By John Turney
In simple terms, one-gap defenses can play even fronts, overshifted fronts or undershifted fronts. "Fronts" are how the defensive linemen are alined in relation to the offensive line. They can be evenly aligned or shift an extra player towards the tight end side or away from the tight end. The former is an overshift. The latter is an undershift.
Two-gap defenses (3-4) have a nose tackle so the defense his balanced. However, one-gap 3-4 defenses usually play the nose tackle "shaded" one side of the center, on his shoulder generally, and while yes, one guy may be "two-gapping" it is considered a one-gap defense. Ina 4-3 defense one player may play two gaps as well, but that is a story for another day.
In recent times, call it since the merger, or perhaps since 1960, teams have used these types of fronts depending on where they want the extra defender. Some teams or coordinators use them all. Others prefer one over the others and are therefore an "under" team or an "over" team.
The Rams defensive coordinator from 2017-19 was Wade Phillips and he preferred the under. He called it "Will Wink". This put Aaron Donald on the shoulder of the guard away from the tight end in most situations when the base defense was on the field.
|In Denver, Phillips ran "Will WInk" a 3-4 'under', line away from TE, "backers to TE side|
Putting a player on the weak side guard is not something Phillips always has done, he didn't always 'flop' his defensive tackles. He's played them 'left' and 'right' before but Donald is one of those special players who demands to be put in a position to make plays. And since the popularization of the "under" defenses—really beginning in Minnesota with Keith Millard, then spreading throughout the NFL in the 1990s many coaches followed suit when they had a player who fit that bill, like John Randle, Warren Sapp, D'Marco Farr, La'Roi Glover and others.
|This is a 3-4 undershift with the line shifted away from tight end and the 'backer towards the tight end|
|From 2018 Super Bowl. Donald on the weakside guard. Ideal for making plays in backfield|
This year Brandon Staley, the Rams new defensive coordinator is mixing it up more. They still play the under, but after two games when they are in base or in nickel when there is a tight end on the field they are running the overshift more often than the under. This puts Aaron Donald on the shoulder of the guard on the tight end side.
|This is actually a 4-3 over. Staley worker for Vic Fangio in Denver, they ran both overs and unders|
but if we had to guess, the over was more often employed
|A 3-4 over, putting the 3-tech (in this case a 4i) on the tight end side|
|Overshift—line shifted to the tight end, linebackers away. This is nickel, but the principle still applies|
|And over. Dallas with H-B, usually second TE is treated the same as a fullback. Floyd, a left linebacker not a "Sam" in this case is a defensive end and Kiser is the "Sam". The 3-tech, Donald, is on the strong side.|
Staley doesn't run the over as much as Phillips ran the under, but it is still a change. Both coaches would mix in the Bear front which puts a defensive lineman over both guards and the center, though after just two games it's hard to know, but Staley did it quite a big versus Dallas, a team with a great runner.
|This is an under, with Donald on weak side, though with nickel personnel. Similar to Wade Phillips|
Theories differ as to what is better and why. The "over" traditionally is thought to be better versus strong side runs, having the extra defender to the strong side, but vulnerable to weakside runs due to a "bubble" on the weakside. If the backside can be secured and the frontside plays their gap, it can be hard to run strongside. But that is in theory. The offense gets paid, too, and they are paid to be able to run strong or weak or whatever play is called.
The under is supposedly better for likely passing downs, putting that Sapp/Randle-esque tackle on the weakside to penetrate and break up running plays on the way to the quarterback. He only has three reads—high hat (pass), block coming at him (beat block make play), and trap (fill hole meet trapper). That's it.
But it also depends if you have that kind of player as well. As we mentioned many coaches, run both and Staley appears to be one of them. Phillips clearly had a preference in recent years.
When a team plays left- and right defensive tackles then both tackles have to play strong and weak (as the outside linebackers do in the Rams new scheme) but Daly is still flopping the tackles as Phillips did but with that Phillips had Donald simply go away from the tight end, as did the WILL as did the MO (weak inside 'backer) as did the free safety.
Now, depending on the call, Donald can go either way, it's not automatic. It's a bit more complicated, not much, mind you, but a bit. If it's over, he finds tight end and goes that way, if it's under he finds tight end and goes the opposite side. With left and right tackles, it was easy for the tackles, just go left and right, and if the call was over, slide to tight end, and if it was under slide away.
Donald, a supreme talent, will have no trouble with all of that. However, will opponents be able to find ways to take away little things from him that just came naturally? Or will it be harder not being able to know that maybe 90% of the time he was going to be one the weakside guard's shoulder whereas now, it maybe 40% or less? We just don't know what the number might be as of now.
Or will the rule of some coaches be broken—don't mess with star players. Don't change what brought a player to the top. That remains to be seen.
|The weakside bubble in an overshifted defense, supposedly vulnerable if not played right by a defense|
We will monitor this to see how varied Staley is in switching up the overs and unders and Bear fronts in likely run downs. And how much the Rams are in base (three linemen and four backers) or quasi-base. Wade Phillips used it as much as anyone but also cheated it a bit with one of his linebackers a smaller, athletic-type—often a safety so it was nickel personnel in a 3-4 under. And he had a few different personnel packages in base.
It is worth noting, and this is not any type of criticism, that in the first couple of games the most devastating plays made by Aaron Donald have come out of the under, not the over. The knockdowns, the sack (a weakside stunt with a linebacker) came from the weakside. However, some of the top run plays did come from the over, when the threw around a tight end for example.
So, it is too early to tell anything, but fair warning. Donald will be on both sides this year more this year than in the last few, which doe constitute a change and is worth studying.
We will let you know what we see.