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Rabbits and Coyotes

Change is coming, will you keep up or be left behind?

Los Angeles Rams v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The world is a dynamic place with changes happening all the time. Political, environmental and climatic changes can be abrupt and cause havoc worldwide. There are also financial and technological changes that can be a boon or a disaster or both at the same time.

The NFL has gone through changes over the years, and adjustments must be made to counter the effects of these changes. On Sept. 5, 1906, Saint Louis University’s Bradbury Robinson tossed a football to teammate Jack Schneider. It was a remarkably creative play for the era, one that ultimately became known as the forward pass. After that, teams integrated the “pass” into their offenses, and defenses had to devise ways to stop it.

The same effects are still happening today. You have motion offenses and the run-pass option (RPO) which defenses will have to adjust to. None of this stuff is all that new. It’s just a variation on schemes from the past. The difference is the rules have changed to aid the offense, and once you start changing the way the game is called it creates a divergence of the yin and yang.

In Chinese philosophy, yin and yang describes how seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world. This exactly describes the offense and defense and how they interact with each other in football. When one side is stronger than the other (through changes due to outside influence) it changes the dynamics of the system.

I will illustrate this with my grandfather’s story of Rabbits and Coyotes.

Back when people first started forming lager farms and raising livestock out West, they had a dislike for coyotes. A coyote will eat most anything, and when they have young to feed they hunt pretty much all the time. The coyotes would leave the lettuce and crops alone, but the chickens and other animals started disappearing, so...well...the coyotes had to go.

When they had eliminated most of the coyotes, their crops started to disappear. You see, rabbits are voracious eaters, and when they eat...well they multiply like rabbits, and now you have more hungry rabbits on your hands. Coyotes, you see, love to eat rabbits and kept their numbers in line. But when the coyotes were gone then...oops, too many rabbits. The ranchers had destroyed the delicate balance that was in place for eons and caused a problem that was worse than the one they started with.

The NFL has done sort of the same thing with the penalties to the defensive side of the ball. You can’t lower your head to tackle, and even when you don’t it might still be called a personal foul. You can’t hit the QB in the head, not even graze his helmet. You can’t hit him low, and God forbid if you should fall on him. Pat Mahomes was running for yardage against Cincinnati and still had a foot in the field of play when he was pushed out of bounds. The flag was thrown for a personal foul. Mahomes didn’t even fall down. He was just pushed, and it cost the defense 15 yards. Add to that the defensive players are fined an inordinate amount of money and can be suspended for repeated offenses. You know those things weigh on their minds, and that causes indecision which is lethal in the NFL.

Before this back in the late 80’s, offensive coordinator of the Detroit Lions Mouse Davis devised the run and shoot offense. It was wide open and very successful at moving the ball between the 20’s with ease. It used 2 outside WRs, 2 WRs in each slot, a RB and a QB with no TE. His WRs were small, fast, quick and agile. You couldn’t cover them, and they ran wild. The flaw in the system was that there was no TE and only the five offensive linemen to block for the QB.

So defenses would use two methods to stop them...

1) The slant is the first read in the progression for the QB in the run and shoot. You leave the slant open, and when the receiver catches the ball you had a LB or SS there (lying in wait) to take his head off. Eventually the receiver either didn’t want to run the slant the right way or there was no one left to run the slant. The other way was...

2) Blitz like crazy, they would complete big passes but the QB would end up looking like “Beetle Bailey” after Sarge would beat him up. The offensive players could not last the season because they were always getting hurt. You couldn’t use that defensive technique today. Your players would all get suspended. Also they would be broke.

Defense was always predicated on intimidation, and the threat of physical harm made offensive players act more quickly and indecisively which sometimes causes mistakes. Those mistakes are what feed a defense, and when you take away the intimidation you usurp the strength of the defense and cause: wait for it - rabbits and coyotes.

This is not to say it can’t be fixed because it can be fixed. You better start fixing it fast because the NFL is a huge “copy cat” league and with offenses putting up 40 points a game I predict that in 2 years half the teams will be running some variation or at least sprinkle in elements of the RPO’s and motion offenses.

First lets define what these two offenses really are..

The “RPO” (run pass option) is exactly what the term implies. It gives the QB the option of either going with the run or throwing a pass, which ever seems to be the play with the highest success probability.

In this clip you can see the play unfold fairly easily..

This run (The run action is always the first part of the play.) is to the left so the C, LG and LT are using a zone blocking scheme to the left. The RG and RT are in a pass blocking mode but using the same technique for a three step drop rather than a seven step drop. They also want to entice the DT to his left which will allow a nice passing window in the “A” gap between the center and LG.

You see as the play unfolds that QB Mahomes has his head up and is reading #52 Preston Brown. As Mahomes puts the ball in the RB’s stomach he notices that Brown is sliding down to the left following the play. Once he sees this, he pulls the ball back out from the RB and has a gaping hole and a wide open receiver (Sammy Watkins). It’s an easy completion and a quick first down. KC doesn’t run this a lot, but they tend to run this near their own goal line to get the better field position in an instant.

Here it is again; it’s the same play with the run to the right this time.

This one is even easier (and notice they are down by the goal line again). #55 Vontaze Burfict is already moving left taking himself out of the play, and the corner is play a mile off Tyreek Hill. There is no one within 5 yards of Hill when he catches the ball. The play fake is barely a cursory attempt because the play is so wide open. The result is a 28 yard gain, and KC is off to the races. This also puts the defense on it’s heels and makes them pensive as they have no clue how to stop any of this.

The motion offense is again exactly what the name implies; an offense with a lot of motion. It causes the defense to make quick adjustments to a lot of moving parts. Teams will run a wide variety of plays from the same sets.

The Rams are a perfect team to show you this offense and run 93% of their plays from “11” personnel which is 1 TE, 1 RB and 3 WRs.

This play you will have to watch numerous times because the action is great and players are moving all over the field. If this looks confusing to you. imagine a defense at field level trying to decipher this play.

As usual, the Rams are in an “11” personnel grouping with a WR in the slot to the right. Before the snap the slot WR (Robert Woods) goes in motion to the left and continues into the flat, then up to the LOS after the snap. The TE on the right side (Higbee) comes left at the snap to pick up the blitzing LB (Barkevious Mingo); if the LB drops back into space, the TE would run a 7 yard flat route to the sideline.

The left side WR (Cooks) runs a “9” pattern straight down the field, and the right side WR (Kupp) runs a 20 yard dig route crossing the entire field. At the snap, Goff fakes the handoff to Gurley who continues into the right side flat. Both the NT and the LILB follow Gurley into the flat and are completely out of the play.

This play is well set up and makes the defense cover the entire field. You have players in both flats, one at 20 yards of depth and one taking the top off, streaking down the field. Goff just picks the open man to throw to the farthest down the field. He looks deep to short in his progressions; in this play he has to set up in the pocket and is a little late getting the ball to Kupp or there would have been a much more sizable gain. This really is a beautiful offense to watch, every player has a purpose and is used effectively.

Here again is the same “11” personnel but with a WR to each side and a WR and TE in the slot on the same side.

There is little motion in this play but it accomplishes exactly what it was designed to do and that is get Todd Gurley in space. All four receivers run hard off the snap and are going at least 10 yards downfield. You see the space this creates, and the throw cannot be simpler. Goff just has to wait a couple of seconds for the WRs to gain depth and he drops the ball off to Gurley who has a cushion of more than ten yards from the defender.

This was a 2nd and 16 play, and a designed little dump off to a RB gets almost 20 yards and a first down. I realize this is Todd Gurley in the play, but any competent RB is going to get at least 10 yards on the play which is really great for a simple design.

I could show you play after play of the motion offense getting receivers wide open, but you get the picture. You design a precision offense, and you work off the same platform so players don’t have to remember 1,000 details. That is why Sean McVay was able to install it in one year and be successful right out of the gate. It’s the same setup just with different wrinkles, each player just has to do his job and be able to catch the ball. It looks complicated but it is not, that’s why it works so well and the Jon Gruden offense struggles.

Now for the $64,000 question. (Sorry to our younger readers who don’t know what that is.)

How do you defend these offenses?

When offenses are designed to defeat existing defenses the best way to counteract that is to design a better defense than what exists today. It’s been done in the past and will be done again. When passing became so prevalent, Bud Wilkerson created the 3-4 defense back in the 1940’s. This gave the defense a better chance to rush the QB and drop into flat coverage. The 1972 Dolphins went undefeated using this defense, and more teams began using it.

The Tampa 2 was invented by Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin when they took an existing defense and added coverage duties to the MLB to extend down the seam. It was used extensively and each team has a form of this defense in their playbooks.

Jimmy Johnson transformed the Cowboys from doormats to champions in a short period of time. He only coached the Cowboys for 5 seasons (winning two Super Bowls), and he did it by doing two things others wouldn’t have tried.

First he traded Hershel Walker (who was their only star player) for 5 players and 6 draft picks, but draft picks didn’t do it alone. He made 51 trades while with the Cowboys and he was able to increase the talent base on the team by using players other teams didn’t want because they didn’t fit their scheme.

Johnson understood the value of quickness and used some undersized players who would penetrate the line and make plays in the offensive backfield rather than at the line of scrimmage. He wanted speed from all his players so he used players who could close on a play quickly.

When Johnson was at the University of Miami he used to recruit players who were fast LBs and hold them out a year, increase their mass in the weight room and play them as DT’s and DE’s. He would take speedy safeties, do the same thing and make them LBs with great speed. CB’s became safeties, and of course some remained at CB. This is how he increased the speed on his team.

So my suggestion to building a better defense to combat theses new offenses is to increase the speed and quickness of the team, and change from a 3-4 base team to a 4-3 base team.

But I would change the way this defense is played. I will explain, so bear with me.

I think the old way of attacking a QB with defensive ends and rush LBs is outdated. Newer offenses have quicker throws and designated safety valves to combat the outside rush. Even in normal offenses, the outside rush is overrated; in 2017 Von Miller had 10 sacks and 83 QB pressures (which was #1 for edge defenders), but he still only pressured the QB on one in every 5.7 snaps. That is only a pressure on 17.5% of the snaps. A high flying offense can score 2 TDs before he even gets a single pressure (statistically speaking).

The problem is that it takes an edge defender 11 or 12 steps to make it to a QB when he is trying to get around an offensive tackle. This is one reason Tom Brady rarely gets hit let alone sacked; he throws the ball quickly which makes it nearly impossible to sack him without him holding onto the ball. In my 4-3 defense I would want stronger players who don’t have speed but can hold the edge and crash down on off tackle running plays rather than trying to be a cheetah chasing a QB. He doesn’t have to be a slug, but the player you are looking for is more powerful than speedy. Best of all, teams will not be looking for these players in the Draft and they could be picked up in later rounds.

The defensive tackles in my scheme would be smaller and quicker with an ability to penetrate rather than plug the rushing lanes. They can stop the run on the way to the QB, and best of all, if they are quick enough it only takes 5 or 6 steps to get the the passer.

Something like this...

That is quick pressure, and the ends would help compact the pocket and prevent any escape of the QB. Inside pressure is always the pressure QBs hate the most because it is quick and you can’t step up in the pocket and make an accurate throw. I realize this is Aaron Donald, but you can find players just as quick. They aren’t as incredibly strong, but if they prepare correctly they can still be effective.

You saw how Tyreek Hill got a free release because he is so fast the corner can’t press him. Well this is how you combat that.

You see the quick pressure, but the DB is also only 6 yards off the receiver, not 12 yards away. He is able to stick his foot in the ground and close on the route. In this play there is no escape and nowhere to throw the ball.

Four defensive linemen also help take away the passing lane on the slant (on RPO’s) by getting their hands up when they don’t get to the QB quickly. Plus quicker defenders are more difficult to block, which means there are less players to make 2nd level blocks. Your LBs will be free to move from sideline to sideline to make plays. Also without the need for regular edge pressure, the OLBs can be smaller, quicker and faster since they don’t have to battle big offensive tackles all day. This will make them better in coverage, stunts and blitzes (when used) will be more potent because of the element of surprise. Corner blitzes work because teams don’t expect them.

In fact, most of your OLBs could be hybrid safety type players which will only increase their ability to cover in space. If you have 6 or 7 hybrid OLB/Safeties on your roster you could make the OLB/Safety position interchangeable and have them versed in both positions. By doing this, you have more coverage in case of injuries, and defenses won’t know which player is playing each position. They could be moving before the snap. Many of the plays run by the motion offense use keys off the safety position so you could mess up a QB’s reads if you use them correctly.

Here is how penetration works against the run...

I know, I know it’s Aaron Donald again, but if you look there are 3 other players back there with him.

Again, the smaller defensive tackles are not what most teams are really looking for so you can get some of these players in later rounds and as UDFA’s, and they fit right into your system.

My cornerbacks would be a mix of smaller and larger players. I would like to run a hybrid coverage with the corners playing man to man across the line and safeties in a zone over the top. I want really quick corners so if they are 5’9” that is ok and again easier to find. The larger corners can be transitioned into safeties or used on larger receivers who don’t possess blazing speed.

You have to do something different than we are doing now because these offenses will be getting more efficient and more abundant in the coming years. You have to change now because eventually teams will realize that unless you want teams to score 40 points on you every week, you will need to change.

Change is coming. It has to. The key is to be the first and be the team other teams want to emulate. I told you Jimmy Johnson had a better way when he was with the Cowboys. After he left he tried to do the same thing in Miami but soon realized that the other teams were emulating his Cowboys team. He wasn’t going to get those players he liked easily anymore. He didn’t do as well in Miami.

The NFL has taken away all the coyotes, and the rabbits are getting ready to flourish. Do you have the guts to completely change what you are doing and build a team that can compete in the NFL of 2 or 3 years from now? I mean you can still compete now, but if you wait until then it will be too late.