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Green Zone League Articles

How to build a team: Where to start?
By Nic St. Marie
Special to gzl-football.com

I've began this article about 4 times now. I normally write articles protected by the Firefox auto-save feature and that's it. Some extention I used to use (or just the newest version) has rendered it unusable, and GZL articles I'll have to start doing a better job of saving on my own.

Since I've written this so many times, I can actually make all the headers before I begin. I figure I can speed through it real quick so once again I'll start this out unprotected.

A coach has a lot of responsibilities in a given week. They have to study the opponent to find strengths, weaknesses, and do trend analysis in order to neutralize the opponent and use their own players in the best ways. A great coach can see their own team and the opponent clearly and lack the ability to exploit the opponent at times, making them long for the ability to stock their own pantry.

But being a GM/coach brings on a lot of extra challenges, things that expose that person's biases and inability to "prepare for everything" while being good at resource management and cold-hearted enough to cut bait on a player who performs at the highest levels for him on Sundays.

One of the most difficult parts of being a GM coach is figuring out "your system." Some guys know what they want and they'll move mountains to get it. Others want to be "opportunists," excelling at resource management but never wanting to put all of their eggs in one basket, lose out on the very best players and have to build long and slow.

Regardless of acquisition style, there does happen to be a clear starting point when you build a team. And it may surprise some, but it is not on offense, but on defense.

On offense, you can choose to air it out, power run, run counters, try to find perfect balance. And you can do it all with the same personnel, whether crappy or prodigious.

On defense though, if you try to do the same you can find yourself burned without an identity. This is because you have to decide whether you'll run a 4-3, 3-4, or a variant that incorporates both. For nearly every team, that last option is like having two quarterbacks. You have no defense if you don't pick between 4-3 or 3-4. You might stop some teams, but most likely you'll be killed by many others.

All of that introduction to get to the heart of the matter. As a GM, I believe the first clear decision you make is what scheme you'll run up front. Although some have noted that I don't overspend on the front 7, I certainly overscheme. You can't just throw out 4 DL and 3 LBs and ignore what you just put out there.

In this installment (hopefully not the only one) I'll go over the basic 4-3. Why you choose a player for it and how to get different elements out of the scheme.
The 4-3 was a defensive response in the 50's to the modernization of the passing game. The defender over the center had already moved off the ball and turned into a MLB, but placing 4 DL on the line with 3 linebackers was the best response to offense that could pass out of run formations or run out of passing formations. To this day it is still the clear prototype for a base defense that can stop both elements of offense. I'll leave the 3-4 for another day, as it is a special defense of it's own.

The defensive line is normally talked about on broadcasts as positions and what those normally encompass, but is better understood with responsibilities. Below is a chart illustrating the names of gaps. The picture leaves a little to be desired, so understand the odd number is across from the gap, while the even is head on the OL, with the C starting at 0.

I'll start on the inside of a defense. All defensive linemen have 1- or 2-gap responsibility. On almost every play one of the 4-3 DT's will have 2-gap responsibility, while the other may usually be a one-gapper, or do a healthy mix of both.

Occasionally a 4-3 defense will balance with the DT's sharing a similar mixture of responsibilities (Jaguars with Stroud & Henderson) but normally that 2-gap DT is 325 or better, lining up between the C and OG on his side. He is most often known as a Nose Tackle or 1-Technique (1-Tech). The DT isn't known as a 2-gapper because he is literally so big he takes up two gaps. Rather he is responsible for both gaps, he reads where the ball is going and closes to the football, often through a single or double-team.

The other DT position is most often called an Undertackle (UT) or 3-tech. This is a Warren Sapp or Gerald McCoy type, who can split a double-team or defeat and shoot past a single-blocker without losing much time. This is the position that can get 6-8 sacks in a 4-3, but most often just has 3-5 while causing difficulty for the run and pass with penetration.

DE's in 4-3 bring on a lot of the variance, with teams like the current NFL Eagles running the "wide-9" just two seasons ago, giving both DE's nearly a 3-4 OLB position on the field. Whether one or both DE's are on the outside shoulder of the TE or OT, this is nearly always a one-gap responsibility, with the caveat being that their one-gap includes outside contain. But in a 4-3 the stronside end often plays some 5-tech as well with a 2-gap responsibility. Some teams run with balanced ends with both running some one-gap and two-gap mixed in.

DL Integration
The talent and ability of the player often determines their role (Tommie Harris & Jermaine Kearse were one-dimensional) but how you mix them often determines what the DL can do. The average 4-3 will have a pure pass rushing DE, with a pass rushing 3-tech that has some run responsibility. Then a strong-side end that is balanced between run and pass, with a NT that mostly soaks up run blockers. This gives somewhere between 1.5 and 2 2-gappers on one play.

There are some teams that do tampa-2 type defenses with nearly all one-gap players, while some (like the current real-life Seahawks) will put a pure 5-tech DE on the field at all times, with two DTs that can stop the run. In this scheme, sometimes 3 players have 2-gap responsibility. However you construct your 4-3, you have to try and generate a balance between rushing the passer and stopping the run that fits what you want to accomplish.

One reason to sacrifice pass rush for size is to keep the run fit lanes open for linebackers. A linebacker in the 4-3 has generally the same responsibilities across the board. They have to beat a FB, pulling guard, or HB to the edge on a run play. They have to fill the holes between the tackles, stuffing a FB in the hole and forcing the HB to run laterally. And in the pass they have to cover TE's and backs, or blitzes.

These responsibilities are much better covered with an excess of:

As a rule of thumb, if your DL is bigger than average you can use shorter faster LBs. The Tampa-2 though is predicated on superior speed everywhere to mitigate strength/size issues. While you normally see 3-4 OLBs paid the most (for pass rushing) you see the best skills on a star 4-3 linebacker in nearly every case. Coverage, blitzing, and run stopping skills are all prized, and a guy like Julian Peterson or Adalius Thomas who were known for all three were sometimes their defenses most valuable players.

However orthodox or unusual you run your 4-3, understanding the responsibilities of each player can open the door to playing a style of defense that truly accomplishes what you wish it would.
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