Giving defenders freer rein. With all the shifting, some front-seven players have to know numerous positions. In the Cowboys' defense under new coordinator Rob Ryan—who worked under Mangini last year in Cleveland—Ware, the game's most respected pass rusher, will constantly be forcing quarterbacks to play Where's Waldo. He'll line up at right or left outside linebacker, at middle linebacker in some three-LB sets, at defensive end and even at defensive tackle and nosetackle. On some plays he'll drop into coverage at the snap, on some he'll rush—and he'll do it from any of those spots. Ware loves that Ryan trusts him to do much of it on his own, switching with a teammate at the last second to throw the quarterback a changeup.
Against San Diego in the preseason, Ware and linebacker Anthony Spencer pulled just such a switch. The formation itself was unusual—Spencer was lined up on the nose and Ware was at middle linebacker, two normal bookend outside guys providing up-the-middle D. At the snap Ware didn't rush but rather covered the running back, and an offensive tackle moved to block him. Spencer saw the attention to Ware and sneaked through the gap beside him to pressure the quarterback.
"For our defense to work," says Ware, who has an NFL-best 80 sacks over the last six seasons, "you've got to have smart players. I'm convinced after being in the league for a while that you don't have to have the best guys to be a dominant defense. You can be a very good defense if you have smart guys. The game used to be checkers. Not anymore." Speaking of the Jets....
It's silly to say a unit with cornerback Darrelle Revis and linebackers Bart Scott and David Harris doesn't have some of the league's best defenders. But the Jets also start guys who, like Scott, were undrafted (defensive end Mike DeVito, strong safety Jim Leonhard) and others who were bypassed atop the draft (free safety Eric Smith, nosetackle Sione Pouha). And if you play for the Jets, you'd better be football smart. Last January, as New York prepared for its playoff game with New England and a chance to avenge its 42-point December loss to the Patriots, the coaches were seeking ways to confound Tom Brady. Leonhard, who was on injured reserve with a fractured shin, approached coordinator Mike Pettine about turning a regular red zone coverage into something new. "What would happen," Leonhard said, "if we rushed three and kept our coverage [on New England's wideouts] the same but turned the inside guys into hook defenders?"
In the red zone for the Jets, the "hook" is the area between the hashmarks; Leonhard suggested that instead of one defender covering the tailback out of the backfield, make it two. Pettine liked the idea, and so did the head coach. "Brilliant," said Rex Ryan.
Late in the first quarter of a scoreless game, New England had third-and-five at the Jets' seven. The defense dialed up Leonhard's coverage. New York had three down linemen—with the versatile Shaun Ellis in the middle—and six cornerbacks. Harris and Smith, the linebacker and the safety, were the hook defenders, staying inside the hashes at about the two-yard line, in position to blanket Danny Woodhead out of the backfield. "Brady knows Woodhead can make that play when his receivers are covered," said Leonhard, "so the idea was to bracket him and force Brady to stay away."
Ryan, looking up at the play on the video screen in his office one day this summer, said, "New England wants to throw touchdown passes and checkdowns. So on this play we know what they want—a throw into the end zone, or they want to go to Woodhead out of the backfield." That's what happened. Brady looked for his receivers outside. Blanketed by the cornerbacks. Then he looked for Woodhead. Covered by Harris and Smith. Pumped once. Still covered. And Ellis buried him for a nine-yard sack. Four points saved: New England settled for a field goal.
Leonhard watched from his New Jersey home. "You can't really tell what the calls are all the time from TV," he said, "but when I went in the next day, all the coaches said, 'We got your call in. Great call.' It felt good. All employees want to be heard."
For the Jets, one lesson was: Don't think anyone is too good to be fooled. "Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are brilliant quarterbacks," said Leonhard, "but the biggest mistake teams make is giving those guys too much respect, like you can't trick 'em. You have to try."
You'd think that would be the end of the story. Leonhard outsmarts Brady and Belichick, Patriots embarrassed, as bad a loss for a New England team as Aaron Boone's homer off Tim Wakefield. But there's more.