Which defensive scheme will the 2010 Bills use? Before we find out, I thought that it might be a good idea to talk about each defensive scheme in terms of strengths and weaknesses. This won't cover every variation of every defense, but will cover the basics.
We'll start with a some history. I think it's useful to document how each scheme began and evolved, and to dispel a lot of the rumors about the schemes. In my opinion, there is no one scheme that's displayed dominance over another. Scheming on defense can't replace good players. Also, each defense has been dominant during a period of NFL history. In the case of the Bullough-Fairbanks 30 Front and the 46 Defense, the defenses were dominant, went out of style, evolved, and re-emerged as a dominant form of defense.
The base 3-4 (Bullough-Fairbanks) defense was designed in the ’40s at OU but wasn’t used in the NFL until Miami used in in 1972, but is was more a hybrid defense than a true 3-4. The 3-4 became the defense of choice in the late 1970s and into the 1980s. Two styles were used: the base defense, and for those teams that had a pass-rushing OLB, the hyprid or "elephant" 3-4. The defense waned in the ’90s, as teams began to win with fast-flowing 4-3 defenses used by Dallas, Minnesota, and Tampa Bay. In the late 1990s only two teams ran a 3-4 defense: Pittsburgh and Buffalo. The defense re-emerged with use by the Patriots and the ease of finding small college DEs to fill the OLB roles, despite the difficulty in finding true NTs to man the scheme.
The LeBeau or Blitzburgh 3-4 defense is similar in set-up as the Bullough-Fairbanks. The main difference is that any player in the front seven can blitz, and any player in the front seven can drop into coverage. The scheme still requires a space-eating NT but places more emphasis on having good athletes at all four LB positions and both DEs.
The Base 4-3 was designed in the ’50s by the NY Giants. It was supposedly designed by then-defensive coordinator Tom Landry to stop Jim Brown. It was the defense of choice through the 1960s and into the 1970s, and faded in the late ’70s and into the 1980s. The defense re-emerged with the success of Jimmy Johnson, who used a one-gap fast-flowing 4-3 defense with the Dallas Cowboys. Scouts also found it easier to find smaller DTs and LBs who could run and fit the scheme. When Tony Dungy took over the Bucanneers, it solidified this trend to the point where 30 of 32 NFL teams ran a 4-3 defense in the late 1990s. The defense waned as passing attacks became more complex and dependant on the spread formation, as the 4-3 had lesser blitz variation to confuse an offense.
The Tampa 2 began with the Steelers' Steel Curtain defense in the 1970s. The defense was run exclusively by the Steelers until Dungy took over as the Defensive Coordinator for the Vikings in the early 1990s. He brought the defense with him to Tampa Bay and later Indianapolis. It shared the some of the same principles as Jimmy Johnson’s defense, but was also much simpler, as the defense played the same way every snap. The scheme began to flame out when Peyton Manning exposed it the year after Tampa’s Super Bowl win, as the defense is limited in the amount of variations that it can use during the game. The scheme also became harder to draft for as offenses got more complex, as a defense that runs a vanilla scheme needs tremendous athletes across its front seven.
The Bates 4-3 defense is similar in design as the Jimmy Johnson fast-flowing defense as well as the Tampa 2. Main differences include playing more man defense than zone at the CB positions, and the two DTs playing two-gap instead of one-gap. The scheme essentially has two NTs, each one playing over the guard. This allows for the rest of the team to play a fast flowing attacking style. Bates' defense was very good with the Wannstadt-era Dolphins, with Tim Bowens and Darryl Gardener clogging the middle and allowing undersized players like Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas become stars.
The 46 defense began with the Bears in the ’80s under Buddy Ryan. It quickly flamed out as the scheme was very vulnerable without a defensive front seven full of stars, with only the Eagles using the defense by the ’90s. It re-emerged in a different form later in the decade. Many concepts survived: the SLB as a stand-up DE-type, the two DTs and one DE covering the center and both guards, and a SS that plays in the box. This form of the defense was highly successful in the NFL in the late 1990s and through the past decade, with the Giants’ Super Bowl win being the culmination of the 46 re-emergence. The Eagles, Titans, Bills, Saints, and Lions have run this defense the past decade, with the first three teams mentioned having near-NFL best defenses at various points. The main reason for the success of this defense is that it offers near-equal blitz variations as a 3-4 defense, and it’s easier to draft for than a traditional or Tampa 2 variation of the 4-3. In this defense, the DTs are big space eaters but not NT types, the WDE and SLB are edge rushers, the SDE is a 5-technique DE, the MLB and WLB are smaller LBs, and the SS is a SS-LB hybrid; all of these types of players are common in the college ranks. This form of defense is also more reliant on scheme and less on star players when compared to a Tampa 2 or traditional 4-3 defense.
Strengths: 3 down linemen all play two-gap, leaving only one LB with a gap assignment. Very good against outside runs with a LB and DE placed at the OT or wider. Bigger bodies needed to play the defense allow the team to be physical with run-oriented offenses. The blitz packages are extensive and have been the most successful recently in countering spread and Coryall offenses. ILBs can be ordinary athletes with good instincts and do well.
Weaknesses: Defense requires three very good defensive linemen to be effective in order to keep the LBs free to make plays. Slower defense that can be exposed if the offensive line is successful in pass protection. Fast TEs give the defense trouble, as well as teams that can run with power out of the two-TE, one-back set.
Used By: New England, Kansas City, Miami, Cleveland, Denver, Green Bay, San Francisco
Hybrid or Elephant Version of the Bullough-Fairbanks 3-4
ROLB shown as a defensive lineman and designated as "B" since the player mostly rushes.
Used By: Baltimore, NY Jets, San Diego
Strengths: Faster players that can all rush and all drop into cover allows for almost innumerable blitzing combinations. Very effective against passing offenses due to confusion created by blitzing combinations. Effective stunting and looping on pass rushes, and also effective shooting gaps on run plays. Nearly impossible to beat wide.
Weaknesses: Can be overwhelmed by a power rushing attack that takes advantage of blitzes and movement. Will give up big plays when the defense doesn't get to the QB. Requires a good coverage SS as the defense's blitzing combinations make the scheme susceptible to pass catching TEs or bigger WRs that use the middle of the field. Requires a great NT to base the defense and the draft has to bring in a lot of quality athletes at LB.
Best Used By: Pittsburgh
Strengths: Combines strength of a 3-4 hybrid with attacking, one-gap scheme. Very fast defense that can disrupt timing of passing attacks and beat blockers to spots in the run game. Hard to run wide against as every player in the front is athletic and can run. Blitz combinations can be as varied as the LeBeau defense. Very good pass rushing defense.
Weaknesses: Can be run against effectively with a power run game. Defense uses smaller players that can be worn down as the game goes on. Will give up a lot of big play is the pass rush doesn't get to the QB. Requires high quality personnel at almost every position in the front.
Used By: Dallas, Arizona
Strengths: Four down linemen to attack four of the five offensive linemen allows LBs to take advantage of blocking by backs and TEs. Good with inside runs and OLBs are in position to stack the edge and hold against outside runs. OLBs in position to keep TEs from getting off the ball cleanly. Fast flowing and will penetrate against runs and passes.
Weaknesses: Older defense that has morphed into a couple other defenses. MLB must be a Pro-Bowl level player for the defense to work. Few blitz variations. Very vanilla.
Used by: Houston, Oakland, Atlanta
Strengths: Extremely hard to play against if the defense has all the required personnel. Scheme calls for penetration on every play to disrupt pass and run, and can generate a solid rush without blitzing. Very fast LBs that don't allow for big plays in the passing game. Hard to run against wide. Effective against fast TEs and pass catching RBs. Can generate a lot of big plays with the number of athletes on the field.
Weaknesses: The defense requires at least one Pro-Bowl DT, two very good ends, and extremely fast LBs to be truly dominant, which is all hard to find. Can be gashed by running plays for big gains. If one gap assignment is missed, the entire defense can fail for the play. A bending defense that can be driven on.
Used by: Indianapolis, Minnesota, Chicago, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Seattle
The Bear 46....
... has morphed into this:
Strengths: Uses two big DTs and a bigger 5-technique DE on the strong side to overwhelm the G-C-G-RT. Uses an edge rusher as a strong side LB that excels at rushing the passer and stacking the edge. MLB and WLB kept clean to make tackles. Difficult to run inside against and wide against the strong side. Can use a similar blitz package as a 3-4 with two LB's playing inside the tackle box and off the ball.
Weaknesses: Gives up big plays to runners that break through the second level. Can give up runs to the weak side. Susceptible to fast TEs and RBs without a very good SS. Can be torn apart by a horizontal West Coast system that protects the QB.
Used by: Cincinnati, Tennessee, Philadelphia, Giants, Washington, Detroit, New Orleans, St. Louis.
Strengths: A variation of the Jimmy Johnson 4-3 defense that essentially calls for two NTs type players to man the DTs positions. Hard defense to run against because of the containment style the defense plays. The two DTs take up the G-C-G in blocking schemes, allowing the smaller and faster DEs and OLBs to funnel plays back inside playing off blocks from TEs and backs. The MLB then cleans up making the tackle agains the runner, who can't get wide and has no hole between the guards. Very good against wide plays, fast TEs, RBs and offenses that spread the field.
Weaknesses: Hard to find two NTs. Smaller linebackers and ends are vulnerable if the runner gets past the line of scrimmage. Somewhat inflexible in terms of what type of personnel the scheme requires. Scheme needs two DEs that can get to the passer on their own.
Used by: Jacksonville, 2009 Buccaneers
Hopefully this helps us define the conversation about what type of defense that we could or should use. I'll start with this statement: my studies of defenses has led me to believe three things:
Players dictate success on defense more than scheme. I can find few defenses that were great without great players but using a great scheme. There are plenty of so-called "bad" schemes that work because of great players. Minnesota's Tampa 2 is a great example of this.
Schemes aren't successful or unsuccessful because of weather or location alone. Chicago plays the Tampa 2 in the cold, Miami plays a Bullough-Fairbanks 3-4 in good weather.
None of these defenses will every "die" completely. They will evolve and change. Just like the Bullough-Fairbanks version of the 3-4 defense "died" in the late 1990’s, but re-emerged with the Patriots. And because of this, no defensive scheme is ever permanently superior. You can already see the vulnerabilities of the Bullough-Fairbanks 3-4 when a Wildcat offense is run at it.
Let the debate begin!