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Pack Mentality Working on Defense

October 26, 2003|LONNIE WHITE

One of the more popular trends in the NFL this season has been for defenses to cram the line of scrimmage in an attempt to stop the run.

In almost every game this weekend, you will see teams line up as many as eight players within seven yards of the line of scrimmage, especially on first downs.

Coaches have finally figured that the best way to slow down today's quick, squat and physical running backs is to gang-tackle them.

That's why it has become so common for hard-hitting strong safeties such as New England's Rodney Harrison and Tampa Bay's John Lynch to crowd the line before a snap.

In football, it's often called eight men in a box.

Although the NFL turned into a pass-happy league years ago, running the ball still is the most important aspect of the game. Teams with successful ground attacks usually win. Teams without them usually don't.

This theory held true when Vince Lombardi won five NFL titles with the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s. It was accurate when Emmitt Smith powered the Cowboys to three Super Bowl championships in the 1990s; and it was on point last season when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ran all over Oakland in the Super Bowl.

Stopping the run used to be pretty simple: Put more defenders at the point of attack and make the tackle when the ball gets to you.

That's how it worked before running backs such as Baltimore's Jamal Lewis, Kansas City's Priest Holmes, Miami's Ricky Williams and Seattle's Shaun Alexander hit the scene.

They are part of the new breed of NFL runners who have defensive coordinators tossing and turning in their sleep every week. Today's top backs are not too tall, usually under 6 feet, but they are fast and pack a powerful punch with strong upper bodies and legs.

San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson, Green Bay's Ahman Green, Indianapolis' Edgerrin James and Cleveland's William Green, along with Lewis, Holmes, Williams and Alexander, weigh at least 213 pounds each and have the speed to turn a simple off-tackle play into an 80-yard touchdown run.

In 1993, only nine teams in the league allowed opponents to gain four or more yards per carry.

Ten years later, 19 teams are giving up an average of at least four yards a run.

Defenses used to rely on a strong line to control a running game. But when was the last time a defensive front had a nickname?

The next dominant line you'll see will probably be on Classic Sports with Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain or the Rams' Fearsome Foursome.

Because many defensive linemen in the league can't get off blocks to fill holes, defenses have been forced not only to move up defensive backs but to use more pre-snap slants.

By having linemen rush in a certain direction in unison, this often opens up lanes for linebackers and defensive backs to shoot into backfields for tackles.

Teams such as Kansas City and Indianapolis have excelled at creating paths for their strong safeties to make tackles.

The Chiefs' Greg Wesley and Colts' Mike Doss rank second on their teams in tackles. They are strong enough to make big hits on running plays and quick enough to recover on passing plays.

Safeties such as Wesley and Doss are also needed because defenses can no longer count on defenders to make one-on-one tackles. Even middle linebackers are having some difficulty making solo tackles.

By packing the line, defenses are daring quarterbacks to throw.

Pressing eight-man fronts usually leave wide receivers in man coverage. Effective quarterbacks are able to make defenses pay for this tactic with short passes inside the lanes of the defensive box or deep throws.

For struggling quarterbacks, however, it's a lot easier said than done.

Young signal-callers such as Detroit's Joey Harrington, Baltimore's Kyle Boller and Atlanta's Doug Johnson have had problems all season against crowding defenses.

But even some veteran quarterbacks are throwing more interceptions than touchdown passes against this type of defense.

Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb, Chicago's Kordell Stewart and the New York Giants' Kerry Collins have had more than their share of difficulties against eight-men-in-the-box defenses.

None of them has been able to effectively stretch the field with long passes to their wideouts.

And guess what? Don't expect the eight-man-front trend to end any time soon as long as quarterbacks continue to misfire.

In the NFL, you stick with what's working.

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