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Analyzing the Defense Part 1: The Run
The Buccaneers' defense has been a peculiar subject over the past season. On one play the defense stuffs a run for a loss and on the very next gives up an 80 yard touchdown pass. This process was repeated game after game and left fans questioning the play calling and system put in place by Schiano. Over the next two articles, I will explore the ins and outs of the Bucs' defense and shed light on its bi-polar results.
If you missed my analyzation of Buc's run game, view it here.
The Run Defense
Arguably the biggest improvement last season was the Buccaneers' run defense. The team went from worst to first, improving from 156 yards per game in 2011 to 82 yards per game in 2012. The additions of Lavonte David and Mark Barron along with the maturation of Mason Foster and Gerald McCoy paid dividends. The team played fast, decisive, and achieved penetration on a regular basis. To understand how they did this we must start at the basics of a defense.
The very basis of a defense starts with how it will cover the gaps presented by an offensive line. These gaps are the naturally created spaces between two offensive players on the line of scrimmage.
As seen in the image, each gap is assigned a letter. The center-guard gap is the A gap, the guard-tackle gap is the B gap, the tackle-tight end gap is the C gap, and the gap outside the first tight end is the D gap. A sound defense is structured to have every gap accounted for by a player.
Assigning gaps starts with the defensive line. A lineman can either be a one-gap or two-gap player. A one-gap defensive lineman is as it sounds- a player assigned to defend a single gap or space between two lineman. Conversely, a two-gap lineman is aligned heads up on an offensive lineman and told to guard the gap on both sides of the player. Any defense, 4-3 or 3-4 for example, can have players playing one-gap, two-gap, or a combination of both. It is most common in the NFL for 4-3 defenses to be one-gaped across the line and 3-4 defenses to use a combination of interior lineman 2-gaped and outside linebackers one-gaped.
Also seen in the image, three numbers are assigned below each offensive lineman. These are the "techniques" that defensive players align to on the line of scrimmage. An even number denotes a heads up position on the offensive lineman while odd numbers are mainly outside shades on offensive lineman. Don't get caught up on the weird numbering with the 7 and 9 technique.
The Buccaneers run a 4-3 defense. While the 4-3 can be aligned in several ways, it is almost always ran with a nosetackle playing a 1 technique and a defensive tackle playing on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage in a 3 technique. Commonly the defensive end paired with the nosetackle plays a 5 technique and the other defensive end paired with the defensive tackle plays anything from a 7, 6, or 9 technique.
In the 4-3, the 1 technique player is considered the nosetackle (Roy Miller). This player's role is to clog the middle of the offensive line. His job is to draw the double team from the center and guard and keeps them from getting second level on the linebackers; sometime he must force himself into a double team when the offense doesn't intend to. The 3 technique player is called the defensive tackle (Gerald McCoy). From his position on the outside shade of the guard, his job is to penetrate, penetrate, penetrate. The 4-3 defense is designed to help keep him from getting double teamed. From the passage of time and the evolution of the NFL, both defensive ends are interchangeable; some teams prefer their more athletic end on the left tackle while others prefer their stronger end on the left tackle. Their roles against the run when not slanting or stunting is to set the edge and force the run back inside.
Here, the Bucs can be seen playing the 1 technique nosetackle away from the tight end. This is considered an "over" defense. The defensive end paired with the nosetackle is on the outside hip of the left tackle in a 5 technique, the defensive tackle is on the outside hip of the right guard in a 3 technique, and the defensive end paired with the defensive tackle is in a heads up 6 technique on the tight end.
On this play, the Bucs are playing the 1 technique into the tight end. Normally the defensive end paired with the 1 technique plays on the outside hip of the tackle in a 5 technique, but now there is a tight end to his outside. The defense does not want to get outflanked so the outside linebacker is moved down onto the line of scrimmage in a 9 technique and the end moves in to a heads up position 4 technique. This is called an "under" defense.
The last two images are the same I-formation by the Vikings, but the Bucs use two different alignments to match it. This is quite common in the NFL. With nearly unlimited practice and coaching hours, NFL teams can run several different systems offensively and defensively and not be hurt by it. This is often called being "multiple." On the contrary, college and high school teams often stay simple and constant due to the constraints on practice time.
The gaps created by the offensive line can be accounted for in several ways. The easiest and most common way is for each defender to cover the gap across from him.
Revisiting an earlier photo, each player will essentially cover the gap they are lined over. The defensive ends will control their outside gaps and not get outflanked by the defense. The inside players will fill their gaps and either get the tackle or force the run back outside to a contain player. Note that this is a very simple representation of how the gaps are defended. The middle linebacker alone is given several different gaps to cover based on the direction of the run, this is just one example.
The next way gaps can be filled is by stunts or slants. Stunts can be very simple or complex. They can involve several players exchanging gaps across the line or can be run by as little as two players. Here, the left defensive end is going to shoot across the face of the tackle and attempt to penetrate into the backfield through the B gap while the left outside linebacker will contain the C gap. These stunts, while simple, can be deadly.
The last important concept is how offenses manipulate gaps, their numbers, and how defenses react to these changes. Additional gaps are created when teams add fullbacks or tight ends to the formation.
Here, the Vikings are in a single-back heavy formation. They have two tight ends aligned off the side of the right tackle. This formation creates 8 gaps for the defense to defend. Is this any different from the I formation seen previously? The answer is a yes and no. A blocking fullback actually creates an addition gap within a gap (keep up with me here). The difference between the fullback in the backfield and the additional tight end on the line of scrimmage is that the location of the gap is declared with the tight end.
As illustrated in this image, 8 gaps are also created by the I formation. However, the defense does not know where the extra gap will be created due to the blocking fullback. Another way to view this is by the numbers in the box. There are 7 blockers and 7 defenders; neither of the Buc's safeties are playing in the box. The running back will go untouched if the offense can get a man on a man and block them well. There are 8 gaps for 7 line of scrimmage defenders to fill. This is the issue created when a defense plays with two deep safeties; the offense gains a theoretical advantage in the box.
Defenses can combat this mismatch in numbers in a few ways. They can 2-gap their interior lineman, move a safety into the box, blitz a safety or corner, or give the play-side safety a gap to cover from the secondary. To provide an example for the last case, Barron or Barber would be told to crash fast downhill on a run towards their respective side and fill the open gap. They become whats called an alley or force player. The draw back of this is that a delayed read by the safety means delayed help, and, conversely, too quick of a reaction can lead to being out of place in coverage on play action.
On this play, the Vikings are running a single back ace formation. Ace depicts that there are two tight ends with one on the outside of each offensive tackle. This formation presents the defense with 7 blockers and 8 gaps to defend. In response, Barber walks down closer to the box to provide an 8th defender. This makes 8 defenders to fill all 8 gaps and take on 7 blockers. At least one player will go unblocked- most likely Ronde.
Here, the "power" play is drawn. Like the fullback, the pulling guard creates a gap within a gap. However, the guard erases a gap originally created on the line of scrimmage when he pulls. A gap is subtracted from the left side of the line and added to the right. This is gap movement and manipulation at its old fashion best. This gap manipulation takes a sound defensive system and play to defend properly.
The foundation of a good run defense is clearly defined gap assignments for each defender. A defender must know on every formation and play what gap he is responsible for, but that's only half of it. The system must also allow the defender to be able to recognize what gap is his and react fast enough to fill it. The sign of a bad run defense is when multiple defenders end up in the same gap and, in turn, gaps go completely unguarded. This was a common sight in Buccaneer's teams of the past.
A team who thrives on gap manipulation is the 49ers. They will often play with two tight ends (one of the tight ends is most likely the backup left tackle) and a fullback on the field at the same time. They create what is called an unbalanced line with the two tight ends playing side by side. This creates 8 initial gaps for the defense to account for. On the snap, they will pull one, or even two, lineman along with a lead fullback to move and create an additional 3 gaps.
The 49ers also take this concept a step further. They are one of the few teams to currently run the zone-read in the NFL. The zone-read simply means that a rushing defender is left unblocked and is read by the quarterback. This defender can be anything from a nose guard to a defense end. If the read defender attacks the quarterback, the ball is handed off. If the defender attacks the fake to the running back, the quarterback keeps the ball. This essentially takes a defender out of a play and, for example, makes a 7 man box into to a 6 man box.
This zone-read is currently being mixed with the unbalanced lines and extreme gap manipulation to provide one of the deadlier running games in the NFL. While arguably gimmicky, the numbers game an offense can play has been done in college for a long time to great success. However, it is even more arguable that some of the best offenses in the NFL keep things simple and do their few concepts better than everyone else. The future of the zone-read in the NFL is probably best observed through the upcoming seasons of Chip Kelly.
The Buccaneers boasted the best run defense in the NFL last season. They played fast and achieved penetration on a regular basis. Two players were top five in the league for tackles for loss: Lavonte David, 3rd, with 20 and Michael Bennett, tied for 5th, with 18. From the numbers I have available, the Bucs had at least 76 tackle for loss on 377 rush attempts against them. This equates to roughly 20% of runs on the Buccaneers' defense resulted in a loss. How did they do it?
First, the week 10 game against San Diego. The Chargers are in a Strong-I formation running "power." They are pulling their left guard across the formation along with a fullback as lead blockers. Barron is walked down to a position to assist against the run. Foster is in a blitz on the strong side A gap.
A lot is moving fast on this play, but there are some keys. First, Foster is about to get crushed by the right guard. However, Gary Gibson playing the 3 technique is going to drive the guard out of the play and off of Foster. The pulling left guard is going to get caught up on the penetrating push by Gibson and be late on his pull. Next, Bennett is being solo blocked by Antonio Gates. Lastly, the fullback is going to attempt to block David.
Gibson has driven the Guard past the hash mark and freed Foster, the pulling guard still has not gotten all the way across the formation, Bennett is in the process of shedding Gates, and David is taking on the fullback.
In this last image, Bennett has shed Gates and is making the tackle. The pulling guard still hasn't blocked a single player. This can be directly attributed to the push by Gibson and the trash the guard had to pull around. Lastly, David absolutely destroyed the fullback. Did he even flinch? The keys to take from this play is that the interior of the line is protecting the linebackers and the defense as a whole is shedding blocks. Four Buccaneers are in place to make a tackle.
On this play, the Panthers are in the shotgun. They have 6 blockers creating 7 gaps. The Bucs play two deep safeties and are bringing the pressure. They are blitzing Foster and Biggers off the edge. The defensive line is going to slant away from the blitz. Two lineman will slant across the formation and the other two lineman will penetrate up-field and contain. This is the most common slant the Bucs use. The offense is either going to run the ball to where the Bucs are blitzing or to where they are slanting.
Changing views, The Panthers are going to run inside zone to the left. The center and guard are supposed to double team the first down lineman, Roy Miller, and then release to block the linebacker David. However, David is playing nearly 3 yards off the line of scrimmage. This gives the center no time to double team Miller and forces him to quickly make his way onto David.
Miller shoots off the line very quickly and forces himself onto the center. While it may not be very obvious, the center has little intention of dealing with Miller. On the right side, the tight end failed to see Foster shooting quickly inside him and instead blocks Biggers.
Finally, Miller has completely turned the center inside and sealed off the left side. David and Foster have gone completely untouched and filled both of their respective gaps. The play has nowhere to go. Once gain, interior lineman are protecting the linebackers and allowing them to flow freely.
Like the Panthers, the Saints are going to run inside zone to the right. However, they are going to use their tight end to block backside. The Bucs are playing two high safeties and are not bringing a blitz; they are most likely more afraid of the Saints throwing the ball than they are running the ball.
The Bucs are once again slanting to the right. The left two lineman will slant right while the right two lineman will pushing forward and contain. Because the left defensive end, Teo-Nesheim, is pushing into the B gap, the left outside linebacker, Adam Hayward, is going to contain the outside C gap.
Double team on Miller who will eventually push over the top of the center into the opposite A gap. I would argue this was not his job, but Foster makes up for it by moving to the backside A gap. Teo is going to move quickly through the B gap and beat the tackle. There is no guard to catch him because he is double teaming Miller.
Miller fights over the top of double team. The guard releases to move up onto Foster. Hayward has contain and is about to contact #85 for the Saints. The right side of the line has penetrated and in a position to contain a run to the right. Teo has penetrated and is in a position to make the tackle.
While it is hard to see, pretty much every gap is accounted for by the defense. They have contained the run towards its original direction and are forcing it to cutback. Teo is going to miss this tackle and the ball will be cut back. There are two players in perfect position to cover the cutback. Foster is in a shedding position and Hayward should be playing outside his blocker and containing the outside. However, he decides to shoot inside the blocker and completely blows his contain responsibility.
Hayward is now on the ground. Foster shed his blocker to the outside and is in good position to make the tackle. However, Barber shot in out of nowhere from the secondary and is going to clean up the play. What to take away from this play is the slant by the defensive line. It achieved its purpose and got penetration. It also put the defense in a position to contain the cutback after the missed tackle. However, bad technique and play by the backup Hayward allowed a gain.
In this last play, the Redskins are running outside zone to the strength of the formation. The Bucs have rolled down Barron in response to the threat of Washington's running game.
The Bucs are slanting away from the strength of the formation. At first this seems counter-intuitive, but they are probably doing this because of the threat of the Redskin's read-option game which can be deadly to the weak side. The last few plays the Bucs guessed right with the direction of their slanting. So what happens when they choose wrong?
As seen, the entire Redskin's line takes their initial step to the right side of the line of scrimmage (to our left). On the other hand, the Bucs line takes their initial step to the left (to our right). Things are looking potentially bad.
But wait! The world is not over. Bennett shoots behind the playside guard and has a direct line to the running back.
In the change of view, we see the running back about to get killed. Several play side defenders have beaten their blockers and the backside is giving decent pursuit. This play shows that guessing wrong on a slant isn't a bad thing.
The reason for this goes back to the basics. Every gap is accounted for by the defense. They are slanting and stunting into different gaps instead of pushing into the one in front of them. All that a slant does is change who is responsible for each gap. The slanting moves blockers and creates chaos- controlled chaos. Runs no longer look like what they are drawn up as: pulling guards get caught in traffic, double teams get forced by defensive lineman, and defenders shooting as fast as they can into gaps force blockers to change assignments.
Schiano's defense thrives off penetration and this controlled chaos created by slants, stunts, and blitzes. However, not all teams can pull off this type of attack. The countless fundamental drills we hear Schiano running can be attributed to this ability to stop the run. The Bucs are excelling in their fundamentals against the run. They are reading their keys, shedding blocks, and making tackles. Most of all, they are staying within their gaps. It can only be imagined that this goes back to Schiano's push on accountability for every player.
It blows my mind how fast the front 7 plays. The linebackers, more specifically, read their keys for run and instantly get in proper position to make a play. David has a killer instinct that lets him fly to the ball and get the tackle. Getting 20 tackles for loss as a rookie, especially for playing off the line of scrimmage, is no small feat.
While I am analyzing the pass defense next, I see very little reason why this type of run defense would prevent the Buccaneers from being good against the pass. Slanting and stunting can hurt the pass rush, but it can also help. Regardless, most of the time a slant or stunt would be called is on a running situation where penetration is desired. The defense was also surprisingly in a 2 high safety look more often than not. The front 7 consistently holds their own and occasionally relies on the secondary to clean up plays, but this cleanup is easily done from an initial depth of 10 yards from the line of scrimmage.
The effects of the departing Bennett and Miller will be interesting to see on the run defense. Bennett does a phenomenal job against the run and his production will be hard to replace. Miller on the other hand is a harder book to read. His job against the run isn't measured by stats. His effects are clean linebackers and congested lines of scrimmage. While nosetackles are cheap and readily available, Miller may be tricky to replace.
Please leave a comment if anything needs further explaining or if you are interested in a topic I didn't cover. Look for part 2 on the pass defense soon!