Which NFL Defenses Are Best Equipped to Shut Down Mobile QBs?
In order to be successful in today's National Football League, teams need to get with the changing times. As recently as 10 years ago, it was unfathomable to think that a quarterback could rush for 181 yards and two scores in any game; let alone a playoff game. Colin Kaepernick did just that this past January.
Being stuck in the past as the rest of the league evolves will place a team in the dustbin of history. They’ll find themselves attempting to make in-game adjustments without both the personnel and scheme to be successful making said adjustments.
Again, we saw this time after time last year.
The read option or the pistol—whichever formation takes hold moving forward—will need to be counteracted with a new type of defense. These offensive sets are not a fad, nor are they just a flash in the pan. In reality, they are here to stay.
What defenses around the NFL are set up the best to defend offenses who run these types of sets and also have the mobile quarterback that's able to have success doing so?
Today’s article will attempt to answer those two questions and more.
Practice makes perfect, right? If a team has either a starting quarterback or someone on the scout team who is experienced running out of the pistol and can provide insight how to guard against that set, it is already ahead of the curve.
As we saw with San Francisco's selection of B.J. Daniels in the seventh round of April's draft, there might already be a trend toward this practice in the NFL.
Daniels wasn't even on the radar of the scouting community leading up to the draft, but he was selected in lieu of more qualified prospects. He doesn't translate into being more than a backup quarterback in the NFL, but he does give San Francisco the added benefit of going up against the read option or pistol in practice without having to expose Kaepernick.
There are multiple teams out there right now who are carrying second- or third-stringers who possess nearly the same running skills as some of the best running quarterbacks in the league. Take a look at this table featuring these types of role players on current NFL rosters:
|Terrelle Pryor||Oakland Raiders|
|Matt Scott||Jacksonville Jaguars|
|Tyrod Taylor||Baltimore Ravens|
|Tim Tebow||New England Patriots|
|Brad Smith||Buffalo Bills (Plays WR)|
|B.J. Daniels||San Francisco 49ers|
|Joe Webb||Minnesota Vikings (Plays WR)|
|Dennis Dixon||Philadelphia Eagles|
One of the primary keys to success in guarding against mobile quarterbacks is having the understanding of the offensive scheme itself. If a team already runs that type of set on the other side of the ball, its coaching staff should be able to adjust its defensive scheme in the weeks leading up to a specific game.
Again, by possessing a scout-team quarterback who can act the part of the starter you will be going up against the following Sunday is huge here. This is where teams who already run their offense around a mobile quarterback have a built-in advantage on the defensive side of the ball.
Outside of these couple of generic examples, let’s take a look at some defenses who can utilize certain schemes and have the talent to slow down mobile signal callers in 2013.
As a team that possesses the two best inside linebackers in the game, San Francisco is well prepared to handle mobile quarterbacks. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman can handle duties between the hashes, as the exterior of San Francisco's defense branches out from sideline-to-sideline to handle the read option.
Closing speed here is a big thing here, too.
It's the type of speed you need from the inside out in order to succeed against mobile quarterbacks. San Francisco has this with Bowman and Willis, while the Seattle Seahawks possess it with K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner.
It just so happens that both teams also have mobile quarterbacks who help them prepare for the scheme they will be going up against the following week.
But back to the point at hand for a second.
If your linebackers are able to go sideline-to-sideline in pursuit of the ball carrier, no matter who he is, you are in a better situation. If these linebackers can also read what play is coming and stay at home between the hashes, it opens up avenues for defenders on the outside.
We already know what Willis can do, so I decided to focus a bit on his running partner in San Francisco. Bowman took the league by storm two years ago in his initial season as a starter with the 49ers. In doing so, he helped to create the best tandem of linebackers in the entire league.
It isn't a coincidence that San Francisco's defense started to take off when Bowman replaced an aging Takeo Spikes in 2011.
It's that type of team speed in the front seven that will enable San Francisco to have success against mobile quarterbacks moving forward. The idea is to be able to stretch the field with the linebackers and have those in the secondary maintain their positioning beyond the line of scrimmage and down the field.
This is also why San Francisco has boasted one of the best overall rush defenses in the NFL since Bowman took over as a starter opposite Willis.
Another case study would be San Francisco's NFC West rivals, the Seattle Seahawks. The minute that general manager John Schneider decided to make Bobby Wagner a second-round pick in the 2012 NFL draft, their defense changed forever.
You will notice Wagner running down and making tackles on a plethora of talented offensive players in the video embedded above. From Cam Newton in Carolina to Jamaal Charles in Kansas City, Wagner seems to possess the necessary athleticism and speed to counteract the mobile quarterback and elite running back—two things that teams running the read option depend heavily on.
It's not just straight-line speed, either.
Wagner has the ability to change direction on a T, which enables him to draw out the play and leave the rest of the defense in a great position on the back end. This happened multiple times during his rookie season, and once Wagner gains more experience and starts to better understand the nuances of the NFL, this will be magnified even more.
While I decided to focus on Seattle and San Francisco initially, they have competition when it comes to being the two best defenses in terms of stopping mobile quarterbacks. Their presence atop this article is only an indication that they understand full well what it takes in terms of personnel to get the job done.
Other teams focus more on scheme, and the results have been stellar. In the table below, you can take a look at some of the teams who went up against mobile quarterbacks last year and how they fared. You are going to see that some really good defenses—those you expect to be among the best—struggled in this category in 2012:
|Pittsburgh Steelers||Philadelphia, Washington||11||24||2.2||0|
|San Francisco 49ers||Seattle (2)||9||39||4.3||0|
|Seattle Seahawks||San Francisco, Carolina||14||73||5.2||0|
|Baltimore Ravens||Philadelphia, Washington, San Francisco||24||130||5.4||2|
|St. Louis Rams||Seattle (2), San Francisco (2), Washington||45||304||6.8||4|
|New York Giants||Philadelphia (2), Washington (2), Carolina||31||221||7.1||1|
The sample size really isn't there to look at San Francisco and Seattle. They played a combined four games against mobile quarterbacks (I didn't count Seattle's playoff game against Washington). Other teams that went up against these types of quarterbacks more tended to struggle a bit.
Of course, we can't solely look at production from the previous season. That would be utterly foolish. For example, teams like the Carolina Panthers and Miami Dolphins seem to have added what it takes to shut down mobile quarterbacks this offseason.
Carolina added two stud defensive tackles in the draft in the form of Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. Those two youngsters should be able to free up linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis to make plays in the running game.
This is yet another way to defend against the mobile quarterback. The idea here is to control the line of scrimmage with interior linemen, which enables the speedier defenders to draw out the read option.
If Carolina's two young defensive tackles can take on blocks against a team utilizing this offense, its wide array of athletic defenders from the back seven can be left to close off the edges and contain the run.
You will also see another scheme that defenses utilize to defend the read option. The idea here is to use the defensive tackles to take on blocks, which leaves the linebackers open space to make plays on the ball carrier.
This is likely how Carolina will be successful guarding against mobile quarterbacks this upcoming season. Its two rookies can act as wedges to throw blockers off the spot, which will open up lanes for Kuechly and Davis, among others.
In this scheme, the onus is on those linebackers to make the right read and understand who is going to be coming out of the backfield with the ball.
Remember, just because a defense is equipped to handle the read option, it doesn't mean that it will be able to completely shut it down. At this point, it's all about containment.
Meanwhile, Miami's addition of former Oregon defensive end Dion Jordan to play opposite Cameron Wake will help it close off the edges and enable its linebackers to play the run beyond the line of scrimmage.
Miami might be successful doing this because its defense can force the read option inside the hashes, which takes away the electric playmaking ability of the quarterback.
The idea here is to push Jordan and Wake up the field, close off the edges and force the quarterback or running back to make a play with much less open field.
One of the primary keys here will be for the defensive end to recognize the play relatively early on. Jordan, a pass-rushing specialist, cannot be turned up field too much. Instead, he needs to maintain the outside and push the play inside.
The embedded video shows that he has a lot to work on when it comes to that. You simply cannot play a variation of the wide-nine defense with the end taking off after the quarterback. It must be much more nuanced than that.
Which brings me to an important next point.
In order to have success defending against a mobile quarterback, teams have to show both discipline and maturity. If a linebacker gets out of position against the read option, he puts the entire defense behind a proverbial eight-ball.
Quarterbacks always have their eyes down the field when employing these sets, so they know exactly where the weakness in the defense is going to be if one defender makes a mistake. Mainly, he'll be looking for incoming pass-rushers, spies or linebackers to make that mistake.
Once it does happen, the end result is complete and utter failure for the defense.
Another important thing to look at is coverage ability and speed in the defensive secondary. Of the teams I mentioned above, Seattle seems to possess the best possible combination of the two.
It's the idea that you can play man coverage on the outside and allow your safeties to roam free at or near the line of scrimmage. Even if one safety (in most cases the free safety) acts as the last line of defense, the strong safety can come into the box and become an extra defender against the read option.
If a defense must double receivers on the outside or play zone/nickel, it works to the advantage of the offense that is running the read option.
An added benefit for a team with solid cover corners is that it is simply able to have more players defend against the read option. In Seattle's case, it would be either Kam Chancellor from the strong safety position or new addition Antoine Winfield from the slot.
Seattle's defensive scheme is an interesting monster simply because the nickel guy can act as an extra outside linebacker in specific packages. This enables it to bring an athletic defender into the mix against the read option, while still having both Chancellor and Earl Thomas at safety.
That's a recipe for success against the mobile quarterback.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are another team that possesses the talent on defense to be able to go up against this new type of offense. The additions of Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson to the secondary are two primary reasons that I decided to include them in this article.
If healthy, Revis can act the part of a shutdown cornerback on the outside, while Goldson can enter the box from the free safety position to guard against the read option. While this might leave strong safety Mark Barron in a less-than-enviable position, it has the makings for success going up against someone like Cam Newton in Carolina.
In addition, second-year linebacker Lavonte David could play an important role going up against more mobile quarterbacks. His sideline-to-sideline speed and intelligence leads me to believe he'll have a major impact against the Cam Newton's of the world.
That being said, Tampa Bay's new parts need to actually perform together as a unit before I come to the conclusion that it will have success against these new types of offenses.
If you add all the angles that I covered above, there are a few different teams that stand out as being well equipped to handle the new breed of quarterbacks we see today. And the winners are:
"The whole is more than the sum of its parts." This is a quote that many of us studied in school, but it can be used in the context of football as well. Alone, the likes of Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright might not be able to stop mobile quarterbacks. Once you add in Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner at cornerback, you have the whole coming together to form what has to be considered an elite unit.
These four players set Seattle up to have success against mobile quarterbacks in 2013, and they should continue to do the same into the future. They have the athleticism, instincts, intelligence and discipline to stop a Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton in the read option or pistol formations.
Add in a run-stuffing defensive end in the form of Red Bryant and an ultra-athletic Bruce Irvin to the mix and the results promise to be eye-opening in the Pacific Northwest.
San Francisco 49ers
As much as fans in Seattle might like their linebacking group, the likes of Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks form the best starting linebacker unit in the entire league.
Now add defensive lineman Justin Smith, who will be 100 percent by the time the regular season starts, and you have the most dominant front seven in the entire league.
The athleticism of this unit is beyond anything else we have seen in the recent history of the league. Once the younger Smith started to understand the nuances of NFL offenses, aided by the elder Smith up front, things started to take off for him as an all-around player. Give him another year of experience, and his presence will only be magnified.
San Francisco also added two key members to its front seven this offseason in the form of second-round pick Cornellius "Tank" Carradine and free-agent signing Glenn Dorsey. The depth of this unit will be key to its success going up against mobile quarterbacks.
Where San Francisco might lack as it relates to coverage in the secondary, it more than makes up with All-Pro talent along its front seven. This is one of the primary reasons that it will not struggle going up against more athletic quarterbacks in 2013.
The key for Miami will be in regards to how free-agent acquisition Dannell Ellerbe translates to its defensive scheme after coming over from the Baltimore Ravens. If he doesn't lose a step from playing in a more traditional 3-4, the Dolphins are going to have a ton of success going up against athletic quarterbacks.
As I mentioned above, Miami's ability to get consistent pressure on the quarterback from the defensive end positions will enable it to push the ball carrier inside, enabling the likes of Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler to make plays.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Reshad Jones ranked fourth among all safeties in the NFL against the run last season. This is another indication that Miami can throw an extra man in the box to offset the athleticism of a mobile quarterback.
If—and it might be a big if—Miami's new trio of cornerbacks can step up and perform at a higher level than the players they are being asked to replace, its defense will have an entirely new look.
Athleticism up front coupled with an ability to play sideline-to-sideline leads me to believe that Miami will have surprising success against mobile quarterbacks this upcoming season.
What defense is in the best position to succeed against mobile quarterbacks?
This final list could be extended to include the aforementioned Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers as well, and perhaps it could even include the Pittsburgh Steelers.
As I mentioned above, it's important that we see Carolina and Tampa Bay in action on defense before drawing a final conclusion. While the same could be said for Miami, it seems that the pieces are already in place (to an extent) from last season.
Pittsburgh represents a completely different story. Mike Tomlin and Co. are successful because of the multiple fronts and schemes that they run on a never-ending basis, but they are also going to be without long-term veterans such as nose tackle Casey Hampton and linebacker James Harrison this season. We need to see how the team's youngsters step up into more important roles before drawing a final conclusion.
Seattle and San Francisco may be ahead of the curve here, but you can expect other up-and-coming defenses to find ways to stop athletic quarterbacks and the new offenses they bring with them as well.
As the read option and pistol offenses evolve, defenses will be forced to get with the changing times. Those who do will be in a great position to succeed.
Vincent Frank is an NFL featured columnist at Bleacher Report.
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