FanPost

Trends

 

One of the things I like about MHR are the many posts that give information. John Bena, Jeremy Bolander, Steve Nichols, Tim Lynch, TJ Johnson, Sayre Bedinger, BShrout and ejruiz do a first rate job of feeding us information. Others, like Emmett Smith, etc. add by reacting, expanding, explaining and filling in.

I’ve come to like analysis and speculation about the game of football almost as much as I like the actual games. As a result the off-season can be a highlight for me.

I’d like to do another post (did one earlier on the Building of the Team which concentrated on roster discussion) on another topic that many on this site talk about and which is intriguing for me – “Trends”.


One of the most interesting things for me about the NFL is to see the variety of trends develop and the way they cause other trends. Some of the trends are obvious, some less so. Some have been around for a while, some are relatively new, some are just developing (perhaps just in my own mind), and some are anticipated (perhaps just hoped for in my imagination). Most are interconnected along cause and effect progression. Some reflect an evolving situation. This is all pretty theoretical and vague. I’m trying to make it more concrete and specific in my own mind and so thought I’d try to put in into some random thoughts (I expect to revise and rewrite this as I go along and as I get responses).

I’d like to have a discussion about some of the more recent trends I see and about some of those I anticipate.

Some of this may be pretty obvious and boring. If so, I’m sorry. I’ going to start with the more general and then try to get more specific.

 

Overall Trends (IMO mostly pretty obvious)

1.     Athletes overall are becoming bigger, stronger, and faster. Some positions reflect this dramatically. For others, like RB and LB, the definition of the prototype has changed (for RB from quick and elusive or powerful and grinding to extremely versatile in run, pass, and blocking or tackling skills).

2.     Best athletes available is expanding from the RBs and WRs of the past to WRs, CB, and LBs today. In addition, the quality of OLs & DLs is increasingly significantly as is their importance in the scheme of things.

3.     To find even the slightest advantage, both offensive and defensive systems are becoming increasingly complicated demanding players be increasingly intelligent.

 

Strategic trends

1.     Offense is now more pass than run oriented (obvious trend). The old NFL saw about establishing the run first has become an obsolete slogan (still often repeated as a kind of mantra of “universal truth”). Few teams stake their success on it anymore. Now the run (while still important) complements and sets up the pass and not the other way around.

2.     To compensate for #1, defenses: first increased the size and mobility of the front seven (bigger faster DLs and LBs) giving premium status to DE pass rushers who could contain the run but  who could especially harassed the QB; then developed various and complicated blitz packages (zone, flood, safety, etc), and cover schemes (zone, cover 2, etc); then switched from 4-3 to 3-4 (more later). These packages made frequent use of specialized personnel.

3.     Offenses then started to go “hurry up” and “no huddle” to counter the various packages which often required specialized personnel, by limiting the ability to substitute freely.

4.     Defenses are beginning to counter “hurry up” and “no huddle” with what I call “amoeba” defenses using versatile personnel and masking formations (with few players in set stances or positions) with players in fluid pre-snap positions.

 

Consequential trends

1.     Players are bigger - At some positions, the overall size is increasing at a noticeable rate. Not long ago the 300+lb lineman, either on defense or offense, was the rarity. Now it is the standard. (Lyle Alzado {RIP}, whom I happened to have known, was considered big, weighed around 260-270 lbs and admitted using steroids to get there; he would not be invited to the combine today for size alone not to mention the steroid use). In the past few TEs weighed over 220 lbs. Now all do. RBs regularly weighed under 200 lbs. Now almost none do. Dan Fouts was almost considered a freak QB at 6’5”. That’s close to standard today; to be a freak QB you’d have to be closer to 7’0”.

2.     Players are quicker - Not only are the athletes bigger but they are noticeably faster, quicker and more agile. This is most noticeable and significant in linemen and linebackers (WRs, CBs have always been quick). This increased speed has IMO changed the NFL more than any other single thing (more about this in later specific trends).

3.     Players and coaches are smarter - The change in the size and quickness of the available personnel has changed the way the game is played and prepared for. More options, more variety, more subtleties come into play. Situations are analyzed and confronted. Special formation and personnel packages are no longer occasional features. They have become standard. The concept of “starters” is fluid and seldom very important. Players are “one down”, “two down”, or “three down” players. “Situations require specific formations and personnel – “packages”. As a result, both offenses and defenses have become more complicated. Coaches and players now must have an additional skill – “brains” or “smarts”.

4.     Because, in the past, teams developed their defenses to stop the run first of all and then face the pass, offenses began to change the emphasis and build around the pass, with the run as support. It was a gradual change ( in the past some great former teams passed a lot and won a lot – but teams that could run won crucial games). Today few would contend that New Orleans, Indianapolis, Minnesota, New England, or Pittsburgh were “run first” teams. They may have good runners who are important to their strategy; but they are not “run first” teams. I don’t want to get into a discussion about when and how the change took place. I’ve not been able to clearly analyze it for my own satisfaction and don’t think it’s crucial for my point. As a result of the trend toward emphasis on passing, elements of the passing game rose to the top in priorities – i.e. QBs, WRs, pass blocking schemes and personnel, especially the OLT.

5.     The concept of “team” becomes increasingly important not just for morale and coordination, but because the skill set at one position affects the priorities of skill sets at other positions. For instance, with a massive run stuffing NT the ILBs can be more mobile and pass coverage oriented. With a smaller and more pass rush skilled front three the ILBs will have to be bigger and more important in the run game. In addition, packages on both offense and defense can be especially specific with regard to down, distance and game situation. More about this in the next section.

 

Specific trends

Offense

1.     The QB is regarded as the key to the offense (I remember when it was actually the RB – i.e. Jim Brown, Gale Sayers, Walter Payton, even as recently as LaDamian Tomlinson, etc.) and a “Franchise QB” is every teams fantasy. No player gets more attention (or criticism) than the QB and no player can rise (or fall) faster in estimation.

2.     The prototype QB must be tall (at least 6’3” – 6’5” better) to see and throw over the rushing linemen (passing lanes are becoming unpredictable if not scarce with the new defensive strategies); extremely accurate on short to medium range passes; with quick reading abilities (“quick smarts” or “speed intelligence” I like to call it – not necessarily IQ stuff). Mobility and an elite arm are fine and very helpful; but not essential ingredients. (Elway was very mobile early in his career and had a rifle for an arm: but his greatest asset IMO was not his arm or mobility, it was his “speed intelligence” which improved with experience [for which he gets little credit] and which resulted in four SB appearances and two rings. He had better instincts about defenses than any QB at his time and before, with the possible exception of Johnny Unitas). IMO Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are the current prototypes of this kind of QB though neither have John’s arm or mobility.

3.     Offensive lines have become bigger and are increasingly groomed for pass protection first. Zone blocking schemes are downgraded (zone blocking being more run oriented) in favor of power blocking schemes. Zone blocking schemes, though somewhat useful for pass blocking, suited mobile QBs (like Elway and Plummer) better than less mobile ones (like Griese and Orton – or Manning and Brady).

4.     WR are increased in number and in size.

5.     FBs pretty much disappear.

6.     RBs evolved from power and/or elusive backs to versatile players who can run, receive and block.

7.     TEs  first evolved from primarily run blockers to receivers, than (with the increasing move to 3-4 defenses) to pass and run blockers and receivers (versatility again). The number and variety of the use of TE increases noticeably (see Steve Nichols MHR University – Weighted Formations). Sets now include multiple TEs as well.

 

Defense

1.     3-4 defenses became popular to counter the trend to pass orientation on offense. They are also regarded as able to use available personnel more flexibly. Notice the frequent 4-3 and even more frequent 5-2 looks that it morphs into.

2.     The front three of the defense are key.

  • Prototypical DTs are: Big, strong and quick – over 300lbs (as big as possible for the NT hopefully without losing comparable mobility), excellent at 2 gap control, quick to collapse the pocket and able to harass the QB. They are intended to do as many of the following things as possible: control the inside run lanes and push the pocket back into the QB’s face reducing the pocket space, diminishing the passing lanes, and cause at least discomfort if not fear in the QB. Ideally the front three occupy all five of the OL and dominate them.
  • However, in reality, skill sets are more individual. DTs may or may not be able to control two gaps. They may or may not be able to push the pocket. They may or may not be able to harassed the QB. Depending on individual skill sets different combinations of DTs can be used for specific situations – down and distance, game situation, etc.
  • The most important defensive player becomes the NT. His skill set determines the possibilities, first of all, across the rest of the front seven and then for the whole defense.

3.     The back eight of the 3-4 defense complement the front three. They adjust to the situation – down, distance, personnel, etc.

4.     With Prototypical DTs the back eight control behind the line of scrimmage – ILBs and Ss in the middle; OLBs and CBs on the edges.

  • They are intended to read and react to the pass first and but able to close quickly on the run which hopefully is pretty much confined by the front three and OLBs to a cut between the DGs and OLBs.
  • Consequently, the back eight should be quick and able to make quick reads and quick reactions.
  • The middle four Ss and ILBs should be able to control the middle of the field, both short and long passing and mop up any runner who might get past the front three (or five). Tackling, quick reads, and quick reactions (“quick smarts”) are the most important skills. Size and speed are added benefits.
  • OLBs change the most, becoming in some situations OLB/DEs or even DEs. Run containment is a top priority. Short pass coverage both on slants and outs is another priority (height helps on the outs). Pass rushing is another top priority. The prototypical OLB should be able to contain (fend off TE or OG), check slants, knock down short outs and rush the passer, all depending on the scheme and read.
  • CB’s top priority is pass coverage, with run support as a back up.

5.     With less than prototypical DTs or when specialized personnel are called for, the back eight changes its “identify” to adapt. Likewise, if the DTs lack any of the prototypical ingredients adjustments have to be made elsewhere.

  • When the DTs (especially in the case of the NT) are not able to control all of the gaps, or when one or both of the DGs are mostly DEs with pass rushing skills, one or both OLBs can become DEs with run containment skills, one or both ILBs can become run first oriented (big and strong enough to take on OL blockers), and/or Ss can be brought closer for run support.
  • Likewise, if DTs are especially good at gap control, OLBs can become pass rushing DEs and ILBs can be used in pass coverage or extensively in blitz situations.
  • Other adjustments to personnel skill sets can be made to develop the schemes that are most effective given the personnel available. For instance, a prototypical NT (Wilfork) and DG (Seymour) could be complimented by either a containment DG or a pass rushing DE.
  • Frequently, the 3-4 must become a 5-2 (where 5 DL match one on one with the 5 OL), especially when the front three are not able to maintain gap control and push the pocket. The 5-2’s effectiveness consequently depends on the quality of the matchups and the versatility of the ILBs. In a 5-2 situation the backfield becomes a more circumscribed unit, playing its own schemes in tandem with the front seven.

6.     In the 3-4 versatility applies not just to players, but especially to coaches. They must be able to evaluate personnel and develop adaptable schemes that make the best use of the players available – “help them to succeed”.

 

Developing or potential trends (as I envision them)

Offense

1.     To frustrate the potential situational packages which make use of the variety of sets and skills available on a defensive unit, offenses will increasingly use “no huddle” or “hurry up”  offenses to limit the reliance on situational packages and specialized personnel and to control the flow of the play forcing the defenses to play in all situations of down and distance. It intends to force defensive personnel to play all situations, even those for which they are least suited putting a limit on the effectiveness of “specialists” and a premium on “versatile” players (3 down players).

2.     To counter the importance of the NT on defense, the OC will increasingly become the most important player on the OL with a skill set equal to and even, if possible, surpassing that of the OLT. Size, strength and mobility will matter. One on one control by the OC of the NT will increasingly become a high priority. If attained, one on one control of the NT will greatly enhance the potential of any running game. Likewise, OGs will become increasingly important to help insure that the pocket can be controlled for a more diverse and extended (down field) passing game.

3.     WRs will become increasingly known for their ability to adjust their patterns to the defense as opposed to being known for their speed or athletic ability (“quick smarts”).

4.     RBs will be platooned not so much for the variety of skill sets, but just because with the increased size and speed of defensive players, endurance over the course of a game and a season will require at least two versatile RBs.

 

Defense

1.     To counter the trend to “no huddle” or “hurry up” offenses, defenses will assume more “amoeba” schemes. Only a few players will actually set before the snap (DT?). The rest will meander around several potential placements and sets, with little indication of scheme until the ball is actually snapped. The ability to quickly close into a scheme will become a high priority.

2.     Along this same “amoeba” theme, the back seven will indicate little pre-snap. Most pre-snap looks will look either like man coverage or like zone coverage, but in actuality will be one of several potential “match-up zone” coverages which, while looking like man coverages quickly morph into zones or into limited or area zones.

 

Some random consequential thoughts

1.     Peyton Hillis, as much as I liked him, just didn’t seem to have the “quick smarts” to thrive in this offensive system. He anticipated, overreacted, and just plain missed assignments (maybe he missed the point) of the whole thing. He did well in 2008 in the simplified situation of a desperate replacement, but would IMO struggle as a reliant part of a complex system. I wish him well.

2.     Drafting OL early in this year’s draft, even OTs (maybe especially OTs), would not surprise me. Upgrading the OL is IMO crucial for the future. If by chance, Russell Okung, Bryan Bulaga or Anthony Davis fell to #11, I’d not be surprised if we bit. IMO they’re all better choices than Pouncey or Iupati at #11. Likewise, the day of OGs and OCs never being picked in the early rounds is over IMO.

3.     I don’t expect much trading up or down in the draft. Extra picks for the Broncos this year IMO are a fantasy. If a preferred or coveted pick is not available for a team at their slot, there are plenty of good options that do not involve the surrendering of draft picks. I’d be surprised to hear of any feelers from teams wanting to trade up surrendering draft picks. The only extra picks will come from the trade of players and they likely will not be as high as we might hope.

4.     The BPA plays very large in my analysis. Each quality player added to the team affects many of the other positions and how they can be utilized. For instance, a Terrence Cody will affect the whole defensive structure in a different way than Dan Williams will – or Cam Thomas (I like all three). But if Eric Berry were somehow available, ignoring him by filling a bigger perceived need with an even slightly less gifted player would IMO be a mistake. IMO winners are built more around quality players and adaptable coaching than around filling needs. Drafting BPA eventually will fill all needs nicely and with higher quality players. And good coaches find ways to help their players to succeed. Their task is greatly enhanced with good quality players.

5.     With a dominating OL, Tony Scheffler’s value as a Bronco IMO oddly enough rises somewhat significantly. If the front five OL can control the front five DL in a prototypical 3-4, the role of the TE changes somewhat. (When the Leonard Davis “mistake” was first reported as “interesting”, I nearly blacked out. Davis is a player I’d willingly trade BM for even up.) I’m not saying Scheffler will remain a Bronco, but “it could happen”.

6.     DTs will increasingly play large. And they will always be among the rare players available. (How many Ted Washingtons are there?) Last year the Broncos did not have anyone able to control two gaps. And they, unfortunately, didn’t have the personnel to compensate for this lack. This year they’ve made a start at correcting the situation with FAs, but IMO will have to further address it in the draft.

Of the four NTs most frequently mentioned in this year’s draft – Terrence Cody, Cam Thomas, Joseph Linval and Dan Williams – I doubt that more than two will come close to reflecting the prototypical NT. Maybe, in some cases they might become a DT/DG. Controlling two gaps is not easy. Pushing the pocket is also not easy. I’m definitely not convinced that Dan Williams obviously has the best shot (he does have a shot – don’t get me wrong). In my perfect world I’d have Jamal Williams, Justin Bannan and either Marcus Thomas, Ronald Fields, or Chris Baker backed up by Cody, Williams and either Thomas or Joseph Linval. Maybe Cody and one of the three – Dan Williams, Cam Thomas or Joseph Linval – would be enough. (I still have high hopes for Marcus Thomas and Chris Baker, as you can see, but possibly as DTs and not NTs). Having the depth of the young ones learning from the veterans makes sense to me.

 

This is as far as I’ve gotten. I’m still thinking. Everyone on this sight gets me thinking for which I’m thankful. I’d appreciate your thoughts.

This is a Fan-Created Comment on MileHighReport.com. The opinion here is not necessarily shared by the editorial staff of MHR

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