Eight weeks ago, the Vikings were undefeated and ranked No. 1 in DVOA. Now they're 6-6 and probably done. What went wrong?
10 Nov 2010
by Doug Farrar
There aren't very many moments that have me running around with a sense of absolutely unbridled excitement -- perhaps the last time this happened to me from a media perspective was when I discovered Sons of Anarchy or heard Mastodon's "Crack the Skye" for the first time. But when FO majordomo Aaron Schatz sent out an e-mail late last week to the FO crew indicating that NFL.com's NFL Game Rewind site now had a "Film Room" feature in which coach's All-22 tape was featured on certain plays ... well, I think we all had our own little Navin Johnson moment. To add overhead film in which all players in pre-snap position, running and covering all routes from start to finish, would be to provide the Holy Grail to all football nerds who seek to make sense of TV tape without access to those more comprehensive views.
Unfortunately, the Holy Grail right now is more of a Holy Sippy Cup, since only a handful of plays in each game have coaches film provided on Game Rewind. Still, while Aaron is busy lobbying the league to put up "Film Room" for every single play, we can at least use this tool to investigate one of the more interesting stories of the 2010 NFL campaign: Where did this new, more disciplined version of Tramon Williams come from?
In 2009, the Green Bay Packers cornerback earned the nickname "Admiral Armbar" for his penalty-filled play. He racked up 124 penalty yards (second-highest in the NFL behind Seahawks cornerback Marcus Trufant) on six flags, and really gunked it up in a Week 13 game against the Baltimore Ravens -- three pass interference calls, and 106 penalty yards. It seems that the 2010 version of our good Admiral is a very different player. Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt put it succinctly in a recent Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article about Williams' possible upcoming contract extension: "Show me a corner having a better year," Whitt said. "Name one. At the corner position, he's outplayed all of them."
According to that same article (written by the outstanding Bob McGinn), Williams has given up one play of 20 yards or more, no touchdown passes, and one penalty. Whitt said that recent decisions to put Williams on Brandon Marshall and Randy Moss are the result of asking Charles Woodson to blitz more because of the team's injury-depleted front seven, but "the only reason we're allowed to do that is Tramon can cover anybody's No. 1 (receiver)."
The Film Room segments for Week 9 weren't up in time for this piece, and the work Green Bay's defense did against a Jon Kitna-led passing attack (if you want to call it that) in the 45-7 loss that led to the end of the Wade Phillips era wouldn't really represent a true challenge. With that in mind, I went back to a few recent instances in which Williams was the (or a) main man.
The first thing that stood out to me about Williams' overall play was his exceptional closing discipline on short passes. Not so much closing speed -- it's easy enough to understand how that can be an overrated attribute when you watch fast corners overrun tackles -- but the ability to step into the route established by an offensive player who has just caught a short pass. This did show up in the Dallas game as well and didn't require All-22 to see. When Jason Witten ran a flare out of a fullback position, or when Dez Bryant caught a bubble screen near the line of scrimmage, Williams would adjust immediately and make tackling his priority. Sounds obvious, but again, when you see enough cornerbacks, you know that it isn't. He's one of the best in the league at taking a juke move in space and refusing to allow additional yardage.
|Figure 1: Tramon Williams' Interception|
Williams' interception of a Mark Sanchez pass in the Pack's Week 8 win over the Jets was another example of his short-area skill. With 4:54 left on the first half, the Jets went three-wide, and Green Bay responded with a 3-3 nickel defense with a deep safety and some interesting blitz concepts (Fig. 1). Linebackers Brandon Chillar and A.J. Hawk moved up to the line pre-snap, leaving Clay Matthews as the only man at his position in space.
Matthews crashed through right guard at the snap on a loop blitz that LaDainian Tomlinson picked up. Mark Sanchez then had enough time to hit Jerricho Cotchery on a quick route in which Cotchery took five steps and made a sharp dig move inside. Such routes are better in exploiting off-coverage than the man looks given by the Green Bay secondary, but Williams' technique still made the difference. He slanted inside with the route, moved into inside position when Cotchery's attempt to flick him away gave him an opening, got his hands on the ball, and wrestled it away from the receiver. This was a good example of how Williams now avoids the early shot (and subsequent penalty) by using timing, read skills, and better technique. The Jets challenged that Williams got the ball from Cotchery before both players hit the ground, but simultaneous possession is not reviewable (of course), and it looked to me as if the ball started to come loose just before that happened. The play was upheld in a rare good call from Jeff Triplette's crew.
Against the slightly more dynamic Vikings passing attack in Week 7, Williams appeared to be fooled a couple of times on route concepts involving Moss. But one play in particular was the result of a schematic opening, and it showed me just how much defensive coordinator Dom Capers trusts Williams at this point -- we're back to the trust Coach Whitt discussed in that article. With 12:38 left in the first half, Moss started outside right and moved near Percy Harvin's slot position pre-snap.
At the snap, Harvin ran a deep seam route, and Moss executed a little in-and-out route (what looked like an option route), catching the ball under Williams' coverage for a 13-yard gain. The interesting part of this play was Charles Woodson's corner blitz. He moved off slot coverage up to the line, which led to revolving coverage from deep safety to intermediate coverage on Williams' side from safety Charlie Peprah, and a deeper zone look on Harvin from safety Nick Collins. You can see Woodson and Williams pointing out different coverage assignments pre-snap, and I'm thinking that Williams was directed to drop off from tighter zone coverage when Woodson stepped up to blitz.
Favre's second of three second-half picks was a direct result of Williams' ability to trail a receiver down the sideline. As linebacker Desmond Bishop ran with Moss to the left out of the left slot, Williams kept one eye on Moss' destination and another on fullback Toby Gerhart, who lined up wide and ran deep. Favre started a pass to the deep route, but he pulled it in and waited for what he thought was a wide-open Moss in the flat. Bishop came up with the pick. This was an epic fail on the Vikings' part -- the decision to put Gerhart wide and Moss in the slot is probably a terminable offense. The lack of effort Moss showed in coming back to the ball is something that Vince Young should note.
Over and over, the thing that impressed me most about Williams this season was the "right place, right time" concept. He seems to understand and thrive in Capers' more aggressive and varied defense than he did in 2009.
It's sometimes difficult to explain the value of a player, even with traditional and advanced statistics. It's often takes a player's absence to tells us how valuable he really is. Consider the case of Peyton Hillis. The 2008 seventh-round pick of the Denver Broncos, traded to the Browns by Josh McDaniels in March of 2010 with draft picks for (snicker) Brady Quinn, currently has more rushing yards, more 100-yard rushing games, and more rushing touchdowns, than the entire Denver Broncos team.
We can talk about the fact that he put up the third-best Total DYAR among all Week 9 running backs, but it's just as easy to say that the team Hillis left greatly misses him. And the team that currently has him wouldn't be the NFL's most dangerous sub-500 team -- and that's not a pejorative term when you beat the Saints and Patriots in consecutive games -- without him.
In the Browns' 34-14 thrashing of the Pats last Sunday, Hillis didn't just score two touchdowns and 184 yards on 29 carries, he also had just one negative play. Of the 29 times he took the ball, he failed to get back to the line of scrimmage or create yardage just once. That's expected of a 6-foot-1, 240-pound cement mixer, but you didn't see the fossilized version of Jamal Lewis doing this kind of stuff. Hillis' secret weapon is an agility that completely belies his appearance and renders the inevitable Larry Csonka and Mike Alstott comparisons utterly meaningless. Hillis can bull through any front line, but he's a different breed of cat, and his 35-yard touchdown run with 2:47 left in the game (Fig. 2) showed his burst after handoff as well as anything he's done this year.
|Figure 1: Hillis' Touchdown Run|
Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has been able to put Hillis in a lot of positive situations. This was a two-tight end formation with both tight ends stacked right, and an offset-I right with fullback Lawrence Vickers, who is on a short list of the NFL's best blocking fullbacks. The blocking was superlative -- from the two tight ends crunching inside, to the slide protection to the left, to the two key blocks on the play, Vickers on Pats safety Josh Barrett (36) and Eric Steinbach's pull block on safety Brandon Meriweather (31). It was a functional and schematic win before the handoff, and you can see the influence of Mike Holmgren, and Daboll's time in New England, in excellent technique behind the pull blocks.
But this play doesn't work without Hillis' speed to the edge. He got around Barrett and hit the open space hard, outrunning Sanders and linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes to the end zone. Mayo tried to reach for Hillis near the score, but Hillis just gave the standout defender a quick stiff-arm, and it was all over. You will go entire games without seeing backs and offenses working together with such efficiency, but you may not see a Browns series for the rest of the season in which the synergy between the Browns and Hillis isn't absolutely evident. Hillis still has a chip on his shoulder over that Denver divorce, but you can't imagine that he'd change the current plot for anything.
"You know, when I left Denver last year, it kind of left a bitter taste in my mouth," Hillis recently told Scott Van Pelt of ESPN Radio. "I felt like I was a better player than what I was playing at out there last year. And I prayed every night that I would get a new opportunity and shot somewhere else. The Lord gave me that here in Cleveland, and I felt like I had a responsibility to take full advantage of it. I'm glad I'm doing everything in my power to help this team and help this city win. From here on out, I ain't looking back."
One would have to be a fool, or Josh McDaniels, to disagree.
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