NFL coaches have to be tired of walking to the podium and answering questions about the differences between a 4-3 and 3-4 defense, and in a football world where teams are spending more than half of their snaps with five defensive backs on the field (61% of snaps in 2021, and steadily climbing), I understand.
Now, ask me how much I care.
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These questions are important to ask, not because every writer is going to spend 500 words describing the technical differences between a “three-technique” and a “4i” — a numbering system in football that determines how a defensive lineman aligns and plays — but because there are implications on what kind of body types are necessary to fill roles, creating a framework to project offseason priorities for a front office.
During the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine, new Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell addressed the evaluation process for his new defensive coordinator, Ed Donatell. O’Connell noted that it’s still too early to say much about what the future holds for the team's veterans, and he skirted by a conversation about Donatell’s scheme by mentioning nickel personnel as the way of today’s (and tomorrow’s) NFL.
More from #Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell:
Wanted to get his feel for defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, and O’Connell emphasized his appreciation for Donatell’s teaching ability. pic.twitter.com/CxJO8sBwa9
— Diante Lee (@PFF_DLee) March 2, 2022
O’Connell underplayed some of the differences in former head coach Mike Zimmer’s scheme in comparison to Donatell, who worked for Vic Fangio. However, we can use some context clues based on the typical structure of Fangio’s defense to project areas of strength and need for the 2022 Vikings, and how it may be addressed in the upcoming draft.
Football as Geometry: Odd vs. Even Spacing
|Offensive Personnel vs. Denver (‘19-’21)||Snaps Faced||Top Personnel Grouping Used||Secondary Personnel Used|
|12 Personnel||593||48% 3-4 (Base)||44% 2-4-5 (Nickel)|
|21 Personnel||176||72% 3-4 (Base)||23% 2-4-5 (Nickel)|
The NFL is a pass-first (and second) game today, but the element of stopping the run is still a critical piece to building out a competitive, successful defense. It's much less about some intrinsic value of physicality or toughness — although both terms allude to fundamental necessities of defense — and much more about instilling the bedrock techniques and philosophies that make it possible to run whatever scheme a coach believes in.