Defensive schemes to dictate rankings

The variants of defenses in the NFL are many, which causes some prospects to be better fits for some teams than others. We examine the schemes typically employed by each NFL team.

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to hear about the players that are going to be the drafted to the NFL’s 32 teams, but one aspect that is often missed is that a player may be an ideal fit with one system and not a glove fit with a different scheme.

This weekend we’re providing you with a primer to what the basic schemes and blocking styles are for offenses and what the base defense and coverage schemes are for defenses, so draft fans can have a little better insight as to why one player will be so much higher on one team’s draft board than another team because, simply stated, they’re a better fit with some schemes than with others.

In defensive terms, there are two basic schemes – the 4-3 (four down linemen and three linebackers) and the 3-4 (three defensive linemen, four linebackers). But within those schemes there are different styles. Many 4-3 systems that have strong pass rushers typically let those four do the job of rushing the quarterback while allowing the back seven to do the job of defending the passing zones. But within those are variants. The Vikings, for example, will blitz safeties, linebackers and corners off the edge – a “Pressure 4-3.” Some teams, whether a 4-3 or 3-4, almost always bring more than the front four or front three, known as “Attacking” 4-3 and 3-4 schemes.

The coverage schemes have to do with the alignment of the secondary. The Vikings were running a Cover-2 scheme under Leslie Frazier, where both safeties play deep zones and the other players (cornerbacks and linebackers) play a zone on the field, attempting to force quarterbacks to throw short passes and allow the defenders to converge. In the Cover-2 (and Cover-1, which has one deep safety constantly patrolling the deep middle of the field), cornerbacks typically line up five yards or more off the line and run with receivers looking to cut off their routes. The defense run by Mike Zimmer calls for cornerbacks to take on their man at the line of scrimmage (Press Man), bumping the receiver at the line to try to knock him off his intended route. The two basic coverage schemes are man and zone coverages, but there are variants contained within.

As you read through’s scouting reports on the defensive backs, you can see that some cornerbacks thrive in press man while others are better-suited for zone schemes. It helps piece together the puzzle of which prospects fit certain NFL schemes better.

Here is the listing of the basic defensive fronts and coverage schemes used by the NFL’s 32 teams. Many of them are similar, but few of them are identical.

Atlanta – 4-3, Man
Arizona – Attacking 3-4, Press Man
Baltimore – 3-4, Cover 2
Buffalo – Multiple Hybrid, Press Man
Carolina – 4-3, Cover 2
Chicago – Physical 3-4, Zone
Cincinnati – 4-3, Multiple
Cleveland – 3-4, Cover 2
Dallas – Pressure 4-3, Zone
Denver – 3-4, Press Man
Detroit – Physical 4-3, Press Man
Green Bay – Attacking 3-4, Press Man
Houston – 3-4, Cover 1
Indianapolis – 3-4, Cover 1
Jacksonville – 4-3, Cover-2
Kansas City – Attacking 3-4, Press Man
Miami – 4-3, Man
Minnesota – Pressure 4-3, Press Man
New England – 4-3 hybrid, Man
New Orleans – 3-4, Man
New York Giants – Pressure 4-3, Man
New York Jets – 3-4 Hybrid, Press Man
Oakland – Attacking 4-3, Man
Philadelphia – Attacking 3-4, Press Man
Pittsburgh – 3-4, Cover 1
St. Louis – Attacking 4-3, Man
San Diego – 3-4, Cover 2/Man hybrid
San Francisco – Physical 3-4, Zone
Seattle – Attacking 4-3, Press Zone
Tampa Bay – 4-3, Cover-2
Tennessee – 3-4, Multiple
Washington – Attacking 4-3, Press Zone

When the names come off the board on draft weekend, some of them may be a bit surprising, whether viewed as being too high or too low. But oftentimes where a player goes could depend as much on what offense or defense is being run as to how talented a player was in college.


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