New faces, new approaches: The impact of coordinator changes around the league
NFL coaches try hard not to reveal too much of their game plans during the (much too long) preseason. Those few glances during exhibition games or in training camp still offer some valuable insight into how teams — especially those with new coaching staffs — will play it come Week 1.
Before all those preseason games kick off, Audibles breaks down some of the key scheme changes underway across the NFL.
What’s New: Bruce Arians’ vertical passing attack and zone-blocking principles.
New defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has stated that he plans to keep most of Ray Horton’s 3-4 attack in place. Arians and new offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin, though, are going back to the drawing board. Arians wants to stretch the field with a vertical passing game, as he did as offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh and Indianapolis. That’s good news for wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, one of the league’s premier downfield threats. It is not necessarily a sea change from ex-coach Ken Whisenhunt’s approach, but the Cardinals did not have the quarterback in recent years to execute those deep balls, either.
Arians also has favored more of a zone-blocking scheme for his run game in the past. There’s been no official confirmation that is what he has in mind here, but it has been his M.O. at previous stops.
What’s New: A more run-based, pro-style offense and a hybrid 3-4/4-3 defense.
Chan Gailey’s pass-heavy, spread-the-field approach could have been fun, in theory, but the Bills never finished better than 14th offensively with Gailey at the helm, and Ryan Fitzpatrick’s interception numbers never stabilized. New head coach Doug Marrone (and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett) will rely more heavily on the Bills’ backs. Last season, Syracuse attempted 473 passes to 555 runs (sacks included) with Marrone at the helm; Buffalo threw 511 times to 442 runs.
The Bills’ biggest offseason addition may have been that of D.C. Mike Pettine, whom Buffalo swiped from the Jets. Buffalo somewhat inexplicably switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3 base last season. Pettine will use both, and he mixes and matches his personnel like few other coordinators in the league, shifting pieces around frequently.
What’s new: Offensive coordinator Mike Shula.
Shula takes over for Rob Chudzinski, now the head coach in Cleveland. The basics of Carolina’s attack have not changed, but head coach Ron Rivera has stressed being more “up-tempo” and simplifying the playbook. A faster pace could play to QB Cam Newton’s benefit.
What’s new: A QB-centric offense, with a CFL twist.
OK, so new head coach Marc Trestman has an extensive NFL background, with stops in San Francisco, Cleveland and Oakland, among other places. He really turned heads in the CFL, though, winning a pair of Grey Cups and elevating the Montreal offense to one of the league’s best.
So, advantage: Jay Cutler. Transitioning the Alouettes’ offense to Chicago will require some tweaking, but Trestman’s basic approach — a high-paced attack that utilizes West Coast offense principles within a spread look — should highlight Cutler, Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte. Trestman has said that he’s keeping everything on the table, including the possibility of some zone-read options. Forte should thrive under the new coach (and O.C. Aaron Kromer), because Trestman will feed his back, both in run plays and short passes.
What’s new: A vertical-based passing attack and a 3-4 defense.
Rob Chudzinski, meet Brandon Weeden. The Browns’ second-year QB struggled in 2012 under then-head coach Pat Shurmur and coordinator Brad Childress. Chudzinski’s offense, which looks to stretch the field vertically, ought to take better advantage of Weeden’s big arm and some of the Browns’ speedy receivers. Norv Turner, the new offensive coordinator, also has a spiffy track record when it comes to improving quarterbacks.
Defensively, Cleveland decided on a major shift, with new coordinator Ray Horton arriving. The Browns are transitioning from a 4-3 D to a 3-4 — hence, the offseason acquisitions of Paul Kruger, Barkevious Mingo and Quentin Groves. Horton will try to generate pressure from his linebacking corps, while asking big bodies Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor to occupy blockers.
What’s new: Monte Kiffin’s Tampa-2 defense.
The Cowboys are scrapping their staple 3-4 in favor of a four-man front and the famed Tampa-2 defense. That defense relies heavily on the line to create pressure, thus allowing the remainder of the defense focus on coverage and boxing in the ballcarrier. The Cowboys seemingly have the pass-rushers to pull this off, specifically in DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. The mystery will be if the safeties, likely Barry Church and Will Allen, can handle the unique responsibilities that will be presented to them.
What’s new: Offensive coordinator Adam Gase … and not much else
Gase is in for Mike McCoy, now the head coach in San Diego. But Peyton Manning runs the Broncos’ offensive show, for the time being, so don’t count on any drastic changes. If there is an adjustment in store, it will be toward a little more productivity on the ground. Rookie Montee Ball’s performance will dictate, to a great degree, how much Denver runs the football.
What’s new: A Stanford-style look on offense.
As mentioned above, the Colts previously ran a vertical-based attack under Bruce Arians. With Arians taking over in Arizona, Indianapolis turned to Stanford’s Pep Hamilton, who called plays for Andrew Luck in 2011.
Hamilton’s approach is much more consistent with a West Coast offense, meaning quicker routes and shorter throws for Luck — both of which should cut down on his turnover numbers. Expect to see the running backs and tight ends used more frequently, too.
What’s new: Pretty much everything.
Rookie head coach Gus Bradley tabbed Jedd Fisch to run the Jaguars’ offense. Fisch is another guy with a West Coast pedigree, though he did not hesitate as the University of Miami coach to turn QB Stephen Morris loose through the air. The result? Morris set the school’s single-season yardage record in 2012, at 3,415 yards.
Defensively, Bob Babich was named coordinator, but this will be Bradley’s system in action. The NFL is familiar with that approach, thanks to Bradley’s time from 2008-12 as the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator. Bradley put in practice a hybrid defense that relied on a “Leo” linebacker to handle duties of both a lineman and linebacker, as well as on big and aggressive cornerbacks. Finding the right fits for those roles will take some time.
Kansas City Chiefs
What’s new: A versatile, West Coast offense and an “attack-style” defense
Reid’s West Coast offense is no secret anymore — that’s what he employed through his run as the Eagles’ head coach. It is closer to what Todd Haley ran as the Chiefs’ coach than what the woeful attack Romeo Crennel utilized in 2012. Alex Smith could fit the puzzle perfectly, as well, given that he has decent mobility and is a better passer in small chunks than stretching the field.
By bringing in pistol innovator Chris Ault as a consultant, Reid also has left open the possibility of being much more creative with Kansas City than he was with Philadelphia. Smith’s former team, the 49ers, used the pistol a great deal after Colin Kaepernick took over as QB.
Defensively, new coordinator Bob Sutton is keeping the 3-4, but also wants that scheme to generate more heat. Linebacker Derrick Johnson described it as “very attack style”, while DE Tyson Jackson said, “It’s a lot of moving parts at all times.”
New England Patriots
What’s new: The lack of tight ends.
No coaching change here, but in releasing Aaron Hernandez and possibly having to play without Rob Gronkowski for several weeks, the Patriots’ offense will have to adjust. As a result, there likely will be less fewer TE sets — at least until Gronkowski returns — and the Patriots already have worked on splitting Shane Vereen out wide more regularly. Tom Brady still will throw the ball a bunch, but Vereen and Stevan Ridley could grind out some games, behind a veteran offensive line.
New Orleans Saints
What’s new: A 3-4 defense, presented by Rob Ryan.
A year after allowing more yards than any defense in NFL history, the Saints asked Ryan to fix things. He’ll attempt to do so by swapping out New Orleans’ 4-3 defense for a 3-4. The pressure will be on Ryan in camp to turn his OLB corps of Junior Galette, Martez Wilson and Will Smith into a pass-rushing menace. (Victor Butler, a project starter, tore his ACL earlier this offseason.) Ryan also may ask his corners to hold their own in press coverage on the outside.
New York Jets
What’s new: Maybe nothing … but possibly the 4-3 defense.
Mike Pettine, now in Buffalo, helped the Jets’ defense thrive in a 3-4 look. New defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman said in March that he wasn’t sure if he would stick with that defense or if the team’s personnel would dictate a move to the 4-3. Two months later, he basically echoed those comments, while adding that the Jets likely would have both 3-4 and 4-3 elements.
What’s new: A power-blocking scheme.
Greg Olson has extensive experience, in various capacities, under several West Coast-minded coaches. So, that may be a good starting point for expectations here, but Olson insists that he will constantly tweak his scheme around his players.
The most important result of that approach thus far: the deletion of zone blocking from the Raiders’ offense. Oakland’s going back to a power-blocking look on the ground, much to the delight of RB Darren McFadden — he struggled mightily in the horizontal, zone-blocking approach and had his best NFL year (2010) in a system more reminiscent of Olson’s.
What’s new: You wish you knew.
Chip Kelly may not name a quarterback until mid- or late August. Part and parcel of that, he also has yet to let on exactly how his offense will shape up in Week 1. No one really expects it to look exactly like the extreme-tempo, run-oriented attack he clobbered foes with at Oregon … but it stands to reason some of those elements will be there. Kelly is not afraid to throw the football (which is why Nick Foles and Matt Barkley are still alive in the QB race); and, in players like LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, James Casey, Zach Ertz and even Vick, Kelly has any number of different formations and play calls available to him.
Meanwhile, Bill Davis has the reins as Philadelphia’s defensive coordinator, and Kelly said that magic word: “hybrid”. The Eagles have run a 4-3 in years past, but by signing NT Isaac Sopoaga and OLB Connor Barwin, certainly seem to be trending toward a 3-4.
(Quick note: A huge chunk of NFL teams now toy with alternating between 3-4 and 4-3 looks, and there’s been even more use of nickel packages like the 3-3-5 or 4-2-5. Long story short, there are increasingly less teams we can pin down as strictly a 3-4 or 4-3 defense these days.)
San Diego Chargers
What’s new: The offense.
A little vague with that “What’s new” description, but Philip Rivers said during minicamp that he was calling plays he’d “never really called in a live situation”, while new head coach Mike McCoy described the offense as “a combination of everything.”
So, vagaries beget vagaries.
What we know about McCoy from his time as the Denver offensive coordinator is that he does not hesitate to run out of any formation, he wants his QB to be very quick in his decision-making (having Peyton Manning helped) and he’s going to let offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt have a substantial say in the plans. Whisenhunt will try to challenge defenses deep, but he also places an emphasis on pounding the rock. So, a lot of the success here will fall on RB Ryan Mathews to hold up as a No. 1 back.
St. Louis Rams
Even before the Rams drafted explosive wide receiver Tavon Austin, there were rumblings out of St. Louis that the coaching staff wants its offense to be faster in 2013. We definitely should see that now, with Austin and Jared Cook added to the mix. What’s that mean, specifically? Maybe more no-huddle, maybe more of an aerial assault (if Sam Bradford can handle it). All we know for sure is that the Rams don’t want to tread water this year.