The evolution of the Tight End position in the NFL has changed defenses in an astronomical way. Gone are the days of teams using (3-4, 4-3) base defense on first and second down with sub defenses sprinkled in on passing downs. The Tight End position has created a position in itself on the defense side of the ball referred to as a “Nickel Safety.”
In an effort to slow down these world class athletes Nick Saban and Bill Belichick have turned to a defensive front that the two may or may not have created in their tenure in Cleveland. The first time the “Point” front showed up in a playbook was in Nick Saban’s 2001 LSU Playbook.
“Point” in Saban/Belichick terminology tells the Linebacker to play a “Choke” technique on the Tight End while the Defensive End aligns outside of him in an 8 technique. The Linebacker is responsible for playing the C gap in the run game and will cover the Tight End in man-to-man coverage in the instance of a pass.
Playing the “Point” front provides the defense with a couple of advantages; 1) The Linebacker is aligned on the line of scrimmage over the Tight End and will jam him on any route release. This disrupts not only the timing of the route but the path as well. Offenses are built on rhythm and a disruption in the route will often lead to the Quarterback going elsewhere with the ball. 2) The defense will benefit from having an extra player aligned on the line of scrimmage to play the run. A Linebacker is now on the line of scrimmage and responsible for playing the C gap against the run while the Defensive End is setting the edge and will be the D gap/force player.
Cover 1 Funnel
In addition to the “Point” front, the coverage most often played behind it is a form of Cover 1 called “9 Rat.” In 9 Rat the Corners will match up with the Wide Receivers in man-to-man coverage while the Sam Linebacker, or Sub Linebacker/Safety, will match up with the Tight End. The Mike and Will Linebacker, along with the rotating safety will play a 3-on-2 funnel on the remaining backs.
9 Rat tells the rotating safety to come down to the split end side unless a Running Back is offset to the tight end side.
The Free Safety will play the first back to his side man-to-man using outside technique. When faced with webb, two backs to the weak side, the Free Safety will play the first back weak. Against flow, two backs strong, the Free Safety becomes the “Rat” and will look to cut any crossers.
The Mike will play the first back to his side man-to-man using outside technique. Against flow, two backs to the strong side, the Mike will play the first back strong. Against webb, two backs weak side, the Mike becomes the “Rat” and looks to cut crossers.
The Will Linebacker is the initial “Rat” in the funnel. Against flow or webb, the Will will play the second back weak side or strong side using outside technique. If the two backs split, the Will is the “Rat” and will look to cut crossers. Below is route matches from 9 Rat:
Here is another example of “Point” played from Saban’s Nickel/Dime package. In sub packages, the * (Star) will become the 5th defensive back while the $ (Money) is a hybrid linebacker/safety.
Against three wide receiver sets, the Star (*) will match up with third receiver outside while the Strong Safety and Mike Linebacker play a 2-on-1 funnel on the remaining back.
Belichick’s “Point” Front
While studying how New England defended Kansas City in the AFC Divisional Round from 2015, I ran across this front. It was the first time I had noticed it ran repeatedly in a game by Belichick. In the effort to slow down the Chiefs only receiving threat Travis Kelce, they opted to use the “Point” front and bracket him several different ways.
On the first drive of the game, New England shows the “Point” front against Kansas City’s Gun Far Ace set.
Kansas City is running a pin-and-pull sweep play into the boundary. With Ninkovich aligned outside out Chung, it makes Kelce’s reach block a lot more difficult. Chung is able to fit outside the pulling guard while Ninkovich shucks Kelce and forces the Quarterback out of bounds for no gain.
Inside the Red area, New England dialed up their “Point” front once again. This time with a “Vice” bracket on Kelce. A “Vice” bracket involves two safeties doubling a Tight End or Back. The Strong Safety will play the outside and vertical routes of the Tight End with the Star (*) playing the inside routes of Kelce.
Travis Kelce is running a delayed crossing pattern on this play. Once Harmon sees Kelce run under he is looking to cut any crossing pattern coming from the three receiver side. Another aspect of this defense is Jamie Collins playing a “Spy” on Alex Smith. Alex Smith is a serviceable runner at the Quarterback position and devoting a player to follow him is smart.
As shown in the playbook examples above, Alabama also run their share of “Point” front as well. Here the Linebacker is playing a “Soft Choke”, meaning he will align over the Tight End on the heels of the defensive line and play the “C-gap”.
A “Soft Choke” gives the defense more options to play other coverages behind the alignment.
Shown below, Saban has blitz packages out of the “Point” front. The Sam Linebacker is aligned in the same “Choke” alignment over the Tight End but is reading the Offensive Tackle for his blitz path. If the Tackle blocks down, the Sam will blitz off his butt. If the Tackle sets up in pass protection, the Sam will come underneath him and blitz the “B-gap”.
The Left End, Mike, Will and Free Safety are all “Key” blitzing. If the Running Back releases into a route near them they will peel off their blitz path and take the Back in man-to-man coverage.
During the Kansas City vs New England playoff game from 2015, I tallied New England using the “Point” front ten times against Travis Kelce. Belichick/Patricia did not use the “Point” front against any other Tight End in the game. Only Kelce. I look for the Patriots to use their “Point” front as well as a few different brackets to slow down Kelce again in the season opener. It will be interesting to see how Belichick game plans to combat Tyreek Hill’s explosiveness as well.
Go watch this video from Reuben Foster pre-draft breaking down tape and mentioning the “Point” front played against Kentucky above.