New England's innovative attack averaged 428 yards per game during the 2011-12 regular season, which was second in the NFL, and has nearly maintained that impressive clip (419.5) through the playoffs heading into Sunday's Super Bowl showdown with the New York Giants.
With so much hype about the pending offensive changes at PSU, there has not been nearly as much discussion about the defense. But rest assured, even with line coach Larry Johnson and linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden carrying over from the previous staff, there will be some noticeable differences to the Penn State defense next season.
“I would term us being multiply aggressive,” new coordinator Ted Roof said.
With Roof on board, the era of the “bend-but-don't-break” defensive approach so prevalent under Joe Paterno (and longtime coordinators Jerry Sandusky and Tom Bradley) appears to be over.
Roof spent the last three seasons at Auburn, helping the Tigers win a national title in 2010. He has been a college coach for the past quarter of a century, including a four-year stint as the head coach at Duke. Along they way he has forged a reputation for using aggressive defensive schemes.
Expect more of the same at Penn State.
“They've played great defense here for a long time,” Roof said. “But the things I know that we're going to have to hang our hat on -- No. 1, we're going to have to do a great job stopping the run, because if a team can run the football against you, that's a headache that won't go away. I also think that's a real barometer for how physical a football team you are.
“The next area is you've got to affect the quarterback,” he added. “Because with the precision of the throwing games, these quarterbacks and passing combinations are just too good now where if you let them sit back there and pat the ball, they're gonna complete balls.
“And then you've got to defend the long ball,” he continued. “If you can do those three things, you're gonna play great defense and win a lot of games. That's kind of what we're focusing on.”
Roof and O'Brien were assistants together at Georgia Tech at the turn of the century and, later, O'Brien served as an assistant under Roof at Duke (2005-06).
Upon arriving in Happy Valley in early January, Roof (and the rest of the staff) were initially focused on closing out the Nittany Lions' recruiting efforts. Now that the Class of 2012 is signed, he is zeroing in on the personnel he'll have for next season. That will help dictate some of what PSU does defensively.
“I've coached in a bunch of different schematical deals, and to say that I'm tied to (one) system, I'm not,” he said. “… Part of the deal is to ask things and put kids in position to be successful and not try to put a square peg in a round hole. … When I got here, I had the GAs make a 10-play highlight tape of every kid we have returning, so when I'm able to meet 'em and pull 'em in the office for a one-on-one to talk about what I've seen -- and after talking to Larry and Ron about personnel as well -- (they then can discuss) what we need to do to move forward and to be great.”
Two staples of Roof's defenses happen to be two things that generally have been in short supply in Happy Valley the last decade or three -- press coverage and blitzing.
Under Bradley, who doubled as cornerbacks coach from 2000-11, Penn State rarely played press coverage. While that prevented the Lions from giving up many deep balls, when they encountered elite passing quarterbacks (usually in bowls) they had their hands full.
State couldn't handle the quick release of Houston's Case Keenum in the TicketCity Bowl last season, as he completed 45 of 69 passes for 532 yards and three scores. Unaccustomed to playing press coverage, the Lion defensive backs were helpless to stop him.
Roof intends for the corners to be more physical. It is just a matter of when that can start to happen.
“If we've got guys who can do it, I love man coverage and I love to play bump coverage,” Roof said. “You know, you do what you have to do to be successful and (to meet) your beliefs. And you eventually recruit to a system. But, yeah, I like to play press coverage because I think the corners that you want, they like to compete and get up in a guy's grill and figure it out.”
There have been times when the blitz has played a role in the Nittany Lion defense in recent years, but never consistently. Last season, for example, linebacker Gerald Hodges had 4.5 sacks. But he didn't have any in the last four games. The linebackers combined for two sacks in those outings and the team as whole had a total of eight.
Penn State went 1-3 in those games.
“Situationally, you've got to pressure,” Roof said. “You can't sit back and do the same thing over and over. At the same time, if you can line up four and get there with four, you don't want to commit people if you don't have to.”
The bottom line?
“If you're having trouble getting to the passer, you've got to do what you've got to do to get there,” Roof said.