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Hybrid defenses popping up across the NFL

The NFL is a very interesting place when it comes to the use of the English language. Coaches are notorious for grabbing a word and applying it to what they do. The "shotgun" formation, the "Hail Mary" pass, the "blitz" -- it's never ending. If you looked up the words in the dictionary you would be hard-pressed to find a definition that would help you understand its application to football.

The same is true of the "hybrid" defense, which is so popular heading into the 2008 season.

Hybrid is defined as an offspring produced by parents of different races, a crossbreed. A hybrid car is one that uses two sources of power. A hybrid defense is one that uses the 4-3 and 3-4 defensive packages -- and I don't mean a 3-4 defense that will use a four-man rush on third downs.

A true hybrid defense is one that will use either package on any down -- and in any game. The defensive coaches who are truly in the hybrid business will look closely at an opponent and take advantage of the best matchup they get during a particular game. Hybrid coaches feel they make their opponent prepare for every possible look and then they dictate what works best for them. While it makes sense, pulling it off isn't that easy. If it were, then everyone would be doing it.

Here are the problems that confront coaches who claim to be hybrid defensive disciples:

» It starts up front with the defensive line. A 4-3 defense looks for quick, one-gap penetrating linemen who can get into the backfield and disrupt plays. A 3-4 defense looks for much bigger linemen who can engage offensive linemen on the line of scrimmage and keep blockers off the linebackers as they work down the line of scrimmage. Linemen in the 3-4 want to command a double-team block; 4-3 linemen want to beat a single block every time. A hybrid defense wants its linemen to be able to do either thing when asked. A guy like Warren Sapp was great at one-gap penetration, but would struggle as a two-gapper in a 3-4. Players like Ty Warren and Richard Seymour in New England can do both with little trouble, but those type of players are hard to find.

» Linebackers have their own issues to deal with when switching from one package to another. Linebackers in the 4-3 defense are slightly shaded behind defensive linemen, which makes it difficult to get a blocker on them right away. Teams like the Buccaneers get away with undersized, but fast, linebackers because it is hard to block them. In a 3-4 defense, the inside linebackers have to be big and physical, because they regularly line up directly over guards who can easily get up on the backers.

It will be interesting to see how Zach Thomas does in the Dallas 3-4 defense after so many years in the Miami 4-3. A hybrid defense needs players big enough to meet power with power, yet quick enough to run sideline to sideline. The outside linebackers in the 3-4 are the primary pass rushers; defensive ends are the primary rushers in the 4-3.

One of the critical issues for teams that run a hybrid defense is finding the guy who can play outside linebacker in the 3-4 package and then be stout enough to put his hand on the ground as a defensive end in the 4-3 package. Remember what I said earlier: I'm not talking about third-and-long situations, but rather on first and second downs, when the run is as likely as the pass.

Nothing really changes that much for the secondary. Safeties down in the box have to know their fits and corners need to play the coverage that is called. Playing man or zone has a lot to do with the talent in the secondary and the philosophy of the coaches but little to do with a hybrid concept.

The Cardinals, Ravens, Raiders, Dolphins, Patriots, Jets, Cowboys, Browns, and 49ers all have used some form of the hybrid principles.

In Arizona, Travis LaBoy, who played as a 4-3 defensive end in Tennessee last year, is being trained as a linebacker. The Jets now have Calvin Pace, a former defensive end who was trained by the Cardinals, to play outside linebacker in a 3-4. Willie McGinest did it for years with the Patriots and is wrapping up his career with the Browns. San Francisco head coach Mike Nolan believes in teaching the 3-4 first and then applying 4-3 principles in his game planning. Nolan needs Tully Banta-Cain, Parys Haralson or Manny Lawson to play that hybrid end/backer to make his hybrid go this year. Miami will move in and out of both packages based on what they can do well. They are training Matt Roth and even Vonnie Holiday to handle the hybrid end/backer spot.

Finally, tricking offenses isn't easy and sometimes asking so many of the front seven players to be able to handle all the nuances of the 3-4 and 4-3 packages creates more problems for the defense than it does for the opposing offense.

Players want to play fast and they want simple game plans. Coaches of the hybrid defense have to weigh those realities against what looks good when game planning.

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