The "Greatest Show on Turf" Rams stretched defenses into some new thought patterns. (Getty Images)
One of the things I absolutely love about my job as executive producer of “NFL Matchup” is the amount of time I spend watching NFL coaching tape. It’s the visual foundation of the show, of course. More importantly, everything we talk about derives from thorough and detailed tape study. I can always hear Ron Jaworski, going back to our early years together, around 1989-90, telling me, “I don’t know what happened until I put in the tape”. As I’ve learned over time, truer words were never said.
For me, breaking down coaching tape is a systematic and comprehensive academic exercise that demands time, and then more time. I am continuously fascinated by the way in which 22 players move on each play, in a finite area of space, each side of the ball carefully and precisely planned and orchestrated by competing coaches. Believe it or not, coaches do not roll the ball out, and say, “Go make plays”. Sometimes it may look like that, but that is not how the game is coached and designed. Having had the good fortune to sit in NFL meeting rooms and attend training camps over the years, I can declare with certainty that the game is precisely taught, and coordinated, with little left to chance and spontaneity.
It is always fascinating when you see the game change and evolve. Rarely do you take note of these transformations in the initial stages; I’m not that smart (cue the snide comments). What immediately comes to my mind is the St. Louis Rams' offense in 1999, when Mike Martz was the offensive coordinator under Dick Vermeil. Most remember it for the remarkable story of Kurt Warner, who had been undrafted out of Northern Iowa in 1994, and had not thrown an NFL pass until 1998, when he attempted 11. That 1999 season evokes different memories for me. It was the first time I took note of a team utilizing three- and four-wide receiver personnel in normal down and distance situations as a standard feature of its offense. (I’m not suggesting it was the first historically, just the first time I really noticed it). First-and-10, second-and-3, it didn’t matter. The objective was to get Az-Zahir Hakim, and Ricky Proehl, the third and fourth receivers, matched, (or more correctly, mismatched) on the opponents third and fourth corners. The personnel construct proved very effective as the Rams scored 30 or more points in 13 of their 19 games, winning Super Bowl XXXIV.
The idea that a team’s third receiver (few teams had, or have four wide receivers the quality of the 1999 Rams) was better than the defense’s third, or slot corner, became a prevailing concept as the NFL advanced in the first decade of the 21st century. It was spread offense, NFL style. It clearly opened up more options with better matchups in the pass game, but “11” personnel – one back, one tight end, three wide receivers – offered much more than that. It provided the full playbook with all its dimensions. You still had a strong side running game with a line of scrimmage tight end, and you had 7 man pass protection concepts (five offensive linemen, the back, and the tight end) if you felt you needed it against a pressure, blitzing defense. High volume and favorable matchups: offensive coordinators liked the tactical opportunities “11” personnel presented, and more importantly, it afforded answers to any defensive problems.
Defenses responded. Slot corner, by necessity, continued to gain in importance and value. That player was not just your 3rd corner; in fact, often one of the starting corners moved inside because his skill set better fit the demands of the position. Think Charles Woodson in Green Bay, Antoine Winfield in Minnesota. The overriding point was that defensive coordinators predominantly matched up to “11” personnel with their nickel sub-package (at times dime, if it was third-and-long). They could then focus on dealing with it schematically. That strategic chess match, with all its permutations and variations, has been compelling to watch over the last 10 years or so.
Earl Thomas personifies the new breed of total coverage safeties. (Getty Images)
As we know, the NFL is cyclical. It’s a league of action and reaction, new ideas and counter measures. One manner in which the offense has responded is the increased utilization of two-tight end personnel, particularly if one of the tight ends was an excellent receiver, with the ability to run vertical routes. Think about it from a defensive coordinator’s perspective. The conventional, and time-honored approach to “12” personnel – one back and two tight ends – was to stay with your base personnel. But what happens when you can’t match up to one of the tight ends in the pass game? Antonio Gates in his prime, Aaron Hernandez, Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis. Athletically, you can put others in that category, like Jemichael Finley and Jared Cook. Quite frankly, the tight end does not have to be a great athlete; he just has to be a good receiver that can threaten and defeat both linebackers and safeties in man coverage.
Is the response then to play out of your nickel, so that you have a corner who can match up man-to-man on the receiving tight end? Are you comfortable with that in the run game? You have to understand the way coaches think. They want their defense to be able to solve problems that are presented by the offense. It’s easy as a philosophical abstraction to say, no problem, we’ll sacrifice run defense to limit explosive pass plays. But that’s not the way it works. You want to be in position, both from a personnel and tactical standpoint, to defend both effectively.
This is all prelude to a discussion of the safety position, its changing nature in the NFL and the resulting impact on the value of the position in the draft. Remember the 2010 and 2011 Giants, and the “Big Nickel”? They primarily played with 3 safeties as their base and sub-package defense, with Antrel Rolle aligned over the slot versus three-wide receiver personnel. It was not something I had remembered seeing on film as a foundation defense. It was fascinating to see it develop over that two-year period.
I have always thought watching the progression of NFL offense over the last decade, both with multiple wide receiver spread concepts and two tight end personnel, that safety was an increasingly important position. It’s hard to say whether NFL teams agree or not. There have been seven safeties selected in the top 15 since 2000: Roy Williams, Sean Taylor, Donte Whitner, Laron Landry, Eric Berry, Earl Thomas, and Mark Barron. (Rolle was the eighth pick in the 2005 draft but he came out of Miami as a corner). Speculation is both fun and futile, but it’s certainly interesting to ponder whether any of those players would be chosen that high in the 2013 draft.
The larger question is, what traits are now needed to play safety at a high level in the evolving NFL. There was a time when there was a clear delineation between strong safety and free safety, and the requisite skill sets that each position demanded. Strong safeties, in many ways, were glorified linebackers; bigger, more physical, able to play the run and match up man-to-man on the slower, less athletic tight ends that were then prevalent. Free safeties were better athletes, faster with more range, capable of roaming deep from sideline to sideline. All this derived from an earlier offensive era in which two backs, one tight end and two wide receivers was the league-wide personnel template.
It seems to me, and others may disagree, the safety position has been exceedingly slow to change and adjust as offensive concepts have expanded over time. In fact, I think you can make the easy argument that safety generally has not been seen as a premium position in the NFL. For years, the feeling among personnel people in the league was that you could get quality safeties beyond the first round. As is always the case with any position, there are numerous examples that make that point. John Lynch was a third-round pick, while Darren Woodson, Darren Sharper and Brian Dawkins were all second-round selections. Again, it brings us back to the same argument that infuses all discussion at this time of year: draft value. It often points to the different world view of personnel executives and scouts on the one hand, and coaches on the other. Value at the end of April has absolutely no meaning to coaches game-planning on a weekly basis in the fall and winter, especially when they don’t have the players to match up effectively, and therefore must limit their schemes to camouflage and compensate for weaknesses and limitations.
My sense from extensive tape study and many conversations is that defensive coaches would like to have interchangeable safeties, players with strong and free safety attributes, and therefore multi-dimensional in their scheme utilization. Again, what does it come back to, and what is the objective of defensive coordinators? Having the resources to solve problems presented by the multiplicity of offenses, both from a tactical and personnel perspective. If you cannot match up to an athletic receiving tight end in man coverage, you don’t feel real comfortable playing man. Your choices are reduced. The offense knows that, and can more easily exploit your defense. That’s the way it works on NFL Sundays. That’s how games are won and lost. That is as clear as the sun in the summer sky when you meticulously study tape.
COMING TOMORROW: A LOOK AT THE 2013 SAFETY CLASS
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