This opening weekend of the 2011 NFL season gave several glimpses of what NFL offenses and defenses will soon morph into. These future changes have been slowly taking place over the last few years, and is now on the brink of rapidly accelerating change into new basic offensive and defensive sets.
As everyone knows, the NFL is becoming more of a passing league each year. The best evidence of this is the Monday night game between the Patriots and Dolphins. Patriots QB Tom Brady threw for 517 yards (5th all time), and Dolphins QB Chad Henne threw for 416 yards, an NFL game record of 933 combined passing yards.
A large part of the reason for Brady's highly productive passing is that they took advantage of defensive mismatches by the Dolphins defense. When ever the Patriots caught the Dolphins in a defensive mismatch, they switched into a no huddle and no substitutation offense, which prevented the Dolphins from correcting the mismatch problem with substitutions. This is the future of NFL offenses.
1. No Huddle Offenses:
Teams will soon move to no huddle offenses in the NFL, like many college teams (mostly running a spread offense) are now doing, to prevent defensive substitutions, but without the crazy signs, just the QB's radio. This will also quickly exhaust D-Linemen, and as Vince Lombardi said around 50 years ago, "Fatigue makes cowards of us all". A tired defensive player is a player the offense can exploit, and as the D-Line rapidly becomes tired, they lose much of their pass rush ability. As passing increases, offenses will use more shootgun formations, requiring bigger, stronger, more moble QB's (like Cam Newton).
2. 3 Receiver Sets:
A. 3 WR Sets: Teams have been using 3 WR sets almost since forever, but they are now becoming predominate, and very soon this will become the basic standard NFL offensive set. This will eventually lead to the elimination of the treditional (blocking only) FB position. We saw this with the Panthers decision to cut FB Tony Fiemmetta a little over a week ago.
B. 2 TE/2 WR Sets:This is a slight veritation of the 3 WR set, with 1 of the TE's having the ability to slide outside, the Colts have been using this with TE Dallas Clark for several years. The team still has a 4th receiver, but it's now a TE rather than a WR. The biggest advantage of having a 2nd TE are that it gives a team a balanced O-Line, with a TE on each end of the line, so that running playes can go to either side without sacrificing blocking. One of the TE's may also shift into the backfield into the triditional FB's blocking role, leading the way for the RB to run to the other TE's side of the line. That TE could also fake a block, and slip back outside for safety valve flat pass. This would work very well for the Panthers this season, because Olsen though a TE can still be a deep threat.
3. Only RB's Who Can Catch & Block Need Apply:
In the 2nd half of the Buccaneers game sunday, they removed 2010 1,000 yard rusher LeGarrette Blount for the whole 2nd half, because he can't catch. With the offense becoming more and more dependent on the pass, and thus their QB, they can no longer afford a RB who can't pass block to protect their QB, unless they use a triditional FB. So, in the future (and that future is now) if a RB can't block and catch, then he can't play. By saying RB's must be able to catch, I don't mean just out of the backfield, but also shift outside as an extra WR, like Goodson can.
4. Is The FB Position Dead?:
It is if it doesn't change, and adapt. In order to remain viable, future FB's will have to remain good blockers, but become bigger factors as ball carriers, and even more so good pass catchers. This replacement of FB's has somewhat gone unnoticed, as fewer teams use FB's, and those that still do, now only use them on about 30% of plays. No longer will you see FB's who are 5-10 to 6 feet, 245-260 or 270 pounds, who run in the high 4.6's to 4.9's. To continue to have a place on NFL fields FB's will need to have the speed of RB's WR's and TE's (4.5's or lower), weigh from around 235 to 255, be able to run well enough to handle around at least 50 carries per season, and be a good pass catcher. A player who can do all that is very hard to find, but the 2011 draft had 1, RB Mario Fannin (5-10 3/8, 231, 4.38-40, 1.51-10) of Auburn, though a RB he blocks like a FB, caught 42 passes in 2009, and though he never had more than 84 carries in a college season, he had averages of 5.3, 4.4, 8.4, and 6.5 yards rushing. He was signed by the Broncos as a UDFA, but he was cut after injuring his ankle. If his ankle is fully healed by mid or late season the Panthers should perhaps consider signing him for this role next season.
As NFL offenses adapt, the NFL defensives must also adapt to counter them. So, as NFL offenses adapt, as I mentioned earlier with the Patriots shifting to a no huddle offense to maintain mismatches, and prevent defensive substitutions, NFL defenses will have to shift to a more all purpose defensive set, or else be exploited by the offenses. That means that NFL defenses will to adapt, and move forward from the triditional 4-3, 3-4, or nickle defenses, perhaps creating a hybred of each. Also as the NFL's basic offense shifts to 3 WR sets of some type (3 WR's/1 TE or 2 WR's/2 TE's sets). The makeup of the defensive secondaries must also change to cope with multiple WR receiver sets, and so far it's been by the use of nickle and dime CB's to cover the 3 and 4 WR sets. In this case the Panthers are 1 of the first teams to see this trend and adapt to it, by having both their starting S's able to shift out to cover 3rd or 4th WR's man on man, with CB skills. This is the wave of the future, as teams substitute 3rd and 4th WR's on almost every play. Also the increased speed of play, with no huddles, will require defenses to have better depth, and perhaps will have to rest them by substituting defensive players by series.
I predict that these needs will soon lead to a new hybred defensive set. A defense with multiple options, using the same personel. that will be able to shift from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense by having the smaller DE drop back as a 4th LB, with the UT and other DE becoming the 3-4 DE's. It would be great if both DE's were able to drop back as LB;s, but such players are hard to find. The next option to have is a LB (in the mid 220's) who can drop back as a SS or even a FS when the DE drops back to LB. Such players are hard to find, but you could even use 2 such players as OLB's if you can find them. This might make it necessary to use smaller quicker ILB's, who can cover sideline to sideline when the OLB's blitz or drop back in coverage. The Seahawks have a player on their practice squad who is ideal for this, Jameson Konz (6-3 1/2, 234, 4.38-40, 46 inch vertical) who played both LB and DE in training camp this year. In college he played LB 2 years, S 1 year, and TE as a senior (21 catches). If the Panthers lose another LB, TE, or FB, maybe the Panthers should sign Konz off the Seahawks practice squad, with this idea in mind for next year. They already had 1 such player in training camp this year in FS Michael Greco (6-2 7/8, 224, 4.40-40), but he had to be released with an injury settlement.
How Would Position Requirements Change In Such A Hybred Defense?:
NT: It remains the same, with a player weighing around 330 pounds, or a little more.
UT: It requires a player who's around 295 (290-305) pounds (like Terrell McClain), with the speed and pass rush ability of a 3-4 DE, because that's what he will play about half the time.
"Big" DE: He will need to be between 275-285 pounds (like Charles Johnson), with both good pass rushing and run stopping ability, because he will split his time about 50/50 between being a 4-3 DE, and a 3-4 DE.
"Small" DE/LB: This is the 4-3 DE who drops back to LB, to change from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense. As a 4th LB he can move back to ILB, or OLB wirh the 4-3 OLB moving inside to ILB, or the 4-3 OLB droping back as a 5th DB. This position will require a player between 250-265 pounds, with good speed, and pass rush ability (like Greg Hardy or Eric Norwood).
WLB: The WLB should be around 225-235 pounds or so, with the speed (sub 4.5) to be both an effective blitzer, and also drop back in coverage as a S. Thomas Davis fits this mold, though a little heavier at 240, and he has struggled as a SS early in his career. Davis could also shift inside to pair with Beason as ILB's that have the speed to cover sidline to sidline.
SLB: The SLB needs to be between 235 to 245 in a 4-3 defense, 245-270 in a 3-4 defense, and can be a little slower at around a 4.65-40 or better, be able to blitz, and cover a RB or TE in pass coverage. James Anderson isn't a perfect fit for this role, though he can move to ILB when the DE drops back on his side, but he lacks the DB ability.
MLB: 4-3 MLB's usually range from around 235 pounds to 245 pounds. Howesver a ILB (2 ILB's in a 3-4 defense) usually range from around 240-260 pounds. As I envision such a hybred defense, I see the ILB's more in the mold of the 4-3 MLB's, who run 4.65-40's or better, because the 2 OLB's will spend much of their time in pass coverage or blitzing, so the 2 ILB's need to be able to cover sideline to sideline.
CB's: They remain the same height 5-9 to 6-2, 180-210 pounds, 4.5 or better 40 times, maybe as high as the mide 4.5's if he has very good skills.
SS: Around 5-11 to 6-2, 200-220 pounds, I prefer a sub I prefer a sub 4.5 40 time, but some good ones go as high as a 4.6.
FS : Around 5-10 to 6-2, 195-220 pounds, I prefer a sub 4.45 40 time, but they can get by in the low 4.5's.