There a lot of ways to build a winning defense. Some teams rely heavily on a specific scheme, and everyone fits within their role (2002 Buccaneers). Others load up certain position groups to tilt the scales in their favor (2011 Giants), and others use a simple approach, executed well with superior talent (2013 Seahawks).
I would put our defense in the ball park of that last category (and this is by no means an exhaustive list of how to be great). But what sets us apart, in my opinion, is our team’s versatility and ability to adapt and morph from game to game, play to play.
Sure, we have stars and athletes and speed and a pretty simple scheme. Oftentimes this is enough and we line up and just beat you with that. The true highlight of our defense and the key to our greatness lies in the fact that we are a chameleon. We can move guys all over the field, and play with different looks without missing a beat.
Look no further than our star player during our Super Bowl run. He was snuffing out runs, pass rushing, dropping into zones for interceptions, and running with wide receivers 20 yards downfield. The ability for us to do different things like this speaks to the level of talent we possess and the brilliance of a coach who uses it.
Today we are going to break down some film and look at examples of versatility and creativity within our defense. The first is an example of both concepts within a specific package.
This was first brought to my attention by reading Andy Benoit’s breakdown of Denver’s defense on the MMQB.
Having three lockdown corners in Aqib Talib, Chris Harris and Bradley Roby is Denver’s greatest asset because it allows imaginative defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to do whatever he wants with his front seven. In the Super Bowl, Phillips played these three corners along with just one safety, leaving all of his base front seven defenders on the field, even when the Panthers were in three-receiver sets. The heavier box destroyed Carolina’s ground game. (By the way, the other time Denver did this three-corner package was its Week 8 demolition of the Packers.) You can only play this way if you trust your corners to win one-on-one. Many NFL teams don’t even have one corner who can be trusted to this degree. Even more impressive is that, while Talib, Harris and Roby are superb man defenders, they’re also proficient in zone. Talib can be sloppy here at times, but he’s so dangerous breaking on balls from off-coverage that QBs still have to think twice about him. Harris’s spatial awareness is second to none. And Roby is fast evolving into a second coming of Harris.
This piqued my interest and so I dug back into the tape of the Packers game to check it out (Note: I plan to look at the Super Bowl another time as a whole post itself).
Sure enough, this was Darian Stewart’s lowest snap count of the season (outside of injury) because we were often running what I call our Base/Nickel Hybrid (I’m open to naming suggestions). Let’s check it out.
Here we are, 1st and 10, first drive of the game and Green Bay is in 11 personnel, but they’re moving their TE around into a FB position. They are clearly comfortable running out of these packages as it likely catches defenses in a small front where they can pound it in with Eddie Lacey and their two Pro-Bowl guards.
But not against our defense.
We have our entire base front-7 lined up while playing man to man with 3 corners on the outside. TJ Ward is your single high safety off-screen. Ward is another Swiss Army knife of a player as we will see later on. It is key to have him as your one safety because at times he’ll walk up towards the line of scrimmage in more obvious run situations.
As Benoit said, this is key to stopping the run because we are able to have 7 in the box and it’s all our normal run stuffing guys. Notice also that the two times we have used this is against mobile QBs. We are not as interested in pass rushing the crap out of Aaron Rodgers, but rather containing him. So this front helps in that regard too as most of the D-line was tasked with just pushing the pocket and boxing him in.
Here’s the handoff from the screenshot above. Each corner has their man locked up tight, and there is nowhere for Eddie Lacey to run.
Here’s the same defense on the very next play, except now notice TJ Ward down in the box near the top of the screen. Our corners are in cover zero, meaning there is no help behind them. But we’re ok with this because A) we trust our corners, and B) it’s 3rd and short.
So now, on a nightmare scenario for the defense (3rd and short) where the offense could literally do almost anything, we are able to have an 8-man box against the run, while matching up across the board with 11 personnel. I believe that’s called having your cake and eating it too.
Here’s another one, just for fun. 11 personnel, we counter with our 3-corner base package.
While we are specifically looking at the run stopping potential of this package, it also shuts down the pass very effectively (14-22 for 77 yards to be exact).
Bonus: 4-3 look
Another example of our versatility is our ability to shift looks within the same package in a matter of seconds. Right now we are in our 3-4 base defense with Stewart back on the field.
Pre-snap, the TE moves over to the offense’s right and so Von just steps off the line, shifts Malik over and the other LBs down into what is a more traditional 4-3 look. This shifts the linebackers down closer to the strong side of the formation.
Ok ok, you got me. Maybe I just wanted an excuse to show DeMarcus Ware strip sacking Aaron Rodgers for a safety. But this does show our defense’s ability to morph with the situation in a split second.
Stay tuned for the second portion of this film study as we dig into some creative blitzes next time around.