"They're just sneaking 'em up into the heart of the pressure group," says Buffalo offensive line coach Tom Bresnahan. "They foul up the blocking schemes by creating an unblocked man. They're hard to account for."
"You're trying to block eight people with seven," says New Orleans Saints running backs coach Jim Skipper. "You can run against it; you've just got to know who to leave unblocked."
"There's got to be some more research on how to handle the eight-man fronts," says Phoenix Cardinals coach Joe Bugel.
All these excuses sound persuasive, but I wonder. If one man has so changed the game—the guy who looks like a linebacker but wears a safety's number—then every week these pseudo-safeties should have a phenomenal total of tackles, some number in the 20's. But they don't. And eight-man fronts are nothing new.
The 6-2 and 5-3 formations were basic in the NFL during the 1930s and early '40s—before the 5-2 Eagle and the 4-3 replaced them in the late '40s and early '50s—and teams still ran effectively. The post-World War II rushing stats, from '46 through '50, when everyone went to a seven-man front, were much better than the ones we see now, and sacks were counted as yards lost rushing in those days. True, teams used tight offensive formations then, and eight defenders were blocked by eight offensive players. However, teams do that now, too. They line up with two tight ends, sometimes even three, in an attempt to meet force with force—"outmass 'em," as Robinson says—but sometimes even that doesn't work.
The answer is personnel. Offensive backs could block in the 1940s—all of them. So could offensive ends, and especially interior linemen, who were skilled in a full repertoire of exotic techniques—hook blocks, crash blocks, reverse body blocks—techniques that are now obsolete in the era of the 300-pound belly bumper. The emphasis on passing has created the gigantic weight-room-and-steroid monster, who can hold off the Atlantic Ocean for 2.7 seconds but can't fire out, low to the ground, and move a defensive man out of the hole.
"If a guy can't pass-block he can't play," says Packer noseguard Bob Nelson. "Blow you off the ball? Big deal. First couple of downs, they run. That doesn't work, they go to the pass."
"Most NFL guards and tackles now, all they can do is short-set pass-block or hog it out and area-block on running plays," says Mike Giddings, who runs a scouting service. "In other words, they can do things that don't require much speed. You want to run a sweep? You've got to have guards pull and lead, and most guards today can't pull and lead."
In the 1970s, when defense dominated the game, the uncontrollable player was the defensive end, a 250-or 260-pounder who could run a 4.7 or 4.8 40. When coaches positioned this type of player at end, there was no offensive counterpart to stop him. So the rule makers stepped in and told the offensive linemen that it's O.K. to push off and hold a bit and even strangle, as long as the defensive guy doesn't turn blue. That evened things up.
Now two players are becoming unmanageable: the outside linebacker, who's too good an athlete for the tight end or the fullback (or, in the case of the run-and-shoot, the tailback) assigned to block him, and the defensive tackle, who's physically superior to the guard playing across the line. Besides, this is the era of the even-front defense, with the defensive tackles lined up directly in front of the guards. More teams are going back to the 4-3 defense because "the idea that the 3-4 was a better run defense was a mistake," says Steve Ortmayer, the Raiders' director of operations. Even 3-4 defenses go to an even front, or give a 4-3 look, by positioning an outside linebacker, such as the Giants' Lawrence Taylor, as an end and covering the guards with two interior linemen.