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?
24 Dec 2008
by Doug Farrar
Baltimore Ravens 33 at Dallas Cowboys 24
As was detailed in last week's Cover-3, the Dallas Cowboys have turned their defense around in the second half of the season, especially against the run. Dallas' stadium-closing tussle with the Baltimore Ravens looked like a can't-miss battle between that defense and a Ravens power running game featuring Willis McGahee and elite fullback Le'Ron McClain. Dallas kept the edge just about all the way through, but the Ravens had two knockout punches at the end.
Up 19-17 with 3:42 left in the game, the Ravens set up with an unbalanced line at their own 23. Baltimore put tackles Adam Terry (78) and Willie Anderson (79) outside left tackle Jared Gaither (71), with left guard Ben Grubbs (66), center Jason Brown (60), right guard Chris Chester (65), and tight end Todd Heap (86) filling out the protection. The Cowboys lined up in their usual 5-2 front. DeMarcus Ware (94) and Anthony Spencer (93) were on the edges, Jay Ratliff (90) in the middle, Marcus Spears (96) and Chris Canty (99) filling the gaps, and Bradie James (56) and Zach Thomas (55) at linebacker.
The Ravens love to run power plays behind that unbalanced line with their fullbacks, but McGahee's quick-hit style worked like a charm on this play (Figure 1). At the snap, Gaither and Grubbs double-teamed Ratliff, while Brown and Chester put up a nice combo block on Canty. They pushed Canty out past center, which also took James out of the play, and Chester broke off to seal Thomas to the other side. McGahee took the ball from Flacco's left side, ran right, and cut slightly left to catch the lane. Safeties Ken Hamlin and Keith Davis couldn't get to McGahee before he hit full stride, and 77 yards later, the Ravens had blown that vaunted Dallas run defense apart.
|Figure 1: McGahee 77-Yard TD|
The second long run, which came on the first play of Baltimore's next drive following Dallas' matching touchdown, had a few different wrinkles. They went from unbalanced left to right, with Terry outside Anderson to the right side, and Heap motioning from right to left. Instead of single back, it was an offset-I with Lorenzo Neal as the fullback and Le'Ron McClain ready to take the ball. The blocking was different as well; instead of straight-ahead, double-team or combo, the right side slid left with Grubbs pulling right. Grubbs wasn't quite fast enough to take Spencer out at the edge, but McClain was already heading right to a seam behind Neal, and Spencer wasn't going to tackle McClain, who outweighs him by five pounds, from behind. Neal took James outside right, McClain gave Hamlin the Stiff-Arm of Doom, and 82 yards later, that was all she wrote.
The Cowboys' defense has been spoofed mercilessly since those game-clinching runs, but it's also important to remember that until they happened, Baltimore had gained a total of 106 yards on 34 carries. McClain had gained 57 yards on 21 carries, and McGahee had 31 yards on eight attempts. It wasn't as if the Ravens hadn't tried the unbalanced set in that game without success -- Ware beat Terry in the first quarter for a sack/fumble combo when Terry was the extra left tackle.
While the Ravens did eventually prove the effectiveness of every aspect of their interior blocking and rushing attack, it's a bit early to discount Dallas' defense just yet.
Pittsburgh Steelers 14 at Tennessee Titans 31
As a 2008 draft prospect, Eastern Michigan defensive tackle Jason Jones was the 10th-ranked defensive end by NFLDraftScout.com. Jones was an elite run-stuffer inside in college, but there were concerns about his size (6-foot-5, 273 pounds) dooming him to "tweener" status in the pros. With Albert Haynesworth out for at least the rest of the regular season with a sprained MCL, Jones would sub in for the 320-pound behemoth, replacing quite possibly the best defensive player in the league. This as the Titans prepared to face the Pittsburgh Steelers for home field advantage in the AFC playoffs. While Jones' size does put him in some tough spots, I saw a lot to like about him, and some development as the game went on.
Jones made his first big impact on the Steelers' fifth play, a second-and-10 from the Tennessee 40. He slipped the double-team of center Justin Hartwig and left guard Chris Kemoeatu, sacking Ben Roethlisberger when the quarterback couldn't find anyone open and moved up to the line. An incompletion on the next play ended Pittsburgh's first drive.
At his size, Jones is going to struggle to win power battles against guys like Kemoeatu -- he is, after all, giving up almost 70 pounds. But he showed quickness and an ability to disengage from blocking, making quick tracks to tackle Roethlisberger on the deciding play of Pittsburgh's second drive. The Steelers had third-and-7 from the Titans' 7, and Roethlisberger took a shotgun snap with an empty backfield. At the snap, Jones sidestepped his double-team and trailed Roethlisberger from the quarterback's left to right -- first leaping in the air to deflect a pass that was never thrown; then running Big Ben down as he tucked the ball and scrambled. Jones took Roethlisberger down at the 2, forcing a fumble with help from linebacker David Thornton. Backup end Williams Hayes recovered the fumble, and thwarted a potential touchdown. Jones' relative lack of power came with an open-field speed tradeoff that was proving to be productive,
Jones didn't have a big impact on the second quarter, and he was relatively quiet through the third. The Titans were rotating their line a bit toward the end of the first half, and when he was in there, he was getting held up at the point. Through the third quarter, he would occasionally get a good push on Hartwig, but Kemoeatu would drive him back just about every time. What I did not see in Jones to this point was an ability to penetrate with the kind of flash quickness that sets elite defensive linemen apart.
So, how did he wind up with 2 1/2 sacks in the fourth quarter?
On the first sack, with 12:14 left in the game and Pittsburgh facing third-and-13 from their own 35, he looped around right end Jacob Ford, showed excellent edge speed in getting to Roethlisberger, and forced a fumble that was recovered by Pittsburgh, but ended their drive. Fellow tackle Tony Brown blew past Hartwig to share the sack.
Sack No. 2 of the quarter came with 7:15 left in the game, and the Steelers going no-huddle. On this play, Jones tried to slide inside Kemoeatu, but the massive guard powered him back inside and stood him up as he tried to spin out of the box. But when Kemoeatu let go of him, Jones found that Roethlisberger was at the line, almost passing downfield, then tucking the ball back in. Jones gave chase, caused the fumble, and tackled Roethlisberger. That was a case of a quarterback creating his own sack.
The final sack came with 2:26 remaining, the Steelers at their own 20, and the Titans up 24-14. Pittsburgh went shotgun, four-wide, and the burst I expected to see from Jones all day finally showed up. At the snap, he just out-motored Kemoeatu, who didn't have enough side-to-side quickness to stop him from crashing into the backfield and bringing Big Ben down again.
I'd have to watch Jones again to make any kind of legitimate assessment, but I wanted to see if the performance matched the numbers and the hype. I liked the way he adjusted down the stretch by using stunts and quickness to get past his primary blocker. He certainly learned a lot about dealing with big men in this game, and he did very well in a disadvantageous situation. As the Titans go through the postseason, they're certainly want to be careful with Haynesworth if they have him, and Jones can provide help in specific roles. He's best-suited to the inside on passing downs and outside on the run -- not unlike Seattle's Lawrence Jackson, another first-year tweener. It will be interesting to see how they use him this year and in the future.
Carolina Panthers 28 at New York Giants 34 (OT)
Home field was up for grabs in the NFC as well, as the Panthers and Giants set up for a Sunday night super-heavyweight bout. There's no mystery about these teams; both the Giants and Panthers look to use their excellent offensive lines to put their running backs in positions of power. As close as this game was all the way through overtime, it was New York's final drive that put them over the top.
In Cover-3 this year, I've written more about the Giants' offensive line than any other player or positional unit. There are several reasons for this. First of all, I don't think line play (whether good or bad) gets the credit/blame it deserves. Second, it's just fun to write about tough, highly skilled players working together with seamless efficiency, playing beyond their individual talents to create something at a new level. Finally, it's just such a pleasure to watch them do what they do. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: If you love great offensive line play, these Giants are a pleasure to watch. As they usually are, that line was the deciding factor in a tough match that ended tied in regulation. New York got first shot a the overtime win.
On first-and-ten from their own 20, the Giants went with three receivers and Ward as the single back. Tight end Michael Matthews was outside left tackle David Diehl, and Matthews blocked right end Julius Peppers in Carolina's four-man front. Ward headed left with the ball as Diehl took tackle Darwin Walker inside, and guard Rich Seubert pulled outside to take linebacker Jon Beason out of the play. Peppers got a release from Matthews five yards downfield and wrapped Ward up after a six-yard gain. Kevin Boss, acting as a receiver on this play, blocked linebacker Na'il Diggs outside.
The Giants like to line Boss up as a receiver on running plays, and he gives them a real advantage with outside blocking in a smart variation on the typical two-tight-end bunch you see certain teams (like the Panthers) use. After two Manning incompletions, the Giants punted, watched the Panthers go three-and-out, and started their second overtime drive from their own 13 when R.W. McQuarters muffed a punt at the 19 and eventually recovered.
The first play of that second drive was the killer. New York lined up I-formation with Madison Hedgecock as Ward's blocking back. Boss was lined up outside right tackle. Carolina brought a straight 4-3 with all three linebackers looking to bite on the run and free safety Charles Godfrey moving up into the box presnap. If there's a team better than this one at sending its guards to pull and wreak havoc on opposing defenses, I'd really like to see it. At the snap, Boss took left end Tyler Brayton out, pushing him back against his own momentum. Hedgecock came up to fill the right outside on Diggs. Right tackle Kareem McKenzie and right guard Chris Snee blew out Charles Johnson in the middle, leaving a near-perfect lane that Seubert completed by pulling right and crushing Beason to that side. By that time, McKenzie had moved to the second level and was blocking linebacker Thomas Davis to the right. Ward blew through the lane without breaking stride, going 51 yards to the Carolina 36 before Ken Lucas finally took him down.
Another I-formation followed, with Brandon Jacobs trying it outside left and cutting back inside for a gain of 3. Another Manning incompletion (the last two were high, this one was wide right), and the G-Men were ready to get back to basics and take this one home.
On third-and-seven from the Carolina 33, the Giants went shotgun, three-wide, against a nickel set from Carolina. Boss went in motion from right to left. At the snap, Boss "pulled" right, along with Seubert, and Ward slashed from left to right for 14 yards and a first down. The Giants set up in an I-formation to run the next play, and Carolina called a timeout. They went back to the I, and the Panthers brought seven to the line. Matthews motioned left to right, and Diggs trailed him. At the snap, Manning handed off to Ward, who patiently waited for everything to develop. First, Snee pulled right and demolished Diggs to the right outside. Then, Hedgecock hit the second level and effectively blocked Chris Harris AND walled off Jon Beason. Meanwhile, Boss was chopping Brayton to bits on the inside.
It takes an incredible amount of coordination and timing to have plays develop over time with a defense this fast. Ward went for 17, and Jacobs' 2-yard touchdown run on the next play was a fait accompli. The Giants had already won the day through the power and continuity of their offensive line.
The totals were amazing -- 301 rushing yards, and 215 for Ward. This was the highest rushing total put up by the Giants since 1959, which was fitting. '59 was the year that former offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi took his pulling guards and power sweeps to Green Bay, creating a Hall of Fame line. This line reminds me of that one in many ways, and I don't think there's any question anymore that the Giants will go exactly as far as the five guys up front take them.
6 comments, Last at 28 Dec 2008, 2:23am by morganja