Philosophical question about defensive alignments for Magnus/Sharik types

Submitted by bml on November 5th, 2010 at 11:22 PM

I'm someone with no football playing or coaching experience, unless you count my time as a ten-year-old outside linebacker in 1992 (we went 1-5). But over the past several years I've been trying to learn a lot of football-scheme basics. Since this is a Michigan-based learning process, I've read a lot about the 4-3 under and the 3-3-5 and what works or doesn't  because of alignment or personnel or PHYSICALITY or angry gods. Here's my question to coaching strategy types: assume you are a coaching  master of every alignment. You're in a Rawlsian situation where you're going to be given a team to run but you don't know what your talent is going to be like or what your league competition is. Is there any particular alignment that you'd start with defensively? Would the 4-3 be the default setup given the average distribution of size/athletic ability in the general football population? I ask because it seems like you hear a lot about "pick a philosophy and stick with it." and we've all seen what happens when you don't stick with it. But what comes before sticking with it? Is it really just the coin flip of what you came up through the ranks learning? 



November 5th, 2010 at 11:33 PM ^

Is it really just the coin flip of what you came up through the ranks learning?

For high school coaches, I'd say this is basically it.  High school coaches aren't going to run schemes they've never run before, at least not as a base defense.  You want to have experience with it.  I've had experience with two different kinds of defenses, and I'd be comfortable running either one...but I wouldn't run anything other than one of those two.

Any scheme can be successful, as long as a) it's taught well and b) you have the right athletes to run it.  Sometimes that's a problem when you're trying to run, say, a 3-4 and you don't have good outside linebackers.  That's just the risk you take.

If I were creating a high school team right now, I would play a 4-4.  But that doesn't really translate to the college/NFL ranks very much, so that might not be the answer you're looking for.

If I were creating a college team right now, I would play a 3-4.  Not a whole lot of teams run the 3-4, but it's trickling back down from the NFL ranks.  I'd install the 3-4 quickly before teams figure out how to exploit it.  In a few years, the new "in" defense will probably be the 4-3 again.  Or maybe even the 3-3-5 stack.


November 5th, 2010 at 11:47 PM ^

Do you really see the 3-3-5 taking hold in High School?  It seems like it relies heavily on big NTs and LBs who can tackle in space and keep their gaps, which always struck me as two premium commodities.  I'm honestly just asking, since I know very little about the HS scene.  


November 6th, 2010 at 7:06 AM ^

No, I was talking about colleges using the 3-3-5.

However, I don't live in West Virginia, but I have heard that a lot of high school teams in WV use the 3-3-5 because WVU uses that defense.  I imagine a lot of coaches in WV go to clinics at WVU and learn the ins and outs of the defense there.


November 5th, 2010 at 11:48 PM ^

for responding so quickly. It's interesting I think that you would run the 3-4 in college because it is rarely seen. which to me emphasizes the idea that you're always in some way playing a market. the follow-up question, I guess, is: what are the outer boundaries? would playing a hypothetical 2-5 somehow work if you could train your players well enough? is there such a thing as an a-11 of defense? what in your mind is the most creative defense ever developed?


November 6th, 2010 at 12:06 AM ^

.....would be difficult to field in college since not very many teams have a glut of quality LBs. Not only are you fielding 4 at a time, but the need for reserves goes up as well. The 3-3-5 minimizes this somewhat by using a hybrid type player usually more suited for safety positions. The real key to the 3-4, or 3-3-5, though is strength on the DL. A quality NT(like Martin) has to line up next to a monster DT, along with a rangy, athletic DE. We have the NT and DE, including backups, but we are severely lacking in the DT department. Next year we should be much better with Washington and Ash as a backup though. This is why our LB's are constantly getting mowed down by blockers on running plays, causing our DB's to play tighter and spend too much time concentrating on run support. The lack of a monster DT can be minimized by employing a 4-3, though we dont' have the experience in the secondary to lose a coverage guy.


November 6th, 2010 at 12:18 AM ^

No matter what the scheme, a shortage of key personnel will lead to a breakdown somewhere.  Different schemes will break down in different ways due to the particular players we're short.  No matter what the scheme, we can't hide our holes and we'll get picked apart - just in different ways.

The 3-3-5 (NON stack, as Brian points out) seems to be a hybrid scheme invented on the fly to try to replace the massive holes with other systems with more but smaller holes.  The 3-3 at the line can be somewhat flexible and do their best to keep gaps stopped up (but less efficiently than we'd like), while the 5 DBs are in all the time because everyone sucks at man coverage and we have to keep a pretty strong zone going all the time.

That it's a crazy scheme no one in their right minds would run, is basically right - but it's the least bad way of managing our paricular set of decimated talent without giving up a touchdown on every play.


Does that come close to what may be happening out on the field?


November 6th, 2010 at 12:31 AM ^

it does, to a point. When our starting DL is playing, and healthy, and with Demens in, the "box" players are quality and can stop a lot of running plays. We've seen, however, that they are susceptible to the cutbacks and counters, where a team employing a 3-4 wouldn't be(or shouldn't be). The problem comes when we rotate players in, mainly due to the length of time our D is on the field. We usually play decent first and second down, only occasionally giving up a big play then. But when the 3rd downs, even when long yardage, are nearly always successful, teams mount long drives causing the DL to rotate players in. That's when we start hurting against the run. Lack of quality backups takes it's toll.

I am an optomist, and I believe next year we will have plenty of quality backups at most D positions. What I don't know is if GERG and the D assistants, even with experienced players, can field a successful D. I don't think so, but since we haven't had that since 06', I don't really know the answer.


November 6th, 2010 at 7:16 AM ^

Eh, I think the lack of quality linebackers isn't a big issue.  A lot of "quality" high school linebackers get turned into weakside defensive ends in a 4-3.  College teams might not have a lot of quality linebackers right now because they only have 3 spots and therefore don't have many linebackers, period.  Running a different defense would change recruiting and player development.  Instead of asking a 230 lb. linebacker to put on 30 lbs. and become a defensive end, you'd just ask him to put on 10-15 lbs. and stay at OLB.

Also, I'm not sure why you're saying this:

This is why our LB's are constantly getting mowed down by blockers on running plays, causing our DB's to play tighter and spend too much time concentrating on run support

The biggest complaint most people on this board have about our defensive backs is that they play too far off the ball and bail out too quickly.  It's basically the complete opposite analysis of yours.  And truthfully, playing too tight hasn't hurt us very badly at all.  Our cornerbacks haven't been beaten deep very much at all.  On the contrary, they've kept most plays in front of them - it's just that they lack the ability to come up and make a play quickly enough, so quarterbacks/receivers pick up huge chunks of yardage underneath the cornerbacks. 

Other than Cullen Christian against MSU and James Rogers against Iowa (I think), our cornerbacks have mostly kept things in front of them.  It's been our safety play (mostly Cam Gordon) that has had trouble covering the deep ball.


November 6th, 2010 at 10:42 AM ^ our DB's literally playing tighter on the wr's. I was talking mostly about the safeties and the fact that without good DL and LB play against the run, our safeties have to do to much reading on the plays to provide run support, hence when a pass play is acknowledged, they usually end up too far out of position to make a play on the ball. Basically, I mean that they play too tight in the position on the field they are starting each play at which hampers their ability to move quickly enough to be in good position against the opposing teams' wr's.

As for the LB play, much of it depends on the DL itself, and the on-field positioning at the start of each play. Either our players are being taught wrong, or they aren't that good(IMO it is on the coaches). And the number of guys good enough to see the field at LB can determine if a team can even contemplate running a 3-4 defense in college, and that was my point. Much of it has to do with how many of each position a team is actually recruiting for, and the quality of talent they can actually get.


November 6th, 2010 at 11:04 AM ^

Magnus, is that I basically agree with everything you say when talking about defense, schemes, and what ails the UM team playing D. Having said that, I don't like pidgeon-holing players based on height and weight. I've read on here many people talking about getting the 6-4, 250 lb guys, or players who can fill out to that, coming out of hs and that that is considered the "ideal" size for an LB. The thing about that is, if you look at NFL rosters, quality LB's run a wide spectrum of body types and sizes. Not too many are the size of an Urlacher or Suggs, and there are some very good ones who's bodies only run around 6-1,230lbs. The DE's are the same way, although one thing I have noticed is that the teams running the 3-4 defense usually have the bigger DE's, say 6-4, 260-280lbs, while the teams employing the 4-3 typically desire the smaller DE's that are more of the LB size(look at the Colts who have some very good DEs, but smaller ones).

Basically, the size of the players doesn't matter as much as the athleticism they have, and, of course, the coaching to play the position effectively.


November 6th, 2010 at 7:27 AM ^

"Playing the market" is a good way to put it.  A lot of things in the NFL are cyclical, though.  Look at the Wildcat/single wing.  The 3-4 largely disappeared for several years to the point where only a couple NFL teams ran it; now a bunch of teams are running the 3-4.

I think quarterbacks and coaches got used to reading 4-3 defenses and thinking "Okay, these four linemen and maybe one linebacker are coming.  So these are going to be the soft spots in the defense."  And they could play those tendencies week after week after week.  So now a bunch of teams have switched it up to play the 3-4 and it changes offensive schemes.  Eventually offenses will adjust to the 3-4 again, and we'll be back to having the 4-3 as the "in" defense.  Etc.

I doubt that a 2-5 would work as a base defense.  There would be so many weak spots along the defensive front that the OL would be able to get a lot of push off the line.  Nobody would need to pass the ball at all, and they'd just run run run; so if all they're going to do is run, why have 4 defensive backs?  Some high school teams run a 6-2 or 6-1 defense, but I've never found those to be good defenses, and they can be exploited in both the run and the pass.

The most creative defense was probably the Bears 46 defense back in the 1980s.  That really was not the norm back then.  But I'd also say the 3-3-5 is pretty creative.  When run properly, it gets a lot of athletes on the field and can be very confusing for an offense.  We just don't have the athletes (or the coaching staff) to run it well.


November 6th, 2010 at 7:30 AM ^

I think Greg Robinson is gone after this year.  Even though he's not 100% at fault for Michigan's debacle of a defense, someone's head has to roll after this season.  I have no idea who will be brought in to coach the defense, but I think Dave Brandon will say, "Look, Rich.  You clearly don't know how to run a defense.  I'm going to hire a guy who knows defense, and you're specifically instructed to leave him the hell alone.  Let him do his thing."


November 6th, 2010 at 9:04 AM ^

I couldn't agree more with this. Rich clearly doesn't know what he's doing on the defensive side of the ball, but he is a genious on offense. In fact, his special teams are pretty pathetic as well.I think we should take out the monster purse and hire somebody that's well known for badass college defense.  There are plenty of great candidates out there at VT, TCU, and really all over. Just send a Brinks truck full of 3 Mil around the country until someone takes it as a signing bonus. I think the Michigan fans would be happy to donate money to lure someone good up to A2...


November 6th, 2010 at 11:05 AM ^

Don't remember who, someone posted that DB will not get involved in coaching hires and step on RR's toes. I hope DB well step in amd explain thing just as Magnus has suggested. I cannot believe aceo of a large corporation would accept a completely hands-off approach in light of blindingly obvious incompetence by someone under his authority.


November 6th, 2010 at 11:25 AM ^

.....on another thread about keeping RR and having DB be the point man for hiring a new DC. I'd like to see that happen, as well as letting the new DC determine which, if any, of the previous hired defensive assistants he wishes to keep, regardless of their ties to RR. I believe RR can get over this "slight" that some would see it as. He has to know that his future at UM past the next year or so depends more on W's and L's than it does any amount of progress, so I can see RR letting it go, even if some of his longstanding friends are fired, and that having a quality defense to help out the offense will take his team towards the top of the B10. Just my 2 cents.


November 5th, 2010 at 11:56 PM ^

Although he did qualify it by stating that you need the players to run the defense.

To me, the 4-3 is the easiest to run and have decent success with less talented players. For one, you use 4 down linemen who do not need to be as big to plug up the line. The LBs, particularly the MLB, is very important in this D.

The 3-4 is a great D to run, if you have the personnel to do it. As Magnus stated, you need good OLB's though. IMO, we don't have the personnel for the line to play this scheme, which makes me wonder why we even run the 3-3-5 at times. Sure we have Martin as NT, but we don't have the monster DT that successful 3-4 D's have.

Good DL and LB play can relieve much of the stress for the secondary for run support, and allow them to concentrate more on pass D without requiring instant play reads in case of a run. We don't have this at all, and thus, our secondary plays very loose to the receivers allowing easy 7-10 yard pass plays all day long. It also doesn't help that our experience in the secondary is nearly non-existent.

As for your "Rawlsian" situation, it doesn't exist in reality for the example you quest of people here. A DC coming in, at least one who is driven, will study the roster, including the incoming players and have a pretty good idea where the talent is located and at what level it is at. But, as Magnus stated above, they will most certainly put in the D they are most comfortable with regardless of the talent, and trust the assistants and themselves to teach the desired skills necessary to field a quality D.



November 6th, 2010 at 12:01 AM ^

I know we're not supposed to post like this, but I agree with about everything Magnus said. The 3-4 has a ton of flexibility with the ability to stay quite basic. The OLBs are the key - especially since the strong and weak assume very different responsibilities on most downs while you still need the abiliy to bring pressure/drop into coverage with each to gain all the advantages of the front. If you can't get those guys, I'd run something else (personally a 4-3).

The 4-4 can be run very effectively at the high school level as the primary front.

steve sharik

November 6th, 2010 at 3:43 AM ^ long as you know it inside and out.  You have to know how to teach the techniques of each position and be able to help players execute when they say to you, "What if he does....?"  And you have to have the right answer.  You can learn any just have to put in the effort to go and talk to the people who a) have the expertise and b) are willing to help you.

I don't believe the OLBs are any more important in a 3-4 than a 4-4.  They have the same responsibilities in almost every respect.  The diffference is that the 3-4 has 2 safeties and the 4-4 only has 1.  I think on the high school level it is better to play with more people in the box.

That said, I prefer a defense with 2 hybrid players on it.  We did this my last year as DC at Milford with good success until our best defensive player (our 3 tech.) had a season-ending injury.  While losing one player on your defense should cause the breakdown of it at a place like Michigan b/c you should be recruiting top players and developing depth, at the high school level most teams don't have that luxury.  If you lose a great player, there's probably not even a good player backing him up.

Anyway, our hybrids were a weakside DE/OLB and a weakside OLB/safety.  When we played 4-4 they were DE and OLB, and when we played 3-4 they were OLB and safety, respectively.

I don't think you get much out of the 4-3 at the HS level.  To stop the run you are constantly bringing safeties down into the box to essentially make it a 4-4, so why not just run a 4-4?  And against the spread, the 4-3 has some serious liabilities.  I just don't see the benefit of a 4-3.  Some would say ease of teaching/learning, but I think players can learn any system equally well, it just depends on how good the coaches are at teaching it.  Some would say they like the disguise potential of the 4-3 b/c you can move the secondary around late in the cadence, giving the offense different looks despite always looking the same at first glance/read.  I don't buy that.  I think any defense can move guys around to create new flanks in order to confuse the offense.


November 6th, 2010 at 7:02 AM ^

What I've discovered about the 4-3 in high school is that while it's somewhat easy to exploit in the run game, quarterbacks see it so rarely that it can be confusing to them when they drop back to pass.

However, I completely disagree about the 3-4 and 4-4 (i.e. Omaha Split 4).  The OLBs don't have the same responsibilities at all.  In the 3-4, they're more rush linebackers, they're up on the line of scrimmage, blitzing frequently, etc.  In the 4-4, the OLBs are typically three or four yards off the ball and have to cover the flats because you're playing Cover 3 behind them.

steve sharik

November 6th, 2010 at 9:52 AM ^

..."almost every respect."

You can blitz the 4-4 OLBs just as much as the 3-4 OLBs.  They still both have primary contain on the edge. 

And what's the coverage in a 3-4?  If you're blitzing one of the OLBs, are you bringing a safety down behind him?  If so, then you're playing Cover 3 or Cover 1, just as you would in a 4-4. 

If you're not rotating safeties and playing Cover 2 or Cover 4, the OLB has the curl, so he's going to take away the seam from #2, reroute, then get to the curl by #1...which is exactly what he'd do in cover 3.  In both cover 3 and cover 4, the OLB is Seam/Curl/Flat, in that order of priority.  The only difference coverage-wise if it were cover 2, in which the corner has the flat.  But the OLBs keys and reads are still the same, it's just that he doesn't have to take the 3rd priority in the flat in Cover 2.


November 6th, 2010 at 11:15 AM ^

But the OLBs keys and reads are still the same, it's just that he doesn't have to take the 3rd priority in the flat in Cover 2.

Exactly.  Which is why the 3-4 is much different than the 4-4.  Covering the flat is not an easy thing to do.  When you run a 3-4, the OLB is typically on the LOS; covering the flat is difficult from that position.  When you run a 4-4, covering the flat is still difficult, but much easier because the OLB is typically 3 or 4 yards off the ball and doesn't have to recover depth. 

But many 3-4 teams run Cover 2, which means the OLB doesn't have the responsibility of covering the flat - which would be his single most difficult responsibility.

In summary, the responsibilities for OLBs in a 4-4 or 3-4 are very different.  The alignment is different.  The skill set is different.  Many of the reads are the same, but responsibilities vary greatly between the two positions.


November 6th, 2010 at 11:15 AM ^

I didn't play football, didn't really try to understand plays until I started reading mgo, so questions like this with input and clarification by multiple coaches are great. And larsonlo's? primer series.