Breaking down the schemes that make the teams
NFL coaching trends change as quickly as the coaches themselves. Scouts Inc.'s Gary Horton brings you up to speed.
Offensive scheme: Ideally, coach Ken Whisenhunt and coordinator Todd Haley would prefer to run the ball 55-60 percent of the time in a scheme that closely resembles the offense Whisenhunt ran while he was Pittsburgh's coordinator. A steady diet of passes designed to take advantage of the complementary styles of WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin is also a key part of the mix. If Whisenhunt has his way, many of those throws will come off of play-action and allow the Cardinals to avoid a lot of dangerous downfield passing. More pull blocking from the offensive line is on the wish list, but the priority will be to stick to a safe, low-risk approach in both the running and passing games. The no-huddle offense, which QB Kurt Warner ran a year ago, will be featured occasionally. And Boldin will be moved around frequently to exploit favorable matchups.
Defensive scheme: The 3-4 has become Arizona's primary scheme, but liberal use of a 4-3 in nickel situations will keep opponents guessing -- as will the frequent shifting of the defense's impact playmakers. Coordinator Clancy Pendergast is unpredictable in general and, at times, unorthodox in his alignments. He's tough to prepare for on game day. The health of SS Adrian Wilson, who does everything for this unit, could make or break the Cards' D.
Offensive scheme: New coordinator Mike Mularkey brings a smashmouth style to Atlanta and, not surprisingly, favors a power-running attack. But he also is a creative playcaller who is drawn to multi-dimensional players. Mularkey always has been good for a few gadget plays, and he constantly is moving his personnel to keep defenses off balance. Expect a lot of two-back and two-tight end power sets designed to help the run game and to set up a vertical, play-action passing game.
Defensive scheme: New coach Mike Smith, formerly the Jaguars' defensive coordinator, will implement a 4-3 scheme. In a perfect world, two power defensive tackles will anchor the middle and a group of quick, active linebackers will step up and fill behind them. Smith's philosophy is to build inside-out, but that approach may take time. Coordinator Brian VanGorder will rely on a lot of zone schemes in the secondary and creative, selective blitzing up front.
Offensive scheme: New coordinator Cam Cameron's scheme figures to be a nice fit for the personnel on hand. A passing scheme built on short and intermediate routes suits the Ravens' offensive players, especially if rookie QB Joe Flacco is at the controls. Make no mistake: This will be a ball-control offense, and RB Willis McGahee will get a lot of carries. The scheme should have the look of a West Coast offense, but Cameron wants to attack aggressively and throw some no-huddle and play-calling curveballs at opponents. Inexperience at quarterback and a young, rebuilt offensive line ultimately may force the coaches to simplify things.
Defensive scheme: The Ravens boast one of the league's most aggressive defenses. The personnel are best suited for a 3-4 scheme, but coordinator Rex Ryan also will show 4-3 and 4-6 looks on occasion. Whatever the scheme, Baltimore's success is predicated on the defensive line tying up blockers and allowing a fast, instinctive linebacker corps to flow to the ball. With improved health and depth at cornerback, Ryan will get back to his man-to-man schemes and hyperaggressive blitz packages. This unit is aging, though, and injuries could lead to another step back.
Offensive scheme: With quarterbacks coach Turk Schonert having been promoted to coordinator, a lackluster Bills passing attack should get an infusion of creativity. But the offense remains a traditional scheme that sets up play-action passing with a physical, ball-control run game. Expect quick drops, throws in rhythm and selective shots downfield (when the right matchup presents itself). The Bills want to get their backs and tight ends more involved in the passing game and to re-establish WR Lee Evans as a deep threat. But we won't see a lot of multiple-receiver sets and spread formations.
Defensive scheme: Coach Dick Jauron and coordinator Perry Fewell implement Buffalo's conservative 4-3 scheme. The Bills usually blitz sparingly, preferring to generate a push with their down linemen. A lack of size up front required a more aggressive approach last season, but Jauron simply doesn't like to take a lot of chances. The Bills will show some pre-snap movement to confuse offenses, and line stunts and games up front will remain part of the overall package. Otherwise, the defense is no-nonsense: a lot of zone coverages, Cover 2 schemes and basic zone blitzes.
Offensive scheme: Coordinator Jeff Davidson had a hard time implementing his system while shuttling four different quarterbacks in and out of the lineup last year, and now the offensive line features new starters at all five spots. Not surprisingly, the offense could be more conservative than ever. The Panthers want to focus on establishing a strong run game and sprinkle in some play-action passing to keep defenses honest. They'll be content to play the field-position game, stay mostly grounded and minimize risk when they do throw.
Defensive scheme: More than anything else, the effectiveness of Carolina's 4-3 scheme depends on the amount of pressure the front four get on quarterbacks. There isn't a lot of blitzing, and the ends are expected to come off the edge and force the issue. The Panthers favor athletic linebackers with good range. The secondary is built around tall, athletic cornerbacks and hard-hitting safeties who can jar balls loose on underneath pass attempts. A bend-but-don't-break philosophy on the back end mirrors what the team does on offense.
Offensive scheme: Coach Lovie Smith prefers a run-first offense that methodically moves the chains and opens things up for the Bears' West Coast passing attack. The team will spread the ball around underneath and lean heavily on its play-action package. The play calling and game plans were too inflexible last year, and the hope is that the offense will be opened up a bit and that the quarterbacks are able to take more shots downfield in 2008. But with so many personnel question marks, coordinator Ron Turner may be forced to play it close to the vest.
Defensive scheme: The hallmarks of Chicago's recent defenses have been players swarming to the ball, forcing turnovers and maintaining gaps in a classic Cover 2 setup. The interior defensive line spearheads the pass rush and opens up playmaking opportunities for the active linebackers. A solid front-four rotation is crucial to the operation, and last year that unit lacked both depth and size. The Bears may be a Cover 2 outfit, but they'll also sneak in some man-to-man coverages and allow the linebackers (especially MLB Brian Urlacher) to freelance and blitz when they see an opening.
Offensive scheme: As explosive as Cincinnati's offense can be, its design actually is relatively conservative. The Bengals often stick with the run game even when it isn't working, which can bog down the offense. The coaches want to further commit to rushing in 2008 and avoid asking QB Carson Palmer to single-handedly win every game. The attack is most dangerous in no-huddle and three-receiver sets, but the greater concerns are controlling the clock and keeping a mediocre Bengals defense off the field.
Defensive scheme: Cincinnati tinkered a bit with a 3-4 defense last year, and a surplus of linebackers and converted college defensive ends on the roster suggests the team occasionally could go that route this season. But Cincinnati likely will continue to employ a 4-3 base scheme, as it has throughout coach Marvin Lewis' tenure with the franchise. The secondary plays predominately zone coverages but still is vulnerable to the big play. To compensate for a lack of production, coaches may introduce some new wrinkles to confuse opponents.
Offensive scheme: Rob Chudzinski has more talent to work with than any Cleveland offensive coordinator in recent memory, and he isn't shy about using it. The Browns' aggressive vertical passing game and power run game complement each other well, and an offensive line that excels at both run blocking and pass protection gives Chudzinski full use of his playbook. He can use a lot of shifts and formation changes to confuse defenses, and his players now seem to have a complete understanding of the sophisticated scheme.
Defensive scheme: The Browns still are looking for the proper personnel for coach Romeo Crennel's preferred 3-4 scheme. Mel Tucker has taken over as coordinator, but the philosophy should change very little -- and may even be simplified. (Coaches believe they got too cute on defense last year.) Cleveland has struggled to stop the run and create a consistent pass rush without blitzing. Still, the team may blitz more in 2008 because it finally has the personnel to pull it off. A surprising number of 4-3 looks also are featured, especially in likely passing situations.
Offensive scheme: In his first season calling plays, coordinator Jason Garrett took the offense to new heights by keeping opponents on their toes with a dynamic, balanced mix of interior and perimeter runs and intermediate and deep passes. The scheme, which combines elements of a timing attack and the West Coast offense, is difficult to defend. Dallas should be even better in 2008, now that QB Tony Romo has a firm grip on Garrett's complex schemes. Shifts and motion will be kept to a minimum because the Cowboys believe they have the talent to simply line up and outplay opponents.
Defensive scheme: Coach Wade Phillips' scheme relies more on confusion -- stunts, zone blitzes and pressure packages from different angles -- than a typical 3-4 defense. His heavy slanting and one-gap approach also are unusual for an odd front, and those tactics create difficult angles for opposing offensive lines. The Cowboys will use a four-man line in nickel situations, and they prefer versatile, hybrid pass rushers. The defensive backs frequently factor into blitz packages and run support. Brian Stewart is the defensive coordinator, but Phillips is actively involved and makes many defensive calls. The pressure can be relentless because Phillips will blitz at any time (he likes to attack on first down) and Dallas has enough secondary depth to match up in man or zone.
Offensive scheme: NFL copycats have been trying to mimic Denver's zone-blocking run scheme and small, athletic offensive lines for years. No one has come close to putting it all together so well -- or for so long -- as the Broncos, who also have a knack for finding downhill runners to fit the system. Assistants Jeremy Bates and Rick Dennison have roles, but this is coach Mike Shanahan's offense. Two-tight end sets are common, though the team recently has moved to more three-receiver packages in a West Coast offense look. The passing game is loaded with intermediate routes and is designed to gain yards after the catch. QB Jay Cutler unleashes an occasional deep throw, but he'll check down when the play isn't there. Improved red-zone production is a top priority.
Defensive scheme: Former coordinator Jim Bates' system never took hold, leaving defensive backs coach Bob Slowik to pick up the pieces. The base scheme remains a 4-3, but the linebackers likely will be more involved near the line of scrimmage (and possibly will blitz more) to improve a marginal run defense. Expect a lot of eight-man fronts until the interior line gets bigger, more physical and able to keep blockers off the linebackers. The secondary has relied on man coverage from the cornerbacks and two-deep zones from the safeties, but the team may consider a different strategy after making its third defensive coordinator change in as many years. Slowik figures to attack more than Bates did, which his players should readily endorse.
Offensive scheme: Mike Martz ran a highly complex scheme, but new coordinator Jim Colletto's offense should fall on the opposite end of the spectrum. Colletto will put more emphasis on ball control and the run game, and will downplay the four- and five-receiver formations -- even if they are a team strength. The hope is that a more effective run game will coax an opposing safety into the box and open things up for the passing game. The playbook will be smaller and the seven-step drops rarer, but those changes actually could help the Lions get more out of playmaking WRs Calvin Johnson and Roy Williams by improving protection and execution.
Defensive scheme: Coach Rod Marinelli and coordinator Joe Barry are disciples of the Tampa 2, which has very specific requirements: strong front-four pressure without the benefit of a blitz; active linebackers who can drop into coverage and run laterally; and defensive backs who can reroute receivers and offer tough run support. The Lions have a lot of players who know the scheme, but are they good enough? And can the offense provide them enough rest? Detroit has tried to build the defense from the inside out, but progress has been slow. Coaches must find a way to create more pressure and turnovers.
Offensive scheme: Multiplicity of personnel groupings and formations has become the trademark of a Packers offense that has become increasingly balanced since the emergence of RB Ryan Grant and the zone running attack. Green Bay turned slant patterns and short crossing routes into an art form in 2007. The playbook won't change drastically with Aaron Rodgers taking over the offense. The Packers' play calling will be more conservative and they'll audible less frequently. Rodgers will be more of a game manager than a gunslinger, but he'll operate out of many multiple-receiver sets and even throw more deep routes than Brett Favre did because of his accuracy on the fade.
Defensive scheme: Green Bay mostly eschews the blitz, with 80-90 percent of the pass rush derived from the front four. While Cover 2 schemes have become all the rage in the NFL, the Packers continue to go after opponents with aggressive man-to-man press coverage in the secondary. Coordinator Bob Sanders stays away from zones, opting instead to ask CBs Al Harris and Charles Woodson to match up and shut down the opponent's two best receivers one-on-one.
Offensive scheme: Coach Gary Kubiak has appropriated the stretch-zone running scheme from Denver, where he once served as an assistant. He has hired former Broncos colleague and famed offensive line guru Alex Gibbs. He added coordinator to the duties of quarterbacks coach Kyle Shanahan, whose father is Mike Shanahan. So why don't the Texans run as effectively as the Broncos? They still are looking for the running back and linemen to execute the scheme to its specifications. Houston's passing game is controlled, yet surprisingly explosive. But Kubiak, who will call plays, wants a run-first approach that sets up the passing game. Short and intermediate passing routes are designed to promote production after the catch and keep QB Matt Schaub from taking too many hits.
Defensive scheme: The Texans have invested heavily in their defensive line and have the makings of a productive front four, led by DE Mario Williams and DT Amobi Okoye. Coordinator Richard Smith expects pass-rush pressure from that group and tries to stay away from the blitz. But the concern is that Houston's secondary lacks adequate depth, speed and cover ability. If the line doesn't squeeze the pocket quickly enough and if opposing passers get enough time to throw, this unit can be exploited. Count on the Texans rolling out a lot of zones and off coverages to protect themselves.
Offensive scheme: The Colts run mostly out of one-back sets in their standard early-down packages, and they usually opt for a two-tight end alignment (and only occasionally an I-formation) in short-yardage situations. They can be very creative in their offensive looks, and they are one of the league's toughest units to match up with. QB Peyton Manning is legendary in his pre-snap reads and audibles, which forces every offensive player to be smart and alert. The Colts love to work TE Dallas Clark out of the slot, and Manning is masterful at using pre-snap movement to put players in favorable matchups.
Defensive scheme: Coach Tony Dungy's Tampa 2 scheme requires physical cornerbacks who can bump opposing receivers at the line and who are active enough in run support to rank among the team leaders in tackles. Colts coaches put a premium on crafty linebackers with range and fast, explosive defensive ends. This is not a big, physical defense, but the players are exceptionally athletic. Indianapolis plays zone schemes behind a front four that always is on the move, using twists and stunts up front to confuse blocking schemes. The back seven play it sound and simple, keeping everything in front of them and preventing the big play. Dictating matchups against this unit has little or no effect. The Colts don't blitz often, and only SS Bob Sanders has any freedom to freelance.
Offensive scheme: The foundation of coordinator Dirk Koetter's conservative scheme is a power rushing attack designed to control the clock and fuel the play-action package of a low-risk passing game. QB David Garrard ran the offense to near-perfection in 2007, but with better speed at wide receiver don't be surprised if the Jaguars open things up a bit more in 2008.
Defensive scheme: Jacksonville's traditional 4-3 scheme is predicated on the interior linemen tying up blockers and allowing the linebackers to step up and fill. Many of the team's blitzes come from the secondary, and new coordinator Gregg Williams loves to bring pressure using stunts and twists on the defensive line. Speed at defensive end is particularly important for a unit that relies on more man-to-man schemes than the average NFL defense. The Jags will mix zone and man in the secondary, even using both on the same play in a combo scheme: tight corner man coverage with safety help over the top.
Offensive scheme: Coach Herm Edwards has been labeled by some as conservative to a fault, but his grind-it-out philosophy should dovetail nicely with new coordinator Chan Gailey's style. The Chiefs will pound away with the run game, try to set up play-action opportunities and protect the ball at all costs. If pass protection improves, the plan is to open things up a bit -- though backs and tight ends will remain a focal point of the passing game. Gailey's offense is fairly simple to learn, which is important for a club with so many new players. The playbook will feature minimal motion and pre-snap movement and plenty of underneath routes that allow receivers to run after the catch. And, yes, this may be the NFL's most conservative offense.
Defensive scheme: Coordinator Gunther Cunningham carries with him a reputation for aggressiveness: His defenses traditionally blitz heavily, swarm to the ball and are physical (even the cornerbacks). But if they can get enough pressure from the defensive line, the Chiefs likely will settle into a conventional Cover 2 alignment, which Edwards prefers. The 4-3 scheme will be kept fairly simple, with the goal being to avoid players getting out of position (which happened too often a year ago). Zone coverage should predominate because the team doesn't fully trust its corners, but more perimeter man-to-man schemes could be used if that group exceeds expectations.
Offensive scheme: With new coach Tony Sparano running the show, Miami will showcase a ground-oriented offense until the quarterbacks and receivers prove capable of stretching the field. Meantime, the passing game will be conservative, in part to cover for a protection-challenged offensive line: lots of three-step drops, dump-offs and play-action. Coordinator Dan Henning will use multiple formations and frequent motion to confuse defenses, but the plays will be straightforward and simple.
Defensive scheme: The Dolphins hope to run a stunt-laden 3-4 scheme, but last season an utterly inept run defense forced the team to go with more 4-3 looks. Because the personnel didn't change much in the offseason, the team may follow a similar M.O. in 2008. The defensive line will be asked to control the line of scrimmage and eat up blockers, allowing the linebackers to make plays. The outside linebackers, in particular, must be smart and active. The secondary will rely mostly on conservative but sound Cover 2 zone schemes.
Offensive scheme: The Vikings have incorporated elements of the Eagles' West Coast offense into their scheme, but with adjustments to fit their exceptional run-game personnel. The team's zone-blocking scheme has evolved, and the receivers commit to their blocking assignments. RB Adrian Peterson has improved his pass blocking, which should get him on the field in more third-down situations and shake up some of the offense's predictability. And the Vikes will take more deep shots in the passing game (almost unheard of last season) to prevent defenses from stacking defenders in the box. The team will wisely use play-action, rollouts and bootlegs to exploit the threat of the run game and the mobility of QB Tarvaris Jackson.
Defensive scheme: Coordinator Leslie Frazier tended to fall back on the base Tampa 2 scheme early last season, but he later developed a nice pressure package (with varied looks and pressure from all angles) to help keep defenses honest. Range and quickness are prized at linebacker and defensive back. The cornerbacks must be physical and the safeties need to cover effectively. The linemen primarily are one-gap penetrators, but they're very physical. If the addition of DE Jared Allen energizes the pass rush as hoped, the Vikings can avoid blitzing and will concentrate on playing sound, physical schemes on the back end.
Offensive scheme: QB Tom Brady's near-flawless execution has helped make a star out of young coordinator Josh McDaniels. The Patriots liberally (and effectively) throw deep, but they have the athletic receivers to also move the offense with the short passing game. Roughly 75 percent of the plays are run out of a spread formation, featuring screens, gadget plays and new wrinkles every week. The Pats force defenses to prepare for everything and expect anything. They run out of empty formations and slip in and out of no-huddle. They call unorthodox plays with odd personnel groupings from unusual alignments. The bad news for opponents: the run game may be a bigger part of New England's offense in 2008, providing better balance that could make the offense even more dangerous.
Defensive scheme: No coach in the league has the ability to adapt to an opponent or his own personnel as Bill Belichick does. The Pats run a base 3-4 and bring an extra defender out of the front on almost every play. But Belichick likes to disguise coverages and blitzes, and he customizes game plans and tinkers with his sub packages on a weekly basis. The secondary plays more zone than man-to-man, and average athletes are routinely turned into outstanding defensive backs in New England. The team desperately wants to get younger on defense without taking a step backward, which obviously will be tricky. Coordinator Dean Pees will get a lot of input from recent hire Dom Capers, but this is Belichick's defense.
Offensive scheme: Coach Sean Payton's riff on the West Coast offense takes advantage of the Saints' speed and athleticism at the skill positions. Three- and four-receiver sets that end in a dump-off pass to a back or an intermediate throw to a wideout are hallmarks of the scheme. Payton has a tendency to forget about the run if his team falls behind early, and the team supposedly is seeking better balance in 2008. The goal is to create more plays for RB Reggie Bush and resurrect the formations that included Bush and RB Deuce McAllister on the field together, a winning combination when both are healthy. Payton has supreme confidence in QB Drew Brees, giving him great input on play calling. When this offense is clicking, the Saints are tough to stop.
Defensive scheme: New Orleans employs a 4-3 base scheme, but last season coordinator Gary Gibbs had to think outside the box to mask a vulnerable secondary. He tried a bit of everything -- blitzing, zone, quarters -- to confuse opponents and prevent the big play. A closer look reveals that the scheme isn't as complex as it sometimes appears. As bad as the coverage has been, the Saints still play a surprising amount of man-to-man on the back end. The front office bent over backwards to upgrade the defensive personnel in the offseason, so anything short of more turnovers, fewer touchdown passes allowed and improved quarterback pressure will be a disappointment.
Offensive scheme: Coordinator Kevin Gilbride's philosophy is to pair a power run game with downfield passing. The scheme is dependent on big, athletic man blockers on the line; size and muscle at receiver and tight end; and toughness at running back. The Giants bludgeon opponents with the run, wearing down defenses and setting up play-action. It's a no-nonsense offense that manages risk, takes pride in controlling the clock and waits for the other guy to make a mistake. That said, Gilbride isn't afraid to cut loose now and then. QB Eli Manning picks his spots, going deep when he sees a matchup he likes, especially when it involves WR Plaxico Burress.
Defensive scheme: The Giants may have the most unorthodox pressure defense in the NFL. Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will blitz at any time, from any direction and takes more chances than his personnel suggest he should. He makes a priority of putting all his best pass-rushers on the field at once, and he regularly moves them around within the formation to target mismatches and confuse blocking assignments. Spagnuolo also has designed a creative zone pressure package, though the defensive backs still must be physical with receivers at the line and capable of handling man coverage. With DE Osi Umenyiora out for the season (knee) and DE Michael Strahan in retirement, all that risk-taking may become more necessary than ever.
Offensive scheme: An undersized offensive line dashed coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's plans in 2007. Ideally, he wants to establish a power run game and set up the play-action pass, but a greater push up front is needed. A bigger problem was the lack of a vertical passing game to take pressure off that front. That isn't an issue anyone. The addition of Brett Favre forces defenses to play honest and should open up the run. With Favre at the helm, the line will get a bigger push because it will be going against four-man fronts instead of eight-man fronts. Favre is also an exellent play-action QB and look for him to lobby for the Jets to include more slant routes -- something he used with great success in Green Bay -- and many of those can come off the play action. The Jets have resisted the trend of featuring tight ends in the passing game, but production at the position is critical in protection and run blocking and Favre often looked for his tight ends while in Green Bay. This offense should be a little more wide-open and a lot better this season.
Defensive scheme: Despite a roster full of personnel far better suited for a 4-3 scheme, the Jets have stubbornly stuck with a 3-4 under coach Eric Mangini and coordinator Bob Sutton. That doesn't figure to change in 2008, but the Jets at least are working hard to beef up their undersized front seven. The secondary has tremendous potential, and is good enough to allow SS Kerry Rhodes to freelance almost at will. Mangini is a Bill Belichick disciple, but he's no mad scientist. The defensive scheme relies more on discipline than creativity, and isn't particularly exotic. The Jets won't blitz often, instead trying to create quarterback pressure with stunts and games. Mangini wants to play more man-to-man on the edges and allow his safeties to attack, but expect a lot of zones until the pass rush improves.
Offensive scheme: Coach Lane Kiffin sought offensive balance in 2007, but he found it only in spurts. The team took to the zone-blocking expertise of offensive line coach Tom Cable and quickly committed to a downhill one-cut-and-go run game. To create mismatches downfield (and hide their protection problems), the Raiders like to get their quarterbacks out of the pocket and throwing on the run. That means strong-armed, mobile QB JaMarcus Russell will enjoy a passing scheme that suits his skills along with the tutelage of coordinator Greg Knapp, a good teacher. But it will be interesting to see whether Oakland opens the throttle on the offense in Russell's second season or continues to emphasize ball security and field position.
Defensive scheme: Coordinator Rob Ryan varies his formations more than most, preferring to keep offenses guessing. But last year the Raiders didn't bring pressure as they had in the past, with Ryan wanting to keep his back seven focused on coverage. Though a base 4-3 is the primary scheme, the Raiders have experimented with a rover safety in 4-2-5 looks. Oakland sometimes shows three- and five-man fronts to confuse blocking schemes, but there aren't a lot of other bells and whistles to the defense. The cornerbacks are very aggressive and play mostly man schemes, with a lot of press coverage. This defense is at its best when it simply lines up in base and gets physical.
Offensive scheme: Coach Andy Reid and coordinator Marty Mornhinweg run a system strongly influenced by traditional West Coast offense principles. The Eagles usually maintain around a 65-35 pass-run ratio, but their short passing game supplements the run. RB Brian Westbrook's receiving ability diversifies the offense, and coaches work to get him the ball in a variety of ways. The scheme makes liberal use of movement to create mismatches, and a few reverses and flea-flickers keep defenses on their toes. The quarterback must process a lot of information and get rid of the ball quickly in Philadelphia's offense. QB Donovan McNabb is up to the task, and the team uses some designed scrambles and run plays to give opponents more wrinkles to worry about. That leaves only one pressing question: Do the Eagles have enough perimeter weapons to make explosive plays, especially with WR Kevin Curtis (hernia) out for an extended period?
Defensive scheme: Typically, the Eagles prefer quick one-gap linemen and active linebackers, and the current group probably is the team's most athletic front seven in years. But this still is a blitz-crazed defense, with coordinator Jim Johnson frequently bringing pressure from up and down the line. Behind the blitzes, the Eagles play a lot of man coverage and press schemes. Johnson asks that his defensive backs jam and get physical with receivers at the line. Philadelphia may break form and show some 3-4 looks to create confusion, but this unit still is primarily a 4-3 defense.
Offensive scheme: The Steelers' offense strikes a balance between power running (frequently out of two-tight end formations) and the four- and five-receiver spread sets preferred by QB Ben Roethlisberger. Coordinator Bruce Arians is more pass-happy than predecessor Ken Whisenhunt, but RB Willie Parker will continue to carry a significant load. Coaches are even working up some formations that put Parker and first-round pick RB Rashad Mendenhall on the field together. Pittsburgh's varied personnel groupings, alignments and tempo -- empty sets, shotgun formations, no-huddle -- can be difficult to prepare for and defend. Arians will give Roethlisberger the freedom to audible and change protection schemes, which may help alleviate some of the problems from last season that threaten to spill over into 2008.
Defensive scheme: Dick LeBeau has perfected the zone blitz, and the Steelers won't change the scheme as long as he is defensive coordinator. More often than not, Pittsburgh uses some variation of Cover 2 or Cover 3 behind a 3-4 front. But LeBeau likes to confuse quarterbacks with varied coverages and bring pressure from the outside to force the issue. This defense isn't meant to stay on the field long and the secondary doesn't match up very well, so the Steelers try to beat offenses with all-out pressure. They need to concentrate on playing better in the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh lost four games last year after failing to make key late stops.
Offensive scheme: Having previously worked under Dick Vermeil and Mike Martz in St. Louis, new coordinator Al Saunders likely will incorporate Martz's wide-open philosophy into his own scheme -- but with a heavier emphasis on the run. RB Steven Jackson should become the clear focal point of a more balanced Rams offense. Saunders prefers a diversified scheme, using a lot of shifts and motion to create favorable matchups. A passing game with lots of timing routes and multiple pass-protection schemes should be positives for QB Marc Bulger.
Defensive scheme: The Rams' defense figures to remain primarily a 4-3, but coordinator Jim Haslett will adjust his schemes to fit the abilities of his personnel. (A full-time switch to a 3-4 defense in passing situations is a possibility.) In any event, Haslett should continue to be very aggressive, employing a wide variety of looks and blitzes. He moves around his front seven in the formation, plays mostly man coverages on the back end and uncorks a lot of creative blitzes when the front four can't create pressure. This is a high-risk, high-reward defense, but opponents have to do their homework to prepare for so many different looks.
Offensive scheme: Coach Norv Turner's offensive philosophy is grounded in a few simple principles: a consistent power running game, an accurate passing game that takes some shots downfield, and the deliberate inclusion of the tight end as a receiver. The Chargers have begun to move away from the I-formations favored by departed coordinator Cam Cameron, replacing them with a wider variety of alignments and an expanded play-action package that feeds off the run game. A possible next step: Increasing multiple-receiver sets to exploit the team's wideout depth and to prevent opponents from loading up to stop RB LaDainian Tomlinson. Turner's play-calling was a little predictable early last season, but he has a brilliant offensive mind and should be more imaginative in 2008.
Defensive scheme: Coordinator Ted Cottrell comes from the same 3-4 school of thought as predecessor Wade Phillips. Both maintain a focus on closing down running lanes, forcing opponents into obvious passing situations and bringing loads of pressure from unusual alignments. Cottrell typically brings fewer pass-rushers on most plays, though, and that created a disconnect with his players early last year. By midseason, he unleashed them -- and with stunning results. But the key to the operation is NT Jamal Williams, who controls the inside and frees up the outside linebackers to bring pressure off the edge. A gifted, athletic secondary allows the Chargers to stay aggressive and play man schemes behind the blitz.
Offensive scheme: New coordinator Mike Martz, who emphasizes a wide-open passing attack and frequent formation shifts, brings the 49ers their fourth different scheme in as many seasons. Martz envisions RB Frank Gore as a latter-day Marshall Faulk, the centerpiece of the Rams' Greatest Show on Turf offenses. But San Francisco seems to have more questions than answers at this point. Do the Niners have the weapons on the perimeter to draw enough attention away from Gore? Coach Mike Nolan is anything but a risk-taker on offense, which makes him something of an anti-Martz. Will the two clash? Deep crossing routes are a staple of Martz's offenses, but are there enough quality wideouts on the roster to fill out four- and five-receiver sets?
Defensive scheme: Coordinator Greg Manusky employs a 3-4 press-type scheme that features varied looks and frequent personnel shifts. The idea is to constantly force opponents to locate the fourth upfield rusher and get him blocked in time. Man-to-man coverage and frequent blitzes from cornerbacks and safeties are staples of the defense. But a strong, steady pass rush is necessary from the outside linebackers, and the 49ers clearly need more takeaways and big plays. Manusky may turn loose LB Patrick Willis on more blitzes in 2008, and he has been known to show a 4-3 nickel front in passing situations. This defense resembles that of the Pittsburgh Steelers in design, if not effectiveness.
Offensive scheme: Coach Mike Holmgren returned to his roots around midseason last year, dusting off a scheme loaded with multiple-receiver sets and quick, short passes (including screens and flares to backs). Coaches want to re-establish a run game that faltered in 2007 and take some pressure off QB Matt Hasselbeck, but coordinator Gil Haskell will continue to run a traditional West Coast offense that probably maintains a 60-40 pass-run ratio. If Hasselbeck can keep the offense moving in a safe passing scheme that limits turnovers, the Seahawks won't panic while waiting for the run game to come around.
Defensive scheme: Seattle runs a base 4-3 under coordinator John Marshall, with multiple blitz packages designed to harass quarterbacks from every conceivable angle. There's an emphasis on zone coverage and speed over size, especially in the front seven. Previously a read-and-react defense, the Seahawks have become very aggressive and now fly to the ball. (Marshall is beginning to use more man-to-man coverages in hopes of creating big plays.) The active linebacker unit is the key to their success, and LB Julian Peterson is a versatile weapon whose explosiveness sets the tone. But Seattle must improve the run defense, which could be difficult given the lack of size up front.
Offensive scheme: Coach Jon Gruden's complex West Coast offense appeared friskier last season than it had in years. He builds the scheme around heady veterans who can learn on the fly and avoid crucial errors. The Bucs are a run-first team, but those three- and four-yard gains set up a very effective short passing game and a nice play-action package. The quarterback must be smart and have good field vision because the offense calls for a passer to read all three layers of the defense while the play is developing. In that sense, QB Jeff Garcia fits the scheme perfectly. But WR Joey Galloway is Tampa's only truly explosive weapon, and this season he turns 37 (ancient by NFL wide receiver standards) and missed much of the preseason because of a groin injury.
Defensive scheme: Coordinator Monte Kiffin never stops fiddling or tweaking the Tampa 2 scheme, but he keeps getting the same quality results. The Bucs rarely blitz, relying almost solely on the defensive line to pressure the quarterback. Speed and range, particularly at linebacker and safety, are crucial elements in the defense. The cornerbacks must be physical and adept at covering the short zones. If the front four is productive and the defense plays as a whole, the Bucs can drop seven defenders into coverage and create even more big plays via coverage sacks. Though Tampa's base coverage is a two-deep zone, Kiffin will use some Cover 3 and man-to-man schemes to keep opponents off balance.
Offensive scheme: Relying on their backs to wear down defenses and put QB Vince Young in favorable down-and-distance situations, the Titans have fielded one of the league's most conservative offenses in recent years. Tennessee will remain a power run-based offense, but new offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger may try to attack more aggressively in Young's second full season as an NFL starter. A few more deep shots per game would take advantage of Young's arm strength and loosen up defenses that overcommit to the run. A surprise replacement for Norm Chow who now is in his second stint as the Titans' coordinator, Heimerdinger has a reputation for creating favorable matchups.
Defensive scheme: Coordinator Jim Schwartz is known for his aggressive, free-wheeling approach, but he can dial it back a notch if the defensive line plays as well as it did a year ago. The strength of the Titans' 4-3 scheme is DT Albert Haynesworth and DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, whose upfield pressure protects a mediocre secondary. Schwartz wants fast linebackers and physical defensive backs to execute his zone schemes. Priority No. 1 in Tennessee is stopping the run, and this unit doesn't disappoint.
Offensive scheme: New coach Jim Zorn and coordinator Sherman Smith have implemented a traditional West Coast offense: a quick-rhythm passing game featuring short, precise throws. The foundation of the running game is a zone scheme, more of a horizontal stretch style. Zorn is an excellent playcaller, but he'll be tested in other areas as a first-time head coach. Based on their personnel, the Redskins may tilt toward run-heavy game plans, three- and five-step drops and quick timing passes early in the season. But Zorn wants to open up the offense and eventually should allow QB Jason Campbell to stretch the field.
Defensive scheme: Washington's 4-3 front and defensive terminology will remain mostly unchanged from last season, which should ease the transition to a new coordinator. But whereas Gregg Williams leaned heavily on Cover 2, Greg Blache may try out more aggressive schemes. A defensive line coach by trade, Blache values good perimeter coverage that helps the front four create more pressure and allows the strong safety to stay in the box. He also wants a better interior push from his tackles, though in this defense the front four are coached to eat up blockers and allow the linebackers to run free to the ball.
Gary Horton, a pro scout for Scouts Inc., has been a football talent evaluator for more than 30 years. He spent 10 years in the NFL and 10 years at the college level before launching a private scouting firm called The War Room.
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NFL PREVIEW 2008
The Giants defeated the Redskins, 16-7, in the NFL opener Thursday night. Which teams will complete the journey to Tampa for Super Bowl XLIII?
NFL preview index | Playoff dates
Predictions/Power rankings• Power rankings: Champs start season No. 8
• Gene Wojciechowski: Another run at perfection?
• Bristol's picks: We love Bolts-'Boys
AFC emerging stars• Williamson: Broncos' Cutler ready for stardom
• Kuharsky: Titans' Finnegan never satisfied
• Walker: Steelers' Holmes has lofty goals
• Graham: Bills' Whitner maturing on, off field
• Scouts Inc.: More emerging AFC stars
NFC emerging stars• Seifert: Lions' Johnson poised for monster year
• Sando: Seahawks' Hill seeking consistency
• Mosley: Giants' Tuck no longer under radar
• Yasinskas: Beason takes lead in Carolina
• Scouts Inc.: More emerging NFC stars
Commentary/features• Chadiha: Replacing big names
• Clayton: NFC East reigns supreme
• Kuharsky: AFC South is toughest division
• Chadiha: Merriman a marked man
• Clayton: Gonzalez is a Chief asset
• Football Outsiders: Under-the-radar prospects
• Clayton: Cards' James likes latest trends
• Joyner: Brady among true big-game players
SportsNation• Vote: How will your team fare?
NFL fan base rankingsBest fans in the NFL? We think they wear black and gold. So who's Nos. 2-32? And was there a method to our ranking madness? Matt Mosley explains. ESPN.com fan base rankings
• Yasinskas: The Panthers' garage band
• ZOOM gallery: Carolina's Garage Mahal
• 32 NFL fans you need to know
AFC team previews• North: Balt. | Cincinnati | Cleve. | Pittsburgh
• South: Houston | Indy | Jax | Tennessee
• East: Buffalo | Miami| New England | NY Jets
• West: Denver | K.C. | Oakland | San Diego
Scouts Inc.From Boldin's best crossing route to Addai's bread-and-butter running play to Washington's pressure defense, watch the signature plays unfold for every NFL team. Play animations | Team schemes
NFC team previews• North: Chicago | Detroit | Green Bay | Minnesota
• South: Atlanta | Carolina | New Orleans | Tampa
• East: Dallas | NY Giants | Philly | Washington
• West: Arizona | St. Louis | San Fran. | Seattle
NFL blog network• NFL Nation blog | Contact our bloggers
• AFC: North | South | East | West
• NFC: North | South | East | West
ESPN The Magazine• On newsstands Aug. 29: How control-freak Peyton Manning and laid-back little bro Eli channeled each other to become the NFL's biggest winners. Plus, our experts join NFL scouts and players for a 3-D preview of all 32 teams.
• The Mag: Season preview | The 'It' Team 2008
• Mannings: Madmen | Watch: Sklars | Williams
• Injuries: We're all just day-to-day | Fitzgerald
• Watch: Mario Williams | Matt Hasselbeck
• More: Marion The Barbarian | Colleges vs. Pros
• NEXT: Five NFL rookies to watch