Training camp presents an opportunity for all players to get better. But this summer, it's the guys on the defensive side of the ball who should truly benefit the most.
Debate: Biggest preseason question
Are Michael Vick and the Eagles really on the verge of a dynastic run? Our analysts provide burning preseason questions. **More ...**
Last year, the lockout killed defenses, particularly secondaries, that didn't have ample reps in a spring that lacked minicamps and organized team activities, and a summer which featured a hurried training camp. The early result was plenty of defensive backs out of position while wideouts ran around freer than cockroaches in a Texas cellar.
The opening stanza of 2011 saw a staggering 14 quarterbacks throw for at least 300 yards. That is nearly half the league's passers. Four went for 400 or more, with New Englad Patriots QB Tom Brady torching the Miami Dolphins for 517 yards. And that wasn't the half of it.
More than half the NFL teams scored 24 points or more in Week 1, with nine of those clubs scoring 30-plus. By comparison, in 2010, only one team -- Brady's Patriots -- averaged more than 30 points per game, and just 11 cracked the 24-point barrier in points per contest.
Think the lockout didn't make a difference? Here's how it did: While quarterbacks and wideouts could work on their timing on high school football fields, defensive backs were relegated to mental reps and Shake Weights. In other words, getting prepared for the athletic and mental rigors of playing the pass was far more challenging for the guys charged with defending it.
Safeties, slot defenders and everyone else charged with knowing coverages had no way to replicate what they would have to do on Sundays without tutoring from coaches and real wide receivers to cover. Yes, they could work out, and yes they could do the tip drill. But at the end of the day, their job preparation required professional wideouts running routes on them -- as opposed to being relegated to chasing squirrels around a field of dead grass.
Going a step further, defensive coordinators were unable to install exotic blitz packages with the odd circumstances last summer. That meant defenders had very little time in August to learn what their responsibilities were in newly designed schemes intended to slow down the Matt Staffords of the world. After all, even veteran, 30-year-old safeties needed practice time to increase the probability they would react instinctively on the field when the real games started. Consequently, reps were limited for everyone, young and old alike. And every moment a defensive back thought Where's my coverage responsibility on this play? was another moment Drew Brees was hitting Jimmy Graham for 30 yards over the middle.
This is not to suggest offenses weren't affected by the deficient practice time, or that rules changes didn't contribute, too. But as 2011 would play out, it became increasingly obvious that mental mistakes in the back four were contributing to offensive explosions across the league. Let us also not forget that pass rushers need offseason conditioning as much as any players on the football field, considering the amount of time they spend in pursuit.
Coaches Film, only on NFL.com
Purchase NFL Game Rewind and receive access to Coaches Film, which includes camera angles previously only available to coaches, scouts and officials.
Trying to pursue the adverse effects of the lockout doesn't take long. Take a look at some of the monster passing numbers that were posted last season. Three quarterbacks (Brees, Brady, Stafford) surpassed 5,000 yards; only two had done it in the 92-year history of the NFL prior to 2011. Three teams (Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints, New England Patriots) averaged more than 30 points per game. That hadn't been done since 1949.
With a full offseason in the rearview, and a full training camp on the horizon, look for the defenses, and specifically the secondaries, to know what the heck they're doing from the 2012 Kickoff Game forward.