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Wilks’/Holcomb’s 4-3 One-Gap Discipline

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

In two pre-season games, the Cardinals’ version of Steve Wilks and Al Holcomb’s defense has created 8 turnovers (even without the services of starting linebackers Deone Bucannon and Josh Bynes)—-albeit without facing QBs Phillip Rivers or Drew Brees.

How are they doing it?

We might want to begin by calling this defense “The Desert Swarm.”

Wilks and Holcomb predicate their defense on giving each player on each snap a single “one gap” run responsibility and a single pass rush or coverage responsibility. This allows the players to play free and fast.

The other key predication of the defense is to follow and swarm to the ball, whether it is in an opponent’s hands or in the air, or on the ground.

The pass coverages are multi-faceted—-many of them are combo man/zones. For example, the tipped interception off Tayson Hill Friday night, was the result of a single man coverage on the slot WR by Budda Baker, with zone help in behind. Baker’s tight coverage made Hill’s pass a difficult one, one which was tipped by the WR, tipped again by Cardinals’ ILB Scooby Wright and caught by OLB Haason Reddick.

On the deep pass for Ted Ginn Jr. that Bene Benwikere intercepted, the Cardinals were in a 3 deep zone on that play, which allowed Benwikere the comfortable cushion on Ginn, which Benwikere was able to maintain through Ginn’s go-route.

The mixings of coverages, combined with the pressure that the front four are creating on the pocket are making the opposing QBs hurry their throws.

The biggest challenge of Wilks’ and Holcomb’s 43 base defense, is effectively defending the run. Here’s the rub. The most common 4-3 alignment in the NFL is to line the weak side DT in the weak side A gap (C/G gap). The weak side DE then plays on the outside eye of the T.

On the strong side (where the TE is), the typical alignment is to have the strong side DT play in the strong side B gap (G/T), with the strong side DE head up on the TE, so that the TE does not have an easy angle on a down block, nor a chance to get a quick release as a receiver.

To make this alignment successful, a defense needs quick penetrating DTs who won’t get quickly taken out by down blocks—-and if the DTs are beaten off the ball, they need to hold their gaps, even if it means collapsing the block to the turf. What they don’t want is for a DT to get blown down the line 2-3 yards, thus creating a two lane highway for the RB to scamper through.

The MLB (Mike) keys on the strong side G. If he down blocks on the strong side DT (G/T gap), then the Mike has to fill the A gap immediately). The Sam’s (SOLB) key is whether the strong side tackle down blocks the strong side DT, which would mean the Sam fills the G/T gap, while the DE maintains contain.

Sometimes, the coaches will have a twist call on that strong side T down block, meaning that the DE crashes down to fill the gap, while the SOLB takes contain.

The other typical 43 alignment is to put the DTs head up on the guards, and adjust the DEs according to the strength of the formation. As you can imagine, this alignment, when played head up, gives the opposing center quick a free access to the ILB at the second level.

Now—-in order to keep the offense guessing——the defense can run slants with the DTs (who begin head up on the Gs) into the A and/or B gaps.

Lastly, if the 43 defense is getting hurt by the run, the coaches can kick the strong side DE inside and have the Sam LB line up outside as a 5th lineman.

Steve Wilks was very concerned about some of the runs the defense gave up versus the Saints, particlarly the Saints’ first play in which Mark Ingram ran up the middle for 15 yards.

Here’s what happened on the play.

The Saints lined up in a STRONG LEFT formation (TE to left side). They motioned the flanker across the formation to the strong side to see whether the Cardinals were in man or zone. The Cardinals chased with CB Jamar Taylor, so the Cardinals were showing man coverage. Had they not shown man—-the play might have been an overload pass to the flanker/TE strong side versus zone.

Instead, Hill knew the Cardinals were playing man and knew the front 4 was lined up off-set and checked to the running play.

The Cardinals’ defense lined up in the classic aforementioned off-set position with the strong side DE (Jones) head up on the TE, the strong side DT (Nkemdiche) in the strong side G/T gap, the weak side DT in the weak side G/C gap and the weak side DE on the outside eye of the RT. Have a look:

On the snap, Nkemdiche gets driven backward and sideways and then sealed off by the strong side tackle. The TE blocks Jones head up, but Jones crashes too far inside. Because the flow appears to be going to the right, SOLB Haason Reddick abandons his gap responsibility and gets caught in the traffic inside, while Ingram peals to his left and right up the middle.

Reddick missed his key—-when the strong side tackle down blocked on Nkemdiche, Reddick should have stayed at home and filled the gap.

After Reddick gets caught inside, the weak side WR blocks FS Antoine Bethea, leaving Ingram one on one with Patrick Peterson. Thankfully, Peterson makes a good TD saving tackle on the play (as pictured).

The good news is that the Cardinals’ players on the weak side, DE Benson Mayowa, DT Corey Peters, MLB Scooby Wright do their jobs and bottle up the play.

The essence is that all 3 strong side players in the front 7 (Nkemdiche, Jones and Reddick) did not do their jobs. This is exactly why Wilks reiterated after the game that the defensive players need to trust in their responsibilities and fulfill them.

Herein lies the crux of Wilks’ message. Yes, he was the players to see the ball and swarm to the ball—-but not if it means too quickly abandoning their one gap disciplines. The strong side needed to stay at home. If Nkemdiche shoots the gap, chances are he gets right to Ingram. If Jones keeps contain, then he could have squeezed the RB’s cut-back run down and into the help, right to the gap where Reddick should be sitting.

With the Cowboys this week the Cardinals should be tested on their one gap disciplines. Steve Wilks and Al Holcomb are making this their top priority in practice.