Jeff Glidden/Associated Press
Rod Woodson, Hall of Fame defensive back for the Steelers, Ravens, 49ers and Raiders, stopped by Digest this week to promote the Pro Football Hall of Fame World Bowl Presented by Xenith, an international high school All-Star Game and player-and-coach development program—and to offer his thoughts on the shoddy state of NFL defenses.
Digest: What the heck is wrong with defenses this year?
Woodson: One thing is that the rules have changed. Quarterbacks are overly protected in the pocket and out of the pocket. Receivers are protected everywhere: You can’t hit them unless they see your eyes and you almost shake hands first.
But at the end of it, these defenses still need to play solid fundamental football. Sometimes, that bothers me more than anything: the lack of tackling in space, the lack of understanding the assignments inside of a defense, base coverage concepts. It seems like that’s missing across the board in 2018.
That’s why I don’t get overly excited about all of these quarterbacks throwing for 35 to 45 touchdowns, 4,000 yards every year. It’s a lot easier. And that’s the way the league wanted it.
Digest: If you were hired as a defensive coordinator, how would you improve things?
Woodson: You have to give offenses something they think they see, but they don’t really see it.
Nowadays, everyone wants to do “coverage ID.” Everybody sends a running back or tight end outside the receiver, and they know it’s zone if the cornerback is out there. If a linebacker or safety’s out there, it’s man. It’s easy.
You gotta mess with their heads. I would call it a match defense: You still put the linebacker out there, but you play Cover 2. Because outside of your big defensive lineman, every position has to be flexible on the back end.
A lot of defensive coordinators are sticking to the same old, same old. But you gotta start playing with them, because they are playing with you.
Digest: What defensive coaches do you think are doing an outstanding job right now?
Woodson: Wink [Ravens coordinator Don Martindale] does a good job, and they’ve been doing it for years—since I played there.
Vic Fangio in Chicago has done a tremendous job. The back end is playing well. Getting Khalil Mack was worth it, because that defense is a monster up front, so they don’t have to blitz a lot.
Look at Seattle. We thought the Legion of Boom was over, and it’s not the same individuals, but they are playing solid football for the most part.
The rules have changed, but the bar that you set for your defense still has to be high. And the guys still have to understand the base rules of tackling and covering. It’s still the same thing; it’s all done in space now.
Hopefully, players become better in space sooner than later, because it’s hard to watch defensive play in the NFL when they just can’t make plays on a consistent basis.
Digest: What’s the toughest offense to face in the NFL right now?
Woodson: The toughest offense to defend is Kansas City. They have an athletic quarterback and the fastest player in the league. Andy Reid does a great job of play-calling, keeping the defense guessing.
Digest: Now that you have spent time with high school all-stars, do you think young players now are different than they were in your day?
Woodson: Young kids in general are different! They grew up with social media, with devices in their hands, so their minds work just a little different than the older generations. We have to adapt a little bit to understand their viewpoints.
We used to fight through each minor injury. Sometimes you still get players who do that, but most players want to play at 100 percent. I don’t blame them, especially with so much money that’s on the line compared to when we played. Even at the college level, you see guys taking care of their bodies, taking themselves out of the bowl games to get ready for the combine. It’s all self-preservation nowadays, more than giving their all for their teammates.
You can’t be mad at them. It’s a different world.
But there are some great athletes in the game, and it will be fun to watch these competitors. That’s the one thing that hasn’t really changed. If you’re a competitor at any level, you’re gonna compete. And we’re adding Mexican players, we’re adding Europeans, and they all have a chance to come on board. When they play against the best, their competitive nature comes out.
Digest: The players were chosen for both their ability and what’s called “Hall of Fame” character. What does that mean?
Woodson: We want to see that they have the commitment, the integrity, the courage, the respect for the game. They have to have those things along with the great athletic ability. And all the guys we picked do.
It’s good to see that people still respect the game and the guys that came before them. A lot of the young kids we picked know their history about the game, and that’s a good thing.
Digest: Does that mean that these teenagers remembered who you were?
Woodson: They acted like they did! But I don’t know if some coach told them: “Hey, you gotta go Google that guy.”
The Pro Football Hall of Fame Bowl Presented by Xenith will be held at Azul in Mexico City on December 27 and broadcast by CBS Sports Network.