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Scheme Matters - A Team Defensive System Analysis
Steve Gallo
July 30, 2008
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Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings was simply amazing as a rookie last year.  For starters he broke the single game rushing record by running for 296 yards and for the season he rushed for 1341 yards with 12 TD’s and added another 268 receiving yards with 1 TD.  Now think about what would happen to Peterson’s stats if he moved to fullback to be the lead blocker for Chester Taylor. Besides the outrage, you would have had to move Peterson down your rankings because of his position change.  That may seem far-fetched but in the IDP world, it is an unfortunate reality.  In 2003, David Thornton was playing weak side linebacker (WLB) for the Colts and he had a phenomenal season ranking as the #2 fantasy linebacker (20.4 points/game {PPG}) after posting 112 solo tackles, 33 assists, 1 sack and 3 passes defended.   The following season Thornton moved to the strong side linebacker (SLB) position and ranked as the 37th overall linebacker, recording only 69 solo tackles and 23 assists.

When it comes to offensive players, it is pretty easy to tell if a running back is on a run first team or if a wide receiver is on a pass friendly team but when it comes to IDP the different defensive schemes can make a dramatic difference in a player’s value.  Before we get into those differences here is a brief summary on each of the base defenses that NFL teams will be employing this year.

4-3 Defense

The 4-3 which as you can see is used by the majority of teams in the NFL, employs 4 defensive lineman (2 defensive ends (DE) & 2 defensive tackles (DT)), 3 linebackers (SLB, MLB & WLB) & 4 defensive backs (2 cornerbacks (CB), 1 free safety (FS), 1 strong safety (SS)).  Normally in a 4-3 one of the DT’s will play a “2 gap technique” (normally responsible for taking up two or more blockers (usually the center and guard) and stopping the run) while the other DT will play a “1 gap technique” giving them the responsibility of the other guard, stopping the run and rushing the quarterback. The DE’s main responsibility is to pressure the quarterback and get sacks.  Fantasy wise, the MLB (aka MIKE) is usually the linebacker (LB) to target in a 4-3 defense.  They are the “quarterback” of the defense and their focus is to stop the run.MLB’s that are able to play in the Nickel have the ability to increase their fantasy stats by as much as 10% or more.  The SLB (aka SAM) normally lines up on the tight end, when he is not engaged in blocking or covering the tight end, he may be blitzing the quarterback.  Normally, a SLB has limited tackle opportunities because of his tight end assignment.  A WLB (aka WILL) has more freedom than a SLB.  The WLB has the ability to pursue a running play as well as cover screens and blitz the quarterback thus giving the WLB the chance to make plays (interceptions, force fumbles).The CB’s main responsibility is simply to cover wide receivers.  How they play in coverage will depend on if they are playing man-to-man or zone.  A FS is the “center fielder” of the defense.  He is responsible for deep coverage in the middle of the field as well as rolling over to help a CB when necessary.  The FS is not usually as active in run support but does have the ability to create interceptions.  A SS is usually a much better scorer from a fantasy perspective than a FS because they are more active in run support but will still have coverage responsibilities.  Another thing to note is that there are teams (KC & JAX) that designate their LB’s as RLB (right side) and LLB (left side) and their responsibilities are tied to what side the TE lines up.  Occasionally, you will find a team that treats their safeties in the same manner depending on the situation at hand.

* Uses a Right/Left designation for its LB’s (KC also plays some Cover 2)

4-3 MLB Best Bets:  DeMeco Ryans, London Fletcher-Baker, Kirk Morrison, Lofa Tatupa
4-3 MLB Upside guys:  Jonathan Vilma, Mike Peterson
4-3 MLB Dynasty Watch:  Curtis Lofton, Stewart Bradley
4-3 MLB Sleepers:  NikoKoutouvides*,  Dhani Jones*
*Watch camp reports closely because it wouldn’t be a major surprise if either of these two lose their starting status prior to the start of the season.  In Denver keep an eye on Spencer Larsen and in Cincinnati there is some speculation that Keith Rivers could end up playing MLB.

Tampa 2/Cover 2 Defense

The Cover 2 is a versatile defense that can be implemented with multiple defensive fronts.  Speed is probably the most important facet of the Tampa 2/Cover 2, which is why most players are smaller than their counterparts in other defenses. Compared to other defenses what the Tampa 2/Cover 2 lacks in complexity it makes up for by requiring players to be extremely disciplined due to specific coverage areas that are assigned to each position. The main difference between the Tampa 2 and Cover 2 is that in the Tampa 2 the MLB is responsible for medium to deep middle pass coverage.  This coverage responsibility is the main reason why the WLB will usually outscore the MLB in this defense.  Also safeties in the Tampa 2/Cover 2 usually do not score as well as Safeties in other coverage shells because of their deep coverage responsibilities.

Tampa 2/Cover 2 WLB Best Bets:  Lance Briggs, Ernie Sims
Tampa 2/Cover 2 WLB Upside guys:  Freddie Keiaho, Chad Greenway
Tampa 2/Cover 2 WLB Dynasty Watch:  Geno Hayes/Quincy Black, Clint Session
Tampa 2/Cover 2 WLB Sleepers: Derrick Brooks, Kawika Mitchell

3-4 Defense

The 3-4 seems to be gaining some of the popularity back that it had lost over the years.  Under the new Parcells regime, Miami is making the move to a 3-4 this year.  More and more you will see teams that are using multiple looks of 3-4 and 4-3 and that is not an easy transition to make due to the differences in personnel needed for each defense.  The DE’s in a 3-4 are generally larger than their counterparts in the 4-3.  If a team wants to generate a pass rush in a 3-4 set, they will usually have to send one of their outside linebackers (OLB) to help rush the quarterback.  Inside linebackers (ILB) are generally very athletic and stronger to allow them to shed blockers to get to the ball carrier.  A strong point of the 3-4 is its ability to confound the quarterback and the teams passing game.  Conversely, the running game can exploit a 3-4 defense.  That is why it is imperative for nose tackles to be large bodies that can eat up blockers and allow the LB’s to get to the ball carrier. ILB’s in a 3-4 are usually designated on the depth chart as either RILB or LILB and they have similar roles to a MLB & WLB.  Unfortunately, fantasy wise there is no easy answer concerning which ILB spot produces the best.  Stud ILB’s are not easy to come by but your best bet would be to find a RILB playing for a coach from the Bum/Wade Phillips coaching tree (Mike Nolan: SF, Ted Cottrell: SD, Greg Manusky: SF, Brian Stewart: DAL).  OLB’s in a 3-4 usually garner their stats from sacks and can be very streaky and hard to rely on.  Unless your scoring system is very sack friendly, you should avoid most OLB’s in a 3-4.

3-4 ILB Best Bets:  Patrick Willis, David Harris
3-4 ILB Upside guys:  Channing Crowder, Karlos Dansby
3-4 ILB Dynast Watch:  Jerod Mayo, Brandon Siler, Lawrence Timmons
3-4 ILB Sleepers:  Derrick Smith, Bradie James
3-4 OLB Best Bets:  DeMarcus Ware, Shawne Merriman, Kamerion Wimbley
3-4 OLB Upside guys:  LaMarr Woodley
3-4 OLB Dynasty Watch:  Shawn Crable, Vernon Gholston
3-4 OLB Sleepers:  Bert Berry, Shaun Phillips

46 Defense

The 46 defense derived its name from the number 46 worn by Doug Plank (SS CHI) who would line up close to the line of scrimmage like an extra linebacker.  This defense is all about pressuring the quarterback and blowing up the running game.  One of the things people do not realize is that both OLB’s normally lineup on the same side of the formation. The MLB and SS play behind six players on the line of scrimmage.  The rush ends job is to go after the quarterback while the other five take up blockers allowing the MLB to seek and destroy ball carriers and to just create complete havoc for the offense. Since so many of the defenders are in close proximity to the line of scrimmage a major problem for the 46 can be defending the pass especially against teams that employ the West Coast Offense.  In Baltimore, Rex Ryan has successfully implemented the 46 defense that his father Buddy Ryan conceived in Chicago.  The reason he employs it in Baltimore is that he feels he has the personnel to run it properly.  Given the Ravens success defensively since the switch, you will not find many people that will argue with that statement.

46 MLB Best Bet:  Ray Lewis
46 WLB Best Bet:  Bart Scott
46 MLB Dynast Watch:  Tavares Gooden

46 Defense

Here is a general guide that can help you differentiate which linebacker position should be more productive based on the scheme that they play in.

Tampa 2/Cover 2:  WLB>=MLB>SLB
3-4:  RILB>=LILB>OLB’s


As with everything, there will always be exceptions and scoring systems will greatly affect rankings.  For reference a scoring system of:  2 points/tackle, 1 point/assist, 2 points/sack, 2 points/forced fumble, 2 points/INT & 1.5 points/pass defended  should be assumed.

Now that a reference point has been established about the different schemes let’s look at how some LB’s have been affected by position &/or scheme changes.

WLB DEN 2004
SLB DEN 2005 & 2006
MLB DEN 2007
WLB 2008

In 2004, Williams was arguably the best rookie LB prospect of his class.  Some people may argue that title belonged to Jonathan Vilma but that is why I said “arguably”.  Williams surely did not disappoint fantasy owners in his rookie year ranking 18th in both LB fantasy points (213.5) and PPG (13.3).  Just like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute, a move to SLB caused Williams’ fantasy production to drop like a rock. Williams posted a lowly 106.5 fantasy points & averaged only 6.7 PPG.  By just swapping sides in the base defense Williams was barely able to post half the points he had just one year earlier.

In his second year at SLB he did show some improvement posting 142 fantasy points (8.9 PPG).  In his fourth season in the NFL, D.J. found himself moving to another new position when he lined up as the starting MLB.  What a great move it was for fantasy owners.  All Williams did was rack up 141 total tackles (2nd in the NFL) which helped to vault him to his very lofty #2 LB ranking last year (266.50 pts & 16.7 PPG).  However, do not get to comfortable with production like that from D.J. because he is again changing positions.  D.J. will return to his role as WLB, which he manned back in 2004.  Fantasy owners can expect D.J. to produce top 20 LB numbers from his new WLB position but expecting a repeat of last year’s numbers is going to just be wishful thinking.

Fantasy note:  Last year Jim Bates was the Defensive Coordinator in Denver.  Former MLB’s that have thrived in the 4-3 scheme that Bates employs are Zach Thomas, Nick Barnett & Jesse Tuggle.  Under Bates those 3 LB’s averaged 16.52 PPG, which is the equivalent of 264.32 fantasy points a year.  From 2004 through 2006 those numbers would have ranked 6th, 7th and 8th respectively in both PPG and fantasy points scored.  Currently, Jim Bates is unemployed as he was fired by the Broncos but if and when Bates lands another job, pay attention to whoever is his MLB.

WLB Indianapolis Colts 2004, 2005, 2006
SLB Tampa Bay Bucs 2007

Last year Cato June found himself not only with a different team but playing a different position too.  For fantasy owners it was not a positive change.  For 3 years as the starting WLB for the Indianapolis Colts June was a fixture in the top 20, topping out in 2006 with a top 10 performance racking up 254 fantasy points (10th) with a 15.9 PPG (9th) on 142 tackles (5th in NFL).  That production all came to a crashing halt for fantasy owners once they found June playing SLB for Tampa Bay.  In 2007, June saw his tackle total dip all the way down to 69 (125th in NFL) and his fantasy ranking fall to 77th in fantasy points (125) and 87th in PPG (7.8).  June is a great example of why SCHEME MATTERS.

Fantasy Note:  You might not want to give up on June just yet.  There are some that think that when Derrick Brooks finally moves on from the productive WLB spot that it is June that will be the one to take it over.

MLB NY JETS 2004, 2005
ILB NY JETS 2006, 2007

Jonathan Vilma was a highly regarded rookie LB heading into the 2004 season where he was expected to man the MLB position for the Jets.  As a rookie Vilma showed great promise for fantasy owners when he posted a top 20 season with 210.90 fantasy points and 13.2 PPG (both good for 20th overall at LB).  Then in 2005 Vilma had a season that fantasy owner’s dream of.  All Vilma did was lead the NFL in tackles with 169 and that lead to his #1 fantasy ranking with 322 fantasy points scored (20.1 PPG).  Then in 2006 the Jets hired a new head coach in Eric Mangini who installed a new 3-4 defense.  Gone was the 4-3 scheme that had made Vilma a huge fantasy success.  Now he would have to learn a new defense and one that didn’t seem to fit his skill set very well.  2006, was a difficult year for both Vilma and his owners.  He saw a significant drop in production producing only 194 fantasy points (ranking 33rd at LB) and 12.1 PPG (ranking 41st at LB).  It didn’t get any better in 2007 posting even less PPG and missing the final 9 games of the year due to injury.  To make matters even worse David Harris assumed Vilma’s ILB spot and flourished, making Vilma expendable for the Jets.  Fantasy owners should rejoice because Vilma has landed as the MLB with the New Orleans Saints.  There are concerns with how his knee will respond so temper your expectations but do not be surprised to see a return to the top 20 with top 5 upside this year.

Fantasy Note:  Earlier this year the Saints also signed concussion/injury prone Dan Morgan to play WLB for them but Morgan has since retired.  With Morgan’s retirement Scott Shanle should be the one manning the WLB spot and shouldn’t eat into Vilma’s tackle opportunities like Morgan could have.

It is evident that being a productive fantasy player on the defensive side of the ball has as much to do with a player’s position and the scheme that they play in as it does their talent level.  Do not make the mistake that many make and draft using last year’s top performers lists.  Do your homework!  Make sure you research who has changed teams or positions.  Read up on teams that have a new Defensive Coordinator or are going to employ a new scheme.  If you are just getting your IDP feet wet or are an old pro remember not to get caught up in the name recognition game because scheme matters.  For those of you in non-IDP leagues you can stop pinching yourselves now because the sun will still come up tomorrow, the sky is still blue, grass is still green, and Adrian Peterson is still a running back for the Vikings.

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