The most lopsided victory in the history of the NFL ended with a dire need.
It was December of 1940. A third of Africa, a third of East Asia, and nearly 70 percent of Europe had fallen under Axis control. The world had yet to find an answer. The world of American football seemed to face a similar predicament. The Chicago Bears had just scored the most points in a game in NFL history, a record that stands today. Football had what was perhaps less a need and more an imperative: to stop the option.
"The world was to me a secret which I desired to devine."
Modern defensive fronts have largely synthesized the virtues of 4-3 and 3-4 fronts, as we've sufficiently belabored. The read option announced its arrival in professional ranks, leading big league coaches to Texas A&M clinics, and I'm pretty sure we've covered that a bit, too. Pete Carroll characterized Seattle's defense as a "4-3 scheme with 3-4 personnel." Check. Carroll has also confirmed that Bruce Irvin and Cliff Avril will take many snaps at strong-side linebacker, and that SAM & Leo will often be essentially interchangeable. I think we're up to speed.
In seeking to understand, we've sought a label or sufficient description to explain this change, and the nature of this new front. The nature of its difference. The philosophy and objectives of this defense proactively address the demands that modern offensive football places on defenses -- which obviously includes the read-option -- and it manifests in modest skill requirement shifts at different positions, shifts in situational gap concepts, coverages, and situational personnel packaging. But it doesn't quite constitute a new formation.
"Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change."
The T formation authored the game within the game of football, before the NFL existed. The T formation may have been developed by Walter Camp in the 1880s. The Pro Set, I formation, Offset I, and more substantial variations like the Single Wing & Wishbone, all stemming from the T, entail the framework for virtually every offensive system and defensive response in football.
Yet the T had not been in active use in 1940. The forward pass was first popularized by the Single Wing. Tailbacks were the leading passers of the day, and the T was a running formation. Clark Shaughnessy advised George Halas before the 1940 NFL Championship, having devised some modifications to the original T, which enabled the T's unique feature of a QB under center to ultimately produce the game you & I watch today.
But fascinating as the evolution of the forward pass from quarterback rather than tailback is to study, that's not germane to this playbook installment, and it wasn't germane to the Bears' 73-0 embarrassing of the Washington Redskins in the 1940 Championship game, either. On that day, the T was used to counter Washington linebacker shifts. Option football, like the T formation, had not been in active use in professional ranks -- professional defenses could stop it -- but both were revived in football's most decisive hour.
Bears quarterback Sid Luckman would write nine years later that the hundred plays in the Bears' T formation playbook gave him "over 1,000 options for man-in-motion deceptions, complicated blocking schemes and multiple passing options not previously available."
It had to be stopped.
"Learn from my miseries, and do not seek to increase your own."
My mnemonic device for remembering the difference between 4-3 Over & Under fronts is "Sam slides under." An under front puts the strong-side linebacker on the line of scrimmage. 3-4 fronts often put both OLBs on the line. We've seen 5-man lines and 5-n fronts aplenty in modern football. It's almost ironic; if the 1940 Championship game was football's most decisive hour, the 1958 Championship was its most classic. Called "The Greatest Game Ever Played," the New York Giants lost more than the championship. They lost both coordinators, two of the greatest coaches of their generation.
Vince Lombardi exploited 5-2 fronts, the professional standard of their day, with the "run to daylight" power sweep. Football math, again: with 5 big men spread across the line, physics and geometry dictate that a couple will be intrinsically out of a play, on an outside run to the other side. Pulling a backside guard and adding him to the playside gives the mathematical advantage. The other former Giants coordinator, Tom Landry composed the recipe to stop the Packers, by pulling one big off the line, adding a third linebacker and thus spreading the backers out enough to be able to track the ball to the sideline if necessary, neutralizing the football math again.
So the increasing frequency of 5-man lines in a post-Bill Walsh football world shouldn't compute. It should seem fundamentally flawed, somehow. But that's what we're seeing. And with Seattle, what we have seen and figure to see more of, is a basic tendency that again seems counterintuitive on the surface:
More 5-man lines versus passing packages, and more 4-man lines versus running packages.
5-man lines versus passing packages -- 4WR packages & 00 packages excepting -- because the threat of being caught in a football math disadvantage to one side of center due to your formation is modest, and the extra man on the line gives you extra pass rush firepower. Even if you only send four.
4-3 Over looks versus running packages -- 3TE packages, I formations in goalline situations excepting -- because they need gap integrity in the box, and the ability to match both body numbers and the speed of a stretch to a run outside.
Versus Atlanta, Seattle matched a 12 package with a 5-man line on 1st & 10, but a 21 package with a 4-3 Over on 1st & 10. Atlanta has Tony Gonzalez. A single member in the backfield is a passing package. But one TE to the same side as the FB on an offset I holds an array of running options that necessitate the ability of a linebacker to diagnose the play before getting hooked. They still have gap assignments, but that 5th man is pulled back from the action.
As passing games evolved, the standard of professional defense moved from 5-2 to 4-3. After Bill Walsh arrived, the 3-4 joined the fold. For a handful of years, now, it's seemed the theorized "nickel base" has been about to arrive as the next step in football evolution, but each of these changes in defensive response didn't come about to respond to the increasing proliferation of passing offense, a misconception I held for years. They came about as a response to stop the dominant tactic that preceded them. The 4-3 was made to beat the power sweep.
The 5-2 was made to beat the option. OK, If I just leave it at that, I'm being disingenuous. It was made to stop the T formation, and all the option runs that it enabled.
"Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful."
The pivotal moment that was the 73-0 1940 Championship Game returned option running attacks to the NFL, and in short order, the 5-2. In particular, the "5-2 Monster" dominated football, professional and college, for two decades after. But that option attack was not today's option attack.
Today's option attack, refined in 1970s college ball, ate the 5-2 up, with its five 2-gap linemen (overlapping), leading to Jimmy Johnson's 1-gap front that modernized the 4-3. Strangely, Jimmy Johnson independently created a 4-3 defense before Tom Landry did. Landry used a 2-gap and flex scheme and built championships on it, and it spread throughout the league. But Johnson's front would proliferate the NFL moreso, after his success at Miami. I've probably stuffed too much football history into this article, and need to get to the point.
Two rushing attacks beat the 5-2, both by manufacturing a playside football-math advantage. The power sweep and the triple option, and their corresponding schemes built around them. Hence Seattle will largely play the run with a 4-3 Over look, while the Under front, with the SAM as the 5th man on the line, will largely be used for passing packages. It's here where the SAM & Leo become essentially interchangeable. They both own a single gap -- C for weakside Leo, D for the strong-side backer. They are the bookends of the line, positioned for edge rush. And they both drop into coverage.
We are used to linemen cover drops, particularly in the zone blitz, but we're more accustomed to coverage responsibility with any regularity from the SAM than a weak-side defensive end. But why? Given the responsibilities & requirements, and subsequent athletic prototype & skillset, there's no reason for them not to be interchangeable.
Seattle's heavy situational specialization furthers the multiplicity in this front. The alignments won't likely change much beyond the Over & Under -- as I said, it doesn't constitute a new formation -- but the modest shifts in skillset requirements, gap assignments and coverages, driven by situation, support a wider array of tactics. Though I was rather skeptical of how much Hawkblogger had gleaned from limited snaps early on in camp, he's likely on the right track to a fair extent, camp battles and competition notwithstanding. Deriving from the basic principles of why & when a 5th man sets up on the line, I would fully expect an end like Michael Bennett to take precedence in run-oriented Under fronts over a less run-oriented end like Bruce Irvin, and then switch sides and replace a less rush-oriented end like Red Bryant on pass-oriented Under fronts when substitutions are feasible.
What we're seeing here is Seattle has found a way to tailor their front to situation beyond substitution packages. The specialization has been amplified. They've already been employing this tactic, but it figures moving forward to be more pronounced. It's nothing in concept or utility that we haven't seen before. But it's bound to look and feel different as we see it executed.
"When falsehood can look so much like the truth, who can assure themselves of certain happiness?"
The 5-2 "Monster" front that evolved to stop the T formation option runs had a couple interesting facets. First, the "Monster" refers to the safety in the box. We've seen that in spades, both in the league and specifically from Seattle, but with Seattle's basic situational tendencies, the Under front with the 5-man line -- when we've seen and expect to see the safety in the box more often -- will primarily face passing packages & situations. 8 in the box vs. the pass is again counterintuitive, but we get some interesting stuff from this.
Passing packages with TE personnel allow the safety to get closer to his potential seam-ripping assignment and enables press tactics on the TE. The SAM can also take the TE. So there's more room for coverage disguises and tricks. And of course there's more room for pressure disguises and tricks, as the safety can rush with, or instead of, the SAM.
The other interesting facet of the 5-2 Monster was the ability to line up as an unbalanced front, and attack as a balanced one.
The 5-2 was a 2-gap scheme, but would often angle stunt to the weakside and blow up counters and other "run away from their strength" tactics, while still matching the strong-side for personnel. They goaded offenses to run into a disadvantage. This was subsequently ripe for exploitation by a pulled guard from the backside of the play, in Lombardi's power scheme, and so the 5-2's dominance over the league ran its course. But that sets up an intriguing option that can still do some real damage today.
It's not new. It's not something we haven't seen before. But it's just the right kind of wrinkle that offenses looking for fire zone blitzes from overloaded fronts can miss. It attacks expectations. Pieces of old things that work and once worked, stitched together. A resurrection of the 5-2 Monster, with pieces that work in the NFL today.
This will be a frequent alignment facing this situation for Seattle. We have a 5-man line, of sorts. An under front, SAM on the line, because it's 11 personnel, 3 wideouts: a passing package, likely in a non-3rd down passing situation. LB subbed for nickel corner. Offenses are familiar with this look. It's a zone blitz look: send a blitzer and drop a rusher into coverage, all on the same side. But that's played out. Fire zone is the more common & effective call today, sort of a reciprocal call: overload one side, and drop a lineman into coverage on the other side.
The overload is one of two key concepts to a fire zone. The other is to stunt away from the overload to the other side. The reason that works is what it does to protection packages. 6-man protections are more common than 5 & 7, by far. A TE or a back stays in on most plays. When it's a back, the line typically shifts toward the side the back isn't. It gives everyone an easier job; the RB comes up to chip the premier edge rusher, and the line is able to slide to the strong side (usually a half-line slide, with man assignments on the other side). This helps offenses call running plays to the strong-side as well.
So if you're the center, who do you assign as the 0 defender? Where do you divide this defense into two sides? The MLB is the 0 defender more often than the nose tackle or 1-tech. But that leaves them under-manned on the strong-side, and impedes the half-line slide. Center takes the 1-tech, RG needs to watch for that safety before helping out on either side. Presuming the TE releases, RG will help the RT out because there are still two defenders and one RT.
"Man," I cried, "how ignorant art thou in thy pride of wisdom!"
This is where a little trick spread offenses have used comes in, one that Sean Payton and New Orleans have been fond of. Shotgun, offset back: the back crosses the formation to chip on the strongside, and the QB reads the weakside. Works pretty good. But now the half-line slide is a questionable move. The LT has to beat his man. It's 2-on-2 to the left of Center.
Overload & stunt away: the fire zone in a nutshell. Send an extra 2 on one side, drop 1 on the other. But overloading the strong side takes an extra man, not good. Fire zones typically overload the weakside. Typically give the RB two rushers, make him choose from two ill fates. Well I'm not taking such a bold approach, here. But I am effectively producing the same effect, potentially, while only rushing four and dropping seven. If they slide and the RB chips weak, LT & RB have two rushers coming off the edge. The better rusher still has to mind the flat release by the back, of course, but they don't know that. Our 3-tech will attempt to cross the LT's face while the Leo reads the back, and if he stays in, there's a shot at the QB who will be reading frontside, and he'll take it.
But the back might cross the pocket. RG has to mind that safety, which delays his ability to help RT with the 5-tech and/or SAM. So my 5-tech-SAM twist there may still encounter a matched count of blockers. RT doesn't need to overcommit to his mirror slide and the SAM twisting in may not have the crease that could make it work. But if that's the case, our Leo who's keying on the RB will rush in this case. The LT will have two men on the edge, one crossing his face. This will be a high pressure situation.
And again, if the back stays in to chip on that weak side, our safety covers the TE in man -- underneath man coverage is something Quinn has confirmed Seattle will run more, which is known to produce pressure packages of this sort -- then while we have 2-on-2 on the strong side, we've successfully created an isolation mismatch.
The RG has to mind the safety first, as I said, and there are two rushers on the edge -- whichever side the back chips on, there will be two rushers on the edge on the other side. Weakside is a high pressure situation, but strongside would be even higher pressure: Michael Bennett & Bruce Irvin twisting against an RT. Irvin shoves the TE on the way around the edge, imploring the tackle to overcommit to the edge against 2 rushers he knows he has no outside help with, only for Irvin to cut inside. To the crease, with the more direct path to the QB, in the QB's line of sight as he likely begins his triangle read progression. Even a lack of a sack or hit has a strong chance at disrupting the pass play.
By seeking isolation rather than an overload, we're achieving the key components of a fire zone blitz while still only rushing four. Fire zones force an RB to choose:
But in our case he doesn't know it. Rex Ryan calls these 4-man rushes (he also calls them gross; "blow one rat," really?) because his D(ime) commits to rushing, while the $afety has man coverage on the back. If he releases, the safety has to abandon his rush and stick with him. We, too, are committing four, covering the back, and enabling the potential for 5 rushers.
"You accuse me of murder; and yet you would, with a satisfied conscience, destroy your own creature. Oh, praise the eternal justice of man!"
There is a design flaw, here, though. One I'm willing to live with; this is partially predicated on offenses not expecting these tactics from this formation & package very much, so I don't expect them to read this front and know just the right kryptonite to use. This happens a bit in football; you gotta take a few shots. Here, don't scroll up, I'll show the diagram again.
So our Leo is keying on the RB, who would be mighty uncovered if he takes releases strongside for a pass. If the RB crosses the pocket, Leo is rushing. If this is a run, standard gap assignments apply, and the safety would be expected to blow up the edge. But if the back releases for a pass, the safety and slot corner would need to clean that up. We've got three in coverage, here, applying trail technique if their assignment goes deep. Once the ball comes out of the QB's hands, our guys would need to break on the ball and clean that RB pass up.
Shouldn't be a large gain. It's got 1st-down potential, so like I said, we'd roll this out against a passing personnel package on a non-3rd down play. A flaw that's mitigated, and there's just as much probability, if not more, that we can put the pressure on the QB here, if not defeat the play. If nothing else we can induce 7-man protection, eliminating the TE route, since we've got 7 in the box. It's not a perfect play, but how many things are we on the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our inquiries?