Way back in the day, somewhere between sustained Super Bowl-level excellence and losing his mind before bequeathing his storied franchise to Lloyd Chrismas’s overwieght brother, Al Davis, the legendary AFL maverick, drafted for speed above everything else (including talent). It didn’t work out so well for him all the time.
More recently, the Falcons took the speed approach, but instead of drafting guys like Darius Heyward Bey, they took guys like Deion Jones who, in addition to being really fast, can also play football very well. Although the Falcons had been going for speed in general, it seems like Deion Jones, a 6’1″ 200 safety-linebacker hybrid with speed hovering right around 4.40, may have been the key to unlocking an entirely new defensive approach. He had 75 tackles and 3 interceptions (2 of which were returned for touchdowns) during his rookie campaign. As the season progressed, he was used in more and more formations and the team benefitted from the confusion and difficult matchups created by this new defensive scheme.
Results were generally really good for the Falcons until the last 17 minutes of the Super Bowl. The Patriots gassed them by running 90 plays and left them looking more tired than they would have been dragging Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes. Apparently the downside to depending on speed is that if your guys get tired, it doesn’t work as well.
It’s an adaptive league and, judging by this year’s combine, players aren’t getting any slower. I would wager to say this idea isn’t a fad that will pass. Surely, there’s more to come.
This may be the most successful full-scale implementation of a defense like this in recent memory, but it’s an idea that has been growing in the league. A couple years ago, there was a lot of attention around Deone Bucannon, the speedy hybrid safety-linebacker, and what he did for Cardinals defense. Fast enough to cover slot receivers, but athletic enough to sort through blocks and contain the run, he became a versatile centerpiece to the defensive gameplan.
It looked like the Packers were grooming Sean Richardson, who had almost identical height-weight-speed measures as Bucannon, for a similar role until he got hurt. Micah Hyde has been moved around a lot since then and last year, Morgan Burnett saw a lot more action in a hybrid linebacker role than ever before. Could he have been taking Richardson’s spot?
Bucannon, Richardson, and Burnett are all around 6’1″ 215, just like Jones, with a 40 time hovering a few one hundredths on either side of 4.50. They appear to have just the right amount of size to hang in the box and the speed to cover slot receivers and get to the sideline on extended run designs.
Could Burnett be one of the first steps towards a defense like the Falcons used last year?
Dom Capers has a reputation among some Packer fans of being stale and clinging to an old way of thinking, but he finds creative ways to use his players. He’s had to scheme around a lot of injuries in past seasons and adjusting on the fly to move Matthews in 2014 almost propelled them to a Super Bowl.
In free agency this year, the Packers lost Julius Peppers and Datone Jones, two guys who ate up a lot of snaps as elephant ends. This could leave the defense ripe for some scheme changes depending on who they get in the draft.
Perry and CM3 give the team a classic run-stopper/pash-rusher combo on the outside of a 3-4 alignment. The signing of Ricky Jean Francois give them another versatile piece to use alongside guys like Mike Daniels and Dean Lowry, who are both under 300 pounds.
This is stacking up to look like a much different line than the old two-gapping front that used 330 pounders like Ryan Pickett, BJ Raji, and Howard Green.
With a lighter, quicker line, and hybrid guys like Morgan Burnett and Joe Thomas playing in the box instead of slower, more physical types like AJ Hawk and Sam Barrington, the team is already morphing towards a lighter, quicker unit. They’re moving on from pluggers and plodders in favor of disruptors and play-makers.
In a couple weeks, the draft will finally be here. This could give Ted Thompson a chance to find more guys who fit the new model, building towards a faster, more dynamic defensive approach.
They just need to make sure they hold their opponents under 90 plays.