Technology should sharpen defenders’ minds

Contrary to all the claims of high-tech spying that have gone around the NFL during the past year, stealing an opponent’s signal is sometimes rather simple.

During a 2002 regular season game against the New England Patriots, part of the Oakland Raiders’ defensive signals featured a piece of cardboard with a big colored dot that was displayed on the sideline. Then there would be a hand signal.

“The cardboard with the dot was a signal for the defensive front and the hand signal was for the coverage,” said New York Giants offensive lineman Grey Ruegamer, a backup with the Patriots at the time. “They varied the hand signals a little bit from the previous year, but it wasn’t real hard to figure out. So we’d look at the piece of cardboard and then at the hand signal and pretty much knew what the defense was.

“Not exactly complex stuff, but we’re talking about defensive guys after all.”

Despite the advance knowledge, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady completed only 18 of 30 for 172 yards as the Raiders beat New England 27-20. Still, for all the locker room jokes over the years about defensive players being close to the Neanderthal scale of evolution in the social order of football, here’s an upshot to the new coach-to-defensive player radio system: Defensive players – particularly those responsible for delivering the calls – may be forced to get more in-tune with what the defensive coordinator wants to do with the game plan.

Ultimately, defensive players will still have to learn plays, get instruction from defensive coaches and adjust to audibles by the offense. However, the days of relying mostly on pre-scripted plans by the coaches may be over.

“It’s almost like I’m managing the game a little more because not everybody can see the signal anymore, so it has to go through me,” said New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, an academic All-American at the University of Miami. “So I almost know that if it’s second-and-7, 10 minutes left in the second quarter, they just ran a run play, you figure more than likely they’re going to run a pass play, maybe a quick run play; in my head, I have an idea what the coach is going to call and if they’re coming out before I get that signal in my headset, I’ll just make the call.

“If the coordinator and the linebacker or whoever it is who’s getting the play, are on the same page, it will give the player a little more insight into why the coach is thinking that or setting up this, whatever it is. It’s almost like a different type of relationship.”

The reason for the increased thinking on the part of the defense is in reaction to what offenses may do to negate the effectiveness of the coach-to-defense radio system. There are schools of thought that some offenses may wait until the 15-second mark on the play clock – cutoff for the radio communication – to declare their personnel group. This approach, which Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy suggested earlier in the offseason that he expected teams to use, will lessen defenses’ time to react to formations and audibles.

Others believe that offenses will go with a faster call in order to run plays before the defense is able to get its signals in. There’s also a belief that offenses will use more of what is known as a “sugar huddle” (the players loosely standing around near the line of scrimmage) in order to keep the defense from being able to run a true huddle and get the play in.

“Whatever they try to do to us, we’re going to be all right,” Dallas Cowboys linebacker Zach Thomas said. “You can go back to using signals from the sideline if they want to go fast. The faster they go, the less they’re going to be able to read your hand signals. … But I think it’s going to make everybody pretty focused on what you’re trying to do.

“Everybody has a pretty good understanding of situations, how you want to play at certain times of the game. You may get more of that now because not everybody is going to see the call right away. It’s going to be good for players, especially the guys who are really smart.”

Photo Vilma against the Bengals on Saturday night.
(AP Photo/Al Behrman)

During Saturday’s preseason game against New Orleans, the Cincinnati Bengals offense wasted little time getting to the line to run plays.

“If the offense is going really fast, you can’t wait for the signal, you just have to line up,” Saints cornerback Mike McKenzie said. “We did a good job of communicating the defense around pretty quick with just the radio system, so that was good.”

In Vilma’s mind, every action that the offense tries to take will have some reaction or even advantage for the defense. With Indianapolis, for instance, it would probably be to the disadvantage of the Colts to wait until the 15-second mark to call a play or bring in a package of players.

“(Colts quarterback) Peyton Manning likes to use a lot of time, so (coming to the line at) 15 seconds is not good for him,” Vilma said. “He wants to get up to the line, audible, check out of something, show you a lot of hand signals, fake you out, whatever.”

“If they want to come to the line at 15 seconds, that’s fine. Then, if the defense changes formation, they might not have time to audible or check out of what they’re doing. That works for the defense just fine.”

In other words, the offense could end up out-thinking itself.

Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Aug 25, 2008