Keeping up with the sophisticated offenses in the NFL is no easy task. However, four defensive architects do it better than anyone else.
I get asked all the time how Monte Kiffin (Tampa Bay), Dick LeBeau (Pittsburgh), Jim Johnson (Philadelphia) and of course Bill Belichick (New England) stay on top of the complex offenses they face year in and year out?
Johnson and Kiffin work from a 4-3 scheme, while LeBeau and Belichick use a 3-4. Still, all are effective so it's more than what front they line up in over the course of the season. I have had the opportunity to work with Kiffin and study the others on my camp tours over the years as well as watch game tapes to help unlock the mystery of why they all succeed.
Kiffin loves to keep the plan simple and expect all 11 defenders to play faster than any defense in the league. Derrick Brooks always tells me it's about speed for the Bucs and very few scheme changes, but he does acknowledge subtle technique changes based on formations.
The others really work hard on scheme variety with lots of zone blitzes and packages featuring different personnel.
When you drill down into all of these coaches there are universal principles that relate to all of them.
1. Having an eye for talent
When it comes to building their scheme, none of these coaches makes mistakes in player evaluations. They know what they need each position to do and they don't fit a square peg into a round hole.
2. Excellent teachers, communicators
While many NFL coaches have the same level of knowledge as the aforementioned group, they fall short when it comes to installing their plan. Belichick, Johnson, Kiffin and LeBeau are able to install volumes of information because they know how to build on what the players already know and make the learning logical.
Knowing how to get after the QB
As complicated as many offenses appear to the fans, it always comes down to giving the quarterback time in the pocket and these coaches attack the pass protections better than anyone. Kiffin will stunt his front four with an occasional corner blitz. The others discover where there will be a blocker short in protection and bring an extra player when they want too. If an offense has three blockers to one side they know how to bring four defenders.
4. Baiting the competition
Offenses will throw short hot routes when they see pressure schemes they can't block. Often, these defenses are baiting the offenses to throw hot routes, especially on third-and-long situations, ultimately forcing the offense to come up short and have to punt.
5. Group things together
Each watches tapes of opposing teams and has a unique ability to group things together in order to simplify what their defensive players have to comprehend about opponents. West Coast offenses have made a living running a few plays from multiple personnel groups and formations. These defensive coaches bundle personnel and formations so it appears easy to understand. For example, two tight ends, two wide receivers and one running back could run the same play as one tight end, two running backs and two wide receivers so the defensive calls would still be the same.
6. Never stop learning
Every coach in the league studies one another and breaks down what teams are doing opponents. Some coaches mimic what they see on tape if it works, but in general, these coaches tweak what's on tape to suit their personnel and scheme.
7. Adjusting during the game
Have you ever seen how quickly Belichick will get with his defense and a white board to make adjustments? Or how LeBeau will save some pressures until the second? These coaches are using defenses they built from the ground up and understand totally what needs to be tweaked as compared to coaches who beg borrow and steal from everyone.