I grew up watching the Chicago Bears “Monsters of the Midway”, the Minnesota Vikings “Purple People Eaters”, the “Doomsday Defense” of the Dallas Cowboys, the “Fearsome Foursome” of the Los Angeles Rams and the Pittsburgh Steelers “Steel Curtain”.
Changes in rules dictating more pass-oriented offenses, and the way defenses play have virtually eliminated the need for these legendary defensive front fours to dominate the offensive line. The role of defensive lines is changing.
I have always enjoyed watching the play of both offensive and defensive lines. The quickness and agility of these behemoths is a pleasure to observe. And, although size, strength and speed have increased greatly in the last decade, they are asked to adapt to a changing NFL.
Over half of the 32 teams think pass first, run second. Only three defensive linemen were chosen in the first 25 picks of the 2014 NFL Draft, and one of those was Jadeveon Clowney. Four linebackers were selected; six cornerbacks or safeties were chosen. The future of pass rushing is the very fast; over six-foot tall; 250 pound plus linebacker. And, with a greater emphasis on the passing game defensive backs who are able to cover both speedy and taller wide receivers, as well as tight ends, (notably Jimmy Graham), are at a premium.
When Pittsburgh Steelers’ linebackers Andy Russell, Jack Lambert and Jack Ham attacked the running back or the quarterback of the opposing team, they knew the line in front of them would be creating confusion and opening space. ‘Mean Joe’ Green, L. C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes and Dwight White would have done their job, and done it well.
13 of the 32 NFL teams are expected to play a 3-4 defense in 2014. They will line up with a huge nose tackle, and two big and agile linemen. Behind them will be two inside linebackers who will assist in stopping the run, and two outside linebackers who will become the prime pass rushers, and also be responsible for pass defense against tight ends and running backs. A greater prominence is assigned to the four linebackers; they must be fast enough to cover a larger area.
A defensive lineman has one dominating thought; do not allow yourself to be moved backwards or to the side. If an offensive lineman misses his block, he may have a clear path to the quarterback. If a linebacker ‘blitzes,’ and an offensive tackle or guard moves to block him, the same situation may occur.
A perfect example of how defenses attack in this era of the NFL is the 2013 San Francisco 49ers. Their four linebackers accounted for 25 sacks; defensive linemen had 13.
Under the control of Commissioner Roger Goodell, an increase in offensive scoring has been accomplished. For fans of defenses, such as myself, I’m not entirely happy about it. But that’s the way it is.
Seattle and San Francisco have adapted the way they play on both sides of the ball and are far ahead of many other franchises. One of the beautiful things about the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers is their ability to make changes and keep them competitive. The Steelers’ 2014 draft bolstered the veteran linebackers and secondary.
Although the role of defensive lines has truly changed, it is not a drastic adjustment. In addition, they are fully aware that they have four talented, fast, and strong linebackers behind them to both attack and support their efforts.
James Turnage for the Penalty Flag