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After the Boom: How to build a modern NFL defense (it doesn't start at corner or on the edge)

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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:

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If I had to pick out one personnel move that best explains how NFL defensive coaches have fallen so far behind their offensive peers, it would be the Saints’ decision to let Malcolm Jenkins walk in order to free up money to sign Jarius Byrd.

Having watched the Seahawks defense dominate his typically high-powered offense over the course of two games during the 2013 season, Saints coach Sean Payton wanted to replicate what Pete Caroll was doing in Seattle. And, in order to do so, he needed New Orleans to find its own version of Earl Thomas, the centerfield safety who made the Seahawks’ preferred single-high safety coverages possible.

That would be Byrd, who was coming off two Pro Bowl seasons and had racked up 22 interceptions over five seasons as Buffalo’s centerfield safety. Jenkins had proven to be a useful free safety but he lacked the speed to play the Thomas role for the Saints defense. So he ended up in Philadelphia, where he became a do-it-all defensive back, playing as a deep safety, nickel corner or in-the-box linebacker depending on the situation. That versatility, now properly harnessed, has allowed Jenkins to earn three trips to the Pro Bowl. Meanwhile, the Saints soon found out that the Seahawks model was hard to replicate and that Byrd was no Earl Thomas and lacked the versatility to play in a role that made more sense for the rest of the roster.

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was forced to make it work, and when it didn’t, he was fired. In keeping with Ryan Family Tradition, Rob did not hold back when asked why things didn’t work out in New Orleans, pointing to the Byrd signing specifically.

Via The MMQB:

“They signed players; they signed a free-agent free safety [Byrd] and said, ‘We are going to keep him in the middle of the field like the goalpost,'” Ryan said. “Well, that’s great. He’s not going to make one play back there, and now we have changed the entire defense for one signing, and it ruined us. He’s a great kid. But the truth of the matter is, you let an All-Pro safety walk, Malcolm Jenkins, and lost your two best leaders on the team, him and Roman Harper. We changed the entire style of play. It was strange.

“The Seahawks have done a fantastic job in their system. They believe in it. I believe in being a multiple defense, an attacking defense, a physical defense,” Ryan said. “That’s no slight on Seattle by any stretch. They are a very physical defense; they play a very simple scheme and let their guys play … Seattle has been great, but all the other teams doing [that scheme] are finishing s—y like I did. Right there next to New Orleans is Atlanta, Jacksonville. That’s not sour grapes.”

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).

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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:

2 TEs v. Base: 0.19 EPA (1,570 ATT)
2 TEs v. Nickel: 0.05 EPA (972 ATT)

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:

So why is Donald not ahead of Wagner?  First off, Wagner is a phenomenal player who does his job at just about as high a level as Donald. The kicker is that Wagner provides many of his best play at a more important point in the play: covering the player to whom the ball is thrown. As we’ve written about before both coverage and pass-rush are important components of winning football games, but coverage reigns supreme and when measuring the value of a player this is taken into consideration.

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.

https://ftw.usatoday.com/2019/09/building-modern-nfl-defense-roster-management

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? 

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4 minutes ago, vel said:

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. 

And there's the problem.

He has final say over the roster and 5 years to build it.  And Vic.... they could have let him go and used that money to upgrade the defense.

Maybe drafting a WR when they really didn't need one wasn't the right move but spilt milk and all that.

As it stands Neal is most likely a lost cause and there will be a new staff in place next season.

You can't blame a guy for trying.... but they can still lose their job because of it.

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1 minute ago, Sun Tzu 7 said:

And there's the problem.

He has final say over the roster and 5 years to build it.  And Vic.... they could have let him go and used that money to upgrade the defense.

Maybe drafting a WR when they really didn't need one wasn't the right move but spilt milk and all that.

As it stands Neal is most likely a lost cause and there will be a new staff in place next season.

You can't blame a guy for trying.... but they can still lose their job because of it.

No I disagree. He was building it the way he was hired to build it. He succeeded, to a degree, in replicating the "LOB". The problem was the league had lapped that scheme. The Falcons have been living in the past on both offense (2016 ATL) and defense (2013 SEA). 

I agree that keeping Vic was stupid. I disagree that taking Ridley was a bad move, when Taven Bryan is the alternative (admitted by the staff themselves). 

They will definitely be losing their jobs. This defense is historically bad and poorly coached. That's what he was hired to do and bet on him being a better DC. He lost his bet. But this is more about how do you build it going forward. Right now, Grady and Debo are the only pieces you can build around. 

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I never understood our early FA signing of Brown/Carpenter and the extension of Beasley, and the drafting of Even two more OL early in draft which made everything look even more confusing This offseason....and I said as much during the draft...   but then DQ/TD brought in Davison, Bailey, and clayborn, which made me think well, there is a plan after all. 
 

we were all fooled bro. They had no clue, throwing mud against a wall to see if anything sticks. We all vastly overrated what DQ brings to the table. 

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I'm not going to pretend I have a clue about half of what I just read. But what would you do with Neal, Allen and Trufant

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14 minutes ago, Vandy said:

I never understood our early FA signing of Brown/Carpenter and the extension of Beasley, and the drafting of Even two more OL early in draft which made everything look even more confusing This offseason....and I said as much during the draft...   but then DQ/TD brought in Davison, Bailey, and clayborn, which made me think well, there is a plan after all. 
 

we were all fooled bro. They had no clue, throwing mud against a wall to see if anything sticks. We all vastly overrated what DQ brings to the table. 

Keeping Vic was the worst move. Brown/Carpenter wasn't bad. Signing Ty was worse if you want to complain about the OL signings. 

Davison, Bailey, and Clayborn gave you a very good foundation on the DL. The problem is DQ bet on Vic, which negated all of that. With $13MM, he could have added legit NFL players and not kept this joke of a player on the team. 

I hate to say it, but DQ was a flash in the pan that flamed out very fast. He over estimated his coaching ability. I think he's a good gameplanner and good at breaking down film and seeing players strengths and weaknesses. But when you have HOF players at every level on the field making up the gap in your coaching ability, it's easy to get by. He's being exposed weekly and it's embarrassing. Can't say that about Smitty even during the "multiple defense" era at the end. 

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1 minute ago, ya_boi_j said:

I'm not going to pretend I have a clue about half of what I just read. But what would you do with Neal, Allen and Trufant

Neal fits, that overhang safety role if you run something like a 3-3-5 . Rico also fits the role perfect due to intelligence. However you generally want one of your best athletes at that role. Rico and work well as the other safety.(weak safety). Trufant fits whatever you want to run as long as you dont rely on press at the line disruption. 

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5 minutes ago, ya_boi_j said:

I'm not going to pretend I have a clue about half of what I just read. But what would you do with Neal, Allen and Trufant

I'd trade Trufant as soon as possible. Send him to Philly this year for a pick if you can. Allen can stay. He's smart enough to run multiple schemes. Neal is tough. He will cost $6MM and have not played a full season in two years (Only three games since 2017). That's the toughest one. Wouldn't be against them trading him somewhere if they could get a decent enough pick back. Between him and Rico, you'd be paying almost $14MM for safety play that you can't truly project. That's too risky. 

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9 minutes ago, vel said:

Keeping Vic was the worst move. Brown/Carpenter wasn't bad. Signing Ty was worse if you want to complain about the OL signings. 

Davison, Bailey, and Clayborn gave you a very good foundation on the DL. The problem is DQ bet on Vic, which negated all of that. With $13MM, he could have added legit NFL players and not kept this joke of a player on the team. 

I hate to say it, but DQ was a flash in the pan that flamed out very fast. He over estimated his coaching ability. I think he's a good gameplanner and good at breaking down film and seeing players strengths and weaknesses. But when you have HOF players at every level on the field making up the gap in your coaching ability, it's easy to get by. He's being exposed weekly and it's embarrassing. Can't say that about Smitty even during the "multiple defense" era at the end. 

Yeah bro, I’m Just shocked how badly he’s getting outcoached by opposing OC’s. I’m speechless on it, actually.  
 

 

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8 minutes ago, SPITFIRE said:

Neal fits, that overhang safety role if you run something like a 3-3-5 . Rico also fits the role perfect due to intelligence. However you generally want one of your best athletes at that role. Rico and work well as the other safety.(weak safety). Trufant fits whatever you want to run as long as you dont rely on press at the line disruption. 

Neal was my fav draft pick of Quinn era. But with his injury issues, he’s gonna be a tough call unless willing to take less. 
 

i hope they find a way to keep him. I would cut Rico, his lack of athleticism has really been exposed due to the poor CB play. New coach needs to draft a playmaker at FS or move Kazee back in that role. 

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27 minutes ago, Vandy said:

I never understood our early FA signing of Brown/Carpenter and the extension of Beasley, and the drafting of Even two more OL early in draft which made everything look even more confusing This offseason....and I said as much during the draft...   but then DQ/TD brought in Davison, Bailey, and clayborn, which made me think well, there is a plan after all. 
 

we were all fooled bro. They had no clue, throwing mud against a wall to see if anything sticks. We all vastly overrated what DQ brings to the table. 

I think getting the OL was right move after losing Levitre and no one at RG. The problem is not this off season, it is inability to get any impact players on defense after 2016. We had guys like Collins, Duke Riley, Oliver,  Senat and gave up 3rd round for trading up to pick Takk.  I think middle of the DL is the only unit which is performing, the edge, the secondary is trash.

In 2018, Falcons had same issues and every one thought it was injuries.

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22 minutes ago, SPITFIRE said:

Neal fits, that overhang safety role if you run something like a 3-3-5 . Rico also fits the role perfect due to intelligence. However you generally want one of your best athletes at that role. Rico and work well as the other safety.(weak safety). Trufant fits whatever you want to run as long as you dont rely on press at the line disruption. 

But do you keep or sell

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It looks like he was trying to fix the perceived issues of personnel and scheme by moving to whatever this mess we see on the field. It's a mix of different schemes and it appears to be continuing to confuse the players. He should have kept Manuel or hired a different DC.

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42 minutes ago, Vandy said:

I never understood our early FA signing of Brown/Carpenter and the extension of Beasley, and the drafting of Even two more OL early in draft which made everything look even more confusing This offseason....and I said as much during the draft...   but then DQ/TD brought in Davison, Bailey, and clayborn, which made me think well, there is a plan after all. 
 

we were all fooled bro. They had no clue, throwing mud against a wall to see if anything sticks. We all vastly overrated what DQ brings to the table. 

I got a lot of negatively for post ing that the Falcons should have tried to go defensive line in the draft.  Even did some draft scenarios...

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20 minutes ago, vel said:

I'd trade Trufant as soon as possible. Send him to Philly this year for a pick if you can. Allen can stay. He's smart enough to run multiple schemes. Neal is tough. He will cost $6MM and have not played a full season in two years (Only three games since 2017). That's the toughest one. Wouldn't be against them trading him somewhere if they could get a decent enough pick back. Between him and Rico, you'd be paying almost $14MM for safety play that you can't truly project. That's too risky. 

I agree on all 3. Honestly after Neal was injured this season I was kinda hoping they’d do their due diligence on every SS available via draft or FA and rescind his 5th year option and move on. I like him but never been in love with him.
 

I’m more of an offensive guy over defense so I won’t pretend to know how each of the 3 fits and where they excel. 

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Just now, Spts1 said:

I got a lot of negatively for post ing that the Falcons should have tried to go defensive line in the draft.  Even did some draft scenarios...

We have been drafting the same for better part of the decade. There are two first round DE on the team all drafted by DQ. The problems are deeper.

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6 minutes ago, ya_boi_j said:

But do you keep or sell

I would keep Neal. He should be very cheap for what you are getting.  Tru could go either way. I would keep Rico he would do better in a role where you dont need to be a incredible athlete. 

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24 minutes ago, Vandy said:

Neal was my fav draft pick of Quinn era. But with his injury issues, he’s gonna be a tough call unless willing to take less. 
 

i hope they find a way to keep him. I would cut Rico, his lack of athleticism has really been exposed due to the poor CB play. New coach needs to draft a playmaker at FS or move Kazee back in that role. 

I'd keep Rico because he seems to be the only secondary player with a brain right now. If they're changing schemes, I'd keep him as a bridge solely for that reason. A hard working, smart player who will push the roster. 

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Just now, vel said:

I'd keep Rico because he seems to be the only secondary player with a brain right now. If they're changing schemes, I'd keep him as a bridge solely for that reason. A hard working, smart player who will push the roster. 

Isnt it sad that we even have to list that as a attribute for professional players.

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3 minutes ago, SPITFIRE said:

I would keep Neal. He should be very cheap for what you are getting.  Tru could go either way. I would keep Rico he would do better in a role where you dont need to be a incredible athlete. 

That’s the thing with Neal. Say you play out the 5th year option and he stays healthy, it’s possible he wants what Collins got or somewhere in the area. That’s where you have to make the toughest decision. I know everyone keeps saying such and such came back after this and that injury but fail to mention that no two players are alike. 

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There's a lot of good info in this post but I don't feel Jairus Byrd is a good example about living in the past. He was an amazing player in Buffalo but showed up in New Orleans injured and never recovered. Buffalo had a top 10 pass defense his last healthy season in 2012. 

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