Every time you turn around, somebody is reminding you that the NFL has become a passing league. Through a combination of offense-friendly rule changes, innovative passing concepts, and vastly improved QB coaching at the high school and college levels (not to even mention the excellent private tutoring out there), passing offenses in the NFL are better and more efficient than ever.
I agree wholeheartedly that passing rules in the NFL. It’s easy to hear that, and read it, and conclude that the running game doesn’t really matter, though, and that’s not the case. In fact, I would say that the ability to be very sound in run defense is the most important factor in defending the pass.
That may be tough to get your head around, but let’s explore the idea, by first beginning with offense. The offense is going to do something, and all 11 guys generally know what that something is. The defense is reading keys, and trying to figure out what it will be, but they never really know until the play is underway. This is the fundamental advantage of the offense.
Embed this thought - you can lose games just as easily on defense by failing to stop the run, as you can by failing to stop the pass. The reason for that is because failure to stop the run very often causes failure to stop the pass.
Since the whole offense is working together to execute a known activity, the defense must also stay on the same page, and read the action the same way. If they read run, there will be a certain tactical approach; if they read pass, it will be a different tactical approach. The problems start coming when some defenders read run and others read pass, and that’s what makes play action so effective.
There are a couple of ways to be really sound against both run and pass, and we’ve seen good defenses take both approaches:
1. The Steelers way is to play lots of matchup zone/quarters defense in neutral or run downs, have Troy Polamalu key hard on any run action, and fill as the eighth man in the gap containment scheme, even though he’s starting from outside the box. This works really well when the Steelers are good on the defensive line, and at ILB.
2. The Jets way is to be excellent in outside man-to-man coverage, and to trust those guys to take away the WRs with minimal help. That allows them to play one of their safeties in the box, and to use one single-high safety. You need excellent CBs, or this falls apart quickly when your guys are getting beaten downfield.
Let’s call the Steelers way the seven-in-the-box philosophy, and the Jets way the eight-in-the-box philosophy. Most defenses use a 2-deep shell most of the time, and that leads them to effectively use a 7.5-in-the-box philosophy. That is, when they think a pass is coming, it’s straight Cover-2, and when they think a run is coming, they drop one of the safeties, and it becomes either Cover-1 or Cover-3.
If you think back to the Tampa Bay teams of the 1990s, this is what was going on. John Lynch was the box safety when they thought a run was coming. Really, most teams still try to play defense this way, by guessing based on down-and-distance, and opponent-specific tendencies. It can work pretty well, especially if you have good players on the defensive side of the ball.
The Broncos are playing a lot of seven-in-the-box stuff this year, using a broad mixture of deep shells - from Cover-2, to Cover-3, to quarters, to Cover-6. What’s primarily allowing them to do this is the drafting of Derek Wolfe and the use of him at DE. I’d like to digress and discuss that for a moment.
I viewed Wolfe before the draft as a pass-rushing DT, but the Broncos appear to have seen him more as a base DE, with inside pass-rush ability in sub packages. Wolfe uniquely played all over the defensive line at the University of Cincinnati, so he flashed a very versatile skill set for talent evaluators.
Usually, a 4-3 defense will have two 300-pound inside guys and two 270-pound outside guys up front. The Broncos have three 300-pound guys, and one 270-pound guy in Elvis Dumervil. It’s not really a standard 4-3, but more like a hybrid between 4-3, 3-4, and 5-2. The scheme up front borrows from all three ways of thinking.
Effectively, the three big guys (Wolfe, Justin Bannan, and Kevin Vickerson) and the two outside guys (Dumervil and Von Miller) will attack specific gaps, and leave two linebackers (Joe Mays and Keith Brooking, lately) to read the run action and attack downhill. As long as the Broncos front seven wins their battles, this allows them to keep their four secondary guys deeper, and at most, task one of the safeties with buzzing in as the eighth man, ala Polamalu.
The problem comes when the defense isn’t stopping the run well, because that leads to rushed reads in the name of trying to get to a spot quickly, and make a play. When this starts happening, play action kills a defense. You end up being damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.
If a defense knows its front seven has the run game accounted for, that allows the secondary to stay back on run action, and to account for downfield pass routes in the play action game. The whole defense works, because once the LBs read play action, they’ll drop into short pass coverage, and the back seven is all in position. The Steelers have been successful at that for years, transitioning from successful front seven to back seven play. When they’re getting gashed, the safeties tend to start guessing and leaving early, and Kevin Walter is suddenly running free downfield.
In the Texans game, I saw Joe Mays bite hard on a few play fakes, and I saw both Rahim Moore and Mike Adams getting sucked up by run action too. Mays needs to improve his ability to read keys, and Moore and Adams need to trust their teammates up front, because they’ve been doing a very solid job plugging up the run game. It’s better to give up an occasional six-yard run than it is to give up an occasional 60-yard pass. Minimizing the latter is the result of all eleven guys on a defense working together as planned, beginning with executing the plan to be sound against the run.