No down linemen? Linebackers on the nose? Cornerbacks in a three-point stance? Today's attacking defenses throw a baffling array of looks at quarterbacks to sow mayhem and gain a winning edge
The offense has been tricking us for years. Now it's our turn. It's the evolution of the game, how the defense is disguising everything. It's like the defense has gone on offense.
—DEMARCUS WARE, COWBOYS LINEBACKER
Football today's about one word," said Saints coach Sean Payton. "Let's see if you can guess it."
September 4, 2011
Payton, in his office at training camp this summer, got up from his chair to walk off some energy. "Here's what happens in the game today," he said, ticking off the play clock. "Quarterback breaks the huddle at 17. He goes to the line. Sixteen, 15, 14, 13. He's probing the defense. 'Purple 57! Purple 57! SetHUT!!' That's not a snap count. It's information gathering. [The offense] knows he's not snapping on a dark color. For some teams it's a color, for others it might be ice cream flavors—just as long as the offense knows and the defense doesn't. On defense they're thinking, 'Hold it, hold it, hold it. Don't show the quarterback anything.' The offense is saying, 'Who's who? Who are we blocking? How do we attack it?'
"Twelve, 11, 10, 9. Quarterback sees some movement on the defense; he knows it might be phony. Eight, 7, 6. 'CHECKCHECK! Yellow 36! Yellow 36!' Now it's the real thing, an audible. Quarterback's guessing what he sees. For the defense it's still 'Hold it, hold it, hold it.' Five, 4, 3. 'SetHUTHUT!!' Now he takes the snap—and he has to read the defense while he's figuring where to go with the ball against guys trying to make sure he has no idea what they're playing."
On the video screen, Payton cued up a play from the Saints' 2009 game with the Jets. New York had a left defensive end over New Orleans's right tackle, no one over the right guard, center or left guard, a defensive end over the left tackle and a standup linebacker on the end's right shoulder. Quarterback Drew Brees stood at the line figuring what to do. Linebackers and defensive backs moved around, showing nothing. "And here they come," said Payton. "They knock at the front door with one guy, then shove 10 through the back."
At the snap the Jets flooded the left side with four rushers. Traffic on the line stopped two of them. The others, linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard, steamed around left end. For the Saints, left tackle Zach Strief had to pick up one, and tight end Jeremy Shockey, behind Strief, should have gotten the other. At the moment of truth Leonhard ducked low, taking a wide rush outside, and Strief and Shockey both blocked him. Scott, left free, smashed into Brees, forcing an incompletion. "Win for the defense," Payton said.
The strange 2-3-6 alignment, with no defenders over the three interior linemen, caused the Saints to change their blocking scheme after this game from man to zone on blitzes around the corners. Their name for the new scheme: Jet Stream. Just one more move to try to keep ever-morphing defensive fronts—aren't the Jets supposed to play a straight 3--4?—from wrecking the offense's plans.
"That's a pretty big clue about the word," Payton said with a smile. "Got it yet?"
Not yet. Mayhem, maybe. Last year 12 teams in the NFL played primarily a 3--4 defense and 18 played a 4--3. Two, Buffalo and Denver, played some of both. But in reality they all played a lot of everything.
The biggest myth in football is that your base defense is what you are. The Patriots are known as a 3--4, so they should want a big nose guy and 290-pound defensive ends who play the run first. Right? When New England signed troubled defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, the outcry wasn't so much about Haynesworth's work ethic but about how he'd fit in. Haynesworth hates the 3--4, and Bill Belichick's a 3--4 guy. But is he really? "That's a media fabrication," the Patriots coach says. "There are a lot of different alignments out there. It's the techniques, the fundamentals that you teach your players, more than the 3--4, 4--3 that people say you use."
In fact the Patriots played a 3--4 on just 39.7% of their snaps in 2010, according to game-tape analysis by ProFootballFocus.com. The site counted 29 plays on which New England cornerback Kyle Arrington lined up at defensive end, with his hand on the ground.
The Patriots weren't alone in this public deception. Super Bowl champ Green Bay, another so-called 3--4 team, had just two defensive linemen on the field on 68.6% of its plays, according to Pro Football Focus. "Our guys are used to dropping in coverage," says Packers coordinator Dom Capers. "It's all about picking your spots—when to rush, when to drop. Sometimes it's a little bit faddish, just to show a different front."
"Confusion," said Payton. "That's the word. Football has become the battle of confusion."
In 1990, NFL teams threw an average of 483 times a season. That number rose to 540 in 2010. "We're never going back to a running game," says Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. "Now fullbacks run once a year. We're going to stay a passing league." In the '80s the Giants bulked up the middle of their D to stop Dallas's and Washington's strong running games and won two Super Bowls. These days there may be a few games in which an offense runs on 60% of its plays, but far more frequently the ratio is 60% pass, 40% run. To contend with those pass-heavy attacks, defensive architects are changing up, becoming more and more unpredictable. Some of the ways they're doing so:
Varying the fronts to create mismatches. Many teams have started doing what Rex Ryan did as coordinator for the Ravens and now does as Jets coach—flood one gap or blocker with two, three or even four defensive linemen or linebackers. That challenges a quarterback to change his protection call to keep more blockers in. On one play in that 2009 Jets-Saints game, New York showed a heavy rush on the left side; Brees kept a running back in to block ... and at the snap the Jets dropped a lineman and a linebacker from the group into coverage, negating Brees's protection call. "They rushed four but ate up six of our guys," Payton said. "They were able to double two of our receivers without leaving anyone open."
Changing the defensive game plan every week, sometimes radically. This is a Belichick trademark. The Pats' boss has long designed his defensive fronts—and what he does on offense too—specifically for each game depending on an opponent's strengths and weaknesses. And the men who've coached under him have adopted that approach.
In practices before the Browns' game at New Orleans last October, Eric Mangini, then Cleveland's coach and now an ESPN analyst, preached disguises more than defensive schemes. For 60 or 70 minutes of each practice, Mangini (who was an assistant under Belichick in New England) had his defenders holding phony positions before the snap. "Spin the dial," he told his players. "Spin it. Different looks every time. No pattern." On half the snaps against the Saints, Mangini says, Cleveland had no defensive linemen or just one on the field—showing Brees an 0--5 or 1--5 or 1--4. Brees hadn't seen those looks in game tape, and while he hit Cleveland for a couple of big plays—"the cost of doing business," Mangini says—the final score was Browns 30, Saints 17.
Dissecting offenses like never before. When the NFL Network was at Saints camp this summer, Payton sternly told the sound technician that he didn't want Brees's snap counts to be audible. "It's not just the words people could steal," Payton says. "It's the cadence and the speed." A defensive coordinator for another NFC team says his video crew reviews telecasts and transcribes the presnap calls of opposing quarterbacks, and pairs those with the play. The information is analyzed to see what patterns can be discerned. Intonation and the difference between how a quarterback makes a dummy call versus a real one, the coach says, provide clues that can give his edge rushers a split-second head start. It's perilously close to what got the Patriots in hot water during Spygate, but because the audio is available over public airwaves, there's no NFL rule against the practice. And it's not foolproof. "You get a little something out of it," the NFC coordinator says, "but so many teams change their indicator words week to week that you can't trust what you're hearing."
"It's a more advanced game than anyone would think," notes Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb. "I tell my friends about five percent of what we do, and they're blown away. They can't believe it's this complicated."
Giving defenders freer rein. With all the shifting, some front-seven players have to know numerous positions. In the Cowboys' defense under new coordinator Rob Ryan—who worked under Mangini last year in Cleveland—Ware, the game's most respected pass rusher, will constantly be forcing quarterbacks to play Where's Waldo. He'll line up at right or left outside linebacker, at middle linebacker in some three-LB sets, at defensive end and even at defensive tackle and nosetackle. On some plays he'll drop into coverage at the snap, on some he'll rush—and he'll do it from any of those spots. Ware loves that Ryan trusts him to do much of it on his own, switching with a teammate at the last second to throw the quarterback a changeup.
Against San Diego in the preseason, Ware and linebacker Anthony Spencer pulled just such a switch. The formation itself was unusual—Spencer was lined up on the nose and Ware was at middle linebacker, two normal bookend outside guys providing up-the-middle D. At the snap Ware didn't rush but rather covered the running back, and an offensive tackle moved to block him. Spencer saw the attention to Ware and sneaked through the gap beside him to pressure the quarterback.
"For our defense to work," says Ware, who has an NFL-best 80 sacks over the last six seasons, "you've got to have smart players. I'm convinced after being in the league for a while that you don't have to have the best guys to be a dominant defense. You can be a very good defense if you have smart guys. The game used to be checkers. Not anymore." Speaking of the Jets....
It's silly to say a unit with cornerback Darrelle Revis and linebackers Bart Scott and David Harris doesn't have some of the league's best defenders. But the Jets also start guys who, like Scott, were undrafted (defensive end Mike DeVito, strong safety Jim Leonhard) and others who were bypassed atop the draft (free safety Eric Smith, nosetackle Sione Pouha). And if you play for the Jets, you'd better be football smart. Last January, as New York prepared for its playoff game with New England and a chance to avenge its 42-point December loss to the Patriots, the coaches were seeking ways to confound Tom Brady. Leonhard, who was on injured reserve with a fractured shin, approached coordinator Mike Pettine about turning a regular red zone coverage into something new. "What would happen," Leonhard said, "if we rushed three and kept our coverage [on New England's wideouts] the same but turned the inside guys into hook defenders?"
In the red zone for the Jets, the "hook" is the area between the hashmarks; Leonhard suggested that instead of one defender covering the tailback out of the backfield, make it two. Pettine liked the idea, and so did the head coach. "Brilliant," said Rex Ryan.
Late in the first quarter of a scoreless game, New England had third-and-five at the Jets' seven. The defense dialed up Leonhard's coverage. New York had three down linemen—with the versatile Shaun Ellis in the middle—and six cornerbacks. Harris and Smith, the linebacker and the safety, were the hook defenders, staying inside the hashes at about the two-yard line, in position to blanket Danny Woodhead out of the backfield. "Brady knows Woodhead can make that play when his receivers are covered," said Leonhard, "so the idea was to bracket him and force Brady to stay away."
Ryan, looking up at the play on the video screen in his office one day this summer, said, "New England wants to throw touchdown passes and checkdowns. So on this play we know what they want—a throw into the end zone, or they want to go to Woodhead out of the backfield." That's what happened. Brady looked for his receivers outside. Blanketed by the cornerbacks. Then he looked for Woodhead. Covered by Harris and Smith. Pumped once. Still covered. And Ellis buried him for a nine-yard sack. Four points saved: New England settled for a field goal.
Leonhard watched from his New Jersey home. "You can't really tell what the calls are all the time from TV," he said, "but when I went in the next day, all the coaches said, 'We got your call in. Great call.' It felt good. All employees want to be heard."
For the Jets, one lesson was: Don't think anyone is too good to be fooled. "Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are brilliant quarterbacks," said Leonhard, "but the biggest mistake teams make is giving those guys too much respect, like you can't trick 'em. You have to try."
You'd think that would be the end of the story. Leonhard outsmarts Brady and Belichick, Patriots embarrassed, as bad a loss for a New England team as Aaron Boone's homer off Tim Wakefield. But there's more.
Ellis has been a momentum-changer in the Jets-Pats rivalry. In the last three seasons he had five sacks against New England, unusually high for a nominal 3--4 defensive end. But he's much more than that. In the playoff game Ellis lined up 13 times as an end in the 3--4, 10 times as the nose in the 3--4, eight times as a tackle in a four-man line, once as an end in a 4--3 and, when the Jets went to a one- or two-man line, 10 snaps at various positions there. His two-sack, five-tackle performance last January in Foxborough, Pettine said, "was the best game in the two years I'd coached him." In short, Ellis did it all. He's the epitome of today's versatile defensive front man.
And in August he signed a one-year deal to play for the Patriots. He's going to the enemy. "The fact that he chose the Patriots," Ryan said when Ellis signed his free-agent deal, "there's no way I'm going to wish him well. There's no chance of that."
"I don't know what his trigger is," said Mangini, who coached Ellis with the Jets, "but I do know his best games were against New England. I'd bet that goes in reverse now—his best games will be against the Jets."
Said Pettine, "You know what his nickname was here? 'Patriot-killer.'"
Last week Ellis, who was working his way back from off-season hip surgery, was still getting used to life on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The Jets are Hard Knocks, the Patriots Pravda. "You feel the difference when you walk in the building," he said. "You feel the difference when you drive up to the building. It's strictly football here."
Yes, the Jets do it differently. They love the back pages, and Rex is bigger than life. But ideas are king, and they don't care where they come from.
"Juan and Renaldo are the custodians in our building," Pettine said. "And if they've got an idea how to get to the quarterback, we're all ears."
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DEFENSES ARE CHANGING UP, BECOMING MORE AND MORE UNPREDICTABLE. "THEY KNOCK AT THE FRONT DOOR WITH ONE GUY," SAYS PAYTON, "THEN SHOVE 10 THROUGH THE BACK."
"THE BIGGEST MISTAKE TEAMS MAKE," SAYS LEONHARD, "IS GIVING [BRADY OR MANNING] TOO MUCH RESPECT, LIKE YOU CAN'T TRICK 'EM. YOU HAVE TO TRY."
4--3 AIN'T WHAT IT USED TO BE
ProFootballFocus.com analyzed every game from last season and identified 19 teams as operating a 4--3 (including Buffalo, which went back and forth). But that masks wide variability. How fungible have NFL defenses become? Seattle, which led the league in percentage of plays from its base defense, still lined up in something other than the 4--3 on four of every 10 snaps.