Bryan Frye’s Defense to Defend the Planet

Kick'em in the head, Ted.
Kick’em in the head, Ted.

Outlaw the forward pass, lock and load your defense with the most explosive, powerful, and agile big men for trench warfare, and you have Bryan Frye’s defense to defend the planet. 

Rules – 1893

When Matt invited me to participate in this exercise, I gladly accepted and immediately started trying to game the system. I wanted a defensive line made of 2012, 2013, and 2014 J.J. Watt – Matt shot that down in a hurry. I then figured I’d want to take advantage of the aliens’ lack of creativity by allowing Bill Walsh to create the most intricate offense imaginable with some of the greatest talents in history serving as his chess pieces. Then I remembered that the team had a maximum of 90 days to digest the playbook and learn to work together. Complex West Coast Offense calls might not be the way to go.

At long last, it occurred to me: why not take advantage of their inflexible minds by forcing the combatants to play under 1893 rules? Effectively, this means playing with almost no rules at all. I imagine the aliens will scoff at this idea and claim three yards and a cloud of dust plays directly to their strengths and all but eliminates our creative advantage. The celestial assailants are far more intelligent than we; they’re also dead wrong. I’ll tell you why.

Defense (Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.)

Before I chose antediluvian rules, I struggled with organizing my defense. Do I want to play under 1970s rules and let Mel Blount, Night Train Lane, and Willie Brown brutalize receivers? How about playing under modern rules and letting Darrelle Revis and Deion Sanders shut down wide outs with limited contact? Fortunately, once I decided to use the rules in place during the Grover Cleveland presidency, things cleared up pretty quickly.

With the forward pass outlawed, I can ignore most defensive backs altogether. Instead, I can focus on players who can stop the run by occupying blockers, penetrating into the backfield, setting the edge, or tracking and tackling ball carriers.

Defensive Coordinator: Bill Belichick

Bill Belichick's Patriots like to use the
Bill Belichick’s Patriots like to use the “Hybrid” 12 personnel set and Miglio is following suit.

Belichick is basically the modern version of head coach Pop Warner. He is a creative play designer, both on offense and on defense. He is also a master imitator, willing to take concepts from any level and incorporate them into his scheme if it means helping his team win. His nuanced understanding of the rulebook has allowed him to craft clever strategies that some might say involve him walking the tightrope between right and wrong. I’m not here to make a judgment on Belichick’s liberal interpretation of the rules. I’m just here to say that if I’m facing enslavement at the hands of an advanced race, I want a coach who takes $200 even when he doesn’t pass GO.

Belichick probably doesn’t need to bend the rules, because his coaching acumen is among the highest of any coach ever to walk the sideline. He has a nearly unrivaled football IQ, and his ability to game plan for opponents has been paralleled by few in the long history of the sport. There are three game plans in the Pro Football Hall of Fame; Belichick authored two of them.[1] With no film of the alien team, we need a coach who can make adjustments at halftime (if not earlier). His ability to make such adjustments is, in my estimation, without equal. He also boasts perhaps the world’s most impressive football library, and you can tell from interviews that he knows the contents of every book almost by heart. It wouldn’t surprise me if Belichick already had dreams of designing sneaky schemes suited for American football’s Paleolithic Era. I imagine when he got the call from me and learned the rulebook we’d be using, he hung up the phone and said to himself through a grin: “Finally.”

[1] In case you were wondering, the other belongs to Weeb Ewbank for the Colts’ 1958 NFL Championship Game victory over the New York Giants.

Building things the right way with this immovable foundation. Photo by Keith Allison.
No passing? You need a ton of beef. Photo by Keith Allison.

My defensive line philosophy is pretty simple: have giants in the middle and penetrators on the ends.

Interior Line:

  • Albert Haynesworth
  • Jamal Williams
  • Haloti Ngata
  • Dontari Poe

I know this one isn’t going to win me any votes from the crowd, especially after his post-Tennessee meltdown. However, there was a two-year stretch in which Haynesworth looked like the second coming of Reggie White. In his last two years for the Titans, he combined for 14.5 sacks while effectively scaring other teams away from running up the middle. With our 1893 rules in place, he can ignore pass rushing duties and cause havoc against the run.

Remember, this isn’t the lethargic dullard from Washington we’re getting; it’s the one man gang from Tennessee. Neither Greg Blache nor Jim Haslett is coaching this defense. I have little interest in using this behemoth to simply hold his ground and gobble up blockers. On the contrary, I’m going to let him run wild and focus all his creativity and aggression on felling his foes. If that means stomping on some alien brains, so be it.

During his time with the Chargers, Williams was the fulcrum around which the entire defense pivoted. A 350 pound mountain of a man, he anchored the line and defended the run arguably better than any of his contemporaries. Williams combined massive size and tremendous strength with great leverage and sound technique. What resulted was a nose tackle capable of controlling the center of the line of scrimmage and allowing Wade Phillips to focus on his other ten defenders. While Williams didn’t achieve the notoriety of Haynesworth or Casey Hampton, he was probably better than either as a pure run stuffer.

The colossi controlling the A gaps were known more for their incredible power than for their athleticism. Our B-gappers will still be massive, but they will possess uncommon agility and body control for men of their stature. The first of these men is Ngata. He possesses the strength and generates the interior push that you’d expect from a 340 pounder, but he also has the block shedding and edge setting ability to successfully play end in a 3-4 scheme. In the Ravens’ multiple front, Ngata has been asked both to hold his ground to allow teammates to make plays and to wreak his own havoc as a penetrator. He has done both at an All Pro level.

Coming out of Oregon, Ngata weighed in at 338 pounds and ran the 40 in as little as 5.03 seconds. That is amazing speed for a man his size. Incredibly, he plays even faster. His ability to locate the ball and move laterally to stop the carrier is a valuable part of our run defense. If you’re not convinced of his quickness, maybe you can ask world-class athlete Robert Griffin III.

Poe is like a larger, more athletic (albeit less skilled) version of Ngata. If you thought Ngata’s Combine performance was impressive, then you’ll be in awe of Poe’s 4.98 forty at 346 pounds. His 44 reps of 225 was also impressive, but it’s his ability to actually use his strength on the field that earns him a spot on this roster. Few people on the planet are as powerful as he, and almost none of them can match his speed and body control. He would be the prototype for nose tackles of the future, if only other such figures roamed the earth.

Coming out of Memphis, there was concern over his ability to perform against talented NFL centers and guards. His scouting report said he was slow off the ball and would likely struggle to make an impact in the NFL. The concerns and criticisms were wrong. His first step doesn’t remind Chiefs fans of Derrick Thomas, but it is explosive for his stature. Further, he has the lower body power and upper body dexterity to devour double teams or control blockers on his way to the football. On runs to the outside, he has the speed and recognition to chase backs down the line of scrimmage. It took a while for him to develop the nasty disposition necessary for life in the trenches, but, while he’s not Joe Greene, his attitude has finally matched his monstrous form.

Exterior Line:

  • Reggie White
  • J.J. Watt

Younger fans of the game may have heard tales of Reggie White’s dominance, and they may have some foggy memory of White tossing Max Lane around like a rag doll in the Super Bowl, but I think most underestimate his athletic gifts. He was more than just a hulking man who threw fellow giants around at a whim; he was a graceful and explosive physical specimen. Unofficial combine reports have White running a 4.69 40 yard dash at roughly 280 pounds. His teammate to defend the planet, JJ Watt, can’t even claim such a time.

It wasn’t just speed and size that made White incredible. Instead, it was his quickness and explosiveness, in concert with tremendous leverage and functional power, which enabled him to earn more sacks than games played during his time with the Eagles and post double-digit sack seasons until the age of 37. Pass rushing ability is irrelevant in a game without passing, but the skills that enabled White to get to the quarterback are the same skills that will allow him to dominate the end of the line of scrimmage.

Watt hasn’t just been the best defensive linemen in the league over the last three years, he’s been the best player in the league. He can line up in the middle and embarrass centers and guards, or he can line up outside and embarrass tackles and tight ends. He can win with quickness and agility, or he can win with brute strength and determination. I’m certain no alien invader is going to outwork Watt on the field. The man is a wolverine.

Watt is most known for his work against the pass. He bats passes at the line of scrimmage at an unprecedented rate, and he is the first player to officially record multiple seasons with 20 or more sacks. However, what many fans don’t realize is that he is probably the best run defender of any defensive lineman in the league. Since his 2012 breakout year, no lineman has more run stops than Watt. Knowing there is no chance of the opponent passing, he can focus his energy on blowing up the run game. He’s the most dominant defensive player since Reggie White and Lawrence Taylor. Fortunately, they’re all on our team.


Miller makes the Broncos a good pick as a team defense. Photo by Jeffery Beall.
Miller working opposite LT? Yeah, that’ll work. Photo by Jeffery Beall.

For linebackers, I want two men on the outside setting the edge and keeping contain, and I want two fast and rangy tacklers patrolling the second level. Perhaps surprisingly, the first player to pop into my head was Takeo Spikes. He wasn’t fast, he couldn’t cover anyone, and he has no big game experience, but he is the best tackler I have ever seen. Ultimately, I didn’t think he had the range or versatility necessary for Belichick’s machinations.

Outside Linebackers

  • Lawrence Taylor
  • Von Miller

LT may be the greatest defensive player ever to step on the field, and he is certainly one of the most feared. He was blessed with exceptional speed and a surprising amount of functional strength that belied his 237 pound frame. To complement his once-in-a-generation athletic ability, Taylor possessed an almost psychotic desire to destroy offenses. His ravenous playing style and peerless physical skills made him a nightmare for offensive coordinators. Offensive masterminds like Bill Walsh and Joe Gibbs had trouble with Taylor, and both had to create special strategies just for games against the Giants.

On the Team to Defend the Planet, Taylor gets to reunite with his linebackers coach and eventual defensive coordinator, Bill Belichick. The Hoodie’s familiarity with Taylor (and vice-versa) will undoubtedly work to our benefit. Belichick can get creative with the Taylor and Von Miller as his edge defenders. The coach has described his linebacker as one of the most intelligent players he has ever coached, but perhaps his most gushing sentiment came when praising Taylor’s disregard for his own body. With only one game to defend the world, I want a crazed dog who will throw caution to the wind.

The closest thing this generation has to Lawrence Taylor, Miller is explosive and possesses underrated strength while setting the edge. He has made a name for himself by getting to the quarterback, but he is one of the best linebackers in the NFL when it comes to playing the run. His first step is so fast that even the most athletic tackles have trouble getting an inside hand on him. Watch almost any tape of Miller on a passing play, and you will see him two yards in the backfield before any of the wide receivers have made it a yard into their routes.

He won’t get to throw any alien quarterbacks into the dirt, but he will get to come off the edge to blow up any sweeps or pitches that may come to his side. I imagine our opponents will have limited success running up the middle and will try to test the edge after their early failures. With Watt and White occupying the ends and Taylor and Miller keeping contain, I believe the star men will be in for a long day.

Inside Linebackers

  • Ray Lewis
  • Patrick Willis
Patrick Willis and Vernon Davis mirror images? Easily. Photo by Jason Ku.
Frye wanted to clone Ray Lewis. Since he couldn’t, Patrick Willis is the logical approximation. Easily. Photo by Jason Ku.

Regardless of the controversy that followed Lewis after his first Super Bowl, his work against the run is too good not to include him on this team. At his physical peak, he was fast and strong, capable of making sure tackles sideline-to-sideline or stuffing runs up the middle. He is one of the best I have ever watched when it comes to engaging lead blockers and shedding them to make plays.

At his mental peak, he was among the savviest linebackers ever to play. His ability to read offensive linemen and diagnose plays allowed him to play at a high level ever after his athleticism diminished. Dedication to film study played a big role in this part of his game, but he also had an innate intangible aptitude for understanding what the offense was trying to do. Most people call this instinct. I don’t know what to call it, but I want it on my team.

At his emotional peak, Lewis was the unquestioned leader of his locker room. His passionate play and leonine roar motivated teammates on the field. His spiritual guidance and ministerial speech inspired them off the field. Ultimately, his play and personality demanded respect from his peers.

The aliens have given me the technology to get him at his physical, mental, and emotional peaks at the same time. They’re going to regret that.

Matt made it perfectly clear to me that I can’t clone Ray Lewis. So why not do the next best thing by adding the heir to his throne. Willis is a more athletic, if not quite as instinctive, linebacker than was Lewis. He started off his career in style, posting four straight seasons with over 100 tackles. He could shoot the gap to make tackles in the backfield, he could take on and disengage fullbacks with relative ease, and he could use his speed to chase down receivers from behind. His swiftness and instincts got him in the right place, and his strength and technique allowed him to make the sure tackle.

His role changed in Vic Fangio’s defense. His responsibilities expanded, and his tackle numbers dropped. His scheme utilized his quickness and intelligence to make a bigger impact against the pass, but his ability to stop the run never diminished. Much like Lewis, by the time he slowed down, his mental faculties allowed him to continue playing at a high level. The fact that Belichick gets to coach 2008 Willis’ body with 2014 Willis’ mind really isn’t even fair.

(Secondary) Safety Antoine Winfield

This was the hardest position on my team to fill. I thought about hard hitters like Ronnie Lott, Kenny Easley, or Steve Atwater, but I decided that I would prefer solid form tackling to hard knocks. I then thought about using Derrick Brooks as my last line of defense. I decided he’s just not fast enough to chase down an alien halfback who happened to break through the second level. I finally narrowed down to Charles Woodson and Winfield, and I ultimately went with Winfield for his superior speed and higher tackling success rate.

There have been dozens of better defensive backs throughout football history, but I don’t need most of the things that make secondary players great. I need a guy who runs fast and reacts to the run even faster. I want to know that my deepest defender is going to make a sure form tackle instead of going for a highlight-reel slobberknocker. The instinctive Winfield may have received little national recognition, but he’ll be treated like royalty after helping save the planet.

Kicker Justin Tucker

Prior to 1897, field goals were actually worth more than touchdowns. Because of this, the kicker is probably more valuable to my team than it is to anyone else’s team. I want a guy I know can make big kicks. I want to know that, if the aliens have some sort of device that creates hurricane conditions on the field, my kicker can nail it anyway. I also want a guy who helps my team win the field position battle by delivering consistently strong kickoffs.

I know there have been great kickers throughout history, and names like Groza, Stenerud, Anderson(sen), and Vinatieri might garner more votes. I don’t care. With the lives of my wife and child on the line, I’ll take Tucker over any of the bigger names.

Kick Returner Gale Sayers

Since the Kansas Comet is my kick returner, let’s look at his contributions on special teams. It’s fairly common knowledge that he still owns the NFL record with 30.6 yards per kick return, and I’m sure some people know that Sayers also had a record 23 consecutive games with at least 100 all-purpose yards. He was able to accomplish these feats because he had a rare combination of field vision, speed, and balance. He was able to make hard cuts at full speed in a way that perhaps only Barry Sanders has been able to match.

Sayers was also among the most amazing pure runners the game has ever seen. Picture Reggie Bush at USC, and now pretend he did it in the NFL for a team with mediocre surrounding talent. That’s basically Gale Sayers. Because there’s no rules limiting substitutions, Sayers will spend time spelling Shapiro on offense as well. Just imagine the option plays we’ll be able to run with Walter Payton deciding to keep it, hand it off to Tomlinson off tackle, hand it to a motioning Sayers on a sweep, or pitch it to Sanders. With our talented running back quartet on hand, our coaching triumvirate will be able to devise myriad devious plays.

He fumbled the ball like he was carrying a bar of wet soap, but I’m sure he’s familiarized himself with proper carrying technique in the 44 years since his retirement. What he hasn’t learned in his post-playing career, I’m confident he can pick up from Coach Gibbs. If not, I’m sure Coach Belichick can think of something.

Punter Randall Cunningham

Cunningham was an All American punter two consecutive years in college. Although he didn’t punt full-time in the NFL, he was still able to let it rip when called upon. With coaches Warner and Belichick bending the rules in our favor, I can’t see us having to punt very often. When we do have to punt, I trust Cunningham to get plenty of distance. Maybe I’ll even bring in Mike Scifres to help him work on coffin corner kicks. With the fate of the world at stake, I’m sure Scifres would oblige.

I also want the Ultimate Weapon serving as my punter because he was an explosive runner with excellent vision and a solid frame capable of taking hits. If I want to run a fake punt, I trust Cunningham to have greater success than Ray Guy ever would. To top it all off, he was a pretty talented passer too. “But Bryan,” you say, “Teddy Roosevelt didn’t force the legalization of the forward pass until 1906!” Well, my knowledgeable friend, you’re exactly right. However, there are several reported instances of illegal forward passes being allowed prior to 1906. In fact, one such play came on a punt in 1895. With Georgia defenders set to block his punt, North Carolina’s punter threw a short pass that resulted in a 70 yard touchdown. The play was allowed and was the only score in UNC’s victory. Assuming we are also importing officiating crews from the nineteenth century, I think we have a good chance at getting a few iffy calls in our favor.

Punt Returner Jim Thorpe

Nope, not Craphonso...
Nope, not Craphonso…

Jim Thorpe, whose Algonquian named translates as Bright Path, is the greatest athlete in American history. Don’t take my word for it; Congress already said so. He was faster and stronger than anyone he competed against. However, it wasn’t just his physical prowess that made him great; he also possessed the mental acuity to pick up on nuanced techniques very quickly. Prior to winning the pentathlon and decathlon in the 1912 Olympics, he first had to learn how to throw the javelin. Despite throwing a javelin for the first time just two months before the event, he finished fourth among his Olympic competitors. He was also a champion ballroom dancer, something he couldn’t accomplish through sheer athletic will. As a fleet-footed and punishing runner, a crushing blocker, and accomplished defensive back, Thorpe can contribute on both sides of the ball when called upon.

Bright Path isn’t just on my team for his athleticism and mental dexterity. Despite being a minority in the early twentieth century, Thorpe was universally respected by players and coaches. His mere presence lent credibility to the fledgling upstart NFL (originally the APFA), and he was named the league’s first ever president. On the field, Thorpe’s authority helped put an end to racial targeting. During a 1917 game, Thorpe’s opponent, Haitian immigrant Henry McDonald, was subjected to unsportsmanlike violence because of his color. This lasted only one play, as Thorpe corrected teammate Greasy Neale by making it clear that every man on the field is a football player. Said McDonald: “I never had any trouble after that. Thorpe’s word was law on that field.”

Institutional prejudice played a large part in this mythic figure dying in ignominy. This time around, Thorpe will receive the praise he earned as the captain of the Team to Defend the Planet.

Special Teamer Ted Hendricks

Hendricks in one of the most cerebral players in NFL history, diagnosing plays seemingly with ease. John Madden described him as the brightest player he ever coached. Kick-em’-in-the-Head-Ted used his preternatural instincts and 6’7” frame to block a record 25 kicks during his career. With the importance of the kicking game in 1893, we’re going to need Hendricks on our squad.

In addition to being an intelligent and talented player, Hendricks was also a little different from your average football player (or human, in general). He relaxed by doing math problems, and he once arrived to practice on horseback, in full pads, carrying a traffic cone like a lance.  The eccentric Mad Stork may give our team just the right amount of weird we need to confound our enemies.

Bryan Frye runs the site GridFe and contributes to Football Perspective.  You can (and should) follow him on Twitter at @Laverneusdingle. 

2 responses to “Bryan Frye’s Defense to Defend the Planet”

  1. That was my favorite article in this series by a bit! Well thought out and entertaining and I dig Matt’s writing so bully to you sir

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