The book Moneyball was all about finding market inefficiencies in baseball, and I feel as though baseball is far ahead of the curve in this matter. It is expanding in football and basketball, but considering that baseball has to go off many who have only played high school baseball when drafting top prospects, I feel baseball is far ahead of the curve in drafting. If everybody they drafted had at least three years in college as the NFL has the benefit of, I think the MLB would do a much better job of identifying all of the top talent in baseball.
The defense that has been taking over lately has been the 3-4, because it presents a lot of confusion on pass rushes. It does that, because you can rush four guys, but nobody knows which four guys will be coming in. As more and more teams use the 3-4 defense, it becomes easier to block as teams are constantly facing it. The problem that many 3-4 teams have is defending the run since they will have a smaller front seven than a traditional 4-3. What helps them against the run is putting a giant nose tackle, usually 340 lbs or above, to stuff up the middle and let the linebackers roam free. This defense has been effective for many teams, and it’s great that teams are starting to witness that and adjusting their rosters. The problem is coming from the teams that have stuck with the traditional 4-3 defense.
Nearly everyone who currently runs a 4-3 is doing so in an extremely inefficient manner. They were tricked into thinking that they are doing things right, but they are so obviously wrong. Two people are primarily to blame for this: Tony Dungy and Warren Sapp.
Tony Dungy made the Cover-2 Defense popular, based primarily on speed and not giving up the big play by keeping two safeties back to make sure that teams would not be able to throw over the top. The advantages in this defense is that you did not need shutdown corners to be effective, because they would have help over the top. Another big key is that speed was everywhere on this defense as opposed to trying to outpower teams offenses.
The biggest weakness in this defense is trying to run up the middle, but with a good front seven, they were able to slow down teams. One of the things that helped them stop runs up the middle was having run-stopping safeties like John Lynch and Bob Sanders. Plus, if teams ran to the outside, it played into their strengths of speed.
The big key on passing downs was getting pressure from the front four guys on the line with minimal blitzing. This let seven guys drop back into coverage, and as long as the front four was able to penetrate, it led to extremely dominant defenses. Since getting pressure on the QB is so key, Dungy drafted the smaller, more speed-based players for his line, so he had four guys who could conceivably get to the quarterback on the line.
This is where Warren Sapp comes in (this does not involve beating women). Sapp is the ideal fit for Dungy’s Cover-2 Defense as he was not large for defensive tackle standards and was very quick off the line so he was able to harass quarterbacks from an interior position. Playing for Dungy for the majority of his career, Sapp became a likely Hall of Famer, and many teams saw the success they had and obviously wanted to replicate it. The problem was that Warren Sapp is a rare player, and teams keep trying to recreate it with crappier versions of Sapp.
The reason this irritates me so much is that the Bears have been a blatant offender of this.
One defense that has been unbelievably successful that nobody seems to notice is a traditional 4-3 defense but one that acquires a certain personnel to make it absolutely dominating against both run and pass. It is inspired by the 3-4, but it is even better, because instead of one of those giant nose tackles, you put two giant people in the middle and completely shut down the running game.
Let’s break down a running play for a team that has to play against this. You try to run up the middle and you’re more than likely running into a wall. So attacking the outside becomes the logical choice. The problem is that the linebackers are free to roam so trying to beat them to the edge is going to be extremely difficult. Hence, you have created a dominant defense against the run.
But the NFL has adopted the forward pass so just plugging up the middle is not going to stop them from beating you with the pass. This is true, but that doesn’t mean that this alignment can’t stop the pass. Here is how a passing play will break down. In theory, you’ll use three of your interior linemen to stop the giants trying to come through the middle. Then, you use your athletic Defensive Ends to attack from the outside. Usually, you’ll at least have a tight end or running back to stay in and help so one of the defensive ends is probably a non-factor. The other defensive end goes one on one with a solid shot to get after the QB. More than likely, the interior linemen will double one guy, leaving the other giant defensive end in there to collapse the pocket. So, even without blitzing, there is a decent shot to get to the quarterback. Since the huge defensive tackles are more plugs than sackmasters, it leaves a shot to put in some smaller defensive tackles or larger defensive ends in on obvious passing downs to help create pressure from the inside while your fatasses (I mean it in the most complimentary way possible) get some rest.
One team does exactly what I envision. They are the Minnesota Vikings. The Williams Brother open everything up for everybody. Ben Leber and Chad Greenway both move extremely well and EJ Henderson (when healthy) has shown a nose for the ball to make their entire linebacking corps very good at getting to the ball and making plays. Both Pat and Kevin Williams are always in the debate for the Pro Bowl, because they do their job very well, and working together makes them even more dominant, because they aren’t constantly double teamed since that would leave the other guy to dominate. I don’t think these are the most talented defensive tackles in the game, but I do think they know what their job is and they excel in getting it done.
Back in 2001, the Bears put this defense out there when they had Sam Adams and Ted Washington in the middle. The Bears had Jim Miller at QB and still had a first round bye going into the playoffs because there defense was so awesome. Brian Urlacher had the best year he will ever have in his career when they had those guys. The Bears system worked even better because they had those fast linebackers that could roam free. The Bears still have fast linebackers, but they often get blocked on the second level by lineman who don’t have to worry about 350 lbs of man meat in front of them.
The only real problem that the Bears would run into if they reinstituted this defense is that the big guys do tend to tire quicker than the smaller defensive tackles. This shouldn’t be a huge issue as you could put in quicker defensive tackles on passing downs to help create that quick rush that Tony Dungy’s Defenses were known for. It is the best of both worlds. It is so simple and blatantly effective that I know the Bears will not be using my strategy anytime soon.