Hybrid rush ends, increasingly blurred lines between 4-3 and 3-4 alignments and a new brand of ball-hawking safety will be the trends that dominate defensive football in the 2013 NFL season.
Defensive football has become less specialized in recent years. Today's defenders need to perform multiple roles to help schemes keep up with increasingly expansive offenses.
As a result the lines of distinction between traditional alignments are becoming harder to define. It is more and more difficult to spot traditional 3-4 and 4-3 personnel and looks.
The main reason has been the rise of the hybrid rush end, a player who is neither all linebacker or completely defensive end. This type of player has been a feature of the 3-4 for decades.
He usually occupies one of the outside linebacker spots in a 3-4 front. Depending on the scheme, the player has had a variety of nicknames, including "Elephant," "Jack," "Joker" or "Predator."
Last season's Super Bowl featured Terrell Suggs and Aldon Smith, two perfect examples of the 3-4 hybrid rush end. However, in recent seasons ostensible 4-3 defenses have fielded their own hybrid pass-rushers.
These players usually begin games at the linebacker level and supplement the front four. They give 4-3 fronts the ability to rush five more often and also show the appearance of a 3-4 on occasion.
The best example of the 4-3 hybrid rush end in today's NFL is Von Miller of the Denver Broncos. He ostensibly performs the role of strong-side linebacker in Denver's base 4-3 fronts.
However, Miller, and not a member of the front four, is the Broncos' most dangerous pass-rusher. He spends most of his snaps on the line. That helps shut down opposing running games and leave quarterbacks at the mercy of Denver's fierce pass rush.
A play from Week 1 of the 2012 season shows how Miller's presence on the line makes Denver's alignment more flexible and how it helps destroy a running game.
The Broncos are facing the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are showing a two-tight end look. Miller is aligned on the tight end side of the formation.
The choice of defensive linemen is crucial in identifying Miller's importance to the scheme. In the middle the Broncos have tackles Kevin Vickerson and Justin Bannan.
The player next to Miller is Derek Wolfe, who is a tackle playing end. The Broncos are aligning with three defensive tackles.
On the far side, Elvis Dumervil is aligned as an end. Dumervil and Miller are similar 'tweener types. They both weigh in the 240-60 pounds range and could be considered linebackers or defensive ends.
With Miller and Dumervil bracketing the three tackles, the Broncos defense could pass for a 3-4. At the same time it also looks like a traditional 4-3 alignment with a stacked linebacker.
It could also be a 5-2 front with a five-man line covering up two middle linebackers. Miller's presence allows the Broncos to show any of these looks and play accordingly.
Here they run a slant towards the run, much in the manner of a 3-4 or 5-2 scheme. The tackles, Miller and the two inside linebackers slant down towards the ball.
On the back side, Dumervil holds his position to stop any cutback run. Adding Miller to the front has let the Broncos match up with every member of the Steelers offensive line.
Because Miller plays with the power of a defensive end he's a mismatch against tight ends. He makes this play, tackling Isaac Redman for a loss.
More 4-3 teams are looking for hybrid rush linebackers like Miller to add flexibility to their schemes. Such a player allows a 4-3 team to play with three de facto defensive ends or tackles, depending on personnel and down and distance.
For example, the New England Patriots used their top draft choice to select end/linebacker combo Jamie Collins. They have indicated they will use the college defensive end at linebacker, according to ESPNBoston.com.
Imagine the pass rush and run-stopping flexibility of a Patriots defensive front featuring Chandler Jones at end with Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love and Tommy Kelly completing the four-man line and Collins joining the mix as a standing edge-rusher.
Alternatively, the Seattle Seahawks may use last year's first-round choice defensive end Bruce Irvin at linebacker, according to John Boyle of The Herald.
If the front four featured Cliff Avril and Chris Clemons on the outside with Red Bryant and Brandon Mebane at tackle, Irvin's presence would give Seattle a trio of defensive ends able to challenge the edges or drop into coverage.
The Seahawks have played a big role in shaping today's 4-3 hybrids. They've done it through their use of "Leo" and "Elephant" personnel.
The "Leo" is a linebacker/end hybrid who acts as the unit's chief pass-rusher. Clemons usually occupies this role.
Rather than fill the other end spot with a speed rusher, the Seahawks use hulking tackle Bryant as their "elephant." His presence explains why Seattle are tough to run on. It also gives their defensive front multiple looks.
This play from Week 3 against the Green Bay Packers is a fine example. Clemons is over on the right, but Seattle clogs the interior with three big tackles.
Like the Broncos they also bring an outside linebacker down onto the line. This looks very much like a 3-4 front and creates key mismatches against Green Bay's blocking schemes.
The most obvious mismatch is D.J. Williams (84) lined up over Clemons. The Seahawks have their best pass-rusher aligned on a tight end.
That's one of the central mismatches a 3-4 often looks to create. At the snap the Packers attempt a play-action pass to try and pull Clemons into coverage.
However, because he is by nature a 4-3 defensive end, Clemons disregards his pass drop and rushes towards the quarterback. A true outside linebacker would probably have read the pass and dropped to cover Williams' route.
Instead, Clemons comes through clean to attack Aaron Rodgers. The three inside tackles help him rush through untouched.
They each occupy at least one blocker. If one or more draws a double team, as the man in the middle does here, the Seahawks can get a free rusher to the quarterback.
Defensive linemen sacrificing themselves for the glory of an outside pass-rusher is perhaps the key principle of a 3-4. It certainly helps Clemons here.
The only remaining Packer who has a chance to block him is fullback John Kuhn (30). A running back on a premier, outside pass-rusher is another dream mismatch all 3-4 schemes are designed to create. Clemons completes the play by sacking Rodgers for a six-yard loss.
The Seahawks essentially have 4-3 personnel performing 3-4 concepts. Their "Leo" end makes their scheme hybrid and effective.
Many are trying to replicate this formula. Former defensive coordinator Gus Bradley has taken it with him to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
He could convert veteran Jason Babin into a "Leo," according to John Oehser of Jaguars.com. A similar mix of 4-3 and 3-4 looks and principles is likely to be seen from the Philadelphia Eagles.
New head coach Chip Kelly likes a hybrid scheme and has already added a versatile rush end in Connor Barwin. He could occupy the "predator" role in Kelly's multiple fronts, according to Jared Sherman of CSNPhilly.com. The Eagles won't be a true 3-4 or a version of the 4-3.
The Miami Dolphins should also look different, after trading up to select Dion Jordan third overall in the 2013 draft.
He played for Kelly at Oregon and gives the Dolphins a true hybrid player on the edge. He can rush on the outside and also has plenty of experience playing in space and working in coverage.
The Dolphins could use him at end in the same way the Seahawks use Clemons. Or they could start him at linebacker and try to emulate the Broncos success with Miller.
General manager Jeff Ireland has suggested Jordan could see time at linebacker, according to The Miami Herald. If he lined up there the Dolphins could move tackle Jared Odrick to end.
They would then field three tackles with Odrick, Randy Starks and Paul Soliai. Cameron Wake would be the true end on the edge and Jordan would be free to move around the formation and disguise the look of the defense.
The Broncos and Seahawks mix hybrid rushers to blur the lines between traditional conceptions of the 4-3 and 3-4. They both enjoy success. Seattle allowed the fewest points last season and the Broncos led the league in sacks.
Of course, unleashing jokers in the pack up front is effective, but only if accompanied by solid coverage. In particular, defenses are looking for greater ball skills and speed to cover deep areas.
To that end, many are converting cornerbacks to free safeties. These players are acting like center fielders, expected to provide umbrella coverage of all deep routes and snatch any errant long throws.
Many teams have adopted this formula, but one of the more successful has been the New England Patriots. The Patriots pass defense improved in 2012, when Devin McCourty moved to free safety.
He became an excellent roving spy in deep coverage. This play from Week 14 against the Houston Texans shows how the Patriots use their converted safety as a vital last line of defense.
Look at his initial alignment. McCourty is covering the deep middle on his own. The Texans are showing a Trips look, with three receivers on one side.
McCourty's position will allow him to either stay over the top of any vertical routes, or drop down and double up on any crossing patterns.
At the line, the Patriots combine the principles already shown by the Broncos and Seahawks. They use hybrid personnel to create a strong pass rush.
They have a four-man line with Rob Ninkovich (50) and Trevor Scott (99) playing end. Both are conversion players who have spent time at linebacker and defensive end during their careers.
The Patriots have also moved outside linebacker Dont'a Hightower (54), down onto the edge. Hightower is a less explosive version of the player the Patriots hope they got when they drafted Collins.
Hightower's movement gives the Patriots a five-man rush front. It becomes a six-man line when inside linebacker Jerod Mayo (51) also moves onto the line.
Now the Texans are faced with four edge players, any of whom could either blitz or cover. Maybe Hightower and Mayo, the two ostensible outside linebackers, will rush, while defensive ends Scott and Ninkovich drop.
At the snap, it is Hightower who peels off into coverage. Mayo blitzes, meaning the Patriots still have five rushers against five blockers. However, now they have six in coverage against five.
The five-man pass rush obscures the throwing lane for quarterback Matt Schaub. He forces a long throw, giving the deep defender McCourty the time to break on the ball and make the interception.
The Patriots used a hybrid front to create enough pressure to force an errant throw for McCourty to snare deep. The former cornerback's superior speed enabled him to break on the pass and his ball skills completed the turnover.
Others have attempted the cornerback/safety conversion and also had success. The Packers had the worst pass defense in football in 2011.
However, moving Charles Woodson from corner to free safety helped improve them to 11th last season. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had franchise great Ronde Barber make the same switch.
While their pass defense stank in 2012, Barber was still productive as a free safety. He intercepted four passes and defensed 13 more in his final pro season.
This season the Arizona Cardinals will shift rookie corner Tyrann Mathieu to free safety, according to Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com.
These are just some of the wrinkles defenses are sure to favor in the new NFL season. Hybrid talents like Miller, Clemons and Irvin are keeping the 4-3 relevant in today's game.
However, at the same time they are also spelling the end for traditional alignments. The fixed formations fans have gotten used to over the decades are dying a slow death.
Coordinators will continue featuring hybrid players at both ends of a defense, to help create multiple fronts and new combinations in coverage.
All screen shots courtesy of NBC Sports, ESPN and NFL.com Gamepass