Many of you will recognize this piece that was originally penned several years back when Bob Henry and I were running Red Eye Sports. It's been updated and posted here at Footballguys a couple of times along the way and a condensed version of it was even featured in the 2005 Footballguys strategy guide. We keep bringing it back because this knowledge is vital to the truly hard core owner who is looking for any edge in a very competitive league. While at the same time it can give the casual competitor a huge advantage over the guys at the office. It's been a few years so its time to dust it off, do a little updating and put it out there as a refresher course for the veterans or as part of IDP 101 for those new to the Footballguys experience.
All fantasy owners have come across the term "product of the system" at some point in our journeys. There are a slew of former high school players among us who have some basic understanding when it comes to positional responsibilities, and a few guys who played beyond high school who really get it. Yet rare is the fan or fantasy owner who never played, but is enough a student of the game to fully understand the nuances of the various schemes and/or positions within the many schemes. There is a big advantage to be gained by understanding what players are asked to do. Especially when it comes to digging for those middle to late rounds guys who make or break our teams. It is also very handy when determining our best starting options from week to week. Let us journey through the various NFL defenses and take a look at the little things that make a world of difference between them. Maybe I can shed some light for those who find themselves scratching their heads now and then when it comes to IDP production. Believe it or not, there is a method to the madness!
One of the many important things to understand is the effect offensive formations and tendencies can have on a defensive players production. In most cases, the offense dictates the defensive call and game tempo on a play to play basis. Defensive coaches get into a read and react mode. They identify what personnel the offense has on the field which in turn tells them what formations the "O" is likely to run. They must then try to match up the correct defensive call and personnel package. Obviously, calls change from play to play depending on the situation, but often a fantasy owner can play off a team's tendencies when making a tough lineup decision. For example a pass happy offense like the Saints (who threw 62 more passes than any other team in '07) tend to spread defenses out with a wide open passing game, often utilizing 3 or 4 receivers on nearly every play. This dictates to the defense that they must play a nickel package (4-2-5) as their base defense that week. Which in turn means one of the normal starting linebackers isn't going to see much action, and the nickel back becomes a candidate to lead the club in tackles for the week. Another example would be the '07 Lions who simply couldn't run the ball. Detroit's 324 rush attempts were the fewest in the league while their 587 pass attempts ranked 4th. As a result the top producing linebackers from Lions opponents averaged just under 4 solo tackles a game while 14 corners posted 5 or more solo stops against them. Situations like this emphasize why it is so important to know what linebackers come off the field in passing situations. A good run-stuffing MLB who struggles defending the pass may give you a big game against the power running game of the Cowboys, Giants or Ravens one week and then vanish the following week versus a club like the Lions. Just as there are pass happy offenses who can kill LB production, there are run oriented offenses that make your linebackers studs but don't provide as much opportunity for defensive backs. Against this type of offense, corners who don't support the run well are usually non-factors while any quality linebacker or strong safety should be a strong play. The problem we run into here is the unpredictability of the NFL on a week to week basis. Some teams, the Raiders and Eagles for example, say they will run but don't consistently commit to it unless they are securely ahead or will turn away from it if they have no success early in the game.
Its surprising how few people really understand the term "strong side". Every year I have someone ask me why a fantasy productive strong side linebacker is so rare and why then is a strong safety often is at the head of the DB class? Let's start with what determines the strong side of the offensive formation. When the huddle breaks and players come to the line of scrimmage, the defender responsible for making the play call (usually the MLB) must call out the strong side of the formation so that everyone lines up correctly. In the simplest of terms, the strong side can be identified by where the tight end lines up. However, in the pro game it usually isn't quite that simple. Double tight ends, no tight ends, balanced formations, spread formations with the TE lined up in the slot, etc... all make it a little more complicated. The term "strong side" is meant to describe the side of the formation that has the most blockers, therefore that side presents the biggest threat for the defense on a running play. The progression a defensive play caller must go through in a matter of seconds could go like this... A single TE lined up next to the tackle? Easy call. If there are double tight ends or no tight ends (a balanced line), he will look into the backfield for a single running back lined up to one side of the QB. With two backs in the backfield, and the tailback behind the QB and a fullback to either side, the fullback side is the strong side. If the backs are split behind the QB (pro-formation) or in a straight line directly behind the QB (I-formation), the play caller looks to the receivers. In short yardage we often see double TE, I-formation with strong side determined by a third TE or receiver lined up slightly behind and outside at one end, or split wide. In a three receiver set with both the line and backfield balanced, the slot receiver becomes the determining factor. Last but not least, if the line, backfield and receivers are balanced, the wide side of the field is considered strong. There are some situational and/or scheme related exceptions to these general rules but these are the most common reads or progressions.
Most IDP owners are generally familiar with the two common defensive sets used in the NFL. While there are variations of each, every NFL club is currently using one of these alignments as their base defense. There are 22 teams running a 4-3, 8 using the 3-4 and 2 (Miami and Baltimore) who use both fronts extensively. Each scheme employs a different defensive approach or strategy, so let's examine how the various differences between these two common schemes can effect the production of the players in them. The old guard standard defense commonly used in the pro ranks is the 4-3-4, which means 4 down linemen, 3 linebackers and 4 defensive backs. Twenty five clubs continue to use some variation of this as their base defense. A few of these clubs do however have the 3-4 package installed and will use it on occasion. The Dolphins, Bengals, Broncos and Raiders are among the teams that have been tinkering with the 3-4 over the past couple of seasons. It's very difficult for any club to be proficient in both alignments because the schemes require vastly different types of players to be successful, particularly among the front seven. There are currently 7 clubs committed to the 3-4-4 (3 DL, 4 LB, 4 DB) scheme, including Pit, SD, NE, Dal, Cle, SF and the Jets. Free agency gives us many examples of successful players switching schemes, then going on to struggle and become mediocre players. It also give us some examples of seemingly mediocre players finding success when switching.
We often hear announcers and sports writers describing some defenses as aggressive or attacking, while others are dubbed read and react, or finesse. Of course, they are referring to the style and approach of the given defense. The descriptions make the difference in the styles seem rather obvious, but lets look at the difference in technical terms. In a read and react defense players look for certain keys in the offense as a play unfolds. Keys can be anything from who a particular offensive lineman blocks to where the quarterback takes his first step. Defenders then react to what the offense is doing. This is basically a bend but don't break defensive philosophy. The idea is to give up little bits of ground but force the opponent to run a lot of plays and count on an eventual mistake, while limiting the number of big plays an offense can make. While there are a certain amount of reads involved in any defense, an aggressive style of D is one that doesn't wait to see what the offense is doing. Instead at the snap of the ball the defenders attack points on the field or weaknesses in the formation in an attempt to disrupt the flow of the offense before the play develops. For obvious reasons the aggressive style creates more big plays. This defensive style seeks to dictate the play to the offense, rather than the other way around, by forcing the offense to call plays that develop quickly and match up with the defense. It should go without saying that these defenses can also give up more big plays because they gamble more often. This is where personnel decisions become so important. If a team has the corners to go 1 on 1 with quality receivers down the field, they can afford to be much more aggressive up front. By the same token a club using the aggressive 3-4 but lacking strong pass rushers from the OLB positions, is not likely to have much success because the quarterback will have too much time.
From here lets break down the different schemes position by position and look at the general responsibilities of each player. I say general because every defense has its quirks and slight differences, not only from team to team but from week to week as defensive coaches work to take advantage of their opponents perceived weaknesses. That's why they study game film all week searching for tendencies to help them develop their strategy and plan of attack. Formations, line stunts, blitzing, etc. alter responsibilities on a play to play basis in some cases, particularly on the 3-4 teams where blitzing is rampant, but there are general responsibilities with each position.
Supply and demand make quality ends in these schemes a valuable valuable commodity in both NFL and FF terms. These players are asked to provide the bulk of the pass rush so they must have speed and quickness, but they must also be big and strong enough to supply "outside contain" which means keeping ball carriers from getting around the corner. Vision and agility are a must as they are often the targets for trap blocks by bigger pulling guards, cut backs by motion players or double teams by 300 pound tackles and 250 pound tight ends. Offenses come up with all sorts of "tricks" in attempts to "seal off the corner" which is the key to any outside running game. Once around the end a ball carrier is often looking at a corner or a safety and the likelihood of a big gain. The 4-3 end will normally line up on the outside shoulder of the player on the end of the offensive line (tackle or TE) and his first move is either up field or to jamb the blocker down the line and close the running lane. The cardinal sin for these guys is to allow a blocker to "cross his face" which means, get to his outside shoulder. Once a blocker gets there, the defender can be turned or "hooked". Ends who can do all these things well and play on every down are at a premium. The short list includes names like Aaron Kampman, Julius Peppers, Mario Williams, Jason Taylor, Patrick Kerney, Jared Allen, Aaron Schobel, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Terrell Suggs, Derrick Burgess, and a few others. Its no coincidence these guys are often found in or near the top ten in the fantasy rankings. There are some other guys who could work their way into this group over the course of the upcoming season if they can continue to improve and become complete players. Darryl Tapp, Gaines Adams, Chris Long, Charles Johnson and Antwan Odom are among those who fall into this category. Dominant ends usually play on the right side and are often matched up with the offense's left tackle, who protects the blind side for a right handed QB. So, generally speaking, the right end is the team's best or most complete end and usually the best fantasy producer. They are asked to be the anchor of the defensive line in terms of the pass rush and stopping the outside run game.
The end in a 3-4 scheme has less to think about than his 4-3 counterpart but his assignment is no less important. While always a plus, speed and quickness are less a requirement than having the required girth and strength to occupy space and tie up blockers. In this scheme the end can line up anywhere from the outside shoulder of the tackle to the gap between the tackle and guard. He isn't responsible for contain and pass rush is a secondary consideration on most downs. The main responsibility of this position is to devour as much space and as many blockers as possible at the line of scrimmage thus freeing up players behind him to make plays. The end in a 3-4 will see constant double teams but if he can hold his position and occupy more than one blocker, he has basically done his job. In obvious passing situations 3-4 ends can be a big part of the blitz packages in that they will stunt and or bull rush in an effort to open lanes for the blitzer. Box score producers from this position are few and far between. Very rare is a player big and strong enough to fight through a pair or more of 300 pound blockers yet fast and quick enough to make a lot of big plays. Bruce Smith was the best ever back in the mid 90's when he was in Buffalo and somehow managed to be a perennial top 10 fantasy DL. The Steelers Aaron Smith had one very strong season putting up 55 solo tackles and 7 sacks a few years back, but was unable to sustain the production. Luis Castillo had one season that made everyone think he was going to be special but soon faded. In fantasy terms the top 3-4 ends of '07 were Marques Douglas and Kenyon Coleman. Both posted 50+ tackles but they had just 4.5 sacks between them and finished outside the top 15 in nearly any scoring system. Great players can overcome the limitations of the scheme to some extent and put up decent numbers but generally it's a good idea to look for traditional defensive ends from the 4-3 scheme for IDP production. Most importantly, beware drafting a 3-4 end based on just one year's production. These guys rarely repeat.
The responsibilities of a tackle in the 4-3 aren't exactly complicated and are almost always determined by the play call rather than anything the offense does. In most base defenses the tackle is assigned a "gap" or sometimes 2 gaps that he is to take away. When the ball is snapped he first makes sure there is no room to run in his gap, then pursues the ball where ever it may go. Tackles bounce around a lot in their alignment and can line up anywhere from the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle to head up on the center depending on the call and/or offensive formation, but spend most of their time somewhere across form the guard. The tackle position has evolved greatly over the past decade, largely due to the success of the Ravens and their twin tower combination of Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams a few years back. The new rage is the 330 pound road grader who can stop a charging fullback with his breath. These types of players are generally assigned 2 gaps and have very little responsibility in the scheme other than to clog the middle of the field and shut down as many running lanes as their wide bodies can occupy. In most cases their contribution to the pass rush amounts to pushing offensive linemen into the quarterbacks face and flushing him into another defender. While they are key to the success of their own defense, many of the things they do won't show up in the box scores. There are however several clubs such as Atlanta, Oakland, Indy, Seattle, Philly and Buffalo who still prefer smaller quicker interior linemen. These schemes usually make their tackles responsible for 1 run gap and are much more likely to use line stunts and other camouflage that help the tackles make more plays. Evidence of these points can be found in the fact that just 4 tackles finished among the top 30 fantasy DL last season, while only Rocky Bernard and Rod Coleman reached double digit sacks from the interior position.
While its rare to get fantasy production from an end in the 3-4, its virtually impossible to get it from the nose tackle position. This guy lines up over or slightly to one side of the center and is double teamed about 95% of the time. A center can't snap the ball AND handle a 320+ pound defensive lineman at the same time so the guard almost always combo blocks to get him out of the way. The nose tackle (sometimes called the middle guard) provides three very important functions for the D; anchoring the middle of the run defense, eating up 2 or more blockers, and providing the first read for the inside linebackers. On any run play the offense must neutralize the nose guard because he is the closest defender to the play at its conception. Therefore, the guard on the side the ball is going to will nearly always block down on the nose tackle. When Ray Lewis sees the right guard come down on Haloti Ngata, he knows the play is going right and flows that way. The most productive of the nose tackles last season was Cleveland's Shaun Smith who managed a mark of 48-14-2 and finished just outside the top 30. Some 4-3 schemes utilize what many term an "undertackle". This player generally has similar responsibilities to a 3-4 nose tackle and will usually have a 2 gap responsibility. His counterpart the "3 technique" tackle is usually a more mobile and athletic player who is responsible for 1 run gap and is generally able to make more plays. The Buccaneers Jovan Haye and the Eagles Mike Patterson were the top 3 technique tackles in '07. Haye's 48-20-6 mark made him the #1 interior lineman in fantasy circles and landed him in the top 15 overall among DL.
Here is where we answer the question of why a strong side linebacker generally struggles to produce in the box scores. At a glance it would make more sense that since teams run to the strong side more often, the strong side backer should make more plays. It all goes back to the description of formations. While its true that teams run to the strong side more often, the reason they do so is to take advantage of the additional blocker or blockers. A strong side backer often finds himself at the point of attack which means the offensive blocking scheme has accounted for him with at least one blocker and many times with 2. Often a TE and/or fullback, but sometimes a pulling guard is responsible for taking him out. The main responsibility of this position against the run is to defeat or at least eliminate the blockers at the point of attack so that the runner has to alter his course by cutting up early or stringing out toward the sideline. In concept this is to allow pursuit from the safeties and/or other linebackers to bottle up the runner. Against the pass a strong side backer is usually responsible for the short outside in a zone or the tight end or back out of the backfield in man to man. Chances are if there is no TE or FB, the defense will be in a nickel formation where the SLB position is basically eliminated. On many teams the SLB in not one of their better coverage guys, thus is replaced by an extra DB in passing situations. On other clubs the MLB may come off while the SLB moves to an ILB alignment. Some schemes take advantage of a SLB who is a good pass rusher by leaving him free to blitz instead of dropping into coverage or pulling him for an extra DB. The Giants Mathias Kiwanuka and Seattle's Julian Peterson are good examples here. Although the Seahawks play right and left linebackers instead of strong/weak. Which means Peterson isn't a full time SLB.
The weak side backer is in general the second best fantasy option of the linebackers. He has a little further to go at times to make plays but is often left unaccounted for in the blocking scheme. Many of our big play linebackers come from this position because they are allowed to freelance more and flow to the play with less traffic to fight through. A good strong side backer makes a perfect set up man for the WLB when he clogs the play and forces the ball carrier back to the middle. The WLB generally has fewer responsibilities than other front 7 positions. He is responsible for shutting down the reverse and closing up cut back lanes against the run while his pass responsibility in most zone coverage amounts to keeping tabs on relief valve receivers like backs on swing passes, short back side screens or short quick hitting tosses. These players are usually fast and athletic so some schemes give them much more responsibility in man to man coverage where they can be matched up with backs tight ends and occasionally bigger more physical receivers all over the field. One side note when it comes to outside backers in the NFL, some teams are going to a set up of right and left outside backers where instead of switching sides based on strength of formation, the defenders remain on the same side and responsibility changes with the formations. Seattle, Indy, and Tennessee were among the clubs to widely use this approach in '07. When putting together your draft lists, lean toward right OLB. Most offenses have right handed quarterbacks and right handed tendencies, thus the right side backer will be weak side the majority of the time and will generally be the most productive.
An outside backer in the 3-4 actually has more in common with the 4-3 end than other linebackers. He lines up outside the last man on the offensive line (often way outside), his run support duties are the same as the 4-3 end in that he is responsible for protecting the corner and turning everything inside, and he is counted on for the majority of the pass rush. However much more is expected from an OLB in the 3-4. Big play production from these players is the key to success in this scheme. The 3-4 is generally an attacking scheme that counts on disruption of offensive flow to create opportunities. The outside backers can have a multitude of different responsibilities depending on the defensive play/blitz call. Their main duty is to rush from the snap and create havoc in the passing game. Other responsibilities range from delay rush, dropping into zone coverage, being assigned a particular player to shadow or a receiver or TE to cover man to man. These players must be exceptional athletes to be successful but intelligence and full understanding of the scheme are key. Its easy to make a mistake here and even little mistakes can be huge. Being relegated to basically half the field, limits the number of tackle opportunities so players in this position have limited fantasy value unless your league scores heavily on sacks. It's not all that rare for a 3-4 OLB to have a great season and land in the top 15. It is however exceptionally rare for that same player to repeat the following season. The past decade has given us guys like Joey Porter, DeMarcus Ware, Shawne Merriman and last year's sensation James Harrison, who have all had 1 top 10 finish. All but Harrison have fallen back into the pack the following year. We will have to see is Harrison can break the trend. These guys are not without value but the nature of the position limits tackle opportunity which in turn effects consistency. These positions rarely produce more than 60-65 solo tackles so when they don't land a sack or big play, these guys usually have a very poor week.
This is the ultimate position for fantasy production because all defensive schemes are designed to funnel plays to the middle of the field. The MLB is protected from blockers by the tackles who make it tough for either the center or guards to get off the line. With Pat and Kevin Williams at tackle the Minnesota defense does this as well as any in the game, keeping E.J. Henderson free from blockers while forcing ball carriers toward him. He is able to flow to the play and piled up the best tackle numbers of his career in '07. At the snap of the ball the middle backer will look for keys that tell him if the play is pass or run. His first read is the offensive line. A pass blocking offensive lineman will stand up out of his stance as opposed to a run blocker who fires out to engage the defender. Offenses have tricks such as draw plays to disguise their blocking schemes so there are reads beyond the initial line movement. Pass coverage responsibilities will depend on the cover scheme called but once run is diagnosed, the MLB usually has a single assignment, get to the ball carrier.
For all intents and purposes the 3-4-4 is basically a 5-2-4 when it comes to the responsibilities of the inside backers, with the right inside backer basically serving as the WLB. He must stay in position long enough to cover misdirection plays, cutback runs and reverses but unless he is on a blitz he has few gap responsibilities. Once he's sure the play is not coming back to him he is generally free to get to the ball the best way he can. Without a traditional strong side backer to run interference, the left inside backer sometimes has to serve that purpose. The difference being that the offense must still commit a blocker to the OLB so the LILB doesn't see as many double teams as a 4-3 SLB. The 3-4 scheme depends on its trio of linemen to eat up enough blockers to free up the inside backers. The top producers in these schemes generally play the LILB position though it can also come down to who remains on the field in passing situations. In the 3-4 scheme, nearly everyone is a blitzing option but most of the time the inside rush is provided from the right side since there are normally fewer blockers to that side of the formation.
Corner is one position there isn't a lot to say about. Responsibilities of this position doesn't change much from one defense to the other with the exception of teams that run a cover 2 or Tampa-2. The responsibilities are obvious while all that changes from play to play is the coverage scheme. Either man to man, zone or bump and run. The cardinal sin for a corner is to get turned around by a double move and/or to let anyone get behind them for the deep ball. Many corners don't relish the idea of butting heads with a 230 pound running back that has a full head of steam but there are a few such as Antoine Winfield, Ronde Barber and Charles Tillman who love to come up and help with the run. Coincidentally all four of these guys play in some version of the Tampa-2. In fantasy terms the corner position can be productive but is wildly inconsistent and even more unpredictable. The exception to this general rule are clubs that feature the Tampa-2/cover 2. In these schemes the safeties play deep and the corners are expected to contribute more to run support. Antoine Winfield is a great example of this. Most of the time he is the corner on the strong side which give him responsibilities versus the run that normally fall to the strong safety. My Footballguys teammate Jene Bramel has written an excellent article that specifically breaks down the responsibilities of the Tampa-2 which is being used by several clubs this season. If you have gained anything from this article, JB's work is a very enlightening must read.
Often referred to as the "center fielder" of the defense, free safety is a big play position in many defensive schemes though not all clubs have the luxury of a playmaker at the position. Some are forced to strive/settle for solid "mistake free" play from the position. The FS is regularly free to roam the secondary and make plays on the ball where ever it may go. With an occasional call specific exception, he has the responsibility of backing up everyone and is expected to keep everything (meaning the ball and/or receivers in the pattern) in front of him. Demands of this position are great, the FS must be smart enough to make the right reads, quick enough to change his mind when fooled, fast enough to make up for mistakes (either his or someone else's) and a solid tackler since he is often the last defender. He goes through a series of reads at the snap of the ball that lead him to the play but those reads are filled with "ifs" and offenses work very hard to misdirect the safeties and give them false reads to confuse them. Free safeties are often excellent options for fantasy owners particularly on clubs who are weak at linebacker. They make a lot of tackles on receivers after the catch, and are responsible for run support. If you can land one who contributes in the turnover category (Madieu Williams, Bob Sanders, Brian Dawkins, Gibril Wilson, Kerry Rhodes, Oshiomogho Atogwe ) as well, you have a strong fantasy option on your hands.
Normally your best fantasy option in the secondary is found here. Strong safeties are the tackle mongers of the secondary. Sometimes former college linebackers who aren't big enough to play LB at this level (Michael Lewis, Rodney Harrison) but have enough speed to help out with receivers when called upon. The strong safety is the enforcer in the secondary providing big hits in the running game while supplying an intimidating presence over the middle against the pass. Clubs search for Ronnie Lott clones who have the size and willingness to take on a RB with a full head of steam yet are nimble enough to get a grip on an elusive WR in the open field. Players at this position benefit greatly by having a quality strong side linebacker in front of them. The linebacker cleans out all the blockers leaving the safety there to clean up the ball carrier. Some defensive schemes like to playing the SS up near the line, tucked in behind the SLB for just this reason. Some play him so far up he is actually an extra linebacker. The strong safeties first responsibility is run support. On passing downs he is rarely expected to cover a wide receiver one on one and usually provides deep support in zone coverage, double team help for the corners in man to man or coverage on the tight end.
The one secondary scheme that basically changes all the rules is the cover 2 and it's variation the Tampa-2. The Colts and Bucks have used this scheme for years and now several others have joined them including the Bears, Vikings, Lions, Bills. In all there are 6 clubs using this scheme on a regular basis and a few others who have it in their playbook for situational use. The basic difference between the normal 4-3 and the cover 2 is that in a cover 2 both safeties take on free safety responsibilities with each covering half of the field while the corners are asked to play more aggressively underneath. They usually move up closer to the line of scrimmage where they can be more physical with the receivers, often jamming them at the line and trying to alter their patterns. Being positioned closer to the line, the cover 2 corner generally has a much bigger role in run support. In fact the strong side corner often takes on very similar responsibilities to the strong safety.
With a few exceptions your productive IDPs are going to come from the DE (4-3), MLB/ILB, WLB, SS and FS positions, with an honorable mention to right corners in cover 2 schemes. These are the "naturally" productive positions when it comes to box scores. Any player outside of them who is not a proven commodity, is a big risk. When considering late round sleepers turn to these positions unless you have a very good reason to look at a particular player elsewhere. Keep in mind that defensive players are very difficult to scout during the preseason so there are nearly always more quality free agents available on D at the beginning of the season. Stock up on your hot offensive prospects in the draft, then be aggressive on defense when the season starts. Don't spend early or middle round draft picks on unproven defensive backs. There are a handful of guys each year who can be counted on. Once the top 10 DBs are gone, it becomes a complete crap shoot. Corners are very inconsistent from week to week as well as year to year, so don't put too much weight on last years production alone. Look back two or three years to be sure your guy wasn't a one year wonder. This happens often, especially with corners.
Best of luck to everyone this fall. When the bell rings, come out swinging and in the infamous words of the great Al Davis...
JUST WIN BABY!