It would be a pity, because I really like him. He isn't out of the running by any means—depth in this scheme is good, and he's an athletic guy who's only 24 years old. I don't really like how he gets off blocks and how quickly he reacts to the defense, but he is very athletic and stronger than his size implies. Were the Vikings to switch to this look, Ballard would certainly remain on the team.
For the most part, it's easy to say that the under tackles the Vikings have fit the wider scheme requirements, even if there are tweaks here and there that need to be done with their skill sets to make them prototypes at the position. The Vikings wouldn't necessarily get rid of their nose tackles, either. No team runs a base Wide 9 without also getting into other packages that feature a nose tackle, and the Vikings could also run a tackle heavy goal line package as well. On the interior, they will want the bigger heavies on the line.
The defensive ends line up extremely wide in this set. To get you a better understanding of it, here's a screenshot from the first game of the season:
In the Daily Norseman picture database, I've labeled the above picture as "the Eagles line up wider than your mom's legs" just for Kyle.
As you can tell, the defensive line splits are fairly extreme. To be fair, this was an obvious passing situation—no backs in the backfield and it was 3rd and 9. Neither the Eagles nor the Lions tend to use the double 3-technique on the majority of their snaps, although they will still use them much, much more often than most—the Eagles used it more than anyone else in 2011, and had more than a third of their snaps in this alignment.
Given that a number of teams don't use their "base defense" on the majority of their snaps (thanks to the evolution of the slot receiver and the nickel corner), it doesn't really detract from the overall argument about its alignment. In high leverage situations, the Eagles employed wide sets with the center uncovered.
I've noticed that the Eagles and the Lions also tend to employ a 2i technique much more than a 1 technique when playing with a nose tackle (again, a natural 3-tech playing nose, that is) and they'll often shoot the B gap and leave the A gap uncovered. It's not too different, although it is a bit easier for the center to double-team.
They don't often stay in the 2-technique and will often move, presnap to either a 2i look or a 1-technique look. They will also move to a true double 3-technique look out of this stance.
The Wide 9 gets its name from the defensive ends in that they line up in the "9 technique" stance wide of the tight end. That's what we'll talk about. Some defensive ends seem perfectly suited to the system, and Kyle Vanden Bosch and Jason Babin thrived on the Wide 9 and the advantages it offered.
For the most part, Wide 9 ends are relatively light. Aside from the Vikings and the Wide 9 teams, 4-3 defensive ends tend to weigh between 270 and 280. This isn't a hard and fast rule—John Abraham is listed at 266, for example—but for the most part tend to come in above 260 pounds.
The Wide 9 ends all tend to be below 270 (with the exception of Vanden Bosch). Most of this is a result of the consistent emphasis on speed that the Wide 9 has, putting their ends in a "track stance" to develop speed and put tackles in an awkward position. Many times, the defensive end approaches the tackle having taken four steps.
This emphasis on speed generally means that most of the starters (again, aside from Vanden Bosch) in the system ran a 10-yard split of 1.6 seconds or faster. This is great for players that have good flexibility and can sink their hips on the curve (as evidenced by the fact that no player in these Wide 9 systems, as far as I can tell, had a 3-cone time slower than 7.1 seconds).
These widened lanes are designed to take full advantage of speed and require a lot less of defensive ends than most systems. While they do need to be fast, they don't need to be as savvy at the line or as powerful. Much of the speed can be turned into power for a bull rush, so strength is simply not a big requirement of the Wide 9 end. Having an array of moves is helpful but not a priority, so long as the defensive end can disguise their intentions during the run up.
Most concerns about an explosive first step or getting skinny are not as relevant to Wide 9 ends, simply because of the stance and run up that they take. The transition from speed to power remains an important skill and they need to do it in a way that doesn't lose momentum, but for the most part it creates production where there originally might not be any.
The wide alignment actually makes it somewhat difficult to bounce outside, because tackles and ends don't have the ability to block the defensive ends down. At the same time, however, zone runs to the outside create enormous lanes and it is easy for a defensive end to allow the running back to slip underneath. For the most part, it does a good job preventing runs into the D gap or alleys and they tend to see many more attempts inside. Knowing that the majority of the runs they see will follow a specific pattern, they can prepare for the run game a bit better.
I noticed that nearly every Wide 9 team, every year, had elite run defense on one outside direction but not the other. It was an interesting contrast, because the underperforming outside edge would often be among the worst three in the league. According to Football Outsiders, the Eagles ranked 31st in the league for runs off the right end, but were 2nd in runs off the left end in 2011.
In 2012, Detroit ranked 28th defending runs off the right tackle and 2nd in runs off the left tackle. In 2011, they ranked 1st in defending runs off the left end and 31st in runs off the right end. Tennessee had the same pattern in 2010, where runs off the left end (ranked 28th) did not match the performance of the right end defense (ranked 5th).
I'm sure this has more to do with linebackers than it does defensive ends, but it does speak to a specific issue that they may want to resolve.
The relatively extreme alignment of the defensive ends has long been credited for increasing sack production and its easy to see why. Washburn coaches his ends to transition to run defense only if completely necessary, and the mad run to the quarterback is one of many reasons. In addition to giving the defensive ends momentum against tackles still working to set their pass protection, they force the tackles to kick out, testing their agility and balance. With that, they almost always create an isolated block between just themselves and the tackle, leaving him on an island. This makes it an ideal blitzing formation.
Both the defensive ends and the under tackles are tasked with aiming themselves at the point where the quarterback would be if they completed their five-step drop, which is a bit different than some systems that simply find ways to put players in the backfield and make plays themselves.
I'm not so sure that the Vikings have the perfect defensive ends for the system, nor do I think it would maximize sack production if employed in total. Jared Allen isn't a slow guy, but he's definitely lost a step in long speed and acceleration. With a lot of length and the ability to move his 270 pound body with ease, losing his advantage in an explosive first step would not really be optimizing what he does. Allen has a great mental game in the trenches, and he affords himself a wide variety of move sets when played closer to the line. Sacrificing his ability to play against the run and contain the outside may not be worth it, especially when his natural bull rush is still powerful.
From my game tracking last year, I also thought he was simply a worse player the wider he lined up. He's better when he can threaten a realistic inside move to counter against the outside, and he does a better job dipping under pass protectors when they take longer to read him.
On the other hand, Brian Robison and Everson Griffen do fit the prototype well. Robison is extremely fast and quick off the snap (posting a mind-numbing 1.49 10-yard split, which was as fast as Sam McGuffie and around the same speed as Tavon Austin and Ryan Swope. Only four wide receivers posted a faster 10-yard split than Robison, and that would serve him extremely well in a wide role. Beyond that, he's agile and has good change-of-direction skills.
Robison is a much better speed rusher than bull rusher, and also has good awareness. As a run defender, he's solid, and I think he's better reacting on the fly more than reading to play contain. He can set an edge and pursues with good get-off speed and final velocity. He has a few technical weaknesses that would be hidden by the Wide 9, and I'm not so sure he has too many strengths that would be wasted in a wide stance.
More than Robison, Griffen does well when split out wide. Robison probably has more short-area athleticism, but I don't think anyone would disagree that Griffen would be beastly with a runup. I think the fact that he doesn't do a great job getting off the snap would make him an ideal candidate for a Wide 9 base stance, because if he has a half-second of leeway, he should be relatively unstoppable. He has even more technical hand work to improve upon, and I think his pursuit capability and leg drive make him a good fit within the scheme.
With that in mind, I think the ideal Vikings formation from the defensive line should be to line up the left defensive end wide, but keep Jared Allen tucked closer to the line of scrimmage. Jim Washburn did the same thing his first few years at Tennessee, and I honestly think he did much better with that system. I'll get to the stats a little bit later, though.
This should also make tackle-tackle stunts and stunts from the right defensive end (Jared Allen) a bit easier. Above, I have Sharrif Floyd lined up in the 2-technique, but I don't think he should play as a two-gapper. Instead, he'll be assigned a gap as a result of the play call and move to shoot it as soon as the snap happens. This preserves the philosophy of creating one-on-one matchups when he moves outside but also keeps confusing the blockers. It also makes it difficult for the offensive line to consistently run up the middle.
I've also change the aiming points to make it more consistent with Allen's playing style and to keep contain on the run game. Here, he's lined up as a true 5-technique. Adding a tight end shouldn't change too much. A tight end on Jared's side would simply force him to play 6-technique head-up over the tight end. A tight end on Robison/Griffen's side would not change much of anything.
The Back Seven - Run Game
Most critical to this scheme are the linebackers. They do not have time to read blocks and therefore must react with instinct and decisiveness against the run. Because of the "2" technique I put Floyd in (and Ballard in rotation), the middle linebacker will have to work in concert with the "2" more than in a traditional double 3-technique.
Generally, I've seen the middle linebacker play a sort of two-gap role against the center in many versions of the double 3-technique alignment, but otherwise I've seen a safety walk down into the box in what amounts to a 4-4 alignment to cover both A gaps.
It really depends on the call at the line, which is why this defense will be even more demanding of its linebackers than most. While defenses will always need to be cognizant of what's happening up front, having functionally two base defenses will create some serious stress.
In order to keep the alignments looking the same so as not to tip off the offensive line on the 2-tech's movement, I had to mess around with run looks and also look at what Detroit did. I saw a lot of strong safety support, but I wanted to change it a little bit based on what I think our strong safety (Jamarca Sanford) can do. More than that, I think it is wasting Chad Greenway's talents to treat him like DeAndre Levy.
Classically, in the double 3-technique, the middle linebacker will walk up to the line to threaten an A gap blitz, but will also mug up in order to play the run game a bit better, like so:
Here, he functionally operates as a nose guard in a 5-2 monster, bringing back the 1940s in football. If the strong safety doesn't walk up into the box, the middle linebacker would functionally two-gap the center. This is because the Will linebacker needs to handle the gap on the weak side defensive end, given the pass-only focus of the ends.
The modified Wide 9 I proposed above has a bunch of different options, but in order to preserve some coverage principles and disguise the run fits based on generic lineups, I looked mostly at the following:
The fits are different based on the strong side, which is what the top and bottom halves represent. The 2-technique tackle gap defines the left and right sides. When Jared Allen lines up on the strong side, the Sam linebacker has to read Allen and take the gap that Allen doesn't shoot through.
I've decided to line up the strong safety behind the Will linebacker, and the two of them can trade run responsibilities if need be. Alternately, if the Vikings are confident in their middle linebacker, they can two-gap the center and leave the strong safety high (which they should do in some sets for downs where the pass is more likely or to confuse blockers).
For the most part, the free safety will clean up the run and will need to keep clean alleys when defending the run. The corners are not as important in the run game in this setup as they are in the Tampa-2 or the basic Cover 2 scheme, although the coverage principles I would like to employ require physical corners and are generally the type that make an impact in the run game. What's nice is that while the corner to the strong side (when the strong side is Allen's side) would be tasked with keeping the D gap clear, the Sam linebacker and extra defender (strong safety) can keep things clear.
Here, the wide fit of the weak side defensive end will need to contain the plays into the C or B gap, putting a lot of stress on the Will linebacker or the strong safety to play with range in those alleys. If not, the strong safety can make sure the C gap is secured, like in the lower right-hand run fit.
In the case of the lower left-hand run fit (strong side lined up with Jared Allen and the 2-tech shooting the A gap), the Will and Strong Safety can switch off run responsibilities, depending on their respective ranges. Similarly, the Strong Safety can take the weakside B gap and shift the linebacker gap responsibilities towards the strong side. The possibilities are nearly endless and can come out of congruent formations.
The requirements of the middle linebacker are nearly as numerous as those of the Tampa 2, although not necessarily of the same mold. Like in the Tampa 2, there is a high priority on the middle linebacker maintaining discipline and reading the play correctly. Falling for a play-action pass or a draw play could be deadly. More than anything else, this alignment needs a linebacker that can take care of draw plays.
The offensive line won't be held back by the defensive line as much as it will be in other 4-3 systems or most 3-4 systems, so capable linebackers are a must. That means the middle linebacker must also be good at shedding blocks and also wrapping up. Because he won't be protected by the line, he'll need to do identify the gap being attacked quickly, almost as soon as the ball is snapped.
Moving quickly downhill, the middle linebacker will also have to stick it to lead blockers—perhaps as often as the Sam linebacker generally does in the Tampa 2 system. A film rat with run-stuffing chops is ideal.
I really like Michael Mauti in this system. He has instinctive vision and gets to his run assignment with speed and decisiveness. He has a great feel for running plays, and is lauded more for his read and react capability than anything else. His take-on skills are excellent too, although he is in all honesty better when someone has cleared through the traffic for him. Nevertheless, he does not often give ground on blocks unless there's a strategic reason to do so.
He maintains excellent form when taking those blocks on, and does a good job getting rid of lead blockers. Unfortunately, I'm not sure he has the lower body strength to be consistently good at taking some of those blocks on, but if he can keep clear of guards, he'll be alright. Many of the centers he will go up against do not have the type of take-on strength that will cause him problems. They tend to weigh about 20 pounds less than their peers on the interior of the line, so if the under tackles do their job, they should be fine. He will do better against fullbacks, who weigh about what he does.
Audie Cole would not fare too badly as a run defender here, either. He's a 7th round pick for a reason, but he has good instincts in the run game and can read the run quickly enough to get to the ball. His ability to move past blockers and attack the line of scrimmage is impressive, although once he's locked up, he'll need to be a better technician. Given how often he'll be a key player on dive plays in this defense, I'd like him to have improved these last two offseasons at getting off of blocks, particularly given his potential two-gap responsibilities.
His ability to stick it to blockers and stay where he is, however, is good. His experience as a Sam linebacker in NC State could be useful in this specific role for the Mike. If he doesn't give ground, he may be doing his job while allowing the Will and strong safety to clean things up. He's a strong guy (despite his bench press) that can be a real menace if he works on his technique. Coupled with intelligence and athleticism, he has most of what you want for the Mike in this system.
I do think that his tackling technique needed work coming out of college. He sometimes brings his head down into the tackle, but he does roll his hips and drive through players. His wrap-up is loose, though and I don't really think he did well in the open field. That last bit is not that important in this particular system, however and his length should help. He's a solid pass-rusher with flexibility, and I expect that to have some impact in this scheme.
Given that I saw some speculation last year that he would go late in the third round, he may have more talent than people are giving him credit for. Of course, the issue with Cole is not what he can do in the run game, so it's not a surprise he hasn't been given a lot of love at the middle linebacker position for the Vikings, who need their middle linebackers to play impressively in the deep third of the field.
The Sam linebacker will often find himself tasked with taking on the lead blocker like in any other scheme, and won't need the range against the run that the middle linebacker or weakside linebacker will need. He will typically be the strongest linebacker, but with fewer and fewer runs actually going to the strong side of the formation (unless the team is up against San Francisco) this is less important than before. Nevertheless, a strong downhill linebacker will be crucial.
Playing lined up over the tight end, the strongside linebacker will want to force the ball inside, much like the defensive ends. This focus on routing plays to the middle is designed, along with everything else in this defense, to limit the offense from spreading the ball out horizontally and congesting the game. He has the tough assignment of splitting the duties of the two traditional Sam linebacker prototypes—those lined up head-up over the tight end, and those lined up outside the tight end.
And "8" or "7" Sam (think of the technique assignments for the defensive line) will generally protect the middle linebacker from tight ends or fullbacks veering inside but will also allow the tight end to block him down towards the center so he can close gaps against zone plays. He's much more reactive as a blocker, letting the play come to him. Those lined up outside (a "9" Sam) play containment on the outside but doesn't prevent the tight end from moving inside and therefore doesn't protect the middle linebacker.
The primary responsibility of the strongside linebacker in this front will always be to keep the play from bouncing outside, but the secondary and almost equally important responsibility will be to keep traffic clear of the Mike and Will 'backers.
In this case that will mean making sure that the tight end doesn't gain outside leverage to block him down. He won't have help from the corners, so he needs to funnel runners inside and play as a contain man. At the same time, however, he needs to make sure the tight end can't make the play on the Mike linebacker, which means he might need to engage his blocker longer than generally ideal for a playmaking linebacker. Pushing that blocker back into the running lanes while keeping outside leverage will be an important skill.
For that, Chad Greenway is perfect. Not only does he do a great job sticking it to fullbacks and tight ends, he has a natural understanding of running lanes and angles. When forced into backside pursuit when the play runs to weak side, Greenway does an excellent job anticipating the running back and making the play.
Most importantly, he know when and how to release from his block. Most players are willing to shed their blocker right away in an attempt to make the play, but it often runs counter to the scheme's design and philosophy and could end up allowing a big gain if the tackle misses. The key here is to force the running back into congestion. Releasing the block late is a good way to direct the running back before making the play, even if it doesn't have a splash impact.
At the weakside linebacker, the Vikings currently have Erin Henderson, although Gerald Hodges could easily push for that spot. Henderson strikes me as a massively underrated—more underrated among the Vikings faithful than among national media, it seems. I'll get to his skills in a second, but right now outlining his responsibilities in this system will help illuminate what needs to happen in this particular 4-3 defense.
Unlike the Sam linebacker, the Will 'backer will flow to the ball to try and make the play. They shouldn't do that immediately, as they have gap responsibilities and need to be aware of—it's important that they prevent a running back from using a cutback lane, so they can't abandon a backside gap at will.
His responsibilities in this scheme are somewhat heavy. He needs to read the play as well as or even better than the Mike linebacker and must maintain excellent communication with him as they move forward on the play. Given how often the Mike linebacker may need to walk up or play two-gap against the center, the Will and the Mike have to move in sync.
In almost all schemes, the Will needs to sift through trash in order to make plays and has to have a good sense not just of where the ball will be, but how to get there. With this, he not only needs to do that, but he and the Mike should both have the range to man the enormous B gap opened up by the left defensive end starting out from wide.
One of the flaws in my chess game is that I play openings to muddy up the board, but I can't navigate closed spaces in the midgame. I'm strong on opening theory and try to gain advantages there, but I have very little board sense. Henderson will have to complete that set of skills—Greenway and Mauti/Cole will need to close up and clutter the field, so the weakside linebacker has to have the field intelligence to cut through the debris and make the play.
Unlike in chess, however, outflanking an opponent is a smart move, so outside contain is important. I don't want my primary tackler to be involved in containment, which is what the strong safety will be tasked with, unless the flow of the ball is to the outside. In that case, they will attempt to prevent the backside of the play from being exposed. The free safety should probably roll down as soon as they reliably determine that it is not a play fake of some sort.
In order to do this, not only does the Will linebacker have to be a sound tackler, he has to have the ability to avoid or shed blocks quickly, read the play quickly and accurately, and tackle with solid fundamentals. In addition, he must have the range to make plays across the field.
Henderson has all of those skills and then some. In run support, I solidly believe that Erin Henderson would be the best weak side linebacker in the league, were it not for Lavonte David. That means his run support is on par or better than Kevin Burnett, K.J Wright and even the much more popular Lance Briggs. Part of this is because he rarely misses his tackles. According to Pro Football Focus, Erin Henderson was the second-most efficient 4-3 outside linebacker in the league (and the most efficient Will linebacker), with only 3 missed tackles. That is, he made over 20 tackles for every tackle he missed. In 2011, he was the 4th most efficient 4-3 outside linebacker, and the third most efficient weak side linebacker.
Part of this is because of his tackling technique. While he's not the perfect technician, he makes every tackle look the same, even when he's forced to take awkward angles or fight through traffic. Although I dislike his tendency to leave his feet, he knows that with every hit (and he's underrated as a hitter) he needs to wrap up and club the arms. Along with that, he plays downhill on the balls of his feet, making sure to roll his hips forward with every tackle. He squares himself, even in limited space, and generally finishes the play. What might be underrated about his tackling ability are his extremely strong hands, holding on to a ballcarrier with even the most tenuous of grips.
Along with that, he has a good instinct to flow to the ball and avoid the mess in the middle. Even when caught up with blockers, he looks more like a Sam linebacker than a Will, approaching the point of attack with good leverage and a strong punch. He stacks and shed blockers well, keeping them at a distance until he needs to disengage. More than anything, he's fairly slippery against blocks and sifts through the field well.
Honestly, Erin Henderson has more skills than you want in a Will 'backer and I would not be too surprised to see him be the backup to Chad Greenway at the Same while they put Hodges in his spot if Greenway were to go down for whatever reason. Again, this assumes that Mauti takes the middle linebacker spot. As a middle linebacker, I trust his take-on skills not to be too worried there. Aside from my concerns about Henderson in a Tampa-2 system, this is a system I would not be too worried about him in the middle. In fact, given the coverage responsibilities, it may be better for him.
Gerald Hodges is a classic Will linebacker, and even has the stereotypical strong safety experience that you almost expect out of weak-side linebackers. I don't like his ability to shed blocks, but that should be irrelevant if he does his job correctly. At Penn State he showed an ability to cut through the noise and get to the ballcarrier, and almost all of his ball experience has been on the weak side.
I've said before that one of Hodges' best features is his versatility and ability to play any linebacker position, but he really does best as a Will in the Tampa-2 and a Will here. He navigates himself through a cluttered field well, and does get to the ballcarrier, although not with the same efficiency as Henderson. More problematic is that Hodges doesn't play with the physicality that Henderson does, so while he has good tackling form, I'm not so sure he can drive through the better ballcarriers in the league. He does wrap up, though, and can help in slowing down a back for gang tackling.
For run defense, the strong safety is very important. They'll be tasked with funneling the runs inside or providing a safety net to the aggressive Will linebacker. Much like a "9" Sam, they will consistently need to find ways to gain outside leverage on the edge of plays, but generally on the weakside—except when the Will reads the keys to move outside, in which case they'll protect the backside gaps to prevent cutback lanes from burning them. For run defense, the strong safety will need to have much the same skillset of the Will linebacker, except they won't usually be running through traffic.
Jamarca Sanford doesn't take the best pursuit angles, but that weakness will be hidden when he's asked to plunge to the edge of the play or maintain depth against the backside gaps. For the most part, Sanford does a good job identifying his run fits and getting to his spot, but I don't know if he can develop the chemistry he'll need with the Will backer. That's not to say I think he won't, just that it's an important enough consideration that I'd pay particular attention to his ability to read those keys and work in tandem with the Will.
My biggest worry is that Sanford isn't the strongest open field tackler, which is pretty important in this defense. He is a bit of a liability when breaking down a tackle when the ballcarrier has space to take advantage of any agility mismatches that might come from having the relatively average athleticism of Jamarca Sanford put up against a premier running back.
For what it's worth, Sanford's tackling efficiency ranks at about average for safeties, so he's not a disaster, but many of his positive tackles came in smaller spaces than would be encouraged in this particular run defense. I do like Sanford's ability to club the arms and create fumbles, however, and his better-than-average ability here should make up for some of the tackling issues.
Gerald Hodges could transition back to strong safety here and might even be a better fit. Starting Mauti, Hodges, Henderson and Greenway could make for an incredible run defense. Given Hodges' abilities in coverage, this actually would not worry me too much.
The principle question for any coverage scheme is to figure out whether or not it is a zone scheme or a man coverage scheme at its base and move from there. Because corners aren't as important in run support, and because the strong safety might be walked into the box on a number of plays, there aren't as many strong reasons to stick with zone coverage necessarily. Instead, the man and zone cover philosophies should be evaluated independently of the fact that it was the primary coverage in the previous scheme.
The ultimate philosophy should be to complement what's happening up front. We're primarily concerned with increasing sack production and pressure on the quarterback, so a scheme that disrupts the timing of the receivers is ideal. From there, a press-oriented scheme would be best—particularly given the personnel the Vikings have on the roster.
There are a number of advantages that you forgo when switching from zone to man coverage, so it's not easy to choose between the two. Given how well Seattle has been able to integrate zone coverage and press techniques, it's not as simple as choosing the best coverage to fit the ability to jam receivers overall.
Should the Vikings choose to stick with the zone defense, they'll probably help their interception total because they won't play off of receivers (although the current zone scheme doesn't seem to produce interceptions anyway). It will also demand a bit less in terms of gameplanning and preparation, as well as making sure to decrease confusion about the scheme. Finally, they would have to worry less about gain per completion because everybody reacts to the ball in the air and flows to the receiver.
In man coverage, a good set of tacklers at cornerback is necessary because long gains will kill the defense. They do have advantages in making sure they can reduce completion percentages given how closely they can mirror receivers. They will also generally reduce passing windows, so that they can potentially make the quarterback wait longer.
The final advantage of man coverage is the ability to send additional players as blitzers to increase pressure. I'm not so sure this is important, however, as the defense is designed (like the Tampa-2) to create pressure by sending just four rushers.
They will also need to consider the fact that their priorities will in large part be dictated by the Vikings offense and what looks they'll see from their opponents as a result of the scoreboard and time remaining. If the Vikings continue to (and I see no reason why they wouldn't) strive for early scores and few possessions—and they've spent more time with a lead than every other team except the Patriots—then the defense will be biased in favor of allowing smaller gains over quick strikes.
Generally speaking that might mean keeping two safeties up top in deep zones, but the shell doesn't necessarily dictate the coverage underneath. So if the Vikings are concerned about giving up the big play on defense but still want too maximize their defense personnel, how should they go?
Initially, I wanted to implement a man coverage system here, as that happens to be the forte of the two presumed starters at corner, as well as the type of coverage Hodges does much better in. I've seen Mauti do well in man coverage too, so it seemed to be the simplest solution.
But because the big play is a killer against the Vikings' overall philosophy and because I think turnovers are the best way to take advantage of pressure that the front four will generate that the zone defense is schematically better. But that doesn't mean all of the advantages that the Vikings have at cornerback need to be wasted, especially because the physical nature of the secondary plays well to the necessity for disrupting timing.
For this, I drew from Seattle's defense. They play a primary Press Cover 3, although will also play Press Cover 1 Man on several occasions. The key in that defense is to simply not get beat downfield. It requires a lot of chemistry, but it's fundamentally solid. It also is why the rangy and physical corners that Seattle drafted worked.
Now the Vikings have corners that seem to fit the exact description that Seattle's corners do, but with more fluidity.
Here, the corners jam the receivers to disrupt timing and then move to the deep zones. What's interesting is that they can provide a man coverage look as they move up, but they shouldn't react to receiver routes until they hit their markers 15 yards out. The key is staying on top and not letting anything go past. For the most part, receivers will be funneled in so the inside help (usually Harrison Smith, but occasionally the underneath zones) can bracket receivers or provide seamless transitions. That means, generally, that the corners will have outside leverage until they settle into their zones, which is relatively difficult but absolutely why you draft lengthy corners with speed.
There are other base plays the Vikings can steal from the Seattle defense—one that was developed when Gus Bradley and Pete Carroll (a Monte Kiffin disciple) wanted to find ways to a) maximize the value of underrated players like Richard Sherman and Joey Browner and b) maintain the 4-3 principles he's learned with the 3-4 type players he has on the roster.
Here's an alternate "Robber" look out of the Cover-1 man defense
In this nickel defense, all receivers will stay with their man, although they'll work to make sure everybody continues to be funneled inside. The Will linebacker has a "green dog" call on the halfback. That is, he'll go into man coverage against the running back, but will blitz if he stays in the backfield to block.
This set requires, much like the cover three, physical receivers who have developed trust throughout the secondary. In addition, the "robber" look might be a good one to keep on the docket.
Designing those coverages did expose one fundamental flaw, however. The Vikings carry their only true man-to-man linebacker as what looks to be the weakside linebacker. Without the ability of Hodges to line up against the tight end, there are potential problems with Chad Greenway and/or Michael Mauti picking up the end. So when up against teams with premier tight ends, the Vikings could rotate their personnel and maintain their philosophy. For example, should the Vikings face off against the Patriots in the Super Bowl and need to deal with a healthy Gronk and Hernandez, they could line up like so:
This simply walks out the strong safety to cover the tight end, who in this case is probably Gronkowski. When this happens, the end should know his responsibility will change slightly to account for a weakside run, and the Will has a lot of area to patrol because of the run. In this case, making the Will the "green dog" on the running back simplifies his keys. He only has to read the running back (although he will also read the offensive linemen to determine true run/pass).
This defense will have to watch out for the possibility of Hernandez motioning to the right (defense's left) or into the backfield. He was the pitch man in Florida's triple option for a reason, and I would not be surprised if Belichick tried to take advantage of this defense by doing that.
At any rate, I could spend all day diagramming plays. Really, what I want to emphasize is that a style that keeps a consistent shell up top will benefit the most from the Wide 9 alignment with the offense the Vikings currently have. Maintain the lead and let them try to grind it out. Given that the Cover 3 is just a different version of the Tampa-2, that's not surprising.
The requirements for this system include a rangy free safety who has some fluidity and a good nose for the ball. Further, he has top read the quarterback well. Manning a centerfield while the corners are busy pressing before heading into deep zones takes a lot of skill, concentration and athleticism. Luckily Harrison Smith has those in abundance and should be a good fit for the defense.
Despite not playing a big part in run support, the corners still need to be physical and aware in zone coverage. They need to be able to play with outside leverage, but break on the ball when they know it's coming in (generally when receivers signal by turning their head, stiffening their body or widening their eyes). Preventing the big play is their first priority, so ball skills are less important than overall awareness, recognition and tight coverage. Breaking to the ball is definitely important, and closing speed—as always—is critical.
Generally speaking, I'm not a huge fan of how the starting corners have done in their time in zone coverage, but Cook has definitely improved. I feel like the Vikings were wasting him with how much off coverage they've played with him, and this definitely resolves that concern. To me, Xavier Rhodes is a better, slightly more versatile version of Chris Cook, so this perfectly fits that pattern.
Rhodes needs to do a better job hitting his landmarks and reacting to the ball before its thrown before he can be considered and elite zone cover corner. Nevertheless, his physical play, strong tackling capability, speed and general instinct make him valuable in any scheme.
With enough film study and pattern recognition, the defense can shift from a bland Cover-3 zone to a matchup zone in a Cover-3 while incorporating cloud concepts. This just means playing man-to-man within zones (matchup zone) while rolling the zone landmarks to match either the flow of the play (bootleg QB) or to cover for a more complex assignment, like when a defensive back is expected to shift from zone coverage to man coverage based on a few keys (cloud).
This will take some time as new players start incorporating the basic defensive concepts, but could be rolled out as early as midseason, were the Vikings willing to choose this defense.
Here's a decent example of how the Cover-3 works out when the secondary has given itself the ability to ad-lib while still staying within the assignment, courtesy of Field Gulls:
Obviously the coverage example above works, but the defense as a whole might have some questions. How has the Wide 9 fared over the years?
I looked at sack statistics, pressures and run success rate to look at how the Wide 9 defenses do. I don't like yardage stats because they are blind to context. Giving up a ton of runs when you're ahead by 20 points in the fourth quarter is irrelevant, especially when you've sold out for the pass. Instead determining whether or not a run was "successful" based on historical expected win rates. First downs are successes in almost every situation, and for the most part, runs that get you 40% of required yardage to convert on first down, 60% on second down and 100% on third or fourth down are considered successes.
When Washburn ran a partial Wide 9 in his early years at Tennessee (only one end split out wide), it was enormously successful. While I only have pressure stats from 2008, the sack stats that Tennessee produced were impressive. The "half 9" averaged 9th in the league in sacks produced, and ranked 3rd one year and 2nd another year. Against the run, his success rate averaged 5th in the league.
The full Wide 9 didn't do as well, although everything relates to personnel in the end. In pressures produced (a much more consistent statistic from year-to-year than sacks and a better predictor), they were impressive. They ranked 8th on average in pressures produced, and 5th when you remove outliers (basically, before the Lions had personnel up front). In three years of the five years I have data for, a Wide 9 defense ranked first in quarterback pressures three times and once ranked second.
To me, there's no question that they can make hell for quarterbacks with a fairly vanilla pass rush. The question largely has to do with run defense for the Wide 9. Generally, it seems that the Wide 9 gets a lot of flak for producing bad defenses, when statistically, it looks like it does what it's asked to do.
Against the run, the Wide 9 has been relatively variable. They've ranked between 7th and 30th, and average 18th overall. For the most part, it looks like personnel matters more for the run game, although the "half 9" has simply been more successful, having ranked 2nd, 3rd 4th and 10th in the only years I have data for.
For context, the Tampa-2 defenses averaged 14th in pressures produced and have ranked between 3rd and 27th, generally ranking in the middle. The Vikings averaged 8th in pressures produced under a Tampa-2 system for the years I have data for.
Against the run, the Tampa-2 defenses averaged 14th as well, although removing the Colts from the equations ranked the Tampa-2 defenses about 8th overall. The Vikings averaged 9th overall and have no years of note under the Tampa-2 defense, either at the top or bottom in run success rate.
So the Wide 9 can still be relatively successful against the run, but because gap control becomes difficult in the full Wide 9, the statistics suggest a "half 9" could be the best of both worlds, which is the system defined above. They are enormously successful in creating pressures. I don't include pass statistics simply because I think the secondary scheme and personnel are a lot more at fault or credit for those.
That's how the defense changes by emphasizing two under tackles instead of the classic nose/under combination. Because of the change in the gap assignments, the middle linebacker needs to mug the line and walk up, making the Tampa-2 coverage scheme untenable. Everything else simply follows from there.
How would you feel if the Vikings implemented this new defense instead of continuing to install the Tampa-2?