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In an ever-changing NFL, what does modern pass defense look like?


Buddy
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Philosophy and tactics transcend scheme and structure in sports, and that’s especially true for NFL defenses.

This is something more readily embraced on the offensive side of the ball, which is why we can recognize Kyle Shanahan and Andy Reid as West Coast offense guys, instead of calling one a 21-personnel (two-back offense) coach and the other an 11-personnel (single-back offense) coach (even though the descriptions would be accurate). Defensively, we’ve spent decades bogged down in the minutiae of 3-4 or 4-3 — which is a conversation about body types, not actual defense — and missed on the bigger picture of how defensive coordinators’ approach and tactics inform everything we see, from the front to the coverage shell to the technique executed on the field.

Here, we’ll take the defensive performances of last year and form three separate identities/approaches, evaluate what makes each distinct, and spin it forward to predict who’s best positioned to put the strongest defensive product on the field for the rest of 2022.

(All data provided by TruMedia or Pro Football Focus)

The Flamethrowers: Blitz, play man-free coverage

No matter where the league goes schematically, every NFL defense that will ever exist will have man blitzes as a key piece of its repertoire. For all the media conversations about the Vic Fangio split-safety system and the two-high coverages sweeping across the league, Fangio’s (and every other coach’s) best passing defense is playing Cover 1 with the proper personnel to handle his opponent’s receiving threats. Whether you have physical advantages at every position or can’t stop a nosebleed, nothing addresses your defensive objectives better than loading the box with a single-high shell (to stop the run), playing tight to routes with man coverage (theoretically!), and taking a chance at a splash play in the backfield with additional rushers or blitzers.

This is the four-seam fastball on two-strike counts — intended to blow batters away by sheer force of will.

 

Top 10 defensive pass EPA, 2021 season (Rush 5+, Cover 1)
TEAM EPA
27.73
23.84
18.78
6.4
2.69
2.14
2.02
-0.83
-2.51
-4.12

The tactics: My players > Your players

There are multiple ways to play defense on passing downs. If you’re an old-school guy — or have pass rushers who create obvious mismatches — you may just line up in a “bear” front with a defensive lineman over the center and both guards, and two edge rushers ready to tear up the field. This forces offenses to play what’s called “man” or “big-on-big” protection, meaning each of the five protectors are in one-on-one protection against the rusher in front of them, and the running back is responsible for the most dangerous potential rushers remaining (typically, a linebacker).

Because the quarterback knows every player will be accounted for, he’ll often try to work through his entire progression, putting the onus of defensive success on pass rushers getting home before the quarterback locates a mismatch. (Use the 2021 Dallas Cowboys as a reference — they often aligned in five-man fronts to guarantee their edge rushers free rein to terrorize quarterbacks.)

MODERN-PASS-DEFENSE-01.png

In those bear looks, the running back can release on his route — so long as his protection responsibility doesn’t blitz, meaning a defense assumes the risk of having a linebacker out in space. If that makes you queasy as a play caller, an alternative (but more aggressive option) is to stay in an even front and “blitz the back,” rushing whichever linebacker aligns over the back and slanting the defensive line the opposite direction. This is a way to manipulate an offense based on its own intentions, forcing the pass protection to distribute a certain way to isolate the back on free rushers.

Referring back to the man-protection offensive lines used against bear fronts: If a defense aligns with just four down linemen, the protection moves from man to what is commonly referred to as a “half-slide.”

Half-slide, from my perspective, is just the same as man protection. But whichever lineman is left uncovered (typically a guard) now works to help the center on his most dangerous rush threat, giving the offense a numbers advantage on the most likely rushers (four protectors for three-down linemen). This leaves the running back and offensive linemen away from the slide responsible for the two most dangerous potential rushers: a defensive tackle, if it’s a guard; an edge rusher for a tackle; a linebacker for a running back.

MODERN-PASS-DEFENSE-02.png

The back still cannot release until he confirms that his most dangerous rusher is playing in coverage. If a defense has a bead on an offense’s tendencies in pass protection or knows the back is antsy to release on his route, blitzing the back is the optimal way to go about punishing the protection scheme.

It’s not foolproof, though. Because there’s an uncovered lineman, the offensive line is free to half-slide whichever direction it wants, possibly picking up the blitzer with a lineman and allowing the back to release. To maximize the pressure’s value and ensure the back can’trelease, the second linebacker in the box would need to “hug-rush” the back as part of his man coverage responsibilities — a coverage technique that gives the impression of added pressure.

Because it appears as though the defense is rushing six and there’s almost certainly a blitzer in the backfield, the ball is likely to come out quickly, putting pressure on the coverage defenders to disrupt the timing of the play with their physicality and leverage. (Just about every defense in the NFL will use this, but it’s typically reserved for third-down situations where it’s obvious the quarterback will want to push the ball far downfield.)

The teams to watch in 2022

Buccaneers
Chargers
Cowboys

Living in the world of man coverage without brackets, quarterback spies or safety help over the top takes some gumption defensively — which is why it’s usually hard to come by teams that consistently perform at the highest level with man blitzes on passing downs. The three teams I’m most confident can continue to accomplish this mode of operation in 2022 feature a pair of dominant edge rushers (and two of them have formidable interior defenders, too).

The Dallas Cowboys lost Randy Gregory this past offseason, but Micah Parsons (4.0 sacks in two games this season) is there to fill the void — and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has made this style of play work everywhere he’s coached. He’s a true bear-front enthusiast, so expect Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence to keep racing to the quarterback on every third down, and for those Cowboys interior linemen to make up for (some of) their lack of individual dominance with a plethora of stunts and twists. We need a few more weeks to determine whether this team can hold up in coverage long enough for it all to matter, but the defense’s viability will hinge on limiting explosive passes.

The Chargers have their own version of the bear-front attack under Brandon Staley. On top of Khalil Mack (4.0 sacks), the Chargers also boast Sebastian Joseph-Day, Austin Johnson and Morgan Fox as capable rushers in one-on-one opportunities. J.C. Jackson is still working all the way back from an ankle injury, but the fully healthy version of the Chargers’ defense looks to have all the ingredients needed to play tight coverage and affect the quarterback in the pocket. If there’s any place for concern, it would be with linebackers matching up with running backs or tight ends — and whether L.A. can consistently use its dime packages to mitigate those mismatches.

At the top of the list is Tampa Bay, which can get after the quarterback whichever way it pleases — the Buccaneers lead the NFL with 10 sacks through two weeks. The bear front fits naturally with this team, which plays in a 5-2 structure under head coach Todd Bowles. When in four-down, Bowles has every permutation of pressures that you can imagine, and his willingness to take chances with those pressures makes them dangerous in ways that other defensive coordinators may not be bold enough to try. Like Dallas, though, this team needs to perform well in coverage to maximize its man blitzes, and it certainly has to be better than what it was last season to keep its fastball available.

The teams to watch in 2022

49ers
Packers
Buccaneers
Vikings

We’ve covered the 49ers’ defensive approach, but the thing that makes them unique is how they employ players along the edges of their defense — be it pass rushers, slot defenders or safeties. Nick Bosa, Samson Ebukam and rookie Drake Jackson will align in “wide-nine” techniques (outside of tackles and tight ends) and tear up the field to control off-tackle runs. Their speed and violence on the edge give their slot defenders the space and time needed to fit the run in two-high safety shells, without the risk of leaving underneath areas wide open, making them useful against the run and play action.

With versatile safeties Talanoa Hufanga and Jimmy Ward playing in the seams behind this defense, Ryans can drop either player over a slot or tight end — and in the box as a primary run defender. That kind of multiplicity makes it that much harder to know whether a blitz is coming at all, let alone where it may be coming from.

The Packers and Vikings aren’t equals in talent — I’d comfortably say that Green Bay has equal/better talent that Minnesota everywhere beside safety and on the edge — but Joe Barry and Ed Donatell are similar in their tutelage, as defensive coordinators from the 3-4 world. That lends itself to multiplicity. Whether in the true odd front or a 2-4-5 nickel set, the defense can rotate strong or weak and play single high, or roll safeties over the top and play combinations of quarters and Cover 2.

The Packers don’t boast the same level of speed-rush potential that the 49ers (or Vikings) can employ at their respective peaks, but linebackers De’Vondre Campbell and rookie Quay Walker have the size and burst to add value as blitzers.


The Knuckleballers: Rush four, play two-high coverages

This is all anyone in football media has wanted to hear and talk about lately, and it’s with good reason. The eras of old — before the RPO and explosive-early down passes — called for the best defenses in the NFL to rush four and play Cover 1. And every defensive coach today aspires to accumulate enough talent to do so. Given the degree of difficulty to cover guys without help and commit to a world of tight/match coverage that doesn’t disguise itself very well, though, the world of quarters coverage is a salve.

Top 10 defensive pass EPA, 2021 season (rush 4, split-safety)
TEAM EPA
41.60
34.54
28.60
19.10
14.91
14.45
10.44
7.36
2.47
-3.94

The tactics

Technically, any zone call can have its rules altered to match routes as they distribute downfield. But quarters coverage naturally lends itself to match distribution, because vertical routes run into the leverage of deep defenders without warping the placement of the underneath zone droppers. In a nutshell, quarters is ultimately Cover 0 — with a four-man pass rush and underneath defenders to help. This plays well against the perimeter/lateral offensive schemes we see in today’s NFL, namely with outside zone and play actions built off of it.

To unlock the best of split-safety coverage, it requires a certain technical approach up front to deal with inside runs, because the safety who used to be in/near the box is out of the primary run fit. You can “stunt the front” one of two ways: running slants and twists to warp the angles for offensive linemen in pass protection and the run game — which is effective at closing gaps, but comes at the cost of edge rush; or you can play what’s called “primary-to-secondary” run fits with your defensive interior to make sure your defensive tackles only appear where they’re needed — which requires high levels of athletic ability and size from interior players.

No matter how you decide to play up front, calling a defense with light boxes means less speed rushing for your defensive line and less manufactured pressure via blitzing. What you lose in play-to-play pass rush, you gain in numbers and leverage against route combinations because of the nature of split-safety coverages.

The 12- to 16-yard throw is invaluable for an offense — it moves the chains and generates explosive offense at a much more sustainable rate than vertical throws 20-plus yards downfield. In two-high coverages, however, the windows on these passes become much tighter than in single-high, which makes it more likely that the ball is checked down. And those checkdowns are the throws at the very end of the quarterback’s progression, meaning the pass rush had additional time to get home.

MODERN-PASS-DEFENSE-07.png

Playing quarters or Cover 2 across the entire formation has its place. But the best part of the split-safety world is its multiplicity, combining the two to create Cover 6 (quarter-quarter-halves) looks. When there’s a clear matchup, formational or conceptual issue, Cover 6 can get you the best of both worlds — a numbers advantage or safety over the top on one side and just enough bodies to fit a perimeter run to the other.

The teams to watch in 2022

Bills
Eagles
Vikings
Buccaneers
Packers

The Bills are almost perfectly built to play defense without blitzing in 2022: a star edge rusher in Von Miller (and a healthy rotation of guys to play as secondary rushers), a strong interior force in Ed Oliver, a pair of star safeties in Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, and versatile corners to play alongside a lockdown coverage guy in Tre’Davious White (when he’s healthy). Taron Johnson is comfortable enough as a run fitter and good enough in coverage to play nickel personnel the majority of the game, and what this team boasts in coverage and pass rush takes all the pressure off linebackers Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds, giving them latitude to be downhill run fitters.

Philadelphia put forth a major overhaul to help DC Jonathan Gannon see his schematic goals come to fruition, adding James Bradberry and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson to round out a defensive backfield that already featured Darius Slay. Jordan Davis is both a long-term replacement for Fletcher Cox and the perfect running mate to stop interior runs and keep linebackers clean, and Gannon’s planned multiplicity up front confirms his trust in the secondary to make all the pieces fit together.


The defenses with the largest repertoires in 2022

Bills
Buccaneers
Chargers
Packers
Eagles

This is a new era, not defined by how powerful your greatest attributes are, but rather by if any weaknesses are easy to identify and exploit. Putting all of the pieces together, I anticipate each of these five defenses to have the most solutions to solve potential issues throughout the regular season.

Each of these teams were either in the top 10 in multiple categories last season or added the requisite talent to play multiple styles of defense successfully — be it tightening the screws in Cover 1 and forcing an offense to win one-on-one, throwing the kitchen sink in coverage rotations and zone pressures to force the quarterback to see the entire field, or sitting back and forcing an offense to dink-and-dunk perfectly over multiple drives to score.

The defenses we’ve come to define by one thing are on the verge of obsolete, and there’s an opportunity for a new golden age of defensive play callers in the NFL.

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”
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1 hour ago, Buffalochief2 said:

It’s a pretty good article.  I would post it for you to read but @HipKat says I don’t paste right and he will handle it.

I didn’t say you don’t do it right, I said just clean it up. Lower the font size. Remove those ridiculous embedded links and change the size of the pictures. Remove the spaces. I can make a video of how I do it if that helps. And by the way I posted the article from my phone. The only thing I can’t change is the size of the font

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”
6tu3em.jpg

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