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?
01 Jan 2009
by Doug Farrar
Week 7: Baltimore Ravens 27 at Miami Dolphins 13
Ladies and gentlemen, the Wildcat totals are in. In 2008, the Miami Dolphins ran a total of 965 plays for 5,529 yards, a 5.7 yards-per-play average and 38 offensive (rushing and passing) touchdowns. Of those plays, 91 were run out of the Wildcat formation -- the actual Wildcat, not a read-option or shotgun draw misclassified as such -- for 580 yards, a 6.7 yards-per-play average and eight touchdowns. It didn't always work, but the formation in all its forms shocked the New England Patriots in Week 3 and started the Dolphins on one of the most enjoyably improbable success stories in recent memory. The first big Wildcat reality check came a month later, at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens.
The Dolphins marched down the field fairly efficiently on their first drive, using short passes and shotgun sweeps to travel to the Baltimore 3-yard line, kicking a field goal with 8:26 left in the first quarter. No Wildcat there (seriously, announcer guys -- a "direct snap" to the quarterback really isn't a big deal. Happens just about every time.), but the Dolphins showed an ability to move downfield as long as they didn't try running Ronnie Brown (or anyone else) up the middle.
The first actual Wildcat play came with 40 seconds elapsed in the second quarter. The Dolphins had first-and-10 at their own 48, and lined up in the usual formation: Ronnie Brown in a shotgun set, Williams sweeping from left to right, tight end David Martin as the H-back, Chad Pennington split wide, left tackle Jake Long on the right side outside right tackle Vernon Carey, and tight end Anthony Fasano taking Long's place on the left side. For those who haven't seen the three primary plays -- what quarterbacks coach David Lee called "Steeler," "Power," and "Counter" when he ran it with Darren McFadden and Felix Jones at Arkansas in 2007 -- here's where we've written about it before.
Power is the play where Brown will fake a handoff to Williams and run to the open gap in the right side. At least that's the idea. Problem is, when you're running inside against the Ravens, there are no open gaps. There are only spaces filled by angry gentlemen in purple uniforms. This time, Brown faked to Williams and headed right. The Ravens were playing a tight 3-4 with wide splits. At the snap, linebacker Jarret Johnson shaded Williams outside, and linebacker Nick Griesen planted himself just outside left end Trevor Pryce to deal with Martin and possibly take Brown out of a gap.
|Figure 1: Wildcat vs. Ravens|
Two things confused me about Miami's blocking on this play (Figure 1). First of all, Martin headed outside to block Johnson instead of engaging Griesen inside. Second, when the Dolphins ran Power against the Patriots, the secret weapon was left guard Justin Smiley, who would pull to the right. By doing this, Smiley repeatedly decimated Defensive Rookie of the Year Jerod Mayo, and often opened the holes that Brown ran through. This time, he stayed put to double-team Haloti Ngata with center Samson Satele. While I would never question the logic of doubling Ngata, the fact that Smiley didn't (or couldn't) pull right helped kill the play (the dotted line shows where Smiley pulled against New England). Brown tried to cut back inside, but there was nothing for him. Griesen and Ray Lewis moved slightly left, playing back to contain. Carey and Long pushed Pryce inside, but Griesen filled the outside, and Brown cut back inside, where Justin Bannan was waiting for him, having beaten right guard Ikechuku Ndukwe. Bannan took Brown down from behind for a one-yard loss.
(Smiley is now done for the season with the broken leg he suffered on November 30 against the Rams; Andy Alleman has replaced him at left guard. Alleman is the only player I've ever interviewed who called to thank me after he read the article I wrote about him.)
The Dolphins tried the Wildcat again on the next play, but Ndukwe was flagged for a false start on what looked like a Power left instead of right. On second-and-16, Pennington ran a sneak up the middle for five yards. The next play was an incomplete pass to Greg Camarillo. Punt.
Miami went back to the well on their next drive, lining up in another Wildcat with 10:14 left in the first half. This was Steeler, the play in which Williams takes the ball on the sweep left to right. This time, the Ravens brought Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott from their left side. Martin blocked Suggs inside and running back Patrick Cobbs (lined up inside right) blocked Scott outside. Scott slipped his block about the same time that Bannan left right tackle Vernon Carey behind, and both defenders took Williams down after a gain of 5.
I noticed again that the Ravens had the Dolphins thinking of different blocking schemes. Instead of staying inside to help with the sweep, Jake Long hit the second level to deal with Griesen, who was leading left from the middle. The Ravens fill their gaps so well, any running play that develops over time is almost certainly doomed. Brown tried the fake to Williams and a run to the left on the next play, but he was immediately set upon by about half the Baltimore defense. No gain.
The next play had the Dolphins with third-and-5 from their own 45. Another shotgun "sweep," with a Pennington fake to Brown, and the Ravens had it dead to rights. Safety Jim Leonhard exploded through on a safety blitz to Pennington's right, and Cobbs looked to be the outlet to the left. However, Suggs jumped the route, intercepted the hurried throw, and ran it back for a touchdown.
The next Wildcat came with 5:45 left in the third quarter, and the Dolphins at the Baltimore 4-yard line. Another power to the right, and three Ravens defenders shot through inside before Brown could even get going. A loss of three, and it was back to the drawing board. The next play was a touchdown pass to Davone Bess out of a split-back set, as Bess cut inside on a nice little inside-outside combo thing with Greg Camarillo. That score put the Dolphins a touchdown behind at 20-13. On the drive, every single successful play was a pass.
In the end, Miami ran five Wildcat plays, all running plays, and gained a total of four yards. The Ravens made mincemeat of David Lee's precious formations, but that doesn't mean the Dolphins can't win this game. Pennington was successful enough when he played it straight, relying on his accuracy and innate sense of timing to move down the field. While I don't believe the Wildcat plays are mere gimmicks, I felt they were superfluous in this game -- in fact, their use hurt the Dolphins. These plays work well against defenses that are too slow to catch up with misdirection (like New England's) or too quick to adjust to what just flew past them the wrong way for a huge gain (like Seattle's). The Ravens are simply too fundamentally sound for these plays to work.
Week 12: Indianapolis Colts 23 at San Diego Chargers 20
Before we talk about LaDainian Tomlinson, how he did against the Colts in Week 12, and what that means for the Wild Card matchup (not to mention his future), it's time for the eternal question: How did the Colts' defense fare with and without Bob Sanders this season?
The numbers may surprise you. Here are the Run Defense DVOA numbers per game for Indianapolis' 2008 season; the games in which Sanders played are bolded:
Week 1: 24.5%.
Week 2: 16.5%.
Week 3: 8.8%.
Week 5: 8.1%.
Week 6: -51.0%.
Week 7: -7.3%.
Week 8: -4.1%.
Week 9: -0.7%.
Week 10: -15.0%.
Week 11: 33.8%.
Week 12: 2.8%.
Week 13: -14.2%.
Week 14: -23.0%.
Week 15: 3.3%.
Week 16: 15.4%.
Week 17: -8.5%.
Not exactly conclusive, and Melvin Bullitt seems to be the primary reason why. The second-year man from Texas A&M not only filled in for Sanders as the eighth man in the box against the run, he led the team in interceptions with four. Bullitt had eight tackles in the week 12 win over the Chargers, and he's been an asset in that run-stopping role all season.
On the other side of the ball, Tomlinson went into the Sunday Night matchup as down as he'd ever been. He had a 3.8 yards-per-carry average through 11 games, a serious drop from his career average of 4.5.
Tomlinson told NBC's Andrea Kremer before the game that he was having "career mortality issues", and that losing was wearing him out. L.T.'s own claim that he was "almost out of gas, mentally," had to do with the team's 4-6 record coming into that game, not to mention his realization that the Chargers had become primarily a passing team. Tomlinson affirmed that to get back on track, he just needed opportunities. He would get them in this game, to the tune of 20 carries for 84 yards, but the story told was not a happy one.
Tomlinson got the ball on San Diego's first play from scrimmage, running right up the gut out of I-formation behind the blocking of fullback Mike Tolbert, who took linebacker Clint Session out to the left side, and right guard Mike Goff, who pulled left and blew up Gary Brackett from the middle. But Tomlinson was stuffed for 1 yard on second down, and a Philip Rivers incompletion to Malcom Floyd forced a punt.
San Diego's second drive started with 9:14 left in the first quarter, with L.T. again showing a little burst up the middle for 5 yards behind I-formation blocking. A four-yard gain brought up third-and-1, and Bullitt stopped the conversion as the eighth man in the box as Tomlinson tried to run off left guard for no gain. The Colts were obviously keying on the run, and the Chargers backed off at the start of their third drive. With 1:16 left in the first quarter, Tomlinson took a quick pass up the middle from Rivers for a total of 8 yards, most of which came after the catch. San Diego went three-wide, the Colts sent their linebackers to cover, and the play took advantage. Tomlinson showed some nice agility at the end of the play with a spin move for a couple extra yards. But on the next play, second-and-2 from the San Diego 25, he got nowhere up the middle. Rivers extended the drive, picking up the Chargers' first first down of the day, with a nice 31-yard sideline pass to Floyd.
Watching the rest of this game again brought an unpleasant memory to mind. The 2008 Chargers remind me of the 2006-2007 Seahawks. When über-guard Steve Hutchinson left for Minnesota, fullback Mack Strong retired, and Shaun Alexander started to lose his speed, Mike Holmgren had to adapt to a pass-wackiness he really didn't enjoy. The myth about Holmgren was wrong; he preferred a balanced offense, but when his fullbacks couldn't set their blocks behind an ineffective offensive line, and his star running back couldn't get outside with any real speed, things had to change. Quite often, it was backup Maurice Morris who was more effective, because Morris could hit the seams quicker before they closed altogether.
Tomlinson's feeling that the Chargers have become more of a passing team seems to be based on a wise decision. This is especially true based on what I've seen of their offensive line this year. This was perhaps the best offensive line in the business a couple years ago, but I'm not seeing any real physical dominance at this point. They're having trouble keeping defenders at bay, and many of Tomlinson's stuffs result from this. I also think that they miss Lorenzo Neal terribly. Neal is currently blasting open holes for several running backs in Baltimore, and not unlike Mack Strong, I think he took his team's physical running presence with him when he left. Difference is, Neal still has something left in the tank. In addition, Darren Sproles is more effective in certain cases because he's quicker to the line.
As for Tomlinson himself, there's no question that things have changed. He has lost his speed to the edge, and he can't do the power stuff alone. I'm not ready to call his career a wrap, but I'm not convinced by his season finale performance against the Broncos, either. Three rushing touchdowns against the team with the second-worst Defensive DVOA in the history of our rankings? That performance begs for context. It's obvious to me that a seismic shift has taken place in San Diego. This team will now go as far as Rivers, not Tomlinson, takes them. This will be especially true if Bullitt (shoulder) and Sanders (knee) are both able to go, and Tomlinson's current groin injury proves especially problematic.
Week 17: Dallas Cowboys 6 at Philadelphia Eagles 44
The Eagles are favored by three points on the road against the Vikings (at least, that's the line as I write this), and their defense is the surprise. After finishing 12th in Defensive DVOA against the run in 2007, the Eagles bumped that up to third in 2008; their season-ending effectiveness trailed only the Ravens and Steelers. In the second half of the season, they actually had the NFL's best DVOA against the run. In their last seven games, opponents have gained 3.1 yards per carry, and the Cowboys could only gain 2.9 yards per carry in the first half of their season-ending debacle, before the run game stopped being a realistic factor.
While I only had time for a cursory view of the Eagles-Cowboys game, a few things stood out. First of all, the Eagles pursue exceptionally well against any play. If Brian Dawkins comes up to blitz, leaving a quick pass open for Terrell Owens, four Eagles will be on Owens as soon as he catches the ball. Second, these guys don't sell out their gaps when they blitz. For all the talk about Jim Johnson's schematic craziness, I didn't see a lot of open seams or breakdowns against the run. The Eagles have developed a great balance between pressure and gap responsibility. They made up for the size disadvantage against Dallas' huge line with pure speed; through most of this game, they looked to be going through the plays in fast-forward in comparison to the lumbering 'Boys. They love to bring different blitz looks just before the snap, but these seem to allow more openings in the flats and over the short middle then they do anything at the line. Gap responsibility is the key for any smaller, faster defense, and it's Philadelphia's strength.
The Eagles defense will face a great test in Adrian Peterson and the Minnesota line. "(Peterson's) as good a back as you'll see," Johnson told the media this week. "He's a special guy. We know, from going up against him last year. You think you have the perfect defense, and one guy slips and falls down in a gap, and all of a sudden, he's got that great explosion and hits it and turns it into a big play.
"We need to keep those long runs down with him. He's going to get some yards. But you just hope he doesn't break any long runs. Because that's where he really kills teams. When he gets those 60-, 70-yard runs. That's where the challenge will be for us. To keep those runs under 10 yards." Peterson had a league-leading 20 runs over 20 yards this year.
Last year, in a 23-17 win, the Eagles held Peterson to 70 yards on 20 carries with a selection of run blitzes validated by the dynamic opposing quarterback combo of Brooks Bollinger and Kelly Holcomb. This time, Peterson and the Eagles defense each appear to be better then ever, and the Vikes have Tarvaris. We know about the Williams Wall, but keep a sharp eye on this Philly Phalanx; it will probably be the difference in this game.
14 comments, Last at 02 Jan 2009, 5:12pm by Doug Farrar