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Special athletes needed on defense to game plan for today's NFL offenses

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DE Andre Branch, formerly a TE and basketball player for Clemson, offers plenty of athleticism. (US Presswire)  
DE Andre Branch, formerly a TE and basketball player for Clemson, offers plenty of athleticism. (US Presswire)  

There was a time in the 1990s through 2010 when NFL offenses attacked defenses by rolling through as many personnel groupings as they could looking for the advantages one personnel group had over a defense. For example, it was not uncommon for Andy Reid of the Eagles to use five or six different personnel groupings in the first series of the game. It is still an effective philosophy employed by most of the West Coast offenses but it isn't the only way teams attack defenses anymore.

NFL defenses broke down opponents by personnel groups and developed a good feel for what offenses were doing in each grouping. It became the backbone of the defensive game plan and if a defense could marry up the personnel grouping to the down and distance as well as the field position it was possible to get a lock on the tendencies. Because offenses freely substituted personnel groups defenses were allowed to substitute defensive packages. For example, if on first down the offense was in 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end, two wide receivers) the defense would call for base defense. If on the next play the offense subbed out a running back for a wide receiver and go to 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) the defense was permitted to sub out a front seven player and bring in an extra defensive back, commonly known as a nickel defense. The NFL game quickly became a substitution matchup game.

All the offensive substituting also permitted the defenses to roll multiple defensive linemen in and out of the game, always keeping fresh players on the field. It is not uncommon for 4-3 defenses facing offenses with multiple personnel groupings to have eight defensive linemen active for a game and play all of them throughout the contest. Keep in mind the offensive line isn't rotating players throughout the game and the advantage went to the defense. Offenses have started to evolve away from so many personnel packages as defenses honed in on what they were trying to do.

Well, Bill Belichick and others coaches like 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman and Packers head coach Mike McCarthy have created a whole new set of problems for defenses. The new trend applies a lot of pressure to the defenses that formerly got wired in on offenses by breaking down all the personnel groupings and had a great ability to build game plans based on strong tendencies. Belichick figured out how to send one personnel group on the field and have the flexibility to get into any formation at any time and do it from a no-huddle concept so defenses couldn't substitute players, couldn't keep defensive linemen fresh and basically never be right.

Ask any defensive coordinator about the Patriot 12 personnel package (1 RB, 2 TEs 2 WR) and they just shake their head and say it's a problem. As Belichick told me, he prefers having two tight ends with wide receiver skills that are also willing blockers, a running back with receiving skills and a no-huddle offense. So, what is the new defensive answer for that?

Since the Patriots and others can do anything and everything from one personnel group the defenses have to develop a scheme that has the flexibility to handle everything from the one group on the field. This isn't the old Dallas flex defense but the new 'flex' defense. Many defensive coaches came to the combine looking for flex players that are stout enough to handle a power run play on one down, stay on the field the next play and line up and play an empty set with five receivers spread out across the field.

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One defensive coordinator said their biggest problem is as soon as they see a 12 personnel package like the Patriots, who go no-huddle, they have their calls reduced to so few that smart quarterbacks like Brady pick them apart. He says in order to have enough calls they need guys that can do more things on the field and that's what they're looking for in Indianapolis.

Coaches are looking for three types of players for the new flex defense. First, linebackers that have safety skills that can play the hard ball run from a condensed set, then lineup on a flexed tight end the next play and cover him man-to-man. Second, they want defensive ends with linebacker skills that can play the off-tackle run game to not get blown off the ball by an offensive tackle, then on the next play stand up and drop into coverage, and by the way have the stamina to stay on the field for a full 10-play no-huddle drive. Third, safeties that have linebacker skills that can cover wide receivers or tight ends man-to-man, and also line up in the box and play the run.

It's a tall order to find the type of athletes described above but some of the athletes at the combine are now on the radar screen of the teams trying to build a flex defense. One coach shared with me his list that intrigues him as he attempts to develop a defense that can handle the one personnel group offense.

Linebackers -- They tend to be a bit smaller than the traditional linebackers but they have skills that give coaches flexibility in their calls.

 Zach Brown, North Carolina -- He has great speed and athletic enough to cover in space. He rushed for 20 touchdowns his senior year of high school, was undefeated in wrestling and the state 100-meter champion.

 LaVonte David, Nebraska -- Reminds me of Panther linebacker Thomas Davis, who came out of Georgia as a safety. He is the hybrid safety linebacker that can do a lot of things in a flex defense.

 Shea McCellan, Boise State -- He demonstrated at the Senior Bowl pass-rush skills, linebacker coverage skills, and reminded me of Mike Vrabel. His senior year of high school he rushed for 22 touchdowns and averaged 17 points a game in hoops.

Defensive ends -- They tend to be the type of athletes the 3-4 teams have always looked for as outside linebackers but now they have to be able to play some more man to man coverage schemes than in the past.

 Melvin Ingram, South Carolina -- I watched him line up in the Senior Bowl at DE, DT and handle much bigger players. He also returned five kickoffs as a college freshman and ran a fake punt for a touchdown.

 Nick Perry, USC -- An undersized pass rusher with great production. He also played basketball and tight end in high school.

 Ronnell Lewis, Oklahoma -- Lewis has some medical issues but he has played all across the front seven on defense and he was a terrific high school running back and safety.

 Whitney Mercilus, Illinois -- Besides leading the nation in sacks last year with 16 he caught eight touchdown passes his senior year of high school and has the skill to cover a tight end.

 Andre Branch, Clemson -- A solid pass rusher that played tight end and basketball in high school and averages 12 points a game as a senior.

 Cam Johnson, Virginia -- A hybrid end/linebacker type that was a high school wide receiver and safety as well as a fine basketball player.

Safeties -- Size is a factor and being stout enough to take on a lead blocker and athletic enough to cover Jermichael Finley or Aaron Hernandez.

 Mark Barron, Alabama -- At 6'2 219 pounds he has the size and speed to play the run, which he loves to do and can match up on a tight end or wide receiver and cover him. He is coming off a double hernia operation. He was a fine running back and receiver in high school.

 George Iloka, Boise State -- He has serious size at 6'4 222 pounds. He can line up anywhere on the field in the back seven. As a senior at Boise he played every position in the secondary.

 Harrison Smith, Notre Dame -- He's 6'2, 215 pounds and can play like a linebacker or cover a deep half of the field. He is one smart player that can handle the pressures of a no-huddle attack. He was a very good running back and basketball player in high school.


Pat Kirwan has been around the league since 1972, serving in a variety of roles. He was a scout for the Cardinals and Buccaneers, a coach for the Jets as well as the team's Director of Player Administration where he negotiated contracts and managed the team's salary cap. He is the author of Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look, and the host of Sirius NFL Radio's Moving the Chains.
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