What’s in a name?
More aptly, what’s in a name of a defensive formation?
Call it a 3-4, a 4-3, a nickel or a 46, defensive formations can have some confusing names. Plus, when you look down at the field at any given moment, you may see six guys lined up at the line of scrimmage or just three defensive backs.
So, why do teams use the names they do for their defensive fronts? As with most things, it’s all about the personnel.
Let’s start to break down the most popular names, though, to figure out the basic nomenclature. Most defensive alignments are identified by how many down linemen and linebackers they have. So, a “3-4” has three down linemen and four linebackers, while a “4-3” has four linemen and three ‘backers. A “4-2-5” look takes it a step further, telling you how many defensive backs there are after listing linemen and linebackers.
Each one starts with the number of linemen, though, because that’s where the first fundamental difference between formations begins. At its heart, each formation can either be an odd front or an even front. That’s just a way to count how many linemen are on each side of the center.
A 3-4 team generally lines its nose tackle up over the center, this putting one linemen on each side of the offensive line. That makes it an odd front. A 4-3 has the tackles shaded on either side of the center, meaning there are two down linemen on each side of the ball, making it even.
This is important for gap maintenance. Each defensive player has a responsibility for a certain gap in the offensive line, and who has what gap is determined by that defensive line.
After the front, though? Everything you know goes out the window. Variations come in all shapes and colors from there. A 46 look, made popular by the Chicago Bears under Mike Ditka, is basically a 4-3 look with a linebacker standing up on the end of the line with one of the safeties committed down into the box, almost as another linebacker.
Similarly, there’s no real difference between the “50” defense and a 3-4 look. Well, almost no difference, as both feature three linemen and then two linebackers that primarily play on the edge of the line and are used as pass rushers. It’s called a “50” look because there are seemingly five down linemen, depending on if those pass rushers put their hand on the ground.
The same can be said about the 4-2-5 and the nickel defense popular in the NFL. Both defenses have four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs. But, if you look at the way both Nederland and Port Arthur Memorial run the 4-2-5, it’s wildly different than its NFL counterpart. In the NFL, the nickel brings another cornerback onto the field to act as a cover guy for slot receivers. For both high school teams, that extra player is more like a safety, half-linebacker and half-defensive back.
That gets down to the second fundamental part of defensive formation names — the personnel. In each scheme, what is required of a particular position may be different and unique to that scheme. Though Nederland may line up with three safeties, the responsibilities for the “strong safety” may be more as run support and pass rushing, while the “weak safety” and “free safety” are more concerned with backside containment or coverage down field.
Most coaches fit the scheme to the players they have, which is why Memorial switched from a 4-4-3 look last season to this 4-2-5 scheme. They simply had a ton of linebackers last season and a ton of defensive backs this year. However, when you see them play on the field, it sometimes looks like they’re still running a 4-4.
A successful defense is often one that can transcend scheme because of its personnel. Nederland’s 4-2-5 look may not seem like it is built to stop a power rushing attack, with only two linebackers. But, in practice, the Bulldogs can easily move both Sage Seay and Bryce Whaley down into the tackle box to stem the rushing tide or set the edge to send any outside runs back inside to the linebackers like Jordan Wood or Korbin Stampley.
Or, the Bulldogs can bring up one of them and have Koby Couron play from a two-point stance, making the scheme appear to be more of a 3-4 look.
Having the personnel to shift and change a scheme on any given play, without having to send in new players, is what makes a defense really dangerous. Those variations will confuse an offense from play to play and make it easier to put its playmaking defenders into good positions.
Call the Bulldogs look a 4-2-5, because that’s what it is. But, don’t be surprised if it looks different from play to play. It’s only a name, after all.
If you have questions for this feature each week, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
What’s in a name?
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