The infamous NFL rule changes intended to protect quarterbacks and receivers have added an unresolved twist to the defending of prolific passing attacks around the league. Defensive schemes and techniques are in a state of evolution as mass confusion reigns supreme among referees, players and coaches as they attempt to get a handle on the inconsistent enforcement and somewhat vague understanding of these new rules.
When and where can you hit a quarterback or wide receiver in today's NFL?
That's the million-dollar question.
Or better yet, how can teams defend when they have so many restrictions on hitting quarterbacks and receivers?
While player safety is understandably paramount, the protection mechanisms employed by the rules committee have changed the landscape of the game—where does it go from here?
We have already seen a difference as passing offenses have erupted in 2011. And assuredly there are more substantial game-play adjustments on the horizon as pioneering defensive coordinators find new means of success under the new rules. But what might we expect to see in the coming seasons?
Zone defense may become an endangered species.
In today's game, separating a receiver from the football with a well-timed hit will almost certainly draw a flag. The days of defenders holding down a zone and exploding into defenseless receivers who are concentrating on making a catch are over.
Receivers that once dared not cross the middle can more freely traverse the formerly perilous "middle of the field" without the fear of a devastating hit. And as such, traditional pocket passers can lead these receivers into tighter holes within a zone defense.
The best and perhaps only way to defend a receiver in today's NFL is to press them on the line of scrimmage while the defensive front applies pressure to the quarterback before or in-time with the receiver's release. If the receiver is allowed a free release with a read-option route into a static zone, quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers will have a field day while their receivers run wild.
What we might expect to see going forward is more man and press coverage with less two-deep safety. Expect more pressure schemes from the defensive front that will likely include defensive sets featuring eight men in the box against base offenses and seven defenders in the box with three corners and a single deep safety to replace the traditional nickel.
Defenses will likely need to bring extra help into the box as man-cover cornerbacks will not face the offense (they will face the receiver) and offer less run support on the edges as they work to stick to receivers across and all over the field.
A strong safety or coverage linebacker that's in or shading the box (reminiscent of the vaunted 46 and old school 4-4 defenses) can help take away quick outlets to the tight ends and/or apply more pressure and run-stopping capacity.
Expect more variations of the wide-9 defense and over/under formations to stretch out offensive lines, cut off the edges, apply quicker pressure and open holes for blitzing linebackers and defensive backs along with the continued emergence of 3-4 based defenses.
More than anything, expect less and less zone coverage schemes and more double-teaming, press and man coverage.
The 4-3 zone schemes, like Tony Dungy's Tampa 2, simply do not create enough pressure while the hard hitting defensive backs and linebackers concurrently find it harder to use that big hitting skill in defensing passes.
Even the Pittsburgh Steelers dropped Dick Lebeau's menacing zone blitz schemes against the Patriots and Tom Brady in favor of man-press coverage. That's the same scheme that put Lebeau in the pro-football hall of fame.
The next few years will be an interesting thing to watch if you enjoy the X's and O's of football.