Sports Outside the Beltway

Versatile DBs Key for NFL Defenses

Len Pasquarelli, recognizing that the NFL is a league “where trends don’t last particularly long, and coaches understand that if they aren’t changing on defense they probably aren’t winning,” wonders what “the next hot trend” will be as offenses figure out the Tampa 2.

A survey of coordinators and position coaches this week didn’t elicit an overwhelming sentiment for anything dramatically new on the horizon. But the common denominator from many of the coaches was that changes continue to be made more in the secondary than in the front seven. For years, as the NFL toggled back and forth between the 3-4 and the 4-3 as the defenses of preference, the emphasis on change was up front. Now the focus seems to have switched to the secondary.

Clearly, the best pass defense is one that knocks down the quarterback before he can throw the ball. But there aren’t many new blitzes or rush angles to be developed, and so the move is more toward camouflaging coverages. “There’s definitely a lot of emphasis on changing things up in the back end,” Carolina coach John Fox said. “Sure, everything starts up front. But you’re seeing so many more combinations and mixes [in the secondary] now. It’s kind of shifted that way some, really. That’s where the evolution is right now.”

Actually, it’s more a de-evolution, as teams rely increasingly on Cover 3 and man-to-man packages. And that means, of course, a shift in the kind of personnel that defenses want to employ. A priority for every defense now is a safety with some cornerback-type cover skills, a guy who can move out and take on a wide receiver aligned in the slot. And coaches are again seeking cornerbacks who can come up in press coverage and play man-to-man.

In the past five to seven years, the focus had been on Cover 2 cornerbacks, edge defenders who could play great run support and whose coverage deficiencies might be hidden a bit by the scheme. But the move now is back to the basics, from both a schematic and personnel standpoint. Simpler, it seems, is becoming better.

There will always be situational defenses, of course. But, in large part because of the increase in no-huddle offenses and audibles at the line of scrimmage, the defensive emphasis of late has been to get away from the mass down-and-distance substitutions of the past 20 years. The more teams can succeed in their base defenses, the better, and that means having safeties and cornerbacks with varied skill sets.

“I don’t know if that’s a trend or not, because you’re always looking for guys who can do a lot of things for you,” Meeks said. “But I think, especially in the secondary, we’re looking for those guys more than ever. That’s where the game is going.”

The game keeps moving. Because running backs and tight ends are now so critical in the passing game, everybody, including linebackers, have to be able to cover. Safeties, long underrated, have to be able to cheat up to protect against the run but instantaneously become cornerbacks if a wide receiver has broken free.

The Dallas Cowboys have been struggling to find a versatile free safety since injuries forced Darren Woodson into retirement. Roy Williams is a superstar, with back-to-back-to-back Pro Bowls to his credit. But he’s not very good in coverage situations–or at least he wasn’t under the Bill Parcells-Mike Zimmer scheme–and needs help.

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