Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
03 Dec 2008
by Doug Farrar
Indianapolis Colts 10 at Cleveland Browns 6
In the Pantheon of Most Valuable Current Colts, we all know who's No. 1. Bob Sanders is arguable at No. 2, though Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, and Dwight Freeney would get some votes. But center Jeff Saturday is as valuable as any non-quarterback on the team for his ability to make line calls, coordinate with Peyton Manning on the passer's presnap gyrations, and block effectively in a demanding offense. When Saturday went down with a strained calf against the Jaguars, an injury that will have him missing at least three weeks, seventh-round pick Jamey Richard stepped in. It wasn't the first time that Richard had replaced Saturday; he started his first two regular-season NFL games at center when the veteran was out with ligament damage in his right knee.
Perhaps Bill Polian felt ready to stockpile depth under Saturday; of the six centers selected in the 2008 draft, three went to the Colts: second-rounder Mike Pollak of Arizona State, who played right guard against the Browns; sixth-rounder Steve Justice of Wake Forest; and Richard, the former Buffalo Bulls standout. Rated by more than one analyst as a sleeper with pro potential, Richard caught on quickly at the next level. Still, in replacing Saturday against the Browns, he would be facing as tough a test as any center ever will: behemoth nose tackle Shaun Rogers. What looked like an obvious mismatch on paper actually turned out to be an intriguing battle, with the rookie getting in a lick for every one he took.
On the first play from scrimmage, the Colts lined up two-wide left, single-back, with Dallas Clark stacked right to block. On the sweep right to Addai, Richard hit the second level immediately, blowing past Rogers to the right and engaging linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. Richard showed nice straight-ahead speed on this play. Addai, however, didn't impress as much, fumbling the ball after hitting a cutback lane outside and gaining two yards.
Richard didn't really take Rogers on one-on-one until a first-and-10 from the Indianapolis 38 with 8:35 left in the first quarter. On the snap and handoff to Addai, Richard got off the ball quickly, got his hands under Rogers' pads, and stood him up on a nice stalemate as left guard Charlie Johnson circled to Wright's right side for a double team. Richard started to push Rogers to his right, but Rogers shook Johnson off with his left hand, then got under Richard as Addai passed through the left guard area, and beat his man for the play. Richard learned something about leverage there from a veteran who understands all the angles. However, I give Richard credit for his initial power. Rogers is almost impossible to stop when he's lined up right over a center's head as opposed to a 4-3 nose, where he can be more easily double-teamed.
I really liked what Richard did on a sweep left to Addai with 7:40 left in the first quarter. He engaged Rogers right off the snap, making sure that he had Rogers' right shoulder occupied, thus cutting off Rogers' ability to outrun the block. At the left hashmark, when Rogers was out of Addai's reach, Richard handed Rogers off to right guard Pollak and got after Jackson in a big hurry. He actually blocked Jackson into safety Mike Adams, and though linebacker Andra Davis was closing too quickly to allow a cutback lane for Addai, that wasn't for lack of trying on Richard's part. A nice, seamless move where Richard surprised with his timing.
Richard has a nice "dropback" in pass-blocking; there was a short pass over the middle to Addai with five minutes left in the first quarter where he held the point very well on a double-team of Rogers with Johnson. That play took time to develop, and Richard took the furious charge to his left and back again, as Addai slipped through the hole he made. One advantage I saw early on for Richard was that he comes up from the snap and gets in blocking position as quickly as any center I've recently seen. This prevented him from getting overwhelmed by Rogers' initial attack, which is quickest at his position in the NFL.
Still, Richard's most impressive moment might have come on the near-touchdown pass to Reggie Wayne near the end of the first quarter. With Rogers headed over left guard in a four-man front, Richard took on Corey Williams. As Williams tried to get around Richard, the rookie just pushed him to the ground. Rogers, meanwhile, was fighting off Johnson, just missing a tip of the Peyton Manning throw to Wayne. I've come to the conclusion that with all the great nose tackles in the NFL (especially in the AFC), Rogers impresses me more than any of them because of the lack of help he has around him.
The Colts were obviously prepared for this, as Rogers was the one Cleveland lineman who got either a chip from a guard, or a straight-on double-team, on almost every play. He broke through many of them, but never got to Manning and his selection of quick passes. In goal-line situations, Richard proved that he's better at taking a bull rush and standing a defender up than he is in blasting open a hole for a running back. He tends to get enveloped on those plays, but he wrestled Rogers to the right, opening a hole for Addai, on a goal-to-go at the end of the second half on the drive that ended with Manning's fumble. What he didn't seem prepared for -- and I'll give him a break, because I've seen this happen to other centers -- is Rogers' ability to slide off a one-on-one block and make a tackle. Once he gets that weight going one way against a blocker's momentum, he will not be stopped.
Richard was able to get a good initial push on Rogers all the way through the game, and he wasn't any more vulnerable against Cleveland's one defensive force than anyone else this season. His main move is getting his head up quickly and ready to block as soon as possible, which gives him a necessary advantage in that he can strike the first blow and get the blocking going his way. Richard stands 6-foot-5, but he doesn't play "upright" in the sense that he can be bent back by power moves. He has got a lot of strength in that 295-pound frame.
Rogers was swimming in that line all day, but he found it tougher to get through than he had against other opponents. When we say that he was limited to three tackles, that's not a "Casey Hampton three tackles," where a lot's going on that you don't get from the stat sheet. Rogers' job is not to soak up blockers per se; it is to disrupt, and this seventh-round rookie did as good a job as anyone could have expected in stopping him from doing it.
Kansas City Chiefs 20 at Oakland Raiders 13
The Chiefs' passing DVOA in their first five games of the 2008 season: -39.5%, -49.5%, -86.7%, -13.0%, -75.3%.
The Chiefs' passing DVOA in the five games after their Week 6 bye: 32.1%, 39.0%, 51.2%, 18.4%, -5.8%. They also put up a passing DVOA of 19.1% last Sunday against a Raiders team whose defensive passing efficiency has shot through the roof in the second half of the season.
The difference? Apparently, the maturation of one Tyler Thigpen, who has thrown for 1,347 yards with 11 touchdowns and four interceptions since becoming the full-time starting quarterback in late October. Selected by the Vikings in the seventh round of the 2007 draft, Thigpen was way under the radar coming out of Coastal Carolina. He didn't even receive a Combine invite, and his Pro Day took place on South Carolina State's larger campus. Thigpen was one of Minnesota's final cuts, and Kansas City signed him on early September. He was active for one game in his rookie year, and got the full-time starter's job after Brodie Croyle and Damon Huard were lost for the season to various injuries.
The Chiefs are using the Pistol formation to increase Thigpen's efficiency. Developed by Chris Ault of the Nevada Wolfpack, the Pistol is a mini-shotgun in which the quarterback stands about three yards behind center, waiting for the snap, while the tailback stands another three yards directly behind him (Fig. 1 shows a typical example of the formation the Chiefs use, with the addition of rookie fullback Mike Cox in an H-back look). It's a nice hybrid of the spread offense that most young quarterbacks find easier to run, and the power-running success that the NFL requires. Tight end Tony Gonzalez has been the main man in the Kansas City Pistol, finding open zones against defenses that are playing the Chiefs honest.
|Figure 1: One Brand of Pistol|
You will also see Cox directly to Thigpen's right or left, Gonzalez split slightly wider (though he's mostly in the slot), and the occasional empty backfield formation. Adam Caplan, who frequently watches coaches' tape at NFL Films HQ with his buddy Greg Cosell when he's not hosting various programs on SIRIUS NFL Radio and writing for Scout.com, had this to say about the benefits of the formation for Kansas City's young quarterback:
"Thigpen clearly works best out of the Pistol formation for several reasons. He lacks ideal height to play the position (6-2) and being able to play a few feet back from center helps to give him a better line of vision in order to scan the field.
"Because he doesn't have the strongest arm in the world, he's able to work the intermediate passing game easier this way. It gives him a little more time to get rid of the football. This is really evident against the better pass-rushing teams. The intermediate passing game has really been a boost to Gonzalez's productivity.
"The addition of receiver Mark Bradley is probably one of the more underrated moves the team has made. Bradley gives them a legitimate third passing option, which has made it harder for teams to focus on Gonzalez and Dwayne Bowe. The one drawback is that working out of the shotgun makes it a little awkward to run the football at times. Some feel Jamaal Charles would be a better fit for the Chiefs' revamped scheme."
Against the Raiders, Thigpen ran 11 times and threw only 22 passes. It was the ground game that led the way on the 91-yard drive that took up half of the third quarter and six minutes of the fourth, broke a 10-10 tie, and took the Raiders out of the game. A 50-yard punt by Shane Lechler, and a two-yard return by Kevin Robinson, put the ball at the Kansas City 9 with seven minutes elapsed in the second half.
After a 23-yard pass to Gonzalez to get the Chiefs out of Purgatory, Larry Johnson took a direct snap. I'm going to digress here and point out that there was one advantage for Johnson that a lot of teams who run pseudo-Wildcat stuff don't provide: Rookie tight end Brad Cottam lined up to block just outside right tackle Damon McIntosh. The Wildcat looks that the Dolphins give generally have an H-back (usually David Martin), which makes a lot more sense than a direct snap up the middle with no extra blocking. In this case, Johnson took the ball right, and outside past the lane that Cottam created, for seven yards. The reason this trick stuff works when it does is so often the success of the blocking that sets it all up. When they first started running the 'Cat, the Dolphins would overload the right side with an extra right tackle, a pulling left guard, an H-back, and three Zambonis, for all I know. Moving on, but I felt compelled to point that out.
A low snap in the Pistol formation killed the next play, and the Chiefs lost the seven yards that Johnson picked up. But on third-and-10 from his own 32, Thigpen took the ball on a short shotgun and threw deep to Gonzales, who ran out of the slot and beat Gibril Wilson on an underthrown comeback. Johnson rumbled right for two yards out of another sawed-off shotgun on the next play.
On second-and-eight from the 50, Thigpen took the ball in yet another Pistol, and the Raiders responded with a rather odd defensive formation. Left end Derrick Burgess, left tackle Tommy Kelly and right tackle Gerard Warren were lined up in their usual spots for a 4-3 front, but right end Kalimba Edwards was lined up an entire gap to the right of Warren.
At the snap, Burgess, Kelly, and Warren headed straight forward. The entire Kansas City offensive line went to its right, not even bothering to block Edwards, who came out of his stance with a delay at the snap. I'm not sure if this was a planned delayed rush, or Edwards slipped, or what the hell happened, but the Chiefs line acted as if he wasn't even there. Left tackle Brendan Albert and left guard Brian Waters doubled Warren, center Rudy Niswanger and right guard Wade Smith doubled Kelly, and McIntosh rode Burgess out of the play behind Thigpen. Johnson came out and took the late-arriving Mr. Edwards out of the equation with a low block, Thigpen couldn't find anything downfield, and he picked up six yards on a scramble. The real scramble, however, was going on in the head of whoever drew that defense up. Two plays later, Thigpen threw an ugly near-pick to Gibril Wilson that Wilson flat-out dropped.
The real effectiveness of the Pistol for the Chiefs was how it helped them on the ground at the end of this drive. After a 12-yard pass to Gonzalez on third-and-9 from the Oakland 40, Thigpen either took the ball himself or gave it to Johnson on each of the next six plays. When the Raiders played a base 4-3, Johnson would veer and roam through defenders, around some quality blocking. If Oakland brought an extra man to the line, Thigpen wasn't shy about taking off just as that blitzing linebacker left a vacated area. 16 plays and 9:24 after it started, the Chiefs' long drive came to a successful end with a two-yard touchdown run.
We've said it in Audibles, and our readers have commented to the same effect: Wouldn't it be fun if a truly bad team decided that they had nothing to lose and were just going to go for it with all the nutty formations they could imagine? The Chiefs are a truly bad team -- they're at the starting point of a serious rebuild that looks like it could take years -- but they're not running the Pistol and these direct snaps just for the sake of it. Herm Edwards and offensive coordinator Chan Gailey are doing these things with proper planning to try and make something happen in the face of severe personnel deficits, and that's admirable. They're also making a surprise star out of their young quarterback, and that's something to build on.
Chicago Bears 14 at Minnesota Vikings 34
Though the write-ups on Richard and Thigpen were more time-intensive than I initially expected, I wanted to take some time and discuss the performance of Bears running back Matt Forte against the Vikings last Sunday night. Against what may be the final 2008 performance of the "Williams Wall" (depending on whose lawyers you ask), the Tulane grad displayed many of the characteristics that allowed him to gain 2007 yards on the ground in his senior season and finish his collegiate career as the Senior Bowl MVP.
After an relatively Forte-free first quarter (they got their daily allotment of incompletions out of the way early), the Bears turned more to the center of their offense in the second quarter. Forte has a smooth, gliding running style that belies his size (6-2, 216 pounds, though he looks a little more stout), he showed off his speed on a third-and-7 draw play with 11:05 left in the first half. He got past the line behind solid blocking and hit the second level before being taken down by Chad Greenway and Ben Leber. Of course, the play gained six yards, and the Bears had to punt. Gotta love those draws on third-and-long...
Chicago's next drive started at the 8:50 mark, and the Vikings had a target on Forte's back. He carried the ball three times for -1 yards (including a direct snap where he took the ball up the middle -- yikes), and then got off his longest run of the day. The Bears lined up in an I-formation after realizing that draw after draw up the middle was going to get their running back killed. At the snap, fullback Jason Davis headed up the middle. Both Williamses got penetration, but tight end Desmond Clark blocked Jared Allen inside, and left guard Josh Beekman pulled left to seal the edge. Forte beat Darren Sharper and Chad Greenway on the sideline run for a 26-yard gain before getting knocked out of bounds at the Minnesota 1-yard line.
Of course, the Bears didn't score on this drive; they got stopped four times, gave the ball to the Vikings, then watched Gus Frerotte throw a 99-yard touchdown pass to Bernard Berrian. Forte had two runs on that goal-line stand -- he was stopped just short on a pitch left and blown out up the middle by Jared Allen -- but it's a bit like Richard getting stomped by Shaun Rogers once in a while. These things will happen against players of this caliber.
I liked what I saw of Forte in this game -- or should I say, I liked what I saw of Forte more than I liked the Bears' play-calling. How many times are you going to go up the middle before you realize it isn't going to work against the Vikings' front four?
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