Ben Roethlisberger's ability to perform under a heavy pass rush remains critical to Pittsburgh's offensive success.
11 Aug 2009
by Doug Farrar
The July 28th edition of the NFL Network's Total Access program (actually, any late July edition) could and should have been a tribute to Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, who lost his battle with melanoma that day and left a great defensive legacy behind. Unfortunately, that was the day Brett Favre decided to remain retired, leaving the NFL Network with "no choice" but to spend the first 45 minutes of their nightly news show talking about Favre with anyone who would pick up the phone, then belatedly mentioning Johnson as an afterthought.
Was this fair? No. Should it be surprising? Hardly. The league's seeming desire to shove Favre's every non-decision and non-utterance down America's throat with no mercy aside, Johnson was simply the latest in a long line of assistant coaches to fall short in the respect department. No descriptions of his defensive fronts on that show or any show since, despite the fact that this is the network with the history of NFL Films at its disposal. And really, guys -- you can get everyone down to Favre's fourth-grade gym teacher on the phone if the mood strikes you, but you can't get someone who was moved by Johnson's contributions to the game to speak about this brilliant and dignified man who graced the game he loved? Evidently not. After watching that show, I knew how I wanted Cover-3 to return for a second season: with a tribute to Johnson's work in three different Eagles games.
Johnson was one-third of the decade's Holy Trinity of defensive coordinators -- Monte Kiffin and Dick LeBeau filling out the group -- and the most interesting thing to me is that they all kept their fastballs at ages when most coaches are ex-coaches; playing golf, writing books, and accepting personal appearance offers.
LeBeau's Steelers defense was an ungodly terror all the way through the season and the Super Bowl. Kiffin's defense was great until it completely fell apart on the announcement that he'd be leaving the Bucs to join his son at Tennessee (though we're still looking for the correlation/causation on THAT one). Johnson may have done the most impressive job of all. Bringing more defenders on pass rushes than any other defensive coordinator, his Eagles nonetheless posted the best run defense DVOA in the second half of the 2008 season, despite the fact that not a single member of his front seven made the Pro Bowl.
Johnson said that his 2008 defense was the fastest that he'd ever coached, but we're going to start our three-game review a few years back, when speed against speed was the order of the day
When the Falcons were running over the rest of the NFL in the middle part of the decade with the Warrick Dunn-Michael Vick-T.J. Duckett backfield, opposing defensive coordinators could find themselves in a number of strategic holes. Blitzing left gaps open for the one-cut style favored by Falcons offensive assistant Alex Gibbs. As a quarterback, Vick's instructions were simple: Check the reads as fast as you possibly can, and if things aren't to your liking, turn on the jets. His speed made blitzing doubly frustrating. Bringing eight to the box left your defenders caught up in the wave that was Gibbs' zone concept, and the linebackers were washed out as the cutback went away from them.
Edge-rushing from a front three or five and leaving a spy for Vick in the middle didn't really work, either, because Gibbs and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp had a kink in the outside zone that further exploited Vick's speed; a simple option read that kept the end on a string. Mr. Pass Rusher could either blow right by the running Vick, breaking his own ankles trying to recover; or he could head outside to anticipate the pitch to the back as Vick cut inside and headed upfield. And if Mr. Pass Rusher brought help, the help left coverage spots open for Vick to throw to tight end Alge Crumpler, his favorite target. It was simple, brutally effective, and it brought the Falcons to Philly for the 2004 NFC Championship. A week after gaining 327 yards on the ground against the Rams in the friendly confines of the Georgia Dome, the Falcons would have to deal with zero-degree wind-chill and gusts of up to 35 miles per hour, putting even more pressure on the running game for a win.
Johnson had a different plan to stop the go-go Falcons, one that underscored the theme of this article: Great coaches don't stick with their trademarks on a "no-matter-what" basis, they constantly go back to the drawing board, finding new ways to place their personnel for optimal success. He knew where the traps were, and armed with a map of the minefield, effectively won the game in the first three Atlanta drives.
Spying Vick basically took one player out of his defense, so Johnson used his linebackers to spy zones and gaps instead. He understood that the cold weather and biting wind would take the pass away to a point, and treated Atlanta's offense as if it were a 30-year-old Wishbone. Blitz looks were just that -- looks for the most part -- and those extra defenders would pull back to read and cover at the snap. Ends Jevon Kearse and Derrick Burgess were directed to read and wait instead of pursuing from the start, and Crumpler had to pinball his way through multiple Eagles just to get open. Middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter was the scud missile inside, the one who had to find the open gap and kill it. The supposedly blitz-happy Johnson succeeded by going against schematic type.
It worked from the first drive. Atlanta started the game with the ball on their own 20, and Vick in the shotgun. They had two receivers right, with Crumpler split out just a bit from the line in a shallow slot. Johnson countered with a vanilla 4-3. At the snap, Crumpler stayed in to seal the right edge, and Vick read to run to the right. Problem was. Philly's linebackers were all waiting for him to do it, and by the time he got out of the pocket, half the Eagles defense was bearing down on him. Linebacker Keith Adams used his own speed to come downhill and stop Vick after a two-yard run. Then, a left offset-I with Philly in another straight 4-3 with Trotter looking like he was going to run-blitz. At the snap, the linebackers waited the play out, and Adams stopped Dunn from exploiting the cutback to the right, allowing just a one-yard gain.
|Eagles' Overload Look|
On third-and-7, the Falcons went shotgun with two backs, but Johnson countered with an overload left, bringing Dhani Jones and Brian Dawkins up to stop the option to Vick's right. Checkmate, and Vick called timeout. Take two saw the same Falcons formation, and an overload look from the Eagles, but only four rushed at the snap. As Vick tried to gain ground upfield, he was accosted first by Dawkins, and then Corey Simon, gaining only two yards. In one simple three-and-out, Johnson showed the Falcons that no matter what variant of their run-based (and admittedly weather-limited) offense they went with, he had an answer. Dawkins didn't really move in coverage on the third-down stop; he simply waited for the play to come to him. Faced with a defense that didn't bite on the first move he made, Vick couldn't provide productive options.
Johnson opened up the playbook a bit more on the second drive. Eight in the box here, a 4-4 linebacker shade from left to right there, handing Crumpler off from Trotter to the safeties on a third-and-7 while Burgess sealed the running lane and blew Vick up in the backfield, causing a drive-killing incompletion that was thrown into a scrum of about five defenders. No answers for what Johnson was bringing. All the Falcons had left was their sheer athleticism, and it bailed them out a couple times on the third drive, a marathon that overlapped the first and second quarters.
With 4:16 left in the first quarter, Vick started at his own 30 by throwing the ball out of bounds. But on second-and-10, the option threat finally worked. From an offset-I, Vick rolled out weakside, and Burgess was on the hook as so many other ends had been against Vick. Burgess' first responsibility was to take the outside cutback lane. His second was to catch up to Vick if the ball went that way. Unfortunately for Burgess, those responsibilities occurred more quickly than his body was able to comprehend, and Vick took off outside for nine yards. On the next play, Vick's sidearm interception to Sheldon Brown was overturned by a defensive holding call on Michael Lewis, and on they went. After a Dunn run for two yards, Vick rolled right again after play-action. This time, Burgess was there to get him. However, Vick did one of his "I'm going to have to rewind that 10 times before I believe it" plays, faking Burgess to the ground and cutting back inside. He blew by Jones, Simon, and Kearse, all the way across the field, then zoomed upfield for 13 before Trotter took him down. On plays like this, you can understand why there is more than a glimmer of curiosity about what skills Vick has left.
Atlanta drove downfield on the strength of the specter of Vick, but Philly's goal-line stand basically put the Eagles in the franchise's first Super Bowl in a quarter-century. On first-and-goal, T.J. Duckett learned that going up the middle against Trotter tends to hurt. As the Falcons' line pushed left on the tight zone, Trotter waited out the cutback and took Duckett down for a loss of 1. On second down, Vick tried a quick play-action pass to fullback Fred McCrary, only to have Lewis bat the ball down off a safety blitz. And on third-and-goal from the three-yard line, the best running team in the NFL abandoned the one thing that made them great. Vick took the shotgun snap, ran around trying to find an open man, headed up the middle when there wasn't one, and was absolutely 'faced by Hollis Thomas for a loss of two.
Joe Buck and Troy Aikman made a big to-do about Johnson's aggressiveness as the game began, but the theme changed quickly as Johnson used the perception of kamikaze "Blitz Fu" against his opponent. The Falcons waited in vain for the big rush that never came. Instead, Johnson read what the offense could do, and simply eliminated the playbook, page by page. After that goal-line stand, it was academic.
On to the 2008 season, and two quarterbacks who deal with pressure in very different ways.
The blitzingest defense in the NFL in 2008 (the Eagles brought six or more defenders a league-leading 16.8 percent of the time) against Pittsburgh's 9.2 percent Adjusted Sack Rate? That's a pass-rush match made for Johnson, though Pittsburgh got a brief reprieve to start the game.
The Steelers went through their first drive without suffering a sack, gaining on Johnson with different formations that aided the line. On first-and-ten from their own 20, Pittsburgh went with a three-tight end set, empty backfield, against Philly's five-man front, and Big Ben got a nine-yard pass off to Heath Miller. Miller was victimized on the next play, as the Steelers went with two tight ends and sent Willie Parker up the middle. Trent Cole blew inside and stopped Parker for a one-yard loss. Cole was then flagged for defensive offside on third-and-2, giving the Steelers a new set of downs and negating what would have been Sack No. 1. Three passes to Santonio Holmes followed, with Pittsburgh running a tight bunch left, a three-wide offset-I, and a trips right with play-action, and Heath Miller at the back to block. All three plays saw only four Eagles defenders up front, giving Roethlisberger the time he needed to complete two of the three passes for 22 yards.
The Eagles started ratcheting up the pressure halfway through the first drive -- Roethlisberger completed a six-yard out to Hines Ward on third-and-4 from the Philly 45 despite the fact that Juqua Parker was all over him. Then, linebacker Stewart Bradley careened in off the left edge and stopped Willie Parker for another one-yard loss. On the next play, Bradley blitzed right up the middle but didn't get there, leaving the middle open enough for Nate Washington to take a little comebacker from Roethlisberger and scoot inside for a 16-yard gain. Parker then ran outside for six yards after Heath Miller went in motion inside to block. I really like the way the Steelers use their receivers and tight ends to run-block in supposed passing formations.
That first drive ended with a Jeff Reed field goal on the twelfth play. The second drive started with the first of Philly's nine sacks. Then, in rapid succession, the second and third. On first-and-10 from his own 33 with 9:16 left in the second quarter, Big Ben took the ball out of a two-tight end set with two receivers split right. Bradley walked up in a slight presnap blitz look, but didn't go, instead taking the B-gap outside left guard Chris Kemoeatu, who was busy doubling tackle Broderick Bunkley with center Justin Hartwig. Parker blocked Bradley there, and weakside linebacker Omar Gaither crossed over and outside Bradley. Gaither sped through the open lane and flushed Roethlisberger out of the pocket and forward, where the entire Eagles defensive line was waiting for him. Left end Juqua Parker simply got there first.
After an eight-yard run by Parker and a defensive delay of game call on tackle Mike Patterson, sack No. 2 came out of a play-action to Parker on a formation with tight ends Miller and Matt Spaeth together on the left side. Bunkley bulled past Hartwig to fill the gap Roethlisberger wanted to fill as he stepped up to throw, though he was given a second more in the pocket by the uncalled facemask that the pulling Kemoeatu put on Parker. Bunkley caught Big Ben for a no-gain run, which was classified as a sack. One seven-yard pass to Nate Washington off a five-man blitz later, Johnson brought the house -- Bradley, safety Quintin Mikell, and Gaither (who was in more of a blitz-to-cover look), in addition to the front four. Parker simply shrugged Miller aside on the one-on-one, and as Roethlisberger stepped to his right to avoid Mikell, Parker had the takedown and the forced fumble. Bunkley recovered the ball at the Pittsburgh 45.
On Pittsburgh's next drive, which began at their own 24 with 2:36 left in the first half, Johnson went with the When Animals Attack approach, smelling blood and sending a zone blitz. Bradley came up to fill the middle, Dawkins rushed from the left edge, and Cole went into coverage from the right side. Roethlisberger never had a chance, as three Eagles -- Gaither, Parker, and Dan Klecko -- wiped him out. On the next play out of a no-huddle, the Eagles' defense brought a three-man front against Big Ben's shotgun, four-wide approach. Mikell came up just before the snap off the right edge. Trent Cole got to Roethlisberger from the right defensive end in the 3-4 look, though he was flagged for a facemask and left end Darren Howard was busted for defensive offside. This put the ball at the Pittsburgh 29, but the Steelers could not capitalize -- because they could not protect their quarterback. Willie Colon was caught for a false start on the next play, and Roethlisberger threw a pick to Asante Samuel on the play after, trying to hit Nate Washington in double-coverage. Gaither sacked Big Ben once more in the half, on the next drive, with 1:08 left in the half. For the record, that was six sacks and one interception on nine pass plays in the second quarter.
We know that Roethlisberger has less respect for, and is able to do more under, defensive pressure than any quarterback in the league. We also know that when it comes to pass-blocking, the Pittsburgh line isn't going to make anyone forget the 1976 Oakland Raiders. Still, Johnson's pressure packages, like those of disciple Steve Spagnuolo when he was in New York, were not about bringing everyone all the time, making risky calls and allowing quarterbacks to break out of feast-or-famine rushes. Roethlisberger was attacked from all sides. Linebackers blew past his linemen right up the middle before he could even get his arm up to throw. Stunting linemen flew around the edges, forcing him to step up so that other linemen could punish him for doing so. Zone blitzes took away his quick reads and forced him into questionable and desperate decisions -- the Eagles led the league in zone blitzes, and allowed a -70.0% DVOA and 3.4 yards per play on them. LeBeau, watching Johnson ply his trade on the opposite sideline, must have felt like he was looking in a mirror.
And I can think of no higher compliment.
When the St. Louis Rams beat the Eagles in the 2001 NFC Championship Game, they did it with a steady diet of Marshall! Marshall! Marshall! Mike Martz ran Mr. Faulk 31 times for 159 yards and two scores, and this wasn't the old "Run to Win" garbage -- neither team ever had more than a five-point lead after the opening touchdown in the Rams' eventual 29-24 victory. Seven years later, Kurt Warner looked down the barrel of Johnson's defense once again, but with an entirely different plan to thwart it. Now, it was about shotgun sets, three-step drops, and yards after catch. Warner said before the game that he was ready for the blitz, and that the Cardinals had plans to use that aggressiveness against the Eagles.
On the first Arizona drive, Philly ran a number of five-man rushes with Bradley or another defender plugging the A-gap, and man coverage behind. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley exploited the tight focus in different ways -- with timing routes from Warner to his ginormous receivers, and sending safety Antrel Rolle in motion in a two-back set away from playside, leaving open field for an Edgerrin James draw play. When Trent Cole blew by his blocker, James had a free lane and took it for 16 yards. The first Cardinals drive ended with Larry Fitzgerald bouncing off three defenders for a nine-yard touchdown on a crossing route in which Sheldon Brown passed Fitzgerald off to Hole in Zone, and Fitzgerald ran across unobstructed.
The Cards had a three-and-out drive near the end of the first quarter, but they went for the trickeration on their first drive of the second quarter. With 13:10 left in the first half, and the Eagles playing nine defenders tight at linebacker level or closer, Warner saw the look he wanted. At the snap, he handed to halfback J.J. Arrington out of an offset-I. Arrington pitched the ball back to Warner as the defense rolled to stop the run, and Warner sailed the ball downfield, where Fitzgerald was one-on-one with safety Quintin Demps. It was a mismatch, and Arizona got a 62-yard touchdown for their trouble. By the end of the first half, Arizona was up, 24-6, and the Eagles were circling the drain.
The Cardinals only had one score in the second half. As Philly's offense woke up, Johnson adjusted his strategy, bringing more to the line, sending clusters of second level defenders on delayed blitzes, and making the third quarter one big three-and-out for the formerly unstoppable Warner. In the fourth quarter, the moves changed again -- now, Johnson brought as many as eight to the line, but dropped select defenders into coverage at the snap, altering Warner's reads and timing and sending the quick Arizona offense off-kilter. The Eagles held the comeback lead, 25-24, with 10:45 left in the game, but Warner had a few tricks left in the bag.
After the game, Warner said that the key to beating the blitzes late in the game was knowing where they were coming from. It's a tribute to his own acumen that he was able to stay ahead of it all. Arizona stuck with the quick passes, dialing up just enough running plays to keep the defense honest. The tipping point in the final touchdown drive was probably the fourth-and-1 Arizona held with 7:57 left. When they beat the Giants the week before, the Eagles had been able to stop New York's two late fourth-down conversion attempts. But here, with Patterson and Bunkley pinching in on the center, and everyone expecting the play inside, Tim Hightower bounced it outside right, aided by two outstanding blocks. Right guard Deuce Lutui pulled to the edge and took out linebacker Chris Gocong, and fullback Terrell Smith dealt with Mikell. Hightower ran for six, and the Cards kept the drive going, scoring the game-winning touchdown with 2:59 left. I'd like to think that given the hole the Eagles were in at the half, Johnson did go out a winner in the last game he coached -- he simply ran out of time.
An analysis of Jim Johnson's schematic tendencies over time is like a study of any great artist -- you're going to see things you never expected work in ways you never thought they could. More and more, I was struck by the versatility Johnson brought to the field, and how he was able to translate chalkboard theory to in-field success with different fronts and formations. He was not afraid of failure, seeing it as an opportunity to adjust -- and that's what seperates guys like him, and LeBeau, and Kiffin, from the cookie-cutter coaches who slide in and out of jobs, their anonymity intact. No, Johnson's name will live on because he was able to combine esoteric formations with the kind of smashmouth philosophies that go back to the game's very roots, and he signed his name to them with indelible ink. That's why he will never be forgotten.
19 comments, Last at 20 Aug 2009, 9:26am by Karl K