August 18, 2012; St. Louis, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Glenn Dorsey (72) sprays water on his face before a game against the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-US PRESSWIRE

The Fatal Flaw In Romeo Crennel's Defense

Having been in this business for something approaching two decades, Kansas City Chiefs Head coach Romeo Crennel has a signature defensive scheme that has been called many things.  It is called reactive.  It’s called bend-but-don’t-break.  It’s called technique-oriented.  It’s been praised by supporters to be the ultimate team-approach to successful defense, utiliting the ability of all 11 defenders to elevate the play of all their teammates.  It’s been criticized by detractors as being unaggressive, more concerned with preventing big plays than promoting big stops, playing on your heels instead of pinning your ears back.

The Two-Gap

However you term it, it truly is a unique defensive style that stands in stark contrast to almost the entirety of other NFL defensive schemes, and fewer have promoted it more successfully than Crennel.

His style is termed the “two-gap 3-4″ defense.  At its base, that means you have three lineman with their hands in the dirt, typically two defensive ends that are big and strong enough to take on offensive tackles and tall enough to deter passes by the quarterback in the pocket (think of Tyson Jackson’s prototypical 6’4″, 296 lbs frame), and a humongous, bulky nose tackle that is built for getting low, absorbing punishment and administering immediate push against a hopelessly outsized center (think of Jerrell Powe’s prototypical 6’2″, 331 lbs frame). Then you have four linebackers: two passrushers on the edge (one who is a more one-dimensional pocket assaulter, and the other who is a swiss army knife of abilities), and two in the middle (one who is more of a line of scrimmage attacker, and the other who is more coverage-oriented).  This earns Crennel’s defense the “3-4″ moniker, for those who didn’t already know.

But roughly half the teams in the NFL play with a 3-4 arrangement.  It’s Crennel’s two-gap approach is what truly sets this defense apart from every other style in the NFL.

From the Bears’ cover 2, to the Eagle’s wide 9, to the Texans’ one-gap, to the Patriots’ hybrid, to countless other 4-3 and 3-4 teams, the name of the game is very simple for the defensive line: get upfield.  The players might line-up at different points along the defensive line.  They might be bigger (3-4 nose tackles), smaller (cover 2 passrushers), ends, tackles, or rushbackers.  But they all want to disrupt the pocket and get upfield.

Not so with the two-gap.

Think of this as your typical offensive line:

RT     RG     C      LG     LT
(C)     (B)     (A)     (A)     (B)     (C)

This is a comprehensive listing of the “gaps” in an offensive line.  The “A” gap is between the center and guard, the “B” gap is between the guard and tackle.  Most defenses in the NFL tell their defensive lineman to shoot a gap, which would either penetrate the pocket or at least disrupt the offensive line’s blocking assignments.  Some defenses give a defensive tackle the job of occupying blockers, or “two-gapping,” meaning they focus less on getting upfield, and focus more with minding two gaps and clogging the lanes, offensive lineman be damned.

This two-gap strategy asks every single one of its defensive lineman to do exactly that.  It turns the traditional role of the defensive lineman from pocket invader to space occupying, gap eater.  There’s a reason young bucks like Tyson Jackson and Dontari Poe take a long time to adjust to it, the techniques involved in this are completely different than the simple “get up and go” of more attack-oriented defensive lines. (By my count, only four other teams in the NFL share this defensive style: Ravens, Jets, Dolphins, and now the Colts.)

The complexity of all of this aside, there is one thing needed to make this work.  One thing needed to turn this defensive style, unique as it is, into an offense-wrecking machine:

The defensive linemen must occupy offensive linemen.

It’s that simple.  It’s the first domino for the entire scheme to make sense.  If these defensive linemen can force offensive lineman to double-team them, it frees up the linebackers behind them and to their flanks to make plays.  If Glenn Dorsey and Jackson play their roles properly, Tamba Hali and Justin Houston are battling tight ends and fullbacks en route to the QB, rather than massive, athletic offensive tackles.  If Poe can demand maximum attention in the interior of the line, it allows Derrick Johnson to flow to the ball freely.  It therefore cuts down on the amount of time secondaries have to cover receivers.  It allows the safeties to clamp down open spaces faster.  The key to it all is that the defensive linemen must absorb multiple offensive linemen every play.

The 2012 Preseason Chiefs Defensive Line

But it’s a delicate ecosystem.  If the defensive linemen do not regularly command double- and triple-teams, then the defensive line is getting no penetration and the linebackers are battling far too much on every play.  Passing lanes will be bigger, and running the ball gets easier.  In other words, if the defensive line can’t work, nothing works.

That’s what the 2012 preseason is teaching us.  And if the problems we’re experiencing here carry over to the regular season, it may spell either the failure of this defense in Kansas City, or even worse, it may suggest that this defense is officially too antiquated to exist anymore in the modern NFL.

But during the first preseason game hosting the Arizona Cardinals, this was not a problem.  The Cardinals bought the just-now-gaining-traction notion that Dorsey and Jackson are formidable talents worthy of maximum attention, and saw our nose tackle lineup of Anthony Toribio (fairly big), Dontari Poe (huge), and Jerrell Powe (very large) and convinced themselves that double-teaming would be a necessity.

We slaughtered them.  First-team, second-team, third-team.  Our rushbackers racked up sacks by the quarter, the Cards couldn’t run the ball, it was glorious.  It was the true example of (a.) how talented our defense is, and (b.) how this scheme can maximize teamwork to create as hostile an environment for offenses as there can be in this league.

The Rams, too, tried taking on our defensive linemen two-at-a-time for much of the first half of the Chiefs second preseason game in St. Louis.  The result was a pretty fair degree of success; despite the box score, the Rams had to convert two fourth downs to score their two touchdowns.  The few runs broken off by Steven Jackson were anomolies of unusually missed assignments.  The base lineup of Jackson, Toribio, and Dorsey were again a bit too much for the Rams’ offensive front to handle.

The second half of the Rams game, however, is where everything took a turn.

With a second-team defensive line setup of Ropati Pitoitua, Poe, and Amon Gordon, the Rams offense decided to try an experiment: what if we just didn’t double team them at all, ever?

The results were disasterous and frustrating to watch.  The Rams single-teamed all three defensive lineman for their time on the field, and constantly launched both of their guards into the Chiefs linebackers (who were already struggling to begin with).  Disasterously, none of the three players, with the rare exception of Gordon, were able to free themselves from their blockers, rarely ever being able to clog anything, and runners were frequently breaking into the second level as linebackers struggled to come off their blocks.

The Rams didn’t even make a pretense of it.  They understood our depth and speed on the outside, so they ran right down our throats for the first few drives, to the visible frustration of players like Poe.

In the passing game, again, none of the linemen were double-teamed.  All rushbackers were snagged by tackles before they could ever get into a serious move, and blitzers were easily absorbed by whomever the Rams kept in the backfield.  By stymying our linemen with one blocker, the Rams opened everything up — and shut us down.

The Seahawks, perhaps noticing this on tape, decided that they’d repeat the same formula, this time against our starters, with consistently positive results.  The Seahawks simply took the risk, figuring they had no shot if they had to double-team our 1′s.  They figured it would be better to gamble on the chance the defensive line would disrupt them in one-on-one’s, while banking on the fact that they probably wouldn’t.

There were a few instances in short yardage where the offensive line felt the need to double players like Dontari Poe, and virtually every time the Chiefs made them pay.  But for the vast majority of the first half, the Seahawks simply ignored double-teaming, which freed up LT Russell Okung to snag Hali on the edge, and allowed the guards to assault our linebackers and safeties in the run game.

There lies a fundamental flaw here: teams are starting to simply refuse doubling our defensive linemen.  If that happens, neither of our starting ends (Dorsey and Jackson) have proven able to disengage and punish offenses for their lack of respect.  Toribio’s ability to demand double teams has weakened considerably in light of his injury, and Dontari Poe still has miles to go before he can harness that ability.

Only third string NT Jerrell Powe has really shown the power and burst necessary to command double teams, but if teams think their best shot is just going one-on-one with everybody, it almost doesn’t matter who you put out there.  Teams will continue to gamble that your linemen won’t adjust, and the entire defense will risk exposure as a result.

Is the problem with our players?  Is it with the scheme?  That answer is not yet clear.

What is clear is that this has been a Jekyll and Hyde defense all preseason, and it’s likely to stay that way if Romeo Crennel can’t force offenses to respect his defensive line.

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  • chiefridgy

    We need Poe to learn quick and step up big time. Dorsey and Jackson need to get off their rears. Sounds like they (dorsey/jackson) aren’t even concerned with getting to the qb when they only have one man covering them or they aren’t even good enough to beat one man at least some of the time.
    I, just like everyone else on here, is expecting a lot from our Chiefs this year. Here’s to a great season ….Cheers!
    and as always…GO CHIEFS!!!

  • Stacy D. Smith

    Here’s looking at you Allen Bailey…

    • Danny W

      It’s like they’ve forgotten this guy. They’ve gone a little bigger on the front three in rotational players but Bailey hasn’t been around. Gilberry gets close to ten sacks one year and then the next he’s getting a couple then let go. This guy looks like he can get to the quarterback and then he seems to be forgotten at least in the preseason anyway.Here is looking at you RAC hopefully looking at Allen Bailey.

    • Patrick Allen

      Baily has dropped to third on the depth chart. That is not a good sign.

  • Lyle Graversen

    I’m certainly not defending anybody’s play this preseason, but pro football focus had Jackson and Dorsey rated as the top 3-4 DEs against the run last year. You add to that the fact that DJ and Hali were as good as any 3-4 LBs in the league with those guys in front of them and that tells me they’re doing something right. I have a hard time believing that St Louis and Seattle were the first teams to try that approach against us.

  • KCMikeG

    Nice work Crock. Nice to see someone else is concerned about our biggest problem. I think, for some reason this defense is just slow out of the gates. Look at last year – destroyed early yet nearly dominate as the year came to a close. The NT is the centerpiece of RAC’s defense and until we stabilize that position we will be unpredictable. Obviously the loss of Flowers, Lewis and Daniels has not helped. Their return and Reeves continued improvement will give the front seven that extra second or two to get to the QB while we continue to develop at NT.

  • nick

    wow great look at whats hurting our D line wounder if the coaching staff knows any of this

  • Meeks99

    It’s ironic that the few teams mentioned that run a 2 gap scheme entail the Jets and Ravens. (consistently best defenses in the NFL.

  • Chiefswatch

    Well…..I think the preseason should be taken with a grain. We all give cred to Rac for being a defensive guru and then criticize his preseason defense. First, we all know that holding has not been called with these idiot replacement refs. Unfortunately we will be going into week one with the same refs. Fortunately the Atlanta line has looked horrible. So we can assume when refs return holding will come back into existence. Next..the preseason. We dominated Arizona on both sides of the ball. Anyone that looked at that game tape (Atlanta) probably noticed. Well in an effort to get Atlanta to let down its guard we probably did right by sucking it up weeks two and three. What other reason would Hillis get two carries, and why would we completely abandon our true offense in game 3? Now think defense. This is a little more of a stretch but what if Rac told Dorsey and Jackson to lay off. To let the O Line solo them. Preseason does not matter, why command double teams? It would be swell to have Atlanta attempt the same thing, only to have Dorsey, Powe and Jackson resume top notch play and destroy thier one blocker. The point is we dont know. If I were RAC I would do what I just mentioned though…

  • sidibeke

    I like the breakdown. Long question(s): KC’s D was top 10 at the end of last season. We had tinman, Dorsey and Kelly. Did they get 2-teamed? If not, was the difference the coverage (Flowers and Carr)? I guess the underlying question is what is different about this D that is less effective than last year’s D? The line or the 2ary?

    Love your work, Crock.

    • Andrew Crocker

      It was a multitude of situations, sidibeke. Dorsey and Jackson were downright dominant at the end positions in the last ten games of last year. Gregg play his part very, very well. The Chiefs also played a pretty weak schedule to close out the year, playing the likes of Caleb Hanie and Tim Tebow.
      It’s too soon to tell if there really is a drop in production this year. Far too soon. What my piece intends to convey is that the Rams and Seahawks may have exposed a way to beat this defense.

  • Danny W

    Nice Research Crocker.
    What do you think about a big three up front? Poe, Powe, Gordon. Then possibly find a way to get Bailey on the field on third downs.

    • Andrew Crocker

      Thanks. I’m pretty sure Bailey is already penciled in as a consistent third down guy — he plays that role already with the first string. I like the idea of Poe and Powe both on the line at the same time. Powe is more of a natural nose than Poe is, and Poe could play with enough diversity to end up as an end. I’d prefer to keep Jackson, however, over Gordon at the LDE spot.

  • jimfromkc

    The reason I don’t really like the 34 is because of the special requirements to play it properly. It is very hard to get the right size and weight in the players to match the requirements. If I were running the chief’s defence I think I would go with a basic 43. You can plug in players like Dorsey who is a square peg in a round hole in the 34, but would fit in a 43 at any of the 4 spots on the line. I was looking at the chief’s roster and came up with what I would like to see in a 43. LE Bailey, LT Poe, RT Powe and RE Bair. My line backers would be Houston, Johnson and Hali. Of course it is just an exercise in fantacy because Romeo is a lot like Pioli. He has a one track mind and has no intension of going out on a limb with something new. They just aren’t risk takers. They never heard of “Nothing ventured, Nothing gained”

  • steve james

    Well once again you have enlightened me. Thank you for the analysis. The is the meat of this site & I love it. I like the fluff too but this is great stuff.

    • Patrick Allen

      Yeah. Excellent article by Crock.

  • tm1946

    Sounds good but what does a team do with it if they do not have and cannot trade for or draft players who can execute this defense. What good is a genius plan if you never have anyone who can use it??

    Seems to me the Chiefs would be better served if they had a normal/ more ordinary plan the players on the roster had a prayer of executing.

  • Maverik256

    I believe in this scheme but what it seems like to me is that when the d lines job is to occupy 5 guys with 3 it works if the offensive line lets it….but if the try and single all three the have to abandon the 2 gap technique and just beat there man 1v1. Our guys are just holding ground on 1lineman like they were taught. They should try and get a hand on the other guy then beat there man and disrupt the play pass or run. If the 2nd line man does not double and goes straight to the baker it’s the d linemans job to beat his man and get the tackle because there will be no baker there to fill that hole. So the d lineman CANNOT GET BEAT BY ONE MAN IN THIS SCHEME. That to me is where our line has failed. This d works fine if the single on lineman as long as they can beat it…..and if they do beat the o will have to start doubling again which is playing into our d….there is a lot more to this scheme then meets the eye…I remember vince wilfork dominating every time he got singled in Romeos d. He would penetrate and disrupt or tackle the runner/qb… And I do understand that wilfork is the prototype nose but he did his job whether doubled he held ground or singled beat his man.. We are not beating the 1v1′s period. Until we do they will continue to do what Seattle and st. Louis did.

  • Maverik256

    And crock best in depth article of the year

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