It was early in his team's season opener and Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell sensed a quick kill. His opponent, the Dallas Cowboys, had lost their starting center Phil Costa to injury and had replaced him with Ryan Cook, whom had been on Dallas' roster a mere six days.
When Dallas faced obvious passing downs, Fewell moved both of his starting defensive ends, Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre Paul, inside. Pierre-Paul matched up against Cook, giving New York a four-defensive end front. The Cowboys countered by sliding their pass protections inside, which helped the Giants edge pressure harass Tony Romo. Romo prevailed, but only because of his ability to throw on the run.
This tactic is not new to the Giants. The team has played Tuck as a nickel-down defensive tackle for years and his strong interior play in Super Bowl 42 helped the Giants upset the previously undefeated New England Patriots. The Giants have made a practice of drafting a pass rushing end in the 1st or 2nd rounds any time one was available.
The rest of the NFL appears to be adopting the Giants approach. On obvious passing downs the Chicago Bears, this week's Cowboys opponent, have started to use top end Juluis Peppers and 1st round rookie end Shea McClellin as defensive tackles. They don't do it every down, but the Bears can also put four ends on the field, when Peppers and McClellin work inside Israel Idonije and Corey Wooton. When Chicago puts some beef in its nickel front, it uses DT Henry Melton, a converted college running back.
Look at your own Cowboys. On a key 1st quarter play last week, coordinator Rob Ryan put his top rushing lineman, Jason Hatcher, on the rush line with three outside linebackers, DeMarcus Ware, Victor Butler and Anthony Spencer. Their pressure helped produce a turnover.
Earlier this week, I was told that NFL scouts are re-assessing their quarterback templates, and are giving more weight to mobility and athleticism than they have in the past. Defensive demographics are dictating this change. One source told me teams have to adjust to the numbers of athletic rushers used in the game. It's a defensive chess move to counter the spread attacks and the waves of bigger wide receivers which are entering the game from the college ranks every year.
Where secondaries have struggled to stock up on cornerbacks to handle teams like the Packers and Saints, who can put four and five receiving targets on the field, offensive lines are now struggling to match up against defensive lines which can send three or four athletic rushers after the quarterback. Look at the abuse Seattle's rush heaped on Aaron Rodgers; he was sacked eight times in the first half of their matchup. The Bears rotating ends have notched fourteen sacks through three games, using only limited blitzing.
The spread of spread attacks has nearly eliminated certain defensive positions. The run stuffing inside linebacker has no role against a three or four receiver attack. The big, Roy Williams-sized safety is all but extinct.
The move towards rush end heavy defensive could change the look of offensive lines. When I asked how teams could counter act psycho fronts like Dallas' or smallish, end-packed lines like the Seahawks, Giants, Eagles and Bears, I was told we may see a move towards lines stocked with former college offensive tackles. "The shorter college left tackle, who may not be a blind side player in the pros, could be very valuable as a right tackle or as a guard," said one source. "The big 330 - 340 lb. guard with poor feet, who stuck around because he could run block, might not last much longer," he continued. "If you don't have the feet to pass protect, you can't play in the NFL anymore. Teams will put 240 lb. rushers against you and beat you."
You're forgiven if those last quotes produced some bad Leonard Davis flashbacks. The '90s Cowboys were lucky to have two massive guards with good feet in Larry Allen and Nate Newton,. The team has stressed size ever since, but has too often valued girth over agility.
Guards Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau, the team's two free agent signings, were signed for their alleged ability to maintain the top of a pass pocket. They worked well against the Giants quicksters, but Bernardeau played poorly in last week's Bucs game.
This week, they and center Cook will almost certainly see Peppers, McClellin and friends inside. Do the Cowboys have guards who can handle quickness, or are they, like many other NFL teams, finding that they've fallen one move behind the game?