The history of NFL defenses
According to Newton’s third law of motion, when one body acts upon a another body, there ensues an equal and opposite reaction. In the NFL, it usually works a little differently: When offenses act upon defenses, they produce desperate attempts by the latter to catch up.
This year, we will find out if NFL defenses have solved the riddle of the read option, the scheme used by the Redskins and other teams to gain consistent chunks of yardage last year. Which defenders will be charged with stopping the likes of Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick? Is a radically different formation necessary?
Of course, this action-and-reaction dynamic is nothing new to the NFL. So while we anxiously await a response to the read option, here is an general overview of how the defenses have evolved schemes to stop whatever offenses cook up over the history of the league.
Taking advantage of improved conditions
The 6-2 front
Time frame: 1930s . Football emerged from dangerously chaotic origins with a series of new rules beginning in 1906. One of those rules legalized forward passing, and another rule mandated seven players on the line of scrimmage. The earliest recognizable defensive fronts tried to match up directly with their offensive counterparts, also putting seven men on the line, with either one or two linebackers. The linemen were primarily charged with stopping the run-dominated attacks, the linebackers’ jobs were to follow the play and tackle anyone who managed to make it past the line of scrimmage, and the defensive backs tried to prevent long touchdowns.
The NFL was formed in 1920, and by 1934, fewer constraints on passing and a sleeker, more easily thrown ball gave rise to offenses a bit more interested in traveling through the air. Defenses responded by dropping a player off the line, thus creating a 6-2-3 formation. But as running plays were still very much the order of the day, linebackers began to have a more dynamic role, charging up to stop the ballcarrier or helping in pass coverage.
Key figure: Don Hutson. Hutson joined the Packers in 1935 and immediately stood out in an era of Stone Age attacks as a nearly unstoppable downfield threat. By the time he retired, Hutson held just about every NFL receiving record, including several that lasted for decades.
The rise of the T-formation.
The 5-3 front
Time frame: Late-1930s through the ’40s. The T-formation introduced the concept of a quarterback taking the ball directly from the center, then either dropping back to pass or handing off to a back. This development made offenses much more unpredictable, and the degree to which it flummoxed defenses caused a national sensation in 1940, when the Bears rode the T to a 73-0 win over the Redskins in the NFL championship game.
The 5-3 front had already been in existence, as the passing-down counterpart to the standard 6-2. But the growing popularity of the T eventually led to the 5-3 becoming the NFL’s base defense. The extra linebacker was crucial in shadowing a man in motion, another devastating feature of the T.
Key figure: Clark Shaughnessy. The University of Chicago coach from 1933 to 1939, he also was a consultant to legendary Bears coach George Halas and is considered the creator of many of the T-formation’s innovative features. Not only did he play a large role in the Bears’ success in 1940 (and several years to come), but his own Stanford team, using the T, upset Nebraska in the Rose Bowl.
Increased stress on pass-covering linebackers.
The “Eagle-5” and “Umbrella”
Late 1940s-early ’50s.
T-formation offenses were exposing linebackers by sending speedy halfbacks on perimeter routes. Eagles Coach Earle “Greasy” Neale countered by developing a 5-2-4 formation, which became known as the “Eagle defense,” or “Eagle-5.” It was the first to feature the now-standard seven-man front with four defensive backs.
But in 1950, the Browns beat the Eagles, 35-10, by exploiting the flaw in Neale’s defense: the gaping hole in the short middle of the field. Giants Coach Steve Owen, who had the Browns next, quickly devised a formation that kept a defender in the middle of the field. Owen then went back to a six-man front, but with the crucial difference that his ends dropped back into coverage at the first sign of a passing play, thus forming what looked like an open umbrella, with no holes for short passes.
Key figure: Tom Landry. The future Cowboys head coach was a defensive back for Owen’s Giants, and he was charged with making sure his teammates grasped this hastily devised plan. Landry would continue to make sure his defenses were one step ahead for decades to come.
Quarterbacks dumping short passes
into the middle of the defense.
The 4-3 front
Time frame: 1950s. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Chicago’s Bill George, who played middle guard in the then-widespread five-lineman scheme, noticed that the Eagles were waiting for him to make contact with the center, then completing short passes before he could scramble back into coverage. So he decided to see what would happen if he just started plays in a coverage position. As legend has it, the middle linebacker position was born, with George as its first star, and with it, the 4-3. The reality appears a little more muddled than that. As we have seen, the Giants (who eventually hired Landry as their defensive coordinator), and likely other teams, were already experimenting with concepts that looked a lot like a 4-3.
Key figure: George. Even if his Hall of Fame bio oversimplifies things a bit, George, along with the Giants’ Sam Huff, did gain renown as the epitome of the new middle defender, who had to be smart, strong and highly skilled.
“Run to daylight.”
Time frame: 1960s. Epitomized by Packers Coach Vince Lombardi’s toss sweep, offenses became adept at sealing off run defenders, with the back watching the play develop and then choosing the biggest hole. The issue was that interior defensive linemen traditionally lined up directly in front of their offensive counterparts and would have to work around the latter to get to ballcarriers.
The answer was an emphasis on “1-gap” techniques; that is, instead of having defenders engage offensive linemen directly, their instructions were to shoot into the gaps between the offensive linemen, giving backs no daylight to which to run.
Key figure: Bob Lilly. Tom Landry had brought his 4-3 ideas from the Giants to the Cowboys, and he made a point of dreaming up ways, most notably his famous “flex” scheme, to take advantage of Lilly’s unique speed and strength.
Better athletes on offense,
leading to more big plays.
The 3-4 front.
Time frame: 1970s-80s. Variations of the 3-4 had been around for some time; any 5-2 front in the 1950s could temporarily turn into a 3-4 by having the ends drop into coverage. But it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that NFL teams began using it as their base defense, the main attraction being the opportunity to put more linebackers on the field and match some of the athleticism of opposing offenses. The Patriots became known for a 3-4 with a “bend-but-don’t break” philosophy geared toward limiting big plays; they placed their defensive linemen in classic “2-gap” stances directly opposite offensive linemen. The Oilers, on the other hand, used their 3-4 to aggressively wreak havoc on opponents.
Key figure: Lawrence Taylor. Unleashed by Bill Parcells in the Giants’ 3-4, Taylor was a pass-rushing terror the likes of which the NFL had never seen from a linebacker.
West Coast offense.
The zone blitz
Time frame: Mid-1980s-present. Bill Walsh’s 49ers had taken the NFL by storm with a carefully designed offense that relied on high-percentage throws with big yardage after the catch. It wasn’t long before disciples of Walsh fanned out across the league. Then-Bengals defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau generally gets credit for responding with the zone blitz, which was intended to disrupt the West Coast offense’s precision while reducing the risk of getting burned on quick-hitting completions. From his base 3-4 defense, he sent linebackers, and sometimes defensive backs, in on the blitz from all directions. What distinguished his blitzes were the zone coverages behind them (blitzing defenses had traditionally played man-to-man), which often featured a defensive lineman popping up where a quarterback expected an open spot to be.
Key figure: LeBeau. He refined his scheme in the 1990s with the Steelers, who more than earned the nickname “Blitzburgh.”
West Coast offense (yes, again).
Time frame: 1990s-2000s. The zone blitz was a favored weapon of 3-4 defenses, which had linebackers to spare, but many teams in 1990s had returned to 4-3 defenses, this time in the mold of Jimmy Johnson’s Cowboys, who emphasized lighter, faster linemen in an agressive scheme. Buccaneers Coach Tony Dungy ran one of those 4-3 defenses, but he added a wrinkle he picked up while with the 1970s Steelers: a middle linebacker with the speed to drop deep into coverage. Dungy’s Tampa-2 thus relied on a four-man rush with a zone pass defense featuring players who had the speed to converge on, and punish, pass-catchers.
Key figure: Warren Sapp. A four-man rush only works if you have interior linemen with a special ability to shoot a gap and get to the quarterback. Sapp was the protoypical “3-technique” defensive tackle, and teams looking to emulate the Tampa-2 scheme all tried, usually in vain, to get their own Sapp.
The read option.
To be determined
Time frame: Present. Last season, read-option attacks made mincemeat out of NFL defenses. The biggest problem to solve is that the new breed of NFL quarterbacks capable of running the read option, like Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick, are not only good runners but deadly passers. Thus a defense is darned if it does (bring extra defenders up to the line of scrimmage) and darned if it doesn’t (honor the quarterback’s ability to beat single-safety coverages).
This doesn’t necessarily seem like a matter of scheme. There is some thought that a 3-4 defense (a la the 1970s Patriots) is better able to defend the read option because it leaves fewer potential open gaps for runners, but that mandates a read-and-react approach unpalatable to teams that want to dictate terms to offenses.
Ultimately, something resembling a 3-5-3 defensive formation could be in order, and as it happens, teams have already been developing the kinds of “hybrid” defenders necessary to make it work. We are now used to seeing defensive end-linebacker types, especially in 3-4 defenses that want to bring a fourth player up to the line of scrimmage on obvious passing downs. But what teams defending the read option may also need is a linebacker-defensive back, someone equally capable of helping against the run near the line of scrimmage or shadowing receivers on seam routes. What is for certain is that, once again, offenses have defenses scrambling to adapt to a new reality.