Every year, a handful of NFL teams manage to suck the joy out of football. They lack personality and have no identity. They’re rebuilding — or worse, middling. They’re underachievers, irrelevant in fantasy football, or maybe they feature a quarterback named Josh McCown. Over the past few seasons, the Titans, Bears, and Giants have been card-carrying members of the joyless club, but that could be coming to an end. This trio may not end up being good, mind you, but based on the changes they made over the offseason, at least they’ll be fun to watch.
The Titans’ promotion of legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and his zone-blitzing scheme adds points to the interest scale, but it’s not Tennessee’s defense that’s worth watching closely: It’ll be head coach Mike Mularkey’s “exotic smashmouth” offense. While the decision to hire a retread in Mularkey was roundly mocked, Tennessee’s new stated identity (1) shows vision for an organization looking to protect and develop its franchise quarterback and (2) fits its personnel really well.
The etymology of the “exotic smashmouth” traces its roots to Mularkey’s stint as offensive coordinator for the Steelers from 2001 to 2003. During that time, Mularkey’s 250-pound bell cow was The Bus, Jerome Bettis, who played the part of the battering ram Grond, striking fear into the enemy and wearing down opposing defenses. In 2001, Pittsburgh’s backfield weighed a collective 500-plus pounds, as 252-pound fullback Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala received 120 carries in relief of Bettis. Those Steelers teams weren’t surgical; they were out to bludgeon you. That throwback ethos is still alive in offenses such as Seattle and Carolina: Those teams can press the life out of the end of a game, protecting their leads by running for first down after beautiful first down, the most demoralizing thing an opposing defense can experience.
So, while Mularkey’s offense earned the “exotic” moniker drawing up trick plays for Kordell Stewart and Antwaan Randle El, the main focus in Tennessee will be returning to that old-school mentality, with lots of heavy, multi–tight end looks and a lot more running than last year. The offseason additions of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry could turn this offense into a group that opponents end up fearing.
The Eagles were eager to offload Murray just one year into a five-year, $40 million deal because he simply wasn’t a great fit for an offense that featured stretch runs to the outside at a higher rate than just about any other team. Murray is a downhill runner — it’s what he’s been doing all his life — and he has a good chance to revive his career this season due to his ability to fit within Mularkey’s scheme.
Generally speaking, a “downhill offense” concentrates its run attack up the middle of the field, allowing its backs to build up some power behind their pads. It involves inside zone runs, counters up the gut, and pulling guards and centers.
For Murray, there was far too much of the opposite last season: stretch runs to the outside where his his power was negated and his second-level vision and explosiveness were forsaken. Instead, stretch runs asked him to juke and weave while looking for open space outside:
This is boring DeMarco Murray. I don’t want to watch this. Now this — from 2014, when he was still with the Cowboys — is something I miss:
Look at Murray annihilate Ha Ha Clinton-Dix’s pursuit angle. His tape from Dallas is full of these types of runs, and the Eagles started to figure it out late in the year:
Don’t ask Murray to create in the backfield like he’s LeSean McCoy; give him a lead blocker or a pulling guard and get him into the second level. That’s where he can be special.
The scouting report for Tennessee’s second-round pick Derrick Henry reads much like Murray’s: runs upright, needs some room to get going, but is a load once he shifts to his second gear. The big difference is that Henry has 25 pounds on his new backfield-mate.
Even without Murray, Henry would make this offense look like something you’d dream up on Madden. You just don’t see 242-pound running backs that can move like the former Heisman winner can; he has a rare combination of athleticism and size that you’d typically see in a defensive end or outside linebacker. Think it’d be fun to watch Von Miller carry the rock? You never will, but Henry gives us something close. He fell out of the first round of the draft because of real limitations with his short-area quickness behind the line, but lucky for him — he has linked up with the perfect scheme to maximize his talents.
Mix in the idea that Marcus Mariota is going to run more read option, add an improving offensive line with three first-rounders on it (including the team’s 2016 first-round pick, Jack Conklin, at right tackle), and you have a recipe for huge improvement. Tennessee wasn’t a good running team last year, but the pieces are there to build an offense around a punishing ground game.
Teams are passing more and more, but there’s still something primal about watching a team run the ball all over the yard, knowing the defense can’t do a thing to stop them. Just listen to Marshawn Lynch: “With Power, you runnin’ straight downhill. You know where we comin’, and we know where y’all gonna be lined up at. Now you just gotta stop me. I’m saying I’m better than you.”
The Titans haven’t been able to say that they’re better than anyone for a long time, but based on their revamped offense, it looks like they’re finally going to try.
John Fox and Vic Fangio’s defense is the most exciting thing about the Bears this year. Seriously. You know … the one that finished last season ranked second-to-last in DVOA.
We’re only a few years removed from it, but it’s easy to forget just how fearsome Fangio’s 49er defense was from 2011 to 2014. That unit was dominant for many reasons, including the unrivaled toughness and disruption that Justin Smith provided both at nose tackle and at end, but San Francisco’s success was borne from the insane range and instincts that All-Pro linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis combined to provide in the middle. Fangio rarely needed to take either player off the field; both could play with range in coverage, and that enabled him to do just about anything with his base personnel.
Of course, Fangio does not benefit from the same personnel in Chicago, but by adding Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan to the defense this offseason, he once again has an excellent linebacker duo at his disposal. Both are experienced players with excellent instincts. And they’re both versatile enough to play the Mike (strongside) and Jack (weakside) inside linebacker positions in the Fangio defense, which means he can tailor his schemes according to matchups and personnel groups.
Second-year nose tackle Eddie Goldman is no Justin Smith, but he’s a disruptive, powerful force who can command double-teams and hold blocks at the line. Akiem Hicks, who was signed after a strong finish with the Patriots last year, is another poor man’s proxy to the role that Smith played in San Francisco. Hicks’s strength at the point of attack and ability to command attention from the offensive line will be key. With some combination of defensive ends Will Sutton, Mitch Unrein, and rookie Jonathan Bullard, that interior front in Chicago could really hold down the line.
You often hear coaches talk about “keeping their linebackers clean.” They want them unchecked by offensive linemen moving downfield to block, which leaves them free to flow upfield or laterally toward the ball. That’s exactly what Fangio will design his new-look defense to do. When that works, it makes for an exciting and aggressive brand of defensive football. Ideally, we’ll see Freeman and Trevathan flying downhill, shooting gaps, making crushing hits in the backfield, blitzing, and making plays all over the field.
The Bears pass rush looks promising, too. Pernell McPhee was one of the better pass-rushing outside linebackers in the NFL last year, and he’s both big and fast enough to play inside in nickel situations. So can Lamarr Houston, who notched eight sacks last season after his move from defensive end to outside linebacker. The always forgotten, but still really good Willie Young will be a factor defenses have to account for, and whatever rookie first-rounder Leonard Floyd brings to the table will simply be a bonus. With these versatile players as his chess pieces, Fangio can design some slick pressure packages that bring the heat from different spots on every snap. Stunts, twists, delayed blitzes — catnip for pass-rush enthusiasts.
Of course, we’ll still probably have to tilt our heads and squint really hard for the Bears to even resemble the powerful 49ers defenses that Fangio coordinated. But, with the additions of Freeman and Trevathan in the middle, and McPhee, Houston, Goldman, Hicks, and Bullard up front, Fangio’s exciting blueprint is coming together.
New York Giants
When the fifth-seeded Giants knocked off the previously undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, New York proved that an unrelenting pass rush could trump a seemingly unbeatable offense with an immortal quarterback. The Giants sacked Tom Brady five times in that game and spoiled the Patriots’ perfect season, and when New York beat New England again in Super Bowl XLVI, that defensive line was arguably better than the group from 2007.
Steve Spagnuolo knows this power firsthand — he got a ring for coordinating the defense of New York’s 2007 championship team — and now that he’s returned to running their defense, the Giants are going back to what worked in the past: acquiring and leaning on a dominant defensive line.
New York signed the premier pass rusher on the market in Olivier Vernon, and the Giants expect him to be their next great sack artist. They also landed maybe the game’s best nose tackle in Damon Harrison to pair with Johnathan Hankins on the inside. Similar to Chicago’s strategy up front, New York will expect its 650-pound-plus interior duo to embody the name of the team, plug run lanes, get push up front, and occupy as many offensive linemen as possible. If they’re doing their job, they’ll draw double-teams in protection, freeing up pass rushers to go one-on-one on the outside.
If offenses focus on protecting outside lanes with their running backs and tight ends (and they probably will), we may even see an uptick in pressure from Harrison. As he alluded to on Twitter, he’s played in a 3-4 his entire career and is used to playing heads up and manning two gaps, so we don’t yet know how disruptive he can be in shooting the center-guard gap. Together with Hankins, who had seven sacks when healthy in 2014, there could be plenty of bonus production from the inside. Fat guy touchdowns are the most fun thing in the NFL, but fat guy sack-dances are a close second.
Elsewhere on the pass rush, the Giants have two potential-filled question marks. At 6-foot-3, 267 pounds, with a 39-inch vertical and a 4.62 40-yard dash, New York’s 2015 third-round pick, Owamagbe Odighizuwa, is one of the freakiest athletes from that draft. Spagnuolo plans to use him as a pass-rushing defensive tackle, much like he did with Justin Tuck. Then there’s Jason Pierre-Paul, who struggled last year after returning midseason with a giant club on his firework-damaged hand, but he’s working with a special glove this season, and the effort and elite physical upside remain.
New York’s secondary still leaves plenty to be desired, but its new combination of interior beasts and outside rushers has the potential to make life easier on the Giants defensive backs by forcing opposing quarterbacks into rushed decisions. “A quarterback has never completed a pass when he was flat on his back,” as the legendary Buddy Ryan’s playbook once stressed. “We must hit the QB hard and often. QB’s are over-paid, over-rated, pompous bastards, and must be punished. Great pass coverage is the direct result of a great pass rush, and a great pass rush is simply a relentless desire to get to the QB.”
We still need good foils to today’s practically untouchable quarterbacks, and Spagnuolo’s putting together a group of antiheroes.
An earlier version of this piece said that the Tennessee Titans had added Dick LeBeau to their coaching staff; in fact, LeBeau was already a part of the team and was given a promotion.