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Adapting to the Ever-Changing NFL

   by Hollywood Sports - 09/30/2011

An unpredictable start to the season was expected. The NFL is constantly evolving -- and the offseason is when these plans are unhatched. But with the league adapting to its first ever season where there were no offseason workouts because of the lockout, it was going to be very interesting as to how both experienced teams as well as clubs with brand new coaching staffs would adapt. After three weeks of the new season, the headline is clear: scoring is at an all-time high.

Why? Why have more points been scored the first three weeks of the 2011 season than any previous start to an NFL season? It has been said that the NFL is a copycat league so it is not surprising that teams have taken a page out of the Green Bay Packers' playbook. Given the injury to Ryan Grant, the Packers were forced to pass the ball more last season. The quick passing game became Green Bay's de facto rushing attack. And it helped to have a transcendent Aaron Rodgers leading the way. The Packers were solely dependent on Rodgers on offense and this formula produced a Super Bowl victory. Now after the first three weeks this season, teams are copying this approach as passing is at an all-time high. In 2001, quarterbacks averaged 36.6 passing attempts per game after the first three weeks. In the first three weeks this season, quarterbacks are averaging 42.2 passing attempts per game. And quarterbacks have been effective in this pass-happy environment. In the opening week of the season, fourteen QBs passed for over 300 yards. Four of these QBs reached 400 passing yards -- and only eleven quarterbacks accomplished that feat in all of last season.

Established teams with returning coaching staffs and returning quarterbacks have also adopted no-huddle schemes to further execute their passing attacks. Why are teams returning to the no-huddle approach popularized by the Buffalo Bills of the 1990s and the Boomer Esiason-led Cincinnati Bengals?

1. No-huddle offenses tire out the defense. Conditioning was always going to be an issue this season given the lack of organized offseason conditioning programs. Furthermore, the best way to slow down the dynamic pass rushes and blitz packages that teams like the Packers thrived with last season is to tire out their best players. Not only is the pace of the game then increased, but the defense has to stay on the field unless the team uses a precious timeout. No wonder the Giants faked injuries in their Monday night game against St. Louis in the second week of the season.

2. No-huddle offenses exploit matchup problems. Because the defense does not have the time to make personnel changes, the no-huddle helps an offense continue to exploit a matchup advantage. More offenses are putting three or four wide receivers on the field which require the defense to counter with nickel or dime packages. And teams like New England and Detroit are finding success in a 12 package with one running back and two tight ends that can catch the ball. These big tight ends cannot be covered by nickel defensive backs. Offensive coordinators crave finding and exploiting personnel mismatches and the no-huddle offense is another tool in this toolbox.

3. Seize the lead to make the opponent one-dimensional. This has been the strategy for the Indianapolis Colts for years. With the luxury of Peyton Manning under center, the Colts hoped to score early and often to take a big lead. While Indy has been notorious for having a shaky run defense over the years, their hope was that their opponents would have to abandon the run and focus on passing the football in the hopes of staging a comeback. Not only would this make their offense one-dimensional and easier to defend, but it allowed pass rushing specialists like Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis to tee-off on the quarterback. The no-huddle offense accomplishes this as well since seizing an early lead can coax the opposition to rely on their passing game. The opening game of the season perfectly illustrated this concept as the Packers and the New Orleans Saints were racing against each other in the first half to seize a lead and dictate what the other side would then do with their explosive offense.

These trends should continue for the immediate future. But the league constantly adapts -- and defenses will make counter-moves against all this passing. The downside to more passing is this: more hits on the quarterback. Hits on the quarterback are at an all-time high. It is a bit surprising that there has not been a significant injury to a quarterback since the start of the season. But quarterback injuries are coming. And defenses are going to do more and more things to hit the quarterback since the ultimate way to slow down a high-powered offense is to get their star quarterback on the sidelines. The Packers began utilizing corner blitzes with Charles Woodson last year to get at the quarterback. Look for more exotic blitz schemes.

Defenses are also adapting to this pass-happy league by making their nickel scheme their base defense. And with more defensive backs on the field, the next wave of innovation on offense will begin to show itself. There will be a team (Oakland? Patriots?) who will attack these defenses that have padded their roster with one or two more defensive backs with a heavy dose of running the football to exploit the lack of run stoppers on the line or at linebacker. And I hope to be there invested on the team that made this next move in the ever-changing NFL. Best of luck -- Frank.

Frank is a perfect 9-0 with his NFL releases since Week One of the regular season.

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