Quick defensive overview

By: Cory Ridgway (csr@cts.com)


This post is intended to be part of the WAFL clinic. If you are not interested in advice on developing a defense then you shouldn't read this.

First the basic terminology, starting with the field. The playing field is usually broken up into seven large areas. There are two "goal-line" areas (inside the 5 in FPS). Two "red zones"; the area in which you can be reasonable sure of scoring and where the back of the end-zone begins to effect defensive play. These areas are between the 6 and 20 yard lines (there is no FPS analog). The two "field goal range" areas extend from the deepest part of the "red zone" to the maximum FG range of each kicker (around the 35). The last area is that between the FG range areas yard lines - the "midfield".
The field is typically broken up in this manner because defenses change their style of play in the different areas. Playing softer the further they are from their own end-zone. Simply because a critical failure is less costly from the 20 than from the opponent's 20. Some defenses have an entirely different set of plays for use in their own "red zone". Playing more man-to-man and blitzing more often. All defenses use different plays in goal-line situations.
Within these large areas of the field a more subjective subdivision is made. One relating to the defense. The traditional parceling of the field includes 8 rushing zones, 6 short pass zones, and 3 long pass zones. In goal-line situations the long pass zones are not in play. Being out of the back of the end-zone. Because of the poor play of safeties in FPS it might be wise to include 4 long pass zones. And perhaps add a 7th short pass zone as well. But I'll stick with the standard scheme.
The 8 run zones are left and right wide, off tackle, guard-tackle gap, and center-guard gap. The 6 short pass zones are left and right flat, seam, and middle. The 3 deep zones are left, middle, and right.
So what we have are 17 defensive zones (14 in goal-line situations) and 11 players to handle them. A defense doesn't have the players to cover every zone even in goal-line situations. So it has to make compromises. And that means defenses probably need to use mixed strategies to produce a robust defense. Otherwise it will run the risk of an opponent finding a weak spot and exploiting it repeatedly. Such as the teams that blitz-seven and use four short zones on every down (Berlin last year) or rush-six and cover five in tight man on every down (Los Angeles).

Now on to the next step. Examining the purpose of defense. The goal of defense is not only to stop your opponent from scoring, but also to provide scoring opportunities for your own team. This is often forgotten by advocates of the "bend but don't break" school. Who allow their opponent to hold the ball and often put their offense in a hole even when they do keep the opposition from scoring. The value of creating scoring chances is rarely over-emphasized; Buddy Ryan's approach being a notable exception.
Forcing fumbles can be done by standing one's opponent up and then stripping the ball. "Tackling the ball", that is attempting to wrest the ball from a player who is still capable of running with it, will create few turnovers and lots of long gains. First stop the ball carrier, then strip the ball. In FPS, this doesn't work, as ball carriers either break the tackle or go down. They can be stood up by running into their own men. But not by defenders. And even when they are I haven't noticed an increased rate of fumbling.
The most common cause of fumbles in FPS is when the QB and RB are not on the same page. The QB reads the RB's motion and pitches the ball along his projected path. Then the RB makes a cut while the ball is in the flight and the twain never meet. The second most common cause is when the QB is hit while trying to execute an exchange. And the third is when the RB is hit before receiving the ball - the QB will still try to give the ball to the RB rather than abandon the play.
Unlike real football where you can coach your players to force fumbles the only way to increase the number of fumbles caused in FPS is to get defenders into the offensive backfield quickly.
Interceptions are most commonly caused by a pressured quarterback throwing the ball where he shouldn't. This will rarely occur in FPS. Another common cause of interceptions are missed reads. Either the quarterback expects a defender to move away from an area when he is in fact moving into it. Or he expects his receiver to cut one way rather than the other. The former happens in FPS on occasion when the QB leads his receiver right into a defender. The latter only occurs on timing passes where the receivers is bumped off of his route. The one type of interception that occurs as often in FPS as in real football is when the QB sends up a wounded duck as he's hit.
The best way to get interceptions in FPS is to pressure the QB with defenders in the short seam zones. However, this takes a lot of men. The next best way is to have defenders where the QB will lead the receiver and throw the ball right to a defender as mentioned above. Small zones (small so that the defender will stay put) to the outside or deep are best for this.
Turnovers are less common in FPS than real football. And most are due to poor execution by the offense. As a result, playing to force turnovers in FPS is not a highly productive strategy. And I don't advise trying to build a defense around playing take-away. However, the defense can still help the offense by stopping the opposition quickly and keeping them from being placed in a hole. A defense that allows few plays per drive will also give their offense more chances during a game. Note that this usually allows more possessions to the opponent as well, so a bad defense should probably play "bend but don't break" and let the offense fend for itself.
This is even more true of FPS than real football. In part because of the inability to play for turnovers. But more so because of the sad kicking game. The FPS punters have apparently never heard of the term "coffin corner", and the kickers are quite unreliable even from in close. As a result, allowing your opponent to penetrate into your territory is not as costly as it would be in the NFL.
Remember though that the emphasis is on the "don't break" part. The "bend" part is a concession to the offense. If your defense cannot stop the opponent once they reach the "red zone" then you don't have a "bend but don't break" defense, you have a bad one. The idea is to force your opponent to make 4 or more 1st downs to reach the "red zone". In hopes that somewhere along the way a bad play will stall the drive. Once they have reached the "red zone" you need to switch to a "stiff" defense.
Overall I still prefer a "stiff" defense. And it's easier to design such a defense. But there are some teams that will burn you repeatedly if you play "stiff" defense against them.

This changes the subject from the secondary goal of defense; to help the offense by giving them good field position and more chances. We're now discussing the primary goal; stopping the opponent from scoring.
Based upon the considerations we've just discussed, "bend but don't break" should be a better choice in FPS than in the NFL. Unfortunately this strategy relies on zone defense a great deal. And the zone logic in FPS is seriously flawed. The defense doesn't adjust to unbalanced formations. Even worse, the zone defenders don't really play zone; they play man-to-man against the deepest man in their zone. In a real zone they should only turn their backs on the QB and run with their man as a last resort. The zone defenders should back-pedal and sidle, keeping the play in front of them and their eyes on the ball so that they can react quickly.
Since zone defense doesn't work well it becomes very hard to build a "bend but don't break" defense that actually doesn't break. As teams can easily overload one side of the field and so get a man wide open. Or they may simply beat a deep safety in FPS just as they would were he playing man-to-man. The advantages of zone over man are almost entirely absent in FPS. The zones can be beaten deep even more easily than man. And the run support isn't there unless you use read logic, as zone defenders react slowly to plays developing in front of them. The only advantage that remains is the ability to defend specific areas of the field. And even that is undermined by the fact that defenders in FPS don't jar the ball free from receivers as often as they should. Probably a compensation for FPS QBs' tendency to throw "jump balls" (passes in which the receiver is standing still with a defender right next to him). Defenders in proper position may knock the ball down. And can time their hits occasionally. But not nearly as often as they would in real football. Having a defender near the ball in FPS is less effective than you might hope.
FPS's man-to-man coverage is also flawed. The shading options are limited. And their execution is very bad. Bump-and-run coverage is also poorly modeled. Because the defenders cannot shade properly the offense needn't guess on its routes. Which is OK, since it is also not possible for the offense to have a receiver read the coverage and adjust his route accordingly. The two oversimplifications cancel one another out. Leaving man coverage vulnerable to out, corner/fade, crossing, and comeback routes.
Using wait logic with man can help get a defender to stay underneath his man and improve the defense against a comeback route. It also helps against outs. But is extremely vulnerable to any type of deep pass. And so should only be used in goal-line situations or when the defender has deep help. Either in an under/over double-team or with a safety in zone. With the safety help a lot of testing is necessary to avoid having the him either too deep or too shallow. In goal-line defense the delay in moving into coverage can result in a quick pass for a TD if the defense is not well designed.
Soft man-to-man can be an effective strategy in a "bend but don't break" defense. But you should use double-teams, read, or zone logic to supplement the short coverage. Otherwise the offense will be able to pick up good yardage all day long on short outs and hooks. Two of the most common plays you'll face.
The best bet in FPS is to rely primarily on man coverage with some zones mixed in to stop the routes against which man-to-man is weak. This can be done by adding small zones to man coverage on a given play. These small zones put a player in a specific spot and keep him there unless someone runs right into him. Such zones can be particularly useful against out and hook routes. Using 6 to 8 men in coverage like this limits the pass rush and run defense options. Making it suitable for a "bend but don't break" scheme. But less so for an aggressive defense. For a "stiff" defensive scheme the mixing in of zones may mean a few pure zone defenses to go with primary pure man defenses. These pure zones would be used mostly in third down situations as "sell out" calls to stop a particular play or set of plays. Though some teams like to use the pure zones to free up seven men to rush the QB. A very effective strategy if the offense is not prepared for it. And totally ineffective if they are.

Aggressive play on the defensive front can be quite profitable due to the poor play of FPS blockers. As stated earlier it can also help produce turnovers. You should generally have all of the players on your defensive front use pass rush/blitz or aggressive run defense logic.
This does reduce the run pursuit you get from the defensive front. If you want more pursuit from these players then you sould make sure to use those who set up off of the line of scrimmage. Otherwise they may get caught up in traffic. And you'll get neither penetration nor pursuit from them. You can improve the pursuit of defensive linemen by "flexing" them; that is moving them a yard or two off the line of scrimmage. Having those player who will attack the line hit the gaps can help with pursuit. This can cause both of the nearby linemen to go after one attacker and give the players behind the line a fraction of a second more to react before having to deal with a blocker. This can also help with stunts in pass rushing situations.
In attacking the passer the strategy depends upon how many men that you have rushing. If only three then it really doesn't matter what kind of rush you use. Someone is going to have to shrug off a blocker to make a play. With four, you should move the rushers in some way to try to get the blockers moving around. As they do a very poor job of picking up a rusher while shifting. With five or more men rushing you have all sorts of options.
The inside pass rush is preferred by most teams. That is where the blocking logic is the weakest. As blockers eagerly shift to pick up the outside rush, even when there is none (closer to the concession stand I guess). However, most good offenses expect this inside rush and handle it pretty well. The outside rush is not as good at getting to the QB, but provides a good chance of a big loss on an outside run. And so should be used against teams that like to run wide.
Stunts aren't all that effective in FPS. As the pass blocking more closely resembles a zone blocking scheme. Rather than one wherein the blocker has to follow a particular defender. In real football stunts should occur on the offensive side of the line of scrimmage to reduce the chance of a defender being caught out of position on a running play. This doesn't work in FPS as defenders will be engaged by pass blockers as soon as they cross the line. So you must stunt on the defensive side of the line of scrimmage. Furthermore, players don't move past each other well in FPS. This hampers stunting defenders nearly as much as it does pulling linemen. If you use a stunt you should test it extensively to make certain it works as planned.
A delayed rush up the middle can be effective in FPS because of the tendency of pass blockers to gravitate toward the outside. This sort of rush is also fairly good against inside runs. For this purpose the blitzer should time his arrival at the line of scrimmage to meet the runner. If he arrives too soon he may be blocked, go to the wrong hole, or simply rush past the runner. If he arrives too late then a quick run may pick up 2 or 3 yards before contact even if the he does make the tackle. If the blitzer sets up too close to the line then there is a danger of getting caught in traffic. But a deep set is less effective in rushing the passer. And also adds the danger of tangling up a man in coverage and allowing a receiver to get open.

Here's a checklist to help you design a defense. It is mainly meant as a list of reminders. A defense built around a coherent strategy will tend to be more effective than one that is a disjoint collection of plays that you believe work well.

1. Will the primary defensive strategy be "stiff" or "bend but don't break"?

2. How do you change your defense (if at all) when the opponent reaches;

a. The midfield area?
b. Field goal range?
c. The goal-line area?

3. Will you typically use three defensive linemen or four?

4. Are you going to use mostly man, zone, or mixed defenses?

5. Are you going to blitz a lot or not?

6. How are you going to rest your starters; in specific defenses (if the back-ups are very different than the starters) or as called for by fatigue (if the back-ups are similar)?

7. Are there key plays that become ineffective if one of your players gets hurt?

8. Do you have defenses that stop the most common offenses;
a. Outs?
b. Wide runs?
c. Runs to the guard-tackle gap?
d. Corners?
e. Comeback routes in the seam or middle zones?

9. What is the smallest set of your plays that can defend well against all 1st and 2nd down offenses (if it's more than about four plays then you need to go back to the drawing board)?

10. Do you have defenses that stop plays into each defensive zone (see above)?

11. Do you have defenses that stop plays to every player?

12. Do you have plays that can control an opponent's strengths?

13. Do you have plays that can attack an opponent's weaknesses?

14. Do you have plays that fully utilize the talents of your best defensive players?

Here's a form to help keep track of plays and their purposes.

Play.......:  33R33SIL
Team.......:  None
League.....:  None
Unit.......:  Defense
Formation..:  3-3
Type.......:  Run defense
This play uses read logic to build a 33 Zone defense with stong run support. The three safeties provide good, but not great, coverage deep. And the stunting ILBs and linemen produce a bit of pressure up the middle against medium and long passes. The coverage is also fair against out routes if the cornerbacks set up wide. Short passes to the left seam and middle are virtually uncovered and can lead to an easy first down. Medium passes over the middle are not covered well unless the receiver comes from the right slot position and so is picked up by the ROLB immediately.
33R33SIL can be used on 1st down or 2nd and 6-10 against running teams or those with low-percentage passing attacks. Especially in the offense's end of the field. The spread out formation, stunt, and delayed read by the safeties make it unsuitable for short yardage situations. It is a "bend but don't break" call.


                S                 N                 S
10  - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

                             L         L
           C                                      L         C
                            E    T      E
 0  - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
            W               T  G  C  G  T  E          
                                  Q                         W

10  - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Line Play:
  LE - Rushes outside and upfield 2 to 5 yards and attacks the ball.
  NT - Lines up on C's left shoulder, crosses into the C-RG gap and
       attacks the right C-G gap.
  RE - Rushes straight at RG's outside shoulder.  Or simply attacks
       the ball from the snap.
  LILB - Attacks the left G-T gap.
  RILB - Crosses behind the NT and attacks the left C-G gap.
  ROLB - Reads (covers short middle zones).
Defensive Backs:
  LCB - Reads (covers left flat and seam).
  LS  - Waits 0.2 seconds, then reads (covers deep left).
  NB  - Waits 0.2 seconds, then reads (covers deep middle).
  RS  - Waits 0.2 seconds, then reads (covers deep right).
  RCB - Reads (covers right flat and seam).
    LILB - Attacks the left C-G gap.
    RILB - Crosses behind both the NT and LILB to attack the left
           G-T gap.

Cory S. Ridgway                 (csr@cts.com)

  "Numerical precision is the very soul of science."
                                - D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson

  "It is not enough to have a good mind.  The main thing is to use
   it well."
                                - Rene Descartes

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