NFL GM Simulation | NFL Defensive Schemes

NFL Defensive Schemes – Beyond 4-3 or 3-4

By Ted Bartlett, ItsAllOverFatMan.com

Editor’s note:  We first saw this article in an email from Ted Sundquist’s TheFootballEducator.com site.  The former Broncos GM has been doing a fine job of pulling together some of the smarter independent NFL content of late, as well as continuing to generate excellent original content.

This piece, by Ted Bartlett of ItsAllOverFatMan.com, is one of the most forward-thinking articles we’ve seen.  It’s exactly the kind of thing that appeals to our audience as they participate in our realistic GM simulation, and our cerebral approach to the NFL more generally (we try, anyway.)

And, we’re very amused by the Ted’s site’s name.  According to IAOFM’s “About” page, their name originated from a 1977 game with the upstart Broncos in Oakland visiting the then-dominant Raiders.  As the Broncos closed out their victory, Denver LB Tom Jackson (now of ESPN) approached portly Oakland coach John Madden and said, “It’s all over fat man!”

On to the article…

realistic nfl game pen and clipboardHappy Tuesday, friends.  As promised in my last article, today, I want to propose a proposition.  I think that it’s high time that people stop acting like there are only two kinds of defense being played in the NFL, and that we come up with a better way to identify them. 

You’ll recall that last Tuesday, I made the case that the base personnel grouping (3-4 or 4-3) was not only not determinative of the character of a defense, it’s actually only barely relevant to the discussion.  It doesn’t necessarily contain any indication of tactical approach, so saying that a team runs a 3-4 defense means almost nothing, yet that’s all you get from the football commentariat.  This injustice will not stand, man!

On offense, at least, the traditionally recognized groupings speak to tactical approaches.  When somebody says that a team runs a West Coast offense, you tend to think of horizontal passing, and timing routes, and a running game that sets up that kind of passing.  The basic principles are mostly common within the group.  That isn’t the case for a “3-4 defense” or a “4-3 defense,” not at all.

I think the reason for that is that defenses are generally much less verbiage-heavy, so less goes into the learning process for the terminology.  For that reason, defensive coaches tend to be more easily able to cobble together specific tactics that worked from a bunch of different schemes during their career, so every resulting defensive scheme ends up being a mix of stuff.

That’s somewhat true of offenses too, but because offenses tend to be imagined and set up as interconnected frameworks, you tend to get more faithful adherence to schematic principles, as they pass through the generations of coaches. 

The other reason for the insufficient naming convention in defensive schemes is that when people watch football, they watch the ball.  Their view of the game is from the perspective of the offense, so it’s easier to tell what they’re doing in real time, than it is to tell what a defense is doing.

Why can’t we have a defensive naming convention that actually imparts what a defense does?  Is it too difficult to figure that out, and to disseminate it?  I don’t think it is, and today, I’m going to propose a new model for talking about and understanding defenses.


In psychology, there’s a model called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) that’s pretty widely used and understood as a useful method for identifying personality types in a general way.  There are four dimensions of personality used in the model, which was based on work done by Carl Jung, and each dimension is dichotomous, with only two possible states of being:

(E) Extroverted vs. (I) Introverted

(N) Intuition vs. (S) Sensing

(T) Thinking vs. (F) Feeling

(J) Judgment vs. (P) Perception

Everybody comes out of the test as one of 16 possible types.  I’m an ENTJ, which, after you read that Wikipedia article, you could all probably guess from reading my work.  I was an ENTJ at 18 years old, and I was an ENTJ at 35 years old.  I’m sure I’ll be one when I die too.  We are who we are, and for the most part, people don’t really change that much.

They say there are two kinds of people – those who dichotomize, and those who don’t. 

Well, I tend not to be much of a regular dichotomizer, because usually, there are more than two possible states of being.  I think that the MBTI did a pretty good job of identifying personality traits where there are two defined ends of a continuum, though, and where everybody falls somewhere in that continuum.


That’s the kind of situation I find with football defenses, and I like the idea of employing four dichotomous dimensions for understanding them.  It’s a manageable number, and a maximum of 16 possible groups isn’t too many.  I believe that if we set up and use such a model, we can add that information to the base personnel grouping (or not), and we can really describe what a defense looks like, and what it likes to do when we talk about it.

In that vein, today I introduce the Defensive Scheme Type Indicator (DSTI) and submit it for your consideration.  (I almost named it the Bartlett Defensive Type Indicator, like Myers and Briggs did, but I get enough crap about being full of myself already, so I decided to humble it up.)

Dimension 1 – Front Play

(S) Stack vs. (P) Penetrate

Much more important than how many defensive linemen have their hands down is the consideration of what they’re doing.  Tactics are more important than alignment, and the truth is that alignment varies a great deal within all defensive schemes.

Another term for stack is “two-gap.”  The defensive lineman who is two-gapping will tend to align in an even-numbered technique, head up on an offensive lineman, so that they can engage the guy, try to stand him up, and play both gaps to either side of him.  You know how defensive ends in 3-4 schemes are often called “five-techniques?”  More often than not, they align as four-techniques, head-up on the OT.

A scheme that is looking to penetrate can be said to be playing a one-gap approach.  The linemen will tend to align in odd-numbered techniques, which will put them directly in gaps between offensive linemen.  At the snap of the ball, they’re trying to penetrate that gap, and get in between those linemen.

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