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?
29 Sep 2010
By Doug Farrar
One of the most important edicts at Football Outsiders is that we do not share a hive mind. That applies to what we see in the stats and what shows up on tape, and it definitely applies to preseason predictions. Having spent the first third of this year's St. Louis Rams chapter in Football Outsiders Almanac 2010 explaining the statistical funkiness that prompted the exceedingly positive projection last year ... well, you will excuse me if I wasn't drinking the barbecue sauce with this year's exceedingly positive projection for the Kansas City Chiefs. As much as that projection reflected a decline for the San Diego Chargers and perhaps a division win by default, I didn't think the Chiefs had that much going for them. But here they stand at 3-0, with the second-best DVOA in the NFL, and playoff odds that are absolutely off the hook. This time, the shoe seems to fit.
One of the few established bastions of excellence on the Chiefs' roster before this year was cornerback Brandon Flowers, whom Kansas City took in the second round of the 2008 draft after he excelled at Virginia Tech. He gained a reputation for playing bigger than you'd expect at 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, and this has transferred to his NFL career. In his rookie season, he ranked third in the league among qualifying defensive backs in Adjusted Yards per Pass and 17th in Success Rate. He picked up 35 Stops, 16 Defeats, 11 passes defensed, and two interceptions. Those got a lot of attention, coming as they did against the Jets and some guy named Brett Favre ... and one of them was a 91-yard pick-six.
That said, Flowers was just warming up. Through he played through a shoulder injury in 2009, he upped his interception total to five and his passes defensed to 19. This was also despite serious issues at the safety position and a non-existent pass rush. Two new faces -- defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and first-round safety Eric Berry -- came on board to help, and so far, the results have been tremendous. I spoke to Flowers recently about Kansas City's hot start, and I asked him to sum up the personalities and philosophies of the three different defensive coordinators who have helped him to this point.
"Gunther (Cunningham) was a really intense guy -- he also coached the linebackers, and he was a hard-nosed, old-school coach who prepared you physically and mentally for the game," Flowers said. "He was a real hands-on guy, being in your face and getting you coached up and fired up. Clancy Pendergast brought the 3-4 in -- more of a finesse defense that put pressure on quarterbacks. Clancy was a laid-back type of guy, but well-respected. When he spoke, everybody listened. His approach was to blitz a lot of linebackers to get that pressure.
"Romeo is a player's coach. He's always laughing and joking around. He's not too different on the back end (coverage concepts), but it's just a different overall scheme to get pressure. He focuses on the entire defense, which makes it great for those guys who haven't played for him before, and the ones just coming in."
I then asked Flowers to take me through his reads and the coverage concepts, on the second interception touchdown of his career, which came in Week 2 against the Cleveland Browns. My impression was that the Browns and quarterback Seneca Wallace were dusting off a route combo out of the West Coast playbook Wallace used to thumb through when he and Browns president Mike Holmgren were in Seattle.
The pick came with 10:11 left in the first half, and this seemed on the surface to be more a matter of bad mechanics than bad decision-making. The Seneca Wallace I saw in Seattle was not a quarterback who could afford to make off-balance throws -- as long as he was either safe in the pocket or rolling out (where he's probably at his best), things were going to be OK. But he's not a quarterback like Philip Rivers or Jay Cutler, who can consistently make great throws out of ugly stances.
|Figure 1: Seneca Wallace Interception|
On the play (Fig. 1), the Chiefs appeared to line up in a two-deep, man-under look with Flowers (24) on Brian Robiskie (80). The important aspect of the interception was how well Flowers played Robiskie at first, and then how he shifted his attention to receiver Chansi Stuckey (83), who ran a short sideline route out of the slot. Flowers handed Robiskie off to the safety Eric Berry, eyed Wallace all the way, and jumped the route for the touchdown. This is a staple route combination for any offense -- using a wideout to clear a tight cornerback for a shorter slot receiver's gain -- but it's rendered null and void when the cornerback in question can read the play as well as Flowers does in this case.
It's clear that Wallace's throw was odd. After a dropback and a quick fake upfield, he sort of side-armed the ball to Stuckey, and aside from a short headfake, he was telegraphing it. He appeared to be off balance on the throw, didn't throw the ball right where Stuckey was, and presented an easy opportunity for the interception.
That was my perception. The reality came from Flowers.
"We actually switched to a zone type of defense," he said. "(Defensive backs coach) Emmitt Thomas does a great job preparing us week in, week out. The idea, like you said, was to clear out the corner and dump off to the flat so that the receiver can make a gain of about five to 10 yards. I got a good jam on Robiskie, and handed him off to Eric Berry, who's over the top. I'm reading the No. 2 receiver (Stuckey) the whole time. I see him come to the flat, Wallace is winding up to throw the ball, and I made the play."
Flowers told me that although Wallace did telegraph the throw, the real key was how the Chiefs disguised the coverage. "The pre-snap read was that we were going to be in some type of man defense," Flowers said. "He thought it would be cleared out on that play, and I dropped back like I was going to play off-man. Eric Berry did a great job on that play; coming up and making it look like a box-and-one. Once the ball was snapped, Eric dropped back deep, and we basically switched roles. (Wallace) thought it would be wide open in the flat, and it wasn't."
Flowers has the rare combination of situation awareness, ridiculous athleticism, and "right place/right time" sense common to the best at his position. If he isn't around the top of that list just yet, it seems a matter of time the more you watch him play. After the Chiefs took it to the 49ers in Week 3, San Francisco's Alex Smith would probably agree.
One thing that's been reinforced when I talk to players about strategy is that designating a defense as this or that with some sort of definitive stamp is generally a huge mistake. These things go deeper than I could have imagined just a few years ago. Players (well, players not named Albert Haynesworth) think about far more than 3-4/4-3, zone or man, how much they're targeted, or whether their coordinator likes to blitz a lot -- that's only the beginning.
For the Indianapolis Colts and cornerback Jerraud Powers, the beginning of the 2010 season was anything but auspicious. Indy gave up 257 yards on the ground, allowed the Houston Texans to reverse the longstanding spell the Colts had held over them, made Arian Foster a household name, and presented the franchise's worst run defense in a single game since the 2006 season. Of course, the Colts won the Super Bowl that season.
Back then, Powers was an up-and-coming cornerback at Auburn, trying to make a name for himself, eventually being named to the SEC All-Freshman team. After a dynamite rookie season in which he teamed up with fellow rookie "Who dat?" cornerback Jacob Lacey and new defensive coordinator Larry Coyer to help redefine the Colts' defense, 2010 began with that quick trip into a deep hole. Having detailed how it happened two weeks ago with Texans tackle Eric Winston, I now asked Powers what he saw, and how his team recovered.
"They had it schemed pretty well, but we also made a lot of mistakes on defense," Powers said. "Not to take away from anything they did -- they had a good game plan and they executed it -- but we made a ton of mistakes in that game. It was basic stuff -- staying in your gaps and little things like that.
"Our scheme is not designed for one specific group to make any more tackles than any other. In that first week, it was more about guys trying to do too much, instead of staying home and focusing on our responsibilities. When you play like that, you're going to leave holes in gaps."
Against the Giants in Manning Bowl II the next week, the Colts allowed 5.2 yards per carry on 17 carries from Ahmad Bradshaw. The most effective element of their run defense was probably an offense that had hung a 24-0 score on New York by halftime. Though the G-Men were running effectively, they only did so 12 times in the second half.
"We really didn't focus more than we had before -- our guys were just more gap-sound and more focused on their responsibilities," Power said. "Not trying to do something out of the ordinary -- we did the exact same things during the week of the Texans game."
That said, it definitely seemed that the Colts were playing tighter to the line with their front seven early on. Even safety Antoine Bethea was spying the ball on the Giants' first play from scrimmage, a two-yard run by receiver Mario Manningham that Bethea came all the way across the field to stop. When the defense backed off a bit in the second drive, the Giants ran pitches and sweeps outside to take advantage. Gap responsibility was more evident than it had been in the Texans game, but this line is still built to get pushed around. It happened against zone blocking, and it happened against a far more "traditional" blocking unit. It's just not the concern to the Colts that it would or should be to other teams, because there are other aspects that mitigate it.
In talking to Powers, I was struck by differences in defenses. It's my impression that with the Colts and other teams that frequently play no-blitz zone out of a lot of four-man fronts, the defense is about discipline and assignment-correctness and not trying to do too much, as "boring" as that sounds. Perhaps man-heavy, multiple-front defenses rely more on specifically outstanding athletic performances, though "doing your job" is still the primary focus?
Now that the Darrelle Revis Holdout Watch is over (to be replaced by the Darrelle Revis Injury Watch), the importance of the New York Jets' first-round draft pick comes into sharp focus. Kyle Wilson of Boise State was a surprise to still be on the board when the Jets picked at the 29th slot, but it was a fortuitous selection because of the Revis drama, and Antonio Cromartie picking up penalties at a rate that would have made Skip "Dr. Death" Thomas envious. Watching Wilson in Senior Bowl practices, I saw an embryonic version of the trail speed on deep routes that has made Revis famous. I asked Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com, whose eyes I trust more than most on these matters, if he saw the same thing.
"Absolutely, and in my mind, he was unquestionably the top cover corner of the 2010 draft," Rang said. "In terms of foot quickness, deep speed, and aggression -- he was very aggressive in coming up to cut off routes. And because he has legitimate 4.3/4.4 speed, it made him look that much faster on the field."
What about the intermediate slot coverage he'll most likely be asked to play when Revis and Cromartie are the lead dogs?
"I believe he can be very successful in that role, because of his quick feet," Rang said. "The one question I have is that your slot corners generally have to be tougher players, because they have offensive linemen coming up and crashing in on them a lot. That was one of the concerns about him, and why he dropped in the draft -- he‘s a cover corner, true to the definition. He's not the most physical guy when it comes to taking on blocks and things of that nature."
Teams don't select cornerbacks with their first draft picks unless there's serious starting-caliber play as part of the package (at least, teams don't do that on purpose, Tim Ruskell's history notwithstanding). With that in mind, I asked Rang if Wilson has the potential ability to play away from a teammate that opposing quarterbacks will target less and less as the legend grows. It's a kind of pressure that has eaten up some talented players (Exhibit A: DeAngelo Hall, when he was lining up alongside Nnamdi Asomugha), especially with schemes that employ a lot of man coverage.
"I think he does have the self-confidence that the great cornerbacks have," Rang said. "That's not to say that he's going to be a great cornerback, but I admire any player who comes from a supposedly smaller school, and goes on the big stage at the Senior Bowl, and raises his game that much higher. I thought he did that. In speaking to him before the draft, I think he does have the confidence to handle that situation, and I believe he has the talent. Now, if he gets torched a few times -- which, of course, he's going to -- the Jets' scheme is so aggressive, and there may be cause for concern. But of all the cornerbacks in that class, I thought he was the best fit for that team in terms of personality and physical talent. For the Jets' scheme in particular, and for the pressure of New York City. He played at Boise State, but he's a New Jersey kid."
Against the Dolphins last Sunday, Wilson didn't seem to have too many issues with the pressure that comes from tight coverage and a starting designation, but you saw where the teaching points still are. The 17-yard sideline pass to Davone Bess early in the second quarter was actually incomplete, out of bounds, as Bess had to stretch away from Wilson just to bring Chad Henne's pass in. The 'Fins hurried to the line and got away with one there. On the next play, Wilson came up in the box and helped force a Ricky Williams fumble that Williams ended up recovering. Miami went to that same sideline route to Bess on the next play -- basically a jump ball near out of bounds. This time, it worked. Near the end of that same second-quarter drive, Henne went deep to the right sideline to Brian Hartline, and Wilson got busted for a 27-yard interference call on a borderline-catchable pass because he didn't turn his head around in time.
You saw various shades of green in the second half -- Bess got another reception on Wilson in the third quarter because Wilson seemed unclear as to where he was lining up. At times, the game may get away from him, but he has the recovery speed -- literally and figuratively -- to keep it from getting too far away.
22 comments, Last at 19 Nov 2010, 7:49pm by KB