Are the best defenses against play action the best against regular passes too? How much impact does play action really have in an NFL game, and does it correlate from year to year?
14 Jan 2009
by Doug Farrar
Week 15 -- Pittsburgh Steelers 13 at Baltimore Ravens 9
The Steelers and Ravens come into the AFC Championship game about as evenly matched as two teams can be. It's like looking in the mirror and punching the glass. Both teams have young quarterbacks with impressive early success, maniacal 3-4 defenses led by schematic geniuses, and safeties that are traveling a road to Canton. You might give the Steelers the edge on receivers, and the Ravens the nod at running back, but there's a reason these teams have battled through two "pick-em" games this season. The first game, which the Steelers won 23-20 in overtime, saw the Ravens with the edge in offensive DVOA, and the Steelers taking the numbers on defense. Fast-forward to Week 15, when Pittsburgh eked out a 13-9 squeaker, and it's a statistical reversal of fortune.
Week 4: Steelers 23, Ravens 20 (OT)
Baltimore: 46.7% Off. DVOA, 6.2% Def. DVOA
Pittsburgh: 9.2% Off. DVOA, -17.9% Def. DVOA
Week 15: Steelers 13, Ravens 9
Baltimore: 17.1% Off. DVOA, -7.9% Def. DVOA
Pittsburgh: 48.7% Off. DVOA, 20.7% Def. DVOA
When I went back to Week 15 to look at Baltimore's defense, especially on that final drive, I saw a series of curious decisions that I don't think the Ravens will make again. For comparison's sake, we'll start with Pittsburgh's first drive of that day.
A Sam Koch punt after Baltimore's first three-and-out started the Steelers off at their own 7-yard line. Pittsburgh lined up twins left, with the Ravens in their base 5-2. When Hines Ward motioned left to right, the Ravens shaded their secondary that way. At the snap, Ray Lewis hit the line and sifted outside left guard Chris Kemoeatu, who was blocking Trevor Pryce. Willie Parker tried to keep Lewis at bay, but No. 52 wasn't having it. He flushed Ben Roethlisberger out of the pocket, and Big Ben ran for nine yards.
On second-and-1, Pittsburgh bunched eight at the line, but lost the play to a delay-of-game penalty just after tight end Matt Spaeth motioned to the backfield. The Steelers went with a tight trips right on second-and-6, with Jim Leonhard up to the line to blitz. The receiver formation was a blocking decoy; while right tackle Willie Colon sealed Price on the inside, Ward stayed in to block Leonhard and tight end Heath Miller set the lane by taking linebacker Jarret Johnson outside. Parker hit the lane for five yards. This is a good blocking strategy for the Steelers, given the help their linemen generally need and the number of bunch formations Pittsburgh runs.
A quick pass to Ward on third-and-1 extended the drive. On the next play, Pittsburgh lined Miller and Spaeth to Colon's right and sent Ward in motion left to right. Two tight ends and your best blocking receiver (maybe the best in the NFL) would seem to indicate a run, but the call was pass, a little receiver screen to Ward that picked up four yards. Makes sense to me; when you can't blow 'em off the line, confuse 'em. I started to see the Steelers' strategy of setting up "obvious" formations and doing different things out of them. Roethlisberger threw incomplete to Nate Washington on the right sideline on the next play, getting the ball off before pressure could develop.
Pittsburgh went shotgun on third-and-six, but Colon was tagged with a false start after jumping early on the mere threat of a blitz. The Ravens sent Lewis, Ed Reed and Bart Scott on a kamikaze look, and Colon couldn't hold up. Roethlisberger didn't help by letting the clock run down, allowing the Ravens to gamble on a delay of game or false start before offside would have been called. That set the Steelers up with third-and-11 from their own 23.
Pittsburgh went with another shotgun set, and Scott backed off the edge as Lewis came up to fill the middle. Lewis then took a step back to drop, but stayed over center Justin Hartwig. Pittsburgh motioned Miller into the backfield, at which point Lewis did drop back. With more of a three-wide formation instead of a pseudo-bunch, Baltimore backed off the run and brought only four. As Pryce decimated right guard Darnell Stapleton, just missing Roethlisberger on that side, Johnson beat Colon to the inside and forced Big Ben to throw the short outlet to Miller. Six yards later, the Steelers were punting on fourth-and-5.
Pittsburgh's last drive started very much like their first -- on the wrong end of the 8-ball when Koch pooched a 33-yard punt on fourth-and-22 from the Steelers' 41 (the fourth time in this game he had put them inside their own 10). Down 9-6, the Steelers started there with 3:36 remaining, lining up first with Miller outside left tackle and a few feet behind. Miller took on Terrell Suggs' edge rush as Roethlisberger rolled right and hit Ward 13 yards downfield for a first down. Even here, rolling out against pressure. Roethlisberger came under attack from linebacker Antwan Barnes, who looped inside Johnson unopposed.
Roethlisberger found Ward over the middle for another 13 from his own 21-yard line on the next play, getting the ball off as both edges of his pocket collapsed. The Ravens started to back off a bit after this play, respecting the pass concept more than the benefits of the blitz. Now, they started to bring four, played more sideline-to-sideline in coverage, and gave Pittsburgh's line a break.
On third-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 34 with 2:54 remaining, Baltimore lined up with five defenders, but dropped two and only brought three. Freed from watching for pressure coming at him from several different angles, Roethlisberger had time and ability to set his feet and make throws. In this case, it was a first down to Nate Washington to the left, a 16-yard gain in which the guards didn't even have to block. Washington caught the ball on front of Reed, who slipped on the turf, righted himself and made the tackle.
I've already detailed this drive in the link above, but what really gave me pause upon review was the Ravens' decision to play the pass near the end by backing off. Another three-man rush on the next play, another completion to Washington (this time for nine yards on the right hashmark). The Steelers had the ball at the 50, the two-minute warning sounded, and momentum was shifting. Mewelde Moore picked up three yards up the middle for the first down on the next play.
Inexplicably, as the Steelers went back to the pass, the Ravens went back to the three-man rush. On first-and-10 from the Baltimore 38, with 1:24 left in the game, they brought three again, with a wide split leading slightly left, and Samari Rolle playing off Washington outside. Rolle played deep, and Washington just had to stand there to get the ball from his quarterback for a 24-yard gain. The Ravens fortified their line this time, but Roethlisberger hit Ward with a quick pass for 10. A too-quick pass to Spaeth was followed by another Baltimore three-man rush, which gave Roethlisberger enough time to roll left, roll back, and fire the ball to Holmes for the winning "did-he-or-didn't-he?" score.
Divisional Round -- Philadelphia Eagles 23 at New York Giants 11
Focus on the run, and make Eli Manning beat you. Ever since Plaxico Burress went down in a hail of goofiness, that's been the best strategy to beat the Giants. And Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, who blitzes more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day, had no problem with that concept. Johnson had an ace up his sleeve: His current defense might be the best he's ever had. It's a fast, aggressive, nasty bunch that screams to the ballcarrier but has solved problems of over-pursuit. We've written about this defense a lot recently, especially about how well it has done against the run in recent weeks (that's how you get the NFL's best run defense DVOA in the second half of the season), and that marked the perfect setup to stop the Giants from successful drives.
When the game was over, and the Eagles were making plans to fly to Arizona, the Giants could only look back on a horrific pair of stats: 3-of-13 on third-down conversions, and 1-for-3 on fourth down. The problems started with New York'S frst drive.
After an incompletion to a wide-open Steve Smith and a Brandon Jacobs cutback run up the middle for six, the Giants had third-and-4 at the Philadelphia 27, and a quick pass to Derrick Ward picked up only two yards. But on fourth-and-2, the Giants used Jacobs as the hammer, heading left for three yards and the first down.
This drive took the G-men down to the Eagles' 4-yard line, where John Carney kicked a 22-yard field goal into the wind that put his team up 3-0.
New York's next third-down chance came with 4:28 left in the first quarter, Down 7-3, the Giants had third-and-8 from their own 23 and went shotgun, three-wide. Eli Manning completed a nice pass over the middle to Smith for the first down at the 34. Eli threw quite a few floaters in this game, but this pass was a dart. Three plays later, it was third-and-9 from the 35, and the Giants went shotgun against Philadelphia's six-man blitz. Manning was pressured into throwing an out-of-bounds duck in the vicinity of Amani Toomer, and Jeff Feagles punted to end the drive.
With 13:41 left in the second quarter, Manning faced third-and-7 from the 50. This was the fourth play of a drive that started at the 36 at the end of the first quarter. Forced to his left by pressure, Manning overthrew Smith on a deep route, and Feagles punted to put the Eagles at their own 5. New York started their next drive at their own 32 with 12:28 left in the first half after scoring a safety. They moved down to the Philly 28 before stalling on third-and-10. Jacobs got nowhere on first down (yes, the Eagles run defense really is that good -- safety Quintin Mikell blazed all the way across the field to help take the big back down), then there was a deep floober to Domenik Hixon, and a throwaway in the face of yet another Jim Johnson blitz. John Carney missed the 46-yard field-goal attempt, and for all the Giants' ability to move the ball, scoring and converting when it counted proved to be tough.
With the ball at their own 20 with 3:58 left in the first half, the Giants moved the ball downfield again -- all the way to the Philly 21-yard line. That's where another third down would haunt them. Two big plays -- a 24-yard run by Jacobs and a 25-yard pass to Kevin Boss -- defined the drive, but third-and-5 from the 21 didn't look as good. A shortarm zip to Toomer and a high jet that was thrown more to Mikell than Kevin Boss led to a quick pass to Ward that came up short. Carney kicked the field goal that put the Giants up 8-7, but the Giants left missed opportunities all over the field in the first half.
The Giants started their first drive of the second half off of Fred Robbins' BIG MAN WITH FOOTBALL!!! interception moment. Starting from the Philly 33, they got as far as the 17, where third-and-5 found them in another pickle. After getting tricky on the previous play with an empty backfield and an incomplete quick pass to Ward, Eli's bunch went empty again, and Manning threw behind Kevin Boss. Certainly some curious play-calling there. The Eagles may have one of the best run defenses in the NFL, but I'm probably going to bank on two hauls to Brandon Jacobs in a situation like that. On fourth-and-5, with 12:37 left in the third quarter, Carney kicked another field goal.
Another opportunity came with 6:14 left in the third quarter, and the Giants with third-and-5 at their own 36. Finally, things went the right way. The Giants went shotgun again, and Manning beat the blitz, throwing a beautiful deep ball to Hixon over Joselio Hanson for a 34-yard gain. If that didn't get the G-Men going, nothing would. And it really didn't. After that explosive play. New York would gain one more yard on this drive when Jacobs headed right on second-and-10. Another short incompletion to Ward, which was caused by a zone blitz that saw Mikell crashing in on a blitz and Trent Cole heading back to cover, led to a missed field-goal attempt by Carney from 47 yards out. Still, with all those blown chances, the Giants were only down 13-11 at this point. The real killers were yet to come.
Death blow No. 1 came with 12:39 left in the game from the New York 44, the fourth play of a drive that started at the 24. The Eagles were now up 20-11, and the Giants had to get something going. Fourth-and-inches, and Tom Coughlin went for it after unsuccessfully challenging a spot on Ward's two-yard third-down run. Manning was held back by the defense, and the Eagles took over on downs. The gaps were filled before Manning could go anywhere, with Brodrick Bunkley leading the charge.
The final killer came with 6:40 remaining. The Giants started this drive from their own 11 with 10:22 left. They made it to their own 47, and faced fourth-and-2. This time, the ball went to Jacobs, but Bunkley held up the point again. He made a brilliant play, pushing center Sean O'Hara backward into the play, and middle linebacker Stewart Bradley came in for the assist. There did appear to be a small cutback lane for Jacobs, as commentator Troy Aikman mentioned, but you also have to consider the speed with which this Eagles defense fills those seams. What's open this millisecond may be gone the next.
There's no doubt that Manning was the primary culprit in this loss -- you can understand why the Giants are rumored to be open to a Plaxico reunion tour, despite all the drama -- but the shocker was how effective the Eagles were against a line that has impressed me all year in power situations. This is the hidden weapon this team has. While the Steelers and Ravens get due and deserved credit for their brilliant run defenses, it seems that the only people talking about Philly's are the unfortunate victims of the hits they didn't see coming. The Giants are the most recent in a long line.
Week 13 –- Philadelphia Eagles 48 at Arizona Cardinals 20
It's interesting that the Eagles find themselves with the Arizona Cardinals as their final obstacle on the way to the Super Bowl. It could be argued that without a pliant Cardinals team in a 48-20 Week 13 beatdown at Lincoln Financial Field, the Eagles wouldn't even be here. After their last three games had produced losses to the Giants and Ravens and a tie against the Bengals, Donovan McNabb was benched, the offense was in freefall, and the fans of this 5-5-1 team were calling for the heads of just about everyone. McNabb had thrown five picks and lost two fumbles in the previous seven quarters, but Andy Reid put him back in the lineup against Arizona. McNabb responded by throwing four touchdown passes against the Cards, but the real star of the game was Brian Westbrook.
Philly's versatile offensive star was finally healthy after a season of dings that had him below his normal level of production (138 carries, 553 yards, 4.0 average, 6 touchdowns coming into this game). Westbrook ran for two scores, caught two more, and became the only player since Lydell Mitchell in 1975 to get two touchdowns each that way and gain over 100 yards rushing. Once again, Westbrook was the key. He scored Philly's first four touchdowns, and the Cards were down 31-7 halfway through the third quarter. Arizona's defense has Westbrook at their field this time, but it won't matter if a few issues aren't sorted out.
In the earlier game, the Cards proved vulnerable to the draw on the Eagles' second play from scrimmage, when Westbrook shot up the middle for six yards on a second-and-four from the Philadelphia 36. He went back to the middle for three yards out a single-back set on the next play. After a quick pass to Jason Avant for a first down and a little dump-off to Hank Baskett, Westbrook showed his cutback speed to the left, juking Antrel Rolle for four more yards. Two plays later, Westbrook showed both his patience and killer burst when he waited for fullback Dan Klecko to blast open a seam inside, then shot through that lane for nine yards. A mini-Wildcat direct snap to DeSean Jackson gained six yards down to the Arizona 5-yard line, and one shovel pass to Westbrook later, the Eagles had one desperately-needed opening touchdown.
Arizona's run defense was susceptible to draws and cutbacks in the regular season, and while they have cleaned things up to a great extent in the playoffs, Westbrook brings an entirely different challenge. Not only because of what he can do at the line, in the open, and out of the backfield, but also because of what the Eagles will do from a formation standpoint to set up big plays. On the second play of their second drive, the Eagles sent Jackson on a sweep motion from right to left and handed the ball to Westbrook. End Travis LaBoy and safety Adrian Wilson bit hard outside on the specter of the sweep, and Westbrook had an enormous hole to run through, gaining 16 yards. They must avoid selling out their personnel to the wrong weapon.
Arizona has cleaned up their over-pursuit and tackling issues in the last two weeks, and that's a very good thing. They'll need to fill gaps and stay assignment-correct if they have any hope of beating the back who set them ablaze in Week 13.
14 comments, Last at 15 Jan 2009, 4:34pm by Pat (filler)