NFL offenses use pre-snap motion to manipulate opposing defenses. When used well, the offense can get the defense into just about any look it wants. But the path to pre-snap confusion isn’t a one-way street. Because there’s fewer rules — basically zero — about where defensive players need to line up before a play, the defense can do almost anything it wants to confuse an offense before the snap. There might not be anyone who takes better advantage of that than New York Giants defensive coordinator James Bettcher.
Two buzzwords that come with Bettcher’s defense are “aggressive” and “versatility.” Neither is wrong. Per Football Outsiders, Bettcher’s Arizona Cardinals defense had the ninth-highest rate of blitzes rushing five or more players. While they only created pressure with the 22nd-highest rate on blitzes, they were ninth in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) when the blitz came. That suggests a defense that caused enough havoc and confusion with the blitz, it didn’t always matter if the rush got home. But when it did, there was little the offense could do.
There’s been a discussion about whether a base defense really matters with the amount of nickel and dime teams play on a majority of plays. Bettcher’s defenses can take that a step further with defenders lined up without a specific position before the snap.
Let’s take this play from Week 12 against the Jacksonville Jaguars. It’s third-and-10 late in the third quarter from Jacksonville’s 20. The Jaguars came out in 11 personnel (three wide receivers) with the tight end lined up behind the right tackle. Arizona loaded the line with five defenders and six defensive backs deep.
When Marqise Lee (11) motioned from the outside to a stack just inside the numbers, two defensive backs from the other side — Budda Baker (36) and Antoine Bethea (41) — rushed up to the line, putting seven players on the line of scrimmage. The Cardinals could rush seven, but they might not. If they don’t, the Jaguars don’t know how many and with all seven on the line of scrimmage, there’s not a lot of time to adjust.
At the snap, two linebackers drop into coverage and the Cardinals rush just five. The defense is at a disadvantage on two parts of the blitz. There’s a two-on-one to the right and a three-on-two up the middle. But the two defensive backs who rushed up to the line late have a two-on-one advantage against the running back.
Leonard Fournette chose to take on Bethea on the inside, which left Baker with a clear path to Blake Bortles. Baker got to the quarterback, which led to a rushed throw, a near interception, and a punt on the next play.
Bettcher regularly uses defensive backs as pass rushers, whether part of a bigger blitz or not. Last season Arizona rushed a defensive back on 13 percent of plays per Football Outsiders, which was the sixth-highest rate in the league. The Giants, most out of necessity, were actually higher at 14.7 percent. Of course there was a huge discrepancy in effectiveness on those blitzes. Arizona was 11th in DVOA when a defensive back rushed the passer in 2017, the Giants were 28th.
These defensive back blitzes work best when getting a mismatch or numbers advantage against a running back. On a third-and-8 against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 2, the Cardinals again countered a spread formation (three wide receivers in a four-wide look) with a stacked defensive line — six men.
Initially the lone running back on the field, Robert Turbin (33), lined up behind the left guard. Antoine Bethea was on that side, about five to six yards from the line of scrimmage.
Before the snap, Turbin motioned to the right side of quarterback Jacoby Brissett in shotgun. The Cardinals countered by bringing Bethea over to that side and outside edge rusher Markus Golden (44), already lined up in a wide-9 alignment, very late.
This time the Cardinals did bring all seven defenders and with the late movement of Bethea, Arizona had another two-on-one with a running back in pass protection.
Turbin was able to take out Golden, but Bethea got to the quarterback, recorded a hit, and the ball was floated out of bounds.
Baker and Bethea came up on those last two plays and they were responsible for the 12th- and 17th-most individual pass pressures on the Cardinals last season per Sports Info Solutions. Arizona was heavily reliant on defensive depth to get pressure on the quarterback. If we look at the players responsible for the most pressures per team, only the Carolina Panthers had a higher rate of pressure created by players outside of the team’s top-four. Chandler Jones accounted for 21.9 percent of Arizona’s pressures, the 16th-highest team share in the league, but if it wasn’t him, there was a wide mix of players getting to the quarterback.
Arizona also did this without the need to blitz. In the play below, the Seahawks brought out a five-wide look. The Cardinals came out with six men on the line and five defensive backs deep.
Again this disguises which players are going to rush. On the left side of the defense, linebacker Haason Reddick is the closest to Doug Baldwin in the slot, but Reddick could rush and Bethea, the deep safety on the play, could just as easily rush up to cover Baldwin. On the other side of the line, Chandler Jones (55) and Karlos Dansby (56) are stacked outside of left tackle Matt Tobin (73) — an injury replacement in the game. Dansby only rushed on just under 10 percent of his pass snaps, per PFF, so he wasn’t a huge threat before the snap.
But at the snap, the two players to the opposite side of the line dropped back into coverage. That left just a four-man rush. But even with a four-man rush, it set up another two-on-one advantage for the defense. Because of how the line shifted after the left side dropped back, Jones and Dansby were left alone with Tobin.
Tobin went to block the more dangerous rusher in Jones, but that left Dansby with a free path to the quarterback.
This pre-snap manipulation can work against the run, too. On a first down in 12 personnel (two tight ends), the Dallas Cowboys ran the ball 64 percent of the time last season, per Sharp Football Stats. That’s a situation the Cardinals found themselves against on Dallas’s first offensive play of Week 3. Arizona came out in a typical 4-3 alignment and an immediate six-man box.
As Terrence Williams started to motion across the formation, Chandler Jones moved up to the line of scrimmage to create a tighter seven-man box. Per recent studies from Josh Hermsmeyer, the success of run plays hinges more on the raw number of defenders in the box rather than a the difference between the number of blockers and defenders. Just putting Jones closer to the line brings the average success rate of a run from around 38 percent to about 32 percent.
Once Williams completed his motion to the other side of the line, cornerback Justin Bethel (28) moved down into the box. Going to an eight-man box drops the average run success rate below 30 percent.
At the snap, the initial hole for Ezekiel Elliott was closed quickly by current Giant Josh Mauro (97). Elliott was forced to the other side and to a gap that was filled by Bethel, who had dropped down earlier. Bethel wrapped up the back for a one-yard loss on the play.
There’s going to be a lot of looks the Giants show this year under Bettcher’s coordination. Some of them will look more traditional. Some of them — like the no linebacker in the middle of the field look against Seattle — will look a little different. But they all serve the main goal of confusing the defense before the snap. That type of pre-snap chaos has been one of Bettcher’s best assets as a defensive coordinator and as the Giants retool the personnel, those pre-snap games might grow in importance for the 2018 season.