In praise of the Great Front Four.

2011 Giants’ front four harassing Brady, winning Super Bowl.
Not shown: 2007 Giants’ front four harassing Brady, winning Super Bowl.

It’s 2007. You and I were enthralled with a 10 win Browns team. But there was another big story in 2007. There was a team that went undefeated in the regular season. Their average score was 37 to 17. They scored no less that 34 points in their first eight games. They had 50 TD passes. Averaged over 300 pass yards/game. One of their receivers had 24 TDs. Their QB had a 117 rating. They’re 18-0 going into the Super Bowl. It was the Brady-Moss Pats.

How do you stop (arguably) the best offense of the modern era?

You go back to basics. You do what has always worked and what will always work.

You bring the heat with a four man front.

Because if there’s no blitz, there’s no obvious coverage to exploit. Because if there’s no obvious coverage to exploit, even the best QB has to hold the ball longer. And because even the best QBs start making mistakes after five sacks.

That’s how the Giants front four kept their team in it long enough to pull out the 2008 Super Bowl.

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Fooling the Quarterback? With a defense created in 1972? With a defense used by 15 teams? Really?
What separates Brady and Manning and other elite quarterbacks from the pack? Not arm strength, not accuracy — though both need to be good. But Philip Rivers has those traits when given enough time in the pocket. It’s clearly not mobility.

dt.common.streams.StreamServer

Not typically fooled by that novel 3-4 set that’s been around since 1972.

It’s their reads, both defense and progression. They’ll recognize a blitz and punish it. You give them time to go through their progression, they’ll find the open guy. The thinking of ‘we can disguise where the rush is coming from with a 3-4’ is questionable. Most teams play a 3-4; all QBs have seen it, good QBs can read it. Doesn’t that ‘fool the QB’ premise need to be challenged?

Instead of trying to trick the QB and the offense, how bout this:

CHALLENGE THE OFFENSE.

4-3 defense says this:

We’re rushing four with simple man-to-man coverage with press corners.* We’re not blitzing. Our LBs are playing up and taking your slant routes away. No tricks. We’re gonna own your line of scrimmage and we’ll have seven back in coverage. What’s your play, offense?

Can the offense then provide answers to these questions:

  • Can your five man o-line give your QB three peaceful seconds?
  • Do you dare release your TE?
  • Is your RB willing and able to stay and protect?
  • Are your WRs good enough to show separation five yards into their route?
  • How fast can your QB go through his reads?
  • Does your QB show fear under pressure and so is prone to make mistakes?
  • If your QB has known tendencies is he more likely or less likely to break tendency when being rushed?
  • The deep crossing routes might be there, can you stand in the pocket long enough for it to open up?
  • Is your QB a stare-down-his-target guy? If so, will he be more likely or less likely to do this under pressure?
  • Can you run the ball? Or have you sold out your entire offense in favor of the current prevailing thinking of ‘It’s QB-driven-league,’ and ‘you have to pass first today.’

A 4-3 with a great front creates all these dynamics.

The key is having the great front.

It’s why the Giants won the Super Bowl in 2008. Strahan-Cofield-Robbins-Umenyiora. It’s why the Giants won the Super Bowl in 2012. Canty-JPP-Tuck-Joseph.

It’s why in 2012, the three defenses leading in sacks (Denver 52, St. Louis 52, Cincy 51) ran 4-3 defenses. Same deal in 2011: Vikings, Eagles, Giants were top three; all run 4-3. And not for nothing, the team who allowed the least points and -to my eye- was the most dominating defense last year, Seattle, also runs a 4-3.

Armed with this data, we feel righteous challenging the wisdom of the Browns’ pending transition to the 3-4.

Sheard Rubin Taylor. Just needed one more.

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Browns 2012 Front Four, RIP
We were one defensive end from having a that elite front four. How do you know it’s a great front four? When you know all their names. We all know Rubin-Taylor-Sheard. I don’t think I’m out on a limb saying they’re all top 5 at their position. Add in Hughes and Winn who can keep them fresh (and who are pretty fine linemen in their own right) and the line creates problems. We just needed one more.

THE 2012 BROWNS’ FRONT FOUR WAS THE STRONGEST PART OF THE TEAM.

THE 2012 BROWNS’ FRONT FOUR WAS THE FIRST BROWNS’ COMPONENT THAT COULD BE CALL A TOP-5 ANYTHING SINCE… SINCE… SINCE THE DIXON-MINNIFIELD CB TANDEM. (NFLN rates them #2. If you don’t mind a 30 second commercial, here’s a four minute clip worth a look.)

Now it’s getting blown up.

The six man d-line rotation of Rubin-Taylor-Hughes-Winn-Sheard-Rucker is the best in league. This is because it’s deep enough where the DTs are always fresh. Moving to a 3-4 by definition de-emphasizes the strongest d-line in the league and emphasizes the a relative weakness.

It makes no sense.

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Successful coaches must run the system they know, true/false? Mike Tomlin case study.
Don’t coaches always put in the system the know best? Is it unrealistic to expect a coach to adapt his game to the talent around him?

We’ve been sold this bill of goods before: I’ve been given a strong armed shotgun QB. I think I’ll force him to be under center and throw underneath routes and out patterns. Because… THIS IS MY SYSTEM.

How did the Steelers’ handle a new HC’s system preference? Hint: different from the Browns. Click to enlarge.

How did the Steelers’ handle a new HC’s system preference? Hint: different from the Browns. Click to enlarge.

Well he is the head coach, I guess he knows best.

That’s all you can say as a fan, really. But if you want to feel better about your instinct screaming that THIS MOVE TO THE 3-4 IS FUCKED UP, let’s see how another organization and new Head Coach handled this dilemma.

Pat Kirwan’s Take Your Eye Off the Ball describes what Mike Tomlin was up against when he took over the Steelers. Tomlin coached the Tampa 2 defensive backs behind the Bucs’ 4-3 front. Tomlin then moved on to the Vikings as DC and his 4-3 defense there had the league’s best run defense.

Tomlin’s been a 4-3 guy for forever.

Did he throw out Pittsburgh’s 3-4 when he became head coach?

… …

NO. Of course he did not and of course the Steelers won their sixth Super Bowl in Tomlin’s second year as coach. From Kirwin:

Tomlin’s decision to stay in a 3-4 was one a lot of coaches wouldn’t have been able to make, primarily because of their egos. But it was the right call, as the Steelers’ sixth Lombardi Trophy confirmed.

Agrees with move to 3-4.

Meanwhile, the Browns are installing their third new defense since 2006 and seemingly without regard to the talent on their roster.

It’s a Shurmur move.**

I don’t care who you are Ray Horton and Chud. You have within your locker room a front four that might rank with the best. If you dont see that, if you’re too prideful, or if you’re simply unable to adapt your coaching to your talent: then you’re not my kind of coach. Sorry.

You adapt your coaching to the talent.

Den Herder-Fernandez-Stanfill.
Your ineptness gave birth to the 3-4.

We’re Browns fans and we know first-hand what happens by doing the opposite.

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I’m open minded. I hear the talk about 3-4 being able to conceal defenses and from where the rush is coming and so forth. I frankly think the 3-4 was created not to conceal where the rush was from but to compensate for having a poor rush out of your four man front. If Don Shula had the 1971 Vikings front four, I assure you the 53 (aka, No Name) Defense never happens.   Think:  do you implement the ‘No Name Defense’ if you have ‘names?’

So let’s look at some of these front fours. You tell me if a 4-3 behind these lines would or wouldn’t be effective today.

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Fearsome Foursome
LA Rams, late 60s.

Click this (has sound). Kinda got a Sam and Dave feel. 100x better than Bears’ Super Bowl Shuffle.

From 67-69 they won 11, 10, 11 games (in 14 game season). The win count doesn’t tell the story… these Rams team were dominant and there’s weirdness in their seasons.

1967, 11-1-2. #1 in points scored and #1 in fewest points allowed. Trounced by Packers in Championship.
1968, started 10-1-1, lost two straight to finish and missed playoffs.
1969, started 11-0, lost three straight to finish season then lost to Cowboys in playoffs.

That’s just horrible.

There are no sack stats to report but the Rams led in turnover differential in 67 and 69, 2nd in 68.

The Gabriel-led offenses was quite respectable too.  The offensive line had HOFers Tom Mack, Bob Brown, plus pro-bowler Charlie Cowan thus being a rare exception to the ‘Three Stud‘ rule.

I don’t think we’ll find a more dominant team not to make the Super Bowl.

Links: not a bad mid-60s singing group, Rosey Grier everybody! And if you don’t mind the 30 second commercial, a decent NFLN clip.

Lundy, Grier, Olsen, Jones

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Cuozzo. Horrible.

Purple People Eaters
Vikings, late 60s – early 70s

I don’t even have to look up their names: Eller-Larsen-Page-Marshall. Allowed least points and least yards in 69, 70, 71. Wait, in 71, they were second in least yards allowed. Among the top seven defenses for ‘least points per game’ this group holds three slots.

In my opinion, this is the greatest defense ever. Then 85 Bears, then Steel Curtain. I suppose the greatest ‘defense’ is debatable, but when you consider that Wally Hilgenberg, Paul Krause, and Karl Kassulke are the most notable backers, it indicates that this indeed was the all-time best front four.

Too bad their offense was a straight up disaster. Gary Cuozzo. Ooof, he was bad.  Ironically, the Tarkenton Vikings got the ‘Three Stud‘ memo, but the PPEs were past their prime… thus three SB losses.

1969, 12-2. Lost Super Bowl to Chiefs. (But whupped the Browns 27-7 in NFL Championship.)
1970, 12-2, with Gary Cuozzo at QB (64 QB rating). Lost in first round of playoffs.
1971, 11-3, averaged ~140 pass yds/game, 23rd of 26 in total offense.

If I had to pick, this is the best-ever front four.

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Steel Curtain
Steelers, 70s

Another one I know without looking. Greenwood-Greene-Holmes-White. No need to look up the win-loss records or review them here.

You know how you know you’re old? If you can remember when the Steelers sucked, you’re old. That’s me. Actually I’m in that special slice of hell where I’ve seen the Steelers rise from utter suck to .. you know; but not old enough to have seen the great Browns. The Steelers were horrible in the 60s. We usually mark their turnaround to be the 1970 draft with Terry Bradshaw (and Mel Blount). But actually… their 1969 draft brought in Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood (and hiring Chuck Noll was good too of course). Add in the 1971 draft with in Fats Holmes and Dwight White (along with Jack Ham), and that’s a locked down front four plus four HOFers in the three years and the dynasty is born.

(If you’re a Browns fan, don’t even click on this link to the Steelers’ 1974 draft.)
(Greene, Greenwood, Bradshaw, Blount, Ham, Harris, Swann, Lambert, Stallworth, Webster. 10 HOFers drafted by the Steelers from 69-74. Plus Noll. Damn.)

This defense was .. it was really demoralizing watching the Phipps/Holden/Skorich-Gregg Browns work against them. There was never any doubt of the outcome. Does anyone have the stat for how consecutive losses we had in Three Rivers? Because I’m not looking it up. It was a lot.

There is a chicken-egg question here: with three HOFers behind the line (Ham, Blount, Lambert), did the backers make the line or vice versa. I choose ‘c’ — that defense was rock solid at every position in every way.

Greenwood-Greene-Holmes-White, 1975

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Doomsday
Cowboys, 70s

To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure this line belongs with the others. I was young, but I remember the first three as utterly dominating. I was living in Chicago during the 46. But hey, they have a nickname. Let’s check em out.

[Nope. I judge this defense good not great and not in the same category as the other four. Let me know in comments if I got it right or not.]

dallasdoomsday2

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Dent.

46 Defense
Bears, mid-80s

Most dominating defense in my memory. From 84 to 88, Bears was 1st or 2nd in total defense. The 85 team was the only one with a respectable offense. That team shut out the Giants and Rams in the playoffs and in the Super Bowl after letting the Pats get a FG, scored 44 points before the Pats scored again.

Fun fact: the 46 is for Doug Plank.
Extra fun fact: FENCIK! (or sometimes Plank) was what a roommate from Evanston used to yell before a dive-bombing tackle of an unsuspecting roommate.  A bit homoerotic in retrospect..

Back to the Bears.

Like the Vikings, this was another defense who carried the offense. I promise I was in Chicago at the time, I remember. When McMahon was healthy then the Gault and Payton weapons worked. And McMahon was better than you probably remember. But McMahon was never healthy. In the 84-88 stretch, he only started more than nine games in 85.

Hampton (fart noise)-McMIchael-Perry-Dent

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Yeah, sure we’ll hope for the best with the Browns transition. Maybe it’ll be good.

But the view from is that it was one player away from being great. And we’re not happy.

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* I want bigger cornerbacks who can do press cover and we’re working on a post discussing this.

** Not to open this can of worms, but the eschewing of ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ is also a Modell thing. Look at the list of change-for-sake-of-change moves with only one (Brown) that can be argued a success: Paul Brown, Paul Warfield, George Hadhazy, Marty Schottenheimer, Ernie Accorsi, Bill Belichick.

  • the likely/probable departure of horton is, to me, another problem with this change.

    if we’re installing not just a new and superior and magical defense, but ray horton’s specific special flavor of it, then doesn’t that further point up of the folly of allowing a transient to establish a system he won’t be there to complete?

    always respects yours an daves opinion, but i think you’re reaching in an attempt to put lipstick on this pig.

    i still think this is a bad idea and i think the spin is out of control. [this doesnt happen often:] THANK YOU TONY GROSSI for calling this what it is.

  • I guess I view this discussion in terms of a “third down passing league.” Even the “3-4” teams run out four man lines. The line has been blurred, which is encouraging given that non-Shurmur offenses are able to do more than one thing.

    The other thing about Horton (compared to the past 3-4 versions in Cleveland) is that his defensive line was far more active. Most of the sacks came from defensive ends (and Daryl Washington). At least based on Arizona’s past two years, we’re not dealing with the typical Crennel-esque linemen who are asked to just occupy blockers. I think this is an advantage given Winn and Rubin’s ability to create pressure. Of course, the Browns’ linebackers are a thin group (in virtually any system) and like always, the Browns need pass rushers.

    Another concern is the secondary – which badly needs another 2 corners. Regardless of 4-3, 3-4, 5-2 or 0-11, the Browns need to find a top notch slot corner – which is quietly becoming more important than a “number 2” corner.

  • I’m still on the record as thinking that the old 4-3/3-4 debate is not as relevant as it once was. When you’re talking about a league that is designed to reward teams who throw the ball (downfield), obviously a defense’s only chance to have an impact is to rush the passer. And yes, there have been some great four-man lines in recent memory (the Giants being an obvious example).

    However, even a “3-4” team is not necessarily a “3-4” team on all downs. Consider that offenses are running multiple receivers and Spread formations, a true “4-3 or 3-4” defense is only such on maybe 30-40% of downs. Otherwise, defenses are playing the pass – which usually requires the four-man fronts that can be so effective. Even the 3-4 teams use these fronts on obvious passing downs.

    From here, the question becomes where defenders line up, spacing, hands up or down, etc. And really – if you’re talking about creating pressure – who cares? Certainly, the Giants of last year and the 49ers (pre-playoffs) were able to create pressure with their front four. Ray Horton’s Cardinals usually brought 4 or 5 rushers from different spots on the field. And when Dick Jauron’s defense couldn’t apply pressure, the Browns were hopeless.

    As for the Browns, if Billy Winn for example can create pressure as a traditional 4-3 tackle or a 3-4 end, who cares? He can create pressure. I fully realize it’s talk at this point, but if Horton truly wants to put his players in the best position to succeed, then the given fronts don’t matter. At this point, call him the anti-Shurmur in that he ideally isn’t trying to fit players into an already formed box – or at least presents the appearance of wanting specific game plans instead of running out the exact same defense every week.

    • this is all, of course, true.

      but i’m arguing:
      1. that the 4-3 (when built on a great front four) is demonstrably excellent, even in today’s game;
      2. that adapting a system is easier than adapting a roster;
      3. the folly of coaches who let their egos override the realities of their roster’s talent.

      we know that the browns’ front four was the strongest piece of the team with a trajectory to be dominating. we also know the challenges of finding four fast LBs equipped to play the 3-4. (turns out ‘stout’ and ‘motor’ are hard to quantify pre-draft, see Veikune, David.)
      we know the 3-4, by definition will de-emphasize the strength of the team in favor of emphasizing a less strong (and historically, a weak) piece.
      we (i) are suspicious of the whole premise that the 3-4 is a superior defense versus a 4-3 with talented front four.

      as for jauron’s system, he would drop linemen into coverage too. often when the rush wasn’t working, that was why. the notion of disguising rush and coverage as an element unique to the 3-4 is bogus.

      so we’re left with: we’re saddled with coaches unable to think outside the box and/or unable to evaluate the talent on the roster he’s inherited. this is a problem, imo.

      anyways, i just wanted to record my take on this before the season. as ever, i’ll be more than happy to eat my words and it won’t be the first time.

      thanks for the note!

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