by Greg Cosell

With training camps opening in less than a month, I’ve begun to think about what I expect to see in the 2012 NFL season. I’m speaking more broadly, in terms of the continuing growth of the game. It’s become axiomatic to say the NFL is a passing league. The numbers certainly verify this statement, but there’s more to it than that. I want to drill down deeper and put a fine focus on the transformative relationship between offensive concepts and defensive reaction/adjustment.

I remember watching the opening game of the 2011 season, a Thursday nighter between the New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers. And I particularly recall Darren Sproles catching a 36-yard pass on a third-and-6 in the first quarter. The quick breakdown of the play: The Saints had three wide receivers, tight end Jimmy Graham and Sproles on the field; the Packers matched up with nickel personnel, playing man coverage with LB Desmond Bishop on the outside versus Graham and LB A.J. Hawk on Sproles offset in the backfield. From the backfield, Sproles ran an angle route in the middle of the field and left Hawk in the dust. That play stayed in my memory bank. In so many ways, it crystallized the tactical history of the NFL over 50 years, and provided a framework for where I believe it’s headed.

First, let’s take a step back and look at the evolution of the NFL passing game, dating back to the 1960s. This is the CliffsNotes version …

The NFL as a whole took its cue from Vince Lombardi: two backs, a tight end on the line of scrimmage and two wide receivers. A minimal number of plays run over and over with great execution. It was a game of physical toughness predicated on running the ball on offense, and stopping the run on defense, exclusively out of 4-3 fronts. The pass was used in desperate down-and-distance situations, as a reactive measure, never as a proactive tactic to attack and break down defenses.

What followed were the innovations of Don Coryell and Bill Walsh. Their philosophical foundations derived from Sid Gillman, at the time the head coach of the AFL’s San Diego Chargers. Gillman was not beholden to the NFL model. He wanted skilled players in space to force the defense to defend as much area as possible. He envisioned a big-play, explosive offense, with the pass serving as the main catalyst. That was the antithesis of Lombardi’s approach (control the ball, move the chains). Coryell and Walsh took their lead from Gillman and further expanded the thought process of football. They were creative and imaginative, seeing the pass as a means of limitless possibility and choreographed beauty. It was Coryell who first recognized the tremendous value of a tight end with Kellen Winslow, who could align anywhere in the formation and essentially be deployed as another wide receiver. Walsh saw offensive football as a wide palette of strategy and tactics, more of an art form than a game of brute strength and physical will. He featured (and mastered) a controlled midrange passing game, primarily working from the inside out, both celebrating and expanding one of Gillman’s core beliefs: If you control the middle of the field with the passing game, you can attack and win on the outside.

Both Walsh and Coryell forever altered the NFL landscape. It is not overstating the case to acknowledge they laid the groundwork for all that followed: three-, four- and at times five-receiver personnel; multi-dimensional tight ends who align all over the formation; receiving backs who run vertical routes; extensive use of the shotgun. Defenses had to respond, or they wouldn’t be able to compete effectively.

Don Coryell (AP)

When Coryell began splitting Winslow wide, he was a step ahead of the coverage concepts of the time, which generally encompassed two elements: man-to-man out of base personnel, which put a linebacker or strong safety on Winslow, and zone schemes that did not incorporate route progressions and pattern reading. The nickel corner became a featured part of defense, initially to match up to Winslow, and then to defend the increasing number of three-receiver packages that became prevalent in the league. Dick LeBeau’s zone blitz (now part of every defensive playbook in the NFL) was largely a reaction to the multi-dimensional passing games of Coryell and Walsh.

The larger point is that defenses were forced to react to the expanding principles of pass offense. Three-receiver personnel became the norm, often used in any down-and-distance situation. That increased the importance of the nickel corner — once a specialty player who was on the field 12-15 snaps a game, now another starter who normally logs 35-plus snaps each week. The defensive template had been set, and it remains in place to this day: three corners, two safeties and two linebackers to match up to three wide receivers, one tight end and one back. Theoretically, from a personnel standpoint, it makes tactical sense, unless of course a linebacker and/or safety cannot handle a tight end or back.

That speaks to the offensive response and brings me right back to the play with which I began this discussion: Sproles’ 36-yard catch-and-run versus LB Hawk. It was just one example, but it reflects a broader view in offensive thinking. In the summer of 2012, here’s where we stand: more shotgun spread formations; coaches looking for versatile receiving tight ends (like Winslow) who can align anywhere in the formation and backs who can run a wider array of routes at the intermediate and vertical levels of the defense. The teams that feature those athletes are very difficult to defend out of the conventional nickel sub package. The Saints spotlight Sproles and Graham; the Packers have Jermichael Finley, arguably the most athletic tight end in the NFL; and the New England Patriots boast Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

Put yourself in the role of defensive coordinator. I already illustrated the problems the Saints present. Graham split outside the numbers as a wide receiver? Do you feel good with a linebacker, outside his in-the-box comfort zone, playing Graham?

When the Patriots align with one back, two wide receivers and Gronkowski and Hernandez, how do you match up? Do you treat Gronkowski and Hernandez as tight ends and stay with your base defense? That means a linebacker must play one of them. Are you comfortable with that? Do you play nickel as your base?

How about when the Packers align with three wide receivers and Finley? Do you go with a linebacker or a safety on Finley? Do you treat him as a fourth wide receiver and play with six defensive backs? I remember the first play on the winning drive late in the fourth quarter when the Packers defeated the New York Giants in Week 13 last season. Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell played “nickel man” against three wide receivers and Finley. Fewell had LB Jacquian Williams on Finley. Finley abruptly beat Williams to the outside for 24 yards.

Matching up to wide receivers is much more comfortable schematically. Defensive coaches have been doing that for years. Now they have a new set of challenges: tight ends and backs who can stress the defense both to the outside and vertically. What will be the response in the continuing chess match between offense and defense? Traditional linebackers will find their roles — and snaps — significantly reduced. There will not be a place for them against offenses that feature five receivers with multi-dimensional abilities to attack all areas of the field. We will likely see more teams employ the Houston Texans’ model. They played dime (six defensive backs), not nickel. That allowed them to field better athletes with more scheme versatility and greater body flexibility and agility to play in space, i.e., coverage. It was not an accident Houston had one of the best defenses in the NFL last season.

Here’s the reality of the NFL with the 2012 season right around the corner: It’s much more of a spread game than it’s ever been.

There are always exceptions, but defensively, if you expect to beat the top passing games, you must be able to stop shotgun offenses with five receivers that can align at any position. That’s the next frontier. As the NFL continues to evolve, it is increasingly evident that the game is played far more in open space than it is in the trenches. For old-school defensive coaches, that’s not easy to accept, but they must — or they will struggle to match up in this era of spread passing.