Schematic Changes That Could Make or Break NFL Teams in 2014
No other team sport values coaching and strategy more than the NFL does. In this league, a team can make or break its season depending upon which scheme it uses to attack its opponents. 2014 looks to be a year ripe with exciting new innovations on offenses along with revamped classics and hybrid spread systems.
One thing we know about coaches in the NFL is that they all copy from one another. Schemes and trends come and go almost as quickly as coaches do.
Success this season could depend on the implementation of new schemes.
The following teams could either plummet or skyrocket in 2014 based on their changed systems.
The Miami Dolphins made some significant changes this offseason, the biggest one being the replacement of general manager Jeff Ireland with Dennis Hickey. However, head coach Joe Philbin will get a chance to finish what he started when he was hired three years ago.
The Dolphins hired Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor to be the new offensive coordinator. Lazor is often credited for the emergence of Nick Foles, who led the league in passer rating while setting an NFL record for touchdown-to-interception ratio (27-2).
Although Lazor worked under Chip Kelly's innovative offense, his resume isn't limited to one system. He was offensive coordinator of the Virginia Cavaliers for three seasons after stints with NFL coaching legends Dan Reeves, Joe Gibbs and Mike Holmgren.
Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald provided information about Lazor's style:
"It’s reminiscent of Chip Kelly’s offense in Philadelphia, with the tempo and style," said one Dolphins player who asked not to be named.
Kelly uses a spread offense, and the player said the spread is an important part of this Dolphins attack, but there is more to this offense than that.
"There are some West Coast offense concepts," the player said. "Some shotgun, some under center. They’ve discussed having both no huddle and huddle. It’s fast tempo."
There’s no natural fullback, though there is a role for an H-back and multiple tight end sets, the player said.
Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline said the following after a recent OTA practice, per CBS Miami:
It’s really interesting. I’ve never been in an offense like this, how it’s called, how it’s run, the combination routes. There’s a lot of things going on that I haven’t done. It’s really exciting and actually I’m really enjoying it. You can tell it puts a smile on my face. I can’t wait to learn more, do more and then put it into action.
Even receiver Mike Wallace seems to be excited about his new situation. He claims that defenses will have a hard time keying on him with all of the moving around he's going to be doing in this offense.
Last year, the Dolphins finished the season ranked 27th in total offensive yards and 26th in points scored. They also allowed more quarterback sacks than any other team in the NFL. Obviously, there’s a lot of room for improvement.
While serving as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, Ken Whisenhunt wanted a Pittsburgh-style two-gapping 3-4 defense. The move to hire Ray Horton, his former defensive coordinator, after Horton was let go by the Browns organization was no big surprise.
Horton's background as a coach and a coordinator is in precisely the defensive scheme Whisenhunt said he didn't want to run at his introductory presser.
In that press conference, Coach Whisenhunt emphasized the value of showing a multitude of fronts and packages. He also mentioned that defenses in today's NFL spend about 70 percent of their time in sub-packages.
Horton and Whisenhunt teamed up as coordinator and head coach for the Cardinals in both 2011 and 2012. They ran a 3-4 as their base look and a 2-4-5 as their sub-package defense. That wasn't quite all they ran, but it was a large majority. Horton ran more 3-3-5 nickel in 2013 as the Browns defensive coordinator than he did in Arizona.
According to Teresa M. Walker of the Associated Press, via the Titan’s official website, things seem to be going well with their most disruptive player—but it didn't start out that way.
The biggest playmaker on the defensive line from a year ago was defensive tackle Jurrell Casey. Initially, Casey was worried about the idea of playing in an unfamiliar 3-4 system but was surprised to hear he might have even more opportunities for big plays than he did in 2013, when he led the team with 10.5 sacks.
Casey said the following, per Walker:
It's a great scheme. It's something I'm looking forward to going out there and lighting it up against another team already to put it to use. On my behalf, the scheme that we got going in is putting me in great situations to go out there and win one-on-one battles. The thing is to get everybody across the board one-on-one battles, and this scheme is doing that already.
While Horton is a proven defensive coach, it looks like a year or two of adjustment will be necessary. Pass rush from the outside is scarce, and most of the defensive players have limited to no experience in this particular scheme.
With that said, the Titans did rank 14th in total defense last year, so it's not like this group doesn't know how to play the game.
The Detroit Lions feature the lethal combination of wide receiver Calvin Johnson and QB Matthew Stafford. Johnson is unquestionably the most physically gifted wideout in the NFL, and Stafford’s rocket arm can deliver the ball from all over the field.
If you thought this group of guys was a joy to watch last year, this season promises to be even more fun. One of the big reasons for this excitement comes from new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi.
Lombardi has the background and the bloodline to be a great coach—his grandfather is the legendary Vince Lombardi, the man for whom the Super Bowl trophy is named.
Per Kevin Patra of NFL.com, the former Saints quarterbacks coach told reporters back in February that Detroit's offense will offer a "lot of similarities" to what New Orleans has done under Sean Payton.
The first thing that come to mind is an uptempo vertical-style passing attack.
One of the strengths of the Saints offensive attack is the way it is able to spread the ball around and exploit favorable matchups. That happens to be the exact element the Lions offense has lacked the most over the past few years.
Even the Saints running backs were asked to split carries in a committee-style running game.
In 2013, the Saints saw three backs earn 50-plus carries. Pierre Thomas led the attack with 147 carries. Screens and checkdowns are critical in New Orleans.
A huge part of their participation in this offense will come as pass-catchers. But will the Lions players be able to adjust to the new system fast enough?
Learning the offense these last few months has not been easy. Just ask the starting quarterback.
Stafford is not ashamed to admit the offense is dense, with a heavy amount of new verbiage and an expansive playbook. Through the early stages of the offseason, the entire unit has been struggling, but Lombardi remains realistic with his expectations. A coach must have patience when he installs a new system.
Beyond learning the playbook, Stafford is also adjusting to the new coaching staff's approach to his fundamentals.
One thing is for sure: Lombardi has to be smiling from ear to ear when he looks at all the talent he has to work with. The sky is truly the limit for this Detroit offense.
New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan brings 10 years of experience as an NFL assistant to the Cleveland Browns. He served as an offensive coordinator in six of those seasons, and he coached the past four in Washington under his father, Mike Shanahan.
In four of his six seasons in charge, Shanahan's offenses finished in the top 10 in the league in total yards.
Shanahan’s offense helped sixth-round running back Alfred Morris rush for more than 1,200 yards in each of his first two NFL seasons. That speaks to the emphasis on the running game in this system.
But what exactly is the system Shanahan is looking to implement in Cleveland?
A lot of that will depend on who the quarterback is. According Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com, Shanahan likes to adjust his schemes based on the personnel he’s surrounded by:
Anytime you bring a rookie in and play them right away, you have to find out what they do good. You don't want to make it too complicated for them. . . You try to build on that and prepare for them and how defenses are going to adapt to them. . . I think the most important thing is to ask them to do what they're great at, and then work to improve other aspects of their game.
If rookie QB Johnny Manziel becomes the starter, the offense will likely look significantly different than if Brian Hoyer wins the job.
Manziel has had an up-and-down start to his first few months as a pro. Like any rookie QB, he is bound to take his lumps learning to read NFL defenses.
That could mean Hoyer will start while Manziel watches and learns. But word on the street is that this Shanahan run scheme looks like an attack tailored for a mobile quarterback with an ability to make every throw.
Regardless of who starts at QB, we know that this new play-caller believes in being aggressive. This is a guy looking to stretch the field and use a fast tempo combined with a balanced attack.