Reading the Defense - Offseason Report - Part 1
By Jene Bramel
June 21st, 2010

It's hard to believe that the 2010 season will be my fifth with Footballguys. Thanks to everyone for reading and welcome to those who are stumbling on the column for the first time. A few quick words of introduction for those new to Reading the Defense, then we'll get right into it. I love defense and the RTD is a column written for those who share my love of defensive football. FBG is a fantasy football site, and RTD will have a strong fantasy slant for those who play in individual defensive player leagues, but this column will always be written from a football fan's perspective. In addition to the fantasy analysis, I'll be including playbook diagrams and strategy discussion, analysis of the current defensive trends and schemes in the league and lots of pointed opinions on how teams are using their defenders. I'll have a healthy mix of interesting rate stats (tackle opportunity per game, pressure applied per snap, etc) and eyes-on film breakdowns.

In short, if you like defensive football, I think you'll enjoy RTD whether you play in IDP leagues or not.

In past years, the RTD Offseason Report has been one big article. For ease of reading and to allow for more in-depth looks into the most interesting situations, I'll be splitting it up into three installments to be released over the next few weeks. Part one will be an examination of the coaching and scheme changes of the 2010-11 offseason and include thoughts on some new trends affecting the NFL (and IDP) landscape. Part two will breakdown this offseason's key free agent movements and draft day decisions and work through some early ADP data as part of a larger discussion on how to take advantage of a disciplined tiering process in IDP drafts. Finally, the third installment will end with an early From The Gut style look at my strongest opinions about this season's defensive players and a fun look at using selected rate stats to learn whether a defensive player is under or overrated (on the field and in your fantasy league) in a way both statheads and non-statheads can enjoy.

Let's kick it all off with a favorite RTD pastime - breaking down this offseason's coaching and scheme changes.

2010 Scheme and Coaching Changes

Buffalo To Use 3-4 Front This Year

The Bills are joining the still-growing number of teams to install the 3-4 as their base defensive front. New defensive coordinator George Edwards hasn't provided specific details on what kind of 3-4 he will use, but there are indications that it will resemble the hybrid, 1-gap front style that Nick Saban used when George Edwards first joined the Miami coaching staff in 2005. If so, we'll see an aggressive front with more man and matchup zone coverages than most 3-4 fronts use and the ability to flex to a 4-3 easily. Over the years, I've written many columns busting the "avoid 3-4 ILBs" myth. Paul Posluszny will be yet another data point proving the productivity of 3-4 ILBs this year. He'll likely fill the same role that Zach Thomas did in this defensive scheme in Miami, playing the covered WILB in a pursuit role on 3-4 downs and flexing to MLB on the rare 4-3 downs. That isn't to suggest he'll be racking up 120 solos, but 95+ solo tackles is well within reach. Up front, Kyle Williams may retain more of his value than expected and it's worth watching the DE competition closely for potential value from Dwan Edwards.

Miami To Change 3-4 Philosophy

The Dolphins put a gag order on their coaching staff this winter, which kept us from learning anything of value after Mike Nolan was named Miami's defensive coordinator. But Nolan has been talking recently, albeit only generically, and a close look at the Dolphins' personnel moves this offseason leaves plenty of room for us to speculate. Before we do, however, it's worth noting for those who are new to this column and may not be versed in defensive schemes that there are two main branches of the 3-4 front. One branch, favored during the 1980s by coaches like current Miami vice president of football operations Bill Parcells, uses 2-gap concepts along the defensive line. The other branch, used predominately today, uses 1-gap concepts along the line and functions much like a 4-3 front (check my defensive guide for much more detail on these differences and more). Nolan cut his teeth and has had great success with the more aggressive 1-gap 3-4 front. Reading between the lines, I think it's clear that the Dolphins will be moving toward Nolan's style of 3-4 this year. Nolan said last month that the Dolphins will be able to "tilt" 4-3, made aggressive, all-around linebacker Karlos Dansby a priority in free agency and moved the active, disruptive Randy Starks inside to NT. All three moves strongly suggest 1-gap 3-4, the 3-4 flavor most friendly to IDP owners. We'll have much more to say on the Dansby situation in the next installment - I think the beat writer reports on Dansby's likely role are incorrect, but suffice to say that I think Dansby, Starks (who could be another Jay Ratliff in the making) and Yeremiah Bell should all be more than worthy of consideration this year.

Cincinnati To Use More 3-4 Elements

It seems every offseason we hear that Marvin Lewis might be working toward installing a 3-4 front and every season those plans never materialize. This offseason, there were no such rumors and the Bengals' defense was coming off its best season in years. Naturally, the talk of OTAs and minicamp has been the 3-4 looks that the team has begun installing in practice. For now, there's probably not much to affect the value of the Cincinnati defenders, who haven't been statistical studs due to platoon situations and marginal talent in recent years anyway. The most notable story to watch in camp is how Michael Johnson's move to SLB affects the rest of the defense, particularly Rey Maualuga, who could finally move inside to MLB if Johnson works out as a SLB on base defensive downs. Johnson may also be the next every-down LB to have added value should he remain classified as a DL.

Denver's 3-4 May Be More Aggressive

It's really hard to get a clear read on Josh McDaniels. The Denver defense certainly struggled down the stretch, but there's little question that Mike Nolan squeezed every drop of potential out of his personnel last year. The beginning of the end for the McDaniels and Nolan partnership apparently occurred when Mike Nolan refused to back off an aggressive mix of run blitzes in a game late last season. So it's tough to understand why McDaniels would tab an even more aggressive Don Martindale, who favors the complicated hybrid schemes made successful by the Ryan family over the years, as Nolan's replacement. For statistical purposes, it's another great scenario for D.J. Williams, who should continue to see lots of opportunity in a similar WILB role but could get more big-play opportunities in pass rush under Martindale.

Kansas City's 3-4 May Be Less Aggressive

Todd Haley parted ways with Clancy Pendergast this offseason and brought in veteran defensive mind Romeo Crennel to take over the Chiefs' 3-4 scheme. Pendergast and Crennel both have hybrid 3-4 backgrounds, but Crennel's schemes haven't been as aggressive. Expect more 2-gap concepts in Kansas City this year, fewer blitzes and plenty of Cover-2 from the secondary. The scheme won't have as much impact on the statistical upside of the Chiefs' defenders as how Crennel chooses to deploy them. With luck, the four way ILB platoon will end and at least one ILB will become an every-down player. It will also be critical to see which safety Crennel uses in a Rodney Harrison like role. Kendrick Lewis, who has been lining up at SS early this offseason, may end up becoming a sneaky upside target and sleeper if the Chiefs choose to use Eric Berry in coverage.

Oakland Considering Hybrid Elements

There's been plenty of turnover in the Oakland defense in recent seasons and this offseason was no exception. Underachieving tweeners Quentin Moses and Kamerion Wimbley were added as potential SLBs, and veteran MLB Kirk Morrison was traded after the Raiders drafted top overall ILB prospect Rolando McClain with the 8th pick in the draft. During the personnel shuffling, Tom Cable also hinted that the team was looking to do some new things with the scheme. Most notably, he cryptically mentioned a hybrid front with the possibility of 3-4 looks. When OTAs began, however, beat writers were reporting very little 3-4 fronts during practice. The personnel is there to run the 3-4, but expect the three man fronts to come mostly on nickel downs and for the team to stick with its usual Cover-1 on base downs. There's no reason to worry about McClain's upside whether the Raiders use lots of 3-4 or not.

Perry Fewell May Bring Some Tampa-2 To New York

The emphasis here is may. Fewell's Tampa-2 background stems from his days coaching with Lovie Smith in St. Louis and Chicago. Though those teams played some Tampa-2, they were more aggressive, multiple -4-3 front teams. That more aggressive philosophy carried over into Fewell's years in Buffalo, where the Bills rushed more than four defenders over a third of the time and ranked 11th in the number of zone blitzes called in 2008. Still, expect some Tampa-2 concepts to filter into the Giants' defensive playbook. With the uncertainty at MLB and SLB, Michael Boley should benefit in more ways than one if he can stay healthy as the every-down WLB.

Philadelphia To Use Some 3-4 Fronts

Thanks to the solid group of beat writers in Philadelphia, we were treated to lots of discussion about the 3-4 fronts that Sean McDermott was installing during the early OTA practices. Despite the number of words written about the 3-4, however, it's unlikely that the Eagles will use the 3-4 as anything more than a change of pace. Expect to see lots of three man nickel fronts, but few 3-4 looks on base snaps. Unless the Eagles show something different in the early preseason, there's no reason to downgrade Trent Cole (or Stewart Bradley).

Washington To Run 3-4

Jim Haslett may not have used many 3-4 concepts in St. Louis, but he's had his best defensive years coaching and coordinating 3-4 fronts. Haslett has said he'll transition slowly, using a hybrid front philosophy at first. That's not likely to last long, though, and we should expect the 3-4 front to predominate on base downs from the first snaps of the preseason. Haslett will probably tilt toward the zone blitz fronts he used in Pittsburgh, which should make for good big play value from his linebackers. Big play leaguers will see strong numbers from Brian Orakpo and Andre Carter may do better in this 3-4 than he did in San Francisco. It's also worth watching the WILB competition alongside London Fletcher. The winner of that battle could have a nice statistical season, especially if they stay on the field every down.

Pete Carroll And the "Elephant"

Ask old school NFL fans what or who comes to mind when they hear the defensive term "Elephant" and they'll likely say Charles Haley, who was the most accomplished Elephant rusher under George Seifert in the 1980s. The term Elephant hasn't been used regularly in recent years, but the role - a pass rusher who moves around the formation as a standup fourth defensive lineman - has continued to be used with success across the league. In fact, many of the league's 1-gap 3-4 fronts could be termed 4-3 fronts with an Elephant rusher. Terrell Suggs, Julian Peterson and Jason Taylor, among other lesser talents, have played roles very similar to the original Elephant rushers in San Francisco. Pete Carroll regularly used an Elephant at USC and the term is gaining favor again after Trevor Scott and Parys Haralson have been labeled as Elephant rushers in their local media and Carroll himself has been using the term regularly this offseason. In reality, though, the Seattle defense won't change much philosophically. Carroll's 4-3 Under with or without an Elephant rusher marries very nicely with the Tampa-2 philosophy that defensive coordinator Gus Bradley used often in 2009. It's still unclear exactly how the Seahawks will use promising OLB talents Aaron Curry and David Hawthorne. The WLB (odds-on favorite seems to be Hawthorne) should have nice statistical upside, especially if he remains on the field in the nickel. If Curry eventually earns the Elephant rusher role, he could have nice value in big play leagues. This defense should be fun to track this summer.

There are a few other interesting philosophical issues worth tracking through the summer (Chicago possibly trending toward a more traditional Tampa-2 with Rod Marinelli as DL coach, Jacksonville ending its 3-4 experiment and possibly moving toward a more downhill 4-3 than they've had in previous seasons, among others) and there are always surprises during the first days of training camp and the early preseason games. Stick with us at Footballguys and we'll keep you ahead of your competition.

In recent seasons, I've ended the preseason RTD with thoughts on some of the league's budding defensive trends, from the rise (and now burgeoning fall) of the Tampa-2, the growth of the 1-gap 3-4 front, the increasing variability of the kinds of nickel packages across the league and the high number of platoon players used by today's defensive coordinators. This year, three things have my interest.

Emerging Defensive (and IDP) Trends

It's Time To Take the 3-4 NT Seriously

The NFL is clearly in a cycle favoring aggressive 3-4 and multiple front schemes right now. IDP owners have (rightly) fussed over the resulting drop in the number of talented, all-around 4-3 defensive ends. Instead of focusing on the fact that there are more 3-4 ends that are likely to put up mediocre statistics, I think there's a new class of player that we may be able to exploit cheaply - the NT in an aggressive 1-gap 3-4 front. In some respects, astute drafters have already recognized the value of interior linemen like Jay Ratliff. Kelly Gregg, Haloti Ngata and Jamal Williams are others who have had DL2 caliber seasons recently. But I'd bet that most owners would still default to the 4-3 DE > 4-3 UT > 3-4 DE > 3-4 NT algorithm that has stood the test of time for the past couple of decades. I think the 3-4 NT gets shortchanged there in today's landscape and that you should now begin to consider a handful of NTs as your DL3. Watch out for guys like Kyle Williams, Dan Williams, a potentially rebounding Jamal Williams, B.J. Raji, and Randy Starks alongside the other established options.

SLBs Are No Longer Glorified Blocking Dummies

The long standing default among IDP owners has been to all but ignore strong side backers - and with good reason. Over the years, the strong side linebacker grew into a base defense only player who crashed into the line, ate up blockers and allowed his more athletic teammates in the back seven to make plays against the run. An under-appreciated talent to be sure, but one that wasn't given consistent opportunity to have an impact statistically. But the landscape is changing. Players like Michael Boley, David Thornton and Karlos Dansby began chipping away at conventional wisdom recently and Brian Cushing's top five all-around performance last year should have shaken up any remaining holdouts from their comfortable perches in the MLB>WLB>SLB tree. Like the 3-4 ILB, ignore an every-down SLB with range and coverage skill at your own risk. Aaron Curry may join the ranks of 80+ solo, multiple big play SLBs this year.

Once Threatened, the In-the-box SS Is Now an Endangered Species

I first wrote about the changing nature of the safety position in the NFL in 2006, noting that teams were quickly souring on safeties who struggled in coverage. High draft picks and big hitters like Adam Archuleta and Michael Lewis were being dumped by their teams in favor of better all-around talents. The rise of the spread offense and multiple wide receiver packages as a base offense has continued to put pressure on defenses with weak coverage links at the safety position. And, while teams still like safeties that can fill quickly and aggressively against the run, we're just as likely to see a strong all-around free safety rack up numbers than the traditional strong safety. Last season saw a number of strong safeties in the top ten, but those strong safeties also had strong coverage numbers. Guys like LaRon Landry, Dashon Goldson, Danieal Manning, Antoine Bethea and Eric Weddle all had played at 70 solo tackle or better paces for the season. It's yet another case where an established default (SS > FS) can lead you astray if you're not able to find the loopholes in the law.

In the next installment, I'll break down the major player movement and position battles to watch this summer and start looking at some ADP data to exploit for those of you looking for early summer sleepers and tier busters. Until then, questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to bramel@footballguys.com.