Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
13 Sep 2012
by Andy Benoit
Two of the NFL’s marquee teams square off at 1:00 p.m. in Philadelphia this Sunday. The Ravens and Eagles both won in Week 1, though calling Philadelphia's victory a "win" probably cheapens the meaning of the word. Here’s a five-point breakdown of their matchup:
The Ravens gradually loosened Joe Flacco’s leash over his first four years in the league. In this, his fifth year, the leash appears to be gone altogether. As great as Ray Rice is, Flacco is who the Ravens ultimately want to build around. With ample size and athleticism, as well as the AFC’s strongest arm, the former first-round pick obviously has the physical attributes to be a franchise centerpiece. This past Monday, playing in Cam Cameron’s new no-huddle offense and operating out of more passing sets, Flacco showed he also has the mental aptitude to lead a franchise. The Ravens have advanced their passing attack with more downfield route combinations. They’ve helped their quarterback in this realm by incorporating rolling pockets on deep drops, and building in intersected routes that challenge cornerbacks and capitalize on the intermediate/underneath receiving prowess of Rice and tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta.
Contrast this with what we saw from the Eagles on Sunday. It’s easy to look at the four interceptions and censure Michael Vick for his recklessness. It’s also easy to censure Vick’s offensive line. After all, he took 19 hits.
But Vick and his blocking weren’t the problems. This isn’t to say they weren’t sub-par, as Vick obviously made some very poor decisions. And his linemen, particularly on the interior, had a few individual breakdowns. But what stagnated Philly’s offense more than anything was the play-calling. Just about every pass play (which there were too many of, by the way) involved slow-developing routes from the outside receivers. The interior routes from the slot and tight ends were also slow-developing and too easily defended. Vick had to spend the first two seconds of his dropback just waiting for routes to unfold.
The Eagles were running the ball sporadically and only to the outside. The routes they chose left them with virtually no timing-based, quick-hit pass plays. The Browns defense had little trouble figuring out what to do: show A-gap blitzes pre-snap to distract Vick and the pass protectors, then drop back into a deep seven-man coverage behind a four-man rush. In doing this, the Browns played at least one safety (and often two) back in punt-return distance to contain speedsters DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. They had their extra safety and linebackers sit back in a deep second-level zone, where they could see Vick at all times.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
Here’s the overhead shot of Michael Vick’s second interception. Notice how long the routes take to develop relative to Vick’s protection starting to break down. Even if Vick’s protection had been stellar, his targets weren’t open when he got to the top of his drop. Also, notice the deep safety help against DeSean Jackson in the middle of the field.
With Philly not calling any three-step timing patterns to punish the Browns for their conservativeness, Vick often fled the pocket and forced throws into tight coverage. With his receivers unable to beat downfield double-coverage, that’s the only choice he had.
To be clear, if Vick were a better presnap reader and anticipation passer, he may have found more ways to overcome these circumstances. But that’s not Vick’s game. It never has been. Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg know this, that’s why they don’t call more quick-timing plays for Vick. They play to his strengths by stretching the field and allowing him to hold the ball. This tacitly encourages sandlot plays. But by using these tactics almost exclusively and making dumpoff patterns somewhat of an afterthought, Vick’s strengths can become weaknesses. We saw that Sunday.
If the Browns could stymie Philadelphia’s offense by having second-year free safety Eric Hagg roam deep in centerfield, what do you think the Ravens can do with Ed Reed? Or, if the Browns can give Vick pause early in the down simply by feigning a few blitzes out of their 4-3 front, what effect do you think the Ravens’ amoeba front seven looks will have?
The Ravens disguise and rotate their downfield zone coverages extremely well, and they obviously pack more pass-rushing punch than the Browns. If Vick has to hold the ball for prolonged stretches again this week, he’s liable to break a rib sometime around his third or fourth interception.
The Eagles don’t want Vick in a chess match with Ray Lewis and Dean Pees. So, they’ll once again be reluctant to put a lot of quick-hitting passes in the gameplan, as these tend to require pre-snap recognition. Still, they need to at least incorporate more two-read concepts and five-step timing. This is how you create catch-and-run opportunities for receivers underneath.
Mid-range passing is the way to beat Baltimore. At 37, Lewis no longer has the burst of his youth when changing directions. Strong safety Bernard Pollard may have defended the pass well Monday night, but years of film suggests he won’t do that on a regular basis. The Eagles can exploit Lewis and Pollard by lining up in minus-splits (i.e. wide receivers close to the formation) and using presnap motion to get Maclin and Jackson on mid-level crossing patterns. LeSean McCoy’s speed and flexibility can also be a resource here.
What’s more, the Eagles can tailor these tactics to combat the slot corner blitzes that Baltimore loves to employ. Vick over the years has had trouble recognizing blitzing corners. (Remember what Antoine Winfield and the Vikings did to him on that snow-delayed Tuesday game in December 2010?) Also, Philly’s line and running backs aren’t known for their great adjustments in pass protection. The more Philly can ask their speedy ball-handlers to play without thinking, the better.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
Andy Reid has never liked to run the ball. Even now, when he has arguably the best running back in the NFC, he still runs only periodically. When McCoy gets 20 carries, Philly’s run game still feels like an afterthought, as Reid rarely goes to the ground on back-to-back plays. This needs to change.
The Eagles don’t need to get conservative all the sudden, but stabilizing their run-pass balance would give more dimension and disguise to their aerial attack. Among other benefits, that would make it harder for defenders to dial in on Vick. The Eagles may want to consider running inside more, too. Every one of McCoy’s 20 carries against Cleveland attacked the perimeter. That makes sense, as the Eagles are a zone-blocking team, and McCoy is a speedy, finesse runner. Because of Vick’s threat as a bootleg scrambler, edge defenders have to play Philly’s stretch runs conservatively, which creates wider cutback lanes. However, let’s not forget the elementary basics here: if you run to the same spot every play, defenses will eventually figure it out. Four or five inside carries a game for McCoy would be enough to keep opponents honest.
The Eagles may want to consider just copying Baltimore’s ground attack. It too is a zone-based system featuring a speedy, shifty scatback. The difference is that Rice is powerfully compact and plays low to the ground. He might be the league’s best at cutting back inside.
This puts the onus on Philadelphia’s new middle linebacker, DeMeco Ryans. If the Eagles play their Wide 9 front against the Ravens’ zone, the outside linebackers flanking Ryans will have difficult gap responsibilities. Ryans will be the one with enough freedom to attack downhill. He may need help from strong safety Nate Allen, for not only is Rice devastatingly dynamic, but his right guard, Marshal Yanda, is very mobile and locks well when landing blocks at the second level. Yanda gives Baltimore a lot of dimensions that most zone-based blocking schemes don’t have. Ryans must be conscious of him.
Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie were spectacular last week. Browns receivers have that effect on secondaries. (Brandon Weeden’s inability to throw outside the numbers or recognize an open target also cast the Eagles corners in a pretty positive light.)
The Ravens receivers are much tougher. Torrey Smith is still somewhat inconsistent as a downfield weapon, but he’s obviously too potent to overlook. Part of the reason Smith tends to disappear after defenses adjust to his deep routes is that the Ravens have so many other resources to turn to. Anquan Boldin doesn’t have elite speed or quickness, but with his strength and knack for winning positioning battles, he doesn’t need to get great separation to catch balls. At the third receiver spot, Jacoby Jones offers great speed, though he’s not as integral to the offense as tight ends Pitta and Dickson. Both can detach from the formation and run the entire route tree.
How will the Eagles match up? Style-wise, it makes sense to have the quicker Rodgers-Cromartie on Smith and the stronger Asomugha on Boldin. However, the Ravens know that neither corner is very good in the slot. Expect both wideouts to line up inside and force the Eagles to make tough decisions about their matchup zone tactics.
Chargers offense vs. Titans defense
Something the Chargers do as effectively as any team in football is check down to their backs in the passing game. This isn’t just Philip Rivers taking what the defense gives him; checkdowns are a major feature of Norv Turner’s offense. Turner likes all routes to stretch the field. Say, for example, that the typical NFL offense has its receivers run a basic dig route nine yards downfield. The Chargers will have their receivers run dig routes 12 yards downfield. They stretch just about everything they do.
This naturally opens up checkdowns, and it naturally demands more checkdowns. If everything is stretched, then the quarterback is dropping back further. If the quarterback is dropping back further, the pass protection must hold up longer. If the pass protection must hold up longer, it’s more likely that the quarterback will be under some sort of duress. If the quarterback is under duress, he’s more inclined to check down.
A lot of San Diego’s elongated routes occur out of base personnel. The Titans tend to play a vanilla zone scheme against base. They may be even more inclined to do that this week given how the Patriots burned them every time defensive coordinator Jerry Gray called a Fire-X blitz in Week 1. With Titans defenders keeping everything in front of them, and with end Kamerion Wimbley likely to give undrafted rookie left tackle Michael Harris some problems, don’t be surprised if Rivers completes 10 passes to running backs on Sunday.
Titans offense vs. Chargers defense
Most concerning about Chris Johnson’s latest turd of a game was that a lot of his run stuffs occurred against seven-man fronts. The Patriots spent most of the game in two-deep looks. When they did drop a safety into the box, it was after the snap. They played a Cover 3 zone out of that look, which Jake Locker had a little trouble identifying passing windows against.
The Chargers will give Locker this look again Sunday. They play a lot of Cover 3 already; if starting left corner Quentin Jammer doesn't play (broken hand), they’ll be even more inclined to go zone. What Locker will see from San Diego’s Cover 3 that he didn’t see from New England’s are disguised pass-rushes. The Patriots kept everything very basic. On Monday night, the Chargers stayed basic on first and second down. But in third-and-long situations, defensive coordinator John Pagano got creative.
Browns offense vs. Bengals defense
The Browns thumbed their noses at modern NFL trends and gave up a lot to draft Trent Richardson third overall. So far, the return on their investment has been minimal. (Granted it’s early.)
Last week, Richardson had nowhere to run against an Eagles defense that has struggled against quality backs in the recent past. (Granted, Philly’s struggles may dissipate now that DeMeco Ryans is aboard.) Cleveland’s guards were unable to get any movement inside, and rookie right tackle Mitchell Schwartz got absolutely humiliated by Jason Babin a few times.
The Bengals have one of the NFL’s better run defenses. Nose tackle Domata Peko is a true clogger. If there's a good trench war in this game, it's Peko's battle against Alex Mack, one of the best phone booth centers in the NFL. Pro Bowl under tackle Geno Atkins gets penetration on a regular basis. Cincy’s linebackers aren’t necessarily instinctive, but they bite hard downhill. That hurt them against Baltimore, but is okay against an offense like Cleveland’s, where tight ends and wide receivers only catch passes in warmups.
Bengals offense vs. Browns defense
Have you heard the euphemism about Cincinnati’s "rotation" at No. 2 receiver? The Bengals don’t have a rotation –- they have a glaring weakness. Jerome Simpson may have been good for three or four awful mistakes each game, but he at least had enough quickness to make plays.
The Bengals couldn’t fill Simpson’s spot after he joined Minnesota. They drafted Mohamed Sanu in the third round, but he appears to be a developmental project at this point. They allowed themselves to hope that Brandon Tate could suddenly recognize his potential, but the return ace seems to be the same underachieving receiver that he was in his first three years in the league. Tate actually came off the bench Monday night behind undrafted free agent Armon Binns. The Bengals seem high on Binns’ blocking –- they put him in motion near the line of scrimmage and use him as the lone receiver in a lot of run-heavy sets –- but you don’t reach the playoffs these days by having really good blocking wideouts. On the bright side, the Bengals do have a very dynamic slot weapon in Andrew Hawkins.
Staying on the bright side, Cincinnati gets to face a Browns secondary that is without star corner Joe Haden, who was suspended four games for Adderall. Cleveland’s back four was phenomenal against Philadelphia, but without Haden, they’ll have to rely on either Dimitri Patterson or 2011 fifth-rounder Buster Skrine to keep A.J. Green in check. Patterson is a solid man-to-man defender but is more comfortable in short areas. Skrine struggled a few times last week to keep up with Maclin on fly routes. If he can’t run with Maclin, there's no chance he’ll run with the more acrobatic Green.
Vikings offense vs. Colts defense
It was encouraging to see Indy cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Jerraud Powers hold up as well as they did in man coverage against Chicago. Yes, both got beat on a few downs (mainly by Brandon Marshall), but both also won a few downs. The important thing is that Indy is willing to play man-coverage. That wasn’t the case with the old coaching regime, or the old cornerbacking group ... and it may not have been the case for this regime until the trade for Davis. Playing man-to-man frees up more Byzantine blitzes and zone exchanges for Chuck Pagano’s front seven. That kind of complexity alone can win games against a young and limited passing offense like Minnesota’s. The Vikings linemen were phenomenal against Jacksonville, but they didn’t have to think much. The Jags stayed in traditional 4-3 looks all game and only rushed their front four. The Colts will mentally test Christian Ponder and his protection, especially since Minnesota's only receiver who can consistently beat man coverage is named Percy Harvin.
Colts offense vs. Vikings defense
Indy’s weakness at guard will be a problem this season. Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton had his way with Seth Olsen on more than one occasion last week. How do you think Olsen will do against Kevin Williams? The six-time Pro Bowler isn’t Minnesota’s only interior force, either. Letroy Guion and Fred Evans have never been very productive, but both are capable of exploding off the snap a time or two. Colts center Samson Satele is a serviceable run-blocker when he can establish favorable angles on the move, but in a phone booth, he’s nothing special. Expect Guion and Evans to try to isolate Satele by lining up directly over him.
One other note: much of Indy’s passing attack involves underneath stuff in the flats. This is Andrew Luck’s game. (He struggled a bit throwing to slot receiver Reggie Wayne in the flats last week, but that was likely an aberration.) The Vikings have one of the league’s best underneath outside pass defenders in Chad Greenway. Not only is the seventh-year veteran rangy and tireless, he also builds awareness over the course of games. By the fourth quarter, Greenway is usually beating tight ends and slot receivers to their spots. Will Indy’s rookie quarterback be conscious of this?
Patriots offense vs. Cardinals defense
After Week 1, most Patriots followers were talking about Wes Welker’s declining role in the offense. An equally intriguing, but less noted tidbit, was New England eschewing the shotgun. Tom Brady threw from that formation on just 19 percent of the Patriots plays. Last season, Brady threw from the shotgun on 51 percent of the plays. Against Tennessee, the Patriots also used their run game to set up their pass game -– something they haven’t done in years.
Was this just an anomaly? Or does coordinator Josh McDaniels have a new system in mind? We’ll know a lot more after this Sunday. The Cardinals, under Ray Horton, are one of the most zealous blitzing defenses in football. Recent history says that the usual Patriots response to this would be some sort of three-step drop design out of a spread formation. But, perhaps this week, we’ll see more under center and play-action.
Cardinals offense vs. Patriots defense
Arizona’s offensive line woes aren’t felt just in pass protection. The Cardinals will have a lot of trouble getting movement in the run game this year -- they got none of it against Seattle. Seahawks nose tackle Brandon Mebane is vastly underrated, but he’s no Vince Wilfork. A few spots down from Wilfork, the Patriots also appear to have an excellent run defender in rookie Chandler Jones. His staunch anchoring is almost a bonus considering he’s also athletic and limber. Between Wilfork and Chandler, Kyle Love is coming off one of his best games as a pro. This front line will clog the trenches, allowing the Patriots linebackers to roam free. Expect Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams to have a lot of tough two-yard runs this week.
14 comments, Last at 16 Sep 2012, 6:58am by Mitchell