The history of defensive football formations has been a story of gradually moving players off the line. As teams attempted to combat a growing passing game, seven down defensive linemen became six, then five and then, with the arrival of the 4-3, four.
By the late 1940s and early 1950s, offenses were developing ways to attack the 5-2 defence that was a base set for many teams at the pro level. In search of reinforcements, coordinators dropped another defender off the line, creating a 4-3. Various teams can claim to have been first – and certainly they might have used a four-man line on occasion – but it was the New York Giants of the 1950s who developed the modern 4-3.
The Giants’ ‘umbrella’ defence converted a six-man front into four by dropping the ends into pass coverage, essentially becoming outside linebackers. Meanwhile, the middle guard took up position in the centre, a few yards behind the line, becoming a middle linebacker. In 1950, the Giants beat Paul Brown’s vertical passing attack twice using this new defence. By 1956 they became the first team to install a 4-3 defence as their base formation.
Before that, though, plenty of other teams had begun to mix 4-3 looks into their standard line-ups. Based on exhaustive film study, TJ Troup’s The Birth of Football’s Modern 4-3 Defence covers the period 1953-59 and summarises each team’s season and their use of the 4-3 defence. He looks at their coaching situation, playing personnel, analyses the season’s stats and breaks down one game of note.
In the middle of the book, a short section details how Joe Schmidt helped develop the role of middle linebacker in the mid-1950s – a role more strongly associated with the Giants’ Sam Huff. Troup doesn’t focus too much on Huff, who is mentioned on occasion but doesn’t merit a listing in the index, and instead says that the next great middle linebacker after Schmidt was Dick Butkus of the Bears, who entered the league in 1965.
The pattern of dropping defenders off the line has continued. By the late 1970s, the 3-4 defence was common across the NFL. In today’s league many teams are effectively base nickel teams – having removed a linebacker for an extra defensive back to combat the pass-heavy nature of the modern NFL. That means they are effectively playing a 3-3 or 2-4 defensive front.
In 20 years time people may be talking about defensive fronts with no down linemen being common or, as is often the case in the NFL, the pendulum could swing back, with teams opting to run across light boxes. Nevertheless, the 4-3 defense still appears across the NFL every Sunday, albeit less than it once did in the 1950s, and this book helps to explain how that came to be.
TJ Troup is a football historian and author of This Day In Football, as well as The Birth of Football’s Modern 4-3 Defence. He has written for American football Coaches Monthly and was a consultant on the film Leatherheads.
“The definitive work…”
John Turney, Pro Football Journal
“Troup’s use of watching NFL game footage to help with his research makes for realistic conclusions.”
Chris Willis, Pro Football Journal
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