Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

02 Jul 2009

Scheme Change

Here's a question: Which NFL teams should change their scheme, either offensively or defensively? Consider the question WITHOUT changing personnel.

Posted by: Bill Barnwell on 02 Jul 2009

43 replies , Last at 06 Jul 2009, 3:06pm by Pat (filler)

Re: Scheme Change
by BigDerf :: Thu, 07/02/2009 - 2:34pm

It's rough to change defensive scheme from 4-3 to 3-4 without a true nose tackle but I feel like the Giants could manage. Kiwi already has experience standing up and Canty is a 3-4 end anywho.

Offensively... what do you mean by changing schemes? I'm sure the Colts could manage to run pretty much any other offense in the league (with the exception of probably the wildcat) with good success.

I dunno... I feel like any scheme change should come with a personnel change if it's done right.

Re: Scheme Change
by KyleW :: Thu, 07/02/2009 - 3:20pm

I agree that any scheme change is likely to be accompanied by a personnel change. I just can't think of ay team who is obviously trying to run the wrong scheme, especially at this point in the year where we know the least about what all the teams are gonna try to run.

This might be a better idea for a mid-season discussion.

Re: Scheme Change
by Bobman :: Thu, 07/02/2009 - 3:49pm

I disagree about Indy. Much as I love them, their O (and D) is sort of a niche product--the OL have to be "good enough" but not dominant pass blockers because of Manning's pocket awareness and release--remember that last year late in the season an FO article noted him as being one of the most hit but lease sacked QBs. Similar for run blocking--if they changed schemes to be a power running team, they would meet with little success. This allows them to traditionally put low-round draftees in the OL and coach them up within the system. Saves money to be used elsewhere and produces a very good OL, but within the context of the system.

Keeping Dallas Clark in to block 80% of the time would waste his receiving talents and not improve the run blocking all that much (he's okay, but clearly a better receiver). And while blitz pickup is vital for an Indy RB, they generally don't carry a FB and I don't see any of their RBs being a lead blocker. Maybe Dallas Clark as H-back?

Tom Moore and Manning have proven to be more flexible in taking what is available since 2005 or so, and 18 is pretty mobile--better throwing on the run now than his first 9 years in the league--so he could probably manage whatever scheme he needed to execute, but the OL would probably be the limiting factor.

And on D, they seem to be getting a bit bigger at LB and DT (but not a whole lot), so they might be more flexible in the future, but it's pretty much a T-2 D from the ground up. Hard to change that much without new personnel.

Re: Scheme Change
by shake n bake :: Fri, 07/03/2009 - 1:06am

Joseph Addai was a high school QB, and they ran a HB pass with him once before. They could run wildcat just fine, there's just no reason to put anyone besides Manning behind center.

They run a trick play a year. No exaggeration, they have one for the year.
2008-Dallas Clark end around (9 yards on 3rd and 1)
2007-Joseph Addai Halfback Pass (ate it for a loss)
2006-Charlie Johnson Tackle eligible (dropped TD)
2005-Direct Snap to Edge (flagged for illegal procedure since Peyton put his hands under center)

Re: Scheme Change
by Briguy :: Fri, 07/03/2009 - 4:20am

I definitely remember them trying the fake spike at least twice, where Manning pretends to spike it to stop the clock and takes off for the end zone. I saw a successful TD that way once, and once was stopped by an inadvertent whistle. They've also tried the direct snap you mentioned above a couple different times; I remember one of them Manning was almost off the field walking toward the bench. Those might have been the once-a-year trick plays they ran before 2005.

Oh, and even though it's not really a trick play, this conversation always reminds me of the Denver game where Harrison caught the ball and went down, neither Denver DB touched him, so he got back up and ran into the end zone. Priceless.

Re: Scheme Change
by shake n bake :: Fri, 07/03/2009 - 2:22pm

That's one of my favorite plays by Marvin ever. He realized no one had touched him so just laid motionless until the Broncos defenders all around him walked back to the huddle. Very heads up play by him.

I miss Marv already (more like still since he was pretty much gone when he got hurt in 07).

Re: Scheme Change
by Peepshowmopguy (not verified) :: Thu, 07/02/2009 - 3:24pm

Its hard to predict what the Seahawks are going to do considering their change in coaching staff, but I think they should move away from a West Coast. Without the solid running game, I just don’t think they have the WR's who are cerebral enough to fill zone gaps, and they definitely don’t have the crisp rout runners (unless Butler is as good as advertised).

As far as their defense ... well I'm just interested to know what a "West Coast Defense" looks like.

Actually, wouldn’t that be an interesting article for you guys to write leading up to the season... "What will Seattle’s 'West Coast' Defense look like?"

Re: Scheme Change
by jklps :: Thu, 07/02/2009 - 3:31pm

The Redskins shouldn't try to be a west coast team....

Re: Scheme Change
by Michael Schuttke (not verified) :: Thu, 07/02/2009 - 3:34pm

A few teams came to mind...

Atlanta Falcons (Offensively): More utilization of the Wildcat with Jerious Norwood in the backfield. More use of Norwood period in place of Michael Turner. They should also utilize more three/four-wideout sets this year, utilizing Roddy White, Michael Jenkins, and Tony Gonzalez being split out wide. (Defensively): I believe that John Abraham would be best utilized (and protected) as a 3-4 rush linebacker rather than a 4-3 end. While I do not see the Falcons having the horses up front to run this scheme (or the linebacker depth), I think the unique talents of Abraham would be best utilized in that scheme.

Arizona Cardinals (Offensively): While the spread stuff they were running last year worked well for them, I think this team is almost ideally suited to run a more traditional West Coast style attack due to the skills and talent of their top two wideouts, Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald.

San Francisco 49ers (Offensively): The 49ers are another team that needs to use the Wildcat/single-wing type formations more. Michael Robinson could be used in the triple threat role in the backfield.

Green Bay Packers (Offensively): They have actually begun making the switch already but I never believed that this team was suited for a zone-blocking scheme with their offensive line. They are now switching back to a man-on-man scheme I have heard and that is a good thing. Also, while they do a lot of this already, I think Green Bay is comparable to New England with its wide receiver depth. With Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, and the emerging talents of Jordy Nelson and James Jones, the Packers should be trotting out 3 and 4 wideouts as much as possible in my view while still keeping defenses honest with more traditional formations/personnel groupings as well.

Minnesota Vikings (Offensively): While I am a fan of the West Coast offense, I do not believe the Vikings have the personnel to make it thrive, mainly due to their quarterback deficiencies. If I were Minnesota, I would very much utilize Percy Harvin in the Wildcat/single-wing and, most of the rest of the time, run a very "smashmouth" oriented offense, featuring a lot of two tight-end, two-back sets, pounding the ball a lot with Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor. (Defensively): This is a unique team in that the two Williams' give them a lot of flexibility on their defensive line. I would be intrigued though to see what the Vikings would look like using a 3-4 front more often, with Kevin Williams shifting out to end and Jared Allen then becoming an outside linebacker. Chad Greenway is definitely more suited as a 4-3 linebacker but he could perhaps shift to the weakside with the front shifted over to keep him clean or perhaps slide inside.

St. Louis Rams (Offensively): The Rams simply do not have the offensive line to run a Sid Gillman/Don Coryell, three-digit deep passing system anymore. I think they need to shorten the field up a bit, utilize two backs more often, and keep Bulger protected. In that, perhaps more West Coast flavorings with a heavy dose of Steven Jackson being deep in the backfield as well as put into motion frequently. (Defensively): I think a 3-4 look here would not be a bad idea either as Adam Carriker is best as a 3-4 end and Leonard Little is a similar undersized end as John Abraham is with Atlanta.

New England Patriots (Defensively): In a rare reversal of trends, I honestly think the Patriots have more talent to run a 4-3 than a 3-4 at this point. They simply do not have a lot of depth at linebacker and have a very deep defensive line. Utilizing Vince Wilfork and rookie Ron Brace inside at tackle and Richard Seymour and Ty Warren at end, their front four would create quite the power push and be very difficult to run on. Beyond that, Jarvis Green and Mike Wright could come in off the bench and keep the starters fresh. At linebacker, Bruschi could move to the middle or, if he's still deemed able, stay outside so that Jerod Mayo can stay in the center and, with his hulking front four, be able to run like a madman to the ball.

Re: Scheme Change
by Temo :: Thu, 07/02/2009 - 3:43pm

Patriots should probably stop all those taping schemes too while they're at it.

Re: Scheme Change
by ammek :: Fri, 07/03/2009 - 6:01am

Agreed about the Packers and zone-blocking. Not only are the linemen ill-suited (especially the tackles), but feature backs Grant and Jackson are not natural one-cut runners either. Neither the offensive coordinator nor the line coach had previous experience operating the scheme. The only runner on the team who benefits from zone blocking is DeShawn Wynn, who is rarely healthy; and the only staff who really believed in it were McCarthy and Jeff Jagodzinki, who fled after one (not very successful) season as offensive coordinator.

Re: Scheme Change
by JasonK :: Thu, 07/02/2009 - 3:47pm

Well, the Giants passing game is the obvious example that pops into my mind, although I'd be surprised if some of this isn't already in the works. Burress and Toomer are gone, and, regardless of who wins the starting spots, they're going to be replaced with very different types of WRs.

For the past several years, the Giants passing game has been built heavily on WR patterns wherein they run 8-15 yards up the sideline, make one sharp cut (ins, outs, curls, an occassional fade or fade-stop, etc.), and have the ball delivered at that point. Toomer and Burress did this well, because they could effectively out-muscle defenders at the line, read the coverage to (usually) run the correct route, disguise their routes well enough to keep the defense guessing, and use their size to their advantage if the coverage was still tight. These patterns often left them motionless (or heading out of bounds) when the ball arrived, which made any YAC pretty tough to get, but neither of them were particularly good YAC recievers, so that didn't matter all that much.

Now, the Giants find themselves with a group of smaller, quicker WRs, with generally better hands, but less experience. To get the most out of these guys, they should be running more routes that have potential to let the WR run after the catch. Also, more bunching and pre-snap motion would help avoid effective jams from DBs. Scaling back the pre-snap reads expected of the WRs might also be a sound move.

Re: Scheme Change
by Bobman :: Thu, 07/02/2009 - 3:51pm

But the Giants still have their solid RB core and the very solid run blocking OL, so I can't imagine them making too much of a shift away from that aspect of their O. But yeah, a new crop of WRs and an ever-maturing QB should dictate some changes there.

Re: Scheme Change
by Nathan :: Thu, 07/02/2009 - 4:14pm

Philadelphia should run the shotgun spread because:

1) Curtis is really fast
2) Jackson is really fast
3) Maclin is really fast
4) They can motion Westbrook out and iso him on a LB in coverage
5) McNabb trips over his own center constantly

Re: Scheme Change
by DaBigM :: Fri, 07/03/2009 - 8:20am

Philadelphia needs to change their offensive scheme because it's designed around two critical players, Westbrook and McNabb. If either one goes down, there's no one to step up and do what they do. It's a situation where the scheme is fitting the players rather than players fitting the scheme.

Due to McNabb's inability to execute the West Coast offense, and Westbrook's inability to perform as a "power" running back, Andy Reid schemed his offense around the "strengths" of McNabb and Westbrook.

When McNabb went down a couple of years ago and Jeff Garcia ran the West Coast offense for the Eagles, the positive on-field change in attitude and execution of the offense was incredible.

Unfortuantely, the necessary changes to the offense won't happen until McNabb is done in Philadelphia.

Re: Scheme Change
by Temo :: Fri, 07/03/2009 - 8:55am

I really doubt that the system Jeff Garcia ran was radically different than the one McNabb ran. Football teams don't install multiple offenses to accommodate backup QBs.

Re: Scheme Change
by Independent George :: Mon, 07/06/2009 - 11:14am

As a Giants fan, I am constantly amazed & amused by the amount of abuse leveled at McNabb from Eagles fans. Through his entire career, we would have taken him ahead of any QB we've had besides the late 2007 to 2008 Eli Manning.

2006 stats

J Garcia: 195 attempts, 359 DYAR, 17.4% DVOA
D McNabb: 338 attempts, 658 DYAR, 18.7% DVOA

Yes, he's had injury problems, but the notion that he can't execute the WCO, or that he's been the one holding the Eagles back, seems laughable to me.

McNabb's stats starting from the TO experience

2004: 15 GS, 1323 DYAR (6), 28.9% DVOA (6)
2005: 9 GS, 492 DYAR (15), 9% DVOA (13)
2006: 10 GS, 658 DYAR (9), 18.7% DVOA (6)
2007: 14 GS, 658 DYAR (14), 8.2% DVOA (18)
2008: 16 GS, 1048 DYAR (8), 15.6% DVOA (12)

He's been oft-injured, but has played well in every season. In the two years where he's actually had good receivers (2004 and 2008), he's been excellent.

Re: Scheme Change
by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Mon, 07/06/2009 - 3:06pm

"When McNabb went down a couple of years ago and Jeff Garcia ran the West Coast offense for the Eagles, the positive on-field change in attitude and execution of the offense was incredible."

Too bad it made the offense worse: the Eagles offense with McNabb in 2006 was better than with Garcia. The 'late season rebound' had far more to do with the defense than any change in the offense.

Re: Scheme Change
by drobviousso :: Thu, 07/02/2009 - 4:54pm

I'd like to see a little less of the "run it up the gut on first and second down with a boom or bust running back and no lead blocker" scheme in Pittsburgh and a little more of the "take what the defense gives you in the short passing game in first and second."

I don't know exactly what the Lion's defense is going to look like, but I think they are a prime candidate for a Jim Johnson type crazy blitz scheme. Unless their talent across the board has gotten better (and Larry Foote by himself ain't going to do it), they need to use a smart, high variance scheme to force turn overs.

Is it still convention wisdom around here that the Bucks need to be a power running team that tosses the ball on occasion, and isn't?

Re: Scheme Change
by tuluse :: Thu, 07/02/2009 - 11:00pm

I think the Lions had trouble with blown assignments running the cover 2. I don't know what they can do other than add more talented players to their team.

Re: Scheme Change
by Nathan Forster :: Thu, 07/02/2009 - 6:37pm

Does it count if you pick Green Bay to reconsider the switch to the 3-4?

I will probably get flamed for this, but what about the Pittsburgh Steelers? The Steelers had a very run-oriented offense (although this is partially due to the whole "run when you win" thing) that was not especially productive at 3.7 yards per attempt. I think that offense worked great when they had Jerome Bettis and/or a young Willie Parker. However, now that they have no one but a broken down Willie Parker and a very literally broken down Rashard Mendenhall, I think that their principal asset on offense is Ben Roethlisberger, who is under utilized. They could benefit, I think, from spreading the field with their talented wide receivers and opening it up a bit. Yes, I know they're the Super Bowl champions but having the number one overall scoring and yardage defense can cure a lot of ills.

The "Goodbye, Ladies" Draft Report

Re: Scheme Change
by Kevin Greenstein (not verified) :: Thu, 07/02/2009 - 7:49pm

The Jets demonstrated under Mangini just how bad an idea it is to change schemes without the proper personnel. The devaluing of key players (Vilma, Robertson) with the change to a 3-4 D exacted a very steep price. They would have been better off running a 4-3 D (or a hybrid D) for one season in order to give Tannenbaum time to trade Vilma/Robertson for more meaningful value.

Re: Scheme Change
by Rich (not verified) :: Thu, 07/02/2009 - 9:17pm

Does style of play count as scheme change? For example an aggressive defense as compared to a read and react one. In that respect I think the Saints defense will improve dramatically compared to last year with the hiring of Gregg Williams.

Re: Scheme Change
by panthersnbraves :: Thu, 07/02/2009 - 9:46pm

That would leave too many possibilities - would a team that is supposedly a running team, but abandoned it get credit if they started running after the 3rd or fourth interception?

Do mid-game adjustments like covering the 5-yard crossing pattern count? Or playing press coverage on 3rd and five, instead of dropping back 15 yards?

Re: Scheme Change
by andrew :: Fri, 07/03/2009 - 2:17am

The vikings should switch to the wishbone...

Re: Scheme Change
by AB (not verified) :: Fri, 07/03/2009 - 4:17am

All the teams who change scheme because they have a new head coach.

It astonishes me that front offices are willing to appoint coaches who will completely change the scheme, thereby rendering useless the prize assets (i.e. players) who they have spent draft picks and cap room acquiring to play in particular scheme.

Examples 1a and 1b - the Jets and the Steelers. The Jets sign up Mangini and convert to a 3-4: despite the fact that their best defensive players (Vilma and Robertson) are clearly most valuable in a 4-3. Result: wasted resources trading Vilma at an undervalue and signing up 3-4 players. Astonishingly, the Browns are now doing the same thing, giving up value in the Mark Sanchez trade in order to acquire replacement-level players who fit Mangini's system.

Compare the Steelers. Mike Tomlin, a cover-2 man, comes in. But he sees that the Steelers have team built to run the 3-4. He keeps the co-ordinator (rather than installing a crony from a previous coaching gig at a directional school, as seems to be de rigeur) and lets him make the most of players like James Harrison, Aaron Schobel and Casey Hampton, who would be wasted in a 4-3. Result: consecutive division titles.

And what do we see in Denver? Josh McDaniels tearing up one of the best offenses in the league to fit his personal predilections. Great work.

Re: Scheme Change
by shake n bake :: Fri, 07/03/2009 - 2:24pm

I've seen speculation that Tomlin/the FO are building towards a 4-3 or at least a hybrid with their later round picks to make a switch once LeBeau retires.

Re: Scheme Change
by DMC (not verified) :: Mon, 07/06/2009 - 11:06am

I still content that Timmons was picked with the mindset that he was going to become a Tampa-2 mike linebacker. He has the speed to pull back and cover the middle. The success of the current defense may delay that unless the d-line starts to show its age.

Re: Scheme Change
by firesnake426 (not verified) :: Fri, 07/03/2009 - 6:53am

Patriots offense should go back to the five wideout short passing game they used partly under Weiss - stretch the field horizontically. I hope this ridiculous running-up-the-score crap from two years ago doesn't return.

Re: Scheme Change
by Sophandros :: Fri, 07/03/2009 - 11:17am

Fortunately, the Saints ARE changing their scheme on defense, going away from Gary Gibbs's passive system to a more attacking scheme favored by the tastefully named Gregg Williams. If they become mediocre on defense instead of putrid, then they should win the NFC South, at least.

Sports talk radio and sports message boards are the killing fields of intellectual discourse.

Re: Scheme Change
by tuluse :: Fri, 07/03/2009 - 3:30pm

I thought Williams ran a read-and-react system too. At least he did in Chicago. Of course that may be a result of having Keith Traylor and Ted Washington on the team, with Urlacher and Mike Brown behind them.

Re: Scheme Change
by Eddo :: Fri, 07/03/2009 - 7:27pm

Gregg Williams was never the Bears' defensive coordinator; you're thinking of Greg Blache.

Re: Scheme Change
by tuluse :: Fri, 07/03/2009 - 7:39pm

You're right, just ignore me.

Re: Scheme Change
by Kibbles :: Fri, 07/03/2009 - 9:45pm

Denver on both offense and defense. On defense they're switching to the 3-4 despite the fact that the only front-seven players who fit that better than the 4-3 are a backup NT they got from New England and a massive first round bust at DE (who might not be a better fit, but at least this just gives him another chance to bust all over again).

As for offense... well, that one pretty much speaks for itself. Stick with what works.

Re: Scheme Change
by JimZipCode (not verified) :: Sat, 07/04/2009 - 12:01am

This is a little late: but the Ravens a few years ago, during the Kyle Boller era, should never have been a West Coast Offense team. Boller had a big arm with a slow release and inconsistent accuracy. With him at QB -- not that they should have had him at QB, but if you accept the idea that they were stuck with Boller at QB -- they should have been running more of a Coryell / Norv / Cam Cameron offense, with less horizontal short passes and more medium-range passes.

Like they have now.

Re: Scheme Change
by Kibbles :: Sat, 07/04/2009 - 2:52am

Even more egregiously, the Falcons never should have gone WCO with Vick. Vick was a guy whose strengths were tremendous arm strength, decent downfield accuracy, and an unequaled rushing ability. His weaknesses mostly revolved around short-range accuracy and decision making. And yet, some genius came in and decided that the best offense to put Vick in was one that minimized his strengths (rarely stretching the field to put that arm strength and deep accuracy to use, crowding defenders closer to the line of scrimmage to hamstring his rushing ability) while maximizing his weakness (relying on timing, anticipation, short-range accuracy, and quick decision making). Say what? I can't think of another offense for which Vick would be even more comically ill-suited.

Dan Reeves had the right idea with Vick- put him in an offense that threw deep a lot, forced the safeties to play back in anticipation of the big play, and then gave Vick the freedom to improvise and run through the lanes opened up by the defense playing the safeties so far back (something like what the Giants offense looked like in the Tiki Barber/Jeremy Shockey heyday). Vick was actually VERY good in that offense in 2002 (2:1 TD:INT ratio and 7 yards per attempt, ranking 8th in adjusted yards per attempt passing before even considering all he brought to the table rushing), then he missed 2003 to injury, and by 2004 Reeves was gone and the WCO was in place.

I sometimes wonder what trajectory his career might have taken had the Falcons ownership just stuck with what was working. In my darker moments, I also sometimes wonder if I'm going to look back on the Denver Broncos and their mediocre offense 5 years from now and wonder the same thing.

Re: Scheme Change
by KevinWho (not verified) :: Sat, 07/04/2009 - 7:10pm

Jacksonville, Cleveland, Dallas; since Cleveland is already in the midst of it, then Jacksonville and Dallas. I'd look at the Jags' offense and Dallas' defense.

Division games are where schemes get exposed. Over the last three seasons, Dallas has been 22-8 in non-division games, but only 9-9 in the division; similarly, Jacksonville has been 18-12 vs. 6-12---both teams have lost as many or more games in the division that against the rest of the league!

The Eagles actually have similarly bad numbers over the past two seasons, as they are 4-8 in the division and 13-6-1 against everyone else; the offense should probably be the target, but that's unlikely to happen given a micromanaging, know-it-all head coach and the owner's documented West Coast Offense fetish.

Re: Scheme Change
by AB (not verified) :: Sun, 07/05/2009 - 9:10am

Doesn't that mostly reflect that the Cowboys, Eagles and Jags play in the hardest divisions in the league?

Re: Scheme Change
by KevinWho (not verified) :: Sun, 07/05/2009 - 1:47pm

Sure, maybe somewhat, but I wouldn't say mostly.

I did begin with Cleveland as well, and no one would call the AFC North a powerhouse!

Regardless of how tough your division is, beating those teams should be paramount in scheme choice. If you can run out your schema and sort of dictate to the division, that's great. But if you have a losing division record, yet are whipping up on teams outside of the division, that's telling me that the teams who see you twice a year have your schema figured out ... and it's probably only a matter of time before the rest of the league does too.

Re: Scheme Change
by tuluse :: Sun, 07/05/2009 - 3:48pm

The Steelers are nearly always good, and the Ravens are rarely terrible. I would say the Browns have an uphill battle. If you can show that these their divisional opponents had better records against them than their overall win-loss percentage, it would be much stronger evidence.

Also, I don't think schema means what you think it means.

Re: Scheme Change
by KevinWho (not verified) :: Sun, 07/05/2009 - 7:37pm

Schema: thanks Fezzik. ("Inconceivable!")

14-4 16-14 Pittsburgh Steelers
8-10 11.5-18.5 Cincinnati Bengals
10-8 19-11 Baltimore Ravens
4-14 14-16 Cleveland Browns
36-36 60.5-59.5 TOTAL 2006-2008

Over the last 3 years, the division is very nearly .500 against the rest of the league. Cleveland needs to get better overall, but they really need to get better in the division.

I don't think division record vs. otherwise record is foolproof evidence of scheme problems, but it's not a bad place to start. Schemes should be talent-driven blah blah blah. But in your own division, schemes are truly schemes, not gimmicks that your opponents see only once in a while. If, over time, you are winning against the rest of the league but losing in your division, in some sense you are being outschemed.

Re: Scheme Change
by chivyballz (not verified) :: Sun, 07/05/2009 - 1:49am

BUFFALO on offense, PLEASE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Re: Scheme Change
by Bernard Bernoulli (not verified) :: Sun, 07/05/2009 - 12:37pm

The Bucc's, if they start Leftwich at QB. I'm pretty sure that Byron Leftwich running the West Coast would be a thing to behold.

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