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CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist

Seeing change: Coaches say air game places import on bigger WRs, CBs

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The Colts' Chuck Pagano says it's a challenge finding corners who can cover today's larger WRs. (US Presswire)  
The Colts' Chuck Pagano says it's a challenge finding corners who can cover today's larger WRs. (US Presswire)  

PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The NFL game changes all the time, with new wrinkles, new ideas and new ways to put the ball in the end zone and try and stop it from getting there.

During the past decade, the NFL has changed in a lot of ways. So to get an idea about where the game is headed and where it's been, I sought out several of the head coaches here at the NFL annual meetings to ask them a variety of on-field related questions, the kind that don't have anything to do with bounties or Tim Tebow.

What's the biggest change for offenses in the last 10 years?

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Rams coach Jeff Fisher: "I think you see more things take place on the line of scrimmage. The no-huddle. Not a hurry-up. Just a no-huddle. And the typical tight end position. Years ago, he was an extension of the offensive line and occasional pass catcher. Now he's a downfield weapon.

Giants coach Tom Coughlin: "The distribution of run and pass. The game has definitely changed. With the development of the great quarterbacks you see, you would expect that to happen."

Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey: "It's a little more spread out. The gun formation. Not us, but around the league. The tight end position has evolved a little bit. You can get some mismatches there."

Colts coach Chuck Pagano: "Probably just the ability to sling the ball around the way they are. And the size of the wide receivers. Every year, you go into the draft tying to find cover corners to cover these guys. It seems like the receivers are always getting bigger. They walk up on the stage and he's 6-4, 220 pounds and they bring in the DBs and they are still 5-8, 5-9, 5-10. It's becomes hard to find the 6-1 guys to cover those guys."

Texans coach Gary Kubiak: "I think people are spreading the field more. More first- and second-down with three- and four wides."

What's the biggest change on defense in the last 10 years?

Raiders coach Dennis Allen: "The different variety of sub-packages in nickel situations."

Kubiak: "Probably the 3-4 coming back. I don't know if I'm right in saying that it is more prevalent than the 4-3, but it's getting close. There was a time there were six or seven 3-4 teams. Now it's back up to 15."

Mularkey: "The moving parts on defense. You're allowed zero deception by the offense. There's a penalty for every deceptive thing you do offensively. The defense, their whole intent is to be deceptive. What you see on third down on defense, there is no drawing of any type to show that in the NFL."

Pagano: "It's third down. I think the number of blitzes from different personnel groups people are using. They are stunting guys, moving them around."

Coughlin: "To me, the biggest changes have been the personnel packages that you see and are utilized. As we look at football being completely situational. Bill Walsh wanted to head this off years ago when he tried to limit substitutions."

There is a perception that the left tackle isn't as valuable a position as it once was. Do you believe it?

Pagano: "I learned a long time ago, you have to have a quarterback and you have to have a left tackle to protect him. I think it's as important as it's ever been. It's huge."

Kubiak: "He's the key to the offensive line. You better protect the blind side. He faces the top pass rusher the majority of the time."

Mularkey: "Whose perception is that? The best rusher is usually on the blind side of the quarterback. It's still a pretty valuable position."

Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt: "It used to be the premier rushers were always over there. Defenses have evolved. With all the different places guys are being put in, it doesn't matter. DeMarcus Ware for Dallas will be on the right side, the middle. He'll line up anywhere. From the standpoint of being that left tackle matched up against the great pass rusher, it doesn't seem to be as much as it used to be. So maybe that would be a reason why you would make that statement. But if you're playing Minnesota, you know where Jared Allen is going to be."

Who is more important now with spread offenses: Nickel corner or third linebacker who plays on run downs only?

Dennis Allen: "I think the nickel corner the way the league is going now. The nickel corner is a starter in this league."

Kubiak: "You look at your schedule and say, 'Who are you playing this year?' You going to be in nickel all year or trying to stop the run? One year you could be in nickel 60 or 70 percent of the time and the next it's 50. When Peyton [Manning] was in Indy, if we didn't have three good corners we were in big trouble."

Whisenhunt: "Statistically he [nickel corner] plays more snaps. You have to have those guys. But you have to be able to stop them in third and 1. You need to have the other guys."

Bills coach Chan Gailey: "That's a good question. Some weeks yes, some weeks no. Getting ready to play the 49ers, no. Getting ready to play New England, yes. You have to have both."

Coughlin: "The nickel corner. You can't play without one of them. You better have four corners who can play. Who's the third linebacker? The guy in the middle who comes out? The outside guys stay in there. Rather than put it that way [more valuable], at the end he's going to have more snaps."

Is the fullback in the NFL being phased out?

Fisher: "I don't think so. Not by me, no. I'd play three of them. They're hard to find."

Allen: "No, I don't think so. What I do think is the traditional fullback might not be the same guy as you go forward in the National Football League. [Raiders fullback] Marcel Reese is a converted wide receiver playing fullback. He's an athletic guy. I think you might see a little more of that."

Kubiak: "I was thinking how many teams out there really use a true fullback. I think I counted eight or nine. You don't see it in college anymore. Not many schools run two-back systems. I don't want to say being phased out. People don't use them very much, but people like us really value them. It depends where you are."

Gailey: "It sure seems that way. There are few of us who still do it. It's hard to find them. Colleges are phasing them out. Most people now are going to the blocking tight end, the 6-2, 240-pound tight end helping him learn how to block on the move."

Pagano: "How many do you see in college football? Only a few teams have it in their offense anymore. If you can't fund a fullback, find yourself an H-back like David Johnson is for the Steelers. He can play a little fullback and can be used as an in-line blocker."

Whisenhunt: "We ran the two-back a good percentage of the time, so we use them. They are getting harder to find. You have to look at potential tight ends or guys you can move into that position. That may be a part of it."


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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