If you’re an offensive-centric fan of the NFL or you play fantasy football the same way your older brother taught you then you need to read this interview with Jene Bramel.
The Footballguys.com staff writer is one of the best fantasy writers you don’t know about because he is recognized as one of the go-to guys for leagues featuring individual defensive players (IDP). Even if your leagues are strictly offensive players, his knowledge of defenses will make you a better decision maker with offensive talent.
In the first part of this conversation, Bramel and I discuss how the new Patriots 4-3 alignment might be more vulnerable than people think despite the current excitement in training camp over the defensive tackle tandem of Albert Haynesworth and Vince Wilfork.
Waldman: Is there a specific defensive scheme you like to watch more than others or are there certain things you just appreciate in a good defense.
Bramel: There are two things that I like to see from a defensive. First, that a particular defensive coordinator is matching a scheme to his players. Or, at least has a plan to transition to it and he’s not approaching the transition as if he believes in a scheme so much that he’s going to install it no matter what kinds of players he has. In the last couple of years the league has trended to a 3-4 where the scheme was a complete mismatch for the players and it was just not going to work.
Waldman: Which teams are examples of fitting this square peg into the round hole?
Bramel: I don’t think Denver was ever fully prepared to go to the 3-4. Cleveland at times was not prepared to go fully to the 3-4. We’re hearing that Belichick might move to a 4-3 this year and I’m not convinced they are ready for that, either. Although I think that Belichick will find ways to mask his team’s deficiencies when they go to a four-man line.
Waldman: What are those deficiencies? Because Vince Wilfork and Albert Haynesworth as a potential tandem in the 4-3 has reporters getting excited in training camp. What are the deficiencies that they either aren’t aware of or at least aren’t writing about?
Bramel: I think Belichick’s defenses have always been very good at dictating to the offense what they want to do. There are times where you will see defensive coordinators try to attack weaknesses on the offensive side of the ball. What Belichick is trying to do is to take away your strength when he has a flexible enough defense to do that.
If an offense likes to run the ball on early downs he might go to a big front whether it be a 4-3 or 3-4 based on his personnel, but he’s going to make you do something that you’re uncomfortable doing.
Waldman: So he’s trying to increase the difficulty your offense has executing its own strength?
Bramel: Yes, rather than attacking a weakness. Attacking a weakness doesn’t always work. It seems like a subtle difference bit it’s really not. It’s one thing to go after the weakness of an offense, but if the offense has a strength somewhere else you’re in trouble.
If they can still do something well enough to beat you in another way then as a defense you really haven’t done anything to help yourself or improve your game plan.
Waldman: So how does this apply to the Patriots defense?
Bramel: I’m a little bit concerned that they don’t have a pass rush, which is probably why they are looking at the 4-3. I like Jermaine Cunningham a lot and I think Eric Moore might be projectable, but I don’t think either one of those guys at their current size can do as 4-3 ends in the NFL what they did in college. They will be facing bigger, quicker, and more flexible offensive tackles.
I’m also less sure that the Patriots will be able to hold up on run support on the edge. I think the defensive tackle plan (Haynesworth and Wilfork) is fine. Whether they put those two in a 4-3 as two defensive tackles or as a 3-4 nosetackle and a 3-4 defensive end are probably going to be big enough to hold their own.
But when they’ve got undersized ends who might get blown off the ball and they’re going to use at defensive end Rob Niknovich, a strong side linebacker who might or might not hold up at the point of attack. Really all you have there is Brandon Spikes between the tackles and maybe Patrick Chung up in the box. I wonder how well they will be able to stop the run in the 4-3.
Waldman: Is New England moving to the 4-3 to use Albert Haynesworth to the best of his ability because of his vocal issues with playing in a 3-4?
Bramel: Albert Haynesworth can say whatever he wants, but he’s perfectly capable of playing any position along a 3-4 line if he’s motivated to do so. Plus the 3-4 is suited for the Patriot’s two inside linebackers whom I really like. The 3-4 was probably a little bit better set up, but I’m no Bill Belichick and he’ll probably have that unit come out there and pitch a shutout against whatever team they face on opening weekend playing a 4-3 base defense 50 percent of the time.
We’ll see how it works out, but New England’s personnel creates a situation where opposing offensive coordinators will take a first glance and think, “Hmm, I don’t know if it has the pass rushers or the run support.”
The front seven looks a little bit iffy. Why didn’t they draft toward a 4-3 a little bit more? If the 4-3 was the thought why didn’t they pursue a 4-3 defensive end harder in free agency so they could rotate with the two they have? Hard to say.
Waldman: What that means to me is that teams with a strong ground game off tackle or outside could do a number on the Patriots if you’re correct. As far as finding a way to plug that hole via free agency, do you think an OLB/DE like Matt Roth could wind up in New England?
Bramel: Possibly, but I don’ t think he wants to play in a 4-3. He’s said many times that he’s not interested in playing in a 4-3. I think he’s equated the little bit of success that he’s had in Miami and then more so in Cleveland to being a standup pass rusher and not having to worry as much about supporting the run.
He had a lot of bad experiences early in his career in the 4-3. If Belicheck is serious about going 4-3 then he’s probably going to have to do some convincing to get Roth on board.
Waldman: What is it about the defensive side of the ball that a lot of fans don’t appreciate? Is it because football is marketed as such an offensive-centric sport?
Bramel: I think that’s the key as to why. Sacks and interceptions will certainly generate some interest, but right now television broadcasts follow the ball. You can see all 11 offensive players before the play begins and most of those 11 for the full play.
You’ll lose the receivers and sometimes the running back and tight end from the screen. But on the defensive side of the ball there are times where you won’t see everybody in the box. The focus is not on the defensive backfield. That’s a little bit of a disservice to the defensive side of the ball.
You don’t get to see what kind of coverage a defense is playing or how the safety is reacting to what the quarterback is doing. You’re not noticing as the quarterback drops back to pass and tracks his eyes across the field that the inside linebacker is deciding whether or not to drop into coverage or come on a delayed blitz.
There are many other things. Subtle alignment switches, a defensive tackle stunting…your eyes are not trained to look at them unless you force yourself to be looking for these different match ups.
It goes back to the way football is marketed. It’s hard to market individual football players because they have helmets on all of the time. But there’s still enough that you see a little bit more of the personality and the flair of the game with the way television angles are.
You can see the subtle movements of how a running back gets through the hole with the close angles used on television than the high angles or high sideline angle. I think there is a lot of beauty to be seen with those All-22 camera angles that show the whole field, but at the same time it just seems more sterile in that way. I don’t know whether that’s because we’ve been groomed to see football the way we do because television has presented it the way it has for so long.
Waldman: I agree. It would be boring to watch the game as a fan from that high up. It’s probably why I prefer to watch the game on television rather than in the stands. Then there’s phenomenon of NFL Films. We grew up in that era where we got to see these close-ups on the players and it humanized the game.
Speaking of players who made the game human for you, who are some of your favorite football players of all-time?
Bramel: I was kind of a smallish guy and I never played football in high school, but I was always drawn to the defensive backs. I’m not sure I have a good explanation why, but I think it was the open field hitting that drew me to them.
I always liked guys like Ronnie Lott, Kenny Easley, Bob Waters – guys that came out of the screen who you originally didn’t see and they were flying up field in run support and stoning a running back. That’s probably why I liked them. I was a huge David Fulcher fan with the Bengals in the late `80s and `90s. Fulrock is still one of my favorite players.
Then there’s the down and dirty pass rusher. I could never get enough of NFL Films when they interviewed Deacon Jones, the Fearsome Foursome, and those sorts of legends. Be it a little more flamboyant player like Mark Gastineau or the Howie Long-Merlin Olson lunch pail type guys who did their job all day long without much fanfare and did it well.