There will be four teams in the inaugural College Football Playoff at the end of the season. What common characteristics will distinguish these teams above all others?
15 Sep 2010
by Doug Farrar
When I first talked to Houston Texans right tackle Eric Winston in June, I asked him about the close losses to the Indianapolis Colts last season, and what the Texans had to do to get over the proverbial hump. Two stats haunted Winston and his teammates: the 1-15 record against the Colts, and the 24 shots Houston had inside the red zone in those two Colts games, with just one rushing touchdown to show for it.
"It was a huge problem in 2008," he said. "I think we were a better offense in 2008 than in 2009, even though the stats don't show it, because we were more balanced. (New offensive coordinator) Rick Dennison will be a big factor; I think that will be his stamp on the team. All the (offensive coordinators) who have come through here have done something special. If you look at the two years (2008-2009) that Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator, we had some huge passing numbers, and Matt Schaub developed into an elite quarterback. But a few of the wrinkles that Dennison has put in could be a big difference in the red zone, and let's face it, that's the difference between winning and losing: Are you going to kick field goals, or are you going to score touchdowns? Great teams score touchdowns."
What a difference a day makes. In the Texans' opening win over Indy, running back Arian Foster scored three rushing touchdowns and put up the second-most rushing yards (231 on 33 carries) on opening weekend in NFL history behind only O.J. Simpson's 250 in 1973. Per our numbers, it was the fourth-best day for a running back in the last 15 years (although that could change once we have enough information to apply opponent adjustments for 2010). Houston scored two red-zone touchdowns in this game alone, which was a huge step forward for a team historically inept in that department. When I talked to Winston again this week, he broke down the differences, starting with the performance of fullback Vonta Leach.
"He was really knocking some people around," Winston said. "And a fullback is really an extension of what we're doing up front. If we're doing outside zone, he's got to get his head on the outside, too, and really either force the linebacker to spill and play underneath or if the linebacker is going to play contain, keep stretching the guy so the cutback is even more predominant."
Another reason for the success of Houston's running game this time around was the use of formation and motion diversity to set up receivers and tight ends for blocking assistance. If the Colts brought a run overload to one side, or made pre-snap shifts of any kind, the Texans seemed far more adept at picking them up and responding.
"I think we are doing more stuff, and that's one of the things Rick Dennison brings," Winston said. "Being able to run the same plays out of different formations makes it tough to get a read on zone if you run four or five different plays out of four or five different combinations. It forces [the defense] to play straight up, because you're not giving away any tendencies. We're getting good matchups, but it's also hard to play us just one way because we're doing so much of that."
I asked Winston which play best typified the day enjoyed by the running game, and he pointed me in the direction of Foster's 25-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter (Fig. 1). On that particular drive, the Texans went 92 yards on four plays -- all on the ground, including a 42-yard gain, and ending in Foster's third touchdown run.
|Figure 1: Texans TD w/Zone Left|
"It really showed everything we're trying to do," Winston said. "We had some good cuts on the back side, good extension on the front side, and Arian really took that one step, hit the hole, and made a guy miss. I had a cutoff, and (Colts end) Robert Mathis lined up in what we call a Navajo front -- it's an old-style five-man front with a nose guard. It's a run-stopping front, and Mathis stepped from where he was outside into a three-technique. Cutting a guy off that fast is pretty tough -- I had to give him a little yank, and I ended up running him over a pile. That was right before Arian broke it off and got through the hole. So, that was a 19 call -- he cut back a little bit, got his foot on the ground, turned his shoulders north, and away he went."
The play happened on first-and-10 from the Houston nine-yard line after cornerback Glover Quin recovered an Austin Collie fumble. Houston went I-formation with a two-wide initial look, before Jacoby Jones motioned inside to help with the blocking. Clint Session came down from the weak side to make it a six-man front pre-snap, and the Texans ran a zone slide left with Jones running right after the snap. Cornerback Jerraud Powers followed Jones, which took him out of run support. Leach destroyed Gary Brackett at the second level (seriously, Leach was a total beast in this game), and Foster slipped quickly through the gap opened up the slide and Leach's excellent block. From there, it was just a matter of beating safety Melvin Bullitt to the pylon.
This integrated power attack was the only thing missing from Houston's offense, and if maintained consistently, should make everybody's favorite "team next year" into a major concern for every defense they face in the here and now. Houston travels to Washington to meet Jim Haslett's new and very interesting 3-4, and I asked Winston how a team prepares for a new defense with only one week of regular-season film to go on. "We'll spend a lot of time just watching film and seeing those fronts," he said. "With the multiple fronts they play, we'll see something, and we'll just have to adjust to it. But the big thing is, we have to just keep doing what we do."
With what looks like a new ready-made template for rushing success, that may be the Texans' best teaching point of all.
In 2009, the Seattle Seahawks rushed five or more defenders 130 times in 601 possible pass plays, which put the team in the middle of the pack both overall and among teams playing primarily four-man fronts. But those same Seahawks ranked 29th in Adjusted Sack Rate, and allowed a Defensive DVOA of 30.5% on blitzes. Only the Rams and Titans were worse when rushing more than four. This was less a formation issue and more a matter of patching personnel holes, as five years of "interesting" personnel decisions by team president Tim Ruskell left the team with ill-fitting fronts decimated by injuries. When Pete Carroll came to the Seahawks in January, he brought a history of hybrid fronts that went back to his time in Foxboro (head coach, 1997-1999) and San Francisco (defensive coordinator, 1995-1996). Carroll had some interesting ideas about switching between three-and four-linemen fronts, with the point-men playing the role of what used to be called the "Elephant" and is now called the "Leo" position. From Football Outsiders Almanac 2010:
"'Elephant' was just an e-word to designate a guy as being different from the regular defensive end," Carroll told the team's official site in May. "It's a position that can take on different sizes and shapes, but it is a spot -- a little bit of a hybrid position -- that is kind of a linebacker, kind of a defensive end. We picture it as a speed-oriented guy." Carroll got great sack seasons out of Chris Doleman in San Francisco and Willie McGinest in New England before he went to USC. For the Trojans, the most obvious beneficiary of the position was Clay Matthews.
The surprise Carroll brought back to the NFL was the first regular 3-4 looks in Seattle in a very long time. Through the Mike Holmgren era, a wave of coordinators ran different versions of 4-3 base defenses with occasionally effective results. Carroll didn't want what's been commonplace in the league over the last few years -- a switch to the 3-4 base defense without the personnel to run it -- as much as he wanted different defensive concepts to set opposing offenses on their heels.
"I think it's amazing that (defensive line coach) Dan Quinn can get those guys to come in and play," Carroll told me this week. "They were able to contribute in a big way for such a short time, and everybody went nuts about 'How can you possibly move forward in that amount of time?' If the guys understand the game plan, they can do a lot of things. That's not the case for all positions. For example, for (right tackle) Stacy Andrews to come in and get a whole game plan on offense is a huge challenge for an offensive lineman. But on the defensive side, our guys really did come through, and we're excited about that. They helped us in critical situations and made plays, too. It's a good system, and really good coaching. Really bright kids who can pick things up quickly -- it was a combination of all that."
Against the 49ers in the season opener, Seattle started off with a lot of four-man fronts and the zone coverage common to most Seahawks defenses. This allowed Alex Smith to bail out of the ultra-conservative game plan he'd either been "gifted" with or set on himself early on. Smith went from ill-advised checkdowns on third-and-goal to quick underneath stuff that moved the ball in the second quarter and set the team up to score. San Francisco never did get a touchdown -- they managed just two field goals out of 17 red-zone plays on their first three drives -- but they outgained Seattle 158-82 in the first half, and Smith was 15 of 20 for 125 yards. Efficient from a completion standpoint, but 6.25 yards per attempt and the lack of time in the end zone told another story. The Seahawks made some adjustments at halftime, but things started to get interesting with 1:45 left in the first half.
|Figure 2: Alex Smith's First Interception|
San Francisco had third-and-5 from its own 25-yard line in a shotgun, twins left formation (Fig. 2). Seattle had a front with just two down linemen -- Brock (98) shading the center, and Chris Clemons (91) outside the left tackle. The defensive left side was occupied by linebackers Lofa Tatupu (51) and Aaron Curry (59), and safety Lawyer Milloy (36) was cheating up pre-snap as a fifth "lineman." At the snap, Milloy backed out into coverage, and Curry closed off Smith's pocket, forcing him to step up. Tatupu and Brock did a little stunt upfront, and Smith threw a quick pass to Michael Crabtree (15) that bounced off Crabtree's hands and into the waiting arms of defensive back Jordan Babineaux (27). Smith hit Crabtree at a weird angle off his right shoulder, but this was also a great example of how the Seahawks' defense adjusted to stay aggressive while expecting short stuff underneath.
In the second half, Seattle alternated between more true 5-2, with Clemons and Curry as the main ends, and the more straight zone reads that helped cause Smith's second interception, a miscommunication pick to Marcus Trufant for a Seattle touchdown as Crabtree ran a route Smith wasn't expecting.
I attended several Seahawks practices during training camp and the preseason, and talked to the players and coaches as I observed what the team was putting together. It's bad form to say or write, "Oh -- I saw this and that, and that's what they did" in moving from practice to game action, but suffice to say that the success the Seahawks had with their multiple fronts was a matter of intelligent implementation over time. Smith's relatively horrible outing didn't hurt in this case, but after years of vanilla schemes that did little to enhance whatever talent may have been on the field, the Seahawks are starting to put together some defensive ideas that could transcend short-term roster issues.
Chris Johnson is hardly under the radar, what with having rushed for more than 2,000 yards and having broken Marshall Faulk's single-season record for yards from scrimmage. However, he's not the most outspoken guy. So I was happy to get the chance to spend a few minutes on the phone with him on Tuesday, and I asked him about two different touchdowns in Tennessee's 38-13 win over the Raiders in the season opener.
The first was Vince Young's 56-yard bomb to Nate Washington with 4:48 left in the first quarter. The Titans had first-and-10 at their own 44, and this was a great illustration of how the threat of Johnson opens up passing opportunities more than any other NFL back. This offseason, I wrote a bit about how this worked against the 49ers in 2009, and this was a nice stretch play action extension. I have seen the Colts and Saints run that stretch fake to perfection as well.
"I think that's the good thing about our offense -- [opposing defenses] can't put eight men in the box and focus on the running back," Johnson said. "If you do that, someone else will be open. They can't just keep going after me, because our quarterback and our receivers are so good, and they can make plays over the top. On that play, they had eight in the box, and the cornerback and safety both bit."
Indeed. The Titans went with four tight receivers and twins right, and the Raiders countered with a four-man front and rookie linebacker Rolando McClain just set back from the left edge. Cornerback Stanford Routt played close inside like he was expecting run right. At the snap, Young faked the stretch to Johnson, and most of the defense went that way. At the same time, receiver Justin Gage motioned from left to right post-snap as if pull-blocking, and hit the right flat to keep potential intermediate coverage underneath and provide Young with a bailout option if he needed it. Young didn't. With four different Raiders defenders trying to reverse field and get back to the middle after biting on that fake, Washington was able to get downfield for the touchdown on a deep seam pattern with Stanford Routt trailing in single coverage.
Then, there was the cross draw that provided Johnson with his first touchdown of the 2010 season. "That was pretty much a straight draw play in our two-minute offense," Johnson said. "Coach [offensive coordinator Mike] Heimerdinger called that play, and we had great blocking up front for that one."
With 1:43 left in the first half and the Titans at their own 24-yard line. Oakland went with two-deep nickel under in response to Tennessee's three-wide look. The threat of the option is a -- or maybe, the -- key to offensive success for this team, and Young took three running steps to the right and handed to Johnson, who then headed left behind excellent blocking. He outran a Raiders defense that was forced, once again, to play catch up. The only guy with a real shot at Johnson was safety Tyvon Branch, who came up from deep coverage and whiffed spectacularly. The more I watch these Titans, the more I see the most effective personnel for any kind of option plays at the NFL level since the Warrick Dunn/Michael Vick/T.J. Duckett backfield in Atlanta that led the NFL In rushing from 2004 through 2006.
I asked Johnson how much the stuff the Titans have been throwing at the rest of the league was about his specific skill set. "I don't feel like I had anything to do with how it was set up -- I Just came to practice and that's what they said we were running.," he said. "So, all credit goes to Mike Heimerdinger for calling the right plays. And this year, I feel that we can call more of the plays we called with Kerry Collins with Vince in there, because he's a better quarterback now."
Johnson has expressed a dream of rushing for 2,500 yards in a single season, and he's donating $10 to Tennessee schools for every yards he gains on the ground this year. I don't know if those schools will see the ultimate 2,500-yard payday, but I find it hard to bet against Johnson having another historic season. He's clearly in the ideal situation for a player with his abilities.
28 comments, Last at 17 Sep 2010, 11:55am by Jimmy