Football 101: Lecture 4: Get Defensive!
I was speaking with a college coach today and asked what he expected from the other team’s defense. He replied that they run a “base” defense. “Nothing fancy, just a straight four man front”. For the casual fan, the “play-calling” going on in football games only takes place on the offensive side of the ball, whether to call run or pass, shotgun or under center, and so on. But the offense’s chess match with the defense is arguably the most interesting thing that occurs in a football game. So what, exactly, was this coach referring to?
A “base” defense is basically what we now call a “4-3” defense, and it is the most widely used defense across all levels of football. There are “4” down lineman and “3” linebackers; hence, “4-3”. Traditionally a base defense will also include two cornerbacks and two safeties. This defensive alignment is so popular because it is thought to effectively defend both the running and passing teams. There are enough players close to the line of scrimmage to stop the run, and enough secondary players to defend the pass. But here is the catch, and watch this the next time you are at your favorite high school football game: very rarely do you actually see the “base” defense. In fact, defensive coordinators are moving players around on the field constantly, bringing safeties up to the line of scrimmage, standing up a defensive lineman, or putting a linebacker down in a three-point stance. For example, you’ll frequently hear someone say the defense has put everyone “in the box”. The box is the area of the field between the Tackles, and close to the line of scrimmage where your down lineman and linebackers normally play. But if you have a team that frequently runs the ball and rarely passes, a team might bring a safety up to the line of scrimmage to “stack the box” believing a pass to be an unlikely play call. This surely puts more pressure on the opposing team’s running game, but it may also set up a situation where a defender is forced into one-on-one coverage on a receiver with no safety help. In short, the defense is daring a team to throw, and this defensive play-calling is now dictating the offense, rather than the other way around as some might assume.
In reality, moving your players around the field does not actually change their “assignments” or responsibilities, and so your 4-3 defense is in principal left untouched. And obviously, the 4-3 is not the only type of defense, as you frequently hear of 3-4 defenses (which requires a beefy nose tackle in the middle) or a 4-4 (where you need a strong safety, or mobile linebacker for both the run and pass coverage) among others. But watching a great defense work – no matter the formation – is a thing of beauty.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s lecture, and remember that a good offense might bring the glory, but a good defense brings the championships. Class dismissed!