The NFL's hunters are being hunted; football's great predators are now prey. Defenders, who used to terrify quarterbacks and fans alike, are under attack from every angle.
The league is outlawing defensive techniques left and right. It's levying penalties, fines and suspensions for the kind of hits that used to make defenders stars. Offenses have become as wide open, aggressive and exotic as the rules of the game allow. The rules themselves are bending, and every season seems to bring new limitations on how defenders can do their job.
Rocked back on their heels by shotgun-based spread offenses and run ragged by hurry-up tempos, defenses are increasingly going "soft," dropping back in zone coverage and hanging on for dear life.
As a result, we live in the most explosive era of offense in NFL history, with no end in sight.
How can defenses get back the edge?
Can defenses get back the edge?
Back in 1977, the NFL had reached modern lows in offensive production and an all-time low in big-play potential. The rise of smothering, physical man-to-man coverage and big, fast defensive ends had all but taken away the deep ball.
Even then, NFL owners knew that offense and scoring meant excitement, excitement meant fan engagement and fan engagement meant money.
The owners charged the Competition Committee with opening up the game, and it did. By outlawing contact five yards or further downfield and allowing offensive linemen to pass block with open hands and extended arms, the league incited an offensive revolution.
Today, the NFL's new rules preventing helmet-to-helmet hits and hitting players in a "defenseless posture" are intended to make the game safer. So, too, is the so-called "Trent Richardson Rule," designed to prevent offensive players from using their helmet as a weapon (in certain circumstances).
The problem is that enforcement of these rules on the field is difficult at best.
The NFL posts helpful diagrams in each locker room to guide defensive players on what is legal and what is not:
But in the heat of battle, defenders just trying to do their job can make illegal tackles, intentionally or not, and human officials will always struggle to enforce such incidents consistently.
Whether or not the player gets penalized on-field, he's still subject to fines or suspensions once the league office reviews the tape.
"I am actually a proponent of trying to make the game safer," said White. "There hardly ever seems to be an accounting for the offensive player having a last-second reaction that puts them in harm's way, e.g. ducking when a defensive player was aiming for their chest.
"I saw a perfect example of this Sunday. Buccaneers tight end Tim Wright caught the ball, and a Cardinals defender was about to hit him in his back. Then Wright made a hard turn, and the contact ended up being helmet to helmet."
Here's the hit in question:
After the hit, Yeremiah Bell made an emphatic shoulder-throwing motion, as if to explain to the refs that's what he did. The Fox Sports announcing crew took great pains to point out that Bell was clearly taking every effort to make a legal tackle.
"I am not sure how the defender is supposed to avoid hits like those," said White, "yet he and his team still get penalized for it."
Another example: Houston Texans safety D.J. Swearinger's preseason hit on Miami Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller. Swearinger's helmet-to-knee hit shredded Keller's knee ligaments, ending his season.
Swearinger told Andrew Abramson of The Palm Beach Post he felt he had to go low.
"I was making a hit playing football," Swearinger said. "In this league you’ve got to go low. If you go high you’re going to get a fine."
Are defenders' hands tied? Defenses used to pride themselves on being physical, but in today's NFL that doesn't seem to be allowed.
"We see guys every week that get fined for hits that shouldn't have ever been flagged in the first place," White told me. "That kind of double punishment for a guy who hasn't done anything wrong just doesn't sit right with me."
Another thing that doesn't sit right with defenders: how offensive players get a free pass.
Running backs routinely lower their heads and use their helmets as battering rams. If defenders put their hands on an offensive player's face mask, they're liable to be flagged for a 15-yard personal foul, but a running back can twist a linebacker's helmet clean off with a stiff-arm and nobody minds.
Even plays apparently violating the new "Trent Richardson Rule," which is supposed to ban ball-carriers from using the crown of their helmet as a weapon outside of the tackle box, have happened several times in games this year.
But as Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio wrote, officials haven't thrown a flag for it yet.
These technique crackdowns couldn't come at a worse time for defenders. Offensive innovation has exploded over the past decade, and offensive production is exploding as a result. Last season was the third-highest scoring in NFL history, and offenses were averaging far more first downs per game than ever before.
Teams are abandoning the traditional run game, calling passes early and often. Hurry-up offenses are squeezing more plays into the same-old 60 minutes of football.
Perhaps most importantly, offensive coordinators are using the shotgun formation much, much more often than just a decade ago:
In 2003, eight teams used the shotgun less than five percent of the time, per the Football Outsiders Premium DVOA database (subscription required). In 2012, the Houston Texans were last in the league in shotgun utilization—at 21.3 percent.
With the shotgun, quarterbacks have more time and better sight lines to pick apart blitzes and coverage schemes. Read-option plays are also run out of the shotgun, giving the quarterback the time and space to execute the "mesh point" handoff. Read-option plays add a credible threat to run from the shotgun, making it that much more powerful.
Meanwhile, defenders can hardly execute a legal tackle without getting fined for it.
How can they do their jobs?
The Coordinator's Response
I asked Matt Bowen, Bleacher Report National NFL Lead Writer, how defensive coordinators can respond to the sudden, widespread offensive innovation.
"I think in an ideal game plan," Bowen told me, "you have a front four that can generate pressure up front. That allows you to rush four and drop seven into coverage. It gives you the ability to play Cover 2, 3 or 4."
Though defenses of the 1980s and 1990s used zone-blitz concepts to disguise pressure, and defenses of the 2000s used extreme numbers of blitzers (either overall or from one direction in an "overload" blitz), Bowen sees the future of defense in finding a way to generate pressure with only four rushers.
Defensive coordinators are already taking several different paths up this mountain.
To understand the differences in these schemes, you have to know how defenses attack the offense. Here are the "gaps" in the offensive line each defensive scheme attacks (for more detail, see my piece breaking down the differences between 4-3 and 3-4 pass rush):
One way to get pressure without blitzing is a 4-3 base alignment that assigns one defender one "gap" each. With fast, talented defensive linemen who can aggressively penetrate that gap, you can get pressure from the front four without blitzing.
This is the approach favored by Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin in his famed "Tampa 2" defense.
Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Ware, used to playing outside linebacker in a 3-4, has thrived in the Tampa 2; after four games this season, he's on pace for 16 sacks, which would be the third-highest total of his nine-year career.
Another way to get pressure with four rushers is with the notorious "Wide 9" alignment, popularized by Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz during his time as Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator.
This defense emphasizes overwhelming power up front through a combination of size and speed. Outside rushers with contain responsibilities meet up with pocket-collapsing defensive tackles.
The name comes from the extreme wide spread of the defensive linemen and the rush defensive end's 9-technique alignment. Here's a shot of the Lions defensive front against the Chicago Bears last Sunday. Rush end Ezekiel Ansah is highlighted in yellow, lined up far outside of the Bears left tackle:
The Wide 9 doesn't place a big importance on gap discipline, but on the linemen getting directly upfield as quickly as possible, with the linebackers cleaning up after them. Needless to say, this requires strong tackling from the linebacker corps. The extreme alignment gives the ends two straight-line steps to get up to full speed without a blocker's interference.
When this scheme has the up-front talent it requires (the Lions have spent No. 2, No. 5 and No. 13 overall draft picks on defensive linemen in the last four years), it can work very well.
As Philadelphia Eagles fans can tell you, when the talent isn't there, it can be disastrous.
Then there's the next evolution of the zone blitz: one-gap 3-4 defenses. Old-school 3-4s used massive, powerful defensive linemen controlling two gaps apiece at the line of scrimmage and occupying blockers. Behind them, fast, athletic linebackers could flow to the ball and make plays.
One-gap 3-4 defenses have actually been around for quite some time; Houston Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips employed it in the '80s and has ever since. As Phillips told NFL.com's Ian Rapoport, defensive ends he coached like Hall of Famers Elvin Bethea and Bruce Smith were too useful to waste as two-gap space-eaters. Texans defensive end J.J. Watt could well be the next in that line.
Today, these one-gap 3-4 defenses are trendy because they're similar to one-gap 4-3 systems but more flexible. Big, athletic pass-rushing ends like Watt and Justin Smith of the San Francisco 49ers can get upfield, stunt and twist like 4-3 linemen. But blitzes from the linebackers are much more easily disguised than in a 4-3.
Commonly, we see modern one-gap 3-4s use a "fire zone," a five-man rush with Cover 3 deep zone coverage behind it and three shallow zones in between, like this:
In a fire zone, literally any of the 11 defenders on the field could be one of the five rushers, and any of the other six responsible for any of the six coverage zones. Distance and skill sets limit this, of course—don't assign the nose tackle to the deep left zone or you'll get fired—but this is a great example of using disguised looks to generate pressure without sacrificing coverage.
The next step in defensive evolution is using even more exotic disguises and confusion to rush only four defenders without losing any pressure. That makes the coverage more flexible and harder to diagnose and defeat.
In a fire zone, it's always six zones. With seven defenders dropping back into coverage, anything from Cover 0 man-to-man to Cover 4 "quarters" defense is possible.
With a hybrid 3-4, as used by New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, they take disguising to the extreme.
Not only might Ryan line up four, two, one or even zero defensive linemen on the line of scrimmage, but he uses many pre-snap movements and "window dressing" to further disguise who's blitzing, who's dropping back, and whether the outside coverage is man-to-man (which Ryan favors) or zone.
It only makes sense. When offensive masterminds like Chip Kelly are drawing up mind-bending formations like this:
Why not counter with similarly impenetrable pre-snap defensive looks like this (from Ryan's 2009 Cleveland Browns defense)?:
The downsides to extreme systems like this are twofold.
First, two-, one- and zero-man defensive fronts are at a big disadvantage when it comes to stopping the run. As long as offenses are abandoning the run, that's not an issue. Second, the pressure on linebackers and safeties to understand their coverage responsibilities in all of these different looks is immense.
When Ryan has not had good safety play, his defenses have not been good.
I asked White his opinion of how defenses could respond to spread offenses schematically. "Well, for one, they can hire better defensive coordinators instead of recycling the same old usual suspects."
Widespread systematic innovation, White told me, is coming from the college game—where coordinators have been adapting to shotgun-based spread offenses for a long time. The plethora of 'tweener pass-rushers in this last draft who will thrive in hybrid systems like Ryan's (like Cleveland Browns linebacker Barkevious Mingo or Miami Dolphins defensive end Dion Jordan) is evidence of that.
Tomorrow's Defensive Linemen
Regardless of scheme, defensive linemen will continue to get bigger, faster and more athletic.
Ansah, Watt, Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and Cowboys defensive tackle Jason Hatcher play four very different positions (4-3 rush end, 3-4 end, 4-3 defensive tackle and 3-4 nose tackle, respectively). Yet they're all very similar in body type: Ansah is 6'5" and 271 pounds, Watt goes 6'5", 290, Suh stands 6'4" and weighs 305 pounds and Hatcher is 6'6" and 299.
All of these players have the size and strength to move tackles and guards alike, all have the speed and athleticism to rush the passer inside or outside, and all could be deployed to equal effect in any of the defenses we've discussed.
The linebacker of the future has to cover the pass. Whether that's in short zones behind a Tampa 2, man-to-man with an athletic tight end in a Wide 9 or as a chess piece in a diabolical hybrid defense, the "thumper" run-stuffing middle is just as endangered of a species as the fullbacks he used to take on.
In the modern 4-3, coverage ability is a linebacker's most important trait. A linebacker who's a liability in coverage is coming off the field in nickel and dime situations—which, in today's NFL, means most situations.
Second, linebackers have to be able to tackle. Whether that's within a strictly disciplined one-gap scheme or roaming free in space, linebackers won't have the luxury of playing behind defensive linemen who are occupying all of the blockers for them. They'll need to be fast enough to get to the player with the ball and strong enough to at least slow him down.
In a 3-4 or hybrid defense, every single linebacker must be able to blitz or credibly show the threat of blitz.
Tomorrow's Defensive Backs
Defensive backs are the defense's last line of, well, defense.
Rather than dropping back into soft zones and hoping the pass rush hits the quarterback before the quarterback can pick apart the zones, Bowen believes the key to modern defense "goes beyond scheme":
Look at how the Baltimore Ravens beat Peyton Manning in the playoffs last season, or how the Chiefs game-planned against Chip Kelly's offense in the Thursday night matchup. They challenged receivers at the line of scrimmage. The Ravens played 2-Man, and KC played Cover 1. Get up in a press alignment, beat up the receiver on the release and play coverage. That is what we see from the Seattle Seahawks all the time.
In the post-1978 days, cover corners became flashy athletes, and safeties physical headhunters. Now that "headhunting" is expressly forbidden, those archetypes may reverse. Big, physical corners like Richard Sherman of the Seahawks or Patrick Peterson of the Arizona Cardinals are the future.
Tomorrow's safeties need to play both zone and man coverage, breaking on the ball to make big plays and correctly diagnosing option routes to prevent them. Sherman's free safety teammate, Earl Thomas, and Peterson's, Tyrann Mathieu, both have cornerback builds (5'10", 202 lbs and 5'9", 186 lbs, respectively) and ball skills.
With cornerbacks who shut down deep routes before they happen and ball-hawking safeties who limit pass-catching tight ends and slot receivers, the big play is gone from the offense; quarterbacks must either check down or hope a receiver gets free before a pass-rusher does.
Putting It All Together
Of course, the cyclical cat-and-mouse game between offense and defense will continue as long as the game is played. Trends and fads will come and go.
However, the overall trend of football—across nearly a century of the NFL—has always been away from its trench-warfare, rugby-scrum roots and toward an open, aerial game. As we see in the above pictures of Kelly's offense and Ryan's defense, professional football is moving toward doing away with line play entirely.
All the relics of the ground-game past are vanishing: fullbacks, middle linebackers and stationary interior linemen on both sides of the ball. Quickness, athleticism, frame size and football IQ will be the traits every defense is looking for, regardless of scheme. Qualities like mass, arm strength, "anchoring" and "setting the edge" will become afterthoughts.
No matter how tomorrow's defensive coordinators arrange their chess pieces, they'll be taking back their edge with pressure on the quarterback (from just four rushers) and suffocating coverage (with blanketing zones or a press-man/zone hybrid).
Sound familiar? Defenders from the pre-1978 days might think so.
Illegal contact or no, massive up-front pass-rushers and physical corners jamming at the line can create exactly the kind of drop in effectiveness and big-play potential that will leave offenses begging for mercy.
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