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The league is heading into the final quarter with only a number of teams still in the hunt for the playoffs, although things are beginning to settle. Even so, teams that are completely out of the playoff race are still generating plenty of headlines.

The Cleveland Browns on/off dalliance with Johnny Manziel being there starting quarterback only further demonstrates the dysfunction at the top of this franchise. There are rumours flying round of conflict between those who want Manziel to start, and those for whom he has already burned his bridges with. You can see how a coaching staff that will want to be getting hired again next year if they can’t secure their jobs this year, a coaching staff who want to win games, could come into conflict with a front office group who need to know what they have in an their first round pick from two years ago and whether it is time to move on already. The problem is that with the turnover in both coaches and front office staff, it is very hard to establish a culture and go through the process it takes to turn around a franchise in trouble, and very often it seems like when a team is turned into a success, this improvement is built off the back of previous regime’s work. That said, there has been such a carousel at quarterback and staff at the Browns that it is hard to know when things will turn round.

I don’t want to pile on to the poor Browns so I’ll stop using them as an example, but I did want to pick up on a couple of things from listening to the Ross Tucker podcast this week, without turning the column into an advert, and also tie this in with tonight’s exciting game between the Cardinals and the Vikings.

On his usual Wednesday spot, regular guest Andrew Brandt was speaking about why he was a fan of Chip Kelly, and specifically talked about him as an agent of change, and that this was a rare thing in a lot of aspects in coaching. This could be seen as a curious concept given how often we hear about coaching innovations, but it seems that very often what we hear described as innovation is in fact a new wrinkle or a variation on a concept. Spread offences and pass first offences are not a new concept, but the sophistication of modern schemes is, however equally you will hear from retired players that the technique at certain positions is in decline and that this could be due to the reduced amount of time that coaches get to work with their players, particularly in the more physical drills. I don’t want to delve too far into this, but what it did get me thinking about was that if you compare the sophistication with which coaches and management are dealing with the way that a football team is constructed and plays, versus the way the media breaks down the roster then maybe we are missing a trick or two.

There was a great discussion between Ross Tucker and Greg Cosell today about tonight’s game between the Arizona Cardinals and the Minnesota Vikings, and the bit that grabbed me was their discussion about Deone Bucannon who Cosell described as a 210 Ibs linebacker, although he’s listed on the Cardinals’ website as safety. Now they were talking about whether this was the future of the position, these what would be traditionally undersized linebackers who could cover and cope in this age of spread defences. One of the reasons I love Cosell is he’ll always state when hasn’t seen something or can’t speak on it, but also how he’ll remained balanced, and he countered Rot Tucker’s question on how much you needed heft at the point of attack these days with the way the league is going by saying that this is not absolutely the case and let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I don’t want to get pick holes with either of them as they both know more about football than me, the podcast can be found here, but it did get me thinking.

Firstly, this weekend I am going back to look at the coaching tape from last week’s Ravens @ Dolphins game as Dan would like me to take a look at Ryan Tannehill’s performance. Next week I think I will take a look at the Cardinal’s use of Bucannon and Tyrann Mathieu as I’ve been meaning to look at the Cardinals use of extra DBs in there defence for a while.

Secondly, the conversation about the future got me thinking again about linebacker groups, and something I have thought about before concerning them and the use of specialist safeties. I’ll apologise for bringing things back to the Bengals, but they are the team I watch week in and out, so in this case it easier to demonstrate what I am talking about by using them as an example in discussing the analysis of roster construction and how we talk about building a team.

In the offseason linebacker was one of the areas of concern for the Bengals as they had been banged up last season, had really struggled to defend the run when Rey Maualuga was out injured, plus Vontaze Burfict who had really come into his own was also injured and would be coming of microfracture surgery going into this season. The Bengals approach wasn’t to go out and secure a high price starting linebacker in free agency or draft a linebacker high, but neither was it to fill their roster with a middle linebacker, weak and strong side backers and then backups. Instead they drafted a linebacker, signed AJ Hawk as a free agent and resigned Maualuga. I know some were not sure about this approach, or what they did with the defensive line, but what was clever is that they built themselves a group with a set of complimentary skills and gave themselves depth. They have the ability to rotate their linebackers to have the right players for the job depending on who they are playing. Facing a team who power run up the gut, then that offence is going to have to deal with Rey Maualuga in the A gap, but if you’re facing a spread offence then you can drop into a nickel defence with the extra db, but also with a speedy linebacker like Emmanuel Lamur to help cover those linebackers who cause all those matchup problems.

For me this is an area where teams could innovate, that tweener safety/linebacker that so often was a concern in the draft, could become the new tool to help cover those nightmare tight ends and help deal with spread concepts. However, I’m wary of saying that is will become the new way of doing things. Sure you may have some lighter starters, but with this age of injury and increased difficulty for defences, maybe there is an edge to be found in crafting a linebacker group to have multiple types of player designed to rotate snaps in different amounts depending on the situation. I don’t think the days of the run stuffing middle linebacker are over, but possibly gone are the days when they are the star of the defence and play a lot of snaps, but if the balance in the NFL tips too far towards speed defences, then you can bet your bottom dollar that someone will start running power running games with success.

So I shall look forward to take a close look at the defence of the Cardinals as we go back into my picks competition with Dan, who slipped further behind again last week.

Gee:    Week 13   10-6            Overall   101-91
Dan:    Week 13   8-8              Overall   92-100

Vikings @ Cardinals (-7.5)

This is a really bad spot for the Vikings as they will be missing three starters on defence again this week, and the last thing they really need it so be travelling from Minnesota to Arizona to face a Cardinals team that is going from strength to strength. I would usually expect this to be a closer game, but with the match ups and timing favouring the Cardinals I am going to back them to cover this in a game I’m really looking forward to.

Gee ‘s Pick:   Cardinals
Dan’s Pick:    Cardinals