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Pressure situation

Defenses are trying anything and everything to stop the quarterback

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By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / September 8, 2011

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Steve Spagnuolo has heard the stories, too. When Joe Gibbs was in his heyday as Redskins coach, not only did he barely sleep, he had a grease board hanging near his bed the few times he actually got into it.

Never know when the divine inspiration for another counter trey is going to strike.

“I haven’t gotten that far yet,’’ said Spagnuolo, the Rams coach and former Giants defensive coordinator, “but I do know where there’s a pen and a pencil. So I just need to hunt down a piece of paper. I’ve done that game before.

“My wife thinks I’m nuts. Actually, she doesn’t think, she knows.’’

Mike Zimmer, the defensive coordinator of the Bengals, shares Spagnuolo’s sleepwalking.

“Once you can stop the run, then you get to the point where you’re waking up in the middle of the night thinking about, ‘Well, we have this look right here, how can we give the quarterback that look and then do this?’ ’’ Zimmer said.

It is not unusual for Zimmer and lieutenant Paul Guenther to start scheming in the Bengals’ cafeteria, hallway, and elsewhere.

“He comes in it seems every single day and says, ‘What if we put this guy here and we’ll do this and this?’ ’’ Zimmer said with a chuckle. “And it seems like every morning I come in and say, ‘If we lined up like this, or we did this or that off that same look, then that quarterback really has no idea of what we’re doing.’

“It really does become all-consuming with that.’’

“That’’ is the hot battleground in the NFL: affecting the quarterback. There’s little debate the evolution of the game has put a premium on it. It’s either adapt, create and get it done, or your team won’t be successful and you’ll be out of a job.

When Gibbs won his first Super Bowl in 1982, NFL games averaged 40.3 points. Last season, the league set a record at 44.07.

A lot has to do with the increasing reliance on the pass. A record 751 touchdown passes were thrown last season - 19 more than the mark set in ’04. Rushing touchdowns decreased by 30 over 2009.

And why not? The quarterbacks keep getting better. When Gibbs introduced his innovative multiple-receiver sets with motion in the early ’80s, the average passer rating was 73.4. NFL quarterbacks have never been more efficient than last season (84.1 percent).

“It’s basically a passing game,’’ said Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who in his 36th NFL season. “It’s probably the most important thing around the league. Being able to pressure the passer is essential. If you can’t get after the quarterback, you’re going to have problems on defense.”

Out of their nightmares, defensive coordinators are drawing up more ways to affect the quarterback through the three main avenues: pressure, coverage, or disguise. The best defenses do all three. On every snap.

That means out with the old-school blitzes, when almost all defenses were left in predictable man-to-man coverage if they blitzed. That started to change with the advent of the fire zone blitz concept with Dick LeBeau and the Bengals in 1989 - a few years before he teamed with now-Packers coordinator Dom Capers in Pittsburgh to kick off the Blitz-burgh craze in 1992.

“I can remember as if it was yesterday,’’ said Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, who was then with the Oilers. “After we had beaten [the Bengals] earlier in the year, [we come in] 9-5 and they tattoo us [61-7]. They did some zone blitzes and we weren’t really prepared for it and we lost the game. It probably affected us enough that we lost the next two games, including one in the playoffs. It was that much of a shock.’’

The fire zone, where a rusher exchanges responsibility with a coverage player, has become even more prevalent - every team dabbles in it - in recent years.

There are more line stunts and twists. Overload pressures. Sugaring gaps. Green dogs. Scheming to get a one-on-one matchup. All-out blitzes. More pre-snap looks than you can shake a first-down stick at. Defenses are even scripting plays.

All of this to affect the quarterback.

“It takes you back to the guy that gets the ball every snap,’’ said Spagnuolo, a Grafton native. “The more you can do to him and make uncomfortable and force him into bad decisions, the better chance you’ve got.

“Until somebody walks in here and lines up in the Wing-T or the Wishbone, the quarterback is going to be really important.’’

We have yet to see the finished project, but from his radical personnel decisions and what we saw on the field in the preseason, Patriots coach Bill Belichick has decided to overhaul his defense.

That’s not to say the Patriots had become ineffective - they were 14-2 last season and have won eight of 10 division titles - but there’s more than anecdotal evidence that Belichick didn’t like what he saw after reviewing the season.

Gone is the two-gap, 3-4 base defense, sub-packages with few pressure concepts, and primarily zone coverages in the secondary. They read, disguised, anticipated, and reacted.

Almost overnight after the lockout, the 2011 Patriots look to be a gap-penetrating 4-3 with an active front with a deep line rotation, a variety of dog (linebacker) blitzes, cornerback blitzes, and a lot of man coverages with one or two safeties over the top.

The Patriots have stated their intent, at least on film, to dictate the game to the offense and one position in particular: the quarterback.

It’s not hard to see why. After a regular season in which the Patriots posted the worst third-down defense in the league and in franchise history since 1972, not only was Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez not sacked in the Patriots’ second straight playoff-opening loss at home, but he was hit only once and subject to just six total pressures.

It was the last example of a now-obvious pattern: when the Patriots get after the quarterback, they will be in the hunt for the Super Bowl.

When they don’t, they won’t.

Simple as that.

In the five seasons they advanced to the conference championship game, the Patriots averaged 43.6 sacks to rank sixth in the NFL. That includes ’01, when the Patriots tied for 13th in the league with 41 sacks.

When the Patriots have failed to make it out of the divisional round, their average is a 20.2 ranking and 32.7 sacks. They were tied for 14th last season with 36. Fifteen came in three games against Pittsburgh, Green Bay, and Miami.

Belichick doesn’t like sack stats but it is at least a barometer.

“The quarterbacks are too good in this league,’’ said Giants general manager Jerry Reese. “You can’t just let [Tom] Brady sit back there and throw the ball. You don’t have to knock them down every time, you don’t have to sack him, but you need to make him at least flinch because if you don’t, those guys are going to be 10 for 10. They’re not going to miss.

“Rushing the passer is a premium in this league. If you can’t rush the passer, it’s going to be hard for you to win football games in our opinion.’’

Reese is in his fifth season as chief of the Giants personnel, and Spagnuolo is in his third season with the Rams. Both are in their current positions, in good measure, because of their ability to orchestrate - with personnel and coaching - the Giants’ shocking 2007 Super Bowl title over the 18-0 Patriots, whose offense (points) and quarterback (touchdown passes) set league records.

It was all grounded when the Giants sacked Brady five times, knocked him down another eight, and hurried him five times for 18 total pressures, according to the Ultimate Super Bowl Book by Bob McGinn. The Giants did it by blitzing only 26 percent of the time.

McGinn listed the Giants’ win the second biggest Super Bowl upset, ahead of the Patriots’ win over the Rams, and behind only the Jets over the Colts in Super Bowl III.

“What you’re looking for is speeding up the quarterback both mentally and physically and to operate in a muddied pocket with a lot of bodies around him. It’s those two things,’’ said NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell, who watches more coaches film than anyone outside a team facility. “If a quarterback feels comfortable, percentage-wise you’re going to have a tough time in coverage. Are there going to be plays where the coverage is going to be great? Sure. But percentage-wise, if the quarterback is comfortable and his internal clock isn’t sped up, the really good quarterbacks will make throws.

“A perfect example is the 2007 Super Bowl. The Giants got Brady to play fast. So did the Jets in the playoff game last year.’’

Now the Patriots will look to do the same to opponents this season.

But will affecting the quarterback lead to greater success? Do you have to do that to be at a Super Bowl level?

The coaches say it has to happen in today’s NFL.

There is some anecdotal evidence to back that up. The Packers and Steelers were second and first in sacks, respectively, last season. In the past 10 years, finishing first or second in the league in sacks has resulted in at least a berth in a conference championship game eight times, and the Super Bowl five. Four times in the past seven years both Super Bowl teams finished in the top three in sacks: ’10, ’07 (Giants 1; Patriots 2); ’05 (Steelers 3; Seahawks 1); ’04 (Patriots 3; Eagles 2).

But sacks are an incomplete tool for measuring how well teams or players are affecting the quarterback.

“That’s the glory stat, but there’s a lot of things,’’ Spagnuolo said. “We have our quality control people actually do a blitz effectiveness study for me for a lot of different reasons, but mainly to see if we’re running the right ones, and if we’re actually affecting the quarterback at all. If it makes him move his feet, or forces a bad throw, or flushes him out of the pocket, cause him into a mistake, then that particular blitz has affected the quarterback. And I didn’t say sack.’’

However you measure it - and there aren’t many public places to get such information – defenses seem to be fighting back against the rise of the passer.

Gibbs returned to the Redskins in ’04 after 12 years away from the game. He lasted four seasons - all but one with a losing record. Much of his lack of success came because defenses had evolved so much since he had been gone.

And it continues.

In 2007, quarterbacks completed a record 61.2 percent of their passes. It has declined every year since, down to 60.8 last season. If defensive coordinators are continuing a trend, league-wide completion percentage could finish below 60 percent for the first time since 2006.

But yards per pass attempts are in decline, indicating quarterbacks are throwing shorter and shorter. There’s been a premium placed on releasing the ball in less than 2.5 seconds. Quarterbacks, who are becoming increasingly mobile, are in the shotgun more than ever. And they’re finding more ways to build more run elements, thanks to the spread offense, into those formations.

So don’t expect Spagnuolo to put away the pen and pencil yet. And Zimmer and Guenther will still be scheming at the water cooler.

“There’s always something to deal with,” Phillips said. “Always.”

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregABedard

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