How did New England find the right combination of offensive linemen this season, and where are Seattle's biggest weaknesses in pass protection?
18 Nov 2009
by Doug Farrar
They're baaaaaack ...
After a year-long hiatus, the Patriots and Colts are back on top. Back on top in DVOA (not to mention Weighted DVOA and Offensive DVOA) and back on top in the minds of the football media. Pats-Colts was once again the music that played over the season, superseding all of the enchanting sub-plots (plus, it gave us a break from that guy up in Minnesota). Once again, the game lived up to the hype; in fact, this one may have exceeded it. In appreciation of the kind of rivalry we don't often see over an extended period of time in a cap-driven league (enjoy it while you may), this week's Cover-3 stays in this game for the whole ride. We'll start with the unexpected success story of an increasingly valuable import.
Kaarst, Germany's Sebastian Vollmer played his high school football at Quirinus Gymnasium and starred on a prep team that went 25-0 during his time there. When he arrived in America in 2004 to play in San Diego's Global Junior Championships, he barely spoke any English. Despite this, the Houston Cougars saw enough to make the 250-pound Vollmer a tight end and blocker in "jumbo" packages. As he filled out and got the hang of the college game, Vollmer became Houston's full-time left tackle in 2007, earning All-Conference USA mentions in his two final collegiate seasons. Measured at 6-8 and 312 at his Pro Day on March 27, Vollmer had enough power and lower-body "oomph" to register 55 knockdowns in 2007 and 69 in 2008. He allowed four sacks in those two seasons. Vollmer didn't receive an invitation to the 2009 Scouting Combine, but he was selected by the Patriots with the last of their four second-round picks (58th overall).
In the Patriots chapter of the Football Outsiders Almanac, I speculated that with Vollmer's height and 37.5-inch vertical leap, Bill Belichick might see an appealing Vrabel-esque end zone target in the rookie. But Vollmer was destined for more crucial duty when left tackle Matt Light suffered a right knee injury in New England's 20-17 overtime loss to the Broncos in Week 5. Vollmer started the next game, a 59-0 snow-covered laugher against the Titans, and he's been protecting Tom Brady's blind side ever since. His challenge against the Colts would be to negate Dwight Freeney, the ubiquitous edge rusher who came into this game with 9.5 sacks.
On New England's first play from scrimmage, first-and-10 from their own 31 with 13:22 left in the first quarter, Vollmer showed excellent fundamentals. Out of a shotgun, single-back set with Wes Welker in motion from right to left and no chipping help, he took Freeney head-on with no difficulty. Freeney could get under Vollmer's pads, but it still looked like Bruce Lee fighting Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Game of Death -- where do you start, and how do you get where you want to go? When he took the initial hit, Vollmer engaged with the instant thought of riding Freeney out of the play to the left, as opposed to standing upright and allowing the dreaded spin move to succeed. After a short pass to Randy Moss and a Laurence Maroney run up the middle, the Pats blew out on their first drive, looking a bit confused as the Colts ran a split 4-3 with the idea of Freeney looping inside around tackle Raheem Brock. Brady threw an errant quick out to tight end Benjamin Watson as Vollmer and left guard Logan Mankins doubled Brock. I'm assuming that if the play had developed, Vollmer would be stuck outside with Mathis as Freeney took Mankins inside.
Vollmer started New England's second drive almost startled by the speed with which Freeney came off the ball -- it took him a split second to adjust to the tempo and get his hands up on a handoff up the middle to Kevin Faulk. But he took Freeney's stutter/outside move pretty well, and caught up to the play. Second-and-4 was another handoff to Faulk, and this was about when it struck me -- the Pats weren't loading help over on Vollmer's side. They didn't have him chipping inside with an outside blocking tight end, as the Ravens frequently did when Michael Oher started at left tackle earlier this year for Jared Gaither. The confidence in Vollmer's pass-blocking ability was obvious.
The rookie validated that confidence on the next play, a deep throw to Moss over the middle for a total of 55 yards down to the Colts' six-yard line. Freeney charged off the snap, but Vollmer had taken a bucket step to the left and had his feet set to take the attack. With another side-step and then a half, Vollmer was "seated" in his stance, and Freeney had no edge. He couldn't take Vollmer inside with a rip move because his momentum was going outside, and Vollmer was too wide for Freeney to pursue at the end of Brady's dropback. Freeney tried to turn as Brady stepped up in the pocket (the "uh-oh" moment for any defense), but Vollmer pushed him to the ground. Again, no help -- Vollmer negated Freeney with a good hand-strike and buried him as the ball was released.
With his height and agility, it was encouraging to see that Vollmer had better size and power than I expected. On the Laurence Maroney touchdown run two plays after the long pass to Moss, Vollmer and Watson sealed the left edge and pushed it inside. But it was his pass-blocking that stuck with me; Vollmer's ability to keep engaging a defender without getting sucked in or passed up was exceptional. On the 63-yard second-quarter touchdown pass to Moss (which went about 55 yards in the air) Vollmer backed up a step as Freeney went into the spin move, leaving Freeney right back where he started. He then turned to push Freeney outside in an excellent display of lateral agility, and gave him a drive block right out of the picture.
Remember that this is a play that takes time, up against a pass-rusher who is still pretty damned good. Mankins was pulling right, and Maroney was running play action to the right, so Vollmer was absolutely on an island. Any slip-up and Freeney would have had Brady for lunch.
Were the Colts able to adjust to Vollmer in the second half? On New England's first play of that half, Indy brought strong safety Melvin Bullitt from Freeney's right (yes, that's a Colts blitz, and yes, I rolled the play back to make sure I wasn't hallucinating). The Colts paid for it when a strong-side cutback lane was left open for Maroney to gain six, and Vollmer was at the second level, blocking linebacker Clint Session out of the way as tight end Chris Baker took Freeney inside and Watson dealt with Bullitt. Vollmer seemed to get a little more help in the second half, but I wasn't sure he needed it -- the Colts aren't a comfortable blitzing team: They led the NFL last year in four-man rushes, and were dead last in the number of times they brought five or six.
Vollmer impressed again with his run blocking when Faulk took the handoff outside for 15 yards on the fourth play of that drive. Vollmer got his hands inside Freeney's arms, got his feet set, and that was the ballgame. It's a trait you see in all the best tackles, and something I learned watching Walter Jones at his peak -- when the great ones put that second foot down, it's all over. He's obviously not at that level just yet, but the stats do not lie -- Freeney was denied a sack for the first time this season and didn't even register a tackle. Frankly, it wasn't even close. It's likely that I'll write about his performance this Sunday against the Jets, because I want to see how he reacts to multiple blitz looks and bigger ends that are much better against the run than Freeney. Going forward, and considering that right tackle Nick Kaczur got his butt handed to him by Freeney bookend Robert Mathis, I think it's a safe bet that Vollmer will be starting somewhere on that line even when Light returns.
In the last four Pats-Colts contests before this one, the New England's strategy for preventing tight end Dallas Clark from ravaging their defense was pretty simple -- beat him up at the line, and put safety/professional hitman Rodney Harrison on him all day. Clark's numbers proved the worth of this strategy. When Harrison was out of the 2006 AFC Championship game, Clark caught six passes for 137 yards. In the three games with Harrison a factor, Clark totaled eight catches for 120. With Harrison now safely ensconced in the "Football Night in America" studios, the Pats turned to Brandon McGowan to shut Clark down a week after Clark caught 14 balls against the Texans. Houston bracketed their defensive backs against Indy's outside threats, leaving rookie linebacker Brian Cushing to deal with Clark. Cushing has impressed me all year, but this was too much to ask -- Clark just abused the rookie. The Patriots knew that they'd be leaving potentially dangerous targets open for Peyton Manning no matter what they did, but they wanted to find a way to at least limit his favorite receiver this season. It didn't work at first -- two of Manning's first six passes were to Clark for a total of 37 yards.
|Figure 1: Dallas Clark Seam Route|
Figure 1 shows the first pass, and how the Colts used Clark to release off the line against a two-deep man under look with blitz capability. At the shotgun snap, both outside receivers took straight upfield routes, allowing inside position to keep the corners away from the first read in the middle. Slot receiver Austin Collie (17) further stretched the coverage by taking nickel corner Darius Butler (28) and rolling his route to the right with a skinny rail route at the line. When Tully Banta-Cain (95) rushed inside off the snap, it gave Clark the free release he wanted, because Gary Guyton (59) was handing Clark off to ... nobody in particular. Clark ran a 13-yard seam route with no obstruction whatsoever, caught Manning's pass, eluded McGowan, and was finally brought down by Guyton at the 35. He got tied up on a crossing route with Collie two plays later, which sent Manning over to Pierre Garcon on the right side, then stayed in to block on a 25-yard sideline pass to Reggie Wayne. On the next play, first-and-10 from the Colts 49, Manning saw the same matchup he'd seen before, and exploited it the same way. Once again, New England went with eight up front, man under, two-deep. And once again, Manning hit Clark on that seam route. Clark released off the blitzing lineman and caught the ball over the middle for 12.
As the game progressed and New England went wider with their fronts (more four-man, still man coverage underneath, but not allowing Clark to just release in to the seam), Clark found himself trailed pretty well by McGowan. Clark finished with four catches for 65 yards as Manning found Reggie Wayne more and more when the Pats lurked Clark's way with their safety coverages. Clark caught only one pass each in the Colts' two 79-yard touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, but it's interesting to look at the second drive and what it may have told Bill Belichick about the prospects of a potential New England defensive stop on that fateful fourth-down call.
As Greg Cosell wrote in his indispensable FantasyGuru.com blog, Peyton Manning and the Colts were breaking down the New England defense late in the game as Manning became more and more comfortable with what he saw. Down 34-21 with 4:07 left on the clock, Manning started his penultimate drive at his own 21 with a 12-yard pass up the middle to Joseph Addai from a delayed release in the backfield. This was a great way to counteract New England's single-high/man under coverage. The Colts went no-huddle, leaving New England in the same type of coverage -- McGowan underneath, tailing Clark wherever he went. Manning simply hit Collie on a quick crossing route after Clark cleared McGowan out.
No-huddle again, and the Pats went tight with nine defenders at the line and two deep, practically begging Manning to hit Collie underneath again, which he did for a 17-yard gain. On the next play, Collie drew a 31-yard interference call on Butler, as one rookie beat another on a roaming slant-and-go. The Pats played off a bit more from their own 13, leaving the possibility for some zone coverage under a two-deep shell, but Butler had Clark from the left slot because McGowan was beating up fellow tight end Gijon Robinson underneath. The little up-down combo perfectly split New England's coverage, and Clark got down to the Pats' four-yard line. After an incomplete fade in the end zone to Wayne, Addai hit it to the right for the touchdown, and a 34-28 deficit.
As I see it, the no-huddle could adversely affect the deep playoff hopes of at least two contenders. The Patriots seemed overwhelmed by the tempo, and the Denver Broncos were powerless to stop the Steelers when they went to it two weeks ago. One of the main aspects of Denver's amazing defensive turnaround this year is the timely and intelligent use of substitution packages. A good no-huddle team can, of course, break that right up, as the Colts showed here.
The Colts have the advantage in cases like this because their success does not rely on formation diversity -- they run three-wide, single-back most of the time, every year, and it's the execution of the plays that makes it so hard to stop. That same lack of formation diversity killed New England's defense, and made Belichick's decision easier to understand. Manning was orchestrating his microwave offense at a level most quarterbacks would find inconceivable. I don't know if he's the MVP this year, but the end of this game brought me back to something I've felt all season -- as great as Manning's been in the past, he's never been quite at this level before.
52 comments, Last at 22 Nov 2009, 11:23am by bubqr