RSP Writers Q&A of 5-ish’s Squad

After defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, safety Patrick Chung might be one of the most pivotal players in 5-ish’s defensive scheme. This squad’s owner labels him the wildcard of his scheme. Photo by Beth Hart.

The RSP Writers Project is underway with an updated spreadsheet and I already have a team submitted by a reader that I thought was worth a read. Jeff, otherwise known as “5-ish,” among those of us at the Shark Pool message boards, is a knowledgeable football fan with a clear passion for the game. He was kind enough to share his roster and answer the interview questions just after changing the player values of the spreadsheet, but before I lowered the cap from $160 million to $150 million.

While he got an extra $10 million compared to the participating writers, I think you’ll enjoy reading about his team.

  1. Describe your offensive system:
      1. Personnel formations
      2. Blocking schemes
      3. Bread and butter plays
      4. Some of the pivotal players in the scheme
      5. The coordinators and coach that you’d likely pick to run it

    5-ish’s offensive scheme is rooted in a no-huddle scheme that employs simple, but effective concepts when an elite quarterback is running it. The Colts offense comes to mind. Photo by Brad J. Ward.

Offensive personnel/formations:  My plan was to craft a fast-break offense predicated on speed at the receiver position.  Given the current league rules favoring the pass, I believe that a scheme of this nature should put a tremendous amount of pressure on defenses – particularly given that much of it will be operated from the no-huddle.  A “K-Gun on steroids,” if you will.  The base offense will be running an 11-personnel set (three receivers, one running back, and one tight end). However, I expect there will be plenty of use for the Aces package, too (two tight ends and a single back).

So, what does this require of my personnel?  First and foremost, it absolutely demands a savvy, strong-armed quarterback who is adept at reading coverages at the line and who is at least mobile inside the pocket.  Given that we will be targeting top-end speedsters for our wide outs, high-end arm strength is also imperative.

In order to give that quarterback the foundation he needs to make the best decisions possible, his offensive line will all need to be strong pass blockers and at least reasonably athletic.  Given the no-huddle nature of the scheme, they are going to have to be motoring to the line a LOT.  “No fat chicks!” please.

Since the scheme is built around the idea of blowing the top off the defense, our wideouts need to be more than fast, most need to be able to FLY.  That isn’t to say that there won’t be complementary roles for “cagey chain movers,” just that those roles will be decidedly secondary.

Our  tight ends, whether speedy or not, need to be able to hurt teams down the seam as well as being able to contribute underneath/across the middle.  I envision the top two tight ends in this scheme being solid contributors overall, but likely doing most of their damage in the red zone.

The runners for this offense will be required to contribute in all facets: running, receiving and blocking.  Decisiveness will be a key trait for any of the tailbacks as well, since we plan to be utilizing mostly zone blocking techniques.  Our runners will need to see the hole, hit it ,and GO!

Blocking Scheme: As mentioned above, the majority of the offense will utilize zone blocking techniques. In particular, it will feature many outside zone plays in the running game. Given that, our offensive lineman will need to possess good lateral mobility, be agile, quick and able to make snap decisions. Our backs will need to be adept at finding the cracks in the defensive line and getting through them as quickly as possible.

Bread and Butter Plays:  As far as passing goes, streaks, flags, and posts from one-back sets with either the Y or slot receiver running deep drags or quick slants underneath the track stars are going to be on our “go-to” list.  Preferably, these will be able to be run play-action frequently.

As for the running game, we’re a zone blocking offense.  Do you even need to ask?  Stretch play all day, baby!  It’s sorta boring, kinda played, and not conducive to many monster runs, but it’s also less likely to be stopped for a loss or a marginal gain. It will also play to the strengths of our personnel.  As this offense will use the pass to set up the run, and the run will be used more to keep the defense guessing without suffering big losses, the stretch will be the backbone of that tactic.  Most of our “go to runs” will be of the outside zone variety, stretch or otherwise.

He ain’t Calvin Johnson, but he’ll certainly fit the bill for Matt Stafford in 5-ish’s attack. Photo by Jeffery Beall.

Pivotal Players:  As mentioned prior, the quarterback is the key to the scheme. Mobile, smart offensive lineman is next on that list, followed by world class speed at wide receiver.  While running back is not merely an afterthought in this offense, the types that can excel in the scheme do not necessarily have to be in the mold of a top-ten NFL runner.

Specifically for this team, pivotal offensive players will include: Matt Stafford, the entire offensive line (Monroe and Wood in particular); Mike Wallace, Demaryius Thomas, and Jermaine Gresham.  The continued development of Monroe and Wood, and to a lesser degree Jason Smith, is probably going to make or break whether this system functions how I hope it will.

Coach/Coordinator:  I really need to think about the head coach. I’m struggling to think of a guy who I think would be able to create synergy between my style of offense and defense that I’m trying to craft here. They will also need to motivate players on both sides of the ball.  My initial reaction is either Sean Payton or Ken Whisenhunt.  Still mulling this over, though.

As for offensive coordinator, can I roll Ted Marchibroda out of mothballs?

Failing that, Tom Moore would be my next choice.   If he decided he’d rather retire, then I’ll need to get back to you on this, as well.  Pete Metzelaars, maybe?  Pretty sure he’s a Marchibroda-Moore disciple.

One other coach whose services I would attempt to procure at almost any cost: Alex Gibbs.  For this offense to truly thrive, my line will need to be as near perfect on the fundamentals and technique of the zone blocking scheme as possible.  The coach to get them there, and keep them there, is easily Gibbs.

This scheme will require buy-in from the whole offense, though, so he will be teaching the blocking schemes for running plays to all the offensive positions, not just the lineman and backs.  This will allow all invested parties to know where the cutbacks lanes should be, etc.  Nothing will be more of a motivator than having 6 or 8 of your teammates jawing at you if, as an running back, you miss a cutback or read the wrong lane or, as a lineman, make the wrong read of the defensive line, instead of one coach.  Gibbs reportedly did this in his time in Denver and it produced almost immediate results.

We’re on board with it.

Describe your defensive system according to the same criteria above

Cushing fits 5-ish’s criteria as an inside linebacker that can blitz the middle and cover hybrid tight ends. Photo by the Brit_2.

Defensive Personnel/Formations: It is my belief that in today’s “passer protected,” NFL the A-No.1 thing that a defense needs to do is pressure the quarterback – HEAVILY.  It’s also the second thing to do.  And the third.

With that in mind, watching the proliferation of all of these spread/timing-based offenses over the past half-decade, or so, has also brought me to believe that the way a team needs to go about bringing that pressure might need some adjustment.  When I look at the elite quarterbacks presently in the league, I see guys that are generally good decision makers and able to adjust to what the defense shows them on the fly at the line.  I also see, with few exceptions (Roethlisberger being the prime example), guys that are permitted to get comfortable behind a strong offensive line, survey the landscape on each play, and then make their throw.

Maybe they have to step up in the pocket, maybe they don’t, but most of the truly elite signal callers aren’t getting knocked down a lot.  Now, some of that is certainly due to them having elite recognition and release. Some of it, however, I feel is predicated on the fear of allowing them to beat a defense for big plays (as if letting them stand back there unmolested is any different), so defensive coordinators are inclined to tap the breaks on the blitz.

It is also my belief that most quarterbacks do not enjoy being hit.  It becomes readily apparent when you watch guys like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in particular. They rarely have to deal with contact, so when they are consistently knocked around it absolutely affects them to some degree.  When going against elite quarterbacks, defenses need every advantage they can muster.  Making an elite quarterback even one-tenth of a percent uncomfortable because they are thinking more about the rush should not be discounted and in my mind it means that they should be blitzed MORE.  Will they beat the blitz sometimes?  Certainly, but they were likely going to get theirs anyway, right?  Make them earn it!

So with that in mind I thought about how teams rush the quarterback.  Whether it’s via the blitz or just schematic with four men, it’s typically going to come from the edges of the defense.  It’s not really a secret why that is so; there is less resistance and fewer bodies on the edges. But when I think about those elite quarterbacks, I notice that most of these guys are too good and too aware to be overly susceptible to outside rushes/blitzes.

For the most part, the best quarterbacks know the secret to combating the outside rush (climb the ladder, assess quickly, throw).  Upon reflection, I also noticed how if anything is going to remotely rattle the elite quarterbacks it’s usually pressure from the middle of the defense.  In many cases it’s unexpected, since it is usually a less optimal choice for most teams to attempt, and forces them to react quickly or get flushed out into the edges of the D where they are more exposed.  So, I wondered, if done with persistence, and with the proper personnel, could sustained interior pressure be a viable method to combat the en vogue movement toward these hybrid, spread-move tight end timing offenses?  I decided to attempt to build a team with this tactic in mind to see if it would work.

The scheme would be heavily steeped in fire zone principles.  With as much pass rushing and blitzing as we’ll be doing, to ask our corners to play in strict man-to-man would probably be a really bad idea.  the fire zone as a base eliminates the need for that very often as there are a lot of Cover 2 concepts being applied from the linebackers backward.  If the rest of the defense does its job correctly, the defensive backs should have to do nothing other than read, react, and contain.

What would make this a departure from the strict principles of, say, a LeBeau-esque 3-4 defensive scheme would be the downplaying of defending the run at the expense of generating more penetration in the middle of the field.  Gone would be the Casey Hampton style of nose guard, and inserted would be the penetrating, athletic freak who would still demand doubles due to his speed and ability to crash the pocket.

Gone would be the two-down-only, thumping “Buck” linebacker, as both the Buck and the Mack ‘backers would need to be fast, good in coverage, and have the ability to shed blockers on the move toward the quarterback.

A play making safety would still be required, coupled with a more savvy, technical safety opposite to allow him to freelance with less trepidation.  The corners would all need to be able to run. Recognition and ability to make plays on the ball is the primary trait required.

Pivotal Players:  Specific to this team, the most pivotal player on the defense is probably Marcell Dareus.  If he fails to do what we hope, the idea at the core of the scheme pretty much dies.  He’d be followed in importance by Lawrence Timmons, Brian Cushing, and Patrick Chung.

Dareus is the cog in the middle that will potentially make this scheme function or not.  He’s a large, large man that moves like someone much smaller.  When playing on the nose for Buffalo in ’11, out of position no less, he consistently blew up the center of opposing offensive lines.  He’s too quick and too strong to expect anyone outside the best interior linemen to handle one on one.  He won against the double more often than not, so even that is no guarantee that he isn’t getting into your quarterback’s kitchen.  And he was still able to scrape and shed blockers and be a force against the run.

As with all thirty fronts, the linebackers are paramount and our scheme is no different.  Timmons and Cushing will be the primary play makers and will be practically interchangeable.  Cushing has the speed to run with all but the fastest tight ends, and Timmons can probably even keep up with some of those.  Both are excellent blitzing from the interior.  On any given play, an offense will have to choose which guy they think is coming – and at times it will be both.

Chung is the wildcard.  When healthy and permitted to line closer to the line of scrimmage, it seemed like all he did was make plays.  I do not think he will reach the class of Troy Polamalu or Edward Reed, but I think he could get damn close in this proposed scheme.  He can run, he can tackle, he can blitz, he can make plays on the ball, and he’s a big hitter.  Using him roles that include time at linebacker, safety, or slot corner is not out of the question and would be entirely planned upon.

Chung has his flaws, but by moving him around and playing to his strengths we think they would be mitigated as he learned the scheme.  Ultimately, we expect (hope) he could develop into a “defensive joker” who can erase some of the effectiveness from the top athletes and tight end. Our only real concern with him is health. He seems to get banged up every year, but we’re willing to roll the dice here.

Coach/Coordinator:  Most probably think the obvious choice for a defensive coordinator would be LeBeau or Dom Capers, but I’m of the mind that both of those gentlemen, while great, are a little too set in their ways at this stage of their careers to truly embrace the tweaks that my scheme is espousing.  With that in mind, I’m targeting a guy that has been responsible for developing a passel of great two-way fire zone linebackers and who also has been immersed in the fire zone for a long, long time: Keith Butler.

With his heavy experience with the basic fire zone philosophies and the ability to convert raw, unrefined athletes (typically who’ve come from another position) into legit stars, we think he’s a great choice to get this thing to not only work, but dominate.

Where do you believe your offense is vulnerable in terms of system and personnel and what specifically have you done to minimize the impact of those vulnerabilities?

The most glaring vulnerability is likely that the scheme isn’t equipped to be much in the way of “power running” at all, neither schematically nor personnel-wise. When we NEED to run it into the teeth of the defense it will be a challenge.  What I’ve done to mitigate the impact, I hope, is to build an offense that forces a defense to play off the line of scrimmage as much as possible, particularly the defensive backs and nickel players.

With the speed I can roll out at wide receiver, one false step could be six.  We expect that should give us a little more room to move, so to speak, when it comes to the interior run game.  Also, by making our rush offense built around wide/outside zone runs it should a) allow our backs to take advantage of any over pursuit by the defense a great deal, and b) not have to resort to “man up” inside rushes very often.

From a personnel standpoint, depth on the offensive line could leave us vulnerable, particularly if either Monroe or Wood were to get injured.

Can LaRod Stephens-Howling potentially carry the load in 5-ish’s offense? This reader-project team owner thinks so. You might be surprised who also thinks so (stay tuned to this series). Photo by photogeek21.

Where do you believe your defense is vulnerable in terms of system and personnel and what specifically have you done to minimize the impact of those vulnerabilities?

Like most pressure defenses, we will be vulnerable when a team is able to recognize and defuse our blitzes.  In order to mitigate that impact, what we’ve done is pretty simple:  Attempt to put legit pass rushers at all levels of the defense.  It will be much harder for a team to read, let alone react to, our exotic rush packages when they have absolutely no idea who may be bearing down on a given play.

A secondary vulnerability may be depth at nose guard.  What we’re trying to do is so specialized that not a lot of players fit the mold of what we need on the nose.  It was basically impossible to roster two of them, given costs, so moving forward one of the first priorities would be to find a developmental type behind Dareus.

A marginal vulnerability may be a spotty run defense, though it will probably be unclear whether that is the case until the team starts playing game.  All three of the starting defensive linemen are adept at snuffing out the run, and three of the linebackers are strong tacklers.  On paper, the run defense should at least be passable. But given that we will be blitzing so much, the potential for significant gains if players miss tackles will exist.  I tried to mitigate that by putting legit tacklers with speed in the defensive backfield, but I could see where it may bite us if things break poorly.

Who are your stars and why did you invest so much in them?

Offense: Stafford, Wallace, Thomas, and Monroe.  To a lesser degree maybe Gresham.

For what we want to do on offense, it was imperative to be able to rip the roof off the defense.  Wallace and Thomas have world-class speed and, for a tight end, Gresham has great wheels.  There won’t be many defenders that we can’t run past.

With the speed part of the equation in mind, and coupled with the no-huddle nature of the scheme, I also wanted to ensure we had a young, savvy quarterback who possessed an absolute rocket for an arm, is mobile in the pocket, and able to make calls at the line.  I think Stafford fits the bill perfectly.  He has the physical qualities needed already, the talent and intelligence to continue to develop the reading and recognition skills required, and is a tough, ballsy winner.

Defense: Timmons, Cushing, and Dareus.  Secondarily, Chung and Ike Taylor.  Hopefully Mercilus becomes one. Timmons, Cushing, and Dareus are the core of this scheme.  As they go, so goes the defense. Chung is basically our “defensive joker” in that he will be lined up at various spots and given the freedom to run to the ball. Taylor, though aging, is still absolutely a lockdown corner that can cover up a lot of ills of the all-out rush we’ll be throwing at teams.

If Mercilus does nothing other than rush the passer in his early days, he will probably out-produce his salary by a decent bit.  He needs to be able to play in space, but in his early career we will take just being able to get into the backfield and blow up plays.  Not a star now, but we really need him to become one.

Name some of your offensive role players who might be role players now, but you believe could develop into much more as a starter or even star in your organization.

David Gettis: I never see him “starring”, but he has the size, hands, and speed to allow us to do exactly what we want to do at the wide receiver spot.  Seeing him in the starting lineup in a year or two over Boldin wouldn’t be a total surprise.

Perhaps LaRod Stephens-Howling, if Bradshaw were to succumb to his feet issues.  If Stephens-Howling can continue to develop his vision and recognition I could see him becoming a viable starter in this offense.  He has the speed, moves, and hands required, and is an underrated blocker.  Like Gettis, I don’t think he’d ever “star”, but he could probably be a very, very serviceable No.1-A type in the scheme if his vision continues to improve.  Inexperience is really his only hurdle to remedy that at this point.

Name some of your defensive role players who might be role players now, but you believe could develop into much more as a starter or even star in your organization.

Chris Carter.  This guy is a heat-seeking missile as a rusher.  He’s actually been given reps at inside linebacker, so it wouldn’t be totally outside the realm for him to be able to spell Cushing/Timmons without losing the ability to bring the heat from either the Mack or the Buck spots.  Strictly as an outside linebacker, if Mercilus tanked, Carter has enough legit pass rush potential to possibly hold down that WILL spot.

Cortez Allen would be another potential starter among my role players.  He’s fast, super athletic, and can cover/tackle/make plays on the ball.

Which of your starters or significant situational contributors on your rosters do you believe would be on the roster bubble in 2013?

If I had to pick only one? Probably Ike Taylor. He’s reaching the stage of his career where even the best defensive backs sometimes just fall off a cliff.  We don’t expect that to happen, as the scheme values reading/recognition just as much as athletics, but you never know when the edge of the table is going to spring up on a guy. Anquan Boldin may qualify for this too. His age is at a point where he may not take a shine to being “third in the pecking order” at receiver even if he’ll still be starting.

A couple other important contributors that could be on the bubble, generally due to health issues, could be Bradshaw and Amendola.  We certainly would have every intention for them to be on the roster going forward, but their availability may be compromised due to factors beyond our control.

What was the most difficult part of the selection process for you?

Building the offensive line. Secondarily, maybe fielding depth that was actually viable talent for these schemes and not just cheap players.

Based on your roster what type of playing facility would you want as your home stadium (describe the facility as outdoors, indoors, turf, grass, climate)?

With all this team speed we’re almost required by law to be in a dome, on turf.  This squad will be a bitch to play against on carpet.

Name three risky personnel selections on offense and explain why (talent, off-field, age, injury, fit, etc.).

Ahmad Bradshaw:  I’m basically entrusting my running game to his gimpy feet.  I think he fits the scheme great, but those feet – I will always have some worry.

Eric Wood:  He’s looked borderline fantastic as a pass blocker in his young career, and very comfortable in space/on the move.  Those are absolutely key for this scheme, which is great but he’ll need to remain healthy, and he’ll need to develop more as a run blocker.  If he can’t do either of those things, then that is going to be a large hurdle to overcome given that his backup is just journeyman level.

LaRod Stephens-Howling: The risk here is inexperience.  He’s young and talented, but he hasn’t been around a ton yet and, as it stands, he’s basically one false step away from being the No.1-A at running back for this team.  I think that he could handle the role, if he continues to develop his vision, but I’m pretty much taking a leap of faith that he can.

Name three risky personnel selections on defense and explain why (see above).

Marcel Dareus: I really don’t think he’s much of a risk, but some on the outside may.  I think many may still feel he’s playing “out of position” on the nose.  I disagree, given what we’re trying to do, but will allow that since he’s a very young player that there is still a certain–albeit low–level of risk involved.

Patrick Chung: Primarily he’s risky because of his health.  Others may say he’s risky because of how I envision utilizing him in the scheme, but I disagree with that.  That said, I will admit that he is probably going to be the most polarizing player on defense.  He will either become a star or will tank due to injuries.

Whitney Mercilus:  Love his potential as a rusher, but worry about his ability to play in space.  Given that we will be blitzing so much from all areas of the defense, he is going to HAVE to learn to function in space and he is going to need to do it quickly.  I’m not saying he needs to be at the levels of Timmons or Cushing in coverage, but he can’t be “extinction level event” caliber, either.

Name a few players you really wished to add, but couldn’t find the room due to the restrictions of the salary cap or the fit within your team’s system.

Linebacker Shaun Phillips is one of the players 5ish wished he could have on his team, but the salary cap prevented him from making this choice. Photo by Brad J. Ward.

Andy Levitre:  It REEEALLY stung when the offensive values were changed and his doubled, although it needed to realistically, I guess.  He’s one of the best interior pass blockers in the league.

Aldon Smith:  Again, when the values changed I just couldn’t keep him on the roster and still have a remotely viable offensive line.  Hated dropping him, but had no choice.

Shaun Phillips:  When I couldn’t keep Smith any more I tried my damnedest to get Phillips on the team at WILL.  He was just a touch too expensive.

Which players on your team would you have added even if they cost more than the listed price?

Dareus. One of Timmons/Cushing.  One of Wallace/Thomas. Monroe.

How do you think the makeup of your roster and distribution of your resources illustrates where your philosophy breaks with NFL conventional wisdom?

Tough one, since I’m not sure what I’d classify “conventional NFL wisdom” anymore. Perhaps the amount of salary I expended on the middle of my defense versus the “sexier” positions for a 3-4 outside linebacker.  On offense, maybe where I kind of “cheaped out” on the offensive line, in a sense, because I was targeting players with a specific skill set (advanced pass blockers) versus trying to build a line that was “great at everything” could be viewed as breaking with tradition.

Next: Former NFL lineman and Football Outsiders columnist Ben Muth’s squad.

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