We look back at Atlanta's worst games this year to see what weaknesses New England might exploit. Those weaknesses include pretty much everyone on defense, but is there a secret to stopping the Falcons offense?
02 Sep 2009
by Doug Farrar
Finding your place as an NFL quarterback can be tough. While David Garrard and Jason Campbell are looking to get their feet back on the ground, Matt Leinart has been looking for a home planet. Drafted 10th overall in 2006, Leinart had a good rookie season as the heir apparent, and reverted to the bench as Kurt Warner's role grew. Leinart's collarbone injury in 2007 put Warner ahead, and when Leinart threw three interceptions in less than two quarters against the Raiders in the 2008 preseason (the Cards still won the game, 24-0, which tells you as much about the Raiders as it does about Leinart at the time), the die was cast. Warner took over the team, guiding Arizona to a highly improbable NFC championship. Leinart twisted in the wind, tried to buck the perception that he was too "Hollywood" to be a successful NFL quarterback, and began the process of working his way back.
Warner -- who has been benched in favor of Leinart, Eli Manning, and Marc Bulger at different times and has still managed to put together a "we-can-argue-about-his-Hall-of-Fame-credentials" career -- spent the offseason contemplating retirement, using the 49ers as leverage to extract a new deal from the Cardinals, and recovering from a hip injury. Leinart's preseason would define him going forward; was he going to provide legitimate competition to Warner, or would he continue to ride the bench and find himself challenged for the second-string gig by the likes of Brian St. Pierre?
Leinart started the second half against the Packers, and though he wasn't facing the new and impressive first-string Green Bay defense that had put the Cards in a 38-10 hole by halftime, he didn't have the benefit of his starting receivers, either. Out went Larry Fitzgerald, in came Early Doucet and Lance Long. Leinart got off to a rocky start with two incompletions, but made it back in 20-yard bursts with a sideline pattern and a deep cross, both to Jerheme Urban. Arizona went 80 yards downfield for a touchdown on that first drive. The next drive ended with a pick to cornerback Jarrett Bush, but Leinart got back on track with another long drive, an 11-play, 83-yarder that overlapped the third and fourth quarters. However, the talk that Leinart may have finally found the answer started with 3:55 left in the game, and the Cards down 38-24.
The Cards started at their own 38, with three receivers to the right, one wide left, against Green Bay's 4-2-5. FO University alum Sean Morey ran a crossing route from the right slot, but Leinart's pass didn't find him. (This was due, in part, to good coverage on the part of linebacker Desmond Bishop. Bishop got inside Morey and got his hand up at the perfect time. Morey wanted a flag, but it didn't look warranted.) Three short passes followed -- the first to Lance Long; the second to Morey, who got absolutely plowed by Bishop on another shallow cross; and the third to Onrea Jones over the middle. Leinart showed good pocket presence on these throws and through the game; this part of his skill set has drastically improved. He's much better at knowing when to step up and how to beat the blitz, aspects vital to any quarterback running Arizona's Yards-After-Catch Derby.
A shotgun draw to Jason Wright followed, and then a short slot streak to Morey, after Leinart adjusted for a bad shotgun snap and beat a Green Bay blitz by stepping up again. Going no-huddle, Leinart took another low snap and was sacked by end Jarius Wynn. He shook it off and made a stick throw over the middle to Morey, who was tackled at the Green Bay 1-yard line. Then, back to Onrea Jones on a cross in the back of the end zone, with two Packers on Doucet up front. Leinart threw the ball high, with touch, over rookie cornerback Brandon Underwood, where only Jones could catch it. The Cardinals were now down by seven. Neil Rackers caught his own onside kick, and Arizona was back out there.
|Cardinals' Shotgun Cross|
Now with 1:35 left in the game, Arizona had the ball on their own 41 because Rackers picked up a delay of game call for spiking the ball after he recovered it. Out of a shotgun, four-receiver set, Leinart hit Morey again after Morey crossed over with Doucet and ran a little 10-yard curl (Figure 1). Then, a no-huddle shotgun with four-wide (having Super Bowl XLIII flashbacks yet?) and an incompletion to running back Jason Wright, but the Packers were called for roughing the passer as defensive tackle Ronald Talley was upended by the Brady Rule (though linebacker Brad Jones was the one who went low on Leinart).
Down the field the Cardinals went, keeping the timing up against four-man sets and coverages as well as blitzes. Leinart has developed the mental ability to avoid the stupid throw; if he's under siege in the pocket, he now knows to step up and get rid of the ball. He did this on first and second down from the Green Bay 32 on this drive, and threw a little swing pass to Wright on third-and-10 that picked up another 21 yards. Trevor Canfield and Oliver Ross were blocking downfield, and the Cardinals had game-planned around Green Bay's blitz. Then, a pretty back-shoulder fade out of a trips right tight to receiver Lance Long that should have been a touchdown, but wasn't. Long tapped both feet in at the right edge of the end zone, but the crew and the replay official both missed it. Nonplussed. Leinart simply came back and threw the same dink pass to Wright that he had before.The Cardinals missed the two-point conversion and were unable to get back in the end zone with their final, game-ending possession, but Leinart had made his point.
Beyond specific mechanical issues, what impressed me most about Leinart was his ease with the plan and the flow of the game. You often hear announcers say that "he just looks comfortable out there" about a quarterback. It's a nebulous concept, but you definitely know it when you see it. The Matt Leinart I saw here, with his second-stringers against Green Bay's, knew how to swing the game to his speed and make things happen on his terms. It's not the same as an 80-yard drive in the playoffs against the Eagles or Giants, but given where Leinart has been, I think he and the Cardinals will take it for now.
As our own Aaron Schatz recently said on the B.S. Report, the Jaguars' decision to go with David Garrard in favor of Byron Leftwich at the start of the 2007 season may have been the wisest quarterback-related switch since the Brady-Bledsoe back-and-forth in 2001. A fourth-round pick out of East Carolina in 2002, Garrard bided his time until 2006, when an ankle injury shut Leftwich down early in the season. Garrard alternated great performances (like a three-touchdown game against the Titans in Week 8) with howlers (like the four-pick showing against the Texans in the very next game), but he impressed the Jaguars' top brass enough in the 2007 preseason for the team to cut Leftwich outright on September 1, 2007. Bolstered by a great power running game and an excellent offensive line, Garrard excelled in 2007. He put together the third-lowest interception rate for any quarterback with 200 or more attempts, finished third in DYAR and seventh in DVOA, and saw his season end in a 31-20 loss to the seemingly unbeatable New England Patriots in the divisional playoff round. Much was expected in 2008.
Needless to say, whatever was expected didn't happen. Garrard lost both his starting guards in the season opener, didn't have his starting center for the first six weeks, and suffered through a rotation of receivers that spent most of the year running sloppy routes, dropping balls, and getting arrested. Garrard dropped to 15th in DVOA and 14th in DYAR in 2008, though those were still respectable numbers given what surrounded him. In the offseason, the front office acted decisively, adding rookie tackles Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton, as well as veteran receiver Torry Holt. Guards Vince Manuwai and Mo Williams are back, and KUBIAK loves Maurice Jones-Drew more than any other. Given a better supporting cast, it's now on Garrard to bounce back and help the Jags rebound.
|Jaguars' Shotgun Cross|
His night against the Eagles didn't start off so well; Garrard overthrew Troy Williamson on first down from the Jacksonville 24, then hit Torry Holt for a nine-yard slant, then saw Nate Hughes flat-out drop a short pass while being covered by Ellis Hobbs. The Jags got a little further on their second drive, but Garrard didn't take them all the way. After two handoffs to Maurice Jones-Drew (Hint: Don't run draws against the Eagles' defense, guys), Garrard went shotgun on third-and-8. You could see him adjust the play when Philadelphia went from a three-man front to a six-man blitz look, and seven Eagles took off after him at the snap. While linebackers Joe Mays and Akeem Jordan stunted inside, end Victor Abiamiri (playing the nose in this 3-4 look) beat center Brad Meester around Garrard's blindside just as Jordan crashed through to get in Garrard's face. Garrard hung in there and completed a cross to Williamson ... but boy, did he pay for it (Figure 2). Garrard was slow to get up and he missed the rest of that series, which ended in a punt from the Jacksonville 34. Frankly, I'm not sure what the Jags are doing running long-developing pass-plays with an offensive line under development against Philadelphia's starting defense.
We got to see a little more explosiveness from the Jacksonville offense on their third drive, which began with 2:15 left in the first quarter. As expected, the fire came from one source: Pocket Hercules. After a one-yard Jones-Drew run and an incompletion to Holt caused by a hit from Trent Cole, Garrard sat back in shotgun again from his own 34. Jones-Drew took a screen to the left, beat his blockers inside, and rolled across the field for a 45-yard gain. The Jaguars were able to score a touchdown on this drive, thanks in large part to another screen to Jones-Drew, this one a bailout under more pressure for 13 yards. Even the touchdown came with a price, as Hughes was demolished by Asante Samuel at the one-yard line. The hit caused a fumble, which Holt picked up and ran into the end zone, and Hughes was trying to remember which continent he was on.
It's pretty obvious that the Jacksonville offense is still recovering from last year's nightmares. New targets mean new adjustments, and new offensive linemen take time to work in the system -- especially when they are rookies. Right now, Garrard has the one option he knows (Jones-Drew), one he will be able to rely on over time (Holt), a fast guy with some route-running ability (Williamson), and a starting tight end in Marcedes Lewis with the worst case of the drops at his position since Jerramy Stevens was in his "prime." We like the Jags to erase that 5-11 season with a nice swing back up through the middle, but right now, Garrard's offense is a work in progress.
As you may have heard, there's been a bit of a quarterback conundrum in the nation's capital over the last year. Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell has adjusted to seven different offensive schemes since his Auburn days, landing most recently in the Mike Holmgren-born strain of the West Coast Offense as taught by Jim Zorn. Campbell started out hot last season, as the 2008 Redskins became the first team in NFL history to avoid a turnover in five straight games. In Weeks 1-9, Washington had the ninth-best passing DVOA and the second-best rushing DVOA. Those numbers dropped to 20th and 18th respectively in the second half of the season. Clinton Portis fell off the map and Campbell threw more picks than touchdowns down the stretch. An 8-8 season after a 6-2 start had the famously reactionary Redskins front office looking at all sorts of quarterback options (funny how the offensive line and running game were given mere Band-Aids).
First, there was the dalliance with Jay Cutler; owner Dan Snyder and Executive Vice President Vinny Cerrato tried to outbid other takers for the mercurial signal-caller, but the second-round pick they wasted on Jason Taylor was the one they needed to get Cutler. Then, there was the notion that the 'Skins would somehow trade up to land Mark Sanchez. When that didn't happen, Danny and Vinny had some backpedaling to do, and Campbell was left in the unenviable position of a quarterback fully aware that the people running his team didn't want him there. With one year left on his rookie contract and a chance to operate in a pro system for the second straight season (goodness!), Campbell needs to start writing his future now.
Campbell went 4-for-13 for 48 yards in his first two preseason games against the Ravens and Steelers, including a 1-for-7 performance against Pittsburgh that had people wondering if Colt Brennan was ready to take over yet. Against the Patriots, he'd have his own starters and would be facing New England's much longer into the game.
Campbell spread the ball around on his first drive, targeting four different receivers. First, Malcolm Kelly took a quick pass out of a four-wide empty backfield on second-and-10 from the Washington 31 with 13:06 left in the first quarter. Then the deep ball, reputedly Campbell's Achilles heel, out of play-action, 21 yards downfield to Santana Moss. Then, an indecisive double-pump over the middle to Chris Cooley -- a catchable ball, but off the mark. Back to Moss out of a combo bunch right, then a quick dig to Antwaan Randle El out of the slot. From the New England 24, Campbell went after Kelly in the end zone, but rookie cornerback Darius Butler was flagged for interference. That put the ball at the one-yard line, and preseason sensation Marcus Mason bulled it in for Washington's opening touchdown. On that drive, Washington showed an offense as fast as any in the league. Now the challenge is to keep the speed without crashing. It's a growth process.
Writing the Redskins chapter for the FO Almanac had me watching Campbell all last season, and I saw positive development. Early in the 2008 campaign, he suffered from unsure footwork and a very slow release -- two points of death for a quarterback in a West Coast Offense. He worked the kinks out of both problems, but his uncertainty with the subtleties of the Zorn offense showed up in some real head-scratching throws and a willingness, almost an eagerness, to check down when more productive options were open.
Now, I see a more confident quarterback who stays in the pocket, progresses through his reads, and makes the throws. That should afford him a chance to run an offense he can really call his own -- if not with the Redskins this season, with another team down the road. I said as much in a recent interview with Homer McFanboy's Brian Murphy -- when it comes to the Washington offense, Campbell has been part of the problem, but he could be an even bigger part of the solution.
38 comments, Last at 03 Oct 2009, 11:02pm by Dale