The Power of Four
Blitzing is heading out. How pressuring the quarterback with only four rushers is changing the NFL.
Derek Anderson picked himself up off the turf at Baltimore’s M & T Bank Stadium and tapped the helmet of one of his offensive linemen. The meek gesture, an attempt at motivation, looked more like consolation. Jogging to the sideline, the 6’6″, 230-pound quarterback had the comportment of a defeated man. Cleveland still had more than 23 minutes to overcome the 21-10 deficit in this Week 3 divisional contest, but all 71,000-plus in attendance knew that this latest exhibit of Raven strength was more than just a seven-yard sack. It was a statement.
The play had been a lot like an autostereogram: at first glimpse, it made no sense. The protection broke down on the left side, where Cleveland’s Pro Bowl tackle, Joe Thomas, and $49.5 million guard, Eric Steinbach, resided. The sack was made by Jim Leonhard, a former undrafted free agent who had stepped in at strong safety only because starter Dawan Landry got hurt earlier. Perhaps most demoralizing for Cleveland was that Baltimore had rushed only four guys, two of whom were backup defensive backs (Leonhard and cornerback Frank Walker). And Leonhard had reached Anderson untouched.
How, exactly, did this happen? Or, more importantly, what did it tell us?
Let’s take a look at the last three Super Bowl champions. You have the Colts of ’06, the Giants of ’07 and the Steelers of ’08. There are two major commonalities amongst these teams that reveal everything a person needs to know about today’s NFL. The first is that all three have a stud quarterback, capable of carrying them in high-stakes situations. Peyton Manning is the sharpest field general in the game. Eli Manning orchestrated New York’s legendary 12-play, 83-yard fourth quarter drive to slay the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Ben Roethlisberger accounted for all 78 of Pittsburgh’s yards in an equally epic fourth quarter drive to beat the Cardinals in the closing seconds of Super Bowl XLIII. Stud quarterbacks.
The second commonality is that all three of these teams have the capacity of stopping another team’s stud quarterback. How?
“The only way to stop or slow down a great quarterback is to put him on the ground,” says longtime NFL general manager Ernie Accorsi, who constructed the foundation of a Giants roster that Jerry Reese put the finishing touches on in ’07. “When you build a team, you have to acquire the quarterback when you can. But second in importance is pass-rushers. It’s like pitching in baseball. You can never have enough.”
For the longest time, reaching the quarterback meant blitzing. The more guys you rushed, the more aggressive––perhaps even courageous?––you were defensively. Not anymore.
“What the NFL has morphed into,” says distinguished NFL Films producer and film-studying sage Greg Cosell, “from a pressure standpoint, is trying to rush as few people as possible and break down protections so you’re not compromising coverage.” That’s what the past three Super Bowl champions have done, and it’s what the better defenses in the league right now––Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York Giants, Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Minnesota––do.
“If you can get to the quarterback with four, you have a good defense because now you have guys covered,” says Vikings defensive end Jared Allen. “When blitzing, using five guys, you put yourself at a disadvantage because now you have man-to-man coverage on the outside, which is what offenses are looking for. Getting pressure with just four makes life easier for your D coordinator.” It’s simple math, really. Rush four and you’re left with seven guys in coverage. Rush five and you have only six in coverage. Rush six and––well, you get the point.
In 2001, the Vikings traded a first-round pick and two third-rounders to Kansas City, plus gave out a six-year, $74 million contract in order to bring Allen, the NFL’s leading sacker, to Minnesota and spearhead a potent four-man pass-rush alongside defensive tackle Kevin Williams. It’s hard for any player to live up to three high draft picks and $31 million in guaranteed money, though supporters of the Allen trade correctly point out that his steep price, in a way, covers part of Minnesota’s defensive backfield.
“A great pass-rush will help a young or less talented secondary,” says Jerry Reese. Indeed, Reese’s Giants are in Minnesota’s boat. They’ve invested over $140 million worth of total contracts in their current eight-man defensive line rotation and, in recent years, have thrived with one of the most inexperienced––and therefore inexpensive––secondaries in football. Bill Polian, the venerable GM of the Colts, has followed a similar model, sinking over $100 million worth of total contracts alone in his speedy defensive ends––Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
The defensive end is a premium position for 4-3 teams like the Giants; it’s especially significant for Cover 2 teams like the Vikings and Colts, for the simple reason that their system is passive in the back end and therefore reliant on generating big plays up front. “Tony Dungy’s philosophy (which has heavily influenced Cover 2 systems across the league) has always been ‘less is more,’” says Cosell. “That comes from Chuck Noll. The premise being, We will do the few things that we do exceptionally well and execute them properly snap after snap after snap, and we’ll do them better than the opponent will.” (Note: The kind folks at Football Outsiders provided us with some interesting data on this. Check it out at the end of this article.)
Obviously it worked for Dungy. But with the rising sophistication of spread offenses across the NFL, simplicity could soon be a declining defensive mantra.
Just before Derek Anderson hit the ground under the fury of Jim Leonhard, he had been in the shotgun, flanked by two receivers on both sides. Anderson was scanning the Ravens’ front seven. Deciphering what he saw was like trying to sort out individual bees swarming around a hive. With :08 on the play clock, veteran defensive end Trevor Pryce was lined up in a two-point stance to the far left, over Joe Thomas’s outside shoulder. Leonhard had marched down behind Pryce’s back hip. Cornerback Frank Walker was standing directly over tight end Kellen Winslow in the left slot. Over center Hank Fraley stood Ravens outside linebacker Jarrett Johnson. Linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs crowded the outside of the line on Anderson’s right.
When the play clock reached :07, Johnson crouched into a nose tackle position. Leonhard and Walker both creeped in beside Pryce, as if to rush. The three of them were lined up over Steinbach and Thomas. It was three Ravens against two Browns.
Anderson never saw any of this. His focus had been on Lewis and Suggs on the other end. “When you only rush four,” says Cosell, “what you’re trying to do is create an overload situation, where your four is matched up against just two or three. So often when we watch tape, we can see three guys from the offensive line blocking no one. That’s what the defense is trying to do––create an overload type situation. Four guys come from one side, you end up getting matched against three blockers, one guy gets in clean even though they rushed only four guys total.”
If Anderson suspected an overload, he was thinking it would be on his right side.
When the ball was snapped, Leonhard and Walker both took a half-step back. That was all it took for Cleveland’s left linemen to dismiss them and focus on Trevor Pryce, Johnson at the nose, and Lewis and Suggs over on right side. But only Suggs and Pryce attacked. Lewis backpedaled into coverage. So did Johnson. The two men who were supposed to be crowding the line of scrimmage as pass-rushers instead clogged the short interior throwing lanes. This left two blockers staring at Suggs; and the other three all handling Pryce (which is football’s equivalent of sending a swat team to break up a bar fight).
A split second later, Walker and Leonhard changed course and both sprinted towards the backfield. The only Brown who noticed Walker was diminutive running back Jason Wright. The only Brown who noticed Leonhard was Anderson…as he was getting drilled. For Cleveland, what’s either encouraging or concerning––depending on how you look at it––is that their response to this particular pass-rush made some sense. With Lewis and Suggs crowding the right side, the Browns had had every reason to worry about an overload rush there. They just got tricked.
Trickery is a prominent wrinkle in Rex Ryan’s scheme, and it all starts from creating confusion before the snap. What Anderson saw wasn’t a 3-4 front––it was a collection of six players shifting around. This is what has become known as the hybrid. “I think the hybrid 3-4 scheme is, You put a player here and only send four guys,” says Ryan, who is now installing this system as the first-year head coach of the New York Jets. “This is where you still want to play coverage, yet you still want to beat protections. Schematically, I think that is what we do probably as well as anybody. People are starting to copy some of the stuff; I think the league will probably move to that.”
Traditional pass-rushers like Jared Allen and Dwight Freeney are always going to be in demand. But more and more, versatile players who can execute versatile schemes like Ryan’s will define NFL front sevens. San Diego is a less extreme but just as revealing example. “We go about (pressure) two different ways,” says Chargers outside linebacker Shaun Phillips. “One is disguise. We try to show offenses that we’re coming in a way that allows another guy to come free. But another thing for us, we create packages where we go to a four-man rush that allows me to put my hand down like a defensive end. When you’re in a three-point stance, you’re more explosive because you’re low to the ground.”
Putting speed-rushers like Phillips in a three-point stance is a fairly typical tactic, but it’s also a mark of a more creative all-around approach. “Another thing is we move our guys so an offensive lineman can’t get a rhythm on us,” Phillips says. “So if I’m rushing off a guy one play, Shawne Merriman is rushing off that guy the other play and Luis Castillo the other, that’s three different looks the blocker is getting, and it makes him have to work that much harder.”
Imagine being an offensive lineman and having to not only block a 263-pound monster with 4.84-speed, but having to do so without knowing exactly where that monster is coming from. It’d be almost like playing Marco Polo in a cataract. The flexibility of the 3-4 front––and especially the hybrid 3-4 front––presents such dilemmas and allows defenses to be aggressive, almost to the point that offensive players are now the more reactionary ones. This leads not only to sacks but turnovers, as well. Asked what type of defense he would construct if granted the powers, Cosell, who almost never speaks in extremes or absolutes, says with little hesitation, “I would build more of a proactive, aggressive defense. I think you want to dictate the terms of engagement.”
There’s not a defensive player who wouldn’t love more cracks at creating big plays. As Allen put it, “There’s no better feeling than when you come off the edge on the 12th or 13th play of a drive, get a tackle for a loss or a sack and just nullify everything.”
Aggression by the Numbers
The folks at FootballOutsiders.com were kind enough to gather data showing which teams brought only four pass-rushers most often last season.
Rushing Only Four
1. Indianapolis 84.8 % of defensive snaps
2. Tennessee 80.9%
3. Green Bay 75.8 %
16. Miami 63.8%
30. Dallas 50.8%
31. Cleveland 46.0%
32. New York Jets 44.8%| Ernie Accorsi Giants, hybrid 3-4 defense, Jared Allen contract, NFL pass rushers, Rex Ryan scheme, Shaun Phillips Chargers