D-linemen could come off board in a hurry

D-linemen could come off board in a hurry

Carolina Panthers head coach John Fox turned almost wistful when University of Florida defensive end Derrick Harvey's name came up in conversation earlier this month at the NFL owners meetings in Palm Beach, Fla.

"He's not going to be there when we pick," said Fox, whose team has the No. 13 overall pick in the NFL draft starting April 26. Fox, who was the only NFL head coach to attend Harvey's pro day workout March 18, was almost forlorn, as if he was a teenage boy having just been turned down for a date by a pretty girl. Perhaps that seems extreme, but when you're one of 32 head coaches chasing the Lombardi Trophy, the subjects of your affection can sometimes get a bit out of kilter.

And while defensive linemen with pass-rushing abilities like Harvey have always been popular in the NFL, they may have reached a height this offseason after what the NFL watched the New York Giants do in the playoffs to the likes of Jeff Garcia, Tony Romo, Brett Favre and Tom Brady.

The Giants turned four pass-based offensive attacks led by four Pro Bowl quarterbacks into virtual tomato cans. Over the four playoff games New York won, only the Green Bay Packers reached the 20-point mark and even Favre was harassed into two critical interceptions during the final game of his career. The Tampa Buccaneers, Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots were limited to 14, 17 and 14 points, respectively. Only Brady was able to manage more than 250 yards passing.

The way the Giants did that was based around the performance of three standout pass rushers, ends Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan and hybrid end/tackle Justin Tuck.

"Everything that they did on defense – the blitzes, the coverages – revolved around what they did up front with those three guys," Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "And if they had the other guy (end/linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka), it would have been even more."

Or as another defensive coach said: "The Giants covered almost every weakness they had on defense with those three guys. Really, their safeties were awful going into the playoffs and they're playing with Sam Madison at one cornerback. He can't run anymore. The linebackers are solid, but not special, certainly not in coverage. I thought they were going to get picked apart by either Dallas or New England, but the guys up front wouldn't allow it to happen."

In a league where copycat is a way of existence, expect everybody to do more of the same.

"I think you're going to see even more of that in the next couple of years," Ryan said.

Or as Fox put it: "We had a good pass rush when we made it to the Super Bowl (in the 2003 season), but the emphasis on speed up front has gotten that much greater. The Giants are basically putting four defensive ends out there and running right past people."

Harvey figures to go in the first half of the first round. (US Presswire)

Enter Harvey, who is one of perhaps five D-linemen who could go in the top 10 picks this year. He could join the likes of ends Chris Long of Virginia and Vernon Gholston of Ohio State, and tackles Glenn Dorsey of LSU and Sedrick Ellis of USC. In fact, the emphasis on speed rushers is so strong that New England, which has the No. 7 overall pick via last year's draft trade with the San Francisco 49ers, has had Dorsey in for a personal workout and is contemplating a trade up for him, according to a source close to the team and another close to the player. The last time New England used a pick in the top 10, it selected versatile defensive lineman Richard Seymour with the sixth pick in the 2001 draft.

Interestingly enough, Brady and New England are part of the reason for the added emphasis on pressure. Last season, the Patriots called for passes on nearly 60 percent of their offensive plays. Beyond that, they constantly played in three- and four-receiver sets, putting Brady in the shotgun and using the running game as a change of pace rather than a staple. Add in the league-wide emphasis on more spread formations (Patriots coach Bill Belichick has reportedly spent plenty of time talking with Florida coach Urban Meyer over the past two years) and you have a formula for defensive evolution.

"We're in another era of the great quarterbacks, so what do you expect the emphasis to be?" former Baltimore coach Brian Billick said. "If you have Peyton Manning or Tom Brady or Tony Romo, you want the ball in their hands as much as possible. That means a lot of shotgun and a lot of spread formation."

And in order to fight it, you need a lot of speed.

"If the quarterback is in the shotgun already or you know that the most dangerous running play they're going to have is a draw, how do you respond," Ryan said. "You put the speed rushers out there and chase the offense around. It's not rocket science like that."

Playing this way has been popular since the 1970s, when the Pittsburgh Steelers used undersized defensive tackles to create a pass rush. In the 1990s, the Dallas Cowboys and then-coach Jimmy Johnson perfected the modern version of one-gap defense, Johnson having his defensive lineman simply run upfield as fast and as furiously as possible.

The difference now is that teams like the Giants are doing that almost from first down. Tuck played more tackle in the playoffs than either starting tackle, Fred Robbins or Barry Cofield.

"You might as well start guys like that," Fox said. "It's not like you're going to get the other team to road grade you. With Indianapolis and New England, they have really talented interior offensive lineman. (Patriots left guard Logan) Mankins is as good as anyone. But he's not one of these 340, 350 pounders who's just going to maul a guy like Tuck (who is 6-foot-5, 274 pounds). You still want to wear down those guards, but if you're trying to collapse the pocket, you're better off doing it with speed."

Again, that gets back to Harvey, who might be the best hybrid lineman in the draft. As a sophomore, Harvey helped Florida dominate Ohio State in the BCS National Championship Game, playing much of the game at defensive tackle. Harvey is built with a thick upper body and long arms, which means he has the power and leverage to handle interior offensive linemen.

"He's built now," Fox said with almost a sense of longing.

The kind of longing that goes with chasing a title.