The NFL game has turned into a matchup nightmare for defenses. Hybrid players on offense can create any advantage they want at any time.
For example, tight ends can line up next to tackles and create a power point of attack for the run game. Then on the next play, in the same situation, that tight end can line up as a wide receiver and be a vertical threat.
The same can be said for many running backs. On a first down a running back is lined up 6 yards behind the quarterback ready to run a zone stretch play. On the next identical down and distance situation, that same running back is in the slot running a "choice route" against a linebacker.
A fullback can line up as a lead blocker, or as a wing back next to the tight end to create an extra gap for the run game -- or he can release as a receiver. The challenge for defenses is at an all-time high and the front seven on every defense has to be able to adjust on the fly to every challenge. Every offense can morph into any formation at any time, and the great offenses can do it from one personnel group.
It wasn't too long ago that defensive coaches could code their defenses to what offensive personnel group went in to the game. Nowadays a team like the Patriots can jog onto the field on first down with two tight ends, two wide receivers and a running back and coordinators are forced to use a base defense that has to be ready for everything from a no-back set to a two- or three-back set.
Add the no huddle concept on second down, and NFL defenses have to be able to play every situation from their base defense. That means the front seven players have to be dynamic athletes who can be stout against a power run game as well as line up against a no-back spread set and have enough calls to confuse the quarterback.
The front seven comprises the defensive linemen and the linebackers, whether it is a 3-4 or 4-3 defense. The growing popularity of the 3-4 does provide more flexibility to adjust to the challenges that offenses present, but 4-3 teams have their own ways of adjusting. Otherwise, there wouldn't be any 4-3 defenses left.
Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh once told me that the key to great offense was the ability to handle every down and distance from one personnel group. That forced defensive coordinators to make the decision about what personnel group they wanted to put on the field.
What are the challenges that defenses face?
Over the past three years NFL offenses haven't changed their thinking when it comes to first down philosophy. The last three seasons are carbon copies of themselves in the run/pass ratio on first downs. The formula has been 52 percent run and 48 percent pass.
Defenses have to be able to handle that balance equally as well. Take the 2012 Bucs, for example. Tampa Bay had the top-ranked run defense on first down, giving up 3.56 yards per run. But the Bucs also had the worst pass defense on first down, giving up the most passing plays over 4 yards at 146.
Teams have to play both aspects of an offense or they are going to struggle. When it comes to second down there were 12 teams in the NFL that ran the ball at least 45 percent of the time on all second downs. In the old days, a breakdown of every second down situation would provide a solid scouting report about what to do with the front seven. A second down with 2-5 yards to go could be a heavy run down. A second-and-1 or less could be a 'free' down and a deep ball situation. A second down with more than 5 yards to go could be draws and screens. Today the front seven better be ready for anything.
When it comes to evaluating a defensive front seven, first down is the first place to look. The San Francisco 49ers were the best, giving up 4.38 yards per first down. They were third-best on first downs against the run at 3.79 a rush and No. 1 against the pass at 5.03 per pass. And the Niners' opponents were right on the NFL average with 52.7 percent run and 47.3 percent pass on first down.
Teams tried everything, and simply, the 49ers could handle it. Consider the 49ers' front seven and the reasons they were so good. Justin Smith led a front three on the defensive line that was strong and could control the line of scrimmage. Everything was funneled to the linebackers and waiting for any formation and any play call was Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. The linebackers had five interceptions, 24 passes defended and 29 sacks.
Some of that production came on third downs, but most of the 376 tackles the linebackers recorded came on first and second downs, making the Niners the best front seven in the NFL. San Francisco will get challenged in 2013 for the top front seven in the NFL, and its own division could provide the biggest competition. As one NFL offensive coordinator said to me last week, "the NFC West has turned into a nasty place to try and move the ball, especially on early downs."
As a division, I don't see any division capable of having four front sevens that compare with the NFC West. Last year the top two defenses when it comes to allowing fewest points were the 49ers (245 points) and the Seahawks (273). The Seahawks added Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett to their front seven and have a nasty secondary that plays man-to-man coverage, allowing the front seven to be very aggressive.
After studying the St. Louis Rams and the production they got from their young defense last year, especially Robert Quinn and Michael Brockers, they will be a very solid front seven with Chris Long leading the front four and James Laurinaitis managing the linebackers. Jeff Fisher told me that first-round draft pick Alec Ogeltree looks like a great fit for the Rams' scheme. Fisher also said a year in the weight room for Brockers has reshaped his body, and I get the feeling Fisher saw a young Albert Haynesworth in Brockers. Last year the Rams were a middle of the road front seven, especially on first-down production, but don't be surprised if they move close to the top of the league this year.
If Arizona hadn't lost linebacker Daryl Washington to a four-game suspension in the upcoming season I might have moved the Cardinals up ahead of the Rams. But the signing of Karlos Dansby and the drafting of Kevin Minter (LSU) to go along with defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett make this front seven very strong in the NFL's best division for defense.
There are other very solid front seven units around the league, and when I surveyed three coaches about who they liked, the teams that came up for 2013 by all three were the Cincinnati Bengals, the Baltimore Ravens (even though Ray Lewis is gone) and the Denver Broncos. The Broncos have the luxury of Peyton Manning running the offense, but nonetheless, they were the second-best first-down defense to the 49ers, allowing 4.78 yards per play and had the best first-down run defense at 3.38 per rush.
The front sevens that coaches mentioned as dark horses to play well this year were a bit surprising. They included Carolina, Miami, Pittsburgh and Kansas City.
Finally, if your favorite team's front seven isn't stout enough to control the line of scrimmage, flexible enough to adjust to every issue an offense presents on first and second down, it will not get into enough third-and-six-plus situations where the run/pass ratio drops to 13 percent run, 87 percent pass. The NFL success rate of converting on third-and-6-plus during the past three years is 26 percent every year. To get into that world a defense needs a great front seven on first and second downs.