Chalk Talk: the Umbrella Defense

Chalk Talk has focused heavily on the offensive side of the ball, but we haven't forgotten about our defensive counterparts. Steve Owen is remembered as an offensive coach, yet he also invented the umbrella defense. In Part I of his two-part series "The History of Defense," Correspondent Jeremy Stoltz breaks down what became the genesis for the modern-day 4-3 scheme.

Defense in professional football does not get nearly the respect it deserves.

From the game's earliest years, the most glorious positions have been on the offensive side of the ball. From Jim Thorpe and Red Grange to Terrell Owens and LaDainian Tomlinson, offense has always been the center of attention. And up until recently, offensive playmakers made much more money than their defensive counterparts. This comes from the fans' desire to see points put on the board. So if it takes touchdowns to fill the seats, then those who score the most TDs – quarterbacks, wide receivers, and running backs – receive the most love.

This longtime trend is disappointing, for it goes against one of the most common and accurate clichés of our time: defense wins championships. Across the sporting landscape, the play of a team's defense, not offense, predicates its success.

Take the Patriots for example. Our recent infatuation with QB Tom Brady has masked the fact that New England's three championships in a four-year span were as much about its stifling defense as its signal-caller. This can be applied even more so to the Steelers of 2005, the Buccaneers of 2002, and the Ravens of 2000.

Yet many pundits continue to laud the skills of those playing on the offensive side of the ball. Case in point: last season's Super Bowl MVP, Peyton Manning. He is one of the best quarterbacks the game has ever seen – this much is beyond debate. But should every image and article pertaining to last year's champions focus entirely on Manning? Should not some praise be heaped upon a defense that shut down each of its opponents in the playoffs? For without the dominating play of the Colts defense, Indianapolis would have never even sniffed last year's Super Bowl – as evidenced by their playoff results the previous six seasons when the defense was as porous as a sponge.

But how did defense evolve into the catalyst for championships? Let us start at the beginning.

For roughly the first 15 years of the NFL, the seven-man front, or "7-box" defense, was the norm. Seven defensive linemen lined up man for man with the offensive line. These defenders were not required to penetrate the line or attack the backs behind the line of scrimmage. They were asked only to hold their ground and tackle the ball-carrier if he came their way. If a defensive lineman could move his blocker backward to the slightest degree, then he was doing an exceptional job.

The two linebackers were very stagnant, always following the ball laterally instead of attacking the line of scrimmage. If they made a tackle, it meant the back had already gained a few yards. Similarly, the two deep safeties were there to stop the back should he slip past the linebackers.

In passing situations, a defense would normally switch to a "7-diamond," where one linebacker would move behind the two safeties. But as passing became more prevalent in the early 1930s, many teams began using the 6-2-2-1 defense. This called for a secondary player to replace one of the linemen. The positioning of the two linebackers and safeties stayed the same, with the new deep safety, or "free" safety, 5-10 yards behind. The safeties covered the offensive ends on passing plays, the linebackers mirrored the backs out of the backfield, and the free safety roamed the deep center. In those days, that was all the coverage a team needed.

Al DeRogatis, Em Tunnell, and Arnie Weinmeister were all Pro-Bowlers in 1950

The 6-2-2-1 was the base NFL defense until the early 1950s. It was then that defenses were forced to adapt to the newly popular T-formation. Chicago Bears head coach George Halas and his assistants devised a passing system that took the league by storm. Without some sort of counterpunch, defenses would have never been able to keep up with the T.

Steve Owen – famous for his many football innovations, including the A-wing offensive set – created the "umbrella" defense as a way for his New York Giants to stop the high-powered attack of the Cleveland Browns. In the 1950 season-opener, Cleveland used passes to its backs in the flats to destroy the 1949 NFL champion Eagles. Owen created the umbrella as a way of defending those backs.

"In 1950, we developed a defense against the Browns that came to be known as the umbrella," said Hall-of-Famer Em Tunnell, then a safety for the Giants. "Our ends would drift back and cover the flats while the tackles were charged with rushing the passer and containing the run. The lone linebacker was told to follow the fullback wherever he went. If you would look at this alignment from high in the stands, it looked like an opened umbrella."

Owen first used the umbrella on Oct. 1, 1950, shutting out the Browns 6-0. Three weeks later the Giants again emerged victorious, beating Cleveland 17-13. Said Tunnell, "It was so successful against the Browns that we beat them twice. The first time we played them, we shut them out – the first time that had ever happened to them."

Basically, what Owen did was turn his defensive ends into linebackers and drop them into pass coverage. In essence, he was running what is now known as the 4-3. "In truth, it was the same 4-3-2-2 used today," recalled Tunnell. "We did go into other formations, but mostly we used this 4-3 arrangement."

The success of Owen's umbrella served as the jumping-off point for many of the changes that led to today's defensive systems.

In the first half of the 20th century, defenses were meant to stop the power-running scheme used by offenses of the time. It was a brute-force game, where out-muscling your opponent at the point of attack was the main goal. Through time, defenses were forced to evolve and adjust to the increasingly pass-heavy tendencies of opposing offenses.

But the biggest changes were still yet to come.

Be sure to visit next week, when Stoltz continues with Part II of "The History of Defense."

Jeremy Stoltz is a graduate of the Columbia College Story Workshop program in Chicago. He is a regular contributor to Bear Report and

Jeremy Stoltz's Chalk Talk Archive
07/19/2007 - Pro Set
07/12/2007 - T-Formation
07/05/2007 - A-Formation
06/28/2007 - Notre Dame Box
06/21/2007 - Single-Wing
06/14/2007 - Defensive Tackle
06/07/2007 - Shotgun
05/31/2007 - Run-and-Shoot
05/24/2007 - 46 Defense
05/17/2007 - Screen Pass
05/10/2007 - Draw Play
05/03/2007 - West Coast Offense (Part II)
04/26/2007 - West Coast Offense (Part I)
04/19/2007 - Zone Blitz
04/12/2007 - I-Formation
04/05/2007 - Zone Blocking
03/29/2007 - Cover 2
03/22/2007 - Counter Trey

Bear Report Top Stories