Since the New York Giants found their way to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady en route to ending New England's bid at perfection in Super Bowl XLII, teams have followed suit, overloading parts of the defensive line, steamrolling blockers and getting licks on Brady, even after he's gotten rid of the ball. It cost him nearly all of last season and in this preseason, he got tagged repeatedly, proving his toughness should never be questioned, but exposing defenses courses of action.
Teams can say all they want to about stopping the run being the benchmark for defensive success. The key to slowing offenses down is to get pressure on the passer. It's why more teams are switching to the 3-4 defense and putting premiums on acquiring players to disrupt the passing game.
Of the top 18 draft picks, eight were front-seven players, whose jobs primarily will be to apply pressure on quarterbacks. Green Bay, Denver and Kansas City join the growing ranks of teams playing the 3-4 defense and they were among the teams that drafted pass rushers in the first round.
"What I noticed between my first year and the second year is we face some solid nose tackles in those 3-4 schemes," Bills quarterback Trent Edwards said. "[Cleveland's Shaun] Rogers and [the Jets' Kris] Jenkins were the two big guys ... these guys are like twice the size of your offensive linemen and you know, are just as fast as your starting wide receiver and they're getting to the passer and it's pretty impressive to see guys that size at this level being able to move like that. They're moving them around. They're slanting them. They might be dropping them out in to coverage.
"I mean, you never saw that in college. I never really noticed that all too much my first year. Now I really feel like the evolution of the defensive line and the way it's coached and the way those guys perform has been really impressive to me."
It may impress Edwards, but it could frighten some quarterbacks or increase the challenge for others.
"There's benefits to running a 3-4 and benefits of running a 4-3," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "Defenses are ever evolving. There's plenty of them that pride on pressure, get after you, give you a bunch of different looks. There are others that sit back and say, 'We're only going to play three coverages but we're going to play them really, really well.' We feel like we have an answer for everything you've got. There are different philosophies out there but that's why it's so fun to spend the week game-planning."
Personnel often dictates how a game is called on both sides of the ball, but so do trends. The once effective and widely copied Tampa-2 scheme has been reworked -- if not abandoned -- by the teams that typically used it, like Chicago, Indianapolis and Tampa Bay. Smaller, quicker defensive linemen have been replaced by wider, stouter players to hold up better against power running attacks.
More teams have followed the Giants' lead and started moving pass-rushing defensive ends inside to tackle on long down-and-distance situations and using an additional speed rusher on the edge to increase athleticism up front. There also has been an infusion of situational pass rushers -- typically players too small to play defensive end full time but athletic enough to rush the quarterback from the edge.
"Defenses have to always be on their toes. As an example, last year, after living with Monte Kiffin and the Tampa 2 for so long, we played a lot more Cover 4 to adapt to what offenses are doing," said Buccaneers general manager Mark Domenik, explaining how the team's four defensive backs had to cover a "quarter" of the secondary with the augmented scheme.
Domenik said defenses also are getting away from having a strong safety -- more of a physical hitter who plays as a semi-linebacker at times -- and free safety -- more of a finesse pass coverage defender -- and are acquiring and training players who can play either role.
Pre-snap audibles tend to be dictated by where the safeties line up and the positioning of the strong and free safeties tended to make deciphering coverages somewhat easy. With both safeties playing interchangeable roles, like Arizona's Antrel Rolle and Adrian Wilson, defenses can mask coverages more effectively.
"We see a lot more of that and it's harder for quarterbacks to read which one's coming, which one is going to peel out," Domenik said. "Anyway whatever they do things on the back end, the main things defenses are trying to find is to get pressure off the edge to attack the quarterback."
Generating pressure is the key to disrupting the quarterback and if the quarterback is bothered or flustered, he's more prone to make a mistake and turn the ball over or make enough bad passes to render the offense one dimensional. That's a reason why more teams are switching to the 3-4 scheme that Pittsburgh, New England and Baltimore have used so effectively.
The outside linebackers in the 3-4 typically are stellar athletes who can drop in coverage or use their speed and strength to get around beefy offensive tackles and get in the face of quarterbacks. In the 3-4 scheme, it is easier to disguise which linebacker might be blitzing and which one might drop into coverage. Pittsburgh's James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley form the most formidable tandem in the league, often because of the guessing games they force offenses to play.
Defenses also are using more creative blitz schemes, dropping linemen into pass coverages and rushing linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties. If a quarterback isn't adept at figuring out where the pressure is coming from in a split second, he will become a statistic for the defense.
Teams are trying to buy as much time for their quarterbacks as possible by utilizing shotgun formations more regularly instead of five- or seven-step drops -- which equate to five- and seven-step rushes for defenders. The pressure being brought by defenses are why so much of the passing game is now designed to get the ball out of the quarterback's hand right away.
The passing game is more about timing than waiting for a receiver to beat his man. Passes are thrown to spots instead of to receivers.
Brees and Peyton Manning know this and execute this better than anyone, which, despite playing in pass-first systems, is why they got sacked a combined 27 times last season -- 11 fewer times than Washington's Jason Campbell was sacked. They are among the best there are at diagnosing situations and getting rid of the ball in a breath or two, leaving oncoming pass rushers swiping at air, frustrated.
Defenses aren't going to stop coming after the quarterback, and they're going to continue to come up with new ways to get to him. It's just the nature of things. The quarterback is the most valued commodity in the sport because he touches the ball on every play. If he can be slowed down, hurried, even injured, then the defense has done its job -- regardless of how it was done.