Since most of us have moved on to trying to figure out what the heIl went wrong with this defense and how to rebuild it, I wanted to post this article. Steven Ruiz made a four part series essentially looking at life of NFL defenses after the Legion of Boom. When Carroll came into the league, he brought his Cover 3 defense. It took the league by storm and won him a SB. But we've seen everybody else struggle to get even close to replicating it. Why? Because the offenses in the NFL have adjusted. So much so, that if you run a heavy cover 3 base defense, you will look bad. It's just like when the Tampa 2 was destroying offenses then looked like it was something out of the 70s trying to cover modern offenses.
Ruiz has been looking into what went wrong, how to cover modern offenses, how to stop the run, and how to even build a defense in this new offensive environment. You can read the others, but I wanted to start with the building part, because I think it will set off a ton of alarms to the issue and how this offseason should go if we hope to see any improvement on that side of the ball:
New Orleans let go of a player who could do more things — and do those things closer to the line of scrimmage where he can make more of an impact — in order to bring in one who was really only suited for one role. It’s easy to point and laugh at the Saints for the miscalculation, but this was happening all over the league, as teams devalued safeties who played closer to the line of scrimmage as they searched for a player like Thomas. Those decision-makers, meanwhile, seemed to be ignoring the importance of Kam Chancellor in Seattle’s scheme. Chancellor was, first and foremost, seen as an intimidator, but he was so much more than that. The guy could cover on one snap and then take on a Pro Bowl guard on the next.
In the third post in this series, I discussed how Kirby Smart was forced to develop a new defensive front to combat spread schemes because his linebackers, who were getting smaller in order to cover receivers in the passing game, weren’t capable of taking on guards. Well, Chancellor could cover and take on guards … at the safety position. He was as much of a unicorn as Thomas.
Jenkins is a similar kind of player. He’s good in coverage, which allows him to man-up on tight ends or slot receivers, but is also tough enough to hold up as a run defender in the box. As offenses blur the lines between pass and run formations, players like Jenkins and Chancellor, before injuries prematurely ended his career, grew in importance. It’s just taken the NFL a little longer to realize it.
They certainly hadn’t figured it out by the time the 2018 NFL draft rolled around, when the league allowed Derwin James to fall to the Chargers at the 17th pick despite looking like the perfect player for a modern NFL defense. Unsurprisingly, James dominated during his rookie season. In all phases of the game. He covered. He stopped the run. He even rushed the passer. In a league that is turning to more hybrid players on defense, James is the prototype.
These safeties who can hold in coverage or against the run will be pivotal in the evolution of defenses over the next few seasons. Offenses have become so good at creating mismatches with personnel groupings and that’s necessitated the need for more hybrid types. If an offense can play a running back with legit receiving skills on the field and two tight ends who can block and catch the ball, the defense has no chance. If they send out their base defense, which is typically how teams match 12 personnel (1 running back and 2 tight ends), there will be a mismatch somewhere on the field. That’s why the league passing numbers out of 12 personnel look so good, while the running numbers are, well, awful (as judged by Sports Info Systems Expected Points Added).
That high spike for EPA per dropback in 2 TE sets is easy to explain: NFL defenses are, for the most part, matching those sets with base personnel (four defensive backs) and treating the extra tight end like an extra run blocker instead of an extra pass catcher:
The numbers suggest defenses should probably be matching 12 personnel sets with nickel more than they currently are, but the players making up those groups matter. You need safeties who are more like cornerback/linebacker hybrids in order to feel comfortable doing that consistently. Players like James and Chancellor are hard to find, but maybe that will change if the league starts to value them properly.
The same can be said for more athletic linebackers who can be factors in pass coverage. A linebacker being rangy enough to stay on the field on passing downs was once seen as a luxury. Today those players are a necessity because of how integral they are in pass coverage now that tight ends and running backs are being used as viable receiving options. According to Pro Football Focus’ resident nerds, Seahawks LB Bobby Wagner has been a more valuable player than Aaron Donald, who is arguably the most dominant player in the league, according to their proprietary Wins Above Replacement metric. Wagner has been worth 2.4 WAR over the last three years while Donald has been worth “only” 2.0 WAR.
Pro Football Focus explained:
That’s why Seattle was willing to make Wagner the highest-paid linebacker in league history recently. He wasn’t the only off-the-ball linebacker who cashed in this offseason, either. Kwon Alexander got paid in San Francisco. C.J. Mosely got quarterback money in New York. And Deion Jones got big money from the Falcons just a few years after slipping in the draft because of concerns about his ability to defend the run.
The same thing happened to 2018 NFL defensive rookie of the year Darius Leonard. He was seen as a ‘tweener player who’d have a hard time getting off of blocks and making plays in the run game. One 163-tackle, seven-sack, two-interception season later, nobody is questioning Leonard’s play-making ability.
Coaches at every level are realizing there are ways to keep those lighter defenders clean by turning to three-man fronts meant to clog the interior gaps and funnel things out to the perimeter where athletic linebackers and defensive backers have the advantage. The Tite/Mint front that’s taking over college football is one way to do that. In order to properly run those fronts, though, defenses need players capable of clogging multiple gaps in order to steal back numbers in the box.
Two-gapping defensive linemen have been devalued over the years as teams have turned to one-gap approaches, but that could change as pro offenses start to resemble college offenses more and more. Against the Chiefs, a team that has fully embraced the spread revolution going on at the NFL level, the Patriots did a ton of two-gapping in order to slow down the RPO game.
These positional archetypes — the safety who plays close to the line of scrimmage, the lighter one-dimensional linebacker, the two-gapping defensive lineman — that had been written off because of a supposed lack of versatility are now the keys to a more versatile defense. And if the rest of the league hasn’t caught on, they can be viewed as an exploitable market inefficiency that will help certain teams catch up to modern offenses and close the widening gap between the two sides of the ball.
The mistakes so many teams made when trying to emulate the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom defense wasn’t necessarily overrating the importance of Earl Thomas to the scheme; it was underrating how important hybrid players like Bobby Wagner, Kam Chancellor and Michael Bennett, who could play edge rusher one snap and gap clogger the next, were to the success of not only that defense but the future of NFL defenses as a whole.
DQ, for all of the flaws this defense is showing, may not have been wrong in his approach to the defense this year. If you notice, they run more Tite with Bailey, Davison, and Grady. They have a massive personnel issue though. After the DL, they have Debo and nothing else built for this modern offensive league. That's why they look terrible on a weekly basis. I think DQ was hoping he could reconstruct this defense on the fly, but he can't overcome the lack of personnel. They needed a full overhaul of the defense but couldn't justify it. Guys like Vic, Campbell, Kazee, Ish are not fits for what's going on right now on defense. They added Wilcox to add more athleticism and coverage in the middle of the field but he went down. They didn't have the cap space to truly overhaul this defense, but he saw it needed to be. Unfortunately, he may be losing his job before he can do it.
They don't run as much Cover 3, but the problem is, he's got a bunch of players who aren't comfortable running the other coverages. That's why he stressed communication all offseason. Cover 4 especially requires pristine communication. He may be getting fired, but I wouldn't be surprised if the next DC gets a chance to completely overhaul this defense and they finish what DQ started. You've got decent DL personnel to build on. You have one of the best MLBs in the league to build around. Getting Neal back will be interesting, because he fits that mold of hybrid safety, but without the ball skills, do you invest long term.
All in all, this defense is terrible because they aren't built for today's NFL. That's a fact. They aren't well coached, but they also aren't much more than just a collection of talented players in mismatch roles. You have two man cover corners, but the rest of your defense is built for zone. When you go zone, you don't have a secondary that communicates well, leading to several lapses in simple coverages. You don't have a deep pass rush, limiting your ability to get pressure without blitzing, but you don't have sound blitzing players in the back seven so you revert to more players in coverage, but that gives QBs more time to find an open WR.
It's a cluster right now, but I'm not overly pessimistic it should be a long term issue. Do I think DQ and TD are the right men for the job? I don't know. But would the next HC/GM truly see where the NFL is headed and plan appropriately for it?