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One-gap vs. Two-gap

Guest Aloysius

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Guest Aloysius

The distinction between a one-gap and a two-gap 3-4 defense has begun to come up in discussions about the future of our team. Our current scheme is a two-gap 3-4, but a few people here (myself included) think we should switch to a one-gap.


To clarify what this all means, I found an article that explains what happened when Wade Phillips replaced Bill Parcells as the head coach of the Cowboys. Parcells, like RAC, favors a two-gap system, whereas Wade inherited the one-gap scheme from his daddy.


So wherever it says Bill's way, understand it to be describing the system we've been running. And Wade's world is the direction some of us want to go with our D:


Cowboys drooling over Phillips' 'D'


Posted: June 15, 2007

Dennis Dillon


The 3-4 defense, like Baskin-Robbins ice cream, comes in a variety of flavors. The one the Cowboys played under Bill Parcells was sound and generally effective, but it had as much pizazz as chocolate chip. New coach Wade Phillips' 3-4 is more like Love Potion No. 31.


It is a one-gap scheme, which distinguishes it from other 3-4 defenses. Movement, pressure and unpredictability are some of the ingredients. The system also has built-in versatility to accommodate the personnel.


Phillips doesn't force his players to fit his defense; he designs his defense to fit the players and their skills. For example, when Phillips was defensive coordinator in San Diego, Ben Leber was an outside linebacker who covered tight ends and backs and Shawne Merriman was an outside linebacker who rushed the passer.


"Everybody thinks it's the X's and O's, but it's the Moes and Joes," says Phillips, who turns 60 next week and has been a 3-4 guru since he joined the Houston Oilers as an assistant coach in 1976.


It wouldn't have mattered if the Cowboys had suited up Moe, Joe, Larry, Curly and Shemp last season. Their 3-4 still would have been long on convention and short on suspense. Don't get the wrong idea; Parcells was a master coach whose defense was good enough to take four different teams to the playoffs and win two Super Bowls. But by the end of last season, opponents had started to figure out the Cowboys.


Even the Dallas players had to stifle some yawns. But the first time Phillips showed them tape of the 3-4 defense he ran in San Diego, they salivated, imagining what it might produce in Big D in 2007. "It's like we have more tools in the toolbox," says inside linebacker Bradie James.


A look at how the Cowboys' old 3-4 compares with their new one:




Bill's way: Think of Woody Allen and his fellow escaped convicts shackled together in Take the Money and Run. OK, that might be a stretch. But Parcells' read-and-react, two-gap system -- in which each lineman lined head-up on an offensive lineman, feet parallel, and stepped right or left depending on which gap he had to fill -- stifled the ability to pressure the quarterback.


Wade's world: They'll play a one-gap scheme in a staggered stance and "shade" the man across from them. For example, instead of lining up directly in front of the center, nose tackle Jason Ferguson might be on one of his shoulders. This will allow the linemen to shoot gaps, which puts them in better position to rush the passer and make more tackles in the backfield.




Bill's way: The two outside men provided most of the pass-rushing pressure. DeMarcus Ware had 11 1/2 sacks, but he became a marked man after Greg Ellis suffered a torn Achilles' tendon November 12. Inside 'backers James and Akin Ayodele regularly had to try to maneuver around, or go through, guards who were 330-pound roadblocks.


Wade's world: The outside 'backers play a lot wider than in most 3-4s. If the offense slides its protection to one side, the outside 'backer on the other side might have to be picked up by a back -- a favorable mismatch for Dallas. James and Ayodele still will tend to the run, but they will rush more often.




Bill's way: The lack of a pass rush up front put more pressure on these guys. Cornerbacks Terence Newman and Anthony Henry played a lot of press coverage and the safeties split the deep half of the field.


Wade's world: Don't expect to see much cover 2. Strong safety Roy Williams had five picks in '06, but shadowing receivers isn't his forte. He'll line up closer to the line more often and sometimes will be like another linebacker. Phillips still must determine how much zone the corners will play.


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the attacking, one-gap 3-4 is definitely the way to go. it's what pittsburgh uses, and would free up corey williams to get into the backfield, the very thing he had most success doing in green bay.


lining up our OLBs wider would help with the pass rush. the only problem is that we have to count on our ILBs to shut down the running game a bit more, but i think an upgrade in the draft would let us do that while allowing our guys to be bigger contributors.


the only thing i would change about the one-gap scheme is that i still want rogers lining up directly on the center. he's most effective shoving a guy five yards into the backfield or firing past him unexpectedly. he can collapse the center of the line like none other, and that's something we can't afford to lose.


we could also maximize the potential of rogers' short-range speed on obvious passing downs by shading him and forcing teams in specific doubles. when he occupies the center and guard and the end occupies a tackle, it would force either a TE or RB to block our OLB, which would, at the very least, neutralize them as a receiving option. it would also open up an avenue for effective corner blitzes, something wright's shown to be quite adept at doing.


instead of the linemen occupying blockers and the blockers and the linebackers flowing and making plays, the linemen would be able to make plays, too. it would emphasize the team's strength more than our current scheme and the aggressiveness would allow our linebackers to make more plays by having them attack instead of wait.


i think a more aggressive scheme, while somewhat putting our corners at risk if the blitz gets picked up, would benefit everyone. we would give up the occasional big play, but that's better than long drives that wear down the D and demoralize them.

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That is why you always hear us talking about guys maintaining their position. The idea is to basically slide the initial defensive set down the line in the direction of the ball.


Maintaining gap integrity is another buzz word we have come to know under Romeo.


One gap provides more pressure, but can lead to holes in the D.



But...I like attacking defense and would like to see more 1 gap. Ideally, you have guys who can play both

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The distinction between a one-gap and a two-gap 3-4 defense has begun to come up in discussions about the future of our team. Our current scheme is a two-gap 3-4, but a few people here (myself included) think we should switch to a one-gap.


To clarify what this all means, I found an article that explains what happened when Wade Phillips replaced Bill Parcells as the head coach of the Cowboys. Parcells, like RAC, favors a two-gap system, whereas Wade inherited the one-gap scheme from his daddy.


So wherever it says Bill's way, understand it to be describing the system we've been running. And Wade's world is the direction some of us want to go with our D:


GREAT topic Aloysius! Thank you!


Thinking back to Michael Dean Perry - Bud Carson was more about wanting him to shoot the gap and wreak havoc where Marty wanted him to be another Bob Golic and keep bodies off LBers. Marty preferred to have LBers shooting gaps off stunts up front. Why not when you have a Chip Banks right? The 2 gap schemes will still use x-stunts and/or slants toward power/wide side of the field. They'll walk off the end alot depending on the situation.


I don't know if you zoned in on this or not last week but we were really using a 4 man front for most of the game. If any taped/tivo'd the game check it out. The announcer alluded to it as well saying he keeps seeing 4 guys lining up with a hand on the ground with only 2 LBers. I'm not sure if it was the alignment that frustrated Peyton Manning's offense or the weather (being used to dry footballs indoors) or the combo. RAC's always done pretty good against Manning as we remember the day a red hot Indy team showed up to lose an AFC Championship 23-3 in Foxboro. We held their offense to 3 points and it was their defense that beat us.


People often forget that NE actually ran a 4-3 BEFORE transitioning to the 3-4. I think that was due to some unexpected injury volumes up front when Klecko broke his leg, Jarvis Green was hurt and Ty Warren was dinged up at the time too. Back then they were transitioning out of Ted Johnson in the Middle. Nonetheless, if you are healthy enough or have the right personnel - the transition from 1 to the other shouldn't be that difficult.


When we have our dline going 2-gap responsibility - it's even more inexcusable for #99 and #93 to jump offsides the way they did at Cincy. Williams had another offsides penalty this last week and it's like comeon already. He's played this game how many years? It's not like he was going to finally sack the Qb or anything so be smart out there. I'll never agree that's coaching. That's the equivalent of a business man not knowing how to tie his own shoes and he needs his Supervisor to show him how. You can still WIN leverage and position if you're fundamentally sound, talented, and use proper technique. If you have a low enough base with your head up and you remove thy opponents legs - victory on position is your's. Our coach used to have our linemen do 1 on 1 board drills and we had to prove everyday who our leverage kings were. We had a 15 foot board that was 12 inches wide and we'd line up in the center of that thing facing each other. The teaching tool was WIDE base, head up and who removed the other guys legs. Wasn't always the strongest guys that won. Whoever drove their guy to the other end won. Come game day, this was instilled in our linemen on both sides of the ball for winning leverage and position.


The 1 gap is more about beating people with quickness and olay. Unfortunately it also invites your snap anticipaters that jump offsides inspite of lining up inches from the ball. Wasn't that one of the bigger frustrations with the crush and rush tandem? Either way, this franchise has always had LBers I enjoyed watching until recently. Let's not make this into coaching vrs Personel director stuff and ruin this thread though. Hopefully I'm wrong about D'Qwell and that Wimbley will play to a level that there's less complaints from the masses. I think Wimbley has 2 sacks and an INT in the last 3 weeks so maybe he's shifting gears back to the kid we saw as a rookie.

- Tom F.

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Phillips doesn't force his players to fit his defense; he designs his defense to fit the players and their skills. For example, when Phillips was defensive coordinator in San Diego, Ben Leber was an outside linebacker who covered tight ends and backs and Shawne Merriman was an outside linebacker who rushed the passer.


"Everybody thinks it's the X's and O's, but it's the Moes and Joes," says Phillips, who turns 60 next week and has been a 3-4 guru since he joined the Houston Oilers as an assistant coach in 1976.


This is the point that I was alluding to in another thread, you bend your system to the players you have and what I think RAC is not doing. Not trying to hyjack the post here, I just wanted to point this out because this is what should be the determining factor in the type of defesne we run. Be in 1-Gap 2-Gap 3-4 or 4-3. You put the players you have in the best posistion to make a play using their strengths.

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Guest Aloysius

You're welcome, Shep & Tom. And thanks for the compliments.


I was on a little bit of a roll yesterday, kind of like the one Mik/Masters was on a few weeks ago.


If any of the Steelers fans here know more about the new system LeBeau & Tomlin supposedly are running, I'd appreciate the info.

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I am clearly a 4-3 one gap guy, but running a 3-4 two gap with our ILBs is pure stupity. Andra Davis can't get off a block and Jackson is small for a ILB in the 3-4.


The two gap is all about the LBs stuffing the run and puttin pressure on the QB and that's our weakest position. The problem we would have running the one gap would be our corners would be put in a press coverage defense more often and you need a very active, hard hitting, quick SS. Jones has been hurt most of the year. Pitts one gap zone blitzing defense works so well because of Palumalu and fast LBs that can get pressure on the QB.


Currently we have more players that would fit well in 4-3 then either 3-4 scheme.

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I think the Browns run a 3 Gap. One gap up the middle, one Gap on the Left side, and One gap on the right side, because last time I checked every running back runs in any one of those three lanes.


I don't care what we run, 3-4, 4-3, we just need to run something that is going to stop the run, we've been terrible at it since this Team has came back.

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  • 4 months later...
Guest Aloysius

For Masters & ytown: here's the article I mentioned about the different variations of the 3-4:


Feeding LeBeau’s Defense


By Frank Tursic


Recently, Kansas City announced it will be switching to a 34 defense, making it three teams, by my count, looking to transition in 2009. Add Arizona, which played a hybrid scheme this year, and now you have four.


With eleven 34 teams, representing a third of the league, Pittsburgh isn’t going to have the luxury, as in the past, to wait on drafting d-side players.


Or will it?




First, not all 34 defenses are created equal. The 34 is not a new creation, having been adopted at the NFL level in the early 70’s. Over that time, three distinct systems have come to exist requiring different personnel skill-sets to fill them.


The Fairbanks-Bullough system is what most people think of as your standard 34 defense. It was adopted by Chuck Fairbanks of the Patriots after using it at Oklahoma in college. Hank Bullough improved on the system in the 70’s, and the system now requires the defensive line to encompass 2-gap responsibilities.


In this system, the D-line is responsible for plugging up the line of scrimmage, thus allowing the linebackers to usually make the tackles. Size and brute strength are the prerequisites; so the linemen and linebackers are typically bigger than in your other two systems.


Teams currently using this system are New England and its coaching tree offshoots, such as the Jets, Dolphins and Cleveland.


Next, there is the Phillips system, named after Bum Phillips who plied his trade first with the Broncos, then as defensive coordinator and later head coach for the Oilers. Phillips was an innovator and made major changes to the 34. Primarily, the Phillips 34 is a 1-gap system requiring penetrating players who can harass the QB. It’s an attacking style requiring smaller, faster linemen and linebackers who can incorporate blitzes on almost any play. However, its front 7 defenders will rarely have pass coverage responsibilities.


This system is used by teams such as Dallas and San Diego.


Finally, you have the LeBeau Zone Blitz system. Zone blitz techniques have been around for a while but LeBeau took the concept and developed an entirely different 34 system in the 90’s. LeBeau’s system looks to use deception, mismatches and overloads along the line to generate QB pressure. Blitzes come frequently, but at the same time pass coverage is maintained by requiring the D-lineman and linebackers to drop back in coverage.


This system requires D-linemen to play predominantly 1-gap as well as possess the athletic ability to drop back in coverage. Also, both inside and outside linebackers must be able to drop in coverage as well as rush the passer. It makes for a unique player skill-set which other 34 teams don’t follow.


You’ll find this system currently used by the Pittsburgh Steelers.




Fairbanks – In this system the defensive line is the centerpiece, averaging 338 lbs at nose tackle and 310 lbs at defensive end. In New England the lineman are all former 1st round draft picks with the linebackers normally being a collection of mid-round selections and veteran free agent acquisitions. Cleveland has taken the opposite approach, primarily drafting its linebackers, and finding defensive lineman through free agency. Both teams feature a former 1st round pick at linebacker.


Phillips – The outside linebackers are featured in this system, and are the players who generate pressure and sack the quarterback. They are really converted defensive ends, and not linebackers, so they tend to be larger than you’ll find in the other systems. They rarely are asked to drop back in coverage and are best moving towards the line of scrimmage. Dallas features two former 1st round players and San Diego one 1st round player at OLB. The defensive linemen are ostensibly smaller than in the Fairbanks system, but are better suited to playing 1-gap. You’ll find a collection of early to mid-round talent here, and it’s entirely of the homegrown variety for both teams.


LeBeau – Because of LeBeau’s complex zone blitz system, his front 7 players are asked to do many things. The system requires players with enough ability to move in both directions, and comes at the expense of sheer bulk. Except for nose tackle, which is a 2-down player only, all the remaining players are noticeably smaller across the board. This is an attacking defense, with lineman playing 1-gap normally, and pressure coming from anywhere including the inside linebackers. As a benefit, Pittsburgh has normally been able to draft these players later on because they fit between what teams look for in the prototypical 43 and 34 type players.




Dallas relies on rotating its defensive linemen more than other 34 teams. In its base defense, starters are rotated every 2nd or 3rd series with their two primary backups, Tank Johnson (35%) and Jason Hatcher (26%). In short-yardage situations, Johnson normally moves back into the lineup replacing Jay Ratliff at nose tackle. At linebacker, Demarcus Ware is an every-down player, with the remaining players platooned to one degree or another.


New England also relies on a d-line rotation, but not quite to the same degree as Dallas. Jarvis Green and Mike Wright are the key reserves, with Wright added as a fourth-down lineman in short-yardage situations. New England’s linebackers all see significant playing time, except for Teddy Bruschi, who is strictly a two-down player at this stage in his career.


Pittsburgh, on the other hand, expects its starters to see more playing time than other 34 teams. Except for Larry Foote and Casey Hampton, who are on the field approximately 50% of the time, all remaining starters see at least 85% of the total snaps in a game. D-linemen are usually replaced only due to injury, or to provide a quick “blow”, and linebackers must be ironmen, routinely playing the entire game without being given a break. Pittsburgh also normally remains in its base 34 in short-yardage situations allowing Casey to clog the middle of the field.




Dallas normally goes to a nickel package using a 4-man front in passing situations by asking Ware and Ellis to put their hands in the dirt. Just remember, they are defensive linemen at heart. Ratliff and Hatcher are the other down linemen, giving Dallas a potent 4-man pass rush. In this package, the ILBs come off the field, replaced by a single Mike linebacker (Burnett).


New England tends to stay with 3-down linemen in passing situations, but inserts Jarvis Green as one of the defenders. The Patriots tend to stay in their base formation even on passing downs, but do run nickel on 3rd and long by replacing Bruschi with a corner. New England rarely utilizes dime coverage packages.


Pittsburgh almost always goes to a 2-4-5 package in passing situations. Keisel and Smith will move inside to DT, with Timmons replacing Foote at ILB. Pittsburgh uses this package on average 35% of the time with a high of 75% during the Super Bowl. It’s not hard to see, with some snaps for Chris Hoke, that Casey Hampton barely sees the field half the time. Switching to the dime, Tyrone Carter comes in as the sixth DB normally replacing Timmons at linebacker.


Defensive Stats:


New England relies on its defensive linemen to make tackles as well as sacks. This is contrary to the norm for 34 teams, but considering the talent along the line, it makes sense.


As mentioned, teams playing the Phillips system rely on its OLBs to be the playmakers on defense. Both Dallas’ and San Diego’s OLBs led their respective teams in quarterback sacks. However, notice that Jay Ratliff, for the Cowboys, is a very disruptive 1-gap nose tackle who brings heavy pressure up the middle.


Pittsburgh’s defense is a mixture of the two. Its defensive linemen must be strong against the run as well as generating a credible pass rush. The OLBs get the majority of the sacks, but note the ILBs also pressure the quarterback. Other 34 teams are not nearly as effective when blitzing ILBs; however, note that Dallas got all of its sacks from primarily one player (James).


Breaking this down further:


The above table [not included] breaks down the individual linebackers on pass plays, and the percentage of time they blitz the quarterback. Note that even though Harrison and Woodley blitz frequently they still drop back in coverage approximately 35% of the time. The inside linebackers also blitz approximately 25% of the time with Timmons taking over for Foote as the season progressed.


As a comparison, Demarcus Ware blitzes on 79% of pass plays and Greg Ellis 73%.




As my analysis shows, LeBeau’s system is unique enough from other 34 teams, thus requiring different types of players both in physical stature and abilities.


Defensive ends are smaller and more agile in order to play in LeBeau’s demanding zone-blitz system. While someone such as Tyson Jackson fits all 34 systems, players that are slightly undersized, like a Zach Potter (277lbs) or a Kyle Moore (272lbs), fit that niche area where they are not quick enough for most 43 teams, nor large enough to play in a conventional 34. Players such as these fit line coach John Mitchell’s unselfish philosophy well, and can still be found as Day 2 draft selections. And since Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith see so much playing time, it would be beneficial to draft a player with the talent to fit into a rotation or be used in the Steelers’ nickel package. Either way, that should add up to significant playing time and a nice rest for both players.

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Shaun Rogers seems like a guy that would flourish in a one-gap just going after the QB.


Shaun played one gap in college. Wasn't that great. I think that Shaun Rogers always has a bit of laziness in him and the one gap allows that to come out. There isn't a successful 3-4 NT that isn't playing the two-gap for all he's worth.

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I think I remember some reports right after Mangini was hired that he would run relatively the same defense as RAC, which would mean two gap.


I get that laziness can be spotlighted in a one gap. On the other hand, I would think a monster like Rogers would like to just be able to know his gap and go, without having to try to figure out which gap to play and leave the glory to the linebackers. He seemed fine with it last year, but I'm just saying.

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