clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Future of NFL Defenses Lies in a Lime-Green Dot

The NFL allowed headset communications for defensive players in 2008, revolutionizing that side of the ball and making linebackers the de facto quarterbacks on defense. But recently a few teams have given the responsibility of on-field communication to defensive backs—a shift in thinking that could be just as impactful as putting headsets into helmets in the first place.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

The Rams respect Jalen Ramsey’s word. In addition to being one of the NFL’s best players, the three-time All-Pro cornerback is regarded as one of Los Angeles’s hardest workers, and he takes immense pride in his craft. “I think the beauty of it is, his honesty always brings the best out of everybody,” safety Jordan Fuller told The Ringer in late September. “If he feels a certain way about a call or something, he’ll voice that, and that helps the whole defense.”

So it means something when Ramsey asserts that the Rams trust Fuller. “We just got a lot of respect for him, the way he goes about his work, the way he goes about his business,” Ramsey said of Fuller in December. “We just got a lot of confidence in him.”

The Rams’ actions back Ramsey’s words. When safety John Johnson III left as a free agent last year, Fuller—a 2020 sixth-round pick—started in his stead. This past season, Rams players voted Fuller a team captain. But perhaps the biggest sign of L.A.’s faith in Fuller was the lime-green sticker placed on the back of the young safety’s helmet: The green dot indicates that Fuller’s helmet is fitted with an internal speaker that allows him to hear defensive coordinator Raheem Morris’s play calls and relay them to his teammates.

Aggressive team-building, highlighted by the courtship of Matthew Stafford, was the main story line of the Rams’ Super Bowl–winning season; not much was made of the star-studded team entrusting its on-field defensive play-calling to a second-year safety. There’s a duality in how Fuller perceives his role. He said the added responsibility doesn’t make his job much harder, but does recognize its importance.

“I don’t take it lightly,” Fuller said. “I take it very serious. It’s me that has to run into the huddle and repeat the call to everybody. It puts a little extra on my plate, but I do it for the betterment of the team.”

The green dot contains answers to how NFL defenses have evolved—both technologically and schematically—in the past 15 years. On the field, only one player per unit can wear the dot. The system allows one-way, coach-to-player communication between plays before the play clock reaches 15 seconds. (A beep drones inside the coach’s headset if they speak after the cutoff time.) On offense, signal-calling duty exclusively rests with the quarterback; on defense, it’s traditionally been a linebacker. But that’s starting to change.

More and more, defenses are relying on players in the secondary. In 2006, one of the last seasons before defenders began wearing the dot, NFL defenses lined up in dime formations (six DBs) on 7.6 percent of snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. In 2021, that figure was 13.5 percent. After watching film and tagging players, The Ringer identified six teams that gave the green dot to a defensive back for the 2021 season: the Rams, Browns, Chargers, Cowboys, Patriots, and Ravens. That represented a jump from 2020, when only three teams (Ravens, Rams, Patriots) primarily had DBs relaying defensive play calls on the field. The table below shows all the players who wore the green dot last season:

Who Wears the Dot?

Team Players
Team Players
49ers LB Fred Warner, LB Azeez Al-Shaair
Bears LB Roquan Smith, LB Alec Ogletree
Bengals LB Logan Wilson, LB Germaine Pratt
Bills LB Tremaine Edmunds, LB A.J. Klein
Broncos LB Alexander Johnson, LB Justin Strnad, LB Baron Browning, LB Kenny Young
Buccaneers LB Devin White, LB Lavonte David
Cardinals LB Jordan Hicks, LB Tanner Vallejo
Chiefs LB Anthony Hitchens, LB Ben Niemann, LB Nick Bolton
Colts LB Darius Leonard, LB Bobby Okereke
Commanders LB Cole Holcomb, LB David Mayo
Dolphins LB Jerome Baker, LB Sam Eguavoen
Eagles LB Eric Wilson, LB T.J. Edwards, LB Alex Singleton
Falcons LB Foyesade Oluokun (yes, he played 100% of ATL's defensive snaps this season)
Giants LB Blake Martinez, LB Tae Crowder
Jaguars LB Damien Wilson, LB Myles Jack
Jets LB C.J. Mosley, LB Jamien Sherwood
Lions LB Alex Anzalone, LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin
Packers LB De’Vondre Campbell, LB Krys Barnes
Panthers LB Shaq Thompson, LB Jermaine Carter Jr.
Raiders LB Denzel Perryman, LB Corey Littleton
Saints LB Demario Davis, LB Pete Werner
Seahawks LB Bobby Wagner, LB Cody Barton
Steelers LB Joe Schobert, LB Robert Spillane
Texans LB Christian Kirksey, LB Zach Cunningham, LB Neville Hewitt
Titans LB David Long Jr., LB Jayon Brown
Vikings LB Anthony Barr, LB Nick Vigil
Browns LB Malcolm Smith, S John Johnson III, LB Anthony Walker Jr.
Cowboys LB Micah Parsons, S Jayron Kearse
Chargers S Derwin James, LB Kyzir White
Patriots S Devin McCourty, LB Kyle Van Noy
Rams S Jordan Fuller, LB Ernest Jones, LB Troy Reeder, S Eric Weddle
Ravens S Chuck Clark, S Geno Stone

Defenses need to give in-helmet headsets to players who are almost always on the field.. The Rams, known for using light boxes and two-high safety coverage shells, have relied on DBs to wear the dot since 2019, when Eric Weddle relayed coordinator Wade Phillips’s calls. Johnson relayed Brandon Staley’s calls in 2020, and Fuller did the same for Morris in 2021. Head coach Sean McVay says the team chose Fuller because he’s a “great communicator and the fact that he’s on the field for every snap.”

“The most natural position is that inside linebacker spot,” McVay explained in October. “But there’s so many different personnel groupings that you’re mixing and matching throughout the course of the game. When you look at Weddle [in 2019], there was a lot of instances where you knew he was going to be on the field, every single snap. And he was such a great, rare communicator that we wanted to be able to take advantage of it. That was kind of the start of having somebody from the back end take over the mic.”

Identifying the main defender responsible for relaying play calls is one thing. Picking the backup can be even more difficult. In late September, Fuller wasn’t sure who would be next in line. (“In practice, we’ve messed with a few people wearing it, but I don’t know who that person is,” Fuller said.) By December, the Rams were forced to come up with an answer. Fuller missed L.A.’s Week 15 contest against the Seahawks after landing on the COVID-19/reserve list, and rookie linebacker Ernest Jones handled headset duties. Fuller started the Rams’ next three games, but in the regular-season finale he suffered a season-ending ankle injury. Fellow starting safety Taylor Rapp was dinged up, too. Ahead of the playoffs, Ramsey, whom Fuller had told The Ringer was a likely candidate to be his dot understudy, was considered, but McVay was hesitant. “We’re kind of still working through that right now,” he said at the time. Instead, the Rams reached out to an old friend.

In 2014, during his eighth season with the Chargers, Weddle became possibly the first defensive back to be a defense’s primary signal-caller. (“I think I was probably one of the first—if not the first—outside of a ’backer to wear the dot,” Weddle said in January, “and it kinda just spiraled to where it is now.”) He maintained the role for the remainder of his time with the Chargers and also did so during his three seasons with the Ravens (2016-18) and his first with the Rams (2019). Weddle retired in 2020, after piloting an L.A. defense that finished ninth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings. Afterward, Weddle kept in touch with the Rams staff, including Morris. The defensive coordinator sent Weddle a probing text before calling him ahead of L.A.’s wild-card contest against the Cardinals. “He asked, ‘You’re not fat and out of shape, are ya?’” Weddle recalled. “And as soon as he said that, I knew what was coming next.” The Rams gave Weddle six hours to decide whether he wanted to return before going in another direction.

At 37, Weddle appeared in each of the Rams’ four playoff games. Against Arizona, he was used as a sub-package defender; against the Buccaneers, he played a majority of the snaps; against the 49ers he started and played 100 percent of L.A.’s defensive snaps; and in the Super Bowl, he was given the green dot. Weddle played all of the Rams’ defensive snaps against the Bengals, relaying calls and checks while leading the Rams in tackles despite tearing his pectoral in the first quarter. He managed to learn an entire defensive system—one that Morris described to him as being “tailored for safeties” to play aggressively—in a month.

“In a game like this, you just want everything to go smoothly,” Weddle said ahead of the Super Bowl. “You want to handle the adversity early on in the game, you want everyone to get their feet on the ground, locked in on what their role is, what their job is, getting the [pre-snap] checks. You don’t want to be thinking; you just want to play and react.”

Raheem Morris can’t help smiling. It’s a random Thursday morning in early December, and he’s being asked to reminisce about 2007, when he was still a Bucs defensive backs coach. It marked the final season before the NFL’s competition committee allowed defenses to have one on-field player wear a headset, just as offenses had been allowed to since 1994. It’s laughable to think about how much of a disadvantage defenses were at. Quarterbacks were getting smarter and better, and were equipped with a significant technological advantage.

“Peyton Manning was out there just looking at you, just absolutely tearing you apart,” Morris recalled. “Tom Brady and all these guys were able to just look at the defense and diagnose it. Coaches all on the sideline, we were over there signaling and throwing up all types of things. We were holding up flashcards and boards. It was kind of archaic, when you look back at it.”

The first attempt at coach-to-player, in-game communication via radio occurred in 1956. Two inventors secretly helped Hall of Fame Browns coach Paul Brown develop and trial a radio transmitter for quarterback George Ratterman. But opponents learned of the device, and the NFL banned it after only four games. Nearly 40 years later, the NFL began allowing coach-to-QB radio communication in 1994. The decals worn down the midline of helmets were first introduced in 2007. The league picked that lime-green color, an NFL spokesman told The Ringer, simply because its operations department determined it was “the best visual indicator.”

The competition committee unanimously approved the rule allowing a defensive player to wear a headset in 2008. Players at the time were relieved. Pro Bowl linebacker Jonathan Vilma—who played from 2004 to 2013 and wore the dot from 2008 until the end of his career—remembers feeling as if defenses had been left “doing sign language” while trying to keep up with NFL offenses before the rule change.

“I was excited that [the league] finally realized that the game had evolved to where the defenses have become more complicated, more complex, and we needed to have a voice or some sort of communication with our sideline as well,” Vilma, now a Fox analyst, told The Ringer. “So it was actually very, very easy streamlining. It wasn’t a big adjustment at all, to be quite honest, when they finally rolled it out.”

The innovation didn’t arrive without scandal and malfunctions. There are stories of players and coaches hearing concerts, airplane pilots, and other random interference when the NFL was using analog communication systems, which included long cables that sometimes caused coaches to trip. The 2007 Patriots were accused of tampering with opponents’ headsets as a part of the Spygate investigation, and in 2015, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin simmered over frequent headset malfunctions that he suggested routinely occurred in Foxborough. These days, the NFL has a robust system in place to ensure none of those things happen.

In 2012, the NFL switched to a digital communication system, touting 268 million “military-grade encryption codes.” As my colleague Nora Princiotti detailed at The Boston Globe a few years ago, the NFL obtained an exclusive, secret frequency from the FCC in 2016 that enabled better-protected communication. In December, NFL vice president of football technology solutions John Cave told The Ringer that the league underwent a system revamp in 2020 that made its communication system compliant with the Citizens Broadband Radio Service. The machinations are complicated and required plenty of testing, but the change allowed coaches’ beltpacks to get lighter by lowering the number of devices required for radio communication from two to one, and they now use a private LTE network. Cave explained that the NFL’s intercom frequencies operate on a General Authorized Access spectrum, but they are secure and tightly encrypted several times over.

“To hack through AES-256-bit encryption would require hundreds, if not thousands, of computers and compute time, for at least a year,” Cave said. “It would probably cost you millions of dollars of compute time to decrypt it. But that would decrypt one of the pieces, and we’re also encrypted inside of that, too. It would take a long, long time and millions of dollars. And by then, the information that was communicated is no longer relevant.”

Further complicating matters, the NFL uses several different providers for in-game communications. For eight years, Bose has serviced coach-to-coach communication (“C-to-C,” for short). Europe-based Green-GO Digital provides coach-to-player communication by utilizing components from the audio company GSC. (A Green-GO representative declined to speak for this story, saying the company is not permitted to speak with the press about its work with the league.)

Meticulous examination goes into making sure the system works. During pregame testing, three of four radios are purposely failed to ensure that one can sustain full coverage on its own. Additional testing is done to confirm that devices will work when frequencies are blocked by human bodies or in extreme weather conditions ranging from minus-10 to 110 degrees. In 2020, when NFL stadiums were barren, technicians would fill Home Depot buckets with 5 gallons of water before games and stack them on top of one another to simulate crowded sideline conditions during testing.

“We can go down a huge rabbit hole with the frequencies,” Cave said. “I can talk for hours. But my goal there is that, at a bare minimum, it has to work at the Super Bowl.”

But the NFL’s radio revolution is only a piece of its technological advancements. Nowadays, seemingly every live broadcast shot of an NFL sideline includes a player or coach flicking through a Microsoft Surface tablet. Tracking data is incorporated into game coverage and is accessible to fans on the NFL’s official site. Advanced metrics are more heavily involved in how analysts break down football and help create a richer opportunity to understand the sport than at any point in history. Tech’s role in the game—both in how it’s played and how it’s consumed—will only increase in the future.

“The technology’s grown,” Morris said. “Whether we’re getting the pictures on the sidelines or whether we get the motion [tracking]. All coaches have different arguments on that, but technology’s definitely affected our game.”

San Diego Chargers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

When the Chargers gave Weddle the green dot in 2014, he didn’t find it weird. In January, he explained that, on defense, “your safeties are your quarterbacks, right? They both have to involve the front seven and the back end, and know what everyone’s doing, know everyone’s job, everyone’s roles. We just have great perspective.”

When Weddle earned the green dot, it was a notable moment in tracking how NFL defenses are adjusting to modern offenses. Rule changes and schematic shifts have led modern football offenses to heavily incorporate the passing game. That’s led to more NFL defenses lightening their personnel, replacing front-seven players with secondary members. In Staley’s first season as head coach, the Chargers went back to having a defensive back wear the green dot, tabbing All-Pro safety Derwin James for the duty. Staley explained that the variety of opposing offensive schemes has become more challenging to defend.

“There’s just so many more formations, so many more motions, so many different types of plays that you’re seeing,” Staley said in October. “And the quarterbacking is so much better than it’s ever been. The passing game and where the ball can go now, there’s just so much more you have to defend. And you’ve got the rules as well—they’re sort of different than they used to be, right? So what it’s requiring, to me, is a lot more complete defensive player that you need to have.”

NFL defenses have been forced to adapt as the game has grown horizontally. The trend beckoned the pursuit of smaller interior linebackers able to both defend the run and cover in space, rather than players who are strictly thumpers.

“To take some of the old-school, tackle-to-tackle, true early-down linebacker as your signal-caller, that does become a little bit of an issue if you’re switching on and off in subpackages,” then-Giants head coach Joe Judge said in October. “You’ve got to make sure that whoever you’re using as a signal-caller is someone you can rely to be on for all three downs.”

“It used to be more specialized or where if you did this one thing, you’d be able to really carve out a nice role,” Staley said. “It’s not that way anymore. You’ve got to have guys that can do more than one thing, because you’re having to defend a lot.”

Despite the league’s shift toward more pass-heavy offenses, Vilma believes the linebacker position is still valuable. “The really good offenses all have a really good run game,” Vilma said. “And because of that, the linebacker position will never just die. You’ll still always have to have that big, strong physical guy, physical presence in the middle.”

NFL coaches seem to agree. A majority of teams still rely on a linebacker to pilot their defenses, and even most teams with a safety primarily wearing the dot utilize a linebacker as the next up. Who wears the dot matters not only to coaches, but to players. For example, early in the season, the Titans gave linebacker David Long Jr. the dot after starter Jayon Brown suffered an injury. Veteran linebacker Daren Bates explained on his podcast, “Yeah, it do matter [who wears the dot], ’cause that’s the motherfucker who’s gotta talk, communicate, listen to coach’s menu items of things he’s gonna have to say to you before the [play clock] runs down and they turn that bitch off. Jayon runs the headset because he’s more of a communicator. … If he sees something, he’s gonna get us lined up, he’s gonna get the change.”

Some coaches want to keep the green dot with linebackers because they believe a commanding physical presence is important for the role. In 2017, Tomlin was asked whether he’d consider having a defensive back wear the dot, to which he replied: “No. Nobody wants to take instructions from a little man in a huddle. Let’s be honest. Football is a big man’s job.”

Essentially, players who wear the dot are considered to have some sort of commanding physical presence that teammates respect. “When Derwin’s in front of our defense,” Staley said, “I’m like, ‘That’s the guy that makes sense [wearing the dot] to me.’ That’s kind of the origin of that, and I think it’s a combination of the six-DB thing and then also that presence. That guy, does he have it?”

There’s a duality to how those tasked with relaying the calls perceive their job. Getting a call right can be the difference between making a crucial stop or giving up a big play, yet players seem to shrug off the burden. That doesn’t mean they don’t view it as a privilege.

“It’s an honor, you know?” James said. “I don’t take it for granted. Every day I’m thankful for it and, oh man, I just want to continue to work hard so my coaches and my teammates continue to have faith in me. Because that carry a lot of weight, a lot of power. I want to just continue to have that trust from everybody.”

For now, that assignment is limited to one player on both sides of the ball, although the NFL did experiment with having multiple players fitted with helmet radios at the 2019 Pro Bowl. Still, there are those who think that there’s a benefit to not relying on the technology to deliver play calls.

Titans head coach Mike Vrabel played linebacker from 1997 to 2010, and experienced the transition from signaling play calls from the sideline to relaying them via headset. When offenses are going into two-minute or playing up-tempo, he suggested, it’s difficult to rely on one player to get the call out to the other 10. He deems the technology good for the game, but not something to solely depend on; for example, there’s a menu of plays that Titans quarterbacks have that allows them to make a call if the headsets go out before a coach sends in a play.

“A part of me likes everybody looking over there and getting the signal so that they can understand what’s going on and they’re engaged early on in the play,” Vrabel said in November, “as opposed to just sitting there and waiting for it to come through and having somebody tell you what the call is. It does help, though, that you’re not signaling and then the DBs can get the call and the safety can echo it to the corners and the linebacker can communicate it to the front end.”

The reasoning behind the competition committee’s decision to allow defenses to have an on-field headset in 2008 was to give defenses the same capability that offenses were given in 1994. But having a headset doesn’t make the play calls that much easier. The change charges one individual with quickly and clearly repeating the calls.

“I’d say [getting defensive play calls is] easier in college because you don’t have to tell people the call,” Fuller said. “Everybody just sees it.”

Meanwhile, Kliff Kingsbury, who coached at Texas Tech from 2013 to 2018, said he wishes that radio headsets were permitted in college. Sign-stealing is prevalent in college football, and some schools have taken drastic measures to combat it. In addition to theft prevention, Kingsbury sees a benefit for quarterback development.

“If you could give them just a quick tidbit of advice on each play, talk ’em through things or try to calm them down, like, ‘Hey, it’s OK,’ I think it would be huge [for] the development of quarterbacks at that level,” Kingsbury said in December. “In college, when you’re doing the hand signals from the sideline, that’s when a lot of teams used to steal signals and use the binoculars from their press box and get it there. Now, with the headset, you take that element out of it. You can talk through progressions, you can talk through what to look for, you can talk through keys that you have on this drive that a defense is showing. I wish the college game would adapt because I think it would really help those young quarterbacks.”

Some might argue that the quarterbacks filtering through to the NFL don’t need any more advantages. Those tasked with stopping the league’s current star passers certainly don’t think so. But as offenses continue to innovate, having versatile defenders—such as James—who are able to remain on the field at all times and cover different positions will be a key part in how defenses stack up. Chargers linebacker Drue Tranquill said having a safety like James as the signal-caller “is definitely a changeup,” but acknowledged that James’s consistent presence and various alignments make it challenging for offenses to identify what’s happening pre-snap.

Still, putting the green dot on a defensive back is not without its drawbacks. “Sometimes [James is] running back from covering a deep ball, trying to relay that call, so we’ve had to be really on top of things in terms of our signaling,” Tranquill said in October.

Weddle said that being the signal-caller can be a difficult transition for someone who hasn’t done it before, but the veteran joined the Rams’ playoff run with years of experience holding “the mic.” L.A. put together a five-week plan to ease Weddle into his role, observing how he held up physically before sticking the dot on his helmet. Ahead of wearing it for the first time in years—and for the final time in his career—Weddle reveled in the responsibility of doing it on the biggest stage imaginable: the Super Bowl.

“The guys can play fast and not worry about, ‘Hey, what’s the call?’” he said confidently before the game. “Leave that stuff to me.”

The Ringer's Philly Special

Eagles-Cardinals Preview: Kyler or Jalen?

The Island

The Giants Should Run the Option

The Ringer Gambling Show

Hidden Value and Key Matchups for Week 5’s Card

View all stories in NFL