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Scheme Matters
Steve Gallo
August 22, 2007

LaDainian Tomlinson was simply amazing last year as he broke the record for rushing touchdowns in a season and rushed for a career high 1,815 yards.  Now think about what would happen to Tomlinson’s stats if he moved to fullback to be the lead blocker for Michael Turner. Besides the outrage, you would move Tomlinson down your rankings because of his position change.  That may seem far-fetched but in the IDP world, it is an unfortunate reality.  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.

The 4-3 which as you can see is used by the majority of teams in the NFL, 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.  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 (KC & JAX) that 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.
* Uses a Right/Left designation for its LB’s (KC also plays some Cover 2)
# Last year MIA played a mix of 3-4 and 4-3 but it now looks doubtful that they will turn into a full time 3-4 defense.

4-3 MLB Best Bets: DeMeco Ryans, Mike Peterson, Zach Thomas, Antonio Pierce, London Fletcher-Baker
4-3 MLB upside guys: DJ Williams, Kirk Morrison, Lofa Tatupa

Tampa 2/Cover 2 Defense (BUF, CHI, DET, IND, MIN, TB)
The Cover 2 is a versatile defense that can be implemented with multiple defensive fronts.  Speed is probably the most important facet of the Tampa 2/Cover 2, which is why most players are smaller then their counterparts in other defenses. Compared to other defenses what the Tampa 2/Cover 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 main difference between the Tampa 2 and Cover 2 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/Cover 2 usually do not score as well as Safeties in other coverage shells because of their deep coverage responsibilities.

Tampa 2/Cover 2 WLB Best Bets:  Lance Briggs, Ernie Sims
Tampa 2/Cover 2 WLB upside guys:  Keith Ellison, Freddie Keiaho, Chad Greenway

3-4 Defense (ARZ*, CLE, DAL, NE, NYJ, PIT, SD, SF)
The 3-4 seems to be gaining some of the popularity back that it had lost over the years.  Arizona is making the switch this year and Miami toyed with the 3-4 some last year.  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 then their counterparts 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.  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 your best bet would be to find a RILB playing for a coach from the Bum/Wade Phillips coaching tree (Mike Nolan: SF, Ted Cottrell: SD, Greg Manusky: SF, Brian Stewart: DAL).  OLB’s in a 3-4 usually garner their stats from sacks and can be very streaky and hard to rely on.  Unless your scoring system is very sack friendly, you should avoid most OLB’s in a 3-4.
* On August 15, Arizona LB Chike Okeafor successfully had his left biceps tendon reattached.  Coach Whisenhunt has yet to confirm if Okeafor will be going on IR.  The loss of Okeafor could mean that the Cardinals will not be playing as much 3-4 as was being expected.

3-4 ILB Best Bets:  Andra Davis, James Farrior
3-4 ILB upside guys:  Jonathan Vilma, Patrick Willis
3-4 OLB Best Bets:  DeMarcus Ware, Shawne Merriman
3-4 OLB upside guys:  Kamerion Wimbley, LaMarr Woodley, Manny Lawson

46 Defense (BAL)
The 46 defense derived its name from the number 46 worn by Doug Plank (SS CHI) who would line up close to the line of scrimmage like an extra linebacker.  This defense is all about pressuring the quarterback and blowing up the running game.  One of the things people do not realize is that both OLB’s normally lineup on the same side of the formation. The MLB and SS play behind six players on the line of scrimmage.  The rush ends job is to go after the quarterback while the other five take up blockers allowing the MLB to seek and destroy ball carriers and to just create complete havoc for the offense.    Since so many of the defenders are in close proximity to the line of scrimmage a major problem for the 46 can be defending the pass especially against teams that employ the West Coast Offense.  In Baltimore, Rex Ryan has successfully implemented the 46 defense that his father Buddy Ryan conceived in Chicago.  The reason he employs it in Baltimore is that he feels he has the personnel to run it properly.  Given the Ravens success defensively since the switch, you will not find many people that will argue with that statement.

46 MLB Best Bet: Ray Lewis
46 WLB Best Bet: Bart Scott

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:  WLB>=MLB>SLB
3-4:  RILB>=LILB>OLB’s

As with everything, there will always be exceptions and scoring systems will greatly affect rankings.  For reference a scoring system of:  2 points/tackle, 1 point/assist, 2 points/sack, 2 points/forced fumble, 2 points/INT & 1.5 points/pass defended  should be assumed.

Now that a reference point has been established about the different schemes lets look at how some LB’s have been affected by position &/or scheme changes.

WLB Denver Broncos 2002 & 2003
SLB Tampa Bay Bucs 2004
WLB Denver Broncos 2005 & 2006

Gold has been on somewhat of a roller coaster ride the past five years, dealing with team, scheme, and position changes.  In 2002, he ranked 23rd in fantasy points with 208 and ranked 23rd in PPG with a 13.0 PPG average.  His 2003 season was cut short by injury but in five games, he was averaging 15.2 PPG that would have ranked as the 17th best PPG scored in 2003.  A year later, he found himself playing for a new team (TB), in a new position (SLB) and in a different scheme (Tampa 2).  Granted Gold was coming back from an ACL injury, but the switch to SLB had much more to do with his poor showing then his old injury did.  He ended the season as the 65th ranked fantasy LB with just 131.50 fantasy points scored and ranked 80th in PPG with an average of 8.2.  In 2005, Gold was on the move again this time putting his Bronco jersey back on and reassuming his old starting WLB role.  While he did not reach his 2002 & 2003 levels, he did score 188 points good for the 36th best LB and topped double digits in PPG with an average of 11.8.  Last year was not as productive for Gold scoring 19 less points then in 2005 but he was still able to post a double digit PPG of 10.6.  There was approximately a -40% swing in points by moving to SLB and just shy of a 40% increase when moving back to WLB.

Fantasy Note:  Cato June is moving to SLB for the Bucs this year.  You should expect to see the same type of production loss as what Gold saw when he moved to SLB.  In his first year as a starter (2004), June ranked 17th in PPG, 13th in 2005 and ended last year 10th among LB’s in PPG.  However, what is one man’s loss is another man’s gain and that is why fantasy players need to keep an eye on Freddie Keiaho.  As it stands now Keiaho looks to be the odds on favorite to assume the productive WLB job in Indianapolis vacated by June.

WLB HOU 2006

Greenwood has been on a thrill ride the past few years too but unlike Gold, his roller coaster did not have as big a drop.  In 2004, Greenwood started the season as the SLB for the Dolphins but assumed the WLB job after Junior Seau tore his pectoral muscle and went on IR.  That switch brought big dividends to Greenwood fantasy owners.  In eight games as the starting SLB Greenwood scored 66.5 fantasy points or 8.3 PPG and over the second half of the season (missing 1 game to injury) he posted 111 fantasy points or a whopping 15.9 PPG.  That is an increase of 92% on a PPG basis just from moving to the other side of the MLB.  His 15.9 PPG would have ranked as the 7th best among LB’s that year.  When 2005 rolled around Greenwood, had a big fat signing bonus from the Houston Texans, landed in a new scheme (3-4), and starting position (RILB) too.  In Dom Capers’ 3-4, the RILB is sometimes referred to as the MLB or MAC and is usually the better scorer from a fantasy perspective.  In 16 games at RILB, Greenwood posted 212.5 fantasy points averaging 13.3 PPG.  There was a decrease in his PPG of approximately 16% but he was still able to rank as the 26th best LB for 2005 in fantasy points scored and the 28th best in PPG.  2006 brought forth another position (WLB) and scheme (4-3) change for Greenwood.  All Greenwood does is post 212.5 fantasy points with a 13.3 PPG again.  However, what jumps out is that as the 4-3 MLB DeMeco Ryans posted 305.5 fantasy points giving him a 19.1 PPG.  Ryan’s numbers dwarfed what Greenwood had posted playing RILB (MLB) the previous year.  The moral of the story is that scheme matters.

Fantasy note:  Jon Beason should be the starting WLB for the Carolina Panthers at the start of the season but if Dan Morgan sustains another concussion then Beason could end up playing at MLB and enjoy a similar rise in his stats as Greenwood did in 2004.

WLB DEN 2004
SLB DEN 2005 & 2006
MLB DEN 2007

In 2004, Williams was arguably the best rookie LB prospect of his class.  Some people may argue that title belonged to Jonathan Vilma but that is why I said “arguably”.  Williams surely did not disappoint fantasy owners in his rookie year ranking 18th in both LB fantasy points (213.5) and PPG (13.3).  Just like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute, a move to SLB caused Williams’ fantasy production to drop like a rock. Williams posted a lowly 106.5 fantasy points & averaged only 6.7 PPG.  By just swapping sides in the base defense Williams was barely able to post half the points he had just one year earlier. 
In his second year at SLB he did show some improvement posting 142 fantasy points (8.9 PPG).  Now entering his fourth season in the NFL D.J. will be playing a new position (MLB) yet again.  Just how positive the move to MLB will be is yet to be seen but barring injury it should be of great magnitude.

Fantasy note:  Jim Bates is the new Defensive Coordinator in Denver this year.  Former MLB’s that have thrived in the 4-3 scheme that Bates employs are Zach Thomas, Nick Barnett & Jesse Tuggle.
Under Bates those 3 LB’s averaged 16.52 PPG, which is the equivalent of 264.32 fantasy points a year.
From 2004 through 2006 those numbers would have ranked 6th, 7th and 8th respectively in both PPG and fantasy points scored.  There is no telling what the future holds for D.J. Williams but if the past is any indication, a top 5 season at LB is within his grasp.

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 the sun will still come up tomorrow, the sky is still blue, grass is still green, and LaDainian Tomlinson is still a running back.

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