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NFL PREVIEW / WEEK 2 | COMMENTARY

Coaches Rush to Get Linemen

September 14, 2003|Bob Oates | Special to The Times

When the new Dallas coach, Bill Parcells, takes the Cowboys into Giants Stadium on Monday night, he will discover that his old New York employers are making the most of a new trend.

The Giants have, in fact, become an NFL leader in the young science of fitting eight defensive linemen into four positions.

Because it's been tried before, this isn't, to be sure, a brand new trend, but there's a difference this year: Nearly all of the 32 pro clubs now list, as a primary strategic goal, the rotation of two defensive lines.

Teams with All-Pros such as New York's defensive end, Michael Strahan, are even benching them in order to rotate two rested four-man lines as early as the first quarter.

That's how the Giants got the steam up to sack quarterback Kurt Warner six times in Week 1 and overpower the Rams, 23-13.

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Defensive Stockpiles

Defensive-line work is the most exhausting in football. Defensive linemen are forever chasing after somebody, passers or runners, whereas offensive linemen simply stand and fight.

Thus, through the most recent off-season , most NFL teams stockpiled defensive linemen, using the draft, trades and other means.

Then through an exhibition season that seemed so long to so many, they made it a point to polish two defensive lines.

There was an early payoff for the Giants last Sunday. Of three early sacks, two were achieved by New York's first four and one by the second four.

There were, of course, other reasons the Giants won. For one thing, their stars, passer Kerry Collins and runner Tiki Barber, often played like Ram stars Warner and Marshall Faulk used to. Faulk played as if he's over the hill. Still, the thing that made the Giants' day was their pass rush. Those eight defensive linemen killed the Rams.

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Heat Is Decisive

Bill Walsh originated the eight-man defensive line during the 1980s as coach of the San Francisco 49ers, who built a record five Super Bowl champions with that and other innovations, notably the West Coast offense.

"On our best teams, we rotated in as many as nine defensive linemen," Walsh said last week from San Francisco, where he is a club consultant.

In 1985, when the 49ers won Super Bowl XIX, smashing Miami, 38-16, the spotlight was on their offense -- and on quarterback Joe Montana, the day's MVP -- but the key to the easy victory was the assertive play of their changing defensive lines against Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino.

"We had a role for every [defensive lineman]," Walsh said. "They all played, and they kept the heat on Marino."

Such heat, constantly applied, is the objective today of the NFL's many defensive coaches who have come to understand, along with Walsh, that passing is more important than running and that the surest way to interrupt a good passer is with a constant rush.

There is no other sure way, Walsh said. Coverage by corners, safeties and linebackers is always hit or miss.

"If your defensive linemen tire in the fourth quarter, you've had it," Walsh said. "You can't win with a great offense and soft spots in the defense."

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No Eagle Rush

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the better team Monday night, as 17-0 indicates, but Philadelphia made it too simple for Tampa quarterback Brad Johnson. In effect, the Eagles gave the passer a pass. He was hardly ever hounded.

The way to beat Johnson is to hound him -- to attack him repeatedly, to strike often with a two-man blitz up the middle, among other rushing variations. For, afoot, Johnson is the NFL's slowest quarterback, more statue than football player.

A great passer, he can be contained in the pocket by mediocre defensive ends, meaning that against an inside rush led by defensive tackles or linebackers, he's yours -- provided you go after him. The Eagles beat themselves by going after Johnson's receivers instead of Johnson himself.

Though also comparatively slow, the Tampa receivers are full of talent. As Philadelphia proved again, you can't cover them every time if you let Johnson yawn, stretch and aim his very accurate passes their way. So that's one thing.

The other is that the Buccaneer defense demonstrated once more that it can be bridged only by a passer with extraordinary accuracy. And that isn't Donovan McNabb. When, several years ago, Indianapolis Coach Tony Dungy built this defense, he built it to beat every passer in the league except the one or two who might be too hot to handle, and it's still that good.

As always, there were lanes through and holes in the Tampa defense Monday night, yet the lanes were so narrow and the holes so small that McNabb, the veteran Eagle quarterback, never had a chance.

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Eagles' Fake Kick

There was nothing wrong with Philadelphia Coach Andy Reid's play-calling Monday night. Neither his runners nor his pass-offense personnel could have done much that night against that defense.

More running plays would, in fact, have been counterproductive, playing into Tampa's hands.

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