You hear it almost weekly, when coaches talk about their next opponent and what it will take to beat them. Invariably, a coach will mention an opposing player and state a simple directive:
"We have to account for him on every play."
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This could be a dominant wide receiver (like the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson), a ferocious edge rusher (like the St. Louis Rams' Robert Quinn) or a multi-faceted running back (like the Kansas City Chiefs' Jamaal Charles). They're game changers, quite literally.
Every coach knows there are numerous things you can do to take away a team's dominant weapon. But these adjustments require trade-offs, some of which can create more problems.
With the intimidating edge rusher, you can turn your offense to his side in gap protection, or have a running back chip on the edge to help the offensive tackle, or put a tight end on that side to affect the edge rusher's alignment and approach. But there's always a cost. If you turn your offensive line to gap protect every play, you risk exposing the opposite edge, where your backs have to provide added protection, creating a mismatch for them. If you keep a back in to help an overmatched offensive tackle, you now limit the number and range of routes the back can run, and you also limit the available targets for your quarterback. If you send the tight end to that side, you might limit his ability to get out on the route, or -- even worse -- put him one-on-one against a beast.
When it comes to countering game-changers, there are no easy answers. So in this sense, the cliché really is true: These guys legitimately change the game by substantially impacting the opposition's plan of attack. Teams need to be sure -- on every snap -- that they have over-the-top help against Megatron, or have some extra protection against Quinn.
Let's go over some of the top game-changing forces in today's game:
The Freakish Wideout
Johnson, along with Julio Jones in Atlanta, A.J. Green in Cincinnati and the twin towers in Chicago (Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall) all force opposing defenses to alter their coverage packages. You can roll your coverage to account for these players, putting a corner under the wideout and a safety over the top. You can also bracket a receiver with two defensive backs aligned in "in-and-out position," to take away the wideout's ability to make inside and outside cuts (and neutralize option routes where the receiver has a two-way go). The problem is that each of the aforementioned receivers has the strength to outmuscle such coverage; they can physically dominate most of the defensive backs assigned to cover them.
"The biggest thing I had to get used to," Lions QB Matthew Stafford once told me, "was that two people on Calvin does not necessarily mean he is covered."
Yes, even if you constantly double Johnson, you inherently create other deficiencies. This past Sunday, the New York Jets did a nice job taking Megatron -- albeit an ailing Megatron -- out of the game plan, limiting him to just two catches for 12 yards. But consequently, Golden Tate -- against single coverage -- racked up 116 yards on eight grabs, rookie tight end Eric Ebron logged three catches (including his first NFL touchdown), and little-used wideout Jeremy Ross notched a 59-yard catch-and-run score.
Of course, the better the second receiver, the tougher it is to get away with doubling the No. 1. Jones is hard to double because Roddy White will kill you on the other side. Chicago presents the same quandary with Jeffery and Marshall.
The All-Purpose Weapon
Percy Harvin is particularly hard to account for, because you have to find him first. The Seattle Seahawks' offensive threat lines up at every wide receiver position, as well as in the backfield. If you put a coverage specialist in the interior of the front seven to account for him coming out on a pass route, the Seahawks can audible to a Harvin run, and suddenly you've got a coverage DB being asked to play a strong safety's role. Harvin is also used on multiple motions, faking reverses to set up inside runs and boots/waggles for Russell Wilson (which allow the quarterback to get outside of the protection scheme, where he is lethal).
The New-Age Tight End
New Orleans Saints star Jimmy Graham is the best of the new breed of tight ends. If you try to match him for size with a linebacker, Graham will outrun him. If you match him for speed with a free safety or cover corner, Graham will outmuscle him.
The rise of tight ends like Graham has led teams to covet elite safeties. In fact, since 1998 -- the year after Tony Gonzalez entered the league -- 29 safeties have been drafted in the first round. This is a position that most teams didn't tend to address until later rounds. No longer. Speaking of which ...
The Versatile Safety
Kam Chancellor, strong safety for the Seattle Seahawks, is one of the most dominant defensive backs in the league, and one of a handful of safeties who can force opposing offenses to alter their schemes. Richard Sherman has a bigger rep as a shutdown corner, but as we've seen, teams can simply choose to throw away from a great corner like Sherman or the Arizona Cardinals' Patrick Peterson. It is more difficult to avoid a safety, because he can roam the entire width of the field.
When I had Ed Reed in Baltimore, we used to give people fits, because Ed could do almost anything on any play -- he could be a blitzer, man up a tight end or slot receiver, or back away from the line and roam the entire secondary as a center fielder. Chancellor has the same versatility; he's as capable of covering a tight end as he is of coming down into the box and blowing up a running play.
The Pocket Destroyer
As mentioned above, the best pure edge rushers have terrorized offenses for years -- hence, the gargantuan salaries for elite left tackles. But the newest defensive trend is to have a guy who applies pressure on the quarterback from the middle of the protection scheme, knifing through the A and B gaps, like the Houston Texans' J.J. Watt or Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Gerald McCoy. If you expend too many assets "pinching" in protections to help the guards/center, then you find yourself continually isolating your tackles, leaving them to go one-on-one against athletic defensive ends without help. Even the rush ends who aren't dominant are going to win their share of one-on-one battles. Watt and McCoy also move all along the defensive line, so you have to guess where your help needs to be.
Game-planning for all of the players mentioned above is maddening, but coaches spend so much time doing it because they've found, through hard experience, that if you play these guys straight up, they'll wreck you -- almost every time.