Philosophies changing along NFL defensive lines ..
SportsXchangeLen Pasquarelli, The Sports Xchange
Updated Aug 30, 2010 8:34 AM ET
Any action that starts with a quartet of crazed, 260-pound men putting their hands on the ground, furiously exploding off the line of scrimmage on the snap and trying to rip apart the opposition quarterback as he seeks some sort of safe haven/foxhole in the pocket probably shouldn't be termed a "trickle," right?
But in an NFL in which 10 quarterbacks threw for more than 4,000 yards in 2009 and a dozen had more than 25 touchdown passes and which has lately evolved into a throwing league, defensive coordinators increasingly are seeking ways to get to the quarterback before he gets the ball to his receivers. And in so doing, they're turning the page forward, while seemingly sneaking a peek, too, at some of the chapters that already have been read.
There is, to be sure, essentially nothing new under the sun in the league, but in revisiting or refurbishing some methods used in the past, there seems to be a renewed groundswell for nickel or "sub" defensive personnel packages that feature four speedy ends across the defensive front.
OK, so there isn't yet a flood of teams utilizing four ends in the pass rush, but neither more than a trickle of clubs are attempting to deluge the passer with the four-end scheme.
With two more defenses converting to the 3-4 "base" front for 2010, there are now only 17 clubs using a 4-3 as their basic scheme. But an unofficial survey this week by The Sports Xchange identified at least four clubs that'll use the four-end look on passing downs and another three who plan to play at least one end inside at tackle in most third-and-long situations.
"It's all about creating (favorable) matchups," said Falcons head coach Mike Smith, whose team doesn't often use four rush ends on the field simultaneously on third down, but who has noted an increase in the maneuver over the past few seasons.
"Typically, you have a guard going up against one of those big sluggers (defensive tackles) on first and second down ... and now here comes an end, who's usually much quicker. It's a real, drastic change for the guard. He's not just going against a guy who is going to bull-rush him all day, he's forced to block a guy who is trying to beat him off the ball and out-quick him to the quarterback. ... Yeah, there's definitely more of that."
A rush line featuring four ends, or having some "edge" defenders move inside on passing downs, isn't exactly New Age stuff for the NFL. There are no hard numbers, but the estimate is that the late Reggie White probably notched one-third or more of his 198 career sacks when moving inside to tackle, to take better advantage of his incredible quickness and trademark "hump" move matched up against a guard instead of a tackle. In 2007, the New York Giants won Super Bowl XLII in part by using a four-end rush — Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka — in obvious passing situations.
The Giants' defensive coordinator that season was Steve Spagnuolo, and as head coach of the St. Louis Rams now, "Spags" has occasionally reverted to the four-end rush, or to sliding an end inside in an effort to increase more interior push against the pocket. In '09, for instance, he sometimes moved ends James Hall, Victor Adeyanju or Chris Long to tackle on passing downs.
Five-time Pro Bowl defender Richard Seymour has always been sort of a pseudo-hybrid lineman, an end in the 3-4 and a tackle in 4-3 situations. Outside linebackers in the 3-4 - guys like James Harrison of Pittsburgh, Dallas' DeMarcus Ware or Elvis Dumervil from Denver - typically move to end on third down. But coordinators now are looking increasingly more for traditional 4-3 ends stout enough to play the run on the early downs and to move inside on third down, or for situational pass rushers with some inside pass-rush skills.
Simple geometry dictates that the shortest path between one point and another is a straight line, and no one has a less circuitous path to the pocket than a tackle. And if the tackle doesn't get to the quarterback, and flushes him into the arms of an end, the effect is basically the same.
Said Tuck, an end by trade who probably registered half his 10 sacks in 2007 when he slid down inside to play tackle on third down: "You move down (inside) to play tackle, and you can see the guard thinking, 'What's he doing in here?' And you know that, most times, that's going to give you an edge."
The late Jim Johnson frequently employed four ends in the pass rush in Philadelphia, and his successor, Sean McDermott, is doing the same.
In the preseason, the Eagles have used rookie draft choices Brandon Graham and Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, both listed as ends as they were in college, at the tackle slot in their nickel package. Ditto veteran end Darryl Tapp. Graham's apparently won the starting job at left end, but the University of Michigan star will occasionally move inside to tackle on some clear passing downs. So will Te'o-Nesheim, as McDermott takes tackles Brodrick Bunkley and Mike Patterson off the field on third-and-long snaps and replaces them with ends.
"The techniques are a little different," Graham said, "but it's still all about quickness. And I think you get a (quickness) edge when you go (to tackle)."
Even pure "edge" rushers, like Jason Pierre-Paul of the Giants, have been aligned at tackle in some fronts as coordinator Perry Fewell returns to the four-end look Spagnuolo utilized so well a couple seasons ago. There's some speculation that the Colts — who already have a pair of undersized Pro Bowl ends in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, but who chose a third, Jerry Hughes, in the first round four months ago, and who've never been particularly pre-occupied by size — will use some four-end pass-rush looks. Tennessee will also roll its ends inside to tackle in some pass situations.
"It's like putting a sprint-relay team out there, but with all four guys on the track at the same time," suggested one NFL defensive line coach. "And with teams throwing the ball the way they are ... we're probably going to see more of it."