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?
01 Oct 2008
San Diego Chargers 28 at Oakland Raiders 18
On the occasion of the most bizarre coach-firing press conference in NFL history, it's a good time to revisit the off-season free agency decisions made by the Oakland Raiders. There was the six-year, $55-million deal given to receiver Javon Walker (he of the four catches for 52 yards this season). Then, the seven-year, $50.5 million deal given to defensive lineman Tommy Kelly (2008 stats: 1 DUI arrest, 0 sacks). And finally, there was perhaps the least defensible contract, the seven-year, $66.28 million deal given to ex-Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall.
To quote Bill Simmons, this never would have happened when Al Davis was alive. The Raiders have long been known as a skilled franchise in their evaluation of defensive backs: From all-timer Willie Brown to current star Nnamdi Asomugha, there's a long list. John Madden recalled in more than one of his books how much Davis was involved in cornerback selection. It's what makes the Hall signing so bizarre -- not only was Hall well-known as a terribly overrated player in Atlanta, but the Raiders were diverting money away from Asomugha, who they eventually had to franchise. Against the Chargers last Sunday, with Asomugha limited due to a fractured elbow, we saw the graphic difference between the two cornerbacks.
I'll give Philip Rivers credit for doing what some quarterbacks don't -- he did try and throw at Asomugha. With five minutes left in the first quarter, the Chargers had third-and-7 from their own 32, and set up in a four-receiver formation with three to the right and Asomugha covering Chris Chambers on the other side with a tight press at the line. As the Raiders blitzed from their left, Rivers tried to get a quick sideline pass off to Chambers before Asomugha could turn around. Asomugha read the play at sort of half-turn and got an arm up at just the right time to deflect the ball. I swear; this guy has eyes in the back of his head. Maybe the Chargers thought they could take advantage of the injured version of the NFL's best cornerback. Maybe they were wrong.
According to FO game-charting data, Asomugha allowed 8.7 yards per completion and 4.7 yards per attempt through the first three weeks of the 2008 season. Hall, on the other hand, was rocking a Jason David-esque 15.0 per completion and 9.4 per attempt. Opposing quarterbacks had targeted Asomugha 10 times, Hall 26.
As we said on the cover of Pro Football Prospectus 2008, Asomugha's name might as well mean "Throw to the other side." If you're wondering why, let's take a look at the plays in which Hall was listed as the primary cover man in the play-by-play against the Chargers.
Early in the first quarter, the Chargers lined up on first-and-10 from their own 24 in an offset-I, with Antonio Gates in motion right to left. This took safety Michael Huff away from the left corner, where Hall was playing. Hall was about seven yards off the line at the snap, and out of position when Chambers ran a skinny post to the San Diego 45. Chambers actually bobbled the first attempt at the catch, the ball went over Hall's head, and Chambers recovered to take the ball in around midfield. Hall was never in a position to make a play -- he broke late as Chambers started inside, and he was just out of reach on the bobble. Given the depth at which Hall was playing, that's just bad work out there.
Hall redeemed himself momentarily with 5:26 left in the first half. The Chargers came out in an offset-I on first-and-10 from their own 26. Hall played close on Vincent Jackson out wide. Jackson took off straight downfield, but Hall trailed him well all the way and broke the play up at the Oakland 45. Jackson got outside Hall to the sideline, but Hall took advantage of that by maintaining inside position, making the ball from Rivers very tough to catch. Hall got a bit ahead of Jackson just as the ball was coming in, got his right hand between Jackson's hands as both players were still going full speed, and got enough air after Jackson jumped to break up the pass. You can't cover a deep route, man-on-man, with no safety help, much better than that.
On third-and 15 with 5:25 left in the third quarter, the Chargers went shotgun, two backs, three-wide. Oakland had five at the line (including Asomugha), but dropped all but three pre-snap. Rivers threw a pass he'll have a tough time explaining awayon film day, trying to force one deep and inside to Jackson with safety Michael Huff and cornerback Tyvon Branch in front of the receiver. The pass was tipped, and Hall got the gift at the Oakland 42. That pass never should have been thrown; Hall was less a cover man and more an innocent bystander.
A few minutes later, San Diego had Jackson in the left slot on second-and-10 from the Oakland 47, and Hall was playing inside in the nickel. He was so far off the line that he was out of the picture, literally ten yards off the receiver. Jackson ran an easy deep out as Hall played behind, making a cosmetic tackle in what amounted to absentee coverage.
On the next play, Hall was at left corner up on the line on Chambers. Chambers put on a nifty move at the snap, and Hall was immediately at a disadvantage. Chambers headed inside, faked outside quickly, and he already had Hall beat, one yard off the line of scrimmage. Hall grabbed and released Chambers' right shoulder pad, then got physical enough to delay what would have been a touchdown. Only the last bit of contact was after five yards, but Hall was so badly beaten, it was an obvious call to make.
First play of the fourth quarter, third-and-5 from the Oakland 19, and the Chargers went shotgun, single-back with a shallow receiver stack on the right side. Hall played off again, and Jackson headed to the sideline as Chambers headed upfield. Hall played back at the snap, and because Branch had to take Chambers up top, Hall had Jackson all alone. This screamed "lack of awareness" to me. I understand that a secondary will play back to avoid a touchdown, but Hall conceded the first down from the word "go." Jackson caught the ball three yards past the first down marker, and Hall was five yards behind him. At the snap, Hall was two yards out from the first down, and he never even challenged Jackson because he was making a read inside, following Rivers' head. He had to know that he wasn't going to have safety help. Again, given Asomugha's ability to read plays using who knows what (Receivers' eyes? Peripheral vision? Spidey Sense?), the difference is even more graphic.
I wrote the Atlanta chapter for PFP 2008, and I've seen enough of Hall to know that I probably wouldn't be impressed with what I saw in this game. If anything, he's regressed in Oakland. Maybe it's the weight of knowing that he's the other option to the league's best, and the specter of a huge contract hanging over his head, but he's playing it safe to a ridiculous degree when he isn't racking up personal fouls and biting on everything in sight.
In last year's book, we had to lower the baseline for cornerback targets just to include Asomugha's name in Oakland's secondary stats. If Hall keeps playing like this, we may have to eliminate that baseline altogether.
Washington Redskins 26 at Dallas Cowboys 24
At the 2008 Scouting Combine, newly hired Redskins coach Jim Zorn discussed what he'd learned about developing quarterbacks during his time as the Seahawks' first signal-caller, and as the team's quarterbacks coach under Mike Holmgren.
"I came in with a lot. Mike entrusted me with a lot. When I came in, I decided, 'Here's a quarterback guru,' and I wanted to make sure he never had to tell me something that I wasn't doing right or I needed to change. I wanted to make sure I was open to things that he said to the quarterback that could help me understand how he was coaching," Zorn said. "There were times he'd watch the play, I'd watch the play and all of a sudden it didn't happen the way we wanted it. I'd step in and Mike would be like, 'Okay, let's see what he says.' He'd hear me say something and then we'd both go back and he wouldn't say a word. He knew I was right on. Then there'd be times when he'd step up and I would walk there to listen to what he had to say. I would say in my mind, 'That's exactly it.' And we'd both step back. So we were kind of on the same page there."
One of the reasons Zorn was hired by the Redskins in the first place was to take quarterback Jason Campbell to the next level. Having run through seven different offensive coordinators since his days at Auburn, the first-round pick in 2005 was looking for a system that would fit his talents, and the talents of those around him. Zorn was going to implement the Holmgren brand of West Coast Offense in Washington, and Campbell was going to stand or fall on that.
Zorn was also asked about Campbell at the Combine. "(I saw) Jason here over two years ago now. When I see him on video, I remember what I saw here. I think he's got a very good release. I think when he's got to drop the ball off he drops his arm a little bit, so there are techniques to work on there. But his release is very good. I'm surprised by how tall he is with how well he moves his feet. I think that's the thing I'm going to work on the most with him, is just his mindset on moving better in the pocket. I don't want (him) to think of himself as only a drop-back passer. I want him to think of himself as a guy who can move as well."
The original idea was to have Campbell as the lead story this week, but I just happened to watch DeAngelo Hall first and ... well, there was a lot to write about there. Still, Campbell's performance against Dallas is well worth writing about, and I wanted to detail three first-half plays that really illustrated his growth and development in this offense.
On the first play of the second quarter, the Redskins brought four receivers on a second-and-5 from their own 26. Dallas ran a little twist blitz inside with Zach Thomas picked up by Mike Sellers to the right. Campbell didn't flinch -- he saw the blitz and went to the hot route left, which was Antwaan Randle El on a quick outside slant. Randle El did the rest, getting past five Dallas defenders (starting with cornerback Terence Newman, who is going to want to forget this game as soon as possible) for a 17-yard gain. Campbell made a great, well-timed throw across his body to the sideline. It may not look like much, but these kinds of passes to deflect pressure and pick up yards after catch get defenses thinking twice about blitzing. A prototypical West Coast Offense play, and Campbell went back to the well with those short passes to the left on this drive.
After DeMarcus Ware got busted for defensive offside on third-and-4 from the Dallas 45 (good to know they still call that in the NFL these days), Campbell made what may have been his most impressive play of the day. First-and-10 from the Dallas 36. Ware got past left tackle Chris Samuels and was on Campbell quickly. As Ware prepared to complete his pursuit with a chop to cause a fumble, Campbell coolly moved up in the pocket, kept his form, and threw the ball just over the outstretched arm of end Greg Ellis, who was coming in from the right side. Santana Moss was a good 10 yards past any Cowboys defender after beating Newman on a deep crossing route, and took the ball in easily before going out of bounds at the Dallas 8-yard line.
In a post-game interview, Moss attributed Campbell's finesse under pressure to a drill that Zorn likes to do with his quarterbacks -- Zorn will throw bags or pads at the quarterback as he's setting to throw, getting him used to evading objects coming at him quickly. As Moss pointed out, that's paying dividends on the field. Campbell threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Randle El three plays later, but it was this play that made the difference.
On the next drive, the Redskins had first-and-10 from their own 39. Campbell sold a great play action to Ladell Betts as the deep back out of an offset-I. Newman is going to get blamed for another deep burn on this play, but Campbell's fake made this happen. Defensive back Courtney Brown started to cheat up to the line, but he wasn't blitzing -- just reading. The fake to Betts froze him, and he had to stay put as Campbell moved up in the pocket again to avoid pressure. Newman had no safety help after he bit on the comeback, and no hope when Moss beat him with a pretty double move outside (Fig. 1). Moss was so far past Newman that Moss could slow down and turn around for the high, slow throw before Newman brought him down. This was a tremendous example of a quarterback and receiver working together to fake one entire half of a secondary out of its collective shoes.
Fig, 1: Moss' Double Move
The biggest difference I've seen in Campbell between the preseason and now is the timing of his release. The hitch that got him in trouble with quick passes before is gone, and his ability to play within the timing of every route and every play has done wonders for his confidence. He is now able to use his mobility to his own advantage; to keep plays alive instead of extending himself into potentially disastrous situations. In addition, Campbell's now able to consistently read past the first receiver, even when he's under pressure.
Jim Zorn's belief that he had the personnel to run his preferred offense has proven to be true, and that's because he's got the quarterback to make it work.
Minnesota Vikings 17 at Tennessee Titans 30
The right side of the Tennessee defensive line is manned by tackle Albert Haynesworth and end Kyle Vanden Bosch, and that's as tough a twosome as you'll find in the NFL. They were difference-makers at the end of the Titans' 30-17 win over the Vikings.
Haynesworth was a big ball of nastiness from Minnesota's first offensive play. After an encroachment foul gave the Vikings first-and-5 on their own 26, Haynesworth shot between center Matt Birk and left guard Steve Hutchinson with linebacker speed to take Adrian Peterson down for no gain. Vanden Bosch has long been known as one of the game's most intense pass rushers, and he had a big play when he got his helmet on Peterson's hand as he was carrying the ball, causing a fumble with 5:34 left in the first half.
We saw just how dangerous Haynesworth is, and how much his opponents respect his formidable skills, on Minnesota's final two drives of the day. With 3:55 left in the game and the Vikings at their own 10, right defensive tackle Tony Brown shot through and gave Gus Frerotte a huge hit just as he released the ball. This led to a Nick Harper interception, and Frerotte was out of the game. I wondered how Brown got to Frerotte so easily until I replayed the action and discovered that the Vikings were triple-teaming Haynesworth with Hutchinson, Birk, and right guard Anthony Herrera.
If you wanted to make a compelling argument that you are the best defensive tackle in the game, you could start with this line: "I was triple-teamed by Steve Hutchinson and two other guys." Try and find someone else who can say that about themselves. Harper returned the interception to the Minnesota 6, and rookie sensation Chris Johnson scored on the next play. Now, the Vikings had to try and erase a 13-point deficit with 3:32 left in the game, and Tarvaris Jackson facing the Tennessee defense. Not the most attractive of options.
Jackson started his first drive from the Minnesota 21-yard line with a 9-yard pass to Bobby Wade. Wade fumbled the ball right into the hands of tight end Visanthe Shiancoe. That bit of luck was the last the Vikings were to have on this day -- they were about to get a two-parter from Tennessee's defensive stars. On second-and 1 from the 30, Vanden Bosch and Haynesworth ran a twist, which took Vanden Bosch inside to be engaged by Hutchinson and Birk. Haynesworth headed outside, bounced off left tackle Artis Hicks, and closed in on Jackson for the sack with that frightening speed.
The next play, with the Vikings facing third-and-7 from their own 24, was the final blow. Vanden Bosch beat Hicks on an inside move and shared a sack with Brown. The Vikings punted. Game over.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of these plays is that they came so late in the game. Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch are incredibly strong players, but the Titans' coaching staff also does a good job of subbing them out enough to keep their energy up until the end. In this case, that force proved fatal to the Vikings.
25 comments, Last at 03 Oct 2008, 11:38am by dryheat