Which NFL Teams Are Making the Biggest Schematic Changes This Offseason?
Change is a constant in the NFL.
So along with new coaches and new players, come changes for NFL teams.
Multiple teams are altering how they go about their business on the field this offseason. Some are hoping they can just fix problems, while others will try take better advantage of the talent on their roster.
Really, every team is making at least small adjustments, and no team is really staying pat.
But it's the big changes we're talking about here, the teams that are altering their scheme in a wholesale way.
Let's take a look at some of the bigger schematic changes in the NFL this offseason.
Atlanta Falcons Defense
The Atlanta Falcons are changing their defense but don’t call the new scheme a 3-4.
Yes, the team added Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson to the mix, and yes, both of them are what you might call “3-4 leaning” players. But head coach Mike Smith was clear that this was not a full shift to a 3-4 base.
As he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (per Chris Wesseling of NFL.com), they’re just “doing what (they’ve) done in the past” and “are going to be very multiple.”
Which is coach-speak for “we’re going hybrid.”
The Falcons, like many defenses in the NFL, are shifting to a more fluid and versatile scheme. They’ve toyed with it before, but their free-agency additions show they are getting better prepared for it now so they can be more effective.
Smith doesn’t want you to call it a 3-4 or a 4-3. Maybe we can call this the “multiple defense.”
Whatever you call it, it’s a new look for the Falcons.
Cleveland Browns Offense
With the arrival of new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the Cleveland Browns will move away from the three-deep passing attack of Norv Turner.
As discussed in Vic Carucci’s column at ClevelandBrowns.com, the offense will be using what Shanahan calls an “outside-zone rushing attack,” which Carucci says requires offensive linemen to “move laterally.”
At the time of the piece, center Alex Mack had not signed a new contract, but after the Browns matched an offer he received from the Jacksonville Jaguars, he’s back in the fold. With Mack back and Joe Thomas at left tackle, the team has two critical pieces. They added a third in rookie guard Joel Bitonio as well.
The two biggest questions to keep in mind here are “how long will the transition take for the line?” and “does Shanahan’s scheme require a more mobile quarterback?”
The first is hard to answer as it used to take offensive lines a couple of seasons to learn the tenets of a blocking scheme like this, but today’s linemen are more athletic and versatile.
The second comes mostly from Shanahan’s days in Washington, where he had Robert Griffin III under center. Of course, RG3 reminds many of Johnny Manziel, and coming off an ACL injury, Brian Hoyer (never the most athletic scrambler to begin with) may have lost a step.
So will the new scheme work with Hoyer? Is it a better fit for Manziel?
All things to watch as the new offense is installed in Cleveland.
Dallas Cowboys Defense
I recently wrote about new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and his defensive scheme as part of a breakdown of the Dallas Cowboys at SportsonEarth.com, so to boil this down, I’ll say this: The biggest change here is moving the corners from primarily zone to more press man.
This is a good thing, as Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr are much better press-man corners than zone corners. In fact, it’s sort of bizarre that former defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin tried to shoehorn them into the scheme, but then again, some coaches are always trying to hammer square pegs into round holes.
Looking at what Marinelli did with the Chicago Bears, we can expect him to give the corners more responsibilities, critical since, while Barry Church is a solid tackler, he’s not someone who can support the corners all that effectively, and the strong safety position is currently unsettled (Ourlads.com has raw second-year safety J.J. Wilcox in the spot).
Of course, all this is more difficult because of all the injuries in the front seven.
Even the best cover corners in the NFL (of which Claiborne and Carr are not numbered among yet) will eventually get beat if there is no pressure on the quarterback.
Houston Texans Offense and Defense
The only thing which makes figuring out new head coach Bill O’Brien’s offense is the lack of a quarterback to fit the scheme he ran in Penn State and that the New England Patriots ran when he was with the team.
For that system, a quarterback has to have size and mobility.
His current quarterback is Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has neither of those traits in abundance. He is smart enough on paper (he is a Harvard grad for goodness sake), though his issues at the end of his Buffalo Bills' tenure won’t fill you with confidence.
One of his backups, rookie Tom Savage, fits the size requirement but is tremendously raw and unproven. It’s the right move to avoid throwing him into the fire, given you have no idea what will happen when he gets there.
Case Keenum played well in moments last season, but the more pressure he saw, the more quickly he seemed to fall apart. Like Fitzpatrick, he lacks the height to work in what we expect O’Brien’s scheme to be.
Aside from the quarterback, we can expect multiple-tight end sets and a strong push with the run game.
There will be defensive changes as well, though assuming O’Brien lets new defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel do his thing, we have a fair idea it’s at least still a base 3-4.
Further, while most teams will run a hybrid team out of whatever base they start with, Crennel is pretty old-school. So we could see him run a 3-4 and mean it.
We’ll get a good look at what Crennel’s 3-4 is when camp begins. He tends to favor big middle and outside linebackers, with the middle backers jamming the middle and the outside linebackers able to drop into coverage.
The real question will be what happens to J.J. Watt, though, as Crennel’s scheme doesn’t tend to get much production from the defensive end positions. How they adjust the scheme to still take advantage of his ability will be interesting to see unfold.
New York Giants Offense
After the implosion of the New York Giants' offense last season, Kevin Gillbride retired and was replaced by Ben McAdoo, a former tight end and quarterback coach with Green Bay.
While McAdoo hasn’t had previous experience calling plays, he told NJ.com’s Jordan Raanan that he was trained to do just that. He’ll also be calling plays from the field as well, not the box.
Based on what we saw offensively in Green Bay, you can expect versatile offensive linemen, more support from the fullback position, as well as a rapid-fire offensive pace.
Plays will be designed to get the ball out quickly as well. Green Bay has had offensive-line issues for a long time, and one way they were able to overcome them is by getting the ball out of the quarterback’s hand quickly.
To help with that, there will be plenty of quick slants and simple routes to get the ball into the hands of the receivers and allow them to do some damage on their own and to prevent defensive lines from having the time to get to the quarterback.
Last year saw too much put on Eli Manning’s shoulders. This year he won’t have to hang on to the ball as long as he did last season, so even if the offensive line falters, he should be put in a better position to proceed.
Washington Redskins Offense
With new head coach Jay Gruden in town, adjustments will be made on the offensive side of the ball.
New offensive coordinator Sean McVay told ESPN 980, per The Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg, Gruden isn’t going to force his scheme down anyone’s throat, though.
“You often talk about fitting players into your scheme; Jay is gonna fit his scheme to our players.”
McVay also said that they will continue to run outside-zone plays, in part because it will help set up the defense for when Robert Griffin III keeps the ball himself. He also told Steinberg that Gruden will install some things like he used in Cincinnati.
Washington’s offense will be an interesting combination of what Gruden did in Cincinnati and what he can pull off with a mobile quarterback like RG3.
Minnesota Vikings Offense
Welcome to the Norvation of the Minnesota Vikings.
Norv Turner wasn’t much of a head coach in the end, but he is a very good offensive coordinator. He likes to push the ball downfield sure, but there are other things as important as a cannon for an arm.
Mike Tanier of SportsonEarth.com did an excellent job breaking down all the ways rookie Teddy Bridgewater fits into a Turner offense.
A quick delivery, durability, sharp instincts, a high football IQ and poise are all just as critical, if not more important for a Turner scheme.
The weapons are there for Bridgewater and Turner as well.
Greg Jennings can stretch the field, while Cordarrelle Patterson (who NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal reports Turner already had special plays for back in February) can hit the underneath route and get yards after the catch on shorter throws.
Tight end Kyle Rudolph can also stretch the field, as well as make tough catches in the red zone. Jarius Wright and Jerome Simpson can also stretch the field and make for some excellent depth.
While it doesn’t take very much to have a more dynamic offense than the one Bill Musgrave trotted out last season, Turner looks like he is putting together a much more vital offense.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Defense
Lovie Smith is back, and he’s bringing the Tampa 2 home with him...kind of.
We know that no team plays just one scheme, but the basics here will be familiar to anyone who watched the Tampa Bay Buccaneers back when Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin were in town.
This is going to be a big change from former coach Greg Schiano’s overall scheme which was best broken down by Bucs Nation writer Sander Phillips.
Schiano’s scheme was pretty simple, according to Phillips: stop the run, limit big plays and create takeaways.
Smith’s approach is much more complex. Phillips wrote another great article detailing what to expect from Smith and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.
At the time, Darrelle Revis was still a Buc, but you can replace him with Alterraun Verner, and while you won’t get the same level of production, you’ll still get great coverage.
Phillips points out that Smith runs “predominantly single-high safety looks with a mix of Cover 1 Zone, Cover 1 Man and Cover 3 calls, as well as a variety of blitzes.”
They’ll run Cover 2 and Tampa 2 from time to time, perhaps as more of a base look but will mix in a lot of other looks.
This is going to be a much more intricate defense than the basic one Schiano ran. With the talent at Smith and Frazier’s disposal, it should also be a very productive one.