"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
08 Nov 2006
by Michael David Smith
Marty Schottenheimer believes in simplicity. He has never wanted an offense that does anything fancy, either in his previous stops as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Chiefs, and Washington Redskins, or in his current role as coach of the San Diego Chargers. Schottenheimer just wants to put a tough fullback in front of a good running back and have his offensive linemen block the men in front of them.
His offensive style has earned the name Martyball, and that has become a term of derision among people who think Schottenheimer isn't creative enough, that his play calling is too conservative, and that his teams can't win big games. But after watching San Diego's offense on every play of their 32-25 win over the Cleveland Browns Sunday, I don't buy any of that. I saw a running attack that doesn't need to be creative because it's very effective without being flashy. I saw an offense that, if anything, should have been a little more run-oriented. And I saw a team that is capable of winning big games: the Chargers are Super Bowl contenders.
Schottenheimer and Chargers offensive coordinator Cam Cameron started the game exactly the way anyone who has watched the Chargers would expect: LaDainian Tomlinson ran up the middle for gains of seven and four yards on San Diego's first two plays. What I liked best about those plays is that center Nick Hardwick overpowered Browns nose tackle Ted Washington even though Hardwick was giving up close to 100 pounds.
For most of the game, though, Hardwick was the one member of the offensive line who didn't win his individual battles. On one play when running back Michael Turner ran up the middle for no gain, Washington easily threw Hardwick to the ground and met Turner in the hole. On a later handoff to Tomlinson off right tackle, right guard Mike Goff and right tackle Shane Olivea both blocked their men, but Hardwick couldn't keep Washington in place, and Washington showed better movement than you'd expect for a guy who weighs close to 400 pounds in running down the line and stopping Tomlinson for a gain of four.
In addition to Hardwick, one other Charger struggled in his blocking: tight end Antonio Gates. On a second-and-10 later on that first drive, linebacker Chaun Thompson stopped Tomlinson for a gain of just three yards when Gates didn't sustain his block. Gates is one of the league's best receiving tight ends, but he was inconsistent as a blocker on Sunday. He mixed plays like the missed block on Thompson with plays like Tomlinson's next run, when Gates went in motion to the left and threw the key block on the play, dominating Cleveland safety Brian Russell and springing Tomlinson around the left end for a gain of 19. (Rookie left tackle Marcus McNeill also had a nice block on that play.)
On San Diego's first nine offensive plays, Tomlinson had five carries for 36 yards, and it looked like we'd see another effective installment of Martyball. But then a curious thing happened: The Chargers got away from their bread and butter. Over their next 25 plays, the Chargers called 20 Rivers passes, four Tomlinson runs and one Turner run. It was a bizarre decision, and it didn't work, as the next seven San Diego drives ended with six punts and a fumble. It was almost as if Schottenheimer wanted to demonstrate to his critics that a pass-heavy offense would fail.
Fortunately for San Diego, that all changed late in the third quarter, when the Chargers started a drive at the Cleveland 41-yard line, gave Tomlinson the ball on the first play, and Tomlinson ran up the middle and untouched to the end zone. On that play, Tomlinson was in an empty backfield; San Diego lined up with two tight ends (Gates and Brandon Manumaleuna) and twin receivers to the left, then motioned one receiver, Vincent Jackson, to the right. The handoff was a simple run straight up the middle, but the key to the play was the way McNeill and left guard Kris Dielman dominated their men, vacating the spot where Tomlinson ran. Plays like that -- simple in design but strong in execution -- are what define Martyball.
McNeill and Dielman both had great games and look like all-pro candidates. I chose Goff on my all-pro team last year, but Sunday Dielman looked like the better guard. Goff sometimes has trouble getting to the second level. On a second-and-3 handoff to Tomlinson, Goff helped out briefly on Washington but then failed to get to his man, linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, who tackled Tomlinson. Goff is a mauler, while Dielman has the agility to engage linebackers.
The 41-yard touchdown came with fullback Lorenzo Neal on the sidelines, but many of San Diego's most effective runs came with Neal lined up as a lead-blocking fullback. Neal doesn't make spectacular plays, just fundamentally sound ones. Take San Diego's first play of the second half. Although Tomlinson's run went only three yards, Neal's block was a textbook example of what a fullback should do. Cleveland outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley was lined up to the right, and Neal was on the left in the offset I formation. Wimbley came on a run blitz, and Neal stopped him dead in his tracks. He didn't knock Wimbley down or drive him back. He didn't have to. He just stopped him from getting close to Tomlinson.
On another play, a first-and-10, Neal had a great kickout block on linebacker Matt Stewart. Again, it wasn't the type of play that makes highlights, it was just the kind of play that gets the job done. In that respect, Neal is kind of a microcosm of the Schottenheimer offense. Late in the game Cleveland's linebackers began to shadow Neal wherever he went, thinking the handoff to Tomlinson would surely follow. San Diego made a nice adjustment to that on a second-and-3 in the fourth quarter, when Neal went in motion from left to right. Both of Cleveland's inside linebackers pursued in Neal's direction, assuming that the Chargers would run behind him, but instead Tomlinson ran to the left and picked up 10 yards relatively easily.
Once the Chargers get a lead, Martyball is a great way to protect it, and when a play works for the Chargers, they don't hesitate to go back to it, often calling the same play on consecutive snaps. When the Chargers had the ball on their own 39-yard line with a 24-18 lead and 4:12 left on the clock, they ran the same play three straight times: Neal leading the running back through the hole after lining up in the offset I to the left, with Manumaleuna providing the key block on the left side of the line. It worked perfectly: Tomlinson gained 32 yards, then Turner replaced him and gained 21 yards, then Tomlinson came back in and sealed the win with an eight-yard touchdown. As a clock management enthusiast, it bothered me that both Tomlinson and Turner ran out of bounds, but the runs were brilliantly designed.
In fact, as I watched those game-clinching runs, I couldn't help but think about one NFL team that would have a particularly difficult time stopping them: The Colts are the favorites to come out of the AFC, but if there's any way to attack them, it's with a straight-ahead running game. If San Diego meets Indianapolis in the playoffs, this could be the year we see Martyball in the Super Bowl.
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.
56 comments, Last at 11 Nov 2006, 4:24pm by jay