Some Short Football Answers

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by Aaron Schatz

Well, last week ended up a little busier for me than expected, and I think I ended up shortchanging this blog and the NFL fans who read it. So, if nobody minds, I'm going to stick around another week to discuss a few more NFL subjects, and maybe a couple other things.

Every time I come back to look at the questions asked in the comments of my first post from last Monday, I have a tendency to get stuck because there are a lot of good questions that deserve full answers. But I have come to the realization that one of the reasons I had trouble posting last week was that urge to turn each answer into a long treatise. So instead, let's see if I can answer some of your reader questions in shorter form.

At least this should be less controversial than writing about gender in the publishing industry.

What are the trends in terms of defensive formations and secondary coverage in the NFL?

Right now, the big fad in the NFL is the 3-4 defensive scheme, with three down linemen and four linebackers instead of the other way around. Showing that everything in the NFL is cyclical, this was also the big fad in the NFL 25 years ago. In 2006, only eight teams ran either a 3-4 scheme or a hybrid scheme that used both fronts, and only one of those teams was in the NFC (Dallas). This year, 15 teams will be using the 3-4 as their base scheme. In secondary coverage, the biggest trend has been the disappearance of the classic Tony Dungy/Monte Kiffin Tampa-2, which is only the primary coverage at this point for five teams: Chicago, Indianapolis, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, and the New York Giants.

What is the most undervalued position in the NFL, in terms of importance to a team's success vs. how well the position player is compensated compared to his peers?

We don't have any research on this, per se, but my first answer would be center. Left tackles are paid so much more than the rest of the offensive linemen right now, and the other four guys often get lumped together. But centers are important not only as the anchor for runs up the middle but also because you need a center who communicates well with our quarterback, especially if your quarterback is named "Peyton Manning." I wouldn't go as far as my compadre Robert Weintraub and say centers are actually more important than left tackles, but they are probably underpaid compared to other positions.

Do you think Mark Sanchez is the real deal or just a pretender?

We really angered Jets fans when we wrote this last year, but Sanchez's rookie numbers (age 23) are virtually indistinguishable from JaMarcus Russell's numbers in his first year as a starter (age 23)... except that Sanchez had more than twice as many interceptions.

That being said, similar numbers do not indicate similar work ethics or similar appetites for delicious, delicious pie. Most highly-drafted quarterbacks take a big step forward in their second seasons, rather than stagnating like Russell. It's reasonable to suggest that Sanchez should improve this year and then improve even more next year. How good will he be eventually? I have no idea. As far as I know, no quarterback was ever drafted in the first round with less of a college pedigree than Sanchez, who because of all the talent on the USC depth chart only had one season as a starter before coming out of college early.

Does Green Bay have enough of a defense to win it all?

Sure. I don't think you can expect the defense to be as good as it was last year. The run defense went from 28th in our ratings in 2008 to fifth in 2009, and when a team improves that much in one year they usually decline a little in the next. The pass defense also may decline. It was a surprise to see Charles Woodson playing so well at age 33, so it is really unlikely for him to be that good again at age 34. We don't know what they'll get out of Al Harris. Tramon Williams finished second in the league in pass interference penalty yardage last year and needs a bit more development, lest he spend his entire career with the "Admiral Armbar" nickname we gave him a year ago.

Still, the offense in Green Bay is likely to be so good that the defense just needs to be a little bit better than average for the Packers to be a top Super Bowl contender. And I don't see this defense collapsing to the bottom of the league or anything like that.

Feel free to bring more "short-answer" questions in the comments.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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