Small Ball: Chargers, College, and the Evolution of Football’s Premier Defense

You are about to read an off-the-cuff piece on defense in the game of football. This is completely an opinion piece and meant to add and/or start a discussion. Enjoy.

As of writing this, the world of football in the final stages of its life for the season. The BCS National Championship wrapped up earlier this week with Clemson dealing a humiliating blow to the juggernaut that is Alabama. The NFL playoffs are heading into the divisional round, and high school and middle school ball have long been finished.

I am a Chargers fan, and the Wild Card victory over the Ravens only a few days ago had me jumping out of my seat. The embarrassing loss we suffered to Baltimore only a few weeks prior had left its mark, and the Bolts wanted to show the world they had learned from their mistakes. The Ravens were a powerful team that boasted a smashmouth, run-first mentality that was second only to the Seahawks statistically. Combined with Lamar Jackson, the Ravens had a simple objective; Wear the other team down with run after run after run.

The Chargers were tasked with stopping this methodical, punishing assault after failing to do so in Week 16 of the season. Quick evaluation of the game would point to a rather obvious solution; If the Ravens are a team that overpowers their opponents, the only way to stop them is to meet them with force. Stacking the box with more defenders, being aggressive on the blitz, contain Lamar Jackson. These were the ideas that were being thrown around the fanbase. But the Chargers did something that surprised a lot of people, from the fanbase to the analysts. The Chargers didn’t meet might with might, rather they input more defensive backs. They went smaller.

It is no secret that the game of football has changed over the past decade. I do not consider myself an old fan, as I only started watching football back in 2005. My idea of older players in my lifetime include names like Brett Favre, Tony Gonzalez, Ty Law, and my favorite, LaDainian Tomlinson. Yet despite this limited time enjoying the game we all love, I watched football during a time of change. The game that existed back during the Chargers 14-2 failed season is not the same as it is today, and likewise, defenses have changed from those times as well. The Chargers’ 7 DB strategy against the Ravens is only the most recent example of that exact point, as well as a clue as to what the defenses will look like going into the future.

Base Defenses?

If I were to ask you what the most common defense across the sport of football is, what would your answer be? It would be very likely the first types to pop into your mind would be what is usually shown as base defenses: the 4-3, the 3-4, the 5-3, among other variations. It’s not a crazy guess, after all Madden lists the 4-3 and 3-4 as complete base defenses in their game. Most football programs below the high school level teach either the 5-3 or the 4-4. And that does not even remove the fact most positions are identified and taught out of the 4-3 lineup. Yet despite all of this, these are not the most common defenses in the sport of football, especially when we are talking about televised football. The correct answer would be the Nickel package.

The Nickel defense, for those who do not know, is a defensive scheme that utilizes five defensive back as opposed to four. The strength of the Nickel is it’s ability to support covering the pass, as more DBs translates to faster defenders to cover the field. Often times teams will take a Linebacker out in order to place a Cornerback to cover the slot, while other times they may take a D-lineman away in order to improve the backfield. These defenses are what is now known as the 4-2-5, and the 3-3-5. In a game that evolves around the passing attack, these defenses have become more prominent in today’s game.

College Ball – The Great Experiment

College football is a strange land of televised football where conventional is not always upheld. In college, entire philosophies are built around the triple option offense, the Air Raid is a legitimate scheme that has created explosive offenses, and defensive personnel are switched around almost at will. When compared to the NFL, college ball is a giant experiment where different, sometimes crazy philosophies and gameplans clash.

The fascinating part of college is just how different each team can be to the next. Triple Option shares the same field as the Vertical Spread. Classic West Coast can clash against the Run ‘n Gun, and the 3-3 stack can be used as a standard for defense.

What I wish to focus on specifically is that last point made; The 3-3 stack can be used as a standard for defense. In the Big XII conference, the 3-3-5 is the base defense to run against the pass heavy teams of Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and Ok State. Every team, from weak Kansas, to the giant killers of Iowa State, to the contenders in Oklahoma and Texas. Every team plays the 3-3-5 as a way to defend the air. the 3-3 was even present in the National Championship, as Clemson used it in order to stop Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa. As the years pass, and the inclusion of the passing attack continues to grow, it also shows the growth of the Nickel defense.

Small Ball?

Over the past couple years in the NBA, the evolution of the 3-pointer, as well as the development of what many call “positionless basketball” has saw a rise in what is now called Small Ball. The concept is that instead of having specialized positions on the court, teams in the world of basketball have built their teams with athletic players who can fill a variety of roles. Lineups are not hindered by size of players, as teams such as the Golden State Warriors have run lineups with their Center position being only at the height of 6’7, a size that is often attributed to the Small Forward position.

A similar trend is happening in the world of football. Teams are utilizing packages that rely on the athletic ability of their players to perform many roles on the field, as opposed to the traditional D-line, Linebacker, D-back archetypes. Players such as Derwin James, the rookie for the Chargers, are becoming more popular as a hybrid between the Safety and Linebacker position. College is seeing a much more widely utilized 3-3 and 4-2 nickel defense being used to meet the increasing speed of the game. Nickel packages are being used more in the professional level as the era of the QB continues to compete against defenses. The future of football may very well go the route of the NBA. We live in the time of the Nickel. Defenses play hybrid players, and the NFL is getting smaller. This could very well be the NFL embracing small ball.

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