Now that the read-option offense has taken the league by storm and nearly won the 49ers a Championship, NFL coaching staffs are desperately trying to find a way to stop it. "That will be the emphasis in everyone's defensive room in the offseason," said Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians (as quoted by Robert Klemko in USA Today).
Since 2003, the amount of rushing yards per game by quarterbacks has risen 35 percent in the NFL. Even as teams scramble to find ways to stop the "pistol," many feel that regardless of the scheme, without talented, NFL-quality personnel, defenses will have nothing but difficulty stopping the new wave of read-option offenses.
The viable candidates that are most often discussed at outside linebacker in this year's draft include Jarvis Jones, Barkevious Mingo, Alec Ogletree, and Arthur Brown. But right behind them is a sleeper pick from the Big East Conference. Most often projected as a second-round draft pick, OLB Khaseem Greene from Rutgers University may well find himself taken by one of the teams in the NFC West. Greene, a converted defensive back, was recently named the Big East's defensive player of the year for the second time in two years.
"I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous,” admits Greene (per Tom Luicci of The Star-Ledger). “I’m nervous in the sense of, in two months I don’t know where I’m going to be living or how far I’m going to be from home, or what to expect."
The Rutgers grad was a top-five finisher in both the 20- and 60-yard shuttle at this year's NFL combine. He also clocked a 4.71 time in the 40-yard dash.
"This draft is loaded with incredible athletes who can play defensive end or pass-rushing outside linebacker," according to John Clayton of ESPN.com. "That is important when defenses are trying to match up against teams with read-option quarterbacks."
Perhaps nowhere is that assessment more evident than in the NFC West, where the 49ers and Seahawks already utilize their highly-mobile quarterbacks to make opposing defenses miserable.
"Give the defensive coordinators of the NFL some credit," said Arians (per USA Today). "They will have some time to study this trend. I hired a defensive coordinator from college who's dealt with (the option). He's got some good ideas on it. I think everyone is going to be going to the colleges, rather than the colleges coming to the pros, as far as information on how to handle it."
Now that the Cardinals have officially cut ties with quarterback Kevin Kolb, it suddenly increases the odds that Arizona will step forward and nab West Virginia QB Geno Smith in the upcoming draft. Should that projection come to fruition, it would be particularly bad news for the St. Louis Rams. In addition to facing each team in their own division twice, Jeff Fisher's team must also face Carolina's Cam Newton, Philadelphia's Michael Vick and Tampa Bay's scrambling QB Josh Freeman.
But Rams GM Les Snead believes that getting the right personnel in key spots is the answer. "You can probably never have enough defensive tackles," said Snead recently (per USA Today), "because if you're gonna chase a QB around all day, the 300-plus-pounders tend to get tired."
In furtherance of that philosophy, the Rams have chosen to re-sign DE William Hayes. With three picks in the first 50 of the upcoming draft, St. Louis will no doubt be looking to improve their 2012 No. 15-ranked defense.
But beyond the defensive line, theories on how to stop the pistol and its variations range from using either safeties or inside linebackers to spy the QB, or using OLBs as the "read" player at the point of attack. As discussed in Chris B. Brown's article on SBNation.com, offenses attempt to employ a running back as a lead blocker against outside linebackers because OLBs are the "most common defensive responses to the zone read."
Arizona has been active in free agency, signing three defensive backs, a defensive end and an inside linebacker. Noticeably absent so far is a new, speedy outside linebacker, which could well be Khaseem Greene when the Cardinals draft in the second round (No. 38 overall). New defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will look to make corrections to a defense that was labeled "suspect against the run," according to Pro Football Weekly, possibly by drafting "an outside 'backer who requires an occasional double team."
“I’m just taking the feedback my agent is getting from the scouts and I’m going to try to put it all together," said Greene as he prepared for the March 13 Rutgers Pro Day (per Tom Luicci of The Star-Ledger), "and prove I can be one of those guys in the first round, a top guy in the second round.”
Prepared to make a run at the conference title this season, the Seattle Seahawks have made a big move to improve the team on offense (ranked No. 27 in passing last season) with their acquisition of WR Percy Harvin. While last year's defense was rock solid (6th against the pass and 10th against the run), it will need to keep refining with 2013 opponents like Carolina and Tampa Bay bringing in offenses that feature mobile quarterbacks.
Due to their success, the Seahawks were slated to draft at No. 26 this April, and thus chose to be active in free agency. They signed premier DE Cliff Avril to complement standout 2012 rookie Bruce Irvin. Starter Bobby Wagner is a strength at inside linebacker, but Seattle may look to add a complimentary piece to K.J. Wright at OLB after addressing their needs on the offensive line.
San Francisco may be the preseason favorite to take the NFC West, but is well aware of what it takes to stay ahead of the pack. Coordinator Vic Fangio will see his defense tested this season by one of the NFL's toughest schedules, which includes contests against the multi-threat QBs of Carolina, Tampa Bay and Washington.
The loss of Dashon Goldson will have to be addressed in this year's draft, and while the mock draft pundits have the Niners selecting anything from a defensive lineman or even a cornerback in the first round, later rounds may be used to address a need at outside linebacker.
What may give the 49ers—as well as other teams in the NFC West—pause for thought is the fact that Greene suffered a fractured ankle in 2011, an injury from which he seems to have fully recovered. However, all of the OLBs projected to go ahead of Khaseem Greene have their own issues, as well.
Fellow draft prospect Jarvis Jones may have an ongoing spinal stenosis issue (per Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press), while Alec Ogletree was recently arrested for DUI (per Jimmy Hascup, USA Today). Barkevious Mingo has publicly declared his desire to play DE rather than LB (per Larry Hartstein of CBSSports.com), and Arthur Brown missed much of this year's combine due to a shoulder injury (according to Doug Farrar of Yahoo! Sports). With these questions looming over the 2013 crop of OLBs, teams may be willing to make the reach for Greene.
“It only takes one team to really like you," said Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood at the University's recent Pro Day (as quoted in The Daily Targum), "and you can maybe go a little higher than people anticipated.”