Scheme, philosophical changes aplenty in 2010

Doug Farrar
Yahoo Sports

Each year, NFL teams tinker with their schemes and playbooks, resulting in everything from subtle changes to complete overhauls. During the last few seasons, two schematic changes have spread faster than any others: a higher percentage of shotgun formations and the increasing number of teams employing 3-4 defensive fronts (at least in hybrid looks). In 2010, the 10 most prominent scheme changes range from obvious fits to Frankenstein experiments that threaten to leave teams in far worse shape than before. Some people believe that it's more about the players than the schemes, but it's really a balanced equation.

Here, for better or worse, are 10 seismic shifts expected to take place:

Redskins' shift from 4-3 to 3-4 defense

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Redskins defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth(notes) lines up in 2009.
(Chris Gardner-US Presswire)

This has been the most publicized scheme change of the offseason, in large part because of Albert Haynesworth's dissatisfaction with his move to nose tackle. However, Haynesworth's complaint has overshadowed how the move will affect other defensive players. Assuming that new defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has no intention of moving between three- and four-man fronts as many "3-4" defenses do, ends Brian Orakpo(notes) and Andre Carter(notes) could see upswings in their sack and pressure totals as they move to pure pass-rushing roles as outside linebackers. Carter has been an unheralded pass rusher in the past three seasons (25½ sacks since 2007), and Orakpo was much more effective at the line in his rookie year of 2009. There are two primary questions surrounding Washington's switch. First, Will Haynesworth play nose tackle or move outside to 3-4 end (the hypothesized reason for his reported recent weight loss)? And second, How will London Fletcher(notes), the team's longtime tackle machine, handle a new scheme?

Bills' shift from 4-3 to 3-4 defense
The Buffalo Bills are also making the move to the trendy defense, which new coordinator and former Dolphins linebackers coach George Edwards will install. Edwards will probably begin without last year's biggest star in the front seven – end Aaron Schobel(notes) appears to be on the road to retirement. Schobel led the team in sacks last year with 10, and he'd be an interesting option at outside linebacker. The Dolphins hope that 2009 first-round pick Aaron Maybin(notes), who was ineffective as a rookie, will blossom at outside linebackers. Similar switches have helped highly draft 'tweeners, such as Tyson Jackson(notes), Robert Ayers(notes) and Derrick Harvey(notes). Inside linebackers Paul Posluszny(notes) and Andra Davis(notes) should have easier transitions – Davis has excelled in 3-4 defenses in Cleveland and Denver, and Posluszny played in Penn State's 3-4. The Bills also picked up former Ravens end Dwan Edwards(notes) for his production and experience, and selected Central Florida's Terrell Troup in the second round of the draft to alternate with Kyle Williams at nose tackle. Add in their excellent secondary, and the Bills might have the right personnel for the 3-4 change.

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The Giants' Clint Sintim(notes) sacks quarterback Tony Romo(notes) in 2009.
(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Giants' shift from Cover 2 to Tampa 2 defense
Former Bills defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has been asked to turn around a New York Giants defense that was springing leaks all over the place in 2009, and he'll be doing it without an important star. Middle linebacker Antonio Pierce(notes) was released and then retired because of injury concerns. Pierce was expendable because Fewell is installing a Tampa 2 defense, and he'll need a middle linebacker who can drop into coverage – which distinguishes the Tampa 2 from a Cover 2. Jonathan Goff(notes) had the inside track until the G-Men signed veteran Keith Bulluck over the weekend and promised him the starting job. Bulluck has been dynamic in pass coverage in the past, but there are questions about his ability to do so when coming off knee surgery at age 33. Veteran outside linebacker Michael Boley(notes) should fit the new scheme better with his athleticism, and Clint Sintim is the only starting linebacker for the G-men to crack 240 pounds. That's great for pass coverage – as is the front four's increased responsibility to rush the passer – but the Giants could struggle with stopping the run. Second-round pick Linval Joseph(notes), a big tackle with penetrating ability, should help in the long term.

Bills' shift from base offense to option looks
Perhaps no team is more in "Extreme Makeover" mode than the Bills this season, and that's understandable if you got a good look at the offense they put on the field last year. New head coach Chan Gailey has a great deal of experience in bringing college option offenses to the NFL with success. He helped install the "Slash" packages in Pittsburgh for Kordell Stewart in the 1990s and did an amazing job with third-string quarterback Tyler Thigpen(notes) while serving as the Chiefs offensive coordinator in 2008. With injuries shelving his two main signal-callers (Brodie Croyle(notes) and Damon Huard(notes)), Gailey went with a hybrid spread/power set known as the Pistol formation, which ignited an anemic offense. None of Buffalo's quarterbacks projects well as an option passer, but none of them were really successful in pro sets last year, either. The X-factor here is first-round pick C.J. Spiller(notes), who can provide great versatility as a back, receiver, returner, and point man in whatever option sets Gailey chooses to use. If you see no-quarterback sets in Buffalo, as you've seen in Miami over the last few seasons, don't be surprised.

Broncos' shift from zone to man blocking
Second-year head coach Josh McDaniels' campaign to eliminate seemingly every aspect of the franchise that didn't have his name on it, a plan which began in 2009, extended to the gradual decline of a zone-blocking scheme that had defined the Broncos for more than two decades. The final straw was when center Casey Wiegmann(notes), a quality zone center who's much better at chips and combos than moving defensive tackles off the point of attack, was deemed expendable this offseason and eventually rejoined the Chiefs. Going forward, it appears as if McDaniels will entrust the center and left guard positions to rookies J.D. Walton(notes) and Zane Beadles(notes), respectively. Both players are talented (Walton is particularly well-suited for the power-blocking game), though asking kids to step in right away is always risky business. With nonpareil left tackle Ryan Clady(notes) out for an unknown amount of time with a torn patellar tendon, it could be personnel inexperience more than scheme transitions that sees the line backfire on McDaniels. Still, the moves have been his to make.

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Cardinals RB Beanie Wells(notes) runs against the Rams in 2009.
(Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Cardinals' shift from pass-heavy to power running offense
This change was predicated on Kurt Warner's(notes) retirement and the uncertainty surrounding Matt Leinart's(notes) abilities as a starter, but the roots go back to Ken Whisenhunt's offensive philosophy. When the Arizona Cardinals' head coach was the offensive coordinator for the Steelers, he called the plays for the 2004 team that had the lowest pass-run ratio (0.64) since the advent of the 16-game season in 1978, with 618 rushing attempts and 358 passing attempts. That Steelers team went 15-1, and the 2005 team (379 passes and 549 runs) won the Super Bowl. The Cards don't have the dominant defense that those Pittsburgh teams boasted, but Whisenhunt does have the same kind of rushing committee he had in the Steel City – Beanie Wells is ready to play the role of Jerome Bettis, while Tim Hightower(notes) and LaRod Stephens-Howling(notes) can mix things up as Fast Willie Parker(notes) once did. The 2009 Cards threw the ball 594 times and ran 365 times; things will be much more balanced in 2010.

Jets' shift from extremely run-heavy to pass-balanced offense
Speaking of run-pass ratio, the 2009 Jets put together the second-lowest pass-run ratio of the 16-game-season era (0.70) with 607 runs and just 393 passing attempts, Both the '04 Steelers and '09 Jets made it to the AFC championship game, where they were both taken down by more dynamic offenses. As Whisenhunt did with Ben Roethlisberger(notes) in 2005, it's now the task of New York Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to bring second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez(notes) more into the game plan. Sanchez needs to be able to make more plays downfield and have the offense rely on his specific skills. As he went through his rookie year, Sanchez displayed that ability more often, amassing solid stats in the playoffs against the Bengals and Colts. The Jets' passing offense will be built around play action and a moving pocket, which plays to the young quarterback's strengths – he has a prodigious ability to sell the fake and he shows great potential with his effective mobility. If the Jets can dial down the run/pass percentage to about 60/40 with their defense and coaching, a Super Bowl is not out of the question – just as it happened for the 2005 Steelers.

Steelers' shift from pass-heavy to power running offense
The move from Whisenhunt to new offensive coordinator Bruce Arians brought a very different offense to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The team that won Super Bowl XLIII was based on Roethlisberger's ability to make plays out of the shotgun despite a sub-par pass-blocking line. Even if off-field events had not conspired to leave the Steelers without their starting quarterback for at least the first four games of the season, changes needed to be made. Roethlisberger was bailing out far too often, and the hits were adding up. Rashard Mendenhall(notes) gained 1,108 yards on just 242 carries and made only 12 starts in his second season. Receiver Hines Ward(notes) is the latest to call for a more ground-based attack, and that missive appears to go all the way up to the highest floors of the Steelers' front office. Even when Big Ben comes back, expect a more even ratio than 2009's 1.37 pass-run ratio, the highest in franchise history.

Bears' "Martzification" of their offense
On the other hand, the Chicago Bears have moved decisively from a ground-first battle plan, and that shift is about to become more pronounced. Former offensive coordinator Ron Turner put things in Jay Cutler's(notes) hands, and Cutler responded by giving the ball to the opposition more than any other quarterback – his 26 picks led the league going away, and he was the only non-rookie signal-caller to throw at least 20 interceptions. Cutler could assess equal blame to a ravaged offensive line and an iffy group of receivers, but the addition of coordinator Mike Martz could compound those issues. Each time Martz takes over an offense, three trends take over: a quick upswing in total passing yards, a huge increase in four- and five-wide receiver sets, and the disappearance of a team's tight ends as receiving threats – bad news when Greg Olsen(notes) is the Bears' best receiver. Martz teams tend to be sack-heavy as well because of the protection challenges inherent in his pseudo-spread offenses. Cutler could wind up with the worst stats of his career … or on injured reserve halfway through the season.

Rams' shift from West Coast to shotgun
Most teams tend to be slightly more efficient in shotgun formations – the combination of sample size and increased protection concepts make the shotgun a great option for most offenses. But last year, the St. Louis Rams went shotgun on almost 40 percent of their plays, and were much worse when they did; they had a minus-19.2 percent Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric in "regular" formation and minus-40.3 percent in shotgun, according to Football Outsiders. But the Rams will be well-served to give it another go – not only is 2009 first-round pick Jason Smith(notes) a far better left tackle in shotgun sets, but 2010 first-round pick Sam Bradford(notes) took exactly one snap under center in his abbreviated 2009 season at Oklahoma. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur prefers a traditional West Coast offense from his days in Philly, but it would be wise to expect more shotgun than anything else as the Rams try to re-tool their lackluster offense.

Other changes to watch
Oakland Raiders' move to more three-man fronts; Cleveland Browns' experimentation with West Coast offense and option looks; Cincinnati Bengals' three-man fronts in passing downs; Miami Dolphins' "flex fronts" with a new defensive coordinator and nose tackle; the San Francisco 49ers' move from heavy shotgun to traditional smashmouth.