Shortly after Gus Bradley was hired as the Chargers’ new defensive coordinator in January, he announced that the team’s base defense would shift from the 3-4 base front to the 4-3.
To the common fan, it was a straightforward and expected announcement – Bradley has overseen 4-3 defenses since first becoming a coordinator. Those who understand Bradley’s body of work, however, know how little that tag means.
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Bradley is an offshoot of the Pete Carroll coaching tree – he first worked as a defensive coordinator in Seattle from 2009 to 2013, before taking the defense with him to his stint in Jacksonville. Since then, Dan Quinn left Carroll’s staff to become Atlanta’s head coach, and Ken Norton Jr. leaving his staff to become Oakland’s defensive coordinator.
With Bradley joining the Chargers this season (and Robert Saleh, from his own staff, becoming San Francisco’s defensive coordinator), there will be five teams running variations of Carroll’s original defense in 2017. While what Los Angeles’ version will look like is still a mystery, hints can be taken from Carroll’s work in Seattle, Quinn’s in Atlanta, Norton Jr.’s in Oakland, and Bradley’s own four years in Jacksonville.
As Carroll himself described it in one of his first years in Seattle: it’s a 4-3 scheme with 3-4 personnel, utilizing the special talents of his guys. Now, with regard to the front seven of the 2017 Chargers, what exactly does that mean?
Here’s a rough positional breakdown:
(Projected starter: Brandon Mebane)
At its core, what Bradley ran in Seattle and Jacksonville was a 4-3 Under scheme.
There are three fundamental defensive fronts in football: Over, the common 4-3 front; Odd, the common 3-4 front; and Under. In an Under front, the nose tackle aligns over the shoulder of the center towards the play strength – as opposed to the away shoulder in Over and squarely ahead of him in Odd. In any front, the nose tackle is primarily a run-stopper – regardless of assignment, the end result should be occupying a double-team to open a play for another defender.
Brandon Mebane, having filled the role for Carroll in Seattle and in his time with the Chargers, will be the starter there.
(Projected starter: Corey Liuget)
In the 4-3 Under front, the other defensive tackle lines up across from the left guard, in what’s called the 3-technique position. The 3-technique is the standard alignment for 4-3 tackles in any front, as it’s regarded as the best position for creating interior pressure, creating a 1-on-1 matchup directly in front of the quarterback.
Carroll’s Seattle teams haven’t had star pass rushers at the position – Mebane started there for a time – but most of the teams that follow his scheme have drafted late-round pass-rushers to rotate in there. Atlanta found a diamond in 2015’s 5th round here with Grady Jarrett, who’s on the small and light end for interior players (6’0”, 290 to Aaron Donald’s 6’1”, 285), but talented enough to justify the team adjusting and building around him.
Corey Liuget perfectly fits the original prototype of the position. After recording 0 sacks in 16 starts last season, his pass rush production can and should improve.
(Projected starter: Joey Bosa)
Called the ‘closed’ end due to being on the strong side of the offensive formation, the focus of the position is to defend against run plays, bringing power where the other edge positions bring speed. Between the two players Carroll has used for the job, Red Bryant and Michael Bennett, this has been accomplished in multiple ways.
Bryant, a converted nose tackle, played like one on the outside: anchoring his position, not letting anything through him. Bennett, a bigger end who lacked the size to play tackle or the speed to bend the edge, blows up running plays by attacking gaps, aggressively outworking blockers with hand technique. As a pass rusher, he bounces around the formation based on situation and matchup. He’s been aligned as a 3-technique tackle, 7-technique end, and every spot between.
Joey Bosa compares favorably to Bennett. Listed at 6’5”, 280 to Bennett’s 6’4”, 274, Bosa has the strength, size and speed requirements to star individually at all of the roles that Bennett found a role by splitting time between. Bosa’s versatility should not only allow him to excel in his given role, but allow Bradley to expand it, letting him do things with the scheme that the other coaches can’t.
(Projected starter: Melvin Ingram)
A custom-named Carroll position, the LEO position is a designated pass-rusher role in the 4-3 Under front. Somewhere between an end and a linebacker, the LEO is an outside speed rusher before anything else, usually aligning to the weak side of the formation well outside the offensive tackle. While the LEO alignment typically makes the front a 4-3, the physical prototype of the position is more reminiscent of a 3-4 rush ‘backer.
Since the spread of the defense, the LEO position has been used in different ways: Cliff Avril and Frank Clark are both strong players at the position for Seattle, letting them put a LEO on both sides of their pass-heavy sets. Khalil Mack in Oakland has rare strength for the position – he’s able to anchor his position against and disengage from much heavier tackles, but still has the speed and agility to bend the edge and play in space. He’s an elite LEO, but so much more for the Raiders.
Melvin Ingram and Jerry Attaochu are likely going to be the 1 and 2 at this position, although both should see the field if everything remains well with them. Regardless, there’s no such thing as too many edge rushers.
(Projected starter: Kyle Emanuel)
The OTTO, a position of Gus Bradley’s creation, is his own twist on the 4-3 SAM linebacker. In a nutshell, the position is a blend of the 4-3 and 3-4 strong-side linebackers: an OTTO usually aligns outside the closed end in base personnel, can be the primary left edge rusher in passing downs, but is also light enough to move around and handle linebacker duties as a standup rusher, run stopper or cover guy. He allows the defense to shift between different fronts without changing personnel.
While the name OTTO is Bradley’s creation (and he got heat in Jacksonville for never adequately filling the role), each version of the Carroll defense has had a player of the same mold. Vic Beasley broke out as an OTTO-type player for Atlanta, while Bruce Irvin fills the role in Oakland and originally inspired it in Seattle. Von Miller, having been an elite SAM linebacker in both 4-3 and 3-4 fronts in Denver, is perhaps the best prototype of an OTTO in the league.
Bradley has effectively endorsed Kyle Emanuel as the player to start the season as the OTTO. At 6’3” and 250, while no Miller, Emanuel shares the same frame as the Broncos star, and has the requisite versatility for the position. Also figuring in there are Korey Toomer (a former Seahawk under Bradley), and Joshua Perry, who Bradley has said are competing at the position.
(Projected starters: Denzel Perryman, Jatavis Brown)
Called ‘stack’ linebackers because they consistently line up on the second level of the defense (behind the line), Carroll’s scheme tends to leave two read-and-react players in the middle of the defense. While reminiscent of 3-4 inside ‘backers in alignment, the two more closely resemble the MIKE and WILL of a 4-3 scheme – one usually calls plays for the defense, then patrols the middle of the field or knifes into the backfield on runs, while the other flows to the football on run plays and more often covers down the field.
Seattle has started Bobby Wagner (the former) and K.J. Wright (the latter) in these roles ever since they entered the league, and both have done exceptionally well. Atlanta started two rookies at the positions last season in Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell, attempting to replicate Seattle’s duo. In Jacksonville, Bradley ran Paul Posluszny in the middle, while the 215-pound Telvin Smith became a star on the weak side.
Denzel Perryman and Jatavis Brown are the likely starters here, and compare well to Wagner and Smith. That being said, Wagner and Smith are both flanked by larger players – Bradley might have to dip into his depth at the position here, or move his OTTO around more generously in the second level.
–Andy Hammel is a staff writer for cover32/Chargers and covers the Los Angeles Chargers for cover32.