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On the defensive front, the names changed

On the defensive front, the names changed

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Part of an occasional series

Sometimes sacks happen because the pass rush just wins. Sometimes they happen because the defensive backs are covering well enough to allow the rush to get home eventually (if a quarterback doesn’t get rid of the ball in less than three seconds, bad things likely will happen). In our last piece, we went over the different pass coverages. Now, let’s return to the trenches and talk about what’s going on up front.

Can you explain this in three sentences or less? At the base level, it’s just how the linebackers and defensive linemen line up. If you’ve ever played Madden, you probably know the regular fronts: 4-3 and 3-4.

Right, so what other ways? Hold on a sec, because I think we should do a little cleanup about defensive personnel up front.

For years, we’ve thought of defenders as defensive ends, defensive tackles, nose tackles, middle linebackers, inside linebackers, and outside linebackers. I suggest evolving that understanding just a touch. Much of the past decade has been a move toward hybridization. That is, safeties that blur the lines between defensive back and linebackers, and linebackers that blur the line between linebacker and defensive end. What I mean is defenses use plenty of combinations to make up their front, and as the sport evolves, we basically have three types of nondefensive backs:

Edge: The slight shake-up in delineation really benefits us here. You’ve got some guys who are conventional defensive ends, but other guys who are nominally “outside linebackers” Examples: Von Miller, TJ Watt, JJ Watt, Myles Garrett, Khalil Mack, the Bosa brothers.

Interior defensive lineman: Whether nose tackle or three technique or whatever. Do they primarily play inside? That’s these guys. Examples: Aaron Donald, Fletcher Cox, Ndamukong Suh.

Off-ball linebacker: The Ray Lewis-style classic linebackers. Examples: Jaylon Smith, Lavonte David, Fred Warner.

What was the point of that explanation?

That’s all to say that basically every front is just a mishmash of those three position groups, so don’t confuse yourself with whether Mack is an outside linebacker or a defensive end. Let’s just agree he’s in the Edge bucket. The reason we even have players such as Mack is because the 3-4 outside linebacker became en vogue roughly 40 years ago.

For years, teams “based” out of either the 4-3 or a 3-4.

LEFT: RIGHT:

But the game is different now. While teams typically play just the 4-3 or the 3-4 as their “base” defense, they come out in one of those packages only about a third of the time on average with the most frequent usage about 50 percent.

So what else are they doing?

Somewhere, a defensive coach is going to yell when I say this, but for a variety of reasons, the new base is nickel defense. That’s where defenses sub off a true off-ball linebacker in favor of a defensive back to have five on the field instead of four. This helps defend the more wide-open passing game we see today with spread offenses and tons of wide receivers.

But there are tons of specialty situations when defenses just want to throw something at an offense, such as simulated pressures, or the Cardinal’s specialty third-down defense that’s 0-6-5. There’s also the evolution of fronts such as the tite front, and the mint front, and the 2-4-5 which is nickel defensive backs behind a jiggered front that just has two true interior defensive linemen.

But for our purposes, why do we care? These days, 3-4, 4-3, etc., shouldn’t put a picture in your head. They should only be used as a shorthand for personnel, not necessarily for a formation. At some point, we just need to call it what it is.

And that is ….?

It’s about surfaces: four-man surfaces, five-man surfaces and six-man surfaces. Not all surfaces are built the same.

A four-man overload front — in which three rushers line up to one side of the center and only on the other — is going to be blocked differently than a standard under or an under with two players on either side of the center. A six-man double mug front — in which two linebackers walk up in the A gaps — will be blocked differently than the “6-1” that neutered the Rams in Super Bowl LIII, which looked more like a goal-line defense than something to stop a highflying offense.

So what exactly do fronts themselves teach us?

Sometimes not a ton beyond initial alignment. Initial alignment can identify gap responsibilities when defending the ground game. If all things go according to plan, the defense fits into the offense’s gaps like a glove to defend the run.

But that is defense at its most vanilla. Fronts also can mutate after the snap in various ways. And Edge and an interior defensive lineman can swap responsibilities and gaps; this can be particularly effective in the pass rush to confuse offensive linemen and get them out of position.

And speaking of the pass rush, just because it looks like a four-man surface initially doesn’t mean things won’t change after the snap. If this was a passing play and the Mike linebacker blitzes, it would help to identify who he is for protection purposes.

But no matter how the defense lines up and what they do, it’s on the offense to assert itself in the run game. And that’s where we’ll go next.

Richard Johnson is a freelance writer, podcaster and video host. Based in Brooklyn, the Gainesville, Fla., native is a college football lifer who recently fell back in love with the Jacksonville Jaguars and regrets it every day. Illustrations and Design by José Luis Soto.

Read more from the “Watching Football Smarter” series:

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