Change or die: Finding a defensive response to evolving offenses in the NFL

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

NFL offenses are changing, leaving coaches scrambling to find answers on defense.

Chan Gailey, speaking to Tim Layden for his book Blood, Sweat, and Chalk back in 2010, predicted the future of the NFL.

"The single wing type stuff is going to become more and more the norm of the future (in the NFL). Over the next 10 or 15 years, it's going to evolve because the runner-thrower is the kind of quarterback that the college game is producing now. There are only so many plays in football; all we're doing is finding different ways to run them all. But there's no escaping the fact that high school and college football are developing a different type of athlete. Pretty soon -- I don't know how long, but pretty soon -- somebody is going to find an athlete who can run and throw and just take the conventional quarterback off the field."

One of the main themes of the 2012 NFL season was the advent of the so-called "runner-throwers" at quarterback, with Robert Griffin, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick picking up on Cam Newton's 2011 season and taking the league by storm with their arms and their legs. Many believe that the read option -- the inside/outside zone reads where the QB has the choice to hand off or pull the ball back and run with it -- will go the way of the buffalo, as teams and defensive coordinators spend more time preparing for it.

However, the thing that separates this iteration of "the college offense in the NFL" from previous fads is the absurd talent level of this group of quarterbacks -- Newton, RG3, Wilson and Kaepernick -- as it relates specifically to how well they can throw the ball, first and foremost. The ability to run for this group, in varying degrees, is just a bonus -- a big, big bonus that each of their teams took advantage of this season. None of this would matter though if they couldn't throw. And they can all throw. The cool part about this group is that it only stands to grow -- college teams on down to high school are running the spread offense looks, and the supply of quality passing quarterbacks that can also run is only bound to increase.

"I saw little kids playing Pop Warner -- seven, eight, nine years old, doing the belly-read option from a shotgun. I was absolutely floored by the stuff they were doing so young." - Cam Cameron in the book "Blood, Sweat, and Chalk."

Now, while I believe that the read-option style of play is here to stay in some capacity for some teams (as a change-up package, not a core identity), there was pretty similar hype around the Wildcat offense of recent years. We've seen how that's stood the test of time (read: it's all but extinct in the NFL). However, some of the core principles behind the Wildcat are actually pretty sound -- you will remember that it was actually successful for a while before teams learned to adjust -- and it comes down to presenting a numbers advantage over the defense.

As legendary Patriots coach Bill Belichick explained to Tim Layden in "Blood, Sweat and Chalk," "When you put a quarterback under center, you lose a blocker, you lose a gap, offensively. You basically play with 10 men on offense. But when the quarterback is one of the runners, whether it's single-wing or veer or wishbone, the defense runs out of people to defend you."

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Imagine trying to tackle a 6'5, 245-pound Newton only after dispatching a 5'9, 245 pound Mike Tolbert. Good luck. Photo via Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Think of it this way: Say the defense is running a cover-2: That leaves seven defenders in "the box" with two corners and two safeties playing the rest of the field. In this scenario, you'd have three defensive linemen and four linebackers in a 3-4 defense, or four defensive linemen and three linebackers in a 4-3. Seven in the box.

On offense, with a traditional drop back quarterback, you have five offensive linemen, a tight end and a running back. That's seven offensive players on seven defensive players, and the defense has the advantage of keeping a couple of guys back just to be safe, because that quarterback -- the eighth guy -- isn't going to be going anywhere -- you don't have to account for him in any gaps. Teams in cover-3 can even bring an additional safety into the box to give themselves a numerical advantage: eight against seven. This is how it's been for a long time.

Any shift in personnel by the offense -- say you swap a receiver out wide for an additional running back or tight end in the box -- and a corner will creep in to match your numbers and man a gap. This has been the old "chess match" that teams have been playing for decades, but the numbers have almost always been in favor of the defense because of the traditional limitations of the quarterback as a runner in the modern NFL. The defense will account for your offensive players and gaps in order to stop the run and still have a couple of guys deep (i.e. a "safety" or two-apt name) to defend in a zone in case you throw the ball downfield.

"When you put a QB under center, you lose a blocker, you lose a gap, offensively. You basically play with 10 men on offense. But when the QB is one of the runners, the defense runs out of people to defend you." -Bill Belichick

The Wildcat

That changed with the Wildcat. Suddenly, the quarterback was a threat to advance the football, and the defense had to account for an additional gap and blocker. It was hard enough to stop a team from running the ball before, but imagine adding an extra player on offense into the equation. Even the uber-physical and uber-fast NFL defenses were stumped for a short while, left scrambling to find an answer and add the "Wildcat defense" to their practice agendas each week.

Pretty soon, every team's fanbase was clamoring for their teams to add a Wildcat package. Many teams did, and we all had a fun time talking about it and fantasizing about which college players we could draft to come in and run the Wildcat. I remember being super stoked about the Golden Tate pick for the Seahawks because he could *gasp* run the Wildcat! He did it at Notre Dame -- it was sweet! Look at him run! This will be so fun!

I could have lost count, but I don't think Golden Tate has run the Wildcat one time in Seattle. Fart noise.

So, why did the Wildcat fizzle in the NFL after a year or two of popularity? Well, first off, it's really fricking obvious when you're going to run the Wildcat. When you come up to the line with your running back in the backfield, either under center or in shotgun, as your scrawny and awkward quarterback runs out to the wing to "play receiver," teams can adjust and revert to whatever gameplan they've established to mind the extra gap. Bring up a safety, two-gap in certain spots, etc., and they should be able to mitigate the numbers advantage the offense is creating so as to stop the run. Technically, they still have to have a cornerback stay on the "wide receiving quarterback" out on the wing, in the case the offense decides to get all tricksy and have their Wildcatting RB throw the ball (some of these guys being former college QBs), but for the most part, a "Wildcat formation" meant a run was coming.

With most NFL running backs, throwing the football is either out of the question or exceedingly risky -- you can get away with it maybe once or twice a game, but I wouldn't recommend making it a big part of your identity. With this little bit of common sense, teams began to load up to stop the run when they saw a Wildcat formation, and the effectiveness of having that extra blocker up front began to see diminishing returns. It was just too obvious what was coming. And that's why it's gone. One dimensional.

All bets are off

That is exactly what separates the read-zone option and pistol formation from the Wildcat: It's the antithesis of obvious.

You can still throw quite easily from a "read-option" look or pistol formation -- pull the ball back from the belly of your running back to create play-action, plant and throw. You can bootleg into the flats, waggle with a moving pocket or even run a regular five- or seven-step drop and completely ignore your running backs altogether, if you want.

As my SBNation colleague Mark Bullock illustrated recently, the read-option fake as used for play-action passing, which leaves the backside defensive end unblocked but "freezes" him enough to take him out of the play, is essentially an exotic naked bootleg, a staple that has been around for decades. At its essence, the read-option play-action fake works off of a similar principle, "to use the quarterback's mobility to 'block' the backside defender without having to use an offensive lineman on him."

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Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

In more detail:

The backside defender (the defensive end or outside linebacker that you're 'reading') is unblocked and usually caught over-pursuing the run as the quarterback keeps it himself. It's the basis of the read-option play, but on this play the quarterback isn't reading the backside defender to decide if he should hand it off. On this play it is already predetermined that he is faking the hand off and rolling out without any protection on the backside. Now this will be frequently used as a play-action pass to catch a defense off guard and connect on a deep shot, but the quarterback always has the option to run himself if the defense has the receivers covered.

If the play is successful, the backside defender is usually hesitant in pursuit of the run the next time he faces it in case the quarterback keeps it again. The offense is then able to use the quarterback's running threat to "block" the backside defender, freeing up an offensive lineman to help block the play-side of the run. Coincidentally, this is the exact objective of the read-option.

As 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio put it, "It just becomes a numbers game. Your typical run, the quarterback hands off and it's now their 10 against your 11. Now when he's a potential runner, it's their 11 against your 11, and they're not even blocking one of the guys at the point of attack, so it actually becomes 11 against 10 if they do it right. So, the numbers are flipped."

As for running the football out of these looks, which is obviously a big part of the read-option, depending on the formation or personnel grouping, you could hand off to a diving fullback, a jet-sweeping wide receiver, a patiently waiting running back or read the defensive end and run it yourself.

I'm honestly looking forward to finding out how NFL coordinators "figure out" the read option, as several coaches have gone on record to say will happen this offseason, because with the vast multitudes and variations one can execute from those looks, the secret potion will have to be pretty complex or groundbreaking.

And, the extent of this "solution" to the read-option will be relative. Teams "know" how to stop power and zone-blocking run games, and the West Coast offense and deep-passing Air Coryell schemes in principal, yet 32 teams still use these systems game in and game out. Chan Gailey, again: "There are only so many plays in football; all we're doing is finding different ways to run them all."

Sometimes, in the NFL, it's about one team having better players than the team across the line, and even more frequently, because the parity is so strong, it's simply about similarly-skilled players executing better than the team across from the line or choosing the correct play to counter a certain defense, or visa versa. The chess match. Even if teams "figure out" how to stop the read-option in theory, does that mean it will cease to exist? I doubt it, actually.

Now, I'm still reticent to anoint the read-option as a viable offensive mainstay for the foreseeable future, not because someone will find a miracle solution to stopping it, but more because the idea of subjecting your quarterbacks to hits, in theory, puts them at greater risk of injury. Your quarterback is your most important and highest paid player, yadda yadda yadda, you must protect this house, yadda yadda, the death of the read-option.

Back in 2010, Detroit Lions offensive coordinator talked to Tim Layden, for his book Blood, Sweat and Chalk, and told him that the idea of running the read-option more in the NFL had been toyed with - Tennessee ran it with Vince Young, Atlanta a bit with Michael Vick - but the system was never super efficient and the quarterbacks running those schemes were never very judicious with their bodies, which led coaches to ultimately lay off of it. Linehan ended his thought with a bit of a prophetic line though, acknowledging, "The team that incorporates the option effectively at the NFL level? Well, all bets are off."

It would be fun to get Linehan's thoughts on that after this season, as the Niners, Seahawks, Redskins, and Panthers all incorporated the read option effectively and efficiently. The main difference between Michael Vick and Vince Young and the new crop of runner-throwers, of course, is that the new crop can actually throw consistently and accurately. And decisively. This makes the new read-option infinitely more difficult to defend.

"And the team that incorporates the option effectively at the NFL level? Well, all bets are off." - Scott Linehan

Defending the option

How do you counter a system that had so much success in 2012? Well, teams do a number of things. One popular rebuttal to the read-option at the college level that has made its way to the pros is the "scrape exchange." The basic idea for the "scrape exchange," quoting fellow Field Gulls writer Jacob Stevens and his excellent post on defending the zone read option, stipulates that "the defensive end always crashes down the line on the run. Inside zone, outside zone, doesn't matter. That typically forces the QB to keep the ball and take the counter. So the backside linebacker "scrapes over" to cover the ground the end vacates, to stop the QB."

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via SmartFootball.

That's a smart evolution, and it does work to foil the true 'read' options by forcing the quarterback to hand off. The problem with automatically running "the read-option killer" -- in this case, a scrape exchange, in response to what looks to be a read-option look is that the offense can also adapt. This is why I think the read-option is here to stay in some capacity. "Solving the read-option" likely means defenses will open themselves up to certain vulnerabilities.

Taking the Redskins-Seahawks NFC Wildcard matchup as an example -- Washington's use of the scrape exchange managed to confuse the Seahawks enough on several read-option exchanges to force Russell Wilson up the middle of the field and off the play design. After "reading" the crashing defensive end, and holding on to the ball, Wilson was confronted with that scraping linebacker and had no where to go but straight up the field. This isn't the idea. You want Lynch doing that.

Like any good coordinator though, Darrell Bevell had an answer: He dialed up an automatic handoff to Marshawn Lynch out of a read-option look, bringing tight end Zach Miller across the formation to slice block the free rushing scrape-exchange linebacker.

This kind of thing will make a defensive coordinator question the method of automatically running a scrape exchange in response to that read-option look. Which means the Seahawks can go back to the read-option well after this, assuming they make an adjustment. Which they may consider.

Watch the defensive end (to the right) crash hard at the snap in order to "force" Russell Wilson into keeping the ball. Wilson is supposed to be 'reading' that guy and would normally keep the football. Also, normally, the right tackle (Breno Giacomini, No. 68) would ignore that defensive end completely, but when that defensive end commits to the middle of the field immediately, and that right tackle moves with him back toward the middle of the field, he finds himself blocked out of the play. The outside linebacker scrapes over (and gets blown up by Miller), and a giant hole is created.

This wasn't even read option. It just sets up the Seahawks' ability to go back to the real read option because it will give teams pause as to how to defend it.

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So, ultimately, how do you stop the read option?

Cover Corners and Speedy Safeties

Because there is a numerical advantage given to the offense in how things run, the most likely solution involves dropping an additional safety into the box. As seen above, keeping four defenders back (two safeties/two corners) can create problems in the run game as your front-seven gets beat. Bringing one of those safeties into the box neutralizes the numbers game somewhat but here's the rub:

"The corners that press, it allows you to bring an extra player into the box to account for all the different option aspects, and that's critical." - Gus Bradley

Your cornerbacks better be strong in press and man-to-man, and your deep safety better have range to cover the deep-middle of the field. Eight guys in the box against RG3's, Wilson's, Kaepernick's, or Newton's arm is a scary proposition.

Listening to front office personnel and coaches/scouts at the Combine, one talking point you kept hearing repeatedly was the importance of cover corners in the modern NFL. Specifically, long, physical cover corners that can play man-to-man on an island as teams bring an extra defender into the box to stop the read-option run.

According to a survey of front office men by National Football Post's Dan Pompei, as many as 13 cornerbacks could be taken in the first two rounds of this year's draft: Southeast Louisiana's Robert Alford, Cal's Marc Anthony, Mississippi State's Johnthan Banks, Utah State's Will Davis, Connecticut's Dwayne Gratz, Alabama's Dee Milliner, Oregon State's Jordan Poyer, Florida State's Xavier Rhodes, Rutgers' Logan Ryan, Mississippi State's Darius Slay, Boise State's Jamar Taylor and Washington's Desmond Trufant and Connecticut's Blidi Wreh-Wilson.

Similarly, rangy and speedy free safeties are more and more in high demand, with Kenny Vaccaro, Johnathan Cyprien and Matt Elam being mentioned in the first-round discussion, and Eric Reid, Phillip Thomas, Bacarri Rambo, Shawn Williams and even now Shamarko Thomas getting second-round hype. How much do you want to bet that a few of the speed guys like Duke Williams and Earl Wolff sneak into the discussion because of their excellent showings at the Combine (both with 4.4 speed)?

"Will the need to defend the read-option place even greater premium on press man corners? This allows an extra defender (a safety) to play in box. It's something to watch". -Greg Cosell

The Seahawks are the prototype of this idea that gets mentioned most frequently: two 6'3-plus corners in Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner bookending the heady and impossibly fast two-time All-Pro safety Earl Thomas. As the Seahawks play SS Kam Chancellor up in the box with the primary role of stopping the run, it's up to Sherman and Browner to jam, disrupting timing, and re-route receivers, disrupting positioning. If Sherman or Browner get beat on their outside leverage, it's their job to funnel that receiver into Earl Thomas. There's a lot of field to cover out there and the skill, speed, power, and agility that is required out there to hang with receivers who have the distinct advantage of knowing where they're going -- it's staggering.

The Seahawks aren't alone with this philosophy. You don't even have to leave the NFC West to find other examples -- the Rams have two top-tier CBs in Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins, and not surprisingly, are frequently connected to Kenny Vaccaro in mock drafts -- a way to unite their defensive backfield into a formidable but interdependent unit. The Niners run with Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown, and Dashon Goldson was a Pro Bowler behind them (Donte Whitner is no slouch either). Even the Cardinals had very strong cornerback play, which protected them deep while they implemented Ray Horton's attacking and risk-taking blitz schemes -- Patrick Peterson on one side and William Gay on the other, playing on an island and running step for step with receivers.

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Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown, interception swag. Photo by Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Let's look at an example of why the value of cornerbacks and safeties has increased over the past few seasons and why that value is likely to continue to rise going forward, with the advent of the read-option in the NFL.

Early in Seattle's Wildcard win over the Redskins -- a game I mentioned above -- Robert Griffin missed Pierre Garcon streaking down the left sideline all alone. Thankfully for Seahawks' fans, Griffin was looking to the right side of the field and never saw Garcon beat Brandon Browner with a double move. Browner was called for a defensive holding penalty as he grabbed Garcon and held him up, and though he was burnt like toast, he dodged a bullet on what would have been a sure touchdown. As seen on NBC's NFL Turning Point, directly following that play you can hear Seahawks' DBs Coach Kris Richard yelling angrily at Browner, "STAY ON TOP! STAY ON TOP!", meaning ... Dont. Ever. Get. Beat. Deep.

This is how the Seahawks play -- it's one of their core philosophies. Limit explosive plays, and don't get beat over the top. When your corners are on islands, with only Earl Thomas for help, this principal is extremely important. It's much, much easier said than done though.

"We play man-to-man or Cover-3 -- not much more than that. It's not a secret." -Kam Chancellor

See the play below -- the Redskins run play-action out of a read-option pistol look -- you can see eight Seattle defenders move forward at the snap in response -- exactly what the Redskins want -- leaving only Richard Sherman, Thomas and Browner to defend deep. The Redskins actually run a brilliant play here, crossing a receiver underneath in an attempt to lure Thomas into coverage downhill, and then they run Garcon deep down the sideline.

Browner's trailing coverage on Garcon is effective this time and textbook in terms of how the Seahawks want him to play it -- Browner doesn't even look into the backfield; he just stays with his man at all costs. Had Thomas bitten on the route underneath, Browner may have given up a catch, but he was right there with Garcon, one of the better deep-ball receivers in the league.

Seahawks2

Thomas' skill and talent is even more apparent on this play, though. Watch as he splits the difference between the two routes until the ball is thrown -- precisely as he's taught to do in Pete Carroll's defense -- and then as Griffin releases the bomb off of a bad leg, slightly underthrowing it, Thomas makes up enough ground to dive and intercept the pass. Griffin obviously would want that pass back, and a better placed ball might be completed there, but the margin for error is ever so slight, and that's exactly the Seahawks' goal.

Browner presents a big, long, physical obstruction to fitting a pass in to Garcon, and the ball placement on an outside-the-numbers throw has to be precise. Further exacerbating an already difficult throw is Earl Thomas' range. If you're going to play eight-in-the-box, this is the combination you want. Look for teams to emulate this moving forward.

The 2013 NFL Draft

So, what does that mean for this year's draft? For cornerbacks, length becomes important -- arm length, wingspan -- are two key measureables to consider. A player's height is obviously something that gets a lot of press, but for the "unremarkable" cornerbacks that are 6'0 or 5'11, take a look at their arm length.

I'm intrigued with Appalachian State's Demetrius McCray, for instance, who, at 6'0 187 pounds, ran a mid-range 4.54 40 and had average 3-cone/short-shuttle times, but has 33 7/8" arms. Will this give him a bump when it comes to teams looking for press corners? Probably, yeah.

Similarly, Johnthan Banks is going to get knocked down a peg or two for his sub-elite 40 time in Indianapolis, but what he loses in straight line speed, he gets back some of in length. He's 6'2, but also has those 33 7/8" arms -- tied with McCray for longest among defensive backs at the Combine. This length allows both McCray and Banks to reach out and jam opposing receivers, grapple for jump balls, and get his hands up into passing lanes, not to mention tackle and strip the football with more leverage. Speed is obviously an important aspect for any cornerback, but length plays a key role as well, particularly with "bump and run" corners, who rely on gaining and keeping a leverage side.

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Length. Photo via Spruce Derden-US PRESSWIRE

With Florida safety Matt Elam, his height has been a point of reference for scouts in knocking him down into the early second round -- he's not "ideal" height for the safety position at 5'9, but his 32 5/8" arms knock him into the 5'10, 5'11 height range in effective reach, as his wingspan is a full 2-4 inches greater than many players his height. This isn't splitting hairs; this is an important feature for GMs. It's why they do the measurements in the first place. It's a game of inches, as they say. Cornerbacks like LSU's Tharold Simon (6'2, 202; 32 3/4" arms), Nevada's Khalid Whooten (5'11, 212; 32 3/4" arms) and San Diego State's Leon McFadden (5'10, 193; 32 3/8" arms), and safeties like Eric Reid (6'1, 214; 33 5/8" arms) and T.J. McDonald (6'2, 219; 33 1/8" arms) may see their stocks boosted purely because their length jumps off the page. Xavier Rhodes may have cemented himself into the first round after running well and measuring out well -- 6'1, 210, 33 1/4" arms.

Obviously, a player must show the necessary game skills to perform at the NFL level, and pure measureables alone will not get you far, but some of the paradigms of how teams evaluate cornerbacks are being thrown out with the emergence of taller/longer but ultimately slower players like Sherman, Browner, and Sean Smith, for instance. Sherman in particular seems to be the best example. His tape at Stanford was average at best, and it's why he fell into the fifth round, but his skills and attributes fit perfectly into what the Seahawks were running, something a bit different than the rest of the league. And in his second season, Sherman was an All-Pro.

This is why this year's group of defensive backs are so interesting. How do you balance the normal, time-tested attributes of agility, hip-fluidity and change of direction for the now-valuable attributes like height, wing-span and physicality? How much speed do you give up for that length? How much fluidity do you give up for that power?

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