I'm always fascinated to observe how offenses and defenses are constantly evolving and adapting to leverage every possible advantage on the field. In today's NFL, the advantage favors the offenses because of the current league rules; wide receivers no longer need to grapple against corners while route running, and refs are protecting quarterbacks and receivers to avoid unnecessary hits. Defenses are still struggling to find the balance of playing aggressively against the pass and doing so within the rules, but defensive positions are changing too.
Two particular positions on defense that are evolving are at safety and middle linebacker. Concerning the former, you may have already seen and heard how safeties are being asked to do more now than ever before. Traditionally, defenses employed two different versions of this position on the field, one for coverage and the other for run-stopping. However, the versatility of tight ends and running backs has changed all that. More after the jump..
In this highly crude illustration above, you can see a nickel, or sub, package 3-4 defense against a single back formation with three wideouts and a tight end. This offense formation is highly popular because it presents several different threats. First, the nickel package creates a numbers advantage for the offense inside the box, i.e., there are more potential blockers than defenders in the event of a run play. If the defense responds by sending either safety into the box to help, the quarterback has a single-coverage advantage against the receivers. In addition, forcing more cornerbacks onto the field has always tended to favor a running offense as corners aren't usually good tacklers. They're asked to defend the pass first and foremost.
This dilemma has forced defenses to create more versatile safeties that can play the nickel corner spot to defend the receiver in man coverage, but also stuff the run or play a deep zone if necessary. Even in a base 3-4 defense, though, you may end up seeing one safety appear to enter the box as an 8th man, but then pull off to cover a tight end or slot receiver at the snap.
The middle linebacker also has more on his plate to stop these passing attacks. In response to dual-threat tight ends and running backs, the inside linebackers are often tasked to play man coverage against them. It's precisely in those situations where a quarterback can easily chose to take advantage of a mismatch because he has a Darren Sproles or Gronkowski-type player on his team. So now, it's more important than ever to have middle backers with sufficient speed and athleticism to keep up with these offensive playmakers, and at the same time be prepared for a run play being set up.
The middle backer's ability to play the pass comes in handy especially in the red zone, when the field is shortened and more bodies are stacked at the line of scrimmage. Defenses can't afford to insert a smaller lineup down at the goal line because they can't afford to give up a gashing run up the middle--they want to force passes into smaller windows. As such, you'll often see the middle backer playing center field in the end zone and reading the quarterback to clog passing lanes, but he also has to make sure the quarterback doesn't extend the play by scrambling into the end zone himself. It's a tough gig.
In summary, these are difficult times for both safeties and middle linebackers. It should be interesting to see how the Redskins fare this season at those spots specifically. We're fortunate to have London Fletcher teaching youngsters like Perry and Robinson how it's done. In addition, if Raheem Morris can squeeze more from this secondary group, then may be able to look forward to improved pass coverage this year.