I've been meaning to write this fanpost for a while now, but other excitement has gotten in the way. So, while everyone is writing about waiver wire last minute additions (my money is on Velasco from Tennessee), I'm going to take the opportunity to get this off my chest and be a bit different.
Everyone keeps referring to this defense as "bend don't break". That is rubbish. Look at Kiffin/Marinelli defenses across the board. How many of them would you consider "soft"? How many would you consider "stifling"? How many put their team in the Superbowl almost single-handedly? (consider the 2006 Superbowl where Indy rode a 3 TD 7 INT playoff performance from Peyton Manning and Chicago rode Rex Grossman to the Superbowl).
Now, it is absolutely true that a key principle of this type of defense is not giving up the big play. For sure, we want to force teams to move methodically down the field for a variety of reasons-- the chief of which is, the more plays they have to run, the more chance they'll make a mistake. So the standard set up for this defense is a hybrid cover 2 with 2 deep zones and a third medium depth zone in between manned by the Mike LB. Don't break... get three guys back in deep protection. Those that can count quickly realize that leaves six in the box. Of course they are going to give up yards over the middle and on running plays they'll be totally out manned, right?
Well... not quite. Much has been made of needing the right Mike and the right safeties for this defense. Because this defense is typified by it's coverage, people assume that "the right" players are huge coverage guys, but take a look at the guys who have made this defense tick: Urlacher & Briggs, Quarles & Brooks, Brackett & June, Lynch, Sanders...
You aren't looking for Ed Reed to sit back and pick passes off, here. What you are looking for is a guy who sits back, zone secure, but reads, correctly and quickly, then has the speed to close on a running play or underneath pass and stuff it. The safeties and LBs who can do this turn this defense from "bend don't break" into "I'm not giving you anything". Look at Indy with and without Bob Sanders. Teams ran all over Indy... unless Sanders was in-- then that stopped quick. and how much success did teams have running against Chicago while Urlacher played? These fast-read guys who pursue to the ball truly change the nature of this defense.
And there's a key word-- pursuit. In systems past here, for a decade, whether Parcells, Phillips, or Ryan, the system was based on Gap integrity. It was about stacking the field so there were no running lanes. Not only did this leave us vulnerable to the short passing game (more on that in a minute) because our LBs were expected to man-up with RBs and TEs, but it also meant that we had to have guys get off blocks and make the tackle. If they didn't... well... rmemebr the end of the 2008 Ravens game? How we left Texas Stadium by giving up two of the three longest runs in stadium history? Yeah.
Not so with this defense. Fast, flowing play from LBs and safety is the watchword here, and the result is a number of people swarming to the ball. Now, this type of defense leaves you vulnerable to misdirection, which is why it's essential that your players be sound in their reads. You cannot have your safeties or Mike LB charging in on play action. You have to have them correctly reading counters, cut backs, and reverses. It's one of the reasons Matt Johnson was such a good fit-- he consistently not only got upfield quickly, but got upfield quickly to the right spot. I hope he makes it back because I still believe he is the ideal SS for this team. He and Wilcox may be a duo that is discussed for years to come.
One thing that should be made clear, however, is that run defense is NOT about your d-line, here. The d-line is intended to get upfield and disrupt the timing of the play. The LB and safeties are responsible for closing on the play. Where you see "bend don't break" (or, worse, what we saw against Houston-- huge gashing runs for enormous yardage) is when the LBs and safeties are a tick slow or can't get off their blocks. McSurdy and Sims were horrifically guilty of this on Thursday night and Heath got pinched inside a couple of times as well. That's why these positions are key-- mistakes at these positions make the entire defense collapse. But with sound, decisive play from top athletes (guys like Lee, Carter, and, to a lesser extent Church) this defense can be fearsome.
Now, any team that dinks and dunks with short passes is going to have *some* success. The whole point of the west coast offense is that it's very difficult to stop a horizontally spread short passing game. But there's hardly a better designed defense out there to handle the short passing game with four short zones and OLBs parked on the slants. And the kicker is, that type of offense is predicated on some of those WRs getting away from the LBs and Safeties over the middle and getting a bunch of YAC. With strong players at Mike, Will, and the Safety positions, you limit those and force the team to execute all the way down the field. Is that bend don't break? maybe-ish, but that's where you see the turnover numbers skyrocket, as the whole defense is intent on the other team making a mistake (or forcing one) and pouncing on it. It's a sound system and a safe one, but that doesn't mean it's not an aggressive and attacking style of play. Far from it-- the security and safety of this system is what allows aggressive, fast-reading, fast-running players like Sean Lee and Bruce Carter to maximize their potential and quick twitch, quick first step rushmen like Ware, Spencer, Hatcher, and Ratliff to get in the backfield and be disruptive forcces.
And, as an aside, if we actually see that line out there for a significant number of games, you'll see why Jones said D-line was a strength.Those four in this defense will be "Fearsome Foursome" style legendary, if all play together for any length. Unfortunately the most possible games we'll get out of them is 13 or 14, given Ratliff's PUP status (and depending on whether we earn a 1st round playoff bye), but, knock on wood, those will be fun games.