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?
25 Nov 2009
Last time the Jets and Patriots met before last Sunday's game, it was Week 2, and both teams were in very different places. The Jets were riding high on Rex Ryan's defensive schemes and Mark Sanchez's semi-prodigious NFL debut. The Patriots were still putting everything together with several new defensive pieces and the small matter of getting Tom Brady comfortable in the pocket and synced up with Randy Moss again. Wes Welker missed that game with a knee injury, and Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis shut Moss down, a trend that Revis has extended through the season against some of the NFL's best receivers. Without Welker in the first game, Brady found understudy Julian Edelman for eight receptions, and Moss for four catches in eight targets for 24 yards.
Now, the Jets are in free-fall as their defense (Revis very much excepted) has struggled. Sanchez hit the rookie wall at about 100 miles per hour against the Pats in the rematch, throwing four picks and looking completely lost on the field, from his reads to pocket presence. The Jets have lost six of their last seven games after starting the season 3-0, and they're 1-5 since acquiring Braylon Edwards (Somebody alert Gregg Easterbrook! There's another receiver curse!). Meanwhile, the Pats look very much like you'd expect -- back on top in DVOA and winners of four of their last five games. The Brady-Moss combo is what we thought it was again, but there were no guarantees when Moss and Revis went at it for the second time.
The face-off started with 13:43 left in the first quarter, and the Patriots with third-and-3 at their own 34. Revis had Moss tight at the line, and Brady threw to Moss out of a stutter-go look with Moss on outside position. Safety Jim Leonhard was rolling right from a single-high position, but the deflection was all Revis. Moss hit the brakes at the 50 and gave Revis a little push, but Revis recovered to deflect. He used the inside position to his advantage, and he would not allow Moss to take him out of the coverage area. New England's first drive ended with a three-and-out.
Fast-forward to New England's second drive, and 9:40 left in the first quarter. The Pats had first-and-10 at the Jets' 47. Brady took the shotgun snap and handed to Laurence Maroney, who pitched the ball back to Brady on a flea-flicker. This insured late breaks in coverage for the Jets' defense and no help for Revis, and Moss took off down the left side with Revis in hot pursuit. Brady overthrew the ball deep, but because Revis was right on the spot, the only throw that would have worked was the standard bomb a foot over Moss' head. The most impressive aspect of Revis' coverage on this play was that at the snap, Moss faked a block and then turned on the jets to the outside. Within one step, Revis was right on him and never lost contain. I don't know that there's a receiver in this league with the ability to lose Revis one-on-one without running some kind of pick -- he's much too quick and his acceleration is exceptional.
On New England's third drive, Brady fired another one off to Moss on second-and-8 from the Jets' 46 with 2:24 left in the first quarter. In a shotgun, no-huddle -- the most favorable set-up for Brady's offense -- and a single-safety look for the Jets, Revis now trailed Moss down the right sideline. Moss with the outside stutter-go again (more like a jab-step-and-go), and a great throw by Brady to line up with Moss at about the New York 22-yard line. Revis, however, used his inside position and amazing speed to exceed Moss' line and bat the ball away. Again, no rolled coverage, and no safety help.
Five plays later, and after two completions to Wes Welker, it was back to Moss from the New York nine-yard line with six seconds left in the first quarter. Brady threw incomplete to Moss in the end zone, but this was the result of a busted play. Brady rolled out left and fired over Moss' head with safety Kerry Rhodes in front of Moss. The holding penalty on linebacker David Harris gave the Pats one more play in the first quarter. On this play, Brady threw a quick screen left out of a power formation and Revis playing off at the goal line. Brady and Moss may have caught Revis looking for the run play, and the zip of a pass gave Moss his first catch of the day against Revis, and New England's first offensive touchdown of the season against the Jets.
Moss was targeted again with 13:05 left in the first half, and back on the left side. This time, the Pats took the deep ball out of the equation and had Moss run a quick outside comeback at the first-down marker on second-and-6 from the New England 45. The game plan now was to get Moss in front of Revis and take away the downfield deflection. Two plays later, Moss went in motion away from Revis from right to left, and Brady overthrew him on a quick out with Drew Coleman covering. It was interesting to me that the Jets didn't seem to want Revis following Moss wherever he went -- they just handed the coverage off in their mid zone, from Revis to Coleman.
With 9:19 left in the first half, Moss and Welker ran a quick cross at the line of scrimmage out of a shotgun, four-wide set with Moss staying closer to home and drawing Coleman's coverage. Welker went inside from outside deep and took Revis with him. Moss caught another pass underneath for five yards. And when it came to the strategy with Moss for the rest of the game, it was pretty much underneath the rest of the way. Moss didn't have a completed target in his direction longer than 13 yards, he was targeted 11 times overall, and he caught five of those passes -- just two more than Leigh Bodden caught from Sanchez.
Welker may have had his greatest day on a football field with 15 catches for 192 yards, but he should credit Revis with an assist on that one (not to mention the nickel corners and linebackers covering him on all that underneath stuff). Against the Jets in two games this year, Moss averaged 9.5 targets, 4.5 catches, and 29 yards. In his eight other games through Week 11, Moss has averaged 10.75 targets, 6.75 catches, and 108.4 yards. For the season, the Jets rank fifth in DVOA against No. 1 receivers, and no team has allowed fewer yards per game (34.9) against the top guys. I don't know if these are the best ways to measure VORC (Value over Replacement Cornerback), but game tape backs up everything the numbers tell you. Against the best in the game, most often on an island, Darrelle Revis comes as close as anyone in the NFL to a "shutdown corner," that most overused of terms. It's pretty exciting to see on the rare occasions when someone actually backs it up.
Last time the Titans and Texans met before last Sunday's game, it was Week 2, and Kerry Collins was Tennessee's starting quarterback. Vince Young hadn't held that title since Week 1 of the 2008 season, and Collins was in the driver's seat to start 2009 following Tennessee's 13-3 record the year before. After frustrating the franchise on and off their field, Young was an afterthought to most, yet another spread-option bust who couldn't hack it in the NFL when more than ancillary weight was put on his shoulders. But Collins was pulled once and for all after completing two passes in 12 attempts for -7 yards in an all-time franchise-worst 59-0 loss to the Pats in Week 6, a defeat that put the Titans at 0-6. Young completed one pass in two attempts in that game -- unfortunately, it was to the other team.
So what are we to make of what's happened since? After a much-needed bye week, the Titans came back with Young under center and running back Chris Johnson as the centerpiece of their offense, and they haven't lost a game. In two of those games, Johnson put up more yards on the ground than Young did in the air (gotta love that "Quarterback Wins" stat, no?), but Young has made a tangible difference in the play-to-play effectiveness of the offense because his coaching staff played to his strengths.
One of the primary factors of Young's recent success is the use of the option -- the counter option specifically. Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger has mixed in more option looks that match Young's comfort level. If there's one good thing above all about the Wildcat, it's that the NFL has had to take a step back and evaluate the judicious use of multifaceted shotgun and option formations. The Texans were very aware of Tennessee's success with these formations. What they didn't see coming was the (temporary?) evolution of Vince Young, Pocket Passer -- but that's a story for another Cover-3.
|Figure 1: Young Counter Option|
In option mode, Young combined the passing and running threats on his second-quarter touchdown pass to Kenny Britt. The Titans had third-and-3 from the Houston 13 with 12:57 left in the first half. Young lined his offense up in a two-wide offset I. The Texans countered with a tight two-safety shell in a 5-2-4. At the snap, receiver Nate Washington (85) ran an end-around, which was sold beautifully by the offensive line's slide protection to the left, and the blocking look of the fullback. Washington's run cleared left cornerback Glover Quin out through the middle, and Johnson's swing look brought strong safety Bernard Pollard up into the box. Left end Mario Williams was busy chasing Young as he rolled out of the pocket, but Young was more interested in the crossing over route run by receiver Kenny Britt (18), who was just ahead of cornerback Dunta Robinson (23). It was pitch-and-catch for Young and Britt because the rollout, swing pass threat, and potential end around cleared out Houston's intermediate coverage and left the play up to Britt's speed.
In their win over the Texans, the Titans used the threat of the counter as much as the actual play itself. A great example of this came with 1:08 left in the first half, when Tennessee had the ball with second-and-7 from the Houston 11. Tight end Alge Crumpler went in motion from left to right, switching from left flex to right blocking inside to the left cutback. Again, the line sold the left-side slide protection perfectly, and Young led the defense to the left with a quick fake to the fullback and a run right. Crumpler pinched inside to seal Mario Williams, and Young had a free lane for a 10-yard run.
The Titans have some very interesting decisions to make this offseason. Young is due a $7.5 million base and a $4.5 million roster bonus in 2010 (total cap charge: $14.21 million), and that's a lot to pay for an option quarterback when every draft presents the NFL with a new crop. If the Titans want to stick with Playbook 101, Young's in for a reality check. But if he's able to convince those in charge that he's ready to make the jump Michael Vick never did -- from Go-Go Gadget guy to Actual NFL Quarterback -- it will be one of the most remarkable comeback stories in recent years. In the short term, the Titans will keep running that option, keep forcing opponents to adjust, and be a lot of fun to watch.
Last time the Seahawks and Vikings met up before last Sunday's game, it was Week 7 of the 2006 season and the beginning of the Seahawks' long, cold, winter. When former Seahawks guard Steve Hutchinson walled off half of Seattle's defense on a 95-yard run authored by Chester Taylor, the poison pill that started Seattle's demise was even tougher to swallow. In their 31-13 win, the Vikings proved that they were the more physical team, and the Seahawks have struggled to find any sort of consistent toughness ever since.
Nobody expected much in this regard from backup linebacker David Hawthorne when he replaced an injured Lofa Tatupu in a Week 3 loss this year against the Bears, but Hawthorne put up 15 solo tackles and an interception, and he's been just about the only reliable performer ever since on a defense with underperforming stars and coaches unable to adjust to offensive alterations.
Signed by the Seahawks as an undrafted free agent in April of 2008, Hawthorne was the 80th-ranked linebacker on NFLDraftScout.com's 2008 list. I asked NFLDS Senior Draft Analyst Rob Rang why Hawthorne has outperformed that ranking to date, and Rang pointed to two things during Hawthorne's time at TCU -- a hyper-aggressive blitzing front that hid him from regular tackling opportunities, and a serious knee injury before his sophomore season in 2005. Rang told me that when he asked people from several front offices about Hawthorne, he was pointed in the direction of that injury and Hawthorne's size (6-0, 240). Under team president Tim Ruskell, the Seahawks pursue undersized players to a fault, but it definitely worked out in this case. Now, Ruskell's talking about going to more of a 3-4 defense when Tatupu returns in 2010, having recovered from the pectoral injury that cost him much of 2009, and the undrafted guy making $385,000 is the best part of Seattle's $60 million linebacker corps.
On the good side, Hawthorne takes nice angles on forward pursuit, like when he stopped Adrian Peterson for a short gain in the first quarter after a cutback left him hanging. He's good to the outside on screens and pitches. He will occasionally overpursue, as he did on a Chester Taylor run early on, but he's quick in downhill space and he's a good tackler.
On the bad side -- and this is an advisory for those in Seattle who would for some reason like to see Hawthorne replace Tatupu outright -- he's a severe liability in coverage. Hawthorne bites hard on play action, and he isn't fast enough in his drops to make up for it when asked to ride a Tampa-2 look up the middle seam against a tight end. One of the things that puts Tatupu above the average middle linebacker and would have made him a good fit for whatever the hell the Seahawks are trying to do with their defense these days is his ability to cover up top and stem outside if necessary.
It's been a rough time for the Seahawks, and the occasional find like Hawthorne shouldn’t be enough for the team to discuss a contract extension with Ruskell. But Hawthorne does have a bright future in the NFL, and the Seattle faithful will take whatever feel-good story they can get these days.
20 comments, Last at 19 Feb 2010, 1:06am by Rewis