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Original Issue


The four advancing wild-card teams come from a certain SCHOOL OF DEFENSIVE THINKING: Keep it clean and easy, and you'll give your guys a chance to thrive. They'll need every advantage they can get in the next round

AT A Chargers golf outing last May a reporter approached L.A.'s defensive coordinator, Gus Bradley, and peppered him with questions about his zone scheme. Bradley lit up. In a comfortable setting, coaches typically love discussing their systems—especially Bradley, whom many regard as the godfather of the trendy Cover 3 he popularized with the Seahawks. That scheme, which features one deep safety, zone defenders inside and press-coverage corners outside, is admired for its simplicity.

Which pleases Bradley. A simple scheme tends to help defenders play faster, as there's less thinking and more reacting. But more than that, "with a simple scheme we feel we get better over the course of the season," Bradley said. "There are only so many Cover 3--beating offensive designs out there. And so we see those same designs each week. Eventually our players learn to anticipate and quickly identify them."

Against Cover 3, one tactic favored by offenses is to align receivers tightly inside and send them on vertical crossing routes against those zone safeties and (slower) linebackers. In part to combat this, Bradley predominantly staffed one of his two stack linebacker positions this season with a more athletic safety, Adrian Phillips. In L.A.'s 23--17 wild-card win in Baltimore, Bradley took this even a step further, replacing all of his linebackers with safeties.

Which brings us to the other benefit of running such a simple scheme: It's easier for bench players to get up to speed. In the Chargers' case that applied to the backup safeties, but on other teams it might be more relevant to whoever is stepping in for a fallen teammate. Attrition is a huge part of pro football, and the teams that survive injuries best are often trumpeted for having great depth. But sometimes "great depth" means something else—sometimes it means a simple scheme enabled backups to step in easily.

The Eagles, winners of their wild-card game in Chicago, are a stellar example. Like the Chargers, they run a predominantly Cover 3--based defense, and by Week 11 they had lost starting cornerbacks Jalen Mills (left foot) and Ronald Darby (right ACL) to season-ending ailments. Nickel corner Sidney Jones (hamstring) was in and out, and depth at safety had been a concern since starter Rodney McLeod went down in September (right MCL).

Philly's secondary figured to be toast. And initially it was. In their first outing without Mills and Darby, relying on callow second-year pro Rasul Douglas and fourth-round rookie Avonte Maddox at outside corner, the Eagles gave up an embarrassing 48 points to the Saints. But from there Douglas and Maddox, getting full loads of practice reps with the first unit, steadily improved. And so when Philly's pass rush came to life, the secondary was sturdy enough for the wins to pile up. Since that smackdown in New Orleans the Eagles are 6--1, allowing just 18.9 points per game.

No surprise: This year's other wild-card victors, the Cowboys and the Colts, also run simple zone-based schemes, and both defenses also improved as the season went on. Dallas, potent up front and athletic at corner, looked faster down the stretch, with young linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch taking flight. The overachieving young Indy defense, coordinated by longtime Cowboys assistant Matt Eberflus, has allowed just 15.5 points per game in the team's run of 10 wins in its last 11 games.

Bradley's theory seems to hold water. This year's divisional round will feature four road teams with simple zone-based defenses that improved as the season progressed. Now those defenses face the juggernaut offenses that helped the NFL set scoring and yardage records in 2018: Bradley's Chargers get the fourth-highest scoring offense, New England (27.3 points per game); the Eagles travel again to New Orleans (31.5 ppg; No. 3); the Cowboys visit the Rams (32.9 ppg; No. 2) and the Colts get the Chiefs (35.3 ppg; No. 1).

Save for Kansas City, those offenses endured some serious valleys in December. Which were real problems, though? And which mere hiccups? Four predictable but ascending defenses should provide some answers.