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The Bowen Breakdown, Part 1: The advantage of a four-man rush

We begin an in-depth look at what Bowen brings to the table as a defensive coordinator

Tennessee Titans v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The New York Giants on Monday hired former Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Shane Bowen to replace the departed Wink Martindale. The 37-year-old coach spent three seasons as the Titans defensive coordinator under head coach Mike Vrabel, who is a defensive mind himself.

Veteran defensive coach Dean Pees retired from the Titans defensive coordinator job following the 2019 season. Vrabel assumed many of the defensive responsibilities in 2020 while conditioning Bowen for his inevitable ascension at just 33 years old. Tennessee went 11-5 during the 2020 season, but the defense ranked 24th in points against, 29th in yards allowed, and 30th in red zone touchdown percentage.

Following the 2020 season, Vrabel officially promoted the precocious Bowen to defensive coordinator, and the defense took a massive jump in advanced statistical categories:

*courtesy to A to Z Sports Film Room on YouTube

Tennessee’s defense never allowed more than 4 yards per carry in Bowen’s three seasons coordinating the defense; they ranked in the top six in yards per carry allowed in each season.

Bowen’s defensive philosophy differs from Martindale's, who is a pressure-happy coordinator at his core. Bowen relies much more on four-man rushes, twists, and simulated pressures:

In today’s article - the first edition of the Bowen Breakdown - I went through two games of the Titans (Seattle, Week 16 and Houston, Week 15; watched part of the Saints game as well) to breakdown a core principle of Bowen’s philosophy, which is four-man rushes through twists with match-zone on the back end that allow him to gain a numbers advantage in coverage. Let’s go through this first second-and-8 sack:

Bowen employs ODD fronts on early downs that create a similar “wall” that we saw Martindale often construct. It looks something like this:

I included the first Seattle example to show how the defense adjusted to the strength with a shaded five-technique to account for Seattle’s unbalanced 13 personnel. Bowen didn’t use BASE personnel often, but this look is very familiar to Giants fans who watched Wink Martindale the last couple of years.

This is an ODD-spacing look where there is no natural bubble over the B-Gap. However, similar to Patrick Graham’s defense, Bowen employed multiple fronts in neutral situations, but the defense is very different from both Martindale and Graham in obvious passing situations.

As illustrated above, the Titans did not frequently blitz, and Bowen was often in sub-package 2-4-5 and 3-3-5 nickel or 2-3-6 DIME looks with aggressive defensive backs that fit the run quickly. Let’s take a quick peek at the sack against Geno Smith and the Seattle Seahawks above:

These types of pressure looks, which are littered throughout the Titans film, are tenants of Jim Schwartz, who is currently the defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns and won a Super Bowl as the Eagles defensive coordinator in 2017. Schwartz was the senior defensive advisor under Mike Vrabel in 2021-2022 when Bowen was beginning his tenure as a defensive play-caller. There are a lot worse things than having a disciple of Schwartz as your defensive coordinator.

These wide angles create advantageous routes for the wide rushers and stress the tackles to kick out wide, while the tackles also have pre-snap threats to their inside shoulder. This should benefit two explosive pass rushers that Bowen just inherited - Kayvon Thibodeaux and Azeez Ojulari.

As previously mentioned, the play above is just a second-and-8 interior twist with high-side rushers to collapse the pocket. The bendy Harold Landry III rips through the outside shoulder of the tackle and crashes into the pocket for the sack. The Titans earned a sack on the play through effort and a one-on-one win with angle advantage, but the defense only allocated four rushers, which offers more flexibility and time on the back end of the defense.

Seattle is in a balanced 2x2 set with the running back to right. The Titans start in a two-high defense and rotate the safety away from the running back to buzz and execute a run fit if necessary. Once the run wasn’t a threat, the safety shifted outside the hash and looked to rob any crossing routes, but Seattle ran Corner Strike, which is mirrored corner routes that work to the numbers from the No. 1 (outside) receivers with flat routes from the inner receivers. The Titans are able to create a numbers advantage with the middle-of-the-field closed safety reading the eyes of Geno Smith.

The Titans gained a three-over two-advantage toward the side of DK Metcalf (14), and an even 2 vs. 2 with inside help if needed with the safety following Smith’s eyes.

There isn’t a twist on the four-man rush, but the Titans still get home, and their match defense is sound on the back end of this EMPTY Texans’ set. Here’s a first-and-10:

*three over two

There is different vocabulary and vernacular used to describe varying two-read pattern match coverages, but the essence is similar. Assignments are dictated based on the distribution of the routes within, generally speaking, five yards of the line of scrimmage. The two safeties are reading the releases of the inner receiver, with the two linebackers executing inside leverage to wall off any routes within five yards on the line of scrimmage. As we see from the linebacker at the top of the screen, if there is no inside immediate threat, he robots underneath the deep inside breaking route.

I’m not certain of this, but if Dalton Schultz (86) ran an out route at the bottom of the screen, depending on the tag, the outside cornerback may have cut under in a two-trap type of coverage (this isn’t Cover-2, it’s a quarters type of coverage) and the number one receiver (outside) to that side would be the responsibility of the safety. There are rules within this coverage, and math is on the side of the Titans when they’re only allocating four to the pass rush.

The Texans come out with a similar EMPTY look later in the game with a noticeable adjustment that’s handled well by Tennessee during this third-and-3 sack. Robert Woods (2) stacked behind Xavier Hutchinson (19). Houston was attempting to have Woods clear out space for Hutchinson, but C.J. Stroud looked for the high-low at the top of the screen.

*three over two

The smash concept at the top of the screen would have been open if Stroud had more time, but the defense is organized, operating as one unit. Below is a third-and-long where the Titans pin their ears back with only four rushers from a wide alignment against an initial eight-man protection:

Rashad Weaver crashes inside, with Denico Autry looping around Weaver to earn a sack. The timing worked out well for Tennessee, due to the slight delay causing the temporary blockers to vacate into their routes. Autry, who is a free agent this season, does a great job shedding the blocking attempt and finishing the play, but let’s see how the coverage looked on the back end:

Tennessee bracketed the deep receivers with singular responses to the threats underneath while giving cushion all around. This is another type of quarters coverage

The Titans surrender a third-and-4 with underneath mesh that wasn’t passed off effectively, but the coverage on the back end is sound. Tennessee aggressively sent Landry III through the B-Gap to pick the guard and force the tackle to collapse into the B-Gap, which led to Marlon Davidson’s (92) pressure:

Smith did a good job finding Jake Bobo (19), who also used his awareness to stop in a vacant area where he wasn’t followed. As we see below, Tre Avery (23) does a good job executing a true zone - butt to the sideline - technique with the safety adjusting to Metcalf’s route from an inside posture to start.

At the top of the screen, Noah Fant (87) is bracketed inside and out since Bobo released on the drag, which prompted the linebacker to attempt to wall before assuming the running back, who also drew the attention of the linebacker that should have received Bobo on the pass off. But, as we see, there was another defender toward the bottom numbers who was in a position to handle Bobo if the rookie receiver did not cut his route off early.

The Titans do a great job in coverage to sack Derek Carr on third-and-15, and I appreciate how they set up this Jeffrey Simmons (98) twist-sack from a 1-technique position:

Great timing and execution by Simmons and the six-technique. Three defenders, including Simmons, were to the offense’s right, which forced the Saints slide protection that way - away from Simmons’ final destination (spooky movie).

Bowen ran Cover-6 (quarter, quarter, half) on the backend with the cloud coverage over Chris Olave (12). The field nickel heavy inside leverage and the corner against Olave played trail technique with the safety help over the top. The two safeties playing Cover-4 technique bracketed Michael Thomas (13), with the inner safety using his peripheral vision to see Thomas while angling his body inward as the rep materialized to guard against boundary seam threats. The coverage was good, and the Titans forced a punt.

Tennessee sacked Carr earlier in the game with this IDL twist combined with Cover-3 on the backend. The Titans’ defenders sell the twist very well up front, and both the penetrator and the looper end up wreaking havoc. Carr was attempting to find the post route below, but the Titans squeezed on it well, with the buzz defender occupying a depth that may have made Carr initially uneasy:

This looks like Cover-6 or possibly quarters pre-snap, but the rotation of the boundary safety (opposite RB side in shotgun) turned the coverage into Cover-3, something the Titans did run more than any other coverage in 2023. Still, post-snap rotations can cause quarterbacks to hesitate in the slightest, and that can be the difference in a given play. Bowen’s success with disguising and rotating coverage dates back to his first year as defensive coordinator of the Titans (2021):

Typically speaking, disguising one’s defensive intentions will likely lead to uncertain and/or unstable outcomes for the opposing offense, but the disparity in the numbers above is noticeable.

Final thoughts

This is the first edition of The Bowen Breakdown, where we focused on four-man rushes and match coverage. Bowen has adopted pillars from Schwartz’s defense regarding alignment and the use of wide rushers coupled with aggressive safeties who fill promptly from two-high shells. The Titans' run defense was always stout, but it’s plausible that was personnel oriented as well.

Blitzing will be dialed back under Bowen, who relies on four-man pressures through twists and simulated pressure where four defenders hunt, but one (or more) of the defenders are “non-traditional rushers,” like this first-and-10 play against Seattle below:

Much to the dismay of some Giants’ fans, it’s reasonable to believe that Thibodeaux will likely be dropping into coverage a handful or more times a game during simulated pressures. The Titans' star edge rdefender, Harold Landry III, dropped into coverage 89 times this season and 149 times in 2021; he did not play in 2022.

Bowen doesn’t exotically blitz often like Martindale did, which is the primary way to diversify pressure packages, but his defenses aren’t boring, and they don’t have to be predictable. However, not allocating assets to pressure allowed Bowen an opportunity to tighten down coverage through numerical advantages and specific leverage in coverage; when his pass rushers won quickly through well-executed twists/stunts, or just in their one-on-one matchups, those extra assets in coverage helped. That’s something that Dexter Lawrence will be able to help with next season.

Bowen is young, has play-calling experience, and has a solid resume; not to mention he sported the No. 1 red zone defense in 2023, which may be a topic for the second edition of this series.