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 Sep 2008
by Doug Farrar
Miami Dolphins 38 at New England Patriots 13
If you've been following the story of the Wildcat offense used by the Dolphins to beat the Patriots last Sunday, you probably know that head coach Tony Sparano conferred with quarterbacks coach David Lee about a few new formations as the Dolphins prepared for the game during the week. Lee and Sparano worked together under Bill Parcells in Dallas from 2003 through 2006, and Lee spent 2007 as the Arkansas Razorbacks' offensive coordinator. They reunited in Miami before the 2008 season under the auspices of Bill Parcells.
In August of 2007, Lee went to a whiteboard for CSTV and diagrammed three plays -- all Wildcat formations -- explaining how the plays were run with Darren McFadden as the quarterback and Felix Jones as the handoff option. With all the talk about Bill Belichick and video ... well, if there's one piece of tape Belichick should have watched over the last year, it'd be this one. The Dolphins ran six direct snaps to halfback Ronnie Brown last Sunday, and Ricky Williams played the role of Felix Jones as the handoff option in all six.
Lee detailed three formations, and these were the three used against New England:
"Steeler," in which the running back moves from left to right after the snap and takes the ball from the quarterback. The running back then blasts off to the right behind a pulling left guard, an unbalanced right offensive line, and an H-back either between and behind the two right tackles or just outside the right tackle to block;
"Power," in which the fake to the running back in the "Steeler" formation leaves the quarterback to (hopefully) blow through any one of four different holes to the right; and
"Counter" (70 Weak), in which the fake leaves the defense biting on "Power," only to watch helplessly as the quarterback runs left through a huge open cutback lane.
The Dolphins didn’t use Counter to run, though the last of the six plays was close. They used Steeler and Power to great effect, and this is why a quarterbacks coach is the headliner of this week's Cover-3.
The first Power play came with 2:32 left in the first quarter, and the Dolphins at the New England 2-yard line. Miami lined up in the exact setup Lee detailed in the video -- an unbalanced right line with left tackle Jake Long outside right tackle Vernon Carey. Tight end David Martin served as the H-back behind and between Carey and Long. Ricky Williams was in the left slot and Chad Pennington was split wide to the left. At the snap, Williams ran a sweep/reverse look, Brown faked the handoff to him, and left guard Justin Smiley pulled right between Carey and Long. The two tackles had opened up a huge hole, and Smiley busted through to take linebacker Jerod Mayo out of the play to the left. Brown had a truck-sized lane to run through. Later in the game, the Dolphins ran this play again, and the announcers claimed that New England didn't adjust, which isn't true. We'll detail what adjustments they did make a bit later.
Steeler play No. 1 came with 4:54 left in the first half -- this was the first of three in the second quarter. Same formation, same basic personnel. The Patriots appeared to at least recognize the formation this time, but the left side of their secondary -- cornerback Deltha O'Neal and safety Rodney Harrison -- played back about seven yards. Little in the way of presnap adjustment. As a result, the handoff to Williams left the Pats with a blocking mismatch, as Long and Martin sealed off Mike Vrabel and running back Patrick Cobbs chipped Harrison upfield. The only thing that stopped Williams from a long gain with a quick cut upfield was a stumble and fall. Vrabel was credited with a perfunctory tackle
Ricky got his back on first-and-10 with two minutes left in the first half -- this was the second Steeler, with the quick cut inside that Williams missed before. Pennington was lined up wide right this time. Other than that, same personnel. Vince Wilfork came through late on the backside. Martin engaged Vrabel decisively with a great moving block, while Long and Carey slipped to the second level and demolished New England's linebackers. Williams got past O'Neal and was finally tripped up by Harrison 28 yards downfield, down to the New England 17. At this point, the 2008 Dolphins reminded me of the 2007 Packers in one regard: If you don't block well no matter what position you play, you can't play for this team. I don't even think you'd be able to get on the bus.
The third and final Wildcat of the second quarter was probably the backbreaker. Miami at the Patriots' 5-yard line, and Pennington went wide right again, with Cobbs in the right slot. The scoring play was Power, but the Dolphins had a touchdown if they wanted it with Williams running wide in the Steeler as well. Now, the unmentioned adjustment New England made this time was to spy Ellis Hobbs on Williams as he ran left to right for the fake. But Hobbs focused entirely on Williams and bit too hard. By the time Hobbs realized the ball was coming inside, he couldn't reverse his direction and get his bearings. All he could do was to grasp at air as Brown went by. Brown's escorts were dominant once again, as Long, Carey and Smiley (pulling) each got a hat on a hat. Brown had little interference on his way to the end zone. The Patriots had no answer whatsoever for the inside run on the fake.
The score at halftime? The very confident Dolphins 21, the extremely confused Patriots 6.
Wildcat No. 5 was the Counter, with an aerial option wrinkle. The Dolphins faced third-and-3 from the New England 19 with 5:51 left in the third quarter. Same base personnel, with Pennington wide right. This time, the Pats brought six to the line and essentially eight in the box. At the snap, all heads went with Williams -- you could almost feel eleven Patriots biting in Ricky's direction, and this left all action open for the counter. Tight end Anthony Fasano ran a seam route from the far left spot in the line, right past Mayo and safety Brandon Meriweather. Brown ran the counter option left and threw up a lefty pass to a wide-open Fasano for the touchdown. If the previous plays were physically dominant, this one was downright embarrassing. At this point, the Dolphins had the vaunted New England defense on a string.
The final Wildcat formation, at the beginning of the fourth quarter, did the Patriots in. First-and-10 from the Miami 38, Same personnel, same basic formation, except with Pennington back to wide left. Brown started to look counter after the fake to Williams, but saw a Power lane between Long and Carey (again) while Smiley was at the second level, ready to decimate anyone in his way (again). Brown just outran everyone to the end zone -- putting the cap on his own great day, an incredible performance by the offensive line, and a real validation for the Miami Dolphins' coaching staff.
The question, of course, is where the Dolphins go from here with this series of plays. Sparano said after the game that there are more variations he'd like to work in, and he likes the idea of using the Wildcat as an option in certain situations. It will be very interesting to see what happens as their opponents adjust. In the month after this week's bye, the Fins have the Chargers, Ravens (yeouch!), and Bills to deal with. When they face the Seahawks on November 9, they'll be running these plays on a middle linebacker in Lofa Tatupu with a preternatural ability to read offensive plays, and a linebacker corps with much more team speed than New England's.
If Sparano and Lee can get this by the Seahawks after fooling San Diego, Baltimore and Buffalo, they'll have a template that the rest of the NFL will be lining up to copy.
Oakland Raiders 23 at Buffalo Bills 24
Meanwhile, in Orchard Park, the subject of Lee's YouTube breakdown ran two direct snaps of his own, with some different looks.
On first-and-10 from their own 20 and 6:16 left in the first quarter, the Raiders ran the first snap with Darren McFadden in the shotgun. Halfback Michael Bush was on his right. Oakland went three-wide with no H-back and no unbalanced line -- just tight end Zach Miller staying in to chip alongside left tackle Mario Henderson.
As McFadden handed off to Bush, tackle Cornell Green took out end Chris Kelsay on the backside block. The Raiders' ability to block the outside zone and take the Bills' defensive line with them allowed for a huge cutback lane for Bush, who went for 16 yards. Linebacker Paul Posluszny was caught up in the wave to his right, and linebacker Kavika Mitchell was busy trying to set his shoulders and get to full speed before Bush went by him. Oakland's expertise with zone blocking allows them to play with formations and use the threat of multiple receivers to make opponents think twice about stacking the box. If JaMarcus Russell turns out to be the real thing and this team can get some receivers, that threat could become a major problem for opposing defenses.
Direct snap No. 2 saw the Raiders go three-wide again, with first-and-10 from the Buffalo 41. Oakland did make a concession to the Wildcat with an H-back in the person of Miller. McFadden and Bush in their same places. At the snap, the Oakland line mauled to the left for the counter. And this is when you saw team speed upset the applecart on plays like this. First, right end Aaron Schobel did a read-and-react at the line, avoiding the aggressiveness that gets defenders lost in zone-blocking tidal waves. Then, as Mitchell came up to the line to fill the backside alley, free safety Ko Simpson moved up to Mitchell's spot.
At the snap, Simpson took off at an angle and got a hand on Bush. Posluszny stayed with Bush as he hit the line of scrimmage, fought off a chip from guard Cooper Carlisle, and took Bush down after a 6-yard gain. The Bills didn't face the same complexity of formations and plays that the Patriots did -- the Raiders were running what looked like simple zone-read options. Still, I was impressed by the defense's ability to recognize and adjust from one play to the next. Unlike the Pats, the Bills had an answer for the direct snap.
Did Buffalo provide the template to shut it down? Irresistible meets immovable on October 26, when the Bills travel to Miami. Until then, I'm off to watch that viral video once more, and wonder again how a quarterbacks coach upended the smartest defense in football.
New Orleans Saints 32 at Denver Broncos 34
While the direct snap is obviously the focus of this article, I also wanted to study the second left tackle taken in the 2008 draft behind Long: Boise State's Ryan Clady, who's been very impressive for the Broncos. Time constraints prevented me from making Clady more of a story this week, but I'll have a more in-depth focus later this season. For now, here's Denver's first touchdown drive against the Saints, and Clady's involvement in it.
On Denver's first run play of the game, a second-and-10 from the New Orleans 45 and 1:30 elapsed in the first quarter, Clady took Saints end Will Smith to the left as guard Ben Hamilton did the same with tackle Sedrick Ellis. This gave Selvin Young enough of a lane for a 9-yard gain. On the third-and-1 that followed, New Orleans moved nose tackle Kendrick Clancy over Hamilton as Broncos went I-formation. Tight end Tony Scheffler motioned left outside Clady. At the snap, Clady rode Smith outside and sealed him out as Michael Pittman ran inside for 2 yards and the first down.
First-and-10 from the New Orleans 34. Smith showed Clady something on this play, almost getting to Cutler and powering the rookie back from the snap. Nice straightforward drive by Smith here, but Cutler completed a 4-yard pass to Eddie Royal. Clady held Smith up at the point on the next play, showing great power to take all Smith had as Selvin Young came around left on a sweep. Smith tried to get around Clady to his right so that he could tackle Young, but Clady engaged him just long enough for Young to scoot by and gain 7 yards before being forced out of bounds by safety Roman Harper. Clady also got away with a pretty blatant face mask on this play. At this point, I'm giving the power advantage to Smith.
Two plays later, the Broncos had a second-and-7 at the Saints' 20. Nice protection here from Clady on a tight four-wide set, as he took Smith straight on with no threat to Cutler on an incomplete quick pass to Brandon Marshall. The incompletion was more about Mike McKenzie's coverage -- and judging by Jay Cutler's sign language, a blown out route as well.
Third-and-7, and Denver went three-wide from the shotgun. This is where I saw what Clady is capable of. Smith made an outside move and played right into Clady's hands. Smith was fanned out of the play with the kind of technique you don't expect to see from a rookie tackle. He's not quite Joe Thomas -- imagine the perfect arc of an opening door and you'll have an idea of Thomas' technique -- but Clady knew how long to keep Smith outside before pushing him completely out of the play back inside. Ellis almost had Hamilton beat inside, but Cutler stepped up in the pocket and hit Brandon Stokley for a 17-yard gain. The Broncos keep their drive going.
First-and-goal from the Saints' 3, and another good play for Clady. He handfought Smith at the line, only to head up to the second level to chip Randall Gay as Michael Pittman went up the middle for two yards and just short of a touchdown. Cutler hit Nate Jackson on the next play for a 1-yard score, and I was impressed that Clady didn't get lost in the aggression at the line, understood his read responsibility, and made that second block.
I'll definitely be keeping an eye on Clady, and doing a more thorough article later in the year. I like what I've seen in run- and pass-blocking. Clady is as agile as he is aggressive, making him a perfect fit for the Denver zone scheme. There are those who believe that Clady has the most potential of any of the tackles taken in the first round of this draft. We'll put him under the microscope as he gets more familiar with the NFL.
20 comments, Last at 26 Sep 2008, 10:40am by jonramz