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The Rise of Positionless Defense in the NFL

Do-it-all safeties, shifting defensive linemen, and the never ending pursuit of confusing and perplexing modern offenses

Anyone that has spent any amount of time over the last few years watching the NBA has probably heard a term used so frequently that it borders on cliche. That term is “positionless basketball”. The game of basketball, like most sports, is constantly tweaking and evolving. What worked in the 1980s is not what will work today. Positionless basketball is the idea that players have become so versatile that simply assigning them to a specific role is counterproductive. Positionless basketball dictates that working within these confines is archaic and that the best 5 players available should be the ones on the court.

The idea has taken hold in NBA circles, and has led to new descriptors for players such as “3 and D wing” or “shot creator” as opposed to the centers, forwards, and guards of old. While this has become the norm in basketball, the same sort of widespread adoption has not been fully embraced in football. The NFL for all of its new wrinkles is still very much positionally defined, especially on defense. This is why a recent comment by New York Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale about the team's new linebacker Isaiah Simmons was particularly interesting. Martindale said of Simmons:

"He's perfect for this defense. ... It's not about what position we're gonna play him; we're gonna play him wherever we need him because he can do so many different things. I've talked before about positionless defense. He's perfect for that."

Martindale has long been known as one of the more inventive minds on the defensive side of the ball, and his willingness to shuffle his players around like chess pieces is an indication of the rise of new schemes in football aimed at slowing down the high-powered offenses of today. What we could be witnessing is the rise of positionless defensive football.

The Offensive Renaissance

It is an overused expression that the NFL is a quarterbacks league. The reason it is overused is because it is incredibly accurate. But I would amend that statement to say that the NFL is now a passing league predicated on spacing. The game has evolved from one that is predicated on the running game in between the tackles and throwing the ball deep in the vertical passing game, to one that is more about getting the ball out quickly in space to playmakers at the wide receiver and running back positions. What this means is more accuracy from quarterbacks, since the throws are safer in nature.

In 2003, 21 out of 35 quarterbacks had completion percentages under 60%. Compare that to last season, where only one quarterback (Zach Wilson of the New York Jets) had a completion percentage of under 60%. The reason for this uptick is that the passes that are thrown by quarterbacks are not traveling as long in the air as they used to, even only a decade ago. In terms of yards per attempt, there has been a steady decline in average yards since 2013. The method to the madness of this stat is that wide receivers and running backs have become so much more versatile, fast, and athletic than they were a decade ago. By introducing concepts that create space on quick passes, these athletes are given the opportunity to gain huge chunks of yardage by making the first defender miss.

These concepts initially were derived from the college game at schools like Florida, West Virginia, and Oregon that had prolific up-tempo spread offenses that utilized players that were able to take the ball in space and confuse defenses. A player like Percy Harvin would be utilized in a variety of ways to take advantage of his skills as a pass catcher but also as a runner. This birthed the idea of position agnostic offensive players that could take advantage of mismatches of the more rigidly configured defenses. This concept eventually has made its way to the NFL, where we have seen these types of hybrid players flourish while giving defensive coaches nightmares. Players like Cordarrelle Patterson of the Falcons and Deebo Samuel of the 49ers have been utilized in both the running and passing game to blur the lines of their true position.

This trend has continued across positions where Tight Ends have morphed into players that can be treated as wide receivers on one play and then become fullbacks the next. For running backs, being able to receive passes out of the backfield is now a must and no longer a luxury, as many offensive systems will have their backs line up in the slot from time to time. Quarterbacks have become more mobile, which has reintroduced the zone-read running attack to the NFL. Versatility is the name of the game, and NFL offenses no longer feel the need to operate under the rigidity of positional designations. As such, defenses have been forced to adapt and become more athletic and positionless themselves.

Prioritizing Versatility

Anyone that has played Madden over the years is likely familiar with using the Nickel and Dime defensive packages to defend pass plays. These formations feature a larger number of defensive backs (cornerbacks and safeties) than standard 4-3 and 3-4 alignments. Extra defensive backs typically means less of a pass rush which allows for better pass coverage. As the game has evolved more into a passing game, the use of these formations has increased from just over 30% in 2010 to now over 60% in 2022.

By these formations becoming the base coverage for many teams in the NFL, there have been variations where there are overloaded safeties as a wrinkle that is called “Big Nickel”. This formation uses three safeties on the field instead of three cornerbacks that are more common in Nickel formations. The trend in the use of this alignment has a number of benefits. While this generation's cornerbacks have generally become better tacklers in space, they cannot fully replace a linebacker in terms of run support. This generation’s safeties, on the other hand, are a better option.

Safeties today have the responsibility to assist in deep pass coverage in addition to being able to support against the run game. This means that they are rangy, athletic, and strong enough to bring Tight Ends like Travis Kelce down. This required versatility has been an evolution in defensive football intended to counteract the versatile skill position players that have emerged on the offensive side of the ball. These players are big enough to rush the passer, fast enough to hit the hole to stuff a running back, and agile enough to cover wide receivers and tight ends on intermediate passing routes. In short, the safety position has become the NFL’s Swiss Army Knife on defense.

This versatility also applies to traditional pass rushers. In a traditional 4-3 or 3-4 alignment, defensive tackles and defensive ends stick to their assigned gaps (the space between each offensive lineman). But this becomes too predictable and offenses can easily neutralize an elite defensive lineman with a variety of schemes. This is why it is not uncommon to see an elite defensive end like Myles Garrett of the Cleveland Browns shift into different spots on the line to keep an opposing quarterback uncomfortable. These pass rushers have also become more athletic and faster, allowing them to drop into pass coverage when linebackers and safeties blitz. These sort of exotic misdirections have become commonplace in today’s NFL, and are part of the constant chess match between offensive and defensive minds in the game.

Erosion and Progress

When you think of some of the most dominant defenses of all time, there are a few units that come to mind. Maybe it's the 1985 Chicago Bears, the Purple People Eaters Vikings from the 1970s, or perhaps it is the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. We often think of these units as strong and dominant forces that imposed their will upon opposing offenses. And while they did accomplish that (their stats reinforce that fact), they simply played in a different era than what we have become accustomed to today.

The 1985 Bears, for instance, played the 46 defense as their base. This defense was in essence a 4-3, but the second safety played more like a linebacker. In today’s game, with the type of players that were on that defense, it could not be sustained because it has no answer for the short passing game and the spacing with which modern offenses play. This is part of football’s neverending evolution. What worked 20 or 30 years ago will not work today, just as the offenses of today will seem archaic in 10-20 years from now. The casualty of this evolution is the fading of certain player archetypes in favor of ones that fit today’s football culture more sufficiently.

One of these casualties to the modernization of NFL defenses is the middle linebacker. Anyone that remembers the 2000 Baltimore Ravens will likely feel the sting of that statement when one considers the dominant force that Ray Lewis was in his prime. But the reality is that in a league that values versatility and closing speed more than anything else, the position finds itself as undesirable as a blocking tight end that can’t run routes. These players have been replaced in importance by do-it-all safeties and it is hard to say that the change doesn’t make sense. These safeties are just as large as these linebackers were, but with faster 40-yard dash times and superior ball skills in the passing game. It is a change that needed to happen to prevent arena league type score lines in the NFL.

As we look at defense in the NFL today, it is increasingly becoming more abstract from a positional perspective. There are players that we are unsure of whether they are safeties or linebackers, defensive linemen that can lineup inside and outside, and cornerbacks that can defend the run as well as they defend the pass. Positionless football, much like positionless basketball, allows teams to field their best players, the ones that are playmakers. Football today is a game that is in constant pursuit of players that can make an impact and affect winning. The end result is an infinitely more intriguing product filled with wrinkles and pivots in the neverending chess match of innovation between the games best offensive and defensive minds. A battle of maneuvering that makes this game so much fun to absorb and behold.

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