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Jeepers, creepers and the future of defensive obfuscation

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 19 LSU at Mississippi State Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As I was pulling together my previous article examining the importance of a pass rush, I went deep down the internet rabbit hole, reading up on defensive pressure research and the importance of coverage, and stumbled into an article purporting to put the “pass rush v. coverage” debate to bed.

That article included a section discussing how some college coaches, including LSU’s defensive coordinator Dave Aranda [pictured above], have already starting to anticipate the next step in the evolution from “coverage trumping pass rush.”

The beginning of that evolution takes us back nearly three and a half decades. In the search for “safe pressure” - a pass rush that doesn’t overcommit along the defensive line (i.e., blitz 6 players) and leaves 6 players back in coverage, the “fire zone blitz” was developed by Dick LeBeau in the 1980s (then with the Bengals). It employed a five-man rush with a three deep, three under defense that split the field into thirds, and it worked for years. Over time, however, offenses evolved, QBs started throwing more quick, short passes, and eventually even “fire zone blitz” lost its punch.

Enter the concept of “creeper pressure,” developed by Aranda fairly recently. Creeper pressure involves simulating pressure by incorporating linebackers and secondary into the pass rush - as opposed to traditional pass rushers - only rushing four, and keeping seven players back in coverage to protect against the short passing routes.

In the graphic above, there are seven potential pass rushers, the four lineman and three linebackers (including the nickel back), that the QB needs to worry about. Based on how the QB sets his protections, the defense is now in the position of deciding how to apply pressure. If a favorable pass rush match-up develops, the defense can take advantage of it. If it doesn’t, the linebackers can simply drop back into coverage. The goal of all this misdirection? “Psychological pressure” on the QB.

“You really get a lot of hay off them by affecting the quarterback,” Patrick Toney [head coach at University of Louisiana Lafayette] said on the podcast. “The quarterback feels like he’s being rushed because the pressure is being simulated, but it’s really a four-man rush. So he feels like the timing and the operation of the pass play has to be that much faster when, in actuality, it doesn’t.”

Several NFL teams have already begun to employ these concepts. Most notably, the Ravens, Patriots, Packers, and Bills. There was also one more team that appeared to be employing this approach beginning in 2018: Ron Rivera’s Carolina Panthers.

Much has been made of how Ron Rivera and Jack Del Rio will be bringing the 4-3 back to the Redskins after a decade long hiatus, but I suspect the magnitude of the change from the 3-4 is being overblown a bit. I think the defense will be revamped, but the change will be far more radical in its approach than simply shifting the number of lineman and linebackers.

In mid-2018, in Carolina, Rivera began installing a defense that had defensive linemen standing up and rushing the passer off the edge, utilizing personnel with sufficient versatility that they could line up throughout the defense in order to be flexible out of the huddle.

“I don’t really think it’s all that secret,” said second year linebacker Andre Smith on this week’s episode of It Is What It Is. “You can tell what we’re switching to why who we drafted, so it’s not really that big of a secret. I think we’re trying to be more versatile on defense, have guys that can [rush the passer] and also drop back and everything like that, so I think that’s one of the big switches.”

Tennessee Titans v Carolina Panthers Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

Things were beginning to click for Rivera’s new look defense in 2018, until the linchpin of his defense, linebacker Shaq Thompson, went down with a shoulder injury with two weeks to go in the season. What might that mean here? In Rivera’s interview at the Combine, he spoke specifically about Thompson:

“Guys that do give you an option to move guys around. Also, you won’t have to tip your hand. Shaq was a great example. Here’s a guy that could play the nickel position for you, and cover and run with a lot of receivers. And then, at the same time, go back into the box and play the SAM linebacker position for you. That’s an invaluable player. That’s the kind of player that you look for in the draft. Guys that have position flexibility.”

So who is the Redskins’ Shaq Thompson? That was the basically the follow-up question to Rivera’s answer above. His response was:

[Asked about current players who have “versatility”. {Deep breath}] “I think we have some guys that do have it at different positions. I think the closest guy that we have, that this guy that I find very intriguing is Cole Holcomb.”

Holcomb seems like a great guy, a very good value for a 5th round draft pick, but even his most enthusiastic supporters - and I count myself among them - probably don’t believe that Rivera is going to bank on the still raw second year prospect to captain his defense. Rivera’s exasperated pause at the beginning of his response to the question reinforces his skepticism on that front, for me.

What Does this Mean for the Draft?

Whether it be a pure conversion from the 3-4 to the 4-3, or - more likely - a conversion from a 3-4 to a multi-faceted hybrid front, this year’s draft, and the #2 pick, provide an incredible opportunity for Rivera and Del Rio to shape their defense for years to come.

Do they choose the best pass rusher in the draft to keep QBs running for their lives? Do they choose the player who has been described as a defensive Swiss army knife to captain the middle of their defense? Or do they choose the shut down corner to lock down the backside of the defense?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Poll

Given Rivera’s apparent interest in building a defense to confuse QBs, who do you think he’s most likely to push for in the draft?

This poll is closed

  • 49%
    Chase Young.
    (307 votes)
  • 45%
    Isaiah Simmons
    (281 votes)
  • 3%
    Jeff Okudah
    (24 votes)
  • 0%
    Someone else. (indicate who in the comments).
    (5 votes)
617 votes total Vote Now