The Seahawks' ability to cover New England's once-in-a-generation tight end will go a long way in determining who wins Super Bowl XLIX.
01 Dec 2010
by Doug Farrar
In the interest of announcing a new venture I'm proud to be a part of and providing a view of a team I now cover (Seattle), I wanted to start this week's Cover-2 with an expanded version of a write-up I did on Kansas City's version of the stretch play for Sports Press Northwest. For that site, I'll be doing a traditional beat in what will hopefully be an atypical fashion. It's a new site with some creative ideas, so check it out if you have a few minutes.
The world has done a pretty good job of keeping Jamaal Charles under wraps, but the Kansas City Chiefs running back is officially having a ridiculous season despite limited carries in most games. The Texas back, drafted in the third round in 2008, racked up 1,120 yards in just 190 carries in 2009 and is averaging 6.3 yards on his 161 carries through 12 games this season. Head coach Todd Haley has mentioned Charles' increased blocking ability as one factor in getting him on the field more, but it's going to get to the point where, blocking or not, and sharing the load with Thomas Jones or not, the idea of using Charles as a rotation back may have to go by the wayside as it did for Chris Johnson in Tennessee last year.
Like Johnson, Charles has amazing speed (4.38 at the combine) combined with pass-catching ability, surprising toughness inside, and the ability to make people look silly in short spaces. Against the Seahawks last Sunday, Charles added to a season that currently has him second in DYAR, second in Success Rate, and first in DVOA. And like Johnson, Charles is benefiting from an underrated offensive line that suits his talents very well. Specifically, the way the Chiefs' line sets up zone slides on stretch (outside zone) plays.
The stretch play is a way to use tandem blocking and running back speed to make life very hard for defenses. Most zone-blocking teams have it in common, and even teams that don't employ zone as a major part of their blocking philosophy will generally use versions of this idea (imagine bigger linemen sliding in unison, a quarterback stretching to the right for the handoff, and a halfback looking for gaps behind/outside the line) without the more advanced area-blocking involved.
Former Seahawks offensive line coach Howard Mudd -- in Seattle, we know him as the man who made sure Walter Jones came to the Emerald City -- helped make this play the staple of the Colts' running game through the last decade. You will see different variants of it per team and against different defensive fronts, but the basic idea is always the same -- to push defenders into fits that they don't want to use. The Chiefs did that to the Seahawks to the tune of 270 total rushing yards, 173 from Charles alone.
After the 42-24 beat down was in the books, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll explained why Kansas City's rushing offense is so tough to stop. "They're a very fast team, and he makes them a very fast team," Carroll said. "(Charles is) a very dangerous player; he just runs around you. He's done it to everybody in the league, all season long. We tried hard to keep the edges -- you saw us string things to the sidelines, and knock things out of bounds like we wanted to, but not enough times. If you make a mistake and duck your head inside, he gets around the edge and turns it upfield.
|Figure 1: Charles' first run (or downtown Tokyo)|
"This is kind of their bread and butter, and they feed off that, and their play passes come out of that. But it's really just about dealing with speed, and they're a nice club (with their) blocking. They do a nice job on the edges -- the tight ends did a nice job, and the tackles had a good day against us, too."
Charles' first run from scrimmage against the Seahawks (Fig. 1) was as well-coordinated and effective version of the stretch play as you will see. With 9:40 left in the first quarter, the Chiefs took the ball with first-and-10 at their own 38-yard line. I'll have to apologize in advance that the play diagram looks like a road map of Downtown Tokyo, but as with most successful zone running plays, there's a lot going on here.
The first playside block came from inside receiver Terrance Copper, who blocked nickel back Jordan Babineaux out to the sideline. The tight end then took left defensive end Raheem Brock out of his area, and right tackle Ryan O'Callaghan moved up the right side to deal with middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu. Right guard Ryan Lilja pushed lineman Jay Richardson (who is playing the three-technique in this case) to the offensive right side, and center Casey Wiegmann took out weakside linebacker Will Herring. Left guard Brian Waters dealt with nose tackle Brandon Mebane after Weigmann chipped off Mebane to head upfield. Because right defensive end Chris Clemons was pursuing the pass, left tackle Barry Richardson could ignore him and head upfield as well. Strong safety Lawyer Milloy pursued outside the right C-gap (between the tackle and tight end), effectively taking himself out of the play.
Charles took the stretch (elongated to the right side) handoff from quarterback Matt Cassel, and he was off to the races in the gap opened up between Babineaux and Brock. Herring and Babineaux eventually recovered to set after Charles, along with Marcus Trufant and free safety Earl Thomas, who came over from deep weak side to make the tackle ... 27 yards downfield.
On this particular play, the Seahawks presented some pre-snap movement, but none of the inline creativity that might counteract typical cutback zone running. The twists and stunts that might have made a difference against most offenses was rendered irrelevant by the seamless combination of Charles' breakaway speed and Kansas City's airtight blocking. The Chiefs have an array of personnel sets that work well for their offense -- they run a lot of two-tight end sets, six-offensive line personnel, and receivers in motion to reveal coverage -- but this zone slide is very clearly their star play with their star player, and it's a real problem for any team facing it.
As Aaron pointed out in last week's Numbers Crunching for ESPN.com, the one hole in Green Bay's highly ranked pass defense is its ability to cover tight ends. You'd assume that against the Atlanta Falcons, the Pack would see a heavy diet of Tony Gonzalez, who's been a bit of a forgotten man this season, what with Roddy White getting so many of Matt Ryan's passes. The Great Gonzo ranks fourth among tight ends in catches, but he's on pace to finish the season with his first yards-per-catch average under 10 yards, and his YPC has decreased in each of the last five seasons. That may be a function of the fact that Ryan now has a more diverse palette when it's time to go deep, but against the Packers, we saw that offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey is using Gonzalez in some different ways.
Gonzalez caught each of his six targets in the game, but his two red-zone targets were most interesting from a formation perspective. The first (Fig. 2) came with 12 seconds left in the first half; a four-yard touchdown that broke a 3-3 tie. In this play, the Falcons seemed to take a page from Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy and his penchant for creative red-zone formation concepts. Of course, creative isn't always good, especially on "... and goal-to-go," but this example was very effective in taking attention off Matt Ryan's primary target.
|Figure 2: Gonzalez's touchdown catch|
The Falcons lined up in trips right with Roddy White, Harry Douglas, and Michael Jenkins from left to right, and Gonzalez on the other side. Green Bay countered with a nickel defense, which also would have befitted the Falcons had they opted to go with a pitch right to Michael Turner. But in this case, the plan was to get coverage off the strong side and have Gonzalez use his legendary ability to get free in tight windows. At the snap, White went straight up on Charles Woodson, Douglas went toward the middle on Charlie Peprah, and Jenkins took safety Sam Shields to the sideline.
Gonzalez ran a quick up-and-out look, but he broke back inside, taking a hard cut the other way. He shot between linebacker Desmond Bishop (who was dropping back from a moving blitz look) and safety Nick Collins, and headed toward the goalpost. Linebacker A.J. Hawk had his eyes on the three-receiver set, which cleared the middle for the catch. This reminded me a bit of what the Steelers have been doing with their bunch formation stuff recently. They're more prone to use bunch to focus coverage and run different short-to-medium option routes to the single receiver on the other side.
|Figure 3: Gonzalez in motion|
I also liked what the Falcons did with Gonzalez on the first play of the fourth quarter. It was a third-and-goal from the Green Bay 1-yard line, and Gonzalez was originally lined up in the halfback position of an offset-I, with Michael Turner as the fullback. Pre-snap, Gonzo motioned outside inline tight end Justin Peelle, which got Hawk, Bishop, and Peprah moving to that side. Bishop seemed to focus in on Turner -- he may have been awaiting the fullback blast that would seem a smart play in that circumstance -- but Gonzalez upped the ante at the snap by running an out route as the same time that Peelle's straight route took Hawk out of the play.
From there, it was up to Bishop and Peprah to catch up to Gonzalez at the sideline, They couldn't do so for the catch, but they managed to keep him out of the end zone. But Turner scored on the next play.
Conditioned as we are to see beyond the record to more illustrative and predictive factors, we look at the 9-2 Falcons with a tempered view. They're ninth in DVOA, have a pass defense is generally a problem (except, ironically, against tight ends), and their 7.2 Expected Wins tell a different story. Still, they pass the eye test in a lot of ways, and they've got the second-easiest schedule from a DVOA slant through the last five weeks of the season. Their offense is explosive, consistent and diverse, and Tony Gonzalez is a key to that in ways we may not have seen from him in previous years.
9 comments, Last at 02 Dec 2010, 2:04pm by Doug Farrar