The biggest myth in football is that your base defense is what you are. The Patriots are known as a 3--4, so they should want a big nose guy and 290-pound defensive ends who play the run first. Right? When New England signed troubled defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, the outcry wasn't so much about Haynesworth's work ethic but about how he'd fit in. Haynesworth hates the 3--4, and Bill Belichick's a 3--4 guy. But is he really? "That's a media fabrication," the Patriots coach says. "There are a lot of different alignments out there. It's the techniques, the fundamentals that you teach your players, more than the 3--4, 4--3 that people say you use."
In fact the Patriots played a 3--4 on just 39.7% of their snaps in 2010, according to game-tape analysis by ProFootballFocus.com. The site counted 29 plays on which New England cornerback Kyle Arrington lined up at defensive end, with his hand on the ground.
The Patriots weren't alone in this public deception. Super Bowl champ Green Bay, another so-called 3--4 team, had just two defensive linemen on the field on 68.6% of its plays, according to Pro Football Focus. "Our guys are used to dropping in coverage," says Packers coordinator Dom Capers. "It's all about picking your spots—when to rush, when to drop. Sometimes it's a little bit faddish, just to show a different front."
"Confusion," said Payton. "That's the word. Football has become the battle of confusion."
In 1990, NFL teams threw an average of 483 times a season. That number rose to 540 in 2010. "We're never going back to a running game," says Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. "Now fullbacks run once a year. We're going to stay a passing league." In the '80s the Giants bulked up the middle of their D to stop Dallas's and Washington's strong running games and won two Super Bowls. These days there may be a few games in which an offense runs on 60% of its plays, but far more frequently the ratio is 60% pass, 40% run. To contend with those pass-heavy attacks, defensive architects are changing up, becoming more and more unpredictable. Some of the ways they're doing so:
Varying the fronts to create mismatches. Many teams have started doing what Rex Ryan did as coordinator for the Ravens and now does as Jets coach—flood one gap or blocker with two, three or even four defensive linemen or linebackers. That challenges a quarterback to change his protection call to keep more blockers in. On one play in that 2009 Jets-Saints game, New York showed a heavy rush on the left side; Brees kept a running back in to block ... and at the snap the Jets dropped a lineman and a linebacker from the group into coverage, negating Brees's protection call. "They rushed four but ate up six of our guys," Payton said. "They were able to double two of our receivers without leaving anyone open."
Changing the defensive game plan every week, sometimes radically. This is a Belichick trademark. The Pats' boss has long designed his defensive fronts—and what he does on offense too—specifically for each game depending on an opponent's strengths and weaknesses. And the men who've coached under him have adopted that approach.
In practices before the Browns' game at New Orleans last October, Eric Mangini, then Cleveland's coach and now an ESPN analyst, preached disguises more than defensive schemes. For 60 or 70 minutes of each practice, Mangini (who was an assistant under Belichick in New England) had his defenders holding phony positions before the snap. "Spin the dial," he told his players. "Spin it. Different looks every time. No pattern." On half the snaps against the Saints, Mangini says, Cleveland had no defensive linemen or just one on the field—showing Brees an 0--5 or 1--5 or 1--4. Brees hadn't seen those looks in game tape, and while he hit Cleveland for a couple of big plays—"the cost of doing business," Mangini says—the final score was Browns 30, Saints 17.
Dissecting offenses like never before. When the NFL Network was at Saints camp this summer, Payton sternly told the sound technician that he didn't want Brees's snap counts to be audible. "It's not just the words people could steal," Payton says. "It's the cadence and the speed." A defensive coordinator for another NFC team says his video crew reviews telecasts and transcribes the presnap calls of opposing quarterbacks, and pairs those with the play. The information is analyzed to see what patterns can be discerned. Intonation and the difference between how a quarterback makes a dummy call versus a real one, the coach says, provide clues that can give his edge rushers a split-second head start. It's perilously close to what got the Patriots in hot water during Spygate, but because the audio is available over public airwaves, there's no NFL rule against the practice. And it's not foolproof. "You get a little something out of it," the NFC coordinator says, "but so many teams change their indicator words week to week that you can't trust what you're hearing."
"It's a more advanced game than anyone would think," notes Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb. "I tell my friends about five percent of what we do, and they're blown away. They can't believe it's this complicated."