An Underrated Key to New-Era Defense in CFL

Among the many similarities between the league’s best defenses in 2015 – the first season played where a new rule was put in place that prohibited defensive players from contacting or impeding a receiver after five yards – an underrated, but absolutely crucial need was having defensive backs with enough quickness, football IQ and burst to get up in the receiver’s face and impede or redirect him while they can.

It’s no coincidence that the league’s best defenses – Edmonton, Hamilton, Montreal and Ottawa – had certain defensive backs line up close to the line of scrimmage, depending on the play-call. (Calgary was excluded simply due to their unique defensive scheme where they pass assignments and give different looks). It’s also no coincidence that last year’s top-two defenses against the pass, Edmonton and Ottawa, easily ran more man-coverage than any other defense in the league and from a press alignment. And they certainly weren’t going to be effective in man-coverage with all of their defensive backs giving soft, 10 yards of cushion on every play – just ask British-Columbia, Toronto and Saskatchewan.

Entering the season it wasn’t quite known how defensive coordinators were going to adapt their defenses for the rule change. We expected – and witnessed – a ridiculous amount of zone-coverage from all teams in the first few weeks of the season. But then certain defensive coordinators seemingly started realizing their options, and it was largely based off the talent of their defenders on the backfield.

Consistently giving a receiver 10-plus yards of cushion or, on the other hand, lining up within five yards and impeding the route in the legal zone, proved to be a clear indictment of a defensive back’s skill level; or better put, their abilities within the league’s pointless new rule change. While, of course, a halfback can’t press a slot-back when it’s zone-coverage and he’s responsible for a deep third, he can still line up close to the line of scrimmage and then start backpedaling pre-snap. The alignment of the secondary is dictated by the play-call, but any defensive coordinator would hope to have good enough defensive backs able to also perform certain assignments while giving 1-5 yards cushion – just not everyone can.

It’s because defensive coordinators need to especially remain as unpredictable as they can with their play-calls, and being limited to running almost strictly zone is a huge restriction. Quarterbacks picked those defenses apart last season, not having to worry about coverage bluffs. Regularly giving receivers 10 yards of cushion pre-snap across the board is a clear indication for a quarterback that it’s some type of zone defense; one less thing to worry about.

But the best defenses kept quarterbacks guessing as a result of having smart, quick defensive backs with a great burst to drive on the receiver’s route, allowing their team’s to run man or zone coverage from different looks – press or with cushion. Individually, press coverage can allow a defensive back to pick his shade (position) on the receiver best for the surrounding coverage/situation, slow down a receiver with a jam within the legal five yards before passing him to a teammate or running with him in man, and also takes away the short pass, more obviously. A mix of different looks from press or soft alignment from different defensive backs, regardless of the type of coverage, goes a long way to remaining unpredictable.

It really comes down to great defensive backs for teams to have such options – particularly halfbacks, as it’s a lot harder to effectively run man-coverage, or even simply line up in press, against slot-backs, who have a running start. But the league’s best halfbacks in 2015- Jerell Gavins, Bruce Johnson, Aaron Grymes, Jamar Wall, Billy Parker, etc – could line up in press and gave their team’s far more options in play-calling as a result. (Ryan Phillips would have been included on this list but BC rarely ran any man and consistently gave soft coverage, to very little success).

While having a stout pass-rush and athletic linebackers will always be a major factor in stopping the past, surrounding them with great defensive backs in the new era of defense in the CFL that can run man or press, lining up at different depths, is now more of a need than ever.

b johnson

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