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'Inside triangle' key to every team's 1st- and 2nd-down success on D

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With various partners, Ray Lewis has helped keep the Ravens' triangle stout. (US Presswire)  
With various partners, Ray Lewis has helped keep the Ravens' triangle stout. (US Presswire)  

We hear coaches say "it all starts up front." when describing what a good football team looks like. That's not entirely accurate because what coaches really mean is "it starts up front inside."

It doesn't matter if your favorite team is in a 3-4 or a 4-3 defense there is an inside triangle that is the foundation of the defense and if it isn't rock solid the rest of the package will crumble.

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The inside triangles look like this:
 The 3-4 inside triangle: Two inside linebackers and the nose tackle.

 The 4-3 inside triangle: Two defensive tackles and the middle linebacker.

There are different philosophies about the inside triangle with all fronts. Two 4-3 coaches may build entirely different inside triangles. Same for any two 3-4 coaches.

For example:
 Shade 4-3 inside triangle front: A DT on the outside shoulder of a guard, a nose tackle on a side of the center and the MLB in a gap.

 Base 4-3 inside traingle front: But both defensive tackles over the guards and the MLB over the center.

It changes from team to team. The Eagles' 4-3 inside triangle is based on quickness with Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson at defensive tackle and DeMeco Ryans at the MLB. The Buffalo Bills have a combination of quickness and thickness with Marcel Dareus and Kyle Williams at DT, plus big middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard. The Giants have a big thick inside group with Linval Joseph (6-foot-4, 328 pounds) and Chris Canty (6-7, 310) in front of a number of different middle linebackers who are hard to reach for would-be blockers.

The shade look usually requires quick One-Gap players who penetrate while the base look has bigger defensive tackles controlling the line of scrimmage.

Even the 3-4 teams will have different ways of playing the inside triangle. A team like Dallas with Jay Ratliff and his great quickness on the nose may slant him and play more One-Gap while Pittsburgh with Casey Hampton is going to make teams double Hampton because they Two-Gap him. While there are multiple ways to play the inside triangle, you better stop the run.

I looked at all 32 teams' inside triangle (96 starters projected for 2012). It would be surprising if more than four or five rookies break into various inside triangle groups in 2012. Right now Dontari Poe (a 3-4 NT for the Chiefs), Michael Brockers (a 4-3 defensive tackle for the Rams), Bobby Wagner (a 4-3 middle linebacker for the Seahawks) and John Hughes (a 4-3 defensive tackle for Cleveland) have the best chance to start. Life is rough inside that triangle, and most rookies aren’t ready for the speed and power required to play in those trenches.

The inside triangle's importance is not lost on coaches, and clubs with issues there took measures to fix them.

The Rams got two new defensive tackles to go in front of MLB James Laurinitis.

The Eagles traded for MLB DeMeco Ryans, who didn't fit in the Houston 3-4 but is perfect for the Eagle 4-3.

Seattle not only drafted MLB Bobby Wagner but also signed DT Jason Jones.

New Orleans didn't hesitate to repair an inside triangle with the addition of MLB Curtis Lofton and DT Broderick Bunkley.

A team like the Oakland Raiders would have a solid inside triangle if they could keep Rolando McClain out of jail to go along with DTs Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly. The Raiders can play the big, thick inside triangle or the quick version because of Seymour. Oakland needs to follow the lead of the Saints and not wait until it's too late to fix its problem. The Raiders should sign someone like MLB Gary Bracket now or their inside triangle will break down.

First-down problems as well as second and 4- to 6-yard issues can be attributed to the quality of an inside triangle. In 2011, six teams limited opponents to fewer than 4 yards a carry on first down (Pittsburgh, Baltimore, San Francisco, Jacksonville, Seattle and Minnesota) and for the most part have very good inside groups.

When it came to second-down runs, the youth, injuries and lack of experience in Tampa Bay's inside triangle was obvious. The Bucs gave up 6.08 yards per second-down run after giving up 4.92 on first down. Do the math. The Bucs' inside group couldn't stop or disrupt the run game -- giving up an average of 11 yards on first- and second-down runs. They were not alone. The Saints (9.79 yards) and Rams (9.57 yards) also struggled on first- and second-down runs because of the inside triangle.

The Ravens and the 49ers have outstanding inside groups and their first-and second-down run play backs it up. The Ravens gave up a combined 7.33 yards and the Niners 7.30 yards. They got more teams to third-and-long situations because of the work of their inside triangle on defense.

Things change every year, and after looking at the whole league here are my top five inside triangle groups from the 3-4 and the 4-3 defenses in no particular order.

3-4 inside triangles
49ers: Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Isaac Sopaga
Ravens: Ray Lewis, Jameel McClain, Terrence Cody
Patriots: Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Vince Wilfork
Cowboys: Sean Lee, Dan Connor, Jay Ratliff
Steelers: Lawrence Timmons, Larry Foote, Casey Hampton

4-3 inside triangles
Bears: Brian Urlacher, Matt Toeaina, Henry Melton
Eagles: DeMeco Ryans, Cullen Jenkins, Mike Patterson
Bills: Kelvin Sheppard, Marcel Dareus, Kyle Williams
Lions: Stephen Tulloch, Ndamukong Suh, Corey Williams
Jaguars: Paul Posluszny, Tyson Alualu, Terrence Knighton

If you're still looking for evidence supporting the inside triangle's importance, consider this from an NFL offensive coordinator: "If I can isolate the inside three on early downs, we always have a good chance to beat that team. We will run right at a bad inside triangle and away from a good one."


Pat Kirwan has been around the league since 1972, serving in a variety of roles. He was a scout for the Cardinals and Buccaneers, a coach for the Jets as well as the team's Director of Player Administration where he negotiated contracts and managed the team's salary cap. He is the author of Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look, and the host of Sirius NFL Radio's Moving the Chains.
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