Under a blitz, defense back to drawing board Strategies changing as teams scheme to cope with offensive surge

August 30, 1996|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Choose your poison.

Prefer to play your cornerbacks up close in a bump-and-run mode, or deep in a safety-net zone?

Want to come with a four-man rush line, or bring blitzes off the corners and up the middle?

When it comes to playing defense in the NFL, there are only so many options open to defensive coordinators. And only a few of them are good enough to pass the test of time.

As the NFL launches its 77th season Sunday, it is not hard to discern the direction the league is headed with its on-field product. Consider these offensive trends:

Scoring per game has increased 15 percent since the NFL began enforcing more strictly the no-bump rule on defense two years ago.

A record 23 receivers topped the 1,000-yard plateau last season.

Nine players, all in the NFC, caught 100 passes in 1995, also a record. This tripled the league's previous high of three.

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that in the past two years, 20 teams have changed defensive coordinators -- not counting the two expansion teams a year ago.

In an age when playing defense is the football equivalent of Russian roulette, what's a defensive coach to do?

Some have junked the once-glitzy 3-4 alignment and returned to the traditional 4-3. Others opt for the latest defensive trend, the zone blitz, used by the Pittsburgh Steelers a year ago.

Still others find new careers.

The trick is to find pass rushers who can get to the quarterback regularly, and enough defensive backs who can stay with today's bigger, stronger wide receivers.

"There's more stress all the time on cover people," said Washington Redskins general manager Charley Casserly. "I think safeties have to cover better than ever. And you've got to have a quality third corner. When a team puts three wide-outs on the field, you've got to have people to cover it.

"It's hard for people to have a good third corner. Most people don't have two good corners."

The NFL's offense of the '90s -- whether it be the West Coast offense fashioned by the San Francisco 49ers or the five-receiver set employed by last year's Steelers -- depends on two critical facts.

"I think people are going after big, fast guys to play receiver," said Marvin Lewis, first-year defensive coordinator for the Ravens. "That's the No. 1 thing. They're going after bigger, faster players, which puts the advantage back to offense."

Size certainly was a common denominator among the NFL's top five receivers in 1995. Herman Moore, Detroit's 6-foot-3, 210-pound Pro Bowl receiver, led the league with 123 catches. San Francis- co's Jerry Rice (6-2, 200) and Minnesota's Cris Carter (6-3, 206) had 122 each.

Isaac Bruce of St. Louis was the only runt of the group at 6-0, 178, and Michael Irvin rounded out the top five at 6-2, 207.

As important as size is how the officials call the game. And that has changed with the seasons.

"The rules have a lot to do with it," said Gunther Cunningham, defensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs. "They're calling pass interference so close and people get away with pushing off on offense. What they want to do is put points on the board, and no one wants to admit it."

As far back as 1978, the league made two moves to open up the offense. It instituted the rule that prohibited defensive backs from bumping a receiver after 5 yards. At the same time, offensive linemen were allowed to extend their arms and open their hands while blocking -- a modified form of holding.

Scoring jumped 6.7 percent and all was right with the NFL. But by the early '90s, it wasn't enough. Owners, league executives and fans all wanted more offense. So, after the 1993 season, the league committed to strongly enforce the no-bump rule at 5 yards.

Offensive linemen also got another break when they were

allowed to set up a shade behind the center on the line of scrimmage. That enabled them to get a better jump and a better angle against the speedy pass rushers who were threatening havoc on the league's quarterbacks.

Games averaged 37.4 points in 1993. That figure increased to 40.5 in 1994 and 43.0 in 1995. Has the league legislated too far in promoting offense over defense?

Retired Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula, a member of the league's competition committee for years, doesn't think so.

"It's a pretty good mix," said Shula, who in his new capacity will continue to help the league look at ways to improve officiating. "I think you still have some great defense, especially when you get down in the red zone. You still see big plays on defense.

"I think some restrictions on defensive players have loosened up things on offense. That's good for the game."

Those restrictions on defense have forced teams to be more innovative. The newest wrinkle to hit the NFL was the zone blitz, a gimmick defense that helped vault the Steelers into the Super Bowl last season.

The idea is to rush the quarterback with five men, often from unexpected places. The risk is that lumbering defensive linemen sometimes drop into pass coverage in this scheme.

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