15 Aug 2012
by Andy Benoit
Competition for starting jobs might be the most entertaining part of NFL training camps. Maybe that's not the case for quarterback competitions, as those usually only exist for bad teams, but a hearty starting job competition at any other position can provide an entertaining August storyline for hardcore fans.
Did you happen to read any of the big Arthur Moats news last week? Apparently, the third-year pro has pulled ahead of Kirk Morrison in the race to be Buffalo’s starting strongside linebacker. Okay, maybe this isn’t a huge development, but try telling that to the Bills bloggers and comment-posters. Try telling hardcore Dolphins fans (all eight of them that aren't busy picketing Jeff Ireland) that Vontae Davis’s demotion behind newcomer Richard Marshall doesn’t deserve to be on the front page of USA Today. Tell Bengals fans that it’s no big deal cornerback Nate Clements could wind up becoming Cincy’s second starting safety ahead of the hard-hitting Taylor Mays.
The best starting job competitions seem to take place on defense –- that's likely because the steeper demands for athleticism on that side of the ball make it easier for coaches to replace guys who show even mild hints of old age, endurance issues, or mental shortcomings. After all, athletes are a dime a dozen in the NFL.
Fun as defensive starting job competitions are, it’s fair to say that we overemphasize them. Yes, starting lineups are important. They stratify players and present a template for a coaching staff’s philosophy. But in today’s pass-happy NFL, the nickel and dime sub-packages have become more important than the starting lineups that make up a base defense. Defenses league-wide last season spent 47.5 percent of their snaps in base personnel (4-3 or 3-4) and 49.6 percent in some variation of nickel or dime.
Sub-packages will only become more frequent as spread offenses continue to evolve. That's not just a passing game issue, either; football’s increasing emphasis on speed and finesse will eventually lead to rushing attacks operating out of three-and four-receiver formations more often, which will demand that defenses line up in sub-packages. Even if sub-packages somehow don’t become more prevalent, they deserve greater scrutiny because that’s what defenses use in make-or-break moments like third-and-long or the hurry-up.
Make-or-break moments decide the outcome of most games. Thus, teams are built around winning these moments. That’s why, defensively, this is where teams often show their true identity.
The Steelers, for example, are a fairly basic zone team ... until a make-or-break moment, which is when Dick LeBeau dials up his attacking zone blitzes. The Ryan Brothers in New York and Dallas run traditional 3-4 schemes until they go to their overloads and zone exchanges and Amoeba looks. The Ravens are a staunch defense if it’s normal down-and-distance; they become an aggressive Byzantine defense in crucial situations.
Even the classic Tampa-2 schemes that were once run by half the league and now only seem prevalent in the NFC North were built primarily to win in these moments. That’s why most teams today still refer to variations of the Tampa-2 in obvious passing situations.
The only NFC North defense that doesn’t play Tampa-2 is Dom Capers’ Packers. They’re a rudimentary 3-4 unit -- at least until Charles Woodson slides to the slot in their 2-4-5 sub-package. The Packers used to play their 2-4-5 only in make-or-break moments, but they’ve had so much success with the scheme that it’s morphed into their new base set.
Expect to see this sort of transformation with more teams in 2012 and coming years. The Giants rode their "big nickel" package to a Super Bowl title last season, and the 49ers are practically a full-time nickel defense because linebackers Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman are better than most safeties in coverage. Because teams build around winning the make-or-break moments, sub-packages are where coaches implement their schematic innovations. The schematic innovations are the vehicle of evolution. The improving athleticism of players might be the propelling force of football’s evolution, but the vehicles for that evolution are the innovative schemes.
So this month, instead of fixating on competitions for your team’s starting strongside linebacker job or left defensive end position, spend your energy focusing on your team’s sub-packages. What kind of depth does your team have at safety? How versatile are your corners; can they all play man-to-man and zone? Does your team have someone reliable to cover the slot?
Instead of concentrating on which three linebackers will emerge as starters, worry about whether your team even has two linebackers that are fluid enough to redirect in space. If it doesn’t, your team will suffer in pass defense. Especially on third down. (Just watch what will happen to the Ravens this season if no one in that organization musters up the guts to tell Ray Lewis that he’s now too creaky to play third down.)
Instead of worrying about your team’s girth at defensive tackle, worry about how much speed and depth you have at defensive end.
On most defenses, in fact, the backups at some positions are more important than the starters at others. Let's go back to the Ravens for a second: one reason their defense has always been cutting edge is that, years ago, Ozzie Newsome explicitly said that his club values a "third cornerback" more than a starting strong safety. That was incredibly forward-thinking by the GM.
We’ll dive deeper into the intricacies of specific teams’ sub-packages as this season wears on –- that’s unavoidable. After all, Film Room will examine the NFL through the lens of in-depth matchup breakdowns for each week’s most intriguing games; the vast majority of those games will be decided in make-or-break moments.
18 comments, Last at 17 Aug 2012, 2:57pm by Joseph