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27 Oct 2010

Cover-2: Hidden Gems

by Doug Farrar

Stone Cold Bush

In his estimable 10-year NFL career, Drew Brees has had two different four-interception games. The first came on September 24, 2007, against a Tennessee Titans defense that finished first in DVOA against the pass that season. The second time? Last Sunday, against a Cleveland Browns defense that ranks 24th, even after the effort. Saints fans can only hope that Brees' four-pick day in a 30-17 loss will be the worst part of a season in which the team's formerly diverse and ruthlessly efficient offense has been tripping all over itself. Brees has never been an interception machine, but the next pick he throws in 2010 will match last year's total of 11. Last year, Brees ranked fourth in DYAR and third in DVOA. He's at fourth and ninth, respectively, in 2010, but the team's passing offense DVOA has dropped from fifth to 14th, and the dynamism seems to be gone. An offense that featured a great deal of formation diversity is far more static --- the Saints seem to like the same approximate percentage of twins and trips, but one factor is clearly missing from that formula.

When Reggie Bush went down in the second game of the season with a fractured fibula, everything changed. The offense designed so painstakingly and to such great effect by head coach Sean Payton is keyed on the relationship between routes run out of the backfield, and various motions to the line via various changing receiver groups. Bush has never lived up to expectations from a statistical standpoint -- you generally want more out of a second-overall pick than the numbers he's put up to date -- but there are instances in which players provide extremely high value from a playbook perspective that aren't represented in their numbers.

I had my own ideas about what Bush meant to that offense, and what his absence has done to it, but I decided to get an expert's take. So, it was back to the well with Friend of FO Greg Cosell, the Executive Producer of ESPN's NFL Matchup show. I shared my theory that without Bush as the main moving part, the Saints' offense had no equivalent weapon.

"Their whole offense is based on what we call 'receiver distribution and location,'" Cosell told me. "How many receivers are on each side of the formation, and who those receivers are. Because that's what dictates how defenses play. And Reggie Bush presents a burden to a defense in terms of how they choose to match up with receiver distribution and location. Without Bush, the Saints are limited in their formation usage. They were probably the offense that had the most formation usage of any team in football. But I also think it's how teams react. There was an incompletion against the Browns -- I believe it was on the second series, and they played two-man and matched up Ladell Betts with a linebacker in Scott Fujita. And by the way, they were playing dime, so they matched up their sixth defensive back to Jeremy Shockey. And that's a perfect example. Would a team match up a linebacker in man coverage on Reggie Bush?"

The assumption: "Not for long."

Of the four picks Brees threw on Sunday, only the fourth showed any semblance of pre-snap motion or formations intended to spread a defense out. It seems far more obvious this year that defenses can line up against the Saints without the fear of having their initial reads blow up in their faces. That's the inevitable product of personnel sets that dictate a more limited offensive flexibility.

"One crucial defensive concept, especially when you're playing zone defense, is to understand routes and route combinations, based on distribution and location," Cosell said. "Because the Saints are more limited in that without Bush, I think teams have a much better feel for what routes are coming, based on the alignment of the receivers. And I think that the Browns, just to use the most recent example, did an unbelievable job of that. They were very willing to jump intermediate routes, and they sat on a lot of those. Brees is a timing thrower -- he takes his shots to be sure, but it's a three-step, five-step passing game. And what the Browns did really well is that they won early in the down. They took away those quick timing throws, and that's when the Saints' offensive line, which is not very good on the outside with Jermon Bushrod and Jon Stinchcomb, gets exposed."

After reviewing this game and the four picks specifically for Scout.com's Cleveland Browns site, I'm convinced that as much as "enemy intel" is an overcooked concept when a player faces a former team, there's something to the way the Browns had a bead on what Brees and the Saints' offense were doing that speaks to Cleveland (former New Orleans) linebacker Scott Fujita's expertise on the subject. Brees and Fujita played together from 2006 through 2009, and his interception early in the second quarter (Fig. 1) may have revealed some of those tells.

Figure 1: Fujita's interception

The Saints had second-and-7 from the Cleveland 11-yard line, and they lined up in shotgun and a tight bunch right. Cleveland responded with a four-man front with two deep safeties and tight cornerback coverage. But the interesting move here happened before the snap, when Fujita (99) directed right defensive end Kenyon Coleman (90) into an intermediate drop. The Browns then closed ranks in a three-man line, and Coleman's positioning allowed Fujita to cover the left flat as running back Ladell Betts ran a flare route to the weak side. Fujita was able to jump the route and pick the ball intended for Betts because he knew the middle zone was covered.

The Browns used the same basic idea on the second of two picks by linebacker David Bowens. With 3:49 left in the game, the Browns had cornerback Mike Adams drop back from a 3-3 stack, and Bowens read Brees on the underneath route when he tried to get a quick pass to Betts. It's pretty clear on these types of patterns that the Saints are scheming for a man who isn't there; Bush's speed to the flats and seams, and his quickness in short areas, are not easily replaced -- or replaced at all.

"It's an incredibly scheme-based offense, and when elements of that scheme are taken away, it becomes easier to defend," Cosell said. "The Saints can't just line up and say, 'Our guys are going to win.'"

I mentioned the fake sweep that the Saints love to run when Bush is on the field. The threat of Bush possibly taking a run wide one way or the other takes linebackers and safeties away from their assignments. I also think that Bush presents Payton with an equivalent decoy in the passing game when he moves up from the backfield and hits those short routes -- perhaps a slightly devolved version of what Marshall Faulk did for the "Greatest Show on Turf" Rams as a running back/receiver hybrid.

"Absolutely true," Cosell said. "Bush takes coverage with him, and it's always underneath coverage, so you have a passing window opening up. That's what a Lance Moore or a Marques Colston needs, because they're underneath receivers. They're not deep guys. So, Bush absolutely ... I mean, I can think of a couple of examples in the Minnesota game where Bush moved coverage just by what he did. And those will not be big plays -- maybe a 12-yard pass -- but that's what the Saints' offense is. It's a sustaining offense where every once in a while, they'll hit you with their vertical seams. That's a clear foundation of what they do."

I asked Greg if fixing that offense is as simple as welcoming Bush back to the lineup (as the Saints are hoping to do in time for their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday), or if there are other factors at play.

"I don't think it's ever that simple when you're not playing well," he said. "You don't just snap your fingers and go back. Bush does give them opportunities and options they clearly don't have now. But even the interception Brees threw to Fujita in the red zone, not the Bowens stuff -- he and Betts were clearly not on the same page. Betts stuck his foot in the ground as if he was going inside, and that's when Brees threw the ball. He got what he thought was the indicator for the route, and then went outside. That kind of stuff wouldn't happen with Bush, because they've played together much longer. I mean, Betts has been there for three or four weeks.

"But I can tell you this from Ron Jaworski -- going into the Monday Night Football games, when they have the Saints, the first thing defensive coordinators bring up is Bush. Obviously, the numbers aren't any good for fantasy people, but that's not what we're talking about here. We're talking about how defenses structure, and what they do based on Reggie Bush."

Cosell also wanted to make it clear that this season has not changed his positive take on Payton and Brees. It's far more that people have been underestimating Bush's value because the numbers don't show it. "Oh, I think he's terrific," he said of Payton as a play-caller. "Over the last couple of years, there hasn't been anybody better at utilizing personnel. And I don't want this to come out the wrong way, but I don't think they have a 'big-time' receiver on that team. So, I think he's done an unbelievable job of maximizing the personnel he has. And a lot of it comes back to Brees, because Brees has a ton of freedom at the line of scrimmage.

Figure 2: Saints' first offensive play

"You know, we live in such an immediate-gratification world, people forget how great Brees has been just because he hasn't played that well recently. He's so good at the line of scrimmage, getting everyone into the right protections and moving people around to dictate matchups. But Bush is a big part of that. It's simple stuff, too. Let's say Bush is lined up in the backfield, and all of a sudden, you split him out. Who goes with him?"

That is the question. In fact, New Orleans' first offensive play of the 2010 regular season (Fig. 2) was the one that looked most like the scores that peppered the Super Bowl year. In a shotgun two-back set, Bush forced Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield to stay down in short coverage as Bush bounced into the right hash area, which left linebacker E.J. Henderson to try to catch up with Marques Colston on a 28-yard pass play up the middle. In the post-Bush offense, that backfield-to-downfield threat is a non-factor -- and that's what we saw in the loss to the Browns. Betts, and Chris Ivory, and even Pierre Thomas when he's healthy, can't do those things.

Diamonds and Rust

In this week's Audibles at the Line, we brought up the increased use of the "diamond" formation, in which a fourth receiver is added to the back of the traditional bunch route. The Seahawks, Patriots, and Vikings have run it this season, and the Vikings used it twice in their Sunday night 28-24 loss to the Packers. Generally speaking, the idea behind this formation has been to clear out deeper coverage and leave one of the four receivers at or near the line for a quick receiver screen. But on the first of three Brett Favre interceptions in that game, all four receivers took off into different deeper routes.

Figure 3: Brett Favre INT off Diamond

On the play (Fig. 3), the Packers kept two safeties deep -- one for the formation, and one for Randy Moss on the other side. Minnesota had a nice route combo drawn up, but the Vikings ran into an unforeseen problem: Green Bay defended this perfectly. It's clear that right after he takes the shotgun snap, Favre is looking to the right side to see how everything develops.

But when linebacker Desmond Bishop (55) came up to re-route the top receiver outside, and then hung back to prevent Favre from hitting that quick first read, everything fell apart for No. 4. Given time in the pocket, Favre waited for Bernard Berrian to run the deep cross, but A.J. Hawk (50) easily jumped that route. The genius of the coverage was that defensive coordinator Dom Capers drew up his own little diamond to counteract what the Vikings were doing, and everyone ran their assignments to perfection.

Quad and diamond stack formations are used in college football to greater effect, and I'd be curious to see NFL teams run different styles of quad stuff (trips instead of bunch with an extra free or stacked receiver) in different ways. I would like to be able to diagram some different four-cluster receiver sets later in the season as these concepts take hold.

Posted by: Doug Farrar on 27 Oct 2010

26 comments, Last at 29 Oct 2010, 5:56pm by Arkaein

Comments

1
by Dean :: Wed, 10/27/2010 - 3:26pm

I think that a lot of people don't appreciate Reggie Bush because he doesn't produce gaudy statistics (largely because while he can certainly catch, he's extremely limited taking a handoff).

A lot of people don't appreciate him because his performance doesn't live up to his draft position.

As for me, I think I don't appreciate him because he's shown himself to be a douchebag.

5
by Joseph :: Wed, 10/27/2010 - 4:05pm

Hey Dean, you want to elaborate on that last statement?

If you're talking about his time at USC, I understand and agree--he did some stupid things and was lucky to get away with it for a time. [BTW, I think you can see how he has matured by his decision to return the Heisman when he was never made to. Maybe it was just a public image thing, but he still did it.]
If you're talking about his time with the Saints, you're dead wrong. He has done a lot for some different schools/charities in the area, and I don't think I've ever heard a teammate speak badly of him. Does he seem to "try harder" in the nationally telecast games? Yeah, but who doesn't? He isn't Owens, Moss, Ochocino, or even close. I can tell you that the media makes more of Bush than he does. I don't think I've heard ANYTHING out of him since his injury.

6
by Dean :: Wed, 10/27/2010 - 4:17pm

I didn't elaborate on it because I've discussed it at length recently and didn't really feel like going into detail it over and over again.

Short version - he strikes me as shallow and materialistic. He compeltely screwed over USC. And I don't think for a second that he cares about the city of New Orleans. The proverbail "bullshit detector" goes haywire on him. He strikes me (and this is an impression, not something I would pretend to support with facts) as the type of guy who makes sure the cameras are rolling whenever he does any charitable work.

If you want more depth, I'll refer you to the recent thread on USCs sanctions.

There are certainly worse people on the planet then him, but that doesn't mean I have to be a fan of his.

20
by dansvirsky :: Wed, 10/27/2010 - 6:28pm

I went to the comments section of the USC sanctions article but didn't see any comments by you. Can you post a link?

2
by Cincy Saint (not verified) :: Wed, 10/27/2010 - 3:44pm

I think it's clear to Payton based on his public comments that he realizes the value that Bush brings to the Saints offense. Now if only the fans would listen.

3
by trill :: Wed, 10/27/2010 - 3:51pm

Why don't NFL teams (or college teams, for that matter) go empty more often, or diversify their play selection out of empty sets? If my QB isn't a 41-year old statue I've got five blockers on four linemen and no defenders shallow on the weakside.

Empty seems like it'd be an especially effective tactic for spread teams that have red zone/short yardage trouble. If you're running out of vertical space, empty > goalline set for a team with spread personnel.

4
by Dean :: Wed, 10/27/2010 - 4:01pm

For the same reason you rarely see gimmick formations and rarely see passing out of unbalanced lines. You give up the edge.

If a DE is lined up off the TE, he's a step or two further away from the QB than if he's off the DEs shoulder. Even if he steps inside and plays a 5 technique, the TE can still chip him, or flat out double team him. Even keeping in a back allows you to chip and/or pick him up if he beats his man.

DEs are simply that much better players at the pro level. 90% the college DEs are going to finish school and move on with their lives. In the NFL, they all have that explosive first step where if you put them one on one with a tackle, you'd better have a REALLY good OT or you're getting your QB killed.

7
by Formersd (not verified) :: Wed, 10/27/2010 - 4:18pm

There is also the fact that Pro QBs are usually selected based on their ability to throw the ball very well while a college QB can be very effective running the ball. Less Athletic Defensive Ends & More Athletic QBs makes for a very different set of possibilities for empty backfield type offenses than you'll see in most NFL games.

12
by Alaska Jack :: Wed, 10/27/2010 - 5:16pm

Dean, I will certainly concede that this is the conventional wisdom.

I personally don't think the conventional wisdom is correct, for reasons that I detail in this old thread

http://www.footballoutsiders.com/strategy-minicamps/2006/passing-game-iv...

(spread out among several posts; just search for "Alaska")

My conclusions are largely based off a Sporting News article I read toward the tail end of the Run and Shoot era. It said that R&S QBs had missed no more games to injury than pro-set QBs. Fewer, in fact -- IIRC, the only serious injury was to Chris Miller, and he was injured on a freak play in which he was untouched.

Sorry I don't have the cite.

Just something to ponder.

- Alaska Jack

13
by tuluse :: Wed, 10/27/2010 - 5:22pm

Just ask Erik Kramer about the health consequences of R&S.

15
by Alaska Jack :: Wed, 10/27/2010 - 5:40pm

He would probably say something about the two major injuries he suffered -- one with the Bears, the other with the Chargers.

Unless you mean Rodney Peete? From what I can tell, he did suffer a season-ending injury while playing in 1991. I don't know much about it, except that this article

http://articles.latimes.com/1992-07-26/sports/sp-5296_1_rodney-peete

says

"Aside from the hamstring and thigh bruise, the injuries were freakish."

- AJ

17
by tuluse :: Wed, 10/27/2010 - 5:46pm

He was injured while playing for the Lions in both 92 and 93. Also, he replaced QBs who were injured all 3 years.

19
by Alaska Jack :: Wed, 10/27/2010 - 5:50pm

OK. His bio doesn't mention that. Out of curiosity, I was trying to find the TSN article I noted. Looks like it's not available online.

Bottom line, I'd love to see some data on games lost to injury, spread vs pro-set.

- AJ

22
by trill :: Thu, 10/28/2010 - 11:11am

No one said anything about getting rid of the TE, but that's not really relevant to my question since the TE doesn't line up in the backfield. Nor would I advise running a slow-developing pass play without a hot read, which is what the Vikings did. Berrian's route should have been a drag underneath the zone, not a deep cross.

There are just too many variables to protection to say that you MUST have a potential blocker in the backfield, especially if you overload one side of the field with receivers. The defense is going to have to give you numbers in one direction or another. If your QB can run as well as Aaron Rodgers, for example, you've got the choice of throwing the WR screen, QB draw, or even running power left if you've got a bigger QB.

I realize all this is much, much more applicable to the college game, but I wouldn't call it a gimmick. Seems like it could be an effective short yardage tactic at any level of play. If you need one yard, and you intend to get it from plowing forward, why would you limit yourself to one launch point when you've got 53 yards of field to work with?

23
by Doug Farrar :: Thu, 10/28/2010 - 11:26am

Well, the Patriots occasionally use a fourth receiver split wide outside of bunch, or a slot inside of trips, and one of those four receivers (usually WELKAH!!!) will run that quick inside route (drag or cross). At that point, it's up to Brady to see if he's got enough time to scout exploitable matchups downfield, and he's still got that quick bailout under zone. I agree that with a line exhibiting questionable pass-blocking as Minnesota's does, four slower-developing routes (and Moss heading downfield on the other side) doesn't seem like the best possible plan.

EDIT: At least, the Pats did that last year. I don't know how that might manifest itself in their new TE-centric concepts.

25
by commissionerleaf :: Fri, 10/29/2010 - 11:40am

Yeah, I think the short comeback route was the guy who needed to run the drag, not Berrian.

8
by tuluse :: Wed, 10/27/2010 - 4:19pm

You want to see a lot of empty sets and how they can be detrimental to an offense? Just watch the Bears.

21
by bubqr :: Thu, 10/28/2010 - 5:03am

Empty ?? Empty ? Empty is evil dude.

9
by tuluse :: Wed, 10/27/2010 - 4:22pm

It's pretty weak that Berrian can't get open against a linebacker.

Is he just getting old and slower, what's going on with him? It seems like he is by far the weak link in the Viking's offense.

14
by Theo :: Wed, 10/27/2010 - 5:32pm

The saying goes like 'even a blind pig can find a truffle now and then' but I'm pretty sure they use their nose for it...
Anyway. Berrian is useless. I could do what he does. I could find a hole in a zone and catch a ball every other game. Really.
What his problem is? I don't know. No-connection-with-HWSNBN-itis?

26
by Arkaein :: Fri, 10/29/2010 - 5:56pm

Berrian's no great WR now (if he ever was), but the real problem on that play is that by the time Berrian was getting open Favre was under heavy pressure because he had no extra blockers, leading to an off-balance, off-target pass.

It's driven me nuts to see how often the Packers have gone empty set this season on 3rd and about 7 yards or more. On 3rd and short going empty works great with an accurate, quick release QB because if the D brings unblocked rushers off the edge the QB can identify the holes pre-snap and hit the hot read for the 1st down.

However, on longer yardage this same action from the D can force the same short completion, leading to a 4th down. This happened a few times in the Bears game. If GB had lined up 4-wide with a blocking back they have a chance to pick up any blitz and hit a longer 10-15 yard pass.

Empty set passing formations have their place, but anyone who depends on them for running even intermediate routes needs to reexamine their play calling.

10
by Chris Owen (not verified) :: Wed, 10/27/2010 - 4:30pm

I like the extended version best. Link in name.

11
by Doug Farrar :: Wed, 10/27/2010 - 4:42pm

Ah, yes. You must be a big fan of "The Ballad of Jimi Hendrix," too.

24
by zenbitz :: Thu, 10/28/2010 - 1:20pm

"he's dead".

Ah, the Stormtroopers of Death. Fond memories of high school. Wait, wut?

16
by sundown (not verified) :: Wed, 10/27/2010 - 5:42pm

"Their whole offense is based on what we call 'receiver distribution and location,'" Cosell told me.

Good enough article, but that line is just a tad self-important. "We" call it that? The phrase is self-explanatory and plain English...that's what every fan would call it. A fourth grader could read that phrase and know exactly what it meant. It's not some scientific term that only the people in a PhD program would recognize.

18
by tuluse :: Wed, 10/27/2010 - 5:48pm

I'm guessing like most things in football there are 3 or 4 terms that refer to the same thing. He was actually being humble essentially saying that if you've heard it called something else, that's fine.