How football evolution, and terminology, are changing the way we talk about Defense – Behind the Steel Curtain (blog)

Language. It’s the basis of all communication. In order for that communication to be effective, not only must two people be speaking the same language, but the meaning of the vocabulary used must be the same.

I’ll share a personal example of when there was not a shared understanding of vocabulary: Last spring, my fiance’, Christina, and I were talking about plans with her son. We were planning for October. Christina said, “It will be football season ‘til then.” My understanding of that phrase would be that “football season had commenced, and will have continued to the point in time we were referencing, ending then.”

That is not what Christina meant. She is of Pennsylvania Dutch heritage. They have some peculiar (to the general population) words and phrases. The use of the word ‘til (until) seems to be used in a way that others would use the word “by,” meaning “a measure of time will have passed before the stated event.” Going back to my discussion with Christina, I would have phrased her sentence as such: “It will be football season by then.”

One word. That’s it. One word meant one thing to one person. That one word meant something entirely different to someone else. A difference in the understanding of one word caused confusion in the communication between two people.

What does this have to do with football? We use language and vocabulary to describe and discuss football. Some of the terms used in football bring about the same misunderstanding that I described above.

Some examples:

  • Brandon Graham made the biggest defensive play in the Super Bowl, with a strip sack of Tom Brady. Graham played defensive end for the Eagles. Prior to 2016, the Eagles employed a 3-4 base defense. Graham played outside linebacker in that defense. Did Graham undergo a position change?
  • Robert Quinn had played defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams his first 6 years in the NFL. In 2017 the Rams changed to a 3-4 base defense. Quinn was listed as a linebacker on their roster. The Rams just recently traded Quinn to the Miami Dolphins, who use a 4-3 base defense. Will Quinn play LB or DE for the Dolphins?
  • The Steelers might address their need at inside linebacker through free agency. Nigel Bradham has been mentioned as a possible target of the Steelers. Bradham, however, played outside linebacker for the Eagles. How could he play inside linebacker for the Steelers?

Dicussions on topics such as these remind me of a famous line from the classic movie “Cool Hand Luke”

How do we go about fixing this “failure to communicate?” Well, it stems from the lack of shared understanding of terms. That lack of understanding is rooted in teams using the same terms (Outside Linebacker, Defensive End) to describe different positions. The discussion of a “4-3” defense vs. a “3-4” defense is outdated and moot. I hope that point will be clear by the end of this article. Since, however, that is where the miscommunication emanates, that is where we must begin.

We will look at the front 7 of a 3-4 base team (Steelers) and a 4-3 base team (Bengals).

Here is the Steelers 3-4, with positions labeled using “traditional” terms:

This should be an easily recognizable image to any Steelers fan. The positions listed for each player should not confuse anyone.

Now let’s look at the Bengals 4-3, labelled with “traditional” terms:

Again, most would not be confused by this image, nor the listed positions. It’s when we compare the two images, however, where discrepancies are noticed.

Let’s start with perhaps the most glaring one; the difference in positioning between the OLB’s of the Steelers (3-4) and the OLB’s of the Bengals (4-3). The Steelers OLB’s are positioned at the LOS. The Bengals’ are positioned about 5 yards behind the LOS, or “off-the-ball.”

These two groups, although labelled identically, do not appear to be playing the same position. The Steelers OLB’s appear to be more similarly aligned as the Bengals DE’s. Both of these groups are positioned outside the respective offensive tackles.

The Bengals OLB’s appear to be more similarly aligned as the Steelers ILB’s. The players from both groups are positioned about 5 yards off-the-ball.

The final difference we will note is the position of the Steelers DE’s as compared to the Bengals DE’s. We already stated the Bengals DE’s were aligned outside the offensive tackle. The Steelers DE’s are positioned on or inside of the offensive tackle.

It should be clear by now that we can not have any meaningful discussion using terms such as OLB, ILB, and DE. Depending on whether you are referring to a 3-4 base defense or a 4-3 base defense, these terms will have a different meaning. What we need are “new” terms that carry the same meaning, regardless of what type of defense the player(s) is in.

Thankfully, those new terms already exist. We don’t have to invent them. We just need to understand their meaning. Pro Football Focus is among the websites that use them. They have slowly been working their way towards more common use. The new terms are:

  • Edge Defender/Rusher, or simply Edge: the edge defender group includes 4-3 DE’s and 3-4 OLB’s. These players are typically aligned outside the offensive tackle and/or TE. Their primary roles are to set the edge vs the run, and pass rush from around the edge. Hence, the name. They may drop into pass coverage. This is typically limited to the flat areas on one side of the field.
  • Interior Defensive Lineman, or Defensive Interior (DI): the interior defensive line group includes 4-3 DT’s and 3-4 NT’s and DE’s. These players are typically aligned anywhere on the LOS between the offensive tackle and center. They defend the run and rush the passer from the interior of the O-line.
  • Linebacker, meaning any LB playing off-the-ball: the LB group (“off-the-ball” is implied when using the term LB, and is dropped from the name for convenience) includes all 4-3 LB’s and 3-4 ILB’s. These players read and react to run keys, filling holes vs the run. They flow laterally in run pursuit. They also drop into pass coverage; some zone, but also man coverage. They have to be comfortable “playing in space.”

Okay, now that we are familiar these new terms, let’s take another look at our 3-4 and 4-3 base defenses. This time we’ll use the new terms as we label the positions.

By using these new terms we can see how players with the same designation (DI, Edge, LB) are aligned similarly, and perform similar roles, regardless of whether they are in a 3-4 or a 4-3 base defense.

The usefulness of the new terms is amplified when we add in the fact that only a small percentage of snaps are played from a team’s base defense anymore . That number will vary somewhat by team, but consider this statement by former Patriots DC and new Lions HC Matt Patricia (via Gregg Bell on twitter):

Mike Tomlin has estimated the Steelers use their base defense less than 30-percent of the time. Their most frequently used sub-package is their nickel (1 DL is removed and replaced by a CB). Let’s take a look at how the Steelers nickel front looks vs how the Bengals nickel front looks, using the new designations:

Any differences between the 2 images are minor, and consist of preferences of the particular defensive call, or players:

  • Both fronts have 2 DI’s aligned either over the guard, or in a gap between the guard and another OL.
  • Both fronts have 2 Edge Defenders aligned outside the OT’s/TE’s.
  • Both fronts have 2 LB’s aligned approximately 5 yards off the ball.

This should functionally end the discussion of the Steelers utilizing a 4-3. They already play with 2 (or 3) DI players, and 2 Edge Defenders. This is the same as any team that uses a 4-3 defense. Simply look up the listed weights of DE’s on a 4-3 team. Most have at least one of their DE’s listed anywhere between 240-270 pounds. Bud Dupree is listed at 269 pounds (Bud’s dropped weight. He’s probably around 255-260). T.J. Watt is listed at 252 pounds. The tasks associated with playing the Edge position (as with any position group) require a certain physical skill set. Quickness and speed are two of those requisite physical traits. Those are not generally associated with players in the 290+ pound range. Therefore, putting Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt at Edge (with Javon Hargrave and Tyson Aluala at DI) is not realistic. Heyward and Tuitt are not suited to play the Edge position. Bottom line: it doesn’t matter if your Edge players are called OLB’s (3-4) or DE’s (4-3). What matters is that they possess the physical traits to play the Edge position.

This (somewhat) facetious tweet sums it up:


Now that we see how these new terms better define a player’s position (and which type of players “fit” into each), we can easily answer the three “example questions” I posed earlier.

  • Brandon Graham did not undergo a position change when the Eagles hired DC Jim Schwartz. Graham was an Edge in the 3-4. He remained an Edge in the 4-3.
  • Similarly, Robert Quinn was an Edge all 7 years with the Rams, both in the 4-3 and the 3-4. He will be an Edge with the Dolphins.
  • Nigel Bradham, as an (off-the-ball) LB for the Eagles could play as an (off-the-ball) LB for the Steelers.

I won’t dispute that there are some differences between the positions that are grouped together in these new terms. There are specific roles, and physical attributes that make a player better suited to play say, the Mack LB rather than the Buck LB, in a 3-4 defense. The same can be said for the Sam, Mike, and Will LB’s in a 4-3. All of those LB’s however, perform the same primary function, and are aligned similarly. Although there are similarly nuanced differences among the Edge and DI groups, the terms function well to better describe the primary roles of these groups.

I hope it is now clear as to why terms like DI, Edge, and LB are better suited to describe the positions of defensive players today. Still, not everyone has adopted them. CBS draft prospect rankings has both Harold Landry and Leighton Vander Esch listed as OLB.’s draft prospect rankings show a slight improvement. They have a position heading of “DL,” under which both Vita Vea and Harold Landry are listed. Vea then has the position of “DT” listed alongside, while Landry has “Edge” alongside. Why would Landry and Vander Esch be grouped together? Or Landry and Vea? Ugh!!

Please. Please. Use the new terms. Let us forever eradicate our “failure to communicate.”

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