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?
07 Jan 2009
by Doug Farrar
Week 5: Tennessee Titans 13 at Baltimore Ravens 10
At Football Outsiders, we love us some Jim Schwartz. We like that the Titans' defensive coordinator believes in advanced metrics as part of his arsenal when many of his coaching compadres are still stuck in the Dark Ages. And the results bear it out on the field; the Titans have an exceptional defense that is the primary reason they come into this game against the Ravens as the AFC's top seed. However, Schwartz is not the only Titans assistant who should be taking a bow right now. While all attention has been paid to the defensive line, offensive line coach Mike Munchak has assembled a tight, tough unit responsible in part for the team's outstanding running game, and exceptional in pass protection. In Week 5, that line faced a major test from the opponent they'll face again this weekend: the Baltimore Ravens.
Tennessee's first play from scrimmage, an 8-yard gain on a dumpoff to fullback Ahmad Hall, showed the Titans' ability to stay cool and get things done in the face of the overload pressure Baltimore brings. On first-and-10 from their own 29, the Titans lined up three-wide with tight end Alge Crumpler in line outside right tackle David Stewart. The Ravens showed four at the line initially, but brought linebackers Bart Scott and Jarret Johnson from the weak side presnap. Tennessee faked a sweep look from left to right with receiver Brandon Jones in motion. At the snap, Hall headed upfield, and the left side of the line -- left tackle Michael Roos, left guard Eugene Amano and center Kevin Mawae -- initially got lost in the scrum. However, right guard Jake Scott shot through the line and headed left, blocking safety Jim Leonhard upfield. Roos was a step too late to take out Johnson when the defense reversed field to go after Hall, and Johnson took the fullback down.
The next play featured Johnson's one long run of the day. The Titans lined up three-wide again, with Johnson as the single back and Crumpler motioning from right to left in an H-back position. The Ravens countered with five at the line and Bart Scott run-blitzing right up the middle. Scott completely pancaked Mawae, but it didn't matter because the Tennessee line was sliding left, and the open gap was outside. Crumpler took Terrell Suggs out of the play to the left, and Roos hit the second level to deal with Lewis. Amano, meanwhile, made an astonishing block. Not only did he seal up Haloti Ngata inside; he actually blocked Ngata into tackle Justin Bannan, taking both huge defenders out of the play. Johnson hit the left sideline for 13 yards before Leonhard took his angle away. An impressive play, but the well was about to run dry for the speedy rookie. Still, allow me to state the obvious: When you can block Haloti Ngata into someone else, you are one strong dude.
After a Kerry Collins scramble at midfield and an offside call on Suggs, Tennessee tried running Johnson to the left again, sliding left against Baltimore's five up front. Bannan pushed Mawae into the backfield. A lane opened up, and Leonhard filled it with authority, slamming into Johnson for no gain. On the next play, second-and-5 from the Baltimore 45, Johnson tried to hit a hole that opened up when Amano went to block upfield, but there was very little there. Suggs and Lewis flowed in for the stop.
If there's one thing that I think must frustrate offensive lines about this Baltimore defense above all, it's that even when you get a man-on-man battle going in your favor (and that's not something most lines are able to accomplish), guys like Lewis and Leonhard are so good at quickly filling any gaps. I believe this is a primary factor in Baltimore's spectacular ability to stop the run between the tackles.
Pass-blocking proved to be slightly more effective; neither team had a sack in this game. On the next two plays, Collins dropped back. The first, an eight-yard completion to Bo Scaife, featured Collins in a clean pocket on a quick pass over the middle. Then, Collins took the ball out of the shotgun and threw over the middle again. The ball was batted at the line by Ngata, and Bannan came down with the pick.
Through the second and third quarters, frustration mounted for the Tennessee offense, as the Ravens turned them back again and again. Tennessee moved 81 yards on 13 plays late in the third quarter, but could only get a field goal. Down 10-6 with 6;07 left in the game, the Titans took the ball at their own 20 and looked to end this thing.
Collins started the drive with an incompletion deep downfield into double coverage to Justin McCareins, but what impressed me about this play was that the Titans' line could take the Ravens' furious rush, allowing Collins to step up in the pocket and make a very iffy throw. The Titans are an effectively physical pass-blocking team, though Mawae definitely needs help with bigger defenders; he can get pushed back pretty easily. After an incompletion to Brandon Jones (who got jacked the hell up by Bart Scott on a short slant), the Titans got a little help from the men in stripes.
Third-and-10 from the Tennessee 20, and the Ravens brought only three to the line: Suggs to the left, Trevor Pryce at the nose, and Johnson to the eight. Roos jumped a bit early to deal with Johnson, the two guards and Mawae triple-teamed Pryce, and Suggs beat Stewart inside with an outstanding bull rush. As Collins started to release the ball, Scott brought his right arm down to bat the ball away. He happened to hit Collins' helmet incidentally, and the pass was incomplete. However, the roughing the passer penalty called by Bill Carollo's crew not only superseded the Roos false start, it gave the Titans a 15-yard gain and a fresh set of downs. The call redefined "ticky-tack," even for a league obsessed with quarterback protection, but there it was. Tennessee had the ball at their 35, and they kept rolling.
Wisely, the Titans chose to keep the ball in the air for the rest of the drive. Nothing was happening on the ground anyway, and the only way to get that vicious defense clear of your gaps is to spread them out in some pass sets. Mawae, who had been rag-dolled around quite a bit in this game, redeemed himself on the crucial 15-yard pass to Scaife that took the Titans from the Baltimore 26 to the 11. He created a middle gap by slamming Ray Lewis to the ground, and Collins found Scaife over the middle, right where Lewis had been before he blitzed. On the next play, the first one after the two-minute warning, Collins had just enough time to hit Crumpler over the middle for the winning touchdown.
It surprised me that such a physical offensive line couldn't run-block more effectively, though I'd credit about 95 percent of Tennessee's inability to get anything going on the ground to that Baltimore front seven. Tennessee's line works well together on slides and especially combos, where two linemen will double-team for a short time before one peels off to chip another defender. I don't think there are many guards in this league stronger than Amano -- that early block on Ngata simply blew my mind -- and Roos impressed me as he as all season.
The one guy who concerns me in the rematch is Mawae -- if he plays at all. Early in the week, the veteran said in a radio interview that his current elbow injury might prevent him from going. Second-year backup Leroy Harris would replace him. The block on Lewis at the end aside, Mawae spent far too much time getting pushed around by the middle of Baltimore's defense. Ironically, had right guard Jake Scott been able to slip away from the triple-team on Pryce to help Stewart on the Suggs "helmet hit," Suggs might not have arrived at the quarterback, the flag never would have been thrown, the Titans would have punted and it's probably the Ravens' ballgame.
Wild-Card Round: Atlanta Falcons 24 at Arizona Cardinals 30
After a month of non-stop faceplants, the buzzsaw that is the Arizona Cardinals staggered into the playoffs looking like easy pickings for the team lucky enough to draw them. The lucky team in question was the Cinderella Atlanta Falcons, who just about everyone expected to bag a road win. The Cards won a shocker -- not so much THAT they won, but HOW they won -- by beating Atlanta over the head with an actual running game and very solid run defense. Arizona's 3-4 unit had put together good performances against other running games in fits and starts, but limiting Michael Turner to 42 yards on 18 carries, and putting up a -37.9% defensive rushing DVOA? Well, that was a stunner.
Against the Panthers in Week 8, the Cardinals proved susceptible to DeAngelo Williams on quick cutbacks and draw plays. Arizona's weak-side linebacker combination of Gerald Hayes on the inside and Karlos Dansby on the edge will tend to bend inside, setting them up for big gains when facing backs like Williams who have a real burst off the cut. The vulnerability to draws seemed to spring from a combination of exploited pursuit angles and some really horrible tackling.
Above all else, it was Turner's inability to cut back against the grain with great speed that did him in. On his first run of the game, a two-yarder from the Arizona 46 with 13:19 left in the first quarter, he took the ball from Matt Ryan and started to change direction near the line of scrimmage. Because he takes longer than Williams to make that break, Dansby was able to fly in and take him down over left guard.
Turner started the Falcons' next drive by trying to graze the left edge from the Atlanta 20, but Hayes brought him down for no gain. After a false start out of max protect by the Falcons, Turner headed up the middle out of an offset I for five yards. The Falcons would have done well to use their blockers more out of multi-back formations to steamroll Arizona's front seven. On plays like this, it worked very well.
On the other hand, there were plays like the I-formation sweep with 8:22 left in the first quarter, when the Falcons sent Turner to the right behind fullback Ovie Mughelli and pulling linemen. Arizona had five at the line, blew up the protection, and Dansby stopped Turner for a three-yard loss from his inside linebacker spot. Dansby is a dynamic tackler; once he hits you, you stay hit. Turner didn't have the outside speed to play to Danby's weakness.
The Falcons started the second quarter with Turner's longest run of the day, and the 13-yard gain came out of an odd Arizona defensive decision. The Cardinals brought seven to the line against Atlanta's offset I, backed three into the middle, and bit hard on tight end Justin Peelle's blocking motion to the right. Turner had an easy run through left tackle because the misdirection didn't come from Turner's cuts; it came from the blocking scheme and the ability to lead defenders where you want them to go. Atlanta has liked to run with Turner behind a sliding offensive line, Mughelli blocking backside to establish the cut, and Turner blasting through the seam. He just doesn't have the acceleration to get past quick linebackers in a 3-4 defense, unless those linebackers are biting inside and trying to recover, as they did on Turner's second-quarter touchdown.
Of course, it was the running play right before Turner's 13-yarder -- the last of the first quarter -- which really opened my eyes and made me ask the question while the game was being played: Whither Jerious Norwood? On second-and-8 from the Atlanta 22 with 35 seconds left in the first quarter, Norwood took the ball out of an offset I with receiver Harry Douglas in half-motion on the right side. He ran through the left A-gap, planted a quick cut right at the line to freeze Adrian Wilson, and cut back left to gain eight yards before Dansby was able to take him down. Norwood had two carries in this game for 12 yards, and I have to think that his ability to move quickly in short spaces -- a skill Turner simply doesn't have –- would have served the Falcons especially well against the Arizona defense.
While the Cardinals' ability to overcome their recent foibles impressed me, I don't know if a light has gone on that will extend through a Carolina rematch. Williams has Norwood's cutting ability with added power, and I'm not sure how much of what I saw in Arizona's playoff win was about their own defensive discipline, and how much had to do with the Falcons missing opportunities that were right in front of them.
Week 14: Philadelphia Eagles 20 at New York Giants 14
It is the rare defense that does not have an exceptional middle linebacker at its heart, and the Philadelphia Eagles are no exception. Stewart Bradley, the second-year star from Nebraska, played on the strong side for the Cornhuskers and moved to the middle for the Eagles when defensive coordinator Jim Johnson got a look at what he could do. It's been a great move for all involved. Like Tampa Bay's Barrett Ruud, another former 'Husker, Bradley seems to be in on the action just about everywhere.
Bradley has exceptional speed to the line and in the blitzes that Johnson dials up, and mega-Eagles fan Mike Tanier has told me that I need to make a point to watch Bradley in man coverage. What I wanted to see in this game was how he handled power situations. Specifically, how he dealt with Brandon Jacobs.
Before he left the game early in the third quarter with a knee injury, Jacobs rushed 10 times for 52 yards. His longest run of the day, a 23-yarder, came with 13:56 left in the second quarter and the Giants on their own 25. Jacobs took the ball in an I-formation behind fullback Madison Hedgecock and tight end Kevin Boss motioning right to left. Boss' motion got the Eagles to shift their linebackers, and they presented more of a 4-4 look than the roll to the defensive left they appeared to have called. Jacobs headed to the right. Bradley flowed to the sideline at the second level and started to take an angle on Jacobs at the 29. Center Sean O'Hara, a quick and agile blocker in space, bulled Bradley back from the sideline at the 30, allowing Jacobs to get a full head of steam going forward. But what I liked about Bradley on this play was that he didn't get lost in the block; he kept his balance and finally caught up to Jacobs at the New York 48. Not an optimal result for the Eagles, but Bradley showed that he wasn't going to fold up behind a good block.
On first-and-10 from the Philly 33 a few pays later, the Giants ran another another I-formation, and another Boss motion from left to right, This time, the Eagles didn't bite. Jacobs took the ball and ran left. Bradley, playing outside, headed straight downfield, blew off a chip from left tackle David Diehl, and took Jacobs down after a two-yard gain. On plays like these, Bradley personifies what may be the best defense Jim Johnson has ever coached. He's ridiculously fast to the ballcarrier, but you won't see him or his teammates get juked out of the tackle, losing battles based on aggressiveness as opposed to assignment-correct play.
(Note to the Seattle Seahawks: Watch and learn.)
The Giants' first running play of the second half came with 7:57 left in the third quarter; it was the last play before Jacobs got hurt. This was another I-formation, with Boss heading left to right this time and Bradley back in the middle. Presnap, strongside linebacker Chris Gocong backed off the blitz to read run. As the play flowed right, all three Philly linebackers headed that way, and Bradley did a great job of riding the wave, staying above the fray, fighting off right guard Chris Snee, and stopping Jacobs after a four-yard gain. This play was more about Bradley's side-to-side strength. Lesser linebackers will get washed out in power situations, but Bradley held his ground. The Eagles will need him to do it again against that Giants running game if they are to continue their improbable playoff hunt.
15 comments, Last at 09 Jan 2009, 2:22am by Doug Farrar