Commentary

Defenses may start '11 season in a hole

Player-organized workouts during lockout favor offenses; little defenders can do

Originally Published: May 23, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Informal WorkoutsTyler Kaufman/US PresswireIt's easier for players to organize drills for the offense than for the defense.
Once the labor problems end and football starts again, it will be interesting to follow the state of defenses.

Players around the league are trying to train together as teams -- some successfully, others less so. But offensive players have the advantage. It's much easier to organize seven-on-seven passing drills as opposed to drills to shape up defensive linemen and linebackers.

It will be fascinating to see how an offseason of rest and healing affects defensive players. They tend to shy away from these informal workouts because they fear suffering an injury that isn't covered by insurance. But if you talk to those players, many say their bodies feel the best they have in years. Rest has helped them.

What will hurt them is the missed time with coaches. The league has 13 new defensive coordinators. Their only interaction with their new players is getting playbooks to the players during the second day of the draft when the lockout had a soft stoppage.

The toughest transitions will be in Denver and Cleveland, teams going from a 3-4 to a 4-3. The Houston Texans face the tough challenge of going from a 4-3 to a 3-4, but new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is a master of making the system he installs easy to learn.

Ray Horton, the new Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator, has a tough task. He will try to put in the Steelers' complicated defensive scheme at Arizona. It will also be interesting to see how Juan Castillo does in Philadelphia. He's making the unusual transition of going from offensive line coach to defensive coordinator.

From the inbox

Q: Why is there three weeks between talks? Please do not give a stupid reason, like other things planned. If you want to resolve problems you work until they are resolved, to hell with other things. The only thing that should come before this is family problems. So to me both sides only care about themselves.

Denman in Citrus Heights, Calif.

A: You are right in feeling it's silly to wait three weeks. Both sides care, but there is a strategy to labor negotiations because each side is looking for leverage when it makes offers. The way I read it now, there is no reason the players shouldn't counter the NFL's March 11 offer. The Eighth Circuit Court tipped its hand that it is going to rule against the players after the June 3 hearing, and the lockout -- which is permanent until there is a ruling -- will stay permanent through the month of June. Not making a counter-offer would be a mistake because that counter would test how serious the owners are about getting a deal in June. I guess that's why they call it labor. It's a labor to wait for moves. I do believe the players will make a counter-offer soon.

Q: The Houston Chronicle (Richard Justice) is reporting that Nnamdi Asomugha has rejected the idea signing with the Texans, if and when free agency begins. Does that mean there's renewed hope of Asomugha signing with the Raiders, or do we have to wait for Dallas, Philly, Tampa, Detroit, New York, New England, Baltimore and the Saskatchewan Rough Riders to all be rejected before we can even consider his possible return to Oakland?

Tim

A: The $31.5 million contract given to Stanford Routt probably kills the chance of Nnamdi's coming back. I don't think the Raiders can afford paying Routt more than $10 million a year and paying Richard Seymour $15 million a year and then come back and sign Nnamdi for another $15 million a year. I think he's out of Oakland.

Q: All the talk in Arizona about the quarterback situation has been about the Cardinals likely signing Marc Bulger. And Ken Whisenhunt is still focused on turning John Skelton into the Cardinals' probable quarterback of the future by learning under Bulger. What do you foresee happening to Max Hall? He was plagued by injuries and didn't get a chance to play that much, but he did have a couple of big games, most notably beating the Saints in his first start.

Ricky in Orlando, Fla.

A: Something's changed in the past two weeks. Bulger talk has died down. From what I hear, Bulger doesn't want to sign with the Cardinals. That switches the attention to Kevin Kolb or Kyle Orton. I think the Cardinals would be willing to give two second-round picks for Kolb. It's pretty obvious the Cardinals would lose a bunch of games in the next year going with Skelton and Hall. That's not to say those two young quarterbacks won't be good in time, but the time is not this year and it may not be 2012. The Cardinals need to make the trade if Bulger does indeed say no.

Q: With the NFL being a notoriously copycat league, why has it taken so long for the spread offense to gain so much traction? In the late '80s/early '90s the Redskins ran almost exclusively three-WR sets, as did several run-and-shoot teams like the Oilers and Falcons, and had great success. Is this just a slow trend or is it a natural adjustment to free agency? (i.e. teams know they may only get four years per player so they run systems closer to the college game in an effort to shorten the learning curve.)

Bill in Flemington, N.J.

A: First, it's hard to find enough offensive coordinators with experience running a spread offense that works in the NFL. One of the problems of going pure shotgun is that it limits the running game because all handoffs would be coming from a shotgun. That takes away a bunch of base running plays. Running in this league may be de-emphasized, but it's still an important part of offense. With half of the head coaches coming from a defensive background, they are more conservative and don't like to go to a pure passing system. In time, they adjust, but it's hard to get away from a mindset that relies on defense and running. To be honest, I think the passing offenses have advanced at a quicker pace than I expected. A total of 59 percent of the alignments are from passing sets.

Q: I question that the team with the worst record in 2011 will keep the first pick and select Andrew Luck. The overwhelming favorite to be #1 has got to be Carolina. There's no possibility of them winning more than three games. I don't see how they could take Jimmy Clausen, Cam Newton and then select Luck.

Dave in Columbus, Ohio

A: I think the Panthers have more talent than the two wins in 2010 suggest. They have one of the youngest rosters in the NFL. They have a running game, a decent offensive line and an OK defense. They just hit the wall at quarterback and dropped off to 2-14. The plan would be to let Clausen carry the team into the season and not rush Newton. It wouldn't surprise me if Newton doesn't play at all as a rookie. Still, the Panthers' ability to run the ball will help break in Newton and also make it easier for their defense. Clearly, they are the fourth-best team in the talented NFC South, but I see them more as a six-win team than a two-win team for talent.

Q: When the NFL season expands to 18 games it will obviously mean success will depend largely on depth and ability to avoid injury. With teams already utilizing rotations at most positions, it seems kind of like going 10-deep in basketball -- except for the quarterback. How will teams, fans and the league deal with this? Will starters ever be sat during the middle of the season to develop depth?)

Garth in Seattle

A: Players don't want 18 games, but let's say they accept a proposal to go 18 games a couple of years from now. First, training camp and offseason rosters will need to grow to at least 90. Practice squads would need to go from eight to 12. I think they would need to start a developmental league that can supply players who have received NFL coaching so they can go into the league better prepared. Coaches will have to do a better job of resting veterans and saving them for the end of the season.

[+] EnlargeNick Fairley
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesNick Fairley will benefit from having Ndamukong Suh occupying blockers in Detroit.
Q: OK, I'm realistic, and I know that Nick Fairley is no Ndamukong Suh and probably won't have the same rookie season that Suh did. I realize that Suh is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of player. That being said, what would be a realistic expectation for Lions fans for Fairley this year?

Gary in Middlebury, Ind.

A: You can't go wrong if you take the best athlete available. Fairley was a top-5 prospect, he just didn't fit in some of the 3-4 lines that selected toward the top of the draft. To get Fairley at No. 13 is a bargain. Williams was a strong free-agent addition, but he's also 30. Defensive tackles in a 4-3 start to wear down when they get to 32. I don't see anything wrong with a Suh, Williams, Fairley rotation. Plus, there will be so much blocking attention on Suh, I could see Fairley getting six or more sacks as a rookie.

Q: The NFC North blog this week had a few interesting reports about the Packers' lack of player organized team workouts. I find it funny that the Packers can attribute their recent success to coaching and great depth (i.e. everyone knew defensive and offensive scheme). The Packers not jumping on a chance to get all players together kinda worries me. If Drew Brees can do it, why can't Aaron Rodgers? He most likely is losing James Jones to free agency, and with the addition of wide receiver Randall Cobb and the return of tight end Jermichael Finley from injury, I would think the Packers would need some time to readjust. What do you think the impact will be of these offseason activities or the Packers' lack of?

Bryce in Greeley, Colo.

A: It will have an impact. Climate is everything. Players prefer to live in Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, Dallas, Miami or warmer places. Only a paid offseason program can keep players around in Green Bay, Minnesota and other cold climates. That's just a reality. Not having the offseason program will have some impact, but it's not going to be fatal. The Packers have the same system. On paper, they will be a little stronger with players coming back from injury. Still, these little things are the problems that mount in trying to repeat a trip to the Super Bowl.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer