The X’s and O’s of the Desai Defense – Part 2

Image by Zachary Rosenbaum –

A very subtle but prominent NFL schematic sea change occurred on a brisk and calm 26 degree night on the Lake front in December 2018. The Bears hosted the Rams nuclear offense and walked away with a defensive drubbing so profound, that it was copied in portion by Bill Bellichick to help the Patriots win the Super Bowl that year. What Rams coach Sean McVay saw that night forced the forward thinking coach to hire a guy a year later off that staff in Brandon Staley. What McVay got to see in practice for the 2020 season against his newly acquired DC is what more of the league might be seeing, including opponents of the Chicago Bears. The architect that instigated this movement? Former Bears DC Vic Fangio.

NFL offenses run by Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay have become all the rage the past few years, as they use wide zone runs to set up deep shots downfield using play action passes. Though both young coaches have been in their posts for a couple years now, the league has caught up with them….sort of. That fateful night, Fangio completely stymied the Rams by bringing down an extra overhang linebacker to slow down their outside zone runs with Todd Gurley. The various zone drops created by having multiple linebackers/nickel personnel, as well as safeties rotating post snap, made life hell for Jared Goff.

*We’re going to look at some highlights of that game to see how the Bears then, and the 2021 version can have an advantage in stopping the run. If you need to dip into the “Sean Desai” Week 1 post, please feel free to do.

“Setting the Edge”

The key aspect we learned about last week was that 3-4 fronts can use those two high safeties to absorb vertical routes downfield. If they have enough warthogs upfront that can play more than one gap, like say Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman, the easier it will be for their edge setters to believe it or not….set the edge.

The Bears have every gap accounted for, with the nose possibly being able to play both A Gaps. The Tight End will look to kick Mack out of his gap to create a lane, while the Guard and Tackle look to double team up to the linebacker. Mack has a blue line because he wants to SQUEEZE that gap shut and bounce it outside, BUT also be able to ride the block and go horizontal along the line of scrimmage IF NEED BE. Check out the following video.

“Occupying Gaps”

Let’s switch gears to watching the big boys in the middle. They have to be big, but also nimble, because NFL teams run so much more zone, where the Line of Scrimmage ends up moving horizontally. With teams moving to 3-4 fronts, the Big Nose Tackles like Vince Wilfork, Haoli Ngata, or Casey Hampton from last decade have morphed into giant 3 tech Defensive tackles like Akiem Hicks, the Steelers’ Cameron Heyward, and the Chiefs Chris Jones. Either way, if they the three down linemen (and sometimes now even just two, if you watched the Bucs) can occupy all four interior A and B gaps so that more rangy linebacker type guys can swoop in and clean up the trash.

In the following videos, watch Taco Charlton (94) on the Chiefs move laterally to shut his Gap, and Christian Wilkins (94) of the Dolphins maintain their gap preventing a down block in the case of Wilkins. Then, watch Eddie Goldman and Akiem Hicks do the same.

To quote my guy Professor Frink from the Simpsons, “As you can clearly see”, defenses work in unison to really stay horizontal to squeeze and shut those possible gaps that are open. It’s in essence creating a shell around the Tackle Box. If teams cannot run, they cannot set up play action. The Rams and 49ers love play action, and with the Bears two high safeties next week, they have enough people deep to absorb those deeper routes. Eddie Goldman will be an absolute boon to the Bears run defense. Don’t be surprised if Roquan Smith picks up a Pro Bowl nod because of it.

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