Hyping the Hybrids

| August 3, 2011

The NFL used to be a simple enough beast. You had your 4-3 defenses, you had your 3-4 defenses, and everybody knew where they stood. There was a brief foray into the 46 defense back in the 80s, but for the most part, that has fallen by the wayside and we all knew what we were looking at on any given play.
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Then we have the hybrids. The reason I say that the 46 disappeared for the most part, and not entirely, is because Buddy Ryan’s legacy lives on and prospers in the form of the hybrid scheme Rex Ryan employs to great success with the New York Jets, and previously with the Ravens.


There have been other hybrids recently in the NFL, but most tend to be born out of necessity, with coaches trying to disguise a shortfall in defensive talent, often at a crucial position, such as nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme. Rex Ryan may be the only coach who chooses to run it as his ‘base’ defense. Ryan’s twin brother, Rob, also employs many of the same concepts, but his defense is less radical, and, truthfully, less successful than that of his sibling.
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Buddy’s 46

For anybody not familiar with the origins of the 46 defense, it was created by Buddy Ryan who needed a way to overcome his team’s inability to generate pressure with their conventional defensive front. The alignment of the heavily shifted four-man line forced the interior of the O-line to block 1-on-1 and put the offense’s weak side tackle on an island with a pass rusher. The strong side protection then had to deal with one or more players who could come on a blitz, increasing the chance of a blown protection and flooding the line of scrimmage on run plays. Ryan couldn’t get pressure with just three or four men, so he devised a system that allowed him to come with as many as necessary to get the job done.
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Sounds good, right? So why doesn’t everybody run it? The problem with the 46 is that with everybody else crowding the line of scrimmage, the secondary is sparse and vulnerable to quick passes to receivers that can run after the catch. Sound familiar? The West Coast Offense is tailor made to exploit those kind of holes, and we all know how many teams in the league currently run a variant of the WCO.
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Nonetheless, with a few modifications, Rex Ryan has the hybrid defense working to good effect, masking a similar lack of elite pass rush that his dad first tried to tackle when he came up with it.
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Essentially, in Ryan’s hybrid scheme, the Jets run a 4-3 Over or Under formation, with either Bryan Thomas or Calvin Pace playing as a defensive end, and the other playing in a 2-point stance at the other end of the line of scrimmage. The ‘over’ or ‘under’ part of it refers to the shift of the defensive line in relation to how the offense lines up – they are either over or under shifted in relation to the strong side of the line (the side with more blockers, usually a tight end). Of course that’s when the Jets aren’t lining up in a plain old vanilla 3-4 with exactly the same personnel on the field.
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The 4-3 Under

The most common of these shifted defensive fronts is the 4-3 under, used heavily by Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin in their Tampa-2 defense. It’s present in most playbooks across the league, and is the reason you’ll hear a lot of pass-rushing 4-3 DTs referred to as ‘under tackles’. The under shift in this case is designed to make it very difficult to double-team the 3-technique, pass-rushing DT by having him line up between the guard and the tackle on the weak side.
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Huge sack seasons from DTs in the league have come from guys who play primarily as an under tackle in these shifted fronts, including the 18-sack monster year that Keith Millard put up in 1989. That season was enough to earn him Defensive Player of the Year honors, and still stands as an NFL record for interior defensive linemen. Only 15 players period have bettered the mark.
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These various wrinkles to the 4-3 alignment were all born back in the 60s when the traditional 4-3 formations were tinkered by various coaches in both the NFL and the AFL, and the same solutions were found to more than one problem. Not only do these fronts allow a much more beneficial pass-rushing path for one of the defensive tackles, but they also allow the defense to stack players on either the strong or the weak side of the formation, helping to crowd expected points of attack in the run game.
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The difference between the over and under shift rests in the alignment of the defensive tackles – whether they line up over the center and the strong, or the weak side guards. In the Jets’ scheme, regardless of which side the line is shifted towards, both Harris and Bart Scott remain in traditional 3-4 inside linebacker positions, off the line of scrimmage and lined up over the guards, rather than moving along with the shift of the linemen. This differentiates the system from a ‘Scissors shift’, employed by some 3-4 defenses to give 4-3 looks, where the defensive line moves in one direction and the linebackers move opposite.
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Breaking News: Baltimore runs a 4-3

In order to succeed in running any of these schemes, you need the right personnel, and the Jets have several players with the versatility to allow them to feature multiple looks and fronts. Unsung line hero Mike DeVito, along with Pace and Thomas are crucial to the system. The Ravens too, having cycled through the full gamut of defensive systems over the past few years, have a couple of key versatile players, specifically Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Jarret Johnson.
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In today’s NFL it becomes hard to know what to classify each as. Most view Suggs as a 3-4 OLB, despite the fact that there is no doubt he plays far more snaps at defensive end in today’s Ravens’ defense – a defense that is undeniably a 4-3, not a 3-4 as it is often still listed and most people believe it to be.
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In 2008, when the Ravens placed the franchise tag on Suggs, the classification became an issue, because he would have been due about $800,000 more had he been listed as a defensive end and not a linebacker. Whether you classify a defensive lineman by the number of snaps they line up with their hand in the dirt, or (as the league does) by number of times they drop into coverage, Suggs is clearly a DE in the Ravens’ current scheme. In 2010, he played 1,169 snaps, and dropped into coverage just 90 times (7.7%). Even when considering only the pass plays, it was a mere 14.1% and clearly delineates Suggs as a defensive end.
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Jarret Johnson, though, is a little more tricky. Johnson, unlike Calvin Pace, isn’t really a hybrid linebacker – likely at any time to put his hand in the dirt or stand up off the line of scrimmage and play outside linebacker – instead, he essentially plays two positions. Like Suggs, many still claim Johnson is just a regular 3-4 outside linebacker, but that is anything but the truth.
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In their base D, Johnson plays as a 4-3 OLB on the strong side of the formation, head up on the tight end. In nickel formations, he usually drops down to defensive end in a 4-man line. Because of that, you can’t just look at the number of times he dropped into coverage to work out what to classify him as. As it happens though, he dropped into coverage far more than a traditional 3-4 OLB like Tamba Hali did in 2010 (280 occasions vs 84). The key to Johnson is to look how often he dropped into coverage from the base call – from his 4-3 OLB spot.
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In those instances, he dropped on a massive 76% of passing plays. Remember that Suggs drops on just 14%, and the average figure for 4-3 OLBs is right around 75% – Johnson is clearly a 4-3 OLB for the majority of the Ravens snaps in their base package. Now that’s not to say that Johnson’s role in coverage is necessarily the same as any other 4-3 LB. The Ravens know his strengths and more importantly his limitations, and more often than not he is jamming the tight end at the line of scrimmage and dropping into a pretty shallow zone, but that doesn’t change his position, and in no way does he play enough snaps there to be classed a 3-4 OLB.
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The interesting thing is that this dual role that Johnson occupies is becoming more common in today’s NFL. We’ve all seen defensive ends kick inside to play defensive tackle on passing downs – we were treated to a Super Bowl showing of the Giants and their ‘four aces’ D-line against the Patriots – but somehow it seems strange – and it’s certainly less publicized – when players to move down to the trenches from the linebacking corps.
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People raised eyebrows when the Redskins announced that they would be playing Brian Orakpo as a 4-3 SAM linebacker when he was drafted, but before their transition to the 3-4, he played that same dual role as Johnson – 4-3 SAM linebacker in base D, and then pass-rushing defensive end in sub-packages. The Raiders were able to transform Kamerion Wimbley from forgotten man into a rejuvenated star doing exactly the same thing. Wimbley finished the season as our top graded 4-3 OLB, but was helped by spending 326 snaps, roughly 1/3 of his overall snaps (otherwise known as 3rd downs), as a pass-rushing defensive end – where he had a fine season getting after the quarterback.
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More on the way

If you’re looking for more examples of this for next season – doesn’t it sound like the ideal situation for Denver rookie Von Miller? He’s seen as an awkward fit for John Fox’s 4-3 D, but if they plan to use him in this kind of role, the rookie could be a perfect marriage for a multiple-position place in the system. Miller’s selling point was his pass-rushing ability, but he wasn’t seen as big enough to line up as a 4-3 DE on an every-down basis. He seemed like a logical fit for a 3-4 team as an outside linebacker, which is why everyone had him heading to Buffalo until it became clear before the draft that the Broncos were planning on grabbing him first.
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Another? Newly signed Manny Lawson could play OLB for the Bengals on downs 1-2 and drop to DE for the third. More so, the dual-position role still isn’t just reserved for the hybrid linebacker types. Multiple teams employ 4-3 defensive ends that will bump down to the tackle spot for pass-rushing downs. Minnesota’s Brian Robison has been doing that for several seasons, and the Giants have done it for a long time with Justin Tuck. It allows those guys to attack slower interior linemen, shooting gaps with their quickness without needing to worry much about holding up against the run.
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By employing this dual-position role, coaches can keep impact players on the field for all three downs. It allows teams to avoid taking one of their more athletic players off the field every time they go into nickel formation. Plenty of 3-4 teams solve this problem by dropping the nose-tackle, playing essentially a 2-4-5 formation. The Steelers are the most obvious example of this, dropping Casey Hampton to the bench and being able to keep all four of their athletic, playmaking linebackers on the field, with James Harrison and Lamaar Woodley crowding the line of scrimmage to give a 4-man look to their defensive front. Some 4-3 teams had been getting caught up in the trap of relegating one of their linebackers to the bench for long portions of games, and this dual-position method has been the solution.
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Additionally, the versatile linebackers avoid being exposed to the wear of spending the first two downs as base 4-3 defensive ends. For all the scheming and trickery, the modern day NFL remains very much a run-run-pass league, and undersized pass-rushing threats are going to spend the bulk of their early downs standing up against much bigger offensive linemen while playing the run.
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While the NFL does still remain a simple enough beast, and we know what we see most of the time, we should never forget that we’re looking at players and coaches who compete in a game that is the product of more than 80 years of innovation, tinkering, strategy and scheming and things are never as simple as they look!
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Follow Sam on Twitter: @SamMonson … and be sure to follow our main Twitter feed as well: @ProFootbalFocus

Also, if you’re interested in reading more Xs and Os in regard to NFL defenses you should check out Jene Bramel’s guide to NFL defenses.

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  • foxybacker

    That’s an excellent article, nice to see the new hybrids being explained so effectively

  • snowman88

    I Love dis article…its great to see how coaching strategies are broken down

  • motorcycle

    A really interesting article thanks. I hope that during the season you can write some articles on how successfully Buffalo/Denver/NYJ/Baltimore and New England are implementing a hybrid defence.

  • uppercut

    AWESOME article. Lots of good info (EVERYONE NEED TO READ THE BALTIMORE PART!) and a great flow from section to section. It’s kind of funny that BAL keeps moving Johnson to DE when you guys have shown he hasn’t really produced rushing the passer. The opposite of Orakpo who was ONLY good at rushing the passer (guessing they had the change to 3-4 in mind & threw him in the fire @ 4-3 OLB rather than play 4-3 DE)

    You mention ^that method is a great way to keep your athletic guys on the field, but it seems to need some really specific circumstances. One of your OLBs is a good pass-rusher (but not TOTALLY incompetent in coverage & vs the run on the 1st & 2nd downs), his presence needs to be an upgrade over any 2nd option @ DT (1 DT stays I’d imagine) & you have a DE who can shift inside to DT (& still play well). Or to put all that more generally, said OLB would need to be at least your 2nd best option rushing the passer from the edge (then whoever you stick in the middle, DTs or other DEs)

  • DomCapersSucks

    Please send this to Dom Capers.

  • BorisBulldog

    Great article, but what explains Rex crapping his pants on D the last 2 years and Rob never having a D that can stop the run with OAK, CLE, DAL (and this year NO) ?
    Looks like Buddy was the only Ryan that knew D!!!

    • pound4pound

      Rex had a top-5 defense 5 out of 6 years, but yeah, I’m sure he forgot it all.