Are the best defenses against play action the best against regular passes too? How much impact does play action really have in an NFL game, and does it correlate from year to year?
25 Sep 2012
by Rivers McCown
Minnesota overcame the 49ers and all five of their scab-gifted second-half timeouts in a stunning 24-13 victory Sunday afternoon. FO alum Bill Barnwell called this game a case of the Vikings "out Niner-ing the Niners," and while that rings true to me in some ways, the Vikings also have an offensive philosophy in the passing game that the 49ers are not really built to stop. And a unique weapon that perhaps no NFL team is built to stop.
While San Francisco's defense was able to keep the mighty spread offenses of Green Bay and Detroit in check in Weeks 1 and 2, they didn't have quite as much success against Minnesota's passing game. What that really boiled down to was that the 49ers are built to keep the deep pass in check, and that the Vikings don't really have any deep threats to throw to. In 2011, the 49ers had our third-ranked defense, but their success on pass defense was built on shutting out big-name wideouts; they finished 24th in the league on passes to running backs. And on screens and quick hitches, San Francisco allowed a 35.2% DVOA, which is roughly 22% worse than the league average. Taking away Stephen Burton and Devin Aromashodu from the Vikings doesn't really do anything: to hold their offense in check, the man you have to stop is Percy Harvin.
But before we get into that, let's get our weekly look at the VOA values from this game. Would you guess that Minnesota outplayed San Francisco? After watching the tape, I certainly would have. Well, guess again! We've got our third Dewey Defeats DVOA game of the year, narrowly. Most of the difference this time comes from a pair of Kyle Williams returns, one of which set the 49ers up deep inside Vikings territory to lead off the third quarter.
|Dewey Defeats Vikings|
|Team||Total VOA||Off. VOA||Def. VOA||Special Teams VOA|
We should note that Minnesota loses on special teams in part because DVOA does not credit the defense for a blocked field goal; it's not a "luck" play, but it is non-predictive because blocked field goals are so rare. Give Minnesota credit for that block, and the VOA ratings for this game come out pretty much even.
Minnesota faced fourth-and-goal from the 1 with 7:25 left in the first quarter. Many a head coach would be content to take the three and start the game with a lead, but Leslie Frazier would have none of it. He sent Christian Ponder out, called a play-action bootleg, and despite the fact that Dashon Goldson was barreling down on Ponder, Ponder sent a strike to Kyle Rudolph for seven.
Obviously, the "Always go for it on fourth-down" faction was appeased by this call thanks to the game situation, but more importantly, those extra four points really changed the entire complexion of the game. Despite averaging around 4.4 yards per carry, the 49ers were only able to rush 20 times because the game situations dictated throws. The Vikings were able to get pressure on Alex Smith with their front four, and they were able to play a deep shell and keep the passes that were completed in front of them. San Francisco had just six completions that went for 10 or more yards, and three of them came on their lone touchdown drive. That probably wasn't how San Francisco drew it up this offseason when they brought in Randy Moss and Mario Manningham.
Ponder leaves this game with a 24.8% VOA and 246 YAR, good for sixth in the league heading into Week 4. However, on tape, it's clear that his play does not back up that statistical ranking. Rather, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has managed Ponder expertly and put him in situations where he can succeed in spite of Minnesota's lack of receiving depth. Adrian Peterson's presence and Ponder's own natural running ability allows Minnesota to run a lot of play-action. Through Week 2, 25 of Minnesota's 77 pass plays (including kneels and plays cancelled by penalty) were off play-action.
Harvin brings his own set of challenges to the table. Minnesota has no fears about lining him up anywhere on the field. He's in the slot, he's outside, he's in the backfield (sometimes in a Full House set), and that's not even getting into putting him in pre-snap motion. If a team plays off-coverage on Harvin, it won't end well: he's got an innate ability to break tackles.
When he lines up as a running back, do you treat him as a receiver, or as a back? In their Week 1 game against Jacksonville, the Jaguars tended to play nickel against the Full House Harvin set, which had Harvin, Rudolph, and fullback Jerome Felton in the backfield. While that's a match on pure personnel terms, I'd be willing to wager that if we had the full scope of NFL history at our fingertips, we wouldn't find many occasions where a defense went with the nickel against a Full House backfield.
How does this affect Ponder? Glad you asked. Per Tom Pelissero, eight of Ponder's 21 completions came behind the line of scrimmage. He had 12 more completions behind the line of scrimmage in the first two weeks, and the average yards after catch on those plays was 12.7. Or, to put it another way, 131 of Ponder's 246 DYAR has come on throws to Harvin, 125 has come on throws to Rudolph, and he's got -10 DYAR on throws to all other receivers.
One good example of the way that the Vikings are getting the ball to Harvin in space came with 5:37 in the third quarter. The Vikings lined up in a double-tight end base set, and the 49ers countered with base 3-4 personnel.
Harvin went in motion towards the slot as the ball was being snapped, then followed under the formation, as the play-action was set.
Harvin finishes the end-around route, then moves clear to the outside.
Harvin makes the catch about eight yards behind the line of scrimmage, and San Francisco has a pair of defenders in front of him, but he's already found open space, and that's all that Minnesota was aiming for.
He then easily splits the pair of San Francisco defenders (Carlos Rogers and Patrick Willis) right down the middle with his speed, and fights through Willis' tackle to get extra yardage.
End result of the play: negative-8 air yards, seven-yard gain, first down.
Let me go back to the Jaguars game again, where I can actually use the coaching tape (blasted deadlines), and ask you a question: ever seen a play-action back catch the ball on a designed non-screen pass?
Minnesota is driving in Jaguars territory, up 14-12 in the late third quarter with a first-and-10. The Vikings come out in their Full House backfield, with Harvin behind the quarterback flanked by Rudolph and Felton. The Jaguars are in nickel, with Aaron Ross playing "linebacker" and assigned to Harvin.
The Jaguars actually do a pretty good job of not biting on the play-action; their linebackers haven't budged much. (I should note: Harvin broke a couple of tackles as a running back in this game, and has 16 DYAR through three weeks on the ground.)
Ross gives Harvin way too much of a cushion on his release, and has no chance to make a play on this ball by the time it's thrown.
Harvin catches the ball with space, and again manages to create extra yards after the catch by barreling over Kevin Rutland.
End result of the play: 13 yards and another first down.
This isn't to say that Ponder doesn't have the ability to hit some downfield throws, that he's not capable of improving, or that this is what he'll be going forward. Right now, though, the passing portion of this offense is built on finding the first or second read, and putting the ball in Harvin's hands.
And more often than not, when Minnesota puts the ball in Harvin's hands, he's proved to be tough to bring down.
24 comments, Last at 27 Sep 2012, 7:01pm by Rivers McCown