After the Seattle Seahawks demolished the Denver Broncos and the highest-scoring offense in NFL history in Super Bowl XLVIII, defensive coordinators are preparing to copy the simple schemes that made them so stingy.
According to NFL Media senior analyst Gil Brandt, defensive coaches are adopting a back-to-basics approach to shackle pass-happy offenses.
Brandt believes that sophisticated ploys like fire zone blitzes, multiple fronts and disguised coverage will soon be phased out in favour of simple structures and overwhelming physicality.
The Seahawks are the standard bearers for this mode of defense, but only thanks to the talent they possess. They combine formidable size with impressive speed at every level of their unit.
Up front, fleet-footed pass-rushers like ends Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett and Chris Clemons cause havoc. They constantly collapsed the edges of the pass pocket around Denver quarterback Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl.
Behind the D-line exists that same combination of punishing brute force accompanied by dazzling athleticism. Linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright are a pair of 240-pound heavy hitters. They are joined by 226-pounder Malcolm Smith, the unlikely MVP of Super Bowl XLVIII, and a quick covering defender.
The last level of the Seattle defense is the same deadly mix of muscle and sprinter's speed. The famed "Legion of Boom" secondary is comprised solely of big, aggressive defensive backs.
Towering cornerback Richard Sherman, along with Kam Chancellor, the safety who would play linebacker for most other teams, live long in the nightmares of NFL wide receivers.
With this level of physical talent why would Seattle do anything other than play it simple?
Avril and company afford the Seahawks the luxury of creating pressure without having to blitz. That lets coordinator Dan Quinn design simple coverage shells featuring seven and sometimes even eight defenders.
The Seahawks rarely ever rush more than four, while the other seven drop back into their familiar coverage pattern.
They rely on a basic coverage, usually some version of Cover 3, three deep, four under, and press receivers at the line.
By trusting such a simple formula, the Seahawks have created a structure that lets their natural talent flourish. If there is a breakdown in the structure, or an unanticipated offensive adjustment, players are trusted to be smart enough to adapt.
The Seahawks will proudly claim they do not alter their schemes to combat specific players. This is something New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick will freely do. Instead, the Seahawks
steadfastly stick to playing within their simple structure and playing it very well.
It is that simplicity, allowing defensive players to simply hunt the ball, that coordinators are now craving.
But those play-callers should be wary about thinking it will be so easy to emulate. Those who play basic defense in the NFL are usually blessed with superior talent.
As well as the Seahawks, their NFC West rivals the San Francisco 49ers rarely vary their defense beyond a few core concepts.
But that is easy to do when you have Justin Smith dominating the line of scrimmage, and a pass-rusher like Aldon Smith winning on the edge.
Not many teams have a pair of linebackers as big, fast and smart as NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. When the talent level is that high there is no need to complicate things.
The same is true of the Carolina Panthers. They boast prolific bookend pass-rushers in ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson. Behind them, linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly can track the ball sideline-to-sideline better than any pair in the league.
The Panthers rarely blitz because their line is so dominant. They play basic coverage because they know Kuechly and Davis will stop receivers cold without any yards after the catch.
Any defense that attempts to play that way without marquee pass-rushers up front, or linebackers quick enough to break on receivers underneath, will soon be in trouble.
Similarly, those trying to replicate what the Seahawks do in coverage will soon find it harder than it looks. Press coverage can't work without defensive backs big enough to win the physical battle at the line, but also smart enough not to be fooled by double-moves.
Every year the rest of the NFL looks to the Super Bowl winner for a new template for success, and Brandt's point about defenses needing to simplify is well taken.
The proliferation of fire zone schemes, based largely on the success of the Pittsburgh Steelers and legendary coordinator Dick LeBeau, did push defensive concepts too far toward complex.
But those who trust basic schemes must have players fast enough, strong enough and smart enough to consistently win their individual battles.
Defenses not loaded with that level of talent will still need some exotic wrinkles to confound modern offenses.
image: © Noah Meyerhans
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