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?
12 Jan 2004
by Russell Levine
After the weekend of Divisional Playoff games we just witnessed, does anyone still care to argue that parity is bad for the NFL? Maybe some of you miss the days of Divisional-round blowouts followed by Dallas-San Francisco for the NFC title, followed two weeks later by an NFC Super Bowl blowout, but don't count me among your ranks. Collectively, this may have been the most enjoyable playoff weekend on record.
In addition to riveting drama, the four games were a second-guesser's delight. Should the Titans have gone for the long field goal rather than play field position? Should the Chiefs have tried an onsides kick after scoring to make it 38-31? Should the Packers have gone for it on 4th-and-1 at the Eagles 40 in the final minutes of regulation? Should they have blitzed on 4th-and-26? Oh, and Mike Martz might have made a shaky decision or two in the Rams-Panthers game.
Then again, perhaps I'm not qualified to question any of these decisions. If you had seen me attempting to work my TiVo during Saturday's mad finish in St. Louis, I'm sure you would think so. TiVo allows you to record and pause live TV on two shows simultaneously. For a football junkie with two little ones running around the living room, it's an absolute necessity.
As kickoff in New England approached Saturday evening, I found myself getting nervous about my entire TiVo setup. After pausing for bath- and bedtime for the kids, I was running about 30 minutes behind real time in Rams game. I was recording a Kentucky basketball game for my wife on the other tuner, and something had to give. At the point we were watching, the Rams had just scored to pull within 23-20 of Carolina and the game looked like it would exceed its time window if the Rams could get it to OT. I would have to sacrifice the early part of the Pats game to continue recording the Rams and UK, or risk not having the end of the Rams game when I finally caught up. So right before the Rams' onsides kick, I paused the game to cancel my Pats recording. Except that when I came back to St. Louis, I inadvertently hit the button that brings you up to real time. Before I could avert my gaze, I saw 23-23 OT on the Fox bar at the top of the screen.
That's the risk you take with TiVo. One wrong button on the remote can take all the suspense out of an epic playoff game. As I see it, this risk is one of only two downsides of TiVo -- the other being that you have to scream at your buddies "we're in TiVo land!" when they call to discuss what just happened in the game. To make a long story short, I watched the rest of the OT in St. Louis, and then switched to the Pats game, only rewinding to watch Mike Martz's finest hour after New England finished off Tennessee.
So TiVo owners and perspective owners take note: it requires a skillful hand and utmost concentration to avoid ruining the in-game drama. The decision to pause and attend to family duty during a key game should not be taken lightly. I would never advise it if your favorite team is involved. The rest of the time, well, it's a small price to pay to maintain marital harmony. None of us wants to turn into the Sports Guy's buddy Geoff.
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Luckily for me, I was able to watch the end of the Rams-Panthers regulation, even if it was 2 a.m. when I did. I was absolutely speechless. Martz is deservedly getting killed for allowing 30 seconds to tick off the clock before attempting the game-tying field goal on first down at the Panther 15. But the problems began much earlier than that. On their first snap after recovering the onsides kick, Marc Bulger hit Isaac Bruce at the Carolina 38-yard line. Bruce was tackled with 2:34 left.
At that point, the Rams still had a timeout and the two-minute-warning ahead of them. In that situation the coach needs to think, "let's get 10 more yards for a good field goal attempt before we try for the end zone." Since they were not yet in good field-goal range, the Rams should still have hurried to the line to get another play off. Instead, they let the clock tick to the two-minute warning. When the next play, another pass to Bruce, gained 13 yards to the 25, the first goal had been accomplished -- the Rams were now looking at a 42-yard attempt.
But instead of thinking aggressively, the Rams continued to huddle up, and ran only two more plays, a dump-off to Marshall Faulk and a Faulk run (the later made it 1st-and-10 at the 15), before letting the clock tick all the way to three seconds. Had they played hurry-up even a little bit, they would have had over a minute left on the first-down snap. They could have thrown into the end zone twice and run on third down if they were concerned about leaving too much time on the clock. To not even attempt to win the game right there, when the Carolina defense was on the ropes, was an abysmal decision by Martz -- what made him so certain his team could win in overtime?
Despite the ability to stop the clock twice, the Rams ran only three plays in the final 154 seconds from the Carolina 38. That is one of the worst jobs of game management I've ever seen. Martz may be an offensive wizard, but his game-day decision-making has long been in question, and this was the final straw. He is holding that team back and I don't see how the Rams can continue to let him give away games and seasons.
After the game, Martz offered that he was worried about a turnover. Admittedly, that's a legitimate concern with Bulger at QB. But if that were really the case, why did Martz have Bulger throwing on first down from the Panthers' 35 in OT? (The ball was intercepted). How about trying to run with Faulk to set up a shorter field goal? Faulk is one of the most sure-handed backs in NFL history. Why not give him the ball once or twice more at the end of regulation if you're concerned about an interception? Martz will be answering those questions for a long time.
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The other coach taking a beating this morning is Mike Sherman of the Packers, most notably for two key decisions in Green Bay's loss to Philadelphia. The first came on a 4th-and-goal play from the Eagles'
1-yard line late in the first half. The Packers led, 14-7, at the time, and elected to go for the touchdown. When Ahman Green was tripped up in the backfield, it looked like the Packers had made the wrong choice, as the field goal they likely forfeited would have come in handy later.
I agree with Sherman on this call. The Packers were running the ball well, and they're on the road, with the chance to take a two-touchdown lead into halftime and take the crowd right out of the game. Granted the Packers didn't stand to gain any advantage from leaving the Eagles pinned deep should the fail to make it because there was so little time remaining, but I still think it's the right call to go for six. The problem I have is with the third down call that preceded it. Sherman has an annoying habit of rotating his running backs, no matter the game situation, so it was Najeh Davenport that got the carry on 3rd-and-goal. Davenport is a nice back, and he made a good play to get the ball down to the one, but why is Green not in the game? Green ran for 1,883 yards this season. He needs to be the one carrying the ball in that situation.
The other key decision by Sherman was the choice to punt the ball on 4th-and-1 from the Philadelphia 41 with 2:30 left in the game. The Eagles, down by three, had one timeout left and a first down would have essentially ended the game. Many feel that they should have gone for it. I also think Sherman got this one right -- you simply can't take the risk that the play will be stuffed and give the ball back in that field position.
I heard the argument that since Sherman was aggressive at the end of the first half, shouldn't he be aggressive here as well? I don't see what one has to do with the other. They're two totally different game situations. And perhaps it was the precisely because they failed at the end of the first half that Sherman decided to punt this time.
The punt controversy overshadowed a bad decision that Sherman made earlier in the fourth quarter. The Packers had a 1st-and-goal at the Eagles' 7, then a 3rd-and-goal at the five, with the score tied at 14. Do you give it to Ahman Green? Do you let Brett Favre attempt to throw into the end zone? Sherman chose option "C" -- the shovel pass to Tony Fisher, which went nowhere. If you're going to fail, at least fail with your best players!
Sherman, or at least his staff, is on the hook for a couple more gaffes. The Packers had blitzed Philadelphia on the two downs before the 4th-and-26 play, resulting in a sack and an interception. But on the fateful fourth down, they elected to play two-deep and rush only four. They didn't get any pressure on McNabb and the safeties failed to defend the first-down line. Instead, they played it like a Hail Mary, where the only thing they were defending was the end zone.
Finally, on the game-winning field goal attempt, Sherman's players didn't know they couldn't call consecutive timeouts. At that point, the Packers' only chance to stay in the game was to block the kick. But after the obligatory "ice the kicker" timeout, the Packers returned to the field believing they could call another TO. When the officials correctly ignored their request, the ball was snapped while half the Packers had their back turned, and they barely got off a rush. That is completely inexcusable, and it's on the head coach.
Sherman should send Martz a thank-you note this week for keeping the national media spotlight off his failings.
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As far as some of the other controversial decisions this weekend, it's hard to argue too much with Titans coach Jeff Fisher punting from the New England 28-yard line, trailing by three in the second quarter. The Titans have a dicey long-kicking game, as they have to go with punter Craig Hentrich on anything over about 45 yards. In that weather, a 45-yarder was playing even longer, so I don't fault Fisher for playing field position at that point in the game.
I also can't fault Kansas City coach Dick Vermeil for electing to kick deep after scoring to get with 38-31 with 4:16 left in the fourth quarter. If you're going to win a playoff game, you have to believe that your defense can make a single stop. True, they hadn't stopped the Colts all game, but I'll still take my chances that the defense can get the ball back over the chances of recovering an onsides kick.
Still, the performance of the Chiefs' defense was an embarrassment. How did they win 13 games with that unit? The Colts looked like they were doing a walk-through. Kansas City couldn't pressure the passer, couldn't stop the run, couldn't cover in the secondary, couldn't make tackles. They seemed absolutely unprepared for everything that Indianapolis did. I saw Peyton Manning only gesture to the lineman on one side of the ball on several occasions while changing the play at the line of scrimmage. Guess where those plays went? Yet the Chiefs still couldn't stop them.
Two things struck me while watching the Colts' offense play. It's well documented that Manning is given more freedom to change plays than perhaps any quarterback in the NFL. We've all seen it many times: how, even in hostile road environments, he's able to change plays at the line of scrimmage, even if he has to tell each man on the line the play individually.
Obviously, Manning is an extraordinary student of the game, and not many quarterbacks could handle that kind of decision-making. But there are two things that the Colts excel at that any team and quarterback in the league could do, but few choose to.
First, Manning is an exceptional play-faker. He really sells each ball fake, extending his arm into the belly of the runner as he goes by. It doesn't take a rocket arm or a coach's mind to execute an excellent play fake, yet most NFL QBs offer a half-hearted fake at best. While even a token fake may hold the linebackers for an instant, the type of fake Manning pulls off buys him tremendous time in the pocket and wreaks havoc in the secondary.
Perhaps coaches feel that quarterbacks, especially inexperienced ones, have too much to worry about to insist on more complete ball fakes. It does require the QB to keep his back to the line of scrimmage for an extra beat or two. However, a properly executed ball fake is something that makes the game much easier for a quarterback, so it's always been a mystery to me why coaches don't insist on their signal-callers doing a better job.
Boomer Esiason is the best play-faker I've seen since I started watching football. Elvis Grbac was also excellent. But beyond Manning and perhaps the Giants' Kerry Collins, there aren't a lot of good ones in the game today. When teams spend hour upon hour pouring over film and data, looking for any conceivable edge, it's hard to believe that play-faking is overlooked.
The other thing the Colts do so well on offense is get to the line of scrimmage with plenty of time left on the play clock. That is what allows Manning to check them out of bad plays and into good ones. He often has time to watch the defense shift or set up for a blitz before changing the play.
It seems like nearly every other team in the league is getting to the line of scrimmage with just a few ticks left on the play clock, which limits their options. How many times did Steve McNair and the Titans struggle to beat the play clock or get called for delay of game against New England?
Then there are the Rams, who despite their all their supposed offensive brilliance don't even have audibles. That's one reason why St. Louis often burns timeouts early in games. Of course, when they don't take timeouts, they sometimes end up in bad plays such as their attempted quarterback sneak late in regulation against Carolina.
Again, in the search for every possible advantage, it's difficult to understand how more teams don't see the value in getting to the line of scrimmage early to give the QB time to audible or even just to watch the defense reveal itself. If you have 10-15 seconds to snap the ball, it makes it nearly impossible for defenders to time the snap, which helps to neutralize the blitz.
Speaking of the blitz, TMQ's "anti-pass-wacky on 3rd-and-short" rant made me notice something in the Packers-Eagles game. The Eagles love to blitz on obvious passing downs, and since 3rd-and-3 or more qualifies as an obvious passing down in today's NFL, Philadelphia typically came with the blitz in those situations. Several times, the Packers were able to beat the blitz by running quick hitters inside for the first down.
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Finally, I leave you with the strange announcer exchange of the week, which came from CBS' call of the Indy-KC game, where Dick Enberg and Dan Dierdorf offered the following:
Enberg: "Colts receiver Reggie Wayne is enjoying a breakout season this year, his third in the league. He was a die-hard Saints fan growing up -- he loved Eric Martin. He said, 'Boy he could catch a BB in the dark.'"
Dierdorf, after a pause: "I got shot in the butt with a BB one time."
Enberg: "In the dark?"
Dierdorf: "No, but it hurt like heck."
This is the No. 2 crew on CBS? Where have you gone, Merlin Olson?