It’s funny. In football, the old saying tells us “defense wins championships.” Sure, Peyton Manning could be the best QB ever, Emmitt Smith won multiple Super Bowls and set records, and Jerry Rice played his best in the big games. These offensive stars have popularized the game for a long time, and it’s easy to see why. Their impact is tangible, something that can be quantified in a box score and deified in a highlight package.
But for the casual football fan, and even football fans who know more about the game than most, the workings of an NFL defense remain a bit of a mystery. That might be why we accept “defense wins championships” as a fact. It’s something most people don’t really understand, but we do know that if an offense can’t score any points, that team can’t win.
But in fantasy football, it’s important to know how to get every possible edge. That’s why we’re throwing together a glossary of sorts, an attempt to describe some of the defensive terms we’ll use on this site from time to time to illustrate a matchup. In other words, instead of just telling you that Vernon Davis might have a good week against the Bears, the objective is for you to understand why he might have that big game. Of course, it’s not as easy as it sounds. Understanding defenses is difficult, and the failure to do it has ruined careers (see: Leaf, Ryan).
As with any article of this sort on this site, it’s important to recognize that the NFL is a constantly changing game, and defensive coordinators spend countless hours every week devising new ways to throw wrinkles into their schemes to close up any holes we might describe here. In other words, if the Bears decide TEs who can run, like Davis, are hurting them, you can certainly expect Lovie Smith to make adjustments. It’s also important to understand that there are exceptions to the rules when it comes to this terminology. For instance, just because the typical strongside LB is a bigger, stronger player, doesn’t mean a coach running the Tampa-2 system will want a big, strong SAM.
The object of this article isn’t to be a history of defense in the NFL, nor is it intended to be a be-all and end-all summary of NFL defenses. But even a basic understanding of some of these concepts could help give you an edge over your competition when you’re looking for those last few points. Your opponent might know that “defense wins championships,” but we want you to understand why. That’s a powerful tool.
Basic Defensive Terms
Often called the “deep safety,” the free safety is better in coverage than the strong safety and is often faster, as he is relied on to cover more ground in Cover-1 schemes or to cover receivers man-to-man. Ed Reed made a name for himself as one of the best defensive playmakers ever from the FS spot.
Gaps (defensive linemen)
A common system to hear on an NFL broadcast, the gap system describes an area of the field relative to the offensive linemen.
· A Gap – between the center and either guard
· B Gap – between the guard and tackle
· C Gap – outside the tackle or between the tackle and tight end on the strong side
· D Gap – outside the tight end on the strong side
Simple. Defensive players have an offensive receiver to cover, and they shadow that man when in man coverage. Teams can play exclusively man defense, even with their safeties or linebackers, but we usually see some sort of man/zone hybrid in today’s complicated NFL. Most teams that run predominantly man coverage do so on the strength of their personnel. For instance, if Darrelle Revis were to go down with an injury, the Jets would have to alter their defensive gameplan significantly.
Middle linebacker and often the “captain” of the defense in terms of calling out plays and assignments. In a traditional 4-3 defensive, the MIKE is usually responsible for plugging up the run, which is why he often leads his team in tackles. But the advent of the Tampa-2 defense helped turn the MIKE into a speedy player with a coverage specialty in some schemes.
In a 3-4 defense and some 4-3 alignments, the nose tackle is the (typically huge) defensive lineman lined up directly over center. The NT has a responsibility for both A Gaps, and as such his job is to clog the run or eat up blockers to free his LBs to make plays against the run.
Outside linebacker – Although this term can be used to describe the SAM and WILL in a 4-3, it also describes the pass-rushing LBs in a 3-4 scheme
Strongside linebacker and typically the linebacker with the fewest tackles in a 4-3, the SAM is often responsible for the TE in coverage and is usually the player to go off the field when defenses go to nickel formations, although certain coaches like to shift their SAMs inside and remove another player
The strong safety is typically the eighth player in the box in the oft-heard “eight men in the box.” In contrast to the free safety, the strong safety has heightened run responsibilities, although they’re essentially interchangeable in a traditional Cover-2.
Technique (defensive linemen)
The “technique” system is just a simple way to describe how a defensive lineman is lining up in relation to the offensive linemen. The development of this system is often credited to Bear Bryant, but it’s more likely that Bum Phillips was the true architect. These terms are common to read in articles about football and to hear on TV, so we’ll have a brief rundown here (disclaimer – different coaches or systems use slightly different designations or adjust the definitions of the terminology, but this should cover all the typical gap assignments):
· 0-Technique – the prototypical nose tackle, the 0-technique lines up directly over the center.
· 1-Technique – typically lined up directly over the A gap.
· 2-Technique – typically lined up directly over the offensive guard, the 2-technique can also mean the interior lineman is shaded to the inside shoulder of the guard (designated 2i-technique in some systems).
· 3-Technique – lined up directly over the B Gap or shaded to the outside shoulder of the offensive guard; often called the “undertackle” in a Tampa-2 under front. Warren Sapp made his career terrorizing QBs by dominating slower offensive guards from the 3-technique.
· 4-Technique – lined up directly over the offensive tackle, the 4-technique can also mean the interior lineman is shaded to the inside shoulder of the tackle (designated 4i-technique in some systems).
· 5-Technique – on the weak side of the offensive line, the 5-technique lines up outside of the offensive tackle in the C Gap.
· 6-Technique – on the strong side of the offensive line, the 6-technique lines up directly over the TE.
· 7-Technique – on the strong side, the 7-technique plays on the inside shoulder of the TE.
· 8-Technique – on the strong side of the offensive line, the 8-technique (occasionally called “the Joker” when the lineman or LB is standing up) is lined up completely outside the TE in the D Gap, or “over air.”
· 9-Technique – on the strong side, the 9-technique lines up on the outside shoulder of the TE.
· Positive or negative – Occasionally heard, a “positive” technique DL is lined up on the strong side of the formation, while a “negative” technique DL is lined up on the weak side.
In general (and we stress in general, because there are noteworthy exceptions), the technique system describes why 4-3 defensive linemen generally put up bigger stats than 3-4 DLs. In a 4-3 system, the linemen are typically shaded into a specific gap, with only that gap as their responsibility (odd-numbered techniques), while 3-4 DLs are more commonly lined up directly over an offensive lineman and responsible for two gaps (even-numbered techniques).
Weakside linebacker – The WILL is often the quickest of the three linebackers and is responsible for covering the most ground; Derrick Brooks became a Hall-of-Fame WILL in the Tampa-2 system and made a name for himself as a playmaker.
In zone coverage, instead of matching up with a man, defensive players are responsible for covering a “zone” and staying disciplined within that zone. All zone defenders are expected to have a good understanding of route-running and route combinations, so as to not overcommit to a particular player.
The 4-3 (or simply “43,” as it’s known in many circles) has been around a long time (since the 1940s), and it’s worked for a long time. So logically, it is the base defense run by most teams in the NFL: four down linemen and three linebackers, plus four defensive backs. In a straight-up 4-3 defense, the linemen will often have one-gap responsibility. The defensive tackles line up in the A Gap and the defensive ends either in the B or C Gaps, depending on his assignment. The three linebackers (SAM, MIKE, WILL) then take their assignments, based on where the TE lines up. The defensive backs receive their coverage assignments and play either zone or man based on the call (some teams favor one over the other). Simple, right?
But a major problem with the traditional 4-3 is that defensive ends are really hard to find. Consider these 1st-round busts, all since since the 2000 NFL Draft: Courtney Brown, Erik Flowers, Jamal Reynolds, Michael Haynes, Jerome McDougle, Kenechi Udeze, Erasmus James, Jamaal Anderson, Jarvis Moss, Vernon Gholston, and Derrick Harvey. Some have become depth guys, while others are out of the league entirely. And even guys like Dwight Freeney who developed reputations as elite pass-rushers have struggled against the run and are essentially part-time players, with coaches picking their spots to maximize production. A true three-down threat at the position, like Mario Williams or Julius Peppers, doesn’t come along often. Guys like Jared Allen have been accused of being inconsistent. Developing a true 4-3 defensive end who can both rush the passer from the B Gap and contain the run effectively is incredibly difficult. Some teams over the past decade have found it almost impossible. Because of this problem, teams have developed ways to get their most effective players in manageable positions.
· 4-3 Fronts – In the early part of this century, Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin popularized something that had been around since the 1980s: the “under front” in their Tampa-2 defense (which we’ll get to a little more in depth in a little bit). Essentially, the under front shifted the entire defensive line away from the strong side of the offensive line. In the under front, one defensive tackle is shaded directly over the center (a nose tackle), while another, more athletic interior lineman – the undertackle or 3-technique – lines up in the B gap in a more traditional DE position (think Warren Sapp). Then, the team’s best pass rusher (think Simeon Rice) is free to rush from the extreme edge of the offensive line. If each player maintains his responsibility, run plays can be filtered to the LBs.
The “over front,” which shifts the line toward the strong side of the offense, is also common to see in today’s NFL. The idea is to create mismatches and get athletic players in their best position to succeed. It’s an example of the constantly changing NFL in that coaches will tweak the traditional 4-3 to best reflect the talent that’s on the field. As an undertackle, more athletic defensive tackles like Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh can overpower slower offensive guards and put up huge sack numbers from the interior line. While different coaches do different things with their 4-3 fronts, the important thing to remember is they’re all trying to create mismatches. That’s how games are won in today’s NFL.
The roots of the 3-4 defense have been around for a while, but for the purpose of brevity, we’ll talk about the recent 3-4 defenses and their relevance on today’s NFL. In the early 1990s, the advent of different fronts in the 4-3 defense helped undersized (read: not ideal) players succeed in that scheme, leading the popular 3-4 defenses on the 1980s, like those of Bill Parcells’ Giants, in the dust. But, as mentioned above, the difficulty in developing and maintaining true 4-3 defensive linemen has led to a shift back toward the 3-4 (or “34”), with nearly half the league running it as a base defense. The idea is for undersized but talented pass-rushers to explode off the edge from a two-point stance. It also plays into the idea that deception is key in the game today. A 3-4 front is more difficult conceptually for the offensive linemen, who have to account for the three offensive linemen but also two players on the second level. Ergo, it can be more difficult for the QB to make an accurate read.
In a way, the 3-4 defense of today’s NFL is simple economics. There are more fast 250-pound guys than fast 280-pound guys. It’s cheaper and easier to find an effective 3-4 OLB than a 4-3 DE. Guys like Tamba Hali have struggled as DEs but flourished as 3-4 OLBs.
By the same token, 3-4 defensive linemen, generally used to suck up blockers and free up the LBs to make plays, can be easier to find as well. As we detailed, 4-3 DLs are often expected to be both big and extremely athletic. On the flip side, undersized 4-3 DTs can thrive as 3-4 DEs, while really big guys who aren’t unbelievably quick can serve as a double-team magnet at nose tackle. That being said, we don’t want to underrate how difficult a position 3-4 DE, in particular a two-gap DE, is to play. For our money, Steeler DE Aaron Smith has been one of the top defensive ends in football for about a decade. But since entering the league in 1999, Smith has just 44 sacks and just a single Pro Bowl appearance. He hasn’t gotten the recognition he deserves because he doesn’t play a flashy position. But ask LBs like James Harrison, Joey Porter, Larry Foote, and others how much of an impact he’s had through the years.
· Hybrid fronts – Of course, the dearth of ideal 4-3 defensive linemen doesn’t mean running a true 3-4 two-gap system is the easiest thing in the world. In the “true 3-4,” the linemen have to be able to handle two gaps and sometimes multiple blockers. And then the inside linebackers, often singled-up on much larger guards, have to be strong enough to shake the block of a lineman but quick enough to pursue the run or drop into coverage. As the NFL has become a spread game with speed at basically every offensive position, it’s tough for 260-pound LBs and 300-pound DEs to keep up. That’s why we see a lot of 3-4 defenses run 4-3 concepts, with defensive linemen in one-gap systems, today.
On this site, you’ll often hear us refer to the Dallas Cowboys defense as essentially a 4-3. Although DeMarcus Ware is almost always in a two-point stance, he’ll line up in an 8-technique position while the three down linemen are shaded to the gaps, making it a one-gap system. Ware is in a position to explode off the snap and blow past slower linemen, while Jay Ratliff on the interior of the line can also provide pressure from up the middle. It’s similar to a 4-3 “over front” with Ware in a two-point stance. It essentially allows the Cowboys to kind of “cheat” personnel wise. They don’t need ideally sized 3-4 linemen because they’re shaded to gaps. They don’t need ideally sized 3-4 ILBs because the linebackers shift with the defensive line. It’s a defense designed for speed and to counteract offensive speed, one that can blitz from the second level or drop the second level into coverage to prevent big plays. Former Cowboy coach Wade Phillips borrowed and tweaked this philosophy from his father Bum Phillips, and Wade is expected to bring it to Houston in 2011 and turn Mario Williams into his Ware. It shouldn’t be much of an adjustment for Williams.
We see a lot of this in today’s NFL. Patriot coach Bill Belichick runs a true hybrid system, although the Pats will run a natural two-gap 3-4 more than a good number of teams. While Steeler defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau still likes his 3-4 zone blitz scheme, he’ll mix up his fronts depending on the situation. Rex Ryan has been tabbed as a rising 3-4 genius.
These hybrid looks, and teams that use multiple fronts, are why some 3-4 defensive ends like San Francisco’s Justin Smith (like Bruce Smith in the old Buffalo days) still put up statistics. It’s a matter of putting talented players in a position to succeed, not restricting them within the scheme.
Okay, so we’ve established a couple of things. The 43 defense features four down linemen and three linebackers. The 34 defense features three down linemen and four linebackers. So the 46 defense features four down linemen and six linebackers.
Err, not so fast. The 46 defense, popularized by legendary Bear defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, does typically feature more defenders in the box than the traditional defense. But the 46 moniker? It comes from the jersey number of former Chicago S Doug Plank, who was frequently the eighth man in the box in Ryan’s Bear defense.
Although the 46 name comes from Plank’s jersey number, it can help us to remember that only one defender is deep in the secondary. The free safety patrols the entire field deep, relying on the CBs to play solid man defense and jam the receivers off the line.
The idea behind the 46 is pressure, pressure, pressure. It requires gifted personnel at every spot. The DEs are gifted rushers, as are the OLBs. The DTs have to plug holes but also gain access to the QB from the interior. The MIKE (famously Mike Singletary) has to be quick and a sure tackler, because his job is to handle anything the line doesn’t. The SS (as mentioned, Plank) served as an extra linebacker, lining up next to the MIKE.
Ryan had incredible trust in his personnel. He frequently brought the house from this setup, and he trusted that, even without a sack, his defenders could overwhelm the line and QB, forcing a quick throw that masked his defense’s weaknesses. But as with any defense, there are weaknesses. If the front eight fail to get pressure, the QB can exploit the overmatched free safety for big plays.
While the 1985 Bears ran the scheme to perfection, it must be noted that the personnel in Chicago was far superior to any other group in the NFL and built ideally to run the 46. Today, few teams ever use it as a base package, and more often, teams will shift to it on third-down situations to try to disrupt the passer. Some teams, like Philadelphia under Jim Johnson, would replace DTs with speed-rushing DEs to overwhelm slower interior linemen. The concept remains the same, but few teams feature adequate personnel to run it as a base defense. When we hear the common term “eight in the box,” it’s likely that a team is running a 46 look on that particular play or in a particular game against a strong run offense or short-to-intermediate pass offense.
With the 46, teams are taking the risk that their pressure will get to the QB before the QB is able to exploit the open area deep down the field. Sometimes, blitz-heavy coaches are willing to give up the occasional big play as long as they more often force turnovers or win the field-possession battle.
For fantasy purposes, this is probably the most useful section in this article. When describing how a defense plays or at least what its tendencies are, we’ll talk about coverage schemes and how teams like to play. Obviously, outside of some teams preferring to play man with the CBs, and others zone, teams like to mix up their looks. Ergo, it’s insulting – and confusing – to shoehorn teams into running one specific coverage shell. Instead, we prefer to define the coverage shells and variations of them, in an attempt to describe why some players might be successful against them. It’s important to realize that teams still have to account for five eligible receivers on every play, and these shells are among the many ways to do that.
Keep in mind that we are describing these shells from a base defense package. They can also be used in nickel and dime situations with extra defensive backs, making for even more deception. Teams can also use man or zone coverage from the underneath defenders (LBs, CBs), depending on the play.
Also, it’s important to realize that we’re only describing some of the common weaknesses of these shells and strategies. Good NFL receivers are good NFL receivers for a reason: They can be effective against any of these shells if they’re having a good day. That’s why we like to analyze every matchup every week with a renewed focus.
As you’ll find, the names for these coverage shells are pretty cut and dried. “Cover-Zero” is what you think of when you think of a team “bringing the house” on a traditional blitz. The defensive coordinator sends as many players as he wants at the QB, leaving the secondary to man up with every eligible receiver. The “zero” part of the coverage means there is no safety help over the top because whichever safety isn’t rushing the passer is manned up on a receiver.
The strength of Cover-Zero is exactly what you would expect – generating pressure and forcing mistakes. Conversely, the downside is also what you would expect – no help over the top to defend against a deep pass. If a QB can recognize a Zero Blitz and his line can give him an extra tick of the clock, big plays can happen.
A Cover-1 shell features the free safety patrolling the entire deep area of the field as the only (therefore, one) deep defender. Although an aggressive defense, for sure, as it allows coaches a fifth defender to rush the passer (or spy a mobile QB) from any spot and creates more disruption than a basic Cover-2 scheme, it’s much less aggressive than a zero blitz.
One major advantage of the Cover-1 (or Man-3) is deception. If a coordinator trusts his safeties in man coverage, he can send a corner on a blitz. Or, he can send both safeties and drop his MLB into the deep area of the field. The QB must be aware of where the defenders are at all times.
Still, Cover-1 remains susceptible to the big play because the safety in help coverage will eventually have to commit to one side of the field and can be disrupted by two receivers sent on deep routes. This creates a major problem for the defense. If the five-man pressure package doesn’t get to the QB, he’ll have all day and a receiver potentially flying open 20 yards down the field. And even if the QB doesn’t hit a receiver deep, receivers in the short area will have plenty of room to run after the catch, thanks to the predominantly man coverage.
Cover-Zero: no deep safeties. Cover-1: one deep safety. Cover-2: two deep safeties. I think we’ve established that well enough by now.
Anyway, “Cover-2” might seem like the most ubiquitous of cover shells, and it tends to have some of the more popular tweaks as well (see: Tampa-2). There’s “Cover-2 Man,” in which the CBs play man defense on the outside receivers with help over the top and the LBs in coverage match up with the remaining eligible receivers. There’s “Cover-2 Zone,” in which the CBs and LBs occupy specific zones and then pass off receivers once they leave the zones. If run properly, the Cover-2 can be a frustrating defense to play against, with teams being forced to settle for short gains and long drives, which can increase the chance for a turnover.
But it’s also rare to see teams run Cover-2 consistently as a base package (the Bears might be the most prevalent today) because the players are so difficult to find. The issue with Cover-2 as a five-under (CBs and LBs), two-deep coverage (safeties) is that it relies on the strength of a four-man rush to be effective. And earlier in the article, we detailed how difficult an ideal four-man rush is to find. In general, it also relies on bigger, run-stopping CBs, although an advantage is that Cover-2 teams typically do not need shutdown man ability on the perimeter because the corners have help over the top.
If the rush is not effective, the defense has a lot of holes. If the QB is forced to deliver the ball from a three- or five-step drop, it can be very effective and frustrating for an offense. But if the QB can be given time in the seven-step drop phase, the coverage can be picked apart, especially down the middle between the safeties if a safety is forced to decide between covering a streaking TE in the seam or a WR bolting down the sideline. And if a team blitzes from a Cover-2 shell, openings in the intermediate area of the field can be huge. The Cover-2 system also leaves seven men in the box, at most, meaning a strong running team can continually chip away at the defense.
So, as could be expected in a constantly changing league, variations of the Cover-2 have evolved, including a popular one that won its namesake a Super Bowl.
Speed is the biggest element of Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin’s Tampa-2 system, which attempts to utilize quicker players to plug up the holes in the traditional Cover-2. Dungy admitted he got the idea from a wrinkle in Chuck Noll’s Steel Curtain playbook (Dungy played for Noll in the 1970s), so the “Tampa-2” name might be a misnomer.
While the Tampa-2 still relies on a four-man rush (the Bucs did a great job with Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice utilizing under fronts), the biggest variation of the Tampa-2 comes on the second and third levels. In the Tampa-2, the middle linebacker drops into the hole between the safeties, defending against perhaps the biggest weakness in the traditional Cover-2. Shelton Quarles, an undersized but fast LB, did a fantastic job in this role with Buccaneers for quite a while.
Meanwhile, quick LBs (Derrick Brooks) and strong, tough CBs (Ronde Barber) are expected to help stuff the run, tackle, and make plays. The safeties also have distinct roles. The strong safety (John Lynch), one of the two deep safeties, protects against slot receivers and backs slipping out of the backfield, while the free safety (Dexter Jackson) is expected to have better coverage skills and be more of the Wild Card. He can blitz or compensate for a blitzing defender by covering a larger area of the field.
The idea behind Tampa-2 coverage is the “spot defender” system. In Dungy’s system, he expects his defenders to drop to a “spot,” then read and match up with their receivers at that point. It requires smart, quick, decisive players, and the Bucs had the perfect formula for success with guys like Lynch and Brooks.
Like in the basic Cover-2, the Tampa-2 can be exploited with a talented TE down the seam or an effective slot receiver creating a mismatch in a LB’s zone. Teams might attempt to “overload” a zone with multiple receivers to force the defender’s hand. A good play-action can also bait the MLB into making a mistake. But even if the MLB is taken out of the equation, there are fewer holes in the Tampa-2 to exploit. It basically takes the idea behind the basic Cover-2 to extremes. It plays mental games with teams that have to execute long, almost perfect drives to score.
In the Cover-3, the two CBs and FS are responsible each for a deep third of the field, while the SS can creep into the box and play like an additional LB.
We’ll often see the Cover-3 against run-first teams because the QB won’t have a difficult time diagnosing the defense. It allows defenses to creep an eighth man into the box, but they can also use that eighth man (the SS) in man coverage against any receivers coming across the middle. The Cover-3 allows for extra pressure against the pass and bodies against the run, while utilizing the CBs and FS to protect against big plays.
To break it down in the most basic terms, we typically hear Cover-4 referred to as “prevent defense.” Each of the four DBs takes a fourth of the deep area (why we might hear this also referred to as “quarters” defense, not to be confused with a “quarter package”).
The prevent defense is incredibly susceptible to underneath throws, so we typically will see it only toward the end of a half with time running down or on third-and-forever situations when a team has to gain a big chunk of yards for a first down. But Cover-4 concepts can also be used to creep up to nine men in the box against a run-first team.
This is a term we’ll use pretty often. At its soul, matchup zone is a defense developed to create turnovers. In a matchup zone, defenders are expected to understand offensive formations and potential route combinations out of that formation. In other words, defenders match up to potential routes, not strictly to areas of the field or bodies.
Good matchup zone defenses can create a lot of turnovers by jumping routes, but mistakes will also leave a defense susceptible to big plays. Some corners, such as Asante Samuel, are much better matchup zone defenders than press/man corners. Although not always the case, excellent matchup-zone CBs are more likely to be “big play” CBs than man “shutdown” CBs.
In a nickel package, a defense subs out a LB (often the SAM in a 4-3) and replaces him with a fifth defensive back, almost always to counter against teams going three-wide or splitting a RB or TE into the slot. Teams might use nickel as a base package against teams that often split the formation wide, but that decision is made on a week-to-week basis, if not series-to-series. A nickel defense can be exploited by creating mismatches (a big athletic TE on a small corner), or running the ball effectively. In a dime defense, teams will sub out a second LB for a sixth defensive back. Rarely, we might see “quarter” defense, with 7 DBs. Against teams with strong TEs, nickel teams might sub in a third safety instead of a third CB.
Teams can also use extra DB packages against tendencies of certain teams. For example, if the Bills are known for taking shots downfield when they’re around their own 40-yard line, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the opposing defense switch into a nickel package, no matter the down and distance.
A zone blitz is a defensive technique popularized by Steeler coach Dick LeBeau that attempts to put significant pressure on the QB without sacrificing coverage. LeBeau has stated that, simply, his zone blitzes are intended to “speed up” the pass game, forcing mistakes and turnovers. In a zone blitz, pressure can come from any spot, as long as another defender covers the vacated area of the field. For example, LeBeau can rush an inside linebacker at the passer while dropping a defensive lineman into the spot vacated by the ILB. The idea is to confuse the QB and apply enough pressure on him before he realizes what’s actually happening, thereby forcing turnovers. A good term to apply to the zone blitz is “safe pressure.” Before its advent, teams played cover zero and man across the board when blitzing, making the secondary susceptible to big plays.
It’s evident that there is no sure thing when it comes to a particular player matching up against what would be a “favorable” defense. Yes, Jermichael Finley is probably the exact type of player we would expect to have success against Lovie Smith’s Cover-2 system. But it doesn’t always work that way because the NFL is a constantly evolving machine, a chess match that begins the Tuesday before a game and wraps up on Sunday.
I’ll end with an anecdote. In preparing this article, I talked to NFL Films’ Greg Cosell just to get some of the basics and make sure I was understanding the concepts correctly, and relaying them in a useful way (I’m learning with the readers, really). As Greg often reiterates, he hates to label certain teams or players with restrictive terms. He let me know that just because DeSean Jackson, for example, had a big play against Washington doesn’t mean he was impossible to defend within the Redskins’ scheme. “Sometimes,” Cosell said, “a defender just [screws] up.”
In fantasy, you can have a matchup analyzed perfectly. Sometimes, someone will just [screw] up. But knowing as much as you can – especially about the defensive side of the football – can give you a huge advantage.