Proliferation of passing offenses has NFL defenses on the run

In touring NFL training camps post-lockout, it's uncanny how many teams are utilizing two tight-end sets to spring slot receivers all in the name of matchup advantages in the passing game. We know the NFL has become more pass-oriented -- teams threw the ball nearly 57 percent of the time last season -- but finding innovative ways to enhance the trend is, well, the trend.

"You can flex them, create mismatches," Panthers Coach Ron Rivera said of his tight-end tandem of Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey. "With the kind of speed and ability our two guys have, if you match them with a linebacker, you can exploit things."

In Minnesota, base sets feature tight end Visanthe Shiancoe and rookie tight end Kyle Rudolph, with receiver Percy Harvin rotating in and out of the slot, sometimes playing wideout to clear the field for personnel edges between the hash marks. The Vikings are hardly alone. In fact, what they're doing -- using three-receiver sets on first and second down -- is more the norm.

It's no wonder why. It's worked.

Other than the Pittsburgh Steelers, who've represented the AFC twice, the other four teams in the past three Super Bowls (Arizona, New Orleans, Indianapolis and Green Bay) were pass-first teams that frequently incorporate multiple receiver sets into the base sets. The Steelers aren't what they used to be either in terms of running the ball. Last season, they threw it 479 times and ran it 471.

The baseline for every team in the NFL is to run the ball and stop the run, but if you can't pass or stop the pass, you're pretty much doomed. Even Jets Coach Rex Ryan, whose ground-and-pound strategy has come within a hair of getting to the Super Bowl, said his team will throw the ball more this season to ease the predictability of what they've done.

"It's changed dramatically," Vikings Coach Leslie Frazier said. "If you're a slot receiver you're as valuable as the No. 2 and sometimes the No. 1 receiver because that's the guy getting a lot of throws to move the sticks. Look what [Wes] Welker did as a complement to Randy [Moss] in New England. Those guys' value has really risen.

"So has that of the tight end that can open up in the formation. Look at what Antonio Gates has done in San Diego. That's opened up a Pandora's Box for athlete tight ends. The NFL is a passing game and if you can spread people out, you can find mismatches."

The Chargers' use of Gates has forced teams to use coverage linebackers or to double him with a linebacker and nickel corner or safety. That allows players like wide receiver Vincent Jackson on the outside to play in single coverage. Colts tight end Dallas Clark, who frequently lines up in the slot, has the same impact on defenses opening things for wide receivers Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon.

It also works the other way. The Eagles' underappreciated slot receiver Jason Avant seems to always spring free in clutch moments because of the attention paid to Jeremy Maclin, DeSean Jackson and tight end Brent Celek. Expect the same out of Atlanta's Harry Douglas, who's buffered by tight end Tony Gonzalez, Pro Bowl wide receiver Roddy White and rookie Julio Jones.

These multiple receiver sets are more and more common on what used to be traditional running downs. There's no doubt coaches are sampling what's gone on in high school and college in using spread offense and defensive concepts.

As a result of the game being played more in open space, the landscape of how rosters are built and how personnel is valued has been reshaped.

Fullbacks are of far less value than a second- or third tight end or slot receiver. Tailbacks have lost their once princely importance -- although not as much as we might think, some GMs and coaches said -- because of the emphasis on the passing game. Case in point: the tailbacks for the last three NFC champions: James Starks (Packers), Pierre Thomas (Saints) and Edgerrin James (Cardinals).

To defend the more wide-open offenses, defenses have been resculpted, too.

Run-stuffing, facemask-bending inside linebackers are outdated, unless they can also run and cover tight ends like Green Bay's Desmond Bishop. In-the-box strong safeties are on the endangered list. Teams must have two safeties who can play in space to cover slot receivers, tight ends and running backs. Being a third cornerback also is a badge of honor, not a stigma, since teams are forced to play so much nickel coverage.

The Packers proved last season that a team can't have enough cornerbacks. The Eagles followed suit this offseason, adding top-tier corners Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha to go with Pro Bowl corner Asante Samuel.

"This is a matchup league and you have to get match-up speed, athleticism, strength and power to match up," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "If you're not matching up in athleticism and speed to cover your side of the field given the strength of the passing teams in this league, then that team could struggle.

"We know that we have to have those safeties that can play both sides. It's no longer as much strong and free safeties in their respective spots. Both guys have to be able to run underneath with tight ends as does the nickel linebacker. You have to have enough coverage skills so you're not exposed. One-dimensional games from players make them hard to hang on to. You need versatility. Versatility is the key in today's game."

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89

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