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15 Aug 2012

Film Room: Make or Break

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.

Posted by: Andy Benoit on 15 Aug 2012

18 comments, Last at 17 Aug 2012, 2:57pm by Joseph


by Joseph :: Wed, 08/15/2012 - 1:15pm

Andy, does your opinion jive with Barnwell's recent column on Grantland re: the "hybrid" defender? In other words, will every team soon need a defender like C. Woodson, Deon Grant, et. al.?

by Raiderjoe :: Wed, 08/15/2012 - 1:18pm

Yes temass should have them but many alrwsdy do.

by tuluse :: Wed, 08/15/2012 - 1:44pm

I would disagree with that. I'm not sure that a Woodson like player would even be that valuable to say the Bears. I mean he would be the perfect slot corner for them, but there is no way they would pay that kind of money for a nickle back. I don't think there is any style of player you can point to and say every team need a player like this. That's one I think I love about football, all the different styles and strategies teams employ.

by johonny (not verified) :: Wed, 08/15/2012 - 1:52pm

Isn't the Bears middle linebacker a former safety and thus a Woodson like player?

by tuluse :: Wed, 08/15/2012 - 2:19pm

No, he's just a fast lnebacker who early in his career had trouble shedding blocks

Unless you're defining Woodson-like as being good or fast, they're not really comparable at all.

by Joseph :: Wed, 08/15/2012 - 4:28pm

tuluse--where I would disagree with you is that Urlacher is a MLB who once (albeit a long time ago) played S--he is a "hybrid"-style defender. In college, he had a lot of coverage responsibilities, which have made him an outstanding MLB. IMO, Willis is like that as well--a great LB who doesn't have to come out in "obvious" passing situations. Those type of defenders are needed on every team, no doubt--but any defender who can play two "types" of positions (and we're mainly discussing LBs/DBs here) is a great asset to their team. (Not to mention those DL/LB-types, such as Suggs, DeMarcus Ware, et. al.)
On offense, the same is true--look at Hernandez for NE, Bush for MIA, Sproles for NO, etc.

by tuluse :: Wed, 08/15/2012 - 4:31pm

If Urlacher is a hybrid than so are 50-70% of all linebackers in the league, and just about every team has at least 2 hybrid players, so Barnwell's thesis would still be wrong because hybrid players are everywhere. He's just a really good linebacker. This is nothing like Woodson who is asked to cover receivers outside, in the slot, play safety, play and play linebacker.

Was Terrell Owens a hybrid player because he could run fast and out-muscle corners on possession routes?

by Sandman (not verified) :: Thu, 08/16/2012 - 7:15am

@tuluse: I have to disagree with you about your opinion that at least half of the LBs in the NFL are as good in coverage as Urlacher or Willis (or NaVorro Bowman and Sean Lee, for that matter). If you were truly right, there wouldn't be nearly as much Nickel and Dime. The problem is that most ILBs and MLBs are great two-down thumpers but awful in coverage. So teams that don't have players like the above mentioned have to sub their ILBs out.
It's not about who can play the most positions, but who can play his position in the most versatile way.

by armchair journe... :: Thu, 08/16/2012 - 7:59am

I think durability is also key to the discussion.. You have hybrid guys like Thomas Davis (college safety, nfl cover LB) who are versatile, but their bodies can't hold up to the pounding.


by Shattenjager :: Wed, 08/15/2012 - 7:02pm

Unless Barnwell wrote nearly the same column and it was more than two months ago (which is undoubtedly possible), that was Chris Brown: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/8251550/tyrann-mathieu-demarcus-ware...

by Joseph :: Fri, 08/17/2012 - 2:57pm

Yeah--posted here first, read original Chris Brown article later.

by Will Allen :: Wed, 08/15/2012 - 1:56pm

Bill Walsh said the 4th quarter pass rush was the key to winning games between two closely matched teams. This is lessened somewhat with elite qbs now being able to neutralize a pass rush, because of how receivers are now able to run free, but there is still a lot of truth to it, and there aren't that many great qbs anyhow.

In fact, with passing on the increase, the ability to rush the passer in the 4th quarter can become even harder, because rushing the passer 40 times in a three hour game is EXHAUSTING. That's why the the third best edge rusher, or the third best interior pass rusher, is such an important position. As much as great players don't want to come off the field, if your best two or three pass rushers don't get adequate time on the sideline for the first three quarters, because the guys behind them can't do the job, your team is likely to give up a lot of points in the last 10 minutes of the game.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Wed, 08/15/2012 - 2:10pm

Is there any reason other than tradition for why the front 7 are considered the "starters" any more?

There are college teams that run the 4-2-5 or the 3-3-5 full time. There used to be pro teams that ran the 5-2, the 5-3, or the 4-4 full time.

by theslothook :: Wed, 08/15/2012 - 2:38pm

people play sub defense differently across teams based on the skill of its personnel/injuries. I keep mentioning this, but the pats are the offense that really has to be adjusted for since they test your ability to defend out of base and sub very effectively, since their offense seamlessly runs from standard to spread. Thats why, i suspect, more teams with tight ends are becoming effective.

by operator0 (not verified) :: Wed, 08/15/2012 - 2:59pm

The Titans got thier's in this year's draft. Zach Brown, a will linebacker that can run sub 4.4 and was good in coverage in college. With the proliferation of the spread offense, we'll see more linebackers like that and the hybrid D's will go away. I believe every team would rather have a linebacker that can cover and run like that then a corner or safety. It just so happens that there aren't many linebackers with those skills....yet.

by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 08/16/2012 - 6:42pm

The Ravens become a Byzantine defense? I have no idea what this means. Do they relocate to the eastern region of their state? Does the mother of the head coach claim to have found the true cross? Big walls?

by Andrew Potter :: Fri, 08/17/2012 - 4:25am

Extremely complex, highly ordered, intricate, yet difficult to make sense of due to the lack of easily identifiable roles or duties, as was the structure of the Byzantine Court.

by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 08/16/2012 - 7:01pm

"the 49ers are practically a full-time nickel defense because linebackers Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman are better than most safeties in coverage."

No, they're good but that's just silly. Also the 49ers just matched the offensive personnel last year, if they saw 21 or 12 then it was base defense, 3 WR got a 2-4-5, 4 WR got a line of Smith, Smith and McDonald with the two inside linebackers and 4+ got a package with either McDonald or Justin Smith on the nose, Brooks and Aldon Smith at end with Willis paired with the remnant of McDonald and Justin Smith as a stand up rusher(which didn't really work).

Mr Benoit writes well and clearly has an impressive level of NFL knowledge but this is FO, every article goes through a process akin to peer review. Unfounded sweeping statements won't fly.