During the off-season, much was made of the coaches saying they were changing the front of the defence. Last season, we were still running the two-gap reactive odd front of the Patricia years. The coaches promised they were moving to a one-gap aggressive/proactive even front to better fit our personnel. On Friday night, we saw this new scheme in action for the first time. I will look at the new front, its strengths and weaknesses, and how our roster translates into this new front.
Our new front is modelled on the 4-3 under scheme. You can spot an under alignment as the 3T is lined up on the weak side of the formation. The weak side is the side of the formation opposite where the tight end lines up (which is called the strong side) and is usually the righthand side. The Seahawks, Bills, and Saints all run some variation of the 4-3 under.
We were clued into the style of the new front earlier in the off-season, with the staff's comments on Julian Okwara, where they stated his new role as a SAM linebacker in the new front. I say our new front is modelled on the 4-3 under, as in reality our base set will be a 4-2-5. In this, the SAM linebacker is replaced by either the slot CB or a third safety, depending on the situation/personnel presented by the opposing offence.
As you can see in the above picture, one of the defensive tackles lines up at the 1T (between the center and strong side guard). His job is to take on a double team from these linemen, leaving his teammates with one-on-ones. The other defensive tackle lines up as a 3T (between the weak side guard and tackle). The weak side end (hereinafter called the rush end) and strong side end (hereinafter called the big end) line up as 5Ts, with the big end lining up between the tackle and tight end, and the rush end lining up on the outside shoulder of the tackle. On obvious passing downs, the 1T will be substituted off for a DPR who will line up as a 7T, and the big end will move inside to more of a 4i alignment. When we deploy a SAM, they will line up as a 9T over the outer shoulder of the tight end. As for the WILL and MIKE, in run defence, they will usually have responsibility for the weak side A gap and strong side B gap respectively.
The advantage of this new front is that it leaves the 3T with a one-on-one with a guard, giving this tackle an advantage in pass-rushing situations, as the guard is away from any potential help from a tight end, fullback, or running back. It also means that it is harder for the guard to climb to the second level on runs, leaving the WILL free to come across the field for any runs to the strong side of the formation. Similarly, the rush end is also given a one-on-one with the tackle, giving them an advantage in pass-rushing situations and in holding the edge against the run. The scheme also allows for almost any coverage on the backend from Cover 1 to Cover 4.
However, there are natural limitations to this new front. Both defensive tackles, the WILL and the SAM need to have specific skill sets for the front to work. The 3T needs to be a good pass rusher who can consistently win their one-on-one, while the 1T needs to be big enough to encourage the double team that the scheme is predicated on. Likewise, the WILL needs to have enough sideline-to-sideline speed to be able to run across the field to chase down any runs to the strong side of the formation, and needs to be able to read through traffic and tackle well as the 1T and MIKE will be funnelling plays towards the WILL. The SAM (when on the field) needs to be able to jam and cover tight ends on passing downs, pass rush, and set the edge on running downs.
This is how the defensive front depth chart currently in my opinion. While I list Hutchinson as the first rush end, he is currently slated to play the big end role because of the injuries to Romeo Okwara and Josh Paschal. Those two being healthy will allow Hutchinson to become more of a chess piece who can be moved between the rush and big end roles, with Harris and Romeo rotating in depending on where Hutchinson is.
The move to the even front fits most of our starters in my opinion, as it'll play to the strengths of Harris, Hutchinson, and McNeill, and put them in the best situations. The new front also looks good for the depth at the edge position, as we have at least two players at each role who could play at a decent level. Romeo, when healthy, has shown enough to take meaningful snaps as the big end, and it seems Paschal was drafted with playing the same role in the future. Likewise, while Julian Okwara is not great against the run, he flashed as a DPR last year and could prove to be a good backup at the rush end spot. Houston has upside as a DPR and backup for the rush end right now, but if he works on the off-ball skills, he could become the prototypical SAM for the scheme.
It is the interior that is a concern to me, especially at the 3T spot. Brockers took an obvious step back last year, and it is unclear whether Onwuzurike is going to be healthy for the start of the season. While reports out of camp are that Cornell looks to have improved on previous years, it's unclear whether this will translate to the regular season, especially with him being in the bottom five grades on defence by PFF in the game against Atlanta. This is not encouraging given the importance of this spot to the scheme. Likewise, neither Buggs nor Taylor is particularly encouraging as a backup to McNeill. In my opinion, both of them lack the "girth" needed to command the double teams the spot encourages as both of them are sub-300lbs. While Erik and Jeremy kept Buggs in their latest 53-man roster projection, they also do say that Buggs is perhaps the first person that could be upgraded on that 53.
It also goes without saying that the lack of clarity or top-end talent in the linebacker room is also worrying considering the role the WILL plays in the running of the scheme. While the variation on the front means that the SAM will not be a fixture of the defence, the confusion over the WILL and MIKE spots might cause issues like those we saw against the Falcons. Barnes has shown flashes of being able to play the WILL, and Malcolm Rodriquez has the mental processing and hit power to play that role as well, but both have their drawbacks (inconsistency and size respectively). Anzalone is seen as a lock for the MIKE role but he had a 16% missed tackle rate last season, and there are injury questions about him. Antony Pittman has reportedly had a good camp, but can we expect a career special teamer to come in and play at the level required? The same goes for Chris Board, who according to reports is going to be the starter at WILL. Shaun Dion Hamilton and Jarrad Davis both have gone under the radar in camp, and for that reason can be considered on the outside looking in.
The worries at linebacker can perhaps only be allayed by whoever does make the 53-man roster playing well. But with the first round of roster cut-downs happening today (Tuesday 16th), don't be surprised if a move is made at defensive tackle to bring in another big body to challenge Buggs and Taylor for the backup 1T role, between now and when the roster is "solidified" on the 31st with the announcements of practice squads and player pickups to replace any players added to the PUP/NFI/IR lists.
What do you think of the new defensive front? Did you like what you saw of it against the Falcons? Or do you prefer the previous "read and react" style odd fronts?
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