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The Search to Save NFL Defenses

As points come in unprecedented waves, NFL defensive minds look in unexpected places with hopes of sparking the counter-revolution

This story appears in the FUTURE ISSUE, the Nov. 19–26, 2018, edition of Sports Illustrated.

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Ranch-style houses of red and tan brick border Grand View University, nestled into a leafy neighborhood a few minutes outside Des Moines. The morning quiet is sporadically broken by alert Pomeranians sprinting through doggy doors to bark at unfamiliar faces heading to class on the campus where, upon a whiteboard inside the athletic department’s facilities, you might find the dry-erase scribblings of defensive football’s future.

This is three days before an October game against Peru (Neb.) State College, and Travis Johansen, the GVU Vikings’ 35-year-old defensive coordinator, has his opponent’s personnel groupings laid out in front of him in the form of four neat diagrams. Grand View won the NAIA title in 2013, the year Johansen arrived, and his defense has been among the nation’s dozen best every full season since.

At this level, offensive play-callers are either padding their résumés by trying to put up as many points as possible . . . or they’re utilizing some obscure, decades-old offense as a means of survival. Teams change offenses on a whim, sometimes appearing at games with nothing they’ve shown on film.

“So, yeah,” says Johansen, leaning back in a chair behind his desk, “it’s a bitch.”

The evolution of offensive football—and the chaos it has wrought—has forced Johansen to develop some creative tactics and philosophies that have amplified his name in coaching circles, despite the fact that he isn’t much of an operator at clinics or networking events. Ask Matt Drinkall, architect of the high-powered Kansas Wesleyan offense that is currently averaging 54.3 points per game—good for only third in NAIA—if there’s any coach who could maybe slow down his offense, and he gives one name: Johansen.

At the highest levels of the sport, offensive records are in peril thanks to schemes that prey on established defensive principles in order to conflict defenders and create easier reads for quarterbacks. It’s an approach born, in part, from the increased influence of potent college offenses. “The game is being changed forever,” says Drinkall. “We’re in the eye of the storm as two sides of the ball fight it out. Who can continue to evolve?”

Even in the pros, rattled defensive coordinators and position coaches know they’re falling behind. Johansen used to share notes with at least one nearby NFL coaching staff, the kind of exchange that’s become common as new-age offenses trickle up from the lower levels. The hope among defenses is that the counter-revolution will emerge from similar obscurity.

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To understand the war on defense, though, one must first understand the ways in which football has changed, on multiple fronts: physically, emotionally and legislatively. According to coaches across all levels, these are the rocks that have accumulated to form an avalanche:

• Recent rule changes make it harder and more costly to a) battle receivers in tight coverage downfield; b) deliver warning shots to receivers running free across the middle; c) combat the myriad legal offensive screens used to pick defensive players in man coverage; or d) hit the quarterback.

• The so-called Madden generation is uninterested in playing defense—or is perhaps just more interested in playing offense. Coaches are finding it harder to convince players to get excited about menial tasks like washing out an offensive tackle or engaging multiple linemen to free up a linebacker.

• Play-callers—most notably Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma—have successfully married the effectiveness of option football with pass-happy Air Raid systems. Even with a quarterback who’s a minimal run threat, teams have figured out that by utilizing open space and spreading defenses thin, all they need to do is conflict one defender who has both run and pass responsibilities. If the defender commits to the run, throw the slant into the spot he vacated. Or vice versa.

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After years of marinating at the lower rungs of football, this offensive revolution has finally trickled up to the NFL; it is no longer taboo for coaches to borrow from these systems. Nine weeks into this season, the league was on pace for more points (48.1) and touchdowns (5.5) per game than in any postmerger season. That, says Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, is “stressful.” “As a defensive staff, this is our livelihood. We [watch] these offenses each week and we’re like, ‘All right, here we go again.’ ” (When presented with the scenario that offenses be even more refined a decade from now, Pettine’s outlook for the future of defense isn’t optimistic. “Hopefully,” he says, “I’m sitting on a beach somewhere with a cigar in one hand and a margarita in the other.”)

Between his stint as coach of the Browns, which ended in 2015, and his landing in Green Bay last winter, Pettine spent his downtime at the hips of major college defensive coordinators. Greg Schiano at Ohio State. Dave Aranda at LSU. It is perhaps why he’s so often name-checked as a coach who has made progress toward combatting the run-pass options (RPOs) that typify today’s offensive innovations.

Pettine prefers that his Packers stay out of zone coverages; he avoids putting players in situations where they have both a gap responsibility in the run game and a zone to defend in the pass, even if man coverage leaves them susceptible to picks and rubs; and he tends to rush players from non-traditional positions. He relies on Green Bay’s support staff for self-scouting each week, making sure his alignments don’t tip his hand, and he spends hours rearranging theoretical troops like an obsessive Risk player.

“You’re much better off,” says Pettine, “being proactive than reactive—especially reactive at halftime after you’ve been gutted and you’re wondering what happened.”

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What have all those trips to college campuses turned up? At Grand View, Johansen’s approach is rooted in simplicity. He uses a micro playbook, about two pages long, that changes each week. Instead of forcing his entire working theory upon his defense, he arms players with only a few fundamental techniques that they’ll need for the upcoming game—simple maneuvers they’ll rep over and over during practice.

Keeping things simple allows the defense to stay flexible. Against RPO-based teams, for example, his defense may appear in what looks like a dime front (six defensive backs) when, in reality, it’s a balanced run D that swaps out slot corners for safeties who can assist against the ground game, like smaller linebackers. In other words: “position-less football,” says Johansen, who pulls up one concept, circles his safety and notes, “he’s anything from a defensive end to [a DB] playing Cover-0 in the slot.”

Those linebackers and defensive backs whom offenses are trying to manipulate with RPOs? Johansen teaches each one to treat the receiver in front of him like a sparring partner in a boxing ring. And he structures his defense, at times, with just three down linemen, each with the responsibility of widening the tackle box to prevent breakaway runs. Johansen is, in his words, “reinventing the defense” every week.

There’s a tinge of desperation to Johansen’s tinkerings, like those of a commander whose battalion is under constant siege. Talk to enough defensive coordinators and you’ll notice that many refer to their units as some kind of overmatched rebel outfit. Appropriately, one of the most resourceful defensive generals works at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Jay Bateman stunned the college football world in September when his game plan helped Army take then No. 5 Oklahoma to overtime, despite an overwhelming disadvantage in personnel. But to those in the know, Bateman’s prowess as a defensive coordinator was old news. Last offseason a parade of coaches traveled up the Hudson River to study the Black Knights’ tactics.

Even with an overtime session, Bateman's Black Knights defense held Oklahoma to fewer points (28) and yards (355) than any team since Lincoln Riley took charge of the Sooners.

Even with an overtime session, Bateman's Black Knights defense held Oklahoma to fewer points (28) and yards (355) than any team since Lincoln Riley took charge of the Sooners.

Bateman’s philosophy, like Johansen’s at Grand View, requires the mastery of only a few simple concepts. Those are then folded into the weekly game plan and adjusted after input from players. Film cut-ups are texted to each cadet’s phone on Monday, with the requirement that he reply to Bateman with two unique observations.

The one constant week-to-week: “Everyone is a blitzer,” says Bateman. “A kid is a defensive end—well, now he’s a linebacker, or a strong safety. How does a quarterback declare him? [Their offense will] start blocking guys that aren’t even rushing, and not block guys who are.” From this, Army employs six different blitzes, but Bateman runs them out of dozens of personnel packages, which he says forces offensive coordinators to spend twice the normal time in preparation.

Bateman says the biggest concern he’s heard from visiting NFL coaches about this kind of multiplicity is that it requires immense brain power from the safeties in charge of lining everyone up and from the corners memorizing the coverages. Bateman’s solution is to have his defense operate as a collection of grouped special forces. They use one-word calls, the first letter of which pertains to a specific position group, alerting players as to who is blitzing. Linebackers, for example, might be assigned an S-word—so if the call is “spider,” linebackers are going after the QB. The other groups know what coverage or technique to play when the linebackers blitz.

Players then have all week in practice to work on just a few moves, or techniques relevant to the upcoming game plan. The nosetackle, for example, might be told: Center kill, gap control, cross left and cross right; and he’ll have all week to focus on those instructions. The result? An amorphous defense with the most realistic chance to match the targeted explosiveness of modern offenses. Defensive backs with their hands in the dirt. Linemen floating in coverage, scattering the quarterback’s progression.

“The days of a defensive player dropping back into a spot, the quarterback throwing it and [the defender] breaking on the ball are over,” says Bateman. “If one of my guys draws up something like that, I tell him, We ain’t doing that.

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Dallas Whitaker, a former Rutgers grad assistant, heads up an undefeated Somerville (N.J.) High program that averages 47.2 points per game. At 25, he’s one of the youngest head coaches in New Jersey high school history. He’s also one of the most confident.

“I don’t understand why people aren’t running this stuff every play,” he says of his offense, a hybrid of principals derived from Oklahoma, Washington State and Chip Kelly–era Oregon playbooks.

Three years ago, though, Somerville was in the midst of a 25-game winless streak. After the 2014 season, Jeff Vanderbeek, the former Devils owner and Lehman Brothers VP, took a job as the co-head coach at his old school. It was a rescue mission. Vanderbeek stacked his staff with young, forward-thinking coaches who could expose the antiquated defensive minds of Jersey football. He handed the program off to Whitaker last summer.

Somerville doesn’t have a literal playbook, just core concepts. Things run fluently on a language of three- or four-word calls. To keep the kids’ attentions, players are sometimes allowed to name plays. (One recent example: “Fetty Wap,” after the Jersey-born rapper.)

At a Friday practice in autumn the pace is frantic. In passing drills, each rep features at least four QBs so that every receiver catches a ball. In the 11 v. 11 portion, offensive linemen do up-downs after each snap, instead of blocking—a conditioning technique that sprinkles high-intensity cardio into the installation period. Receivers who run routes over a certain length on a given play bail out at the sideline, tagging in another player, like a line shift in hockey. A drone hovers above this all, its camera capturing every moment. For defensive coordinators, the footage amounts to a horror film.

The sequel could be scarier. On the same evening, Somerville’s peewee program begins a workout on a small practice space behind the high school field, tiny huffs and puffs escaping from too-large helmets as they go through drills. “They’re running the same offense as the high school,” Vanderbeek says of the children, some as young as six. “Same plays.”

Vanderbeek smiles at the kids, at the chaos he’s ensured for years to come. If someone is going to find a way to stop this, they better do it quickly.

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