2011 NFL Season Recap: Tactical Trends Part I
Every season in the NFL, we’re given new innovations that inexorably affect the games we watch.
In decades gone, fans have seen the decline of the older breed of football (where teams used the run far more often) and the rise of the modern game, dominated by offense and passing.
Undeniably, the game has become higher scoring. This trend has been decried by traditionalists, who blame rule changes.
Yet the rule changes didn’t create offense by themselves. It was innovative coaches and players who exploited newfound advantages.
Conversely, reactive forces have constantly rearranged themselves to fetter or block the new strategies.
It’s a never-ending battle, and one that helps to foster the exquisite drama that NFL fans have grown accustomed to.
Here’s a look at a few of the trends from this past season. Some of them are brand new this year, but most are continuations of innovations that began years ago and are only now coming to fruition.
Tight Ends Become Primary Targets Downfield
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With six tight ends ranking in the top 15 in receptions this season, it's clear that the position has come a long way from the lumbering block-only types.
But we already knew tight ends were a quarterback's safety blanket. This season, a new trend's developed.
The tight end has been dipping their very large toes into the realm of the deep threat. Going down the field and stretching the defense.
Look around. Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis are only a few. Davis had an especially prolific postseason, where he averaged 29.2 yards per catch.
All of them (along with many others) have slowly become factors past the standard underneath routes we all were so used to seeing.
This became even more apparent during the Super Bowl, when his limited mobility effectively put a ceiling on New England's passing game.
Averaging a minuscule 6.5 yards per catch, it was a significant drop-off from their regular season mark of 8.6 YPC.
Defenses Keep Up Their Shift to the Amoeba Front
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A trend that became particularly pertinent in last year's Super Bowl, many NFL defenses are becoming more fluid and unpredictable in the deployment of their front seven.
This is something that continued in the 2011 season. In fact, it grew as a trend.
That said, this year's trend might well have been the exposing of the "amoeba front's" weaknesses (or whatever nickname you have for using stand-up linemen).
For those who ran lots of defensive fronts with one or no down-linemen, a couple of the notable practitioners hit some bumps in the road.
The defending champion Packers (one of the biggest practitioner's of the amoeba), finished dead-last in total yardage surrendered.
True, they went 15-1, but they lived and died largely with their offense and an unsustainable number of turnovers.
A similar theory could be made about the Patriots defense. They finished second-to-last in yards surrendered, yet they made the Super Bowl and were extremely close to winning.
So the jury will be out on this new development in defensive strategy at the NFL level. It seems to be a high-risk, high-reward method, capable of generating a lot of turnovers, but not a shutdown defense (so far).
Offenses Passing over the Middle More?
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One of the repercussions of the new contact rules for defenders was that offenses were supposed to be able to go over the middle much more this year.
The theory was that defenders, now forbidden from making many of the hits they had done in the past, would be less likely to deck unsuspecting receivers as they would try to simply break up the pass.
In reality, this didn't happen.
None of the top offenses in the league (Green Bay, New England or New Orleans) saw their passing-over-the-middle stats jump dramatically.
However, when you look at the passing splits, it becomes so apparent that the new contact rules effect the underneath crossing routes way more than simply some vague statement about passing over the middle.
Between one to 10 yards, even the lowly Colts and Redskins completed 59 percent of their passes. That might not sound impressive, but as recently as 10 years ago that would have been considered a solid mark.
It's not that quarterbacks are that much more competent now than they were then, but completions come more easily when receivers know they won't get concussed by a helmet-to-helmet wallop upon touching the ball.
Stay tuned for part two when we look at more tactical trends like the no-huddle's league-wide proliferation and why Maurice Jones-Drew continues to be a member of a dying breed.