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Scheme Matters
Steve Gallo
September 4, 2010
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Last year RB Chris Johnson did some amazing things on the football field.  For one, he became just the sixth player in NFL history to rush for over 2000 yards in a season.  On top of that, he also set a new NFL record for yards from scrimmage as he racked up 2,509 yards compared to the old record of 2,429 that Marshall Faulk set back ten years earlier.  Now imagine that the Titans are going to move Johnson to fullback so that he can be a lead blocker for Javon Ringer or LeGarrette Blount.  That may seem far-fetched but in the IDP world, it is an unfortunate reality.  As an example, there is David Thornton.  In 2003, David Thornton was playing weak side linebacker (WLB) for the Colts and he had a phenomenal season ranking as the #2 fantasy linebacker (20.4 points/game {PPG}) after posting 112 solo tackles, 33 assists, 1 sack and 3 passes defended.  The following season Thornton moved to the strong side linebacker (SLB) position and ranked as the 37th overall linebacker, recording only 69 solo tackles and 23 assists.

When it comes to offensive players, it is pretty easy to tell if a running back is on a run first team or if a wide receiver is on a pass friendly team but when it comes to IDP the different defensive schemes can make a dramatic difference in a player’s value.  Before we get into those differences here is a brief summary on each of the base defenses that NFL teams will be employing this year.  To see which base defense NFL teams run along who their defensive coordinator is and additional notes on them refer to: 2010 Team Schemes, Notes & Key IDP Players.

4-3 Defense

Up until the past couple of years the 4-3 was base defense utilized by the majority of teams in the NFL.  However, the 3-4 defense has become all the rage and is being used by more and more teams but that does not mean that the 4-3 isn’t a good defensive system.  Not only is it a good system it is probably the most fantasy friendly of all the defensive schemes. The 4-3 employs 4 defensive lineman (2 defensive ends (DE) & 2 defensive tackles (DT)), 3 linebackers (SLB, MLB & WLB) & 4 defensive backs (2 cornerbacks (CB), 1 free safety (FS), 1 strong safety (SS)).

Normally in a 4-3 one of the DT’s will play a “2 gap technique” (normally responsible for taking up two or more blockers (usually the center and guard) and stopping the run) while the other DT will play a “1 gap technique” giving them the responsibility of the other guard, stopping the run and rushing the quarterback. The DE’s main responsibility is to pressure the quarterback and get sacks. Which leads exactly to why DEs in 4-3 defenses are the most productive fantasy options.

Fantasy wise, the MLB (aka MIKE) is usually the linebacker (LB) to target in a 4-3 defense.  They are the “quarterback” of the defense and their focus is to stop the run.  MLB’s that are able to play in the “Nickel” have the ability to increase their fantasy stats by as much as 10% or more.  The SLB (aka SAM) normally lines up on the tight end, when he is not engaged in blocking or covering the tight end, he may be blitzing the quarterback.  Normally, a SLB has limited tackle opportunities because of his tight end assignment.  A WLB (aka WILL) has more freedom than a SLB.  The WLB has the ability to pursue a running play as well as cover screens and blitz the quarterback thus giving the WLB the chance to make plays (interceptions, force fumbles).

The CB’s main responsibility is simply to cover wide receivers.  How they play in coverage will depend on if they are playing man-to-man or zone.  A FS is the “center fielder” of the defense.  He is responsible for deep coverage in the middle of the field as well as rolling over to help a CB when necessary.  The FS is not usually as active in run support but does have the ability to create interceptions.  A SS is usually a much better scorer from a fantasy perspective than a FS because they are more active in run support but will still have coverage responsibilities.

Another thing to note is that there are teams will designate their LB’s as RLB (right side) and LLB (left side) and their responsibilities are tied to what side the TE lines up.  Occasionally, you will find a team that treats their safeties in the same manner depending on the situation at hand.

Fantasy Best Bets
4-3 MLB:  Stewart Bradley, James Laurinaitis, Ray Lewis, Curtis Lofton, Rolando McClain, Kirk Morrison, DeMeco Ryans, Stephen Tulloch & Jonathan Vilma,
4-3 DE:    Jared Allen, Trent Cole, Justin Tuck & Mario Williams
4-3 DB:  OJ Atogwe, Tyvon Branch, Louis Delmas, Roman Harper, Bernard Pollard, & Richard Marshall

Tampa 2 Defense

The Tampa 2 is a versatile defense that can be implemented with multiple defensive fronts.  Speed is probably the most important facet of the Tampa 2, which is why most players are smaller than their counterparts in other defenses. Compared to other defenses what the Tampa 2 lacks in complexity it makes up for by requiring players to be extremely disciplined due to specific coverage areas that are assigned to each position. The Tampa 2 evolved from the Cover 2 and the main difference between them is that in the Tampa 2 the MLB is responsible for medium to deep middle pass coverage.  This coverage responsibility is the main reason why the WLB will usually outscore the MLB in this defense.  Also safeties in the Tampa 2 usually do not score as well as Safeties in other coverage shells because of their deep coverage responsibilities.  Tampa 2 DEs can also have very good fantasy value.

Fantasy Best Bets
Tampa 2 WLB:  Lance Briggs, Geno Hayes & Clint Session
Tampa 2 DE: Julius Peppers, Robert Mathis & Stylez White
Tampa 2 DB: Antoine Bethea & Sean Jones (If healthy Bob Sanders too)

3-4 Defense

The 3-4 has gained a ton of momentum the past few years.  This year the Redskins and Bills are making the transition to the 3-4.  More and more you will see teams that are using multiple looks of 3-4 and 4-3 and that is not an easy transition to make due to the differences in personnel needed for each defense.  The DE’s in a 3-4 are generally larger than their counterparts are in the 4-3.  If a team wants to generate a pass rush in a 3-4 set, they will usually have to send one of their outside linebackers (OLB) to help rush the quarterback.  That means that the DEs job is to tie up an offensive lineman instead of trying to get to the QB.  That is the major factor in why 3-4 DEs a not usually very good fantasy contributors.  Inside linebackers (ILB) are generally very athletic and stronger to allow them to shed blockers to get to the ball carrier.  A strong point of the 3-4 is its ability to confound the quarterback and the teams passing game.  Conversely, the running game can exploit a 3-4 defense.  That is why it is imperative for nose tackles to be large bodies that can eat up blockers and allow the LB’s to get to the ball carrier.  ILB’s in a 3-4 are usually designated on the depth chart as either RILB or LILB and they have similar roles to a MLB & WLB.  Unfortunately, fantasy wise there is no easy answer concerning which ILB spot produces the best.  Stud ILB’s are not easy to come by but some of the best bets have been a RILB playing for a coach from the Bum/Wade Phillips coaching tree.  If you are in a leagues that emphasizes big play scoring over tackles, then you will want to target OLB's that make their hay rushing the QB.  Players like DeMarcus Ware, Elvis Dumervil & James Harrison in years past have wreaked havoc on the NFL due to their pass rush ability.  Because OLB’s in a 3-4 usually garner their stats from sacks they tend to be very streaky and in turn are hard to rely on.  Unless your scoring system is very sack friendly, you should avoid most OLB’s in a 3-4.

Fantasy Best Bets
3-4 ILB:  Karlos Dansby, David Harris, D’Qwell Jackson (currently injured),
Jerod Mayo, Daryl Washington, Patrick Willis
3-4 OLB: James Harrison, Brian Orakpo, Clay Mathews, Lamar Woodley,   DeMarcus Ware (in tackle heavy scoring systems 3-4 OLBs are risky plays due to their inconsistencies).
3-4 DE: Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett, Shaun Ellis & Justin Smith
3-4 DB:  Yeremiah Bell, Eric Berry, Patrick Chung, Brian Dawkins & LaRon Landry

General Guidelines

Here is a general guide that can help you differentiate which linebacker position should be more productive based on the scheme that they play in.

Tampa 2/Cover 2: 

It is evident that being a productive fantasy player on the defensive side of the ball has as much to do with a player’s position and the scheme that they play in as it does their talent level.  Do not make the mistake that many make and draft using last year’s top performers lists.  Do your homework!  Make sure you research who has changed teams or positions.  Read up on teams that have a new Defensive Coordinator or are going to employ a new scheme.  If you are just getting your IDP feet wet or are an old pro, remember not to get caught up in the name recognition game, because scheme matters.  For those of you in non-IDP leagues you can stop pinching yourselves now because Chris Johnson is still playing RB for the Titans.

As with everything, there will always be exceptions and scoring systems will greatly affect rankings.  For reference, the following scoring system is used for all huddle content:  2 points/tackle, 1 point/assist, 2 points/sack, 2 points/forced fumble, 2 points/INT & 1 point/pass defended  should be assumed.

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