The NFL is a league built on parity. Everything from the draft to the salary cap and free agency, and even the way the schedule is put together every year, is designed to bring successful teams back to the pack. A poor season grants you a higher slot in the following draft and two matchups the next year against other teams with poor records. A great season likely means several members of your roster will be poached by other teams.
Because the league is geared so heavily to an even playing field, teams are constantly working to find any competitive advantage on the field. Perhaps the greatest advantage a team can have is a comparatively high level of coaching. On the defensive side of the ball, this can manifest itself in a few ways.
Some coordinators opt for more basic schemes and coach their players hard to maximize their fundamentals and effort to make life difficult for opposing offenses, while others employ a multitude of creative and flexible coverages, along with dynamic pressure packages, designed to make quarterbacks uncomfortable and keep play-callers off-balance.
So, which teams use this creativity to generate these types of schematic advantage on defense?
Dick LeBeau has been in the NFL for nearly 60 years as a player and a coach. He is most well-known for his creation of the “zone blitz” schemes that have become prevalent across the league.
With three deep defenders, and three underneath zone defenders, along with five pressure players, LeBeau’s brain child gives his defense the ability to give offensive lines and quarterbacks quite a bit to work through at the line of scrimmage, while still providing an umbrella of coverage on the back end to prevent big plays. Anyone on the field can technically be part of the five-man pressure, which makes it a difficult defense to prepare for.
The Browns’ inclusion on this list is driven entirely by the offseason addition of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who became infamous for his role in coordinating what would later become known as “bounty-gate” in New Orleans. But behind these extracurriculars lies a brilliant defensive mind.
Williams is well known for his creative use of combination coverages and pressures from every level of the defense. With Williams at the helm, and players like Myles Garrett, Jabrill Peppers and Jamie Collins on the field, the Browns will undoubtedly be a dynamic, and creative defense in 2017.
The Cardinals are a team that have a certain reputation on defense and they continually live up to it. That reputation is that they play man coverage and blitz your guts out. They’ll send their defensive linemen, linebackers and safeties after the quarterback, and they’ll make your quarterback and offensive line figure out who’s coming and how to block them up.
Los Angeles Rams
Wade Phillips has a reputation as a defensive coordinator that is impeccable. His one-gap 3-4 defense was unique when it was created many decades ago, and allows a team to get more athletes on the field by playing three down linemen, but asking his front seven to play only one-gap against the run, which allows him to be more lenient in regards to the size of the defensive linemen.
Add this up with Phillips’ experience and you get a lot of options in putting pressure on quarterbacks and creating opportunities to take the ball away.
New England Patriots
No list such as this would be complete without the Patriots. Perhaps the only NFL coach with a better reputation and understanding of defensive football than Phillips, LeBeau or Williams is Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. Combine his experience with the smarts and work ethic of former rocket scientist and current defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, and you get a recipe for a very flexible defense.
Whether it’s the hybrid one and two gap defensive fronts, or the multitude of combination man coverages, or the pressure packages that get non-prototype rushers like Rob Ninkovich to the quarterback, the Patriots are the best in the league at winning with scheme on the defensive side of the ball.
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