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?
04 Nov 2009
by Doug Farrar
The Carolina Panthers' rushing attack is defense-proof when it's going well. When they took on that run game last December 8, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were 9-3 and had the sixth-best run defense DVOA in the game. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for 301 yards on 34 carries, and four touchdowns on a defense that had allowed just one on the ground all season. The Bucs dropped to ninth in run defense DVOA (they went from 14th to 28th in runs of 10 yards or more allowed in a single game), and though several other factors have been in play, it's worth noting that Tampa Bay hasn't won a game since they beat the Saints the week before that particular debacle.
When they welcomed the Panthers to University of Phoenix Stadium last Sunday afternoon, the Arizona Cardinals had every reason to be confident in their own run defense. The Cards held first place in Defensive Adjusted Line Yards (2.70), running back yards per carry (3.06) and frequency stuffing runners at the line or in the backfield (34 percent). The defensive schemes of new coordinator Bill Davis seemed to exercise better gap control and discipline than the herky-jerky blitzes and misdirection adventures seen under Clancy Pendergast, and I noted as much when I wrote about Darnell Dockett a few weeks ago. Carolina came into this game ranked seventh in Offensive Adjusted Line Yards, but less impressive in the sub-rankings -- Power, Stuffed, and number of runs totaling ten yards or more (Arizona's one run defense weakness before this game).
At the end of the faceoff, Williams and Stewart had combined for 245 yards on 40 carries, and the team's best single game rushing DVOA (51.0%) since the incredible 95.7% they put up against Tampa Bay last year. How did they do it against another very strong run defense?
On Carolina's first two runs of the day, DeAngelo Williams carries for -1 and 4 yards, Arizona showed good gap control and line discipline in standard 5-2-4 sets. The four-yard carry had more to do with a good block -- tight end Jeff King stepped inside to down-block end Darnell Dockett as Williams ran outside behind the sweeping motion of right guard Keydrick Vincent and right tackle Jeff Otah -- than any missed assignment on the Cardinals' part. But on third-and-7 from the Carolina 29, Arizona's old habits died hard.
The Cardinals brought seven to the line to blitz, and right end Calais Campbell jumped offside. The Cards did this a lot last year -- especially in the playoffs -- and a lot of that encroachment went uncalled. In this case, the penalty wouldn't be the problem. As the Panthers slid their protection to the right and left guard Travelle Wharton pulled to provide additional reinforcement, tight end Gary Barnidge blocked left end Chike Okeafor outside, Vincent and center Ryan Kalil handled linebacker Karlos Dansby, Otah pushed Dockett inside for the outside run, and Wharton easily dealt with cornerback Matt Ware, who was trying to fill the gap outside right tackle. Campbell flat-out whiffed on a potential tackle, and Williams headed upfield for a 16-yard gain. This play typified what I saw of the Cardinals' defense last year -- blitz-happy overpursuit, missed tackles, and a tendency to get overwhelmed by power blocking.
Carolina tried five more running plays on that first drive, and only the scoring play netted them over four yards. On the short-yardage plays, the Cards would show blitz, and occasionally bring it, but would also have at least one linebacker trail back for second-level tackling. This made more sense to me, especially against a team as run-heavy as the Panthers, than filling the A-gap with Dansby or Adrian Wilson and conceding the power battle pre-snap. Nose tackle Gabe Watson is a guy who has impressed me this year in his ability to make teams choose between doubling him or Dockett, and when he was in the middle, Carolina found their power running a tougher go early on. Arizona would rotate tackle Bryan Robinson in the middle when Carolina hit the red zone. The Panthers were able to bull forward, but not for much, especially when the Cardinals went with a 4-4 look with eight minutes left in the first quarter. This left Okeafor and Dansby free to flow outside and stop Jonathan Stewart before he could get going.
On the six-yard touchdown run by Stewart with 7:28 left in the first quarter, Carolina took the optimal Cardinals setup, with Watson in the middle, and just smashed it up. The Panthers love to get little overloads going -- whether it's an extra pulling lineman inside or two tight ends outside left tackle to cut inside on a sweep -- and they did a great job neutralizing Arizona's power on this play. Stewart took the ball out an I-formation, Kalil and Vincent doubled Watson and pushed him to the right to create the gap, and left tackle Jordan Gross pulled to the A-gap to take linebacker Gerald Hayes out of the play. That put Stewart against Arizona's secondary, and that’s a mismatch if ever there was one. The Cards put their three primary defensive tackles on the front three -- Watson at the nose with Alan Branch to his left and Robinson to his right -- but the Panthers simply had the power edge. It must have been especially disconcerting to the Cardinals how easy it was for the Panthers to go man-on-man on that first drive -- they didn't have to commit a second blocker to Dockett on just about every play as some offensive lines would.
|Figure 1: Carolina's Big Run|
Carolina's biggest run of the day came on the first play of their second drive, from their own 13, with 43 seconds left in the first quarter. The Panthers lined up in an I-formation, and Arizona countered with a five-man front and cornerback Bryant McFadden playing the left edge, preparing for a run. As Vincent and Otah doubled Dockett to the right, Kalil handled Watson to the left one-on-one, and King chipped Clark Haggans outside right. Here was the real killer (Fig. 1): Both Hayes (No. 54) and Adrian Wilson (No. 24) hit the wrong spot -- they both headed to the blocking mulch around right tackle while Williams shot straight up the gap created inside. And once again, the mismatch between Williams and Arizona's secondary played out, as Antrel Rolle finally caught up to Williams 77 yards later at the Arizona 10-yard line. I have seen gap sloppiness before (remember, I live in Seattle), but it's been a while since I've seen two defenders -- and one a long-time FO binky! -- blow a spot like that. Both defenders followed the fullback's block outside, which is a neat trick if you can manage it. It helps if you don't actually need your fullback to block and can use him to guide would-be tacklers out of the way.
Two plays later, Arizona went with a similar defensive look, with McFadden spread out a bit more, but still keying on the run. The Panthers used the same strategy on a handoff to Stewart this time -- use the fullback to pull the front eight away from their gaps. It worked again. Stewart ran into a wall to the right side and was able to bounce back and to the left for the 10-yard touchdown run because Okeafor didn't stay put to protect the backside on a cut. He was too busy trying to set a land speed record to the ball. This was very much like the Cardinals defense of last year.
The Cardinals fell a bit in their stats after the Panthers' performance, but the real concern has to be about the sustainability of their run defense going forward. Arizona's 4-3 in a weak division, and they still have Steven Jackson (twice), Adrian Peterson, and Chris Johnson to deal with. If they don’t clamp down on a few things, it could get out of hand. Their blitzes leave woeful second-level reinforcements, and there isn't that dominant presence in the middle so common among the best 3-4 defenses. That's how teams like the Steelers and the Ravens maintain gap control despite their blitz tendencies, and that's what the Cardinals seem to be missing right now.
Eastern Michigan's T.J. Lang was the second-ranked guard in the 2009 draft class, according to NFLDraftScout.com. But Lang started 36 games at tackle in college, and it was his pure drive-blocking ability that had many NFL teams thinking that Lang could move inside at the NFL level. The Packers drafted him in the fourth round, and he backed up Daryn College at left guard in the preseason. A string of injuries to the line had the Packers starting Lang at left tackle against the Browns on October 25 after he showed promise along the left side in relief duty. He didn't allow a sack against Cleveland, but a far tougher test was on the horizon -- the return of the Minnesota front seven and Rhinestone Cowboy Jared Allen, who spent far too much time on the Packer backfield when the Vikings beat up Green Bay a month ago.
In that first meeting, pressure came from all fronts and throughout the game. In the rematch, the Vikings got to Aaron Rodgers four times in the first half, and twice in the second. More importantly, Rodgers passed for 38 yards in the first half, and 249 yards and three touchdowns in the second half. What changed?
The Packers left Lang alone with Allen for the most part on their first drive -- left guard Daryn Colledge slipped off his defender on one play to help Lang as Allen was recovering to the quarterback after Lang would take his bull rush. Tackle Allen Barbre, however, let Ray Edwards get past him and deflect a Rodgers pass to end the drive. That's what happened the first time Green Bay had the ball, and the Packers punted from the Vikings' 47 with 11:43 left in the first quarter.
The Packers' second drive began at their own 20 with 8:15 left in the first quarter. On first-and-10, Lang kicked out left and blocked outside linebacker Ben Leber, while tight end Donald Lee chipped Allen and Colledge picked him up from there. Ryan Grant fell down before he could block linebacker Kenny Onatolu, and Onatolu's rush forced Rodgers to throw the deep downfield pass to Greg Jennings early and incomplete. A quick screen to Ryan Grant was killed by Chad Greenway for a loss of three even as Lang rode Allen outside with surprising skill. That's the problem with Minnesota's pass rush -- it isn't just Allen, and it isn't just one side. If you pick up your defender, odds are there's someone else rushing through -- quite possibly unblocked.
Rodgers wasn't sacked until the third play of Green Bay's third drive, with 5:42 left in the first quarter, and it didn't come from Allen, who Lang blocked inside while Rodgers rolled left. In this case, Edwards had enough time to fend off Barbre's block, and a chip from guard Josh Sitton, run all the way across the field, and tackle Rodgers for a two-yard loss because Rodgers had nowhere to throw and he simply refused to run out of trouble.
I'd put the second sack, which came on the first play of the second quarter, on Rodgers as well. He was looking for Donald Driver on a crossing route, and Driver got hung up over the middle on a bump and coverage from linebacker E.J. Henderson. With his primary target gone, Rodgers held on to the ball far too long and Edwards took him down again. The third sack, and Allen's first, came with 10:38 left in the first half. It's the first one I wouldn't put at Rodgers' feet -- Allen simply beat Lang by pushing him out of the way with a great hand strike.
The fourth and final sack of the first half came with 3:16 left, and I'd have to put this one on the play calling. With the pressure the Packers knew Rodgers would be under, self-inflicted or not, a play-action draw fake to Ryan Grant is damn near suicidal. In the time it took that play to develop, Pat Williams put an awesome swim move on center Scott Wells and had an unobstructed path to Rodgers -- thanks also to Ryan Grant's "blocking optional" mindset on the play.
So, was the improved pass protection in the second half about a change in defensive scheme, or did the Packers simply wake up and realize that they couldn't wait ten seconds after the snap for every play to unravel? The Vikings were still able to get pressure from their front four with various twists and stunts, as well as winning man-on-man battles, but Rodgers was much more interested in running for positive yardage under pressure or throwing to the underneath read if that was the best option. Allen took him down again with 9:05 left in the third quarter, and that was on Rodgers as well. He didn't get the read he wanted out of a trips left, and he scanned the field far too long before Allen got to him. Lang was beaten on the play, but it's the quarterback's job to have a better feel for pass pressure than Rodgers had on this play and on this day.
The good news for the Packers is that their pass protection issues are not all on their offensive line -- that can be a complex problem to fix. The bad news is that Rodgers' sense of pressure hasn't improved over his NFL career. If anything, it's regressed. And for all the assets that make him a potentially great quarterback, that's the one thing that could keep him from the elite.
It's been a strange year for New York Giants fans accustomed to getting powerful inside running from Brandon Jacobs. The comments made by FOX analyst Tony Siragusa earlier this year (the hefty one claimed that Jacobs was "tip-toeing" at the line, the supreme insult to a power guy) may have been an overdue message to a player whose primary attribute seems to have gone missing this year. Through Week 8, Jacobs' yards per carry is down from 5.0 in 2008 to just 3.9 in 2009, his DVOA has taken a major nosedive (from 22.4% to -4.6%), and everyone seems concerned that this former old-school back has turned into a nifty, shifty misfit.
Jacobs, for his part, doesn’t think that he's running all that differently, though some of his comments betray that notion. "I feel like I'm running the same way I was running last year," Jacobs told the New York Daily News in early October. "Getting a little bit smarter, being patient, let the scheme happen for me. You just can't run in there and think that you can outrun your blocks."
Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride believes that the problem is strategic. "If there is an error that is slowing him down, it is because he wants to be perfect," Gilbride said. "He is trying to make the perfect read, if that is it. Sometimes you just have to trust your instincts and go out and play. But I certainly don't see anybody that is tip-toeing."
Jacobs started well, gaining 13 yards and bouncing off tackles on the Giants' first play from scrimmage. But on other plays, I saw unusual hesitation. On New York's second play, Jacobs had a potential gain outside with only Asante Samuel in the way, as the Giants pulled the guards to the right. But he stopped short and cut back inside for no gain. He would run purposefully through a free lane, but time and time again, I saw him hesitate at the point of attack -- looking for a hole as opposed to creating one. He seems to slow down when he hits the line now, looking for that lane, which turns him into a big guy with no momentum and not enough inside speed instead of the battering ram he used be.
I don't think there's a discernible difference in the quality of the Giants' line play; this strikes me as being much more about Jacobs' hesitation or inability to take advantage of power blocking and favorable matchups. To see a runner of his size and ability avoid face-offs with linebackers and cornerbacks because he's looking for the perfect hole is just weird. If the Giants want Jacobs to be more of a do-it-all back in this way, it's a bad fit. And if it's Jacobs trying to do things he isn't really capable of, someone needs to fix it. Maybe a few draws or delays, plays that get the opposing front line out of pursuit too quickly, would be a good change of pace to get Jacobs back on his feet.
20 comments, Last at 06 Nov 2009, 4:24pm by jmaron