Palazzolo’s Pitch: The League Gets Smaller

This week's Pitch focuses on another of the league's trends - the necessary defensive reaction to offensive variations.

| 4 years ago

Palazzolo’s Pitch: The League Gets Smaller

Pitch-WK04It seems odd to say that the league is getting smaller when we’re less than 30 years removed from a defensive tackle earning the nickname “Refrigerator” at a svelte 335 pounds that would see him blending in with any one of today’s 32 defensive lines. OK, 335 is still pretty big, but it’s certainly no longer the rarity it was in the early 1980s. Today we have quarterbacks playing at linebacker size, 6-foot-3 230-pound safeties, 300-pound edge rushers (as shown in last week’s Pitch), and 350-pound defensive tackles who run sub-5.0 40s. So the athletes are as big, strong, and fast as ever, but we’re starting to see more trends to get the “smaller” players back on the field.

The League Gets Smaller… In Scheme Only

The ebbs and flows of the NFL are fascinating to watch, particularly in the last 10 years as the league has certainly become an easier place for the forward pass and defenses have had to evolve with the times. With passing numbers at an all-time high, teams have invested more in the cornerback position while paying closer attention to who plays in the slot against some of the more difficult matchups the league has to offer. More recently, the 2010 draft netted one of the best tight end hauls of all-time as Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowksi, Aaron Hernandez (before his mess), Jermaine Gresham, and Dennis Pitta all entered the league and created a number of mismatches in their own ways.

Graham is one of the most difficult covers in the league with his height and athleticism, while Gronkowski is similar but with the added benefit of blocking like an offensive tackle. Hernandez played all over the formation and opposing defenses treated him like a wide receiver, while Gresham and Pitta have both had their moments since entering the league.

The tight end “trend” was certainly not a new one, but it was a prominent one. Many around the league wanted to cite a league-wide change to drafting and developing the tight end position when the reality was that the 2010 class was simply one-of-a-kind and when the Patriots, one of the league’s top offenses, drafts two of them – and subsequently uses them in unique ways – the league must adjust.

In addition to the tight ends, last year’s surge in read-option usage and spread running games presented an entirely new set of problems for defenses, but perhaps with the same solution. Teams have to commit more players into the box in order to stop opposing running games and it just so happens that the same players being employed to slow down tight ends are the ones who may be of great help against the run.

That brings us to the “big nickel” package that puts a safety in a linebacker position. Again, this is nothing new in the NFL, but teams have spent high draft picks on players with this role in mind. These players are being asked to cover, play the run, and rush the passer as part of creative pressure packages.

Here’s a look at a few of the safeties playing some kind of role around the line of scrimmage:

Eric Weddle, San Diego Chargers

One of the best true free safeties in the league, Weddle has moved back into the box this season after playing 76% of his snaps at free safety a year ago. That number is down to 39% this season as he’s played a lot more as a strong safety while also covering the slot and playing some linebacker.

Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs

Berry has spent only 24% of his time at free safety so he’s a box player all the way. He’s generally performed well in the role, save for facing his kryptonite that is a healthy Antonio Gates. Last season, no strong safety picked up more stops in the running game than Berry and he’s continued to improve in coverage.

Kenny Vaccaro, New Orleans Saints

Some of Vaccaro’s work was highlighted in this space two weeks ago as he made the game-saving pass deflection in Week 1 against TE Tony Gonzalez. While his -3.1 grade doesn’t look great on paper (or your computer screen), he’s taken on a large role in his first three career games. As mentioned, he often matched up with Gonzalez in Week 1 and ventured to the slot to cover wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Larry Fitzgerald at times the last two weeks. A big part of his negative grade came on a negated 73-yard touchdown to Jackson where Vaccaro got out-muscled on a deep ball while playing free safety. He’s also failed to notch any pressure on his 11 blitz attempts, but it’s his ability to play multiple roles that has benefited the Saints’ defense. Of his 175 total snaps, 65 have come at free safety, the source of many of his negative plays, as well as 63 at strong safety, and 47 in the slot.

DJ Swearinger, Houston Texans

Yet another rookie seemingly drafted specifically for this role, Swearinger has played only three of his 93 snaps at free safety with the rest coming in a strong safety or slot role. He’s graded at -1.7 to this point as he’s taken over the role of departed safety Glover Quin.

Glover Quin, Detroit Lions

Speaking of Quin, he had a strong 2012 in Houston which netted him his free agent deal in Detroit during the offseason. Last season he was often charged with covering the opposing tight end while also playing over the slot where his 0.93 Yards Per Cover Snap ranked 11th among slot corners. He seems to play better against vertical routes whereas the underneath stuff can give him some problems.

Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh Steelers

Polamalu is no stranger to life around the line of scrimmage and it’s his best years that defensive coordinators are trying to emulate. Most of the players on this list are limited to certain coverages when lined up in the box, but Polamalu’s ability to drop back into a variety of zones, or even man coverage, make his versatility special. He’s still playing at a high level as his +6.9 overall grade ranks second among safeties through three weeks.

Kam Chancellor, Seattle Seahawks

When a team plays as much single-high coverage as the Seahawks, a good box safety is a necessity and Chancellor provides a linebacker-type presence. He’s graded positively both against the run and in coverage since becoming a full-time starter in 2011 and his ability to work downhill as the eighth man in the box while excelling in short zones has been invaluable to Seattle’s defense.

Mark Barron, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The role of nickel linebacker is a new one this season for Barron and perhaps one that best fits his skill set. He had some up and down moments last season as a rookie as his -4.9 overall grade ranked 75th out of 88 qualifiers at safety. Many of his negative plays came at free safety where he spent 74 percent of his snaps, but that number has dropped to 51 percent this season as he’s moved closer to the line of scrimmage.

The ReFocused article for Sunday’s game against the Patriots touches on Barron’s busy day. The stat sheet looks healthy as we charted him for nine tackles, a sack and an interception (a line that will certainly earn some major points in your IDP league) but it ended with an average grade of +0.1 in our system. As always, the grades should be taken into context and Barron’s role on Sunday must be considered. Let’s take a closer look:

Linebacker – Playing the Pass
With 7:59 to go in the first, the Patriots face a 3rd-and-3 and Barron takes to his spot at linebacker. He’s charged with covering RB Brandon Bolden as he comes out of the backfield on an out route. Bolden appears to have a step, but Barron breaks hard downhill and knocks the pass away to force the punt.


Linebacker – Blitzing
Already having picked up a sack in the game after beating Bolden at the 13:55 mark of the first, Tampa Bay sends Barron after the quarterback again, this time through the A-gap. DT Gerald McCoy occupies the center and right guard as Barron crosses behind him. Center Ryan Wendell peels off McCoy in time to block Barron, but he’s no match for a slithery dip move as Barron forces an inaccurate throw form Brady, though a defensive pass interference penalty negates the pressure.


Safety- Deep Zone
Along with the good came the bad, and as I mentioned in the ReFocused, the box score stats did not pick up on this play. With 11:16 to go in the second quarter, Barron is playing more of a centerfield-type role as the Patriots look to attack with play action. Barron gets sucked up, then falls to the ground, as wide receivers Kenbrell Thompson and Julian Edelman zoom past. This play was ugly on a number of fronts as multiple receivers running through the secondary is bad enough, but Brady doesn’t see them and forces an errant throw to tight end Zach Sudfeld. Barron and the Bucs lucked out on this one, but his falling down on the job is certainly reflected in his coverage grade.


Those three plays are only a small sample of Sunday’s game, but they portray the numerous roles required of today’s safeties that double at nickel linebacker. The players on this list will encounter the league’s best tight ends, slot receivers, and running backs in the passing game while also providing run support, blitzing, and playing a variety of zone coverages. As the league continues to develop versatile offensive weapons, the defenses will do the same, so look for this hybrid trend to continue for quite some time.

News and Notes

Rookie Showing Improvement

We’re constantly getting bombarded by Bills fans asking why LB Kiko Alonso’s name hasn’t come up in the Race for Rookie of the Year, and his time may be coming soon. To this point, he’s still looked too much like a rookie at times, over-shooting gaps and struggling to get off blocks, but he’s made beautiful interceptions two weeks in a row and his +3.3 coverage grade is tops among inside linebackers. If he cleans up some of the issues in the run game, he has a chance to crack the Top 10 very soon.

Told you I would jinx them…

Last week I listed the offensive tackles, guards, and centers who had yet to allow a pressure on the young season. After Week 3, only two remain and they’re both centers. Who will be the last to allow a pressure between Texans center Chris Myers and Rams center Scott Wells?

Signature Stats

•  73 percent of Panthers QB Cam Newton’s passing yards have come through the air, most in the league. Falcons QB Matt Ryan is last at 38.5 percent.

•  Patriots rookie WRs have struggled catching the ball as Aaron Dobson ranks last dropping four of his 14 catchable passes (28.6 percent) while Kenbrell Thompkins is fourth from the bottom dropping two of his 11 attempts (18.2 percent).

•  Lions QB Matthew Stafford has thrown a league-high 74.4 percent of his passes in 2.5 seconds or less.

•  Jets LB David Harris is the only qualifying inside linebacker who has yet to miss a tackle.

Heard at the PFF Offices

“Tyson Jackson may have notched more pressure in one game than he did all last year.”

In reality, it was close. Jackson picked up three pressures on his 18 snaps against the Eagles last Thursday compared to seven pressures on 285 rushes in all of 2012.

Programming Note

I filled in for Neil Hornsby on his weekly podcast so get to our homepage and scroll down the Podcast Section. Sam Monson and I also switch off for the “In the Trenches” weekly podcast, so be sure to check in often.

Around the Site This Week

•  Grades, snaps counts, and notes for every first-round pick.

•  Nathan Jahnke’s weekly 32 Observations focus on the quarterbacks.

•  This week’s Analysis Notebook takes a look at the Packers’ game plan for dealing with Geno Atkins.

•  I’m a noted strong finisher when it comes to our PFF Picks. I hope.

•  You guys love Power Rankings.


Final Word

It’s been a banner month at PFF and we’d just like to thank all of our subscribers and readers who have made it possible. Thanks to everyone’s support, we’ve been able to get our games graded faster than ever (all games are done by Monday afternoon) while expanding the amount of data that we’re able to collect. If you’re on the fence about subscribing, what are you waiting for? Here’s an idea of what you can get for just $0.08 a day.


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| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

  • pbskids4000

    Scott Wells allowed a sack against Dorsey so you can count Myers as the winner for last to give up a pressure.

  • LightsOut85

    Very cool run-down, like that you went over so many examples of these S-LBs. (Am I the only one that find “big nickel” funny, in that by having a S instead of a LB, you’re getting smaller).