Physical Defensive Backs Play Key Roles
By John Ventola
Last season’s drive to the Super Bowl XLVIII victory by Seattle featured a balanced offense and a physical, intimidating defense. While the Seahawks offensive production was consistent, led by steady quarterback Russell Wilson and 1,200-yard rusher Marshawn Lynch, it was the hard-hitting defense that was the team’s hallmark.
Cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell combined with safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor to use a super aggressive approach to defensive back play. They
grabbed, bumped, and basically mugged wide receivers as they tried to get off the line of scrimmage to run their routes. Their techniques made a shambles of the Super Bowl matchup with Denver, and were mainly responsible for putting the clamps on Peyton Manning and the high scoring Broncos.
Professional football has always been a sport where a winner is emulated. Great success breeds copycats, and the Seahawks lopsided win over Denver, 43-8, did just that. The defensive play of their secondary last year led other NFL teams to seek out tall, physical defensive backs that would fit into their own version of the bump and grab scheme. Where speed and quick reaction reflexes use to be the key measurements in evaluating professional defensive backs, football braintrusts are now looking for those qualities plus height, physicality, and super aggressive attitudes. Bump and run techniques have been used by defensive backs for decades, but Seattle players raised the bar during last season’s title run, bumping, hugging, and mugging opposing offensive players at the line. The DBs inch up to the line of scrimmage and immediately bump the receiver on the snap of the ball hoping to throw the receiver off his intended route while maintaining coverage should he himself be outmaneuvered. The toughest part of the technique is not being able to touch or grab the receiver on any pass attempt past five yards from the line of scrimmage.
Seattle’s group of Sherman, Maxwell, Thomas, and Chancellor is talented, and last year they were willing to push the NFL rulebook and put the burden on officiating crews. While they were whistled for some infractions, they took pride in their in your face physical play and did not shy away from media reports emphasizing their physicality following last year’s NFC championship game and Super Bowl XLVIII. Sherman and Maxwell were lockdown cornerbacks and Thomas and Chancellor patrolled their safety areas with fast closing speed.
In a way, it was fun to watch their cohesiveness, but sometimes, at least to this writer, it looked like it was more about the intimidation than making the plays. Their flamboyant jawing and bravado on almost every play has no place in the game. Sherman’s classless act of running to San Francisco wide receiver Michael Crabtree to shake his hand after Sherman tipped away a potential winning touchdown pass to a teammate in the final seconds of the NFC championship, and his postgame comments on television (where he called Crabtree a mediocre receiver), showed the mindset that drove this “get in your face” group. Makes one wonder how Sherman would have reacted if he had mistimed his jump, allowed Crabtree to catch the pass, and Crabtree had run up to him for a handshake.
Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, who is not easily intimidated, seemed to be out of sync in both games last year against the Seahawks. Peyton Manning’s receiving corps in the Super Bowl (Eric Decker, Wes Welker, Julius Thomas) all but disappeared on him,
never getting into their routes, never developing any rhythm with Manning. Receiver Demaryius Thomas did manage to shake loose for 13 receptions, most coming on short routes long after the outcome of the game had been settled. The Broncos went into the game as the league’s No. 1 rated offensive team of 2013 and, after giving up an early safety, were never in the game.
The NFL has recently enjoyed a nice stretch of popular offensive football. The Offensive Era has proven to be a big success, both financially and fanwise. To have its top offensive team shut down in such a manner demanded immediate scrutiny. Even if it was the top defensive team in the league, the schemes and techniques used had to be examined. After careful review, the NFL began notifying all teams during the off-season that a new emphasis on penalties called at the line of scrimmage would be implemented. Defensive holding, past interference, and illegal contact, would each be monitored more closely in the 2014 season.
In 1978, the NFL made some adjustments to help on the offensive side of the ball. The five yard rule was added to the rules, giving receivers a chance to shake their defenders and allowing them a opportunity to move without being held once they were five yards downfield. Additionally, offensive linemen were allowed to extend their arms and use their hands when blocking. The two new rules helped receivers, and also helped with the protection of the quarterback. Consequently, wide open games featuring top notch quarterbacks and speedy, acrobatic receivers were in style from the late ‘70s until last year.
After four preseason games and an impressive opening week victory over Green Bay, the Seahawks players are saying they will make whatever adjustments are necessary to avoid having flags fly in their faces. They are saying they will be more cognizant of the place on the field where they use their hands, but they still will play physical football. Only time will tell, but it should be fun to watch the rest of the teams, particularly those who went out and signed, or traded for, taller, physical defensive backs. Even more fun to watch the referees who have been given the task of cleaning up a part of the game that was exploited by the 2013 NFL champion Seattle Seahawks.
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