It's a year of huge cornerback contracts, with A.J. Bouye and Stephon Gilmore breaking the bank. But will these big-money contracts, and the big-time gambles associated with them, pay off?
29 Sep 2005
By Michael David Smith
Carnell "Cadillac" Williams is one of the NFL's best stories, a rookie from Auburn who has gained 434 yards in his first three games, more than any other rookie in the history of the league. After running 37 times in Sunday's 17-16 win against the Packers he has 88 carries on the season. A Tampa Tribune headline after the game read, "Gruden Won't Ease Up On Cadillac's Load," but that's ridiculous. If Bucs coach Jon Gruden keeps Williams running at this rate, he'll end the season with 469 carries, which would shatter both the NFL record and Williams' body.
As much as Gruden loves feeding Williams the rock, he won't turn away from the passing game any time soon. And that passing game is one of the most meticulously designed and strategically employed in football. This week I looked at every passing play Tampa Bay used against Green Bay to determine what Gruden does and why he's successful.
Tampa Bay's first drive demonstrated the way Gruden's offense uses formations with three receivers clustered together to create mismatches, often getting the primary receiver matched up against the weak link of the opposing team's defense. In the Packers' case, the weak link is rookie fifth-round draft pick Michael Hawkins, and the Bucs targeted him on both of the key passes on their opening drive, which resulted in a touchdown. Facing a third-and-10 at the Green Bay 37-yard line, wide receiver Michael Clayton lined up split to the right, with tight end Alex Smith and flanker Edell Shepherd also on the right of the formation. Brian Griese knew that Smith would release down the middle of the field, and the crossing pattern of Clayton to the inside and Shepherd to the outside would create one-on-one coverage with Hawkins on Clayton. That is a huge mismatch, and Clayton slanted inside, grabbed the Griese pass and gained 18 yards.
After four straight Williams runs, the Bucs were down to the Packers' 5-yard line. Joey Galloway lined up wide to the right with Ike Hilliard on his inside in the slot. A play fake to Williams kept the Packers' linebackers close, and Hilliard's presence inside kept the safety there. That meant one-on-one coverage for Hawkins on Galloway. Griese rolled to the right, where Hawkins was stuck: He could maintain coverage on Galloway and let Griese run in for a touchdown, or he could pressure Griese and leave Galloway alone in the end zone. He chose the latter, and Griese easily tossed the ball to Galloway for the touchdown. Gruden knew the Packers had to respect Williams' presence on the fake and Hilliard's inside route, and that isolated Hawkins in the end zone.
Gruden's offense always passes well out of run-oriented formations. On second-and-10 with 1:33 left in the first quarter, the Bucs had only one receiver, Clayton, on the field. He was split to the left. Fullback Mike Alstott was in front of Williams in the backfield, and two tight ends, Becht and Smith, were on the right. It looked like your standard power run to the right, and Becht helped sell the play fake by starting with a wham block on Green Bay defensive tackle Grady Jackson. But after the initial block, Becht reversed direction and was left open in the flat for a nine-yard gain.
My favorite part of the play was watching Clayton. He lined up split to the left and knew it was going to be a short pass to the right. In that situation, a lot of receivers just take the play off. Not Clayton. He hustled all the way to the right sideline just in time to deliver a vicious block to linebacker Na'il Diggs, who was pursuing Becht. Wide receivers aren't supposed to be able to obliterate linebackers like that, but Clayton did it.
That pass went to the tight end, but Gruden is so good at getting his receivers matched up with linebackers over the middle that he rarely has much use for passes to the tight end. The 39 balls Ken Dilger caught last year were the most ever by a tight end on a Gruden-coached team. And although he wasn't the primary threat against the Packers, Clayton is the perfect fit for a coach who likes to send his receivers over the middle. Clayton is incredibly tough going over the middle, and on running plays he's not afraid to crack back on a linebacker or defensive end. As great as Hines Ward and Rod Smith are, watch Clayton closely and you'll see that he's the best blocking receiver in football.
The Packers' best defensive back is Al Harris, and on Sunday the Bucs usually avoided him, throwing to the receiver Harris covered only four times. Because Harris focused mostly on Clayton, the Bucs didn't go to him as often as they might have liked. But they made up for it with consistent mismatches on Galloway, who had two touchdowns and three other catches for 16, 10, and 12 yards.
Galloway's second touchdown was the epitome of a mismatch, with linebacker Nick Barnett covering him. Griese had plenty of time with Green Bay rushing only its four linemen. Tampa Bay overloaded the right side with the bunch formation, with Galloway as the outside receiver, Williams aligned to the right in the backfield, and Becht at tight end. Clustering three receivers so tightly makes the defense struggle to keep track of who covers whom, and when Williams and Becht ran routes to the right, they drew Packers cornerback Ahmad Carroll and safety Mark Roman to the outside with them. That left Barnett in coverage when Galloway ran a post pattern. There's absolutely no chance of Barnett keeping up with Galloway one-on-one, and Griese found him in the end zone. It's a safe bet that every defensive coordinator who takes on Tampa Bay this year will look for ways to avoid such mismatches.
In addition to passing to his receivers over the middle, Gruden has a fondness for passing to running backs. In Gruden's three full seasons in Tampa Bay, Michael Pittman has caught 41, 75, and 59 passes. In Oakland, Charlie Garner caught 72 passes in 2001. At Auburn, Williams was known as a pure runner, while his teammate Ronnie Brown (now with the Dolphins) was seen as the superior pass-catcher. Williams has only one catch, for zero yards so far. Gruden might just keep Williams focused on running and instead use Michael Pittman more as a receiver out of the backfield. Pittman is a good receiver who comes in on third-and-long, sometimes aligning as a receiver when Williams is in the backfield. Gruden loves sending Pittman out on wheel routes, first running out of the backfield parallel to the line of scrimmage, then turning up the sideline, almost always drawing a linebacker in coverage. Most linebackers can't keep up with Pittman.
Alert readers will now want to know why, if the scheme is so good, Tampa Bay's passing game hasn't been anything special in the Gruden years. The answer, frankly, is quarterback talent -- or lack thereof. Remember what Brian Griese looked like in Miami? He had Dolphins fans praying for the health of Jay Fiedler. Remember the difference between Brad Johnson 2001 and Brad Johnson 2002? The arrival of Gruden allowed Johnson to nearly double his touchdowns, while halving his interceptions and sacks. Gruden always makes bad quarterbacks look good -- if you don't believe that, ask a Philadelphia Eagles fan who thought Bobby Hoying was the quarterback of the future when Gruden was the Eagles' offensive coordinator in 1997. With Gruden, Hoying threw 11 touchdowns and six interceptions. The next year, without Gruden, Hoying threw zero touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Although Griese's stints in Denver and Miami ended badly, he's a good fit for Gruden. His weaknesses -- mobility, arm strength -- are concealed by a scheme that requires few seven-step drops or deep passes. His top attribute -- the thorough understanding of the game that comes from being raised by a Hall of Fame quarterback -- is perfect in Gruden's complex offense, which requires quarterbacks to make sight adjustments based on defensive alignments.
Gruden received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty at Green Bay when he ran on the field to protest a bad call. Physically, that might be the closest he's been to the action since he was a college quarterback at Dayton. But with his offensive strategy, no coach in the NFL has a greater impact on what goes on between the sidelines.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season. If you have a player or a unit you would like tracked in Every Play Counts, suggest it by emailing mike-at-footballoutsiders.com.
14 comments, Last at 01 Oct 2005, 12:12am by james