After three NFL seasons of kicking off from the 35-yard line, what has been the impact on touchbacks, returns, field position, scoring and injuries? Also, is this rule responsible for a record number of big comebacks?
19 Oct 2006
by Aaron Schatz
There are two good ways to figure out why a football team is winning or losing. Statistics give you the big picture, and help you notice trends you may have missed otherwise. Looking at tape shows you why the statistics turned out the way they did, and which players or play calls may be responsible.
Football Outsiders is known more for stats, but we look at a lot of tape as well. One of the big debates of the week has been over who is more responsible for Arizona's inability to run the ball Monday night: Edgerrin James, or the offensive linemen. On Tuesday, I did a statistical analysis of the game on the Football Outsiders blog. But I still wanted to look at Arizona from the scouting angle. So this morning, I sat down with my remote and that handy slow-motion button, and watched the end of Monday's game in an attempt to determine why the Arizona running game was so impotent. Michael David Smith handed me the keys to the EPC mystery mobile, so let's go see if we can find out what the hell happened out in the desert.
We're starting with 9:17 left in the fourth quarter, which is a convenient starting point for two reasons:
1) Darnell Dockett had just picked off Rex Grossman, taking away the emotional momentum from the Mike Brown fumble return touchdown that ended the third quarter.
2) My DVR thinks that Monday Night Football ends at 11:30, so the rest of the game after this play is a separate recording.
First-and-10, ARI 26: James runs right tackle for 2 yards. The Cardinals were in a 2-TE I-formation, so it was pretty obvious they were going to run, and the Bears had eight in the box on every first and second down from this point until they took the lead with the Hester punt return. The Cardinals offensive line was unable to make a hole, as the Bears just pushed them all together. James tried to bounce it out wide, but Brian Urlacher was coming around the side unblocked.
Second-and-8, ARI 28: James runs left tackle for -2 yards. Arizona is in a conventional I-formation now. Left guard Reggie Wells is pulling left on this play, but Chicago linebacker Lance Briggs is so fast that he gets to Wells three yards behind the line of scrimmage. Ayanbadejo runs into the back of Wells. James tries to get around that clog and discovers that nobody blocked Brian Urlacher. Again.
Third-and-10, ARI 26: Arizona goes to four-wide. The Bears spread their defensive line out very wide -- they seem to do this on a good number of plays. Since the line is spread, and only four rush, center Nick Leckey blocks nobody. Meanwhile, Tank Johnson goes right past Wells, and with the pressure coming, Leinart throws to the outlet, which is Troy Walters at the line of scrimmage, way over on the left side. He's uncovered, but he's also 10 yards away from a first down, so he gains six before Briggs and Nathan Vasher take him down.
Arizona punts, the Bears gain 13 yards, and then Grossman throws yet another interception. Cardinals take over with 5:53 left.
First-and-10, ARI 41: James runs left tackle for -1 yard. Once again, Arizona is in a 2-TE I-formation. Once again, the Bears have eight in the box. Once again, the problem is Reggie Wells, who this time can't control DT Alfonso Boone. As James tries to go left, Boone releases from Wells, lunges rightward, and takes him down.
Second-and-11, ARI 40: James up the middle for 2 yards, fumble, Bears touchdown. Again, the Cardinals are in a 2-TE I-formation, and this time the Bears have NINE guys in the box. Charles Tillman is covering Anquan Boldin, there's a deep safety, and every other Chicago defender is up at the line. Leinart hands off to James, who tries to go right, but there's a wall of defenders there. It's tough for eight guys to block nine. James tries to cut back left, but Reggie Wells has missed his cut block on Boone. The play-by-play lists Urlacher as the tackler, but Boone is actually the one who takes James down. While James is fighting to stay upright, of course, Urlacher reaches in, strips the ball, Charles Tillman picks it up, Chicago touchdown.
J.J. Arrington takes the kickoff back to the Arizona 34-yard line and then stupidly spikes the ball. Cardinals start again with 4:53 left.
First-and-10, ARI 19: James runs right tackle for 1 yard. The Cardinals are now in a balanced 2-TE, one back set. This play demonstrates how hard it is to try to determine blocking assignments when a) you don't have a copy of the team playbook and b) you don't have the coaches' film with the end zone angle. But I'll try anyway. Leckey and right tackle Oliver Ross both pull right. It looks like they are trying to trap linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer on the right, with the rest of the line trying to seal the Bears off to the left, and James going through that hole. It's possible that I'm wrong, and James was supposed to go wide right and instead blew the play and cut back by mistake. Either way, James ran right into Brian Urlacher, who once again, since two guys were taking out Hillenmeyer, was unblocked.
Is this getting repetitive yet?
Second-and-9, ARI 20: Loosen the reigns on Matt Leinart! The Cardinals are in the 2-TE singleback set, but everybody goes out on a pass pattern, which leaves the simple five-blocking-four and a reasonable amount of time for Leinart to find Anquan Boldin seven yards away on the right sideline. Tillman has trouble tackling him, so Boldin ends up with eight yards after the catch for a total gain of 15 yards.
First-and-10, ARI 35: James runs right tackle for -2 yards. Having shown that Matt Leinart knows how to play quarterback, the Cardinals go back to the 2-TE I-formation that basically telegraphs a run. This play is a stretch right, with the right tight end (Edwards or Wakefield, I'm not sure which) and right guard (Chris Liwienski) on the left defensive end (unidentifiable), Ross on Hillenmeyer, and Wells on left end Mark Anderson. We left out Nick Leckey, right? He's pulling to the right to take out Brian Urlacher. Pulling an interior lineman to take out one of the fastest linebackers in the league certainly worked for Indianapolis in the playoffs last year, so why shouldn't it work for Arizona? Leckey gets caught behind the rest of the linemen because the Bears are overpowering them, and by the time he gets over to the right, both James and Urlacher are five feet further to the right and Urlacher just stuffs James.
Second-and-12, ARI 33: Back to a conventional 2-TE single back set, the Cardinals send out four receivers with James staying in to block. The Bears rush four, so the coverage is tight. It looks like the Bears by this point had ditched their Cover-2 scheme and played man-on-man, and Leinart had a harder time with it. Either Bryant Johnson runs too far, or Leinart throws too short, but the pass goes behind him and falls incomplete.
Third-and-12, ARI 33: The Cardinals go to a three-wide set. For the first time since I started watching, the Bears have only seven in the box. Does that make things easier for the Cardinals? Nope. At the snap, Tommie Harris flies right past -- by now you can probably guess this -- left guard Reggie Wells. Leinart has to scramble backwards, and with Harris in his face throws over to the left side. The play-by-play mistakenly lists the receiver as Bryant Johnson; actually, Leinart is trying to throw to Troy Walters behind him, about at the first down marker, but the ball ends up between the two receivers.
Arizona punts. Devin Hester scores. Chicago ecstatic. Arizona despondent. Arizona takes over with 2:53 remaining.
First-and-10: ARI 38: Now that they need to come back, Arizona goes to four-wide and Leinart is in the shotgun. Four rush, five block, quick pass to Anquan Boldin for five yards but safety Todd Johnson is right there for the tackle.
Second-and-5, ARI 43: Again, four rush, five block. Short pass to James uncovered in the middle of the field, three yards away from the line. Four yards after the catch, seven yards total, first down.
First-and-10, ARI 50: Remember how I said the Bears like to spread the line? On this play, the right defensive end is so far spread that he's actually in a stance in front of the slot receiver. The Bears blitz six at the snap, Leinart hurries the throw, and Urlacher tips the pass for an incomplete.
Second-and-10, ARI 50: Again the Bears blitz six, but this time Leinart manages to set his feet and pass quickly, to Troy Walters on the left sideline, covered by Danieal "Can I Buy a Vowel" Manning. Six-yard gain.
Third-and-4, CHI 44: The Bears have just two linebackers, and one blitzes (Briggs, I think). With the defensive backs all back in coverage, that leaves Urlacher in the middle of the field to cover the entire flat. Ayanbadejo gets out into the right flat uncovered, catches the ball near the line of scrimmage, and runs 13 yards before Urlacher can get to him.
First-and-10, CHI 31: Again, one linebacker blitzes. This time, Ayanbadejo stays back to block, and Leinart gets a quick slant out to Boldin, covered by Nathan Vasher. Vasher and Urlacher tackle Boldin for a seven-yard gain.
Second-and-3, CHI 24: James runs left tackle for 2 yards. This is where the Cardinals shut down the offense and go into wait-for-field goal mode. The four-wide shotgun is replaced by the 2-TE I-formation. Chicago brings up nine in the box. The Bears push the Cardinals blockers together so there's no hole, and James runs into the whole mass.
Third-and-1, CHI 22: James runs up the middle for -1 yard. Again, 2-TE I-formation, nine in the box. By now, the Cardinals have realized that it may be a good idea to block the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, so they send not one but two guys to do it. Liewinski and Ross both go to block Urlacher and both fall down. Seriously. Meanwhile, with two guys on Urlacher, nobody has either Lance Briggs or Todd Johnson, who stuff Edge, although the official tackle belongs to Israel "The One-Man I-Formation" Idonije.
Fourth down, timeout, enter Neil Rackers, exit Neil Rackers, game over.
Obviously, this is just a few plays at the end of one game, but what have we learned based on these plays?
The Cardinals announced in a loud and clear voice that they were running the ball, and the Bears were listening. Some sort of play-action or pass to a tight end out of one of those 2-TE I-formation sets might have been a good idea.
There are two reasons why I believe Edgerrin James was a bad free-agent signing. First, James is at an age and level of career workload where, no matter how good he has been in recent years, he is very likely to decline in the future. But that's the future, not 2006. The reason why this was a bad signing for 2006 is that the Cardinals had a terrible offensive line last year, and the year before, and they have a terrible line this year, and it's basically been all the same guys. The Cardinals ignored the fact the ground game is driven as much by the offensive line as it is by the running back. And if one of those two elements is truly awful, it doesn't matter if the other one is good. (This works out the other way, too; check out Quentin Griffin's numbers in Denver.)
Based on these plays, it looks like the line is the problem. James ran into a wall or an unblocked defender on nearly every play. None of these guys deserve any glory, but one really stood out. The Cardinals handed Reggie Wells a five-year, $17-million contract in the off-season and if this game is any indication, he's the worst player on the line.
The idea that Edge is not the problem, however, does not mean that signing Edge was a good idea. You build a winning football team from the lines out. The Cardinals understand this on defense, bringing in Bertrand Berry and Chike Okeafor in 2005, bringing in Kendrick Clancy this year, and signing Dockett to a long-term deal last week. The offense is the exact opposite. It looks like an offense with Leinart, James, Boldin, and Larry Fitzgerald should score a gazillion points, but the offense isn't made up of six guys. You need to have eleven.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. This week, he let me borrow his column for the day. Thanks, Mike. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game -- and one quarter -- is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season.
70 comments, Last at 23 Oct 2006, 10:51am by Ian