On the Defense: The RSP Football Writers Project

Is a shutodwn corner like Charles Woodson your preference or are you seeking a gianormous, space-eating defensive tackle? Its these choices you'll face when building a team as a part of the RSP Football Writers Project. Photo by Elvis Kennedy.

By Jene Bramel

Last week, Matt introduced the RSP Football Writers Project, in which a collection of football writers and thinkers will have 4-6 weeks to put together an NFL team.  Each writer will have access to any player they want, but they’ll be forced to work within a salary cap and personnel requirements. More importantly, they’ll have to defend their choices as part of a coherent fundamental and philosophical approach.

I expect the writeups and discussion on this blog in the coming weeks to be among the best football reads you’ll see all year.  But, as readers and football lovers, you’re not getting off that easy. You’re getting to collectively vote on your own team and we’ll provide you the criteria to download and build your individual team.

Earlier this week, Matt introduced the Readers Team, which will be comprised based on your votes. In that post, he laid a general framework on how you’ll approach and choose the Readers Team’s offensive philosophy. He has asked me to do the same for the defensive side of the ball.

My Preliminary Thoughts on Defense

I’ve always argued that defensive football is the ultimate team sport. Ten guys can be perfect in their run fits or coverage responsibilities, but having the eleventh out of position can result in a big play for the offense. It’s important that the personnel fit the scheme on offense – you can’t have a plodding group of offensive linemen and expect to effectively run a zone blocking run game – but it’s especially critical on defense.

Determining a Defensive Philosophy

Bill Parcells had firm ideas about building a defense, but there are many ways to berate a Testaverde. Photo by Beyond the Lens.

There are many ways to build a successful defense.You can build an incredibly complex playbook with multiple pressure and coverage packages like Bill Belichick or Gregg Williams.  Or you can keep it relatively simple, limiting the fronts and blitzes and coverages you’ll use, and rely on your players to execute a few well designed defensive calls correctly every time, as Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith.

You can build an attacking defense built on speed, disruption, and big plays as Jimmy Johnson preferred. Or you can build a fundamentally sound defense designed to contain offenses and force them to execute long drives to score.

There are defenses where its strength is focused across the front seven to stop the run and stress offenses to convert when off schedule on second and third and long. This is what Baltimore defenses with the likes of Tony Siragusa, Sam Adams and Ray Lewis were able to do. Or you can field a defense designed to play the run on the way to the quarterback, as the very best Tampa-2 defensive lines did in their heyday.

And, of course, you can be the architect of a defense that incorporates multiple elements, like Dick LeBeau’s fire zone schemes or Buddy Ryan’s Bear 46 philosophy.

Within the confines of a salary cap, you’ll have to decide which long held defensive corollary you hold most dear. Can you ever have enough pass rushers? Do you find the Bill Parcells’ Planet Theory so compelling that you have to have a dominant defensive tackle with size? Is a cover corner that shuts down one side of the field entirely the best use of your resources the most critical piece of your puzzle? Or would you rather skimp a bit on top to roster a strong defensive line rotation or a better nickel cornerback?

These decisions are mostly secondary to the basic fronts from which you will initially choose.

Defensive Fronts: 4-3, 3-4 or Multiple

Teams spend at least 40 percent of its weekly snaps in something other than a “base” defense and there’s certainly room to maneuver with exotic subpackages, blitz preferences (zone blitz, overloads, etc) and coverage calls (Cover-2, press coverages, etc). So building a defense must begin with a general idea of how you’ll align your front.  Some players will be more successful in a two-point stance than with a hand on the ground. Others will struggle when asked to control multiple gaps rather than attack upfield at the snap.

For voting purposes, let’s consider the following three possibilities: An execution 4-3 front, an attacking 3-4 front, and a multiple front that incorporates at least two of the general defensive concepts listed above.  Everyone involved in the project will have to consider how the personnel chosen to run the base front will work in subpackage situations.

Like Matt, I haven’t yet decided on a clear defensive philosophy for my own team.  I tend to be attracted to the force of personality (e.g. Buddy Ryan) or a clean, time-tested system (e.g. Dick LeBeau) – essentially, a clear and well-executed defensive identity – than a belief that one defensive scheme is better than the rest.  Of course, melding the depth chart to the identity is always far easier said than done.

And that will be part of the great fun in participating in this project.

[Editor’s note: In the coming weeks we’ll have readers begin voting on offensive and defensive philosophies for the Readers Team.]

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