- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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NFL coaches are copycats, and that's not a problem. Offensive and defensive plays can't be copyrighted and plays have been recycled for as long as players have strapped on helmets. Copying in the NFL is truly the sincerest form of flattery.
Which brings up an interesting thought process after the Super Bowl. Creatures of habit, coaches will closely study the Super Bowl teams to see what enabled them to make it to Houston. Remember last year how everyone marveled at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Cover 2 scheme?
Most teams incorporated some form of the Bucs Cover 2 into their defense. So many teams practiced the Cover 2 against their offenses that it's not too surprising that offenses started to catch up to the defense this season.
One weakness of the Bucs Cover 2 scheme is that it requires lighter, quicker defenders to operate it at its highest level. And if a linebacker or safety is going to be sitting back defending against the pass downfield, the natural tendency is to gash the defense with the run. Running yards were up this season and passing yards were down.
So what will be the trends emerging from Super Bowl XXXVIII? The Patriots and Panthers are both defensive teams. The Pats have a base 3-4 that easily switches into a 4-3. The Panthers are a 4-3 defense that relies heavily on the pressure applied by their front four. Coaches are sure to study these schemes closely and make adjustments next season.
Perhaps the most interesting possibility would be more use of the 3-4. But that might be the hardest conversion. Recent drafts haven't netted the greatest collection of linebackers. In fact, teams have been so reliant on speed that they are using lighter, quicker linebackers who can roam sideline to sideline.
Still, the 3-4 defense is a perfect deterrent for the rapidly increasing success of running offenses, a trend that only figures to increase. Joe Gibbs is back with the Washington Redskins and he will build in two-tight end running sets and try to pound the ball against lighter defenses. Gibbs learned with John Riggins that the ground game can overpower defenses and win games. In Atlanta, Jim Mora hired Alex Gibbs to coach the Falcons offensive line and bring in one of the league's most complex, successful running offenses.
"You might see more of a switch to a 3-4," said Wade Phillips, the former Falcons defensive coordinator who just moved to San Diego. "You may see a resurgence of those Bryce Paup-Simon Fletcher-type players who were defensive ends in the 4-3, who can become big outside linebackers. Right now the way it is in this league, it's hard to get to the quarterback, particularly for defensive ends. Sacks are down. It's hard to get to the quarterback with just a four-man rush. You might see a little more 3-4 next year."
Still, it will be difficult for a lot of teams to switch to the 3-4. There are a lot of 255-to-270-pound defensive ends who probably could have played linebacker in the 3-4, but have become so accustomed to playing as an end in the 4-3, that it would be hard to move to linebacker. And it's hard for any team to succeed in a 3-4 without a big nose tackle and those are hard to find.
The Patriots ran more out of a base 3-4 this year after playing more four-man line in 2002. Once nose tackle Ted Washington returned at midseason from a broken leg, New England's 3-4 was almost impossible to run against. Washington is the ideal nose tackle in a 3-4. He's also the ideal run stopping tackle in a 4-3. Opponents averaged only 89.6 yards a game rushing against the Patriots.
Coaches might not switch to the 3-4, but that doesn't mean they won't copy the Patriots.
It will be easier for teams to copy the theories of the Bill Belichick-John Fox defense. Their defensive concepts are based on getting push up front at the line of scrimmage with the fewest number of players possible. In other words, it's what's upfront that counts.
"That idea hasn't been any different from what we've seen over the past three years," Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt said. "From Carolina to Tampa Bay to New England to the Dolphins, you try to get your pressure with the people up front. If you notice, the Panthers and Patriots aren't real big blitzing teams. They get their pressure at the line of scrimmage and try to drop as many guys into coverage."
Without question, defensive coaches will study Belichick's packages, and there are plenty to study. They will use a defensive lineman such as rookie Dan Klecko as a nose tackle or a linebacker. They will drop him back in coverages. Each week, Belichick comes up with different ways to use his defensive players.
Expect more exotic defensive packages next year thanks to Belichick.
"What Bill does is very similar to what Joe Gibbs did on offense," Wannstedt said. "Joe called them packages, and he would change up personnel to fit what formations he was running. Yet, those formations would also go back to a base play in their offense. He'd run the same play out of several different packages and formations. One thing you see from Bill's defense is that they may change from week to week, but they don't change a lot once they start a game. They do whatever they practice during the week."
The success of the Panthers and Patriots will also remind coaches and general managers of the importance of being big along the defensive line. The Patriots are 280 (Bobby Hamilton), 365 (Washington) and 310 (Richard Seymour) along their three-man line. The Panthers defensive tackles are 335 (Kris Jenkins) and 310 (Brenston Buckner). This Super Bowl has pretty well proven that bigger is better.
Defensive coaches will also be studying the Belichick philosophy of defense that has carried his team to two Super Bowl trips in three years.
"Guys at the Senior Bowl were making comments about how great a job he does taking things away from offenses," Vikings coach Mike Tice said. "He did that last week in stopping Peyton Manning. He dropped a lot of people into coverage to take away the passing game from the Colts. When they Colts tried to run, they actually did a pretty good job. But Bill figured that Tom Moore might not be as patient with the run. I think Belichick is a master of saying, 'We'll take this away, we'll take that away and if they are going to beat us, we can live with this.' "
The Tampa Bay Cover 2 won't go away. It's still vital and vibrant in the NFL. But the weaknesses against power running teams in what is becoming a running league will have more coaches watching this Super Bowl and Belichick and Fox will give them plenty to study.
The tape machines will be turned on for this Super Bowl.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.