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The Sean McDermott Defense

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Let’s take a deep dive into McDermott’s defensive philosophies, scheme, and positional responsibilities.

Sean McDermott’s defense is the opposite of Rex Ryan’s.

From front-seven configuration, to coverage philosophies, to blitzing tendencies, the two schemes couldn’t be more different.

And over the past six years, McDermott’s defenses have been highly productive.

Starting in 2011, his first as Panthers defensive coordinator, Carolina’s defense finished 32nd, 11th, 3rd, 15th, 2nd, and 10th in DVOA, Football Outsiders’ all-encompassing efficiency metric. In 2015 and 2016, the Panthers were a top 10 run defense, allowing 3.9 yards per carry in both seasons. A year ago, Carolina led the NFL with 24 interceptions. In 2016, the Panthers tied for second with 17 picks.

McDermott is a disciple of the late, legendary defensive coordinator Jim Johnson who ran the defense for the Eagles during the Andy Reid era in Philadelphia. Johnson ran a 4-3 known for its exotic zone blitzes that routinely baffled quarterbacks as they scanned the field.

But while McDermott learned everything about defense from Johnson, the new Bills head coach’s 4-3 is far less reliant on the blitz.

There isn’t a vast difference between 3-4 and 4-3 alignments today because of the proliferation of the nickel package, which essentially knocks defenses out of their “base” look.

However, one fundamental disparity remains between 3-4 and 4-3 defenses — gap responsibilities for defensive linemen.

In most cases, 3-4 defenses ask the majority (if not all) of their down linemen to be responsible for the two gaps in line with their shoulders. In theory, that allows them to control offensive linemen, thereby freeing linebackers behind them to make plays without having to take on a variety of blockers rumbling to the second level. Defensive linemen are also asked to eat double teams frequently, because two-gap duties require reading then reacting instead of simply attacking upfield.

(Wade Phillips is famous for being the rare 3-4 coach who runs a predominantly one-gap system.)

In Rex’s scheme, at least two defensive linemen were asked to two-gap on every play. At times, all of them did. The defensive line doing the brunt of the dirty work was a catalyst for Lorenzo Alexander’s monster year, and a big reason why Zach Brown flew all over the field basically untouched for the first two months of the season.

As a defensive linemen, against the run, it’s possible — albeit not easy — to peek into the backfield, stack and shed a blocker to make an impact stop near the line of scrimmage. As a pass-rusher, playing in a two-gap system significantly decreases your chances to pressure the quarterback... mainly because it’s not your primary job.

In McDermott’s system — like most 4-3 alignments — the defensive line is unleashed on the opponent’s backfield (and quarterback) in a relentless one-gap onslaught. There’s little to no two-gapping for defensive linemen. That’s more important than anything else in this article.

McDermott’s (and originally Johnson’s) idea is that quick penetration into the opponent’s backfield from any one of the defensive linemen is the fastest and most efficient way to disrupt the offense. This scheme doesn’t “protect” linebackers against pulling guards. It’s designed to stop run plays before the pulling guard’s block can have an effect at the second level.

Let’s look at the main, front-seven looks in McDermott’s defense with the Buffalo defenders likely (or potentially) penciled in at each position.

4-3 Under (Base Defense)

Like most 4-3 alignments, McDermott’s base is a 4-3 Under. All that means is the defensive line is shifted “under” the weakside of the offensive formation. The linebackers are shifted toward the strongside of the offensive formation.

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The first thing that may stick out to Bills fans in the above picture is the left defensive end labeled “Shaq” for Shaq Lawson. Yes, with McDermott comes the return of the Wide 9. It’s not precisely the same at Jim Schwartz’s double Wide 9, but there is a defensive lineman who lines up at the “9 technique,” or the spot well outside the offensive tackle (if there’s a tight end on that side, the 9 technique aligns with his outside shoulder).

From this alignment, it’s easy to see how all gaps are covered.

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Arrows for the last two defenders were purposely left out.

While the 9 technique would typically attack the outside shoulder of the right tackle, on this particularly play, he crashed inside and the safety creeping into the box right before the snap filled the furthest outside gap.

The gap responsibilities for the 9 technique and box safety are interchangeable, but normally (and logically), defensive backs fill outside gaps as opposed to inside gaps where enormous offensive linemen roam.

With everyone attacking downhill, it’s not hard to understand how and why the Panthers defense was stout against the run during McDermott’s tenure as defensive coordinator.

(Yes, players like Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Kawann Short, and Star Lotululei occupying those gaps undoubtedly helped on the execution side of things.)


4-3 Over

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This may look like a standard, run-of-the-mill 4-3 alignment, but it’s a 4-3 Over, because of the positioning of the strongside linebacker (in this shot, it’s No. 54.) Instead of playing right on the line of scrimmage, on an island of sorts as a quasi-defensive end in the 4-3 Under, in this alignment in McDermott’s defense, the strongside linebacker aligns to the strongside of the formation (imagine that), which is the side to which the defensive line is shifted.

Against a two wide receiver set here, McDermott felt he could be aggressive, and he sent “Zach” (Thomas Davis) and Thompson on inside blitzes, while middle linebacker Luke Kuechly had Devonta Freeman in coverage.

Here are the gap assignments for this alignment:

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Again — and this will become a theme — the “break through the offensive-line creases” mentality of McDermott’s defense is obvious.

In this defensive configuration, the wide alignment of the 9 technique along with the strongside linebacker on his side means the tight end, in essence, can’t run an unimpeded route. If he did, he’d leave the right tackle out to the dry in pass protection, and Thompson likely would’ve been assigned to him coverage. Because he didn’t leave the line of scrimmage, Thompson came on a delayed blitz.


Nickel Package

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In nickel on this play, the Panthers subbed out Shaq Thompson for a defensive back. If the NFL had a collective base defense, this is it. Every team runs nickel about 55-65% of the time today.

Davis (on this play, Ragland) moved into a strongside linebacker’s position in a 4-3 Over as the Saints running back went into motion.

He and Kuechly (Zach or Preston here) showed blitz but ultimately dropped into coverage. As usual, at the snap, all the defensive linemen immediately attacked the gap they were positioned to attack.


Double A-Gap Blitz / Bluff

Speaking of linebackers showing blitz, if there’s one, go-to “disguised” blitz in McDermott’s defense, it comes by way of cramming both A gaps (between the center and both guards) before the snap.

Two linebackers show the vaunted Double A-Gap blitz pre snap. Sometimes they both rush. Other times, only one blitzes. Sometimes neither blitz. It’s McDermott’s way of creating anxiety and confusion for both the offensive line and, more importantly, the quarterback.

Here’s an example of the Double A-Gap show that ends with only one linebacker blitzing... and the result is a sack. It’s from an awesome mashup video created by Billy Marshall.

Yes, you saw a defensive lineman drop into coverage. No, it doesn’t happen often but is occasionally necessary to cover the middle of the field vacated by the blitzing inside linebacker.

In fact, the dropping defensive linemen is a nod to Johnson, McDermott’s predecessor.

Here’s the Double A-Gap show that ends with both inside linebackers dropping into zone coverage.

While this play didn’t necessarily cause confusion for the offensive line, Davis and Kuechly sinking into the middle of the field took away Carson Palmer’s second read, Larry Fitzgerald, which led to the incompletion.

Last but not least, here’s a play in which both players showing that A-Gap blitz — in this case, safety Kurt Coleman — fly directly up the middle.

Actually, there’s one more worth sharing. It demonstrates that McDermott can get creative and hasn’t totally erased his mentor’s zone blitzes from his scheme.

Yeah, that’s defensive end Mario Addison standing up in the B Gap, twisting all the way to the opposite B Gap with a Kuechly A-Gap blitz mixed in and Davis as an “edge-rusher” who drops into middle-of-the-field coverage.

That last blitz isn’t common, but it’s in the arsenal.


Coverage

As for the coverage philosophies and secondary-member responsibilities in McDermott’s defense, well, it’s pretty cut and dry.

Zone is standard, and it’s used the majority of the time. Every variety of it. Cover 2, Cover 3, Cover 4. He’ll sprinkle in some Cover 1 (man under with one free safety in the middle of the field), but for the most part, McDermott’s cornerbacks are assigned to a zone and have the interception-creating luxury of watching the quarterback while routes are being run, which certainly isn’t the case in man coverage.

He loves to disguise Cover 3 — his “base” coverage — by showing a two-high safety look then asking one safety to either play “Robber” (freelancing middle-of-the-field coverage) post-snap or come down into the box or into coverage on the slot receiver.

This 2016 play against the Chargers gives an idea as to how McDermott can disguise his coverages. At times, the safety rotation occurs even closer to the snap than it did here. But Carolina shows two deep safeties yet it drops into Cover 3. It led to an interception.

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Note the show of the Double A-Gap blitz too. That’s a foundational piece of McDermott’s defense.

His secondary relies on its front seven to apply pressure on the quarterback. And defensive backs with their eyes in the backfield allow them to sit on and ultimately jump routes for pass breakups or interceptions.

For the past two years, the Bills ran a super complex, (mostly) two-gapping, base 3-4 defense loaded with exotic, intricate blitz packages. Despite its reputation, at times, it wasn’t attacking at all. The scheme itself was relied upon to create pressure more so than the players were. Things did not go well.

New Bills head coach Sean McDermott will bring an assailing, player-empowering, straight-forward, one-gap, zone-heavy defense to Buffalo.