After three NFL seasons of kicking off from the 35-yard line, what has been the impact on touchbacks, returns, field position, scoring and injuries? Also, is this rule responsible for a record number of big comebacks?
23 Sep 2009
by Doug Farrar
It's ubiquitous at this point, but a year ago, when the Dolphins first ran the Wildcat, it was seen as little more than a bailout for a terrible team. One AFC East title later, things have changed. At the 2009 Scouting Combine, you couldn't turn around without bumping into five people who wanted to talk about how the NFL and the spread offense might be meeting halfway through various option offshoots. When the Dolphins selected West Virginia quarterback Pat White in the second round of the 2009 draft, it was thought that he might be the key to expanding the idea enough to make these plays a larger and more consistent part of an NFL offense. Against the Colts on Monday night, the Dolphins went with their old-school plays (detailed here), and a few new wrinkles. Unlike last year's plays, which decimated the Patriots in Week 3 and rolled on just about everyone but the Ravens, Miami's new looks still need some work.
The first Wildcat play of the night came with 12:37 left in the first quarter, and the Dolphins showed a few new wrinkles in the old formation with third-and-2 from the Indianapolis 49-yard line. First, left tackle Jake Long stayed put instead of overloading the right side; tight end Anthony Fasano replaced him on the right side. Last year, he would have replaced Long on the left side. Left guard Justin Smiley didn't pull to the right. The H-back (fullback Lousaka Polite in this case) was about three yards behind the line, as opposed to just behind the right tackle. Finally, instead of a receiver in the right slot, the Dolphins put tight end Joey Haynos outside Long. Running back Patrick Cobbs was split wide right. The Colts brought eight in the box, with safety Tim Jennings (23) and cornerback Kelvin Hayden (26) reading Williams all the way -- they weren't thinking about pass coverage.
|Figure 1: Wildcat 2.0 "Steeler" Sweep|
As Williams took the sweep, Polite and Fasano dealt with left end Robert Mathis after Fasano's initial solo block pushed him outside. Cobbs blocked Hayden out, and right tackle Vernon Carey took strong-side linebacker Tyjuan Hagler out of the play. Right guard Donald Thomas blocked tackle Ed Johnson, and center Jake Grove (the pulling lineman in this case) looped to the right and cut weak-side linebacker Clint Session. Thomas got to middle linebacker Gary Brackett at the second level, and Williams headed off right tackle for five yards.
The Dolphins went right back to it on the next play, with the same opening formation and the Colts going back to that 4-4 offset look. This time, Brown faked the handoff to Williams and took the Power inside. As Thomas and Carey double-teamed Ed Johnson and walked him back, Smiley (who did pull right this time) laid a great block on Brackett. Brown ran right up that lane for nine yards and a first down, to the Indy 35.
Four plays later, with first-and-10 at the Colts' 14, the Dolphins went with their new base Wildcat formation and the Colts brought seven to the line. Another Power right, and the Dolphins just shredded Indy's front line. Grove and Thomas walled tackle Donald Muir off to the left, and Carey pushed Johnson a good five yards into Miami's backfield. This allowed Smiley (pulling again) and Polite to charge through to the second level and demolish Hagler and Brackett. Brown blew through the free lane inside right, shrugged off an Antoine Bethea tackle attempt, and headed into the end zone.
So, the old chestnuts were in good shape. The new breed of option plays designed for second-round pick Pat White? Not so much. I don't know if he's adjusting to the speed of playbook of the NFL, but he looks slow to me off the snap. It's been that way since the preseason, and the general difference between his play speed at West Virginia and in the NFL is disconcerting. White got his first shot against the Colts with 2:45 left in the first quarter and the Dolphins at their own 36. The Dolphins have designed at least one new Wildcat formation with him in mind, a shotgun look with White flanked by running backs on either side. In this case, the backs were Brown to his left and Williams to his right. The Colts ran a base 4-3, and White thought he saw something up the middle. He handed off to Williams, who started up the right A-gap, but Session beat Grove to the backfield and took Williams down for no gain. One thing I noticed was that when the Colts saw a passing option, they'd resist the temptation to cheat their safeties up, instead relying on their athletic linebackers to make plays at the second level. This would be a major factor later in the game.
The Dolphins tried the same play with 10:16 left in the third quarter, and the result was the same: Williams up the middle for nothing. Before they can integrate White into the next level of Wildcat playcalling, the Dolphins will have to establish him as a consistent passing or running threat -- right now, he's about as frightening as a punter. Near the beginning of the third quarter, Miami ran the shotgun, two-back set with Brown taking the snap, and Williams bounced off right tackle for a 15-yard gain with the handoff. It's not a formation problem -- it's a personnel issue.
|Figure 2: Wildcat 2.0: Cobbs Pass|
We know that the Dolphins won the time of possession battle to a ridiculous degree (45:07 to 14:53), but we also know that the Colts won the game with the lowest TOP of any team since 1977. On their last drive, I kept wondering why the Dolphins didn't run the play that worked so well for them against the Houston Texans last year -- with Pennington lining up wide right, Williams would take the Steeler sweep, hand it off to Pennington, and Pennington would throw the ball downfield to Cobbs out of the right slot. The Texans feared the burn of the inside/outside run so much, they cheated just about everyone up. Pennington could have thrown a lob to Cobbs with nary a defender around him.
With the Colts up 27-23, and Miami driving downfield late in the game, Indy once again refused to bite. Starting from their own 18 with 3:13 remaining, the Dolphins could only move to the Colts' 30-yard line in 14 plays because the explosive elements of the Wildcat were negated. On every play, Indy hung one or two safeties in a deep shell. I don't know if that's what the Dolphins were looking for, but it might explain why they were so slow on the drive, and so plodding with their playcalling. This isn't an offense with enough options to counter a team used to playing deep coverage, and intent on doing so no matter what.
White's addition might be one answer over time. But is it THE answer? I'm not sure. If a team wanted to make an expanded Wildcat package a major part of their offense, I think there will have to be more vertical options installed, and more ways to beat the teams who don't panic at the sight of a halfback taking a snap, or an unbalanced line. For the Dolphins, that's where the stalemate stands.
The Jets' defensive dominance has been one of the more interesting early stories of the 2009 season. A week before he put up a league-leading passing DYAR of 223 against the Titans, Texans quarterback Matt Schaub put up a real howler (-37) versus Rex Ryan's new defense. The Jets followed that performance by helping Tom Brady complete less than half his passes under constant pressure. Like all the best defenses -- LeBeau's Steelers, Ryan's old Ravens and the recent Giants and Eagles come to mind -- these Jets have the ability to maximize quarterback pressure while maintaining the concept of coverage. Every defense does this differently.
Ryan's expertise, gleaned in part from dad Buddy, emanates from the 46 defense. The 46 dictates that a defense must:
Against New England in Week 2, the Jets embraced and displayed every aspect of the Ryan philosophy. This was evident in three straight third-down incompletions, starting with 11:58 left in the first quarter.
|Figure 3: Jets Overload Blitz|
On third-and-7 from the Jets' 36, the Patriots lined up in a shotgun, bunch left, and Ryan called for the overload on the other side. Linebacker Bryan Thomas (99) originally set up at the line between linebacker Bart Scott (57) and end Shaun Ellis (92), but he motioned out to tight middle. In addition to his side overloads, Ryan loves to alter the reads for pressure up the middle. He also enjoys fortifying his overloads with unconventional personnel sets -- Exhibit A being the three-defensive back blitz against the Texans in Week 1 -- although this was a bit more conventional. The challenge for the Patriots in this play was how to pick up three blitzing defenders with two blockers. Ellis, Scott, and safety Kerry Rhodes (25) were rushing in off playside. The problem with this set-up is that right tackle Nick Kaczur was left to deal with Ellis one-on-one because right guard Stephen Neal was occupied keeping Thomas from blowing up the pocket from the middle. Running back Laurence Maroney blocked Rhodes outside, which left Scott with a free lane to the quarterback. The play was a quick slant to Joey Galloway (13) on the right side, but Brady didn't have time and threw the ball away. While most defensive coordinators would have favored the bunch formation and the clearout that followed, Ryan prefers advantages away from the obvious groupings, and he already had a nice little village of defenders over there.
The next third down incompletion to Galloway came with 8:59 left in the first quarter, and the Pats with third-and-5 at the Jets' 49. This time, Ryan plugged the middle with Scott and David Harris, putting them at the line on either A-gap. Then, cornerback Donald Strickland came with a delayed blitz from the left side, out of a bunched group of defensive backs pre-snap. This time, Strickland was the extra defender, blowing through the middle to Scott's right and pulling Neal off of Scott. Strickland got just enough penetration to hurry the throw left to Galloway, who was busy putting on a handfighting exhibition with Lito Sheppard. Galloway probably wanted to break outside and further downfield, and Sheppard may have gotten away with one there, with contact coming just after five yards.
On their next drive, the Pats experienced yet another pressure-induced third down incompletion. This was third-and-20 (following a holding call on tight end Chris Baker) from the Jets' 27, the fifth play of a drive that started at New York's 17 after a Leon Washington fumble. With 7:02 left in the first quarter, Brady took the ball under center and had to let it fly early again. The Jets brought a more conventional five-to-the-line approach, but Bryan Thomas just abused left tackle Matt Light on the outside speed rush. Brady had to move to his left out of the pocket, and Galloway wasn't where he needed to be to haul it in.
If there's one thing I re-learned when I wrote the Cover-3 tribute to Jim Johnson a month ago, it's that great defenses aren't born out of generic blitzing. Instead, they are derived from the more advanced concepts of diverse and situational pressure. Last year, the Jets rushed only three defenders 24.8 percent of the time, first in the NFL. Conversely, they rushed six or more defenders only 6.0 percent of the time, 24th in the league. Ryan's Ravens were far more difficult to pigeonhole. They ranked fifth in rushing three and five, and eighth in rushing seven or more. Ryan doesn’t, however, believe in "drop or blitz" -- there's far more creativity going on here. It allows a team built to excel in a 3-4 base to do different things. That's great news for the Jets, and an ever-increasing problem for their opponents. The Patriots hadn't been so upended by formation diversity since those tricky Dolphins gave them something to think about a year ago.
There's a cottage industry built around bashing Norv Turner, and we at FO have certainly taken our shots. The general consensus seems to be that though he's one of the NFL's better quarterback gurus, as a head coach, he's got a knack for early playoff exits, blown fourth quarter leads, and general in-game underachievement despite impressive numbers. Put simply, Turner's seen by many as a hothouse flower who wilts under the pressure of situational football. When the Chargers imploded in the red zone against the Ravens in their Week 2 loss, the natural response was to add the debacle to Norv's laundry list of debits. But looking at the game from an expanded view, and with the benefit of a couple days, I think Norv's getting a bad rap this time.
Counting negative penalty yards and subtracting Nate Kaeding's four field goals, 15 of San Diego's 68 plays were inside Baltimore's 20-yard line, and the Chargers totaled -11 yards on those plays. The ones that will be remembered begin with the call to kick a 23-yard field goal in third-and-5 with 10 second left in the first half. Why didn't the Chargers take one more shot? Rivers threw incompletions on first and second down, and the running game was going nowhere -- in the first half, San Diego ran 11 times for 28 yards. The Chargers were down 21-13, and Norv wanted to go in at halftime with a deficit of less than a touchdown. They had burned their last time out at the 3:40 mark. The percentages didn't seem to favor another play; had they run the ball and failed to score (a very likely possibility), there's no guarantee they would have been able to line up for the field goal. There would have been time for the kick if Rivers threw another incompletion, but you're balancing that against the possibility of a sack ending the first half, and Rivers has already been sacked twice. The Chargers had actually made their way to the Baltimore 1-yard line before the first of Rivers' two delay of game penalties put things in reverse. Rivers defended Turner's move after the fact, and I'd be inclined to side with Norv on that one.
In the larger sense, it's important to remember that offenses don't exist in a vacuum. Perhaps we've become so used to the fact that the Chargers possess this high-powered offense, we're inclined to believe it can score under any circumstances, against any opponent. With San Diego's offensive proficiency outside of the red zone (474 yards overall) we were going to wonder why things fell apart inside the 20.
The answer, in short: The Baltimore Ravens have a really, REALLY good defense. In 2008, no team was better in the red zone; their -50.2% DVOA paced most of the league by a fairly wide margin. Only the Steelers (-50.0%) were in the same ballpark. The Ravens were even better in goal-to-go situations (-62.4%). Rex Ryan and Bart Scott may be gone, but that defense is still what it was. The Chargers countered with a depleted and disappointing line, and a small but talented running back in Darren Sproles.
Sometimes, we just have to accept that defense beats offense, and offense has no answer. Norv, for all his documented faults (and I've written about his prior red zone foibles), should get a relative pass.
41 comments, Last at 26 Sep 2009, 9:12am by Spielman