Are the best defenses against play action the best against regular passes too? How much impact does play action really have in an NFL game, and does it correlate from year to year?
21 Nov 2012
by Andy Benoit
Three Thanksgiving games that don't suck! Well, at least one team in each game doesn't suck.
Making Detroit’s offensive struggles all the more surprising is that, this past Sunday aside, their front five this season has played better than it’s ever played. It’s always been an un-athletic group, but it’s a group that’s learned to compensate with continuity in its third year together. That continuity could be disrupted this week as a hamstring injury is likely to keep left tackle Jeff Backus out for the first time in his 12-year career. Svelte-but-raw first-round rookie Riley Reiff will get the nod in Backus’s place. Reiff is capable of protecting Matthew Stafford’s blind side, but his forte so far has been run blocking. He's mainly been serving as a sixth offensive lineman. Detroit has relied on that heavy package to buttress its run and play-action games. If they can’t overload their line this Sunday, they’ll become more predictable.
"Predictability" might be this offense’s biggest problem. As we highlighted in the Football Outsiders Almanac this year, the Lions, at some point, must commit to more schematic complexity. Their shotgun-based system is built on static formations, ala Peyton Manning’s Colts from yesteryear. Stafford hasn’t been anything close to Manning this season, however. Too often, the fourth-year pro has recklessly relied on his rocket arm to defeat crowded coverage. With minimal pre-snap motion and few intertwined route combinations built into Scott Linehan’s offense, Stafford has struggled against defenses that have no trouble recognizing what the Lions are trying to do.
What the Lions are often trying to do is get the ball to Calvin Johnson. While Johnson has dropped more passes and made fewer plays in the red zone this season, he has improved his route running against double coverage and become more of a weapon at the intermediate levels. Detroit’s four other receiving targets have been unreliable. Brandon Pettigrew is too slow off the line and in his breaks, and has been losing snaps lately; Tony Scheffler isn’t quite physical enough to consistently create true matchup problems as a tight end; Titus Young (who coach Jim Schwartz has benched for this game) must fine-tune his route-running and learn to get downfield separation within the timing of the play design; rookie Ryan Broyles is just barely learning the ropes. Consequently, the Lions frequently play from behind in the down and distance. That’s hard to overcome –- even with a weapon like Johnson.
Expect Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to bring a lot of heat on Thursday. That will isolate Detroit’s blockers in one-on-one situations, which will create a lot of athletic mismatches favoring the Texans. Plus, if Stafford gets rid of the ball quickly, it’s more likely he’ll be throwing near the numbers underneath. That’s the best way to keep Johnson in check.
The way to beat Detroit’s aggressive front seven is to use their fast flow against them. Detroit’s defensive line struggles against backside blocks off penetration, while the linebackers tend to over-pursue against screens and misdirection. No offense is more capable of exploiting these weaknesses than Houston. Matt Schaub is a magician with play-action fakes and bootlegs, in part because defenses have to respect Arian Foster.
Foster is the best zone-running weapon in the NFL. Detroit last faced a zone-running offense in Week 8, when they held Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch to 28 yards on 11 carries. Unfortunately, those numbers don’t include the outlier: Lynch’s 77-yard touchdown in the first half. Two weeks ago, we saw Adrian Peterson gash the Lions with runs of 19, 61, and 21 yards in the fourth quarter. Lynch’s and Peterson’s big plays were off-tackle-type runs where Lions linebackers got tied up on the backside and defensive backs missed tackles on the front side. Foster will make the Lions pay if these undisciplined gaffes happen on Thursday.
The Texans can also light up defenses through the air. Not counting the foul weather game at Chicago, this offense has faced three teams that play a two-deep zone scheme like Detroit primarily does: the Jaguars in Week 2, the Titans in Week 4, and the Jaguars again in Week 11. In those games, Houston’s offense has averaged 31 points and over 450 yards. (Granted, that's partially the Jacksonville factor.) The Lions’ ray of hope for bucking this trend comes from the fact that they have a better pass-rush than Jacksonville or Tennessee. However, their four-man rush has not been nearly as dynamic this season as in recent years. (Maybe that’s why coordinator Gunther Cunningham has used more amoeba looks on third-and-long.) That could change, though, as each week second-year defensive tackle Nick Fairley becomes more explosive as a one-gap penetrator.
That said, the nature of Houston’s zone-blocking and misdirection passing game nullifies a lot of a pass-rush’s impact. Which is why the Lions ultimately must get some big pass stops from their underneath defenders. That’s where Schaub will go with the ball if the Lions’ injury-riddled secondary fully commits to doubling Andre Johnson. (Expect Johnson to see two defenders; the only other true No. 1 receiver Detroit has faced this season was Brandon Marshall in Week 7, and they consistently devoted safety help over the top whenever he aligned outside.) In underneath pass defense, linebackers Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy both have respectable lateral range and are reliable one-on-one tacklers in space. But neither will ever be mistaken for Derrick Brooks.
There have been issues with Dallas’s offense across the board this season. Tony Romo has made some spectacular sandlot plays, but he’s also shown a tendency to perceive pass-rush pressure and be frenetic in the pocket. His timing in dropbacks has occasionally been off, in part because he’s not always reading the field clearly. These types of issues, frankly, shouldn’t be prevalent at this point in the 32-year-old’s career.
To be fair, Romo has gotten little help. His wide receivers have made well-documented mistakes on a regular basis. His pass protection has wavered, with callow left tackle Tyron Smith (who is expected to miss this game) enduring natural growing pains and veteran right tackle Doug Free just flat-out underperforming. Normally, an offense struggling like this can go to the ground to rediscover its equilibrium. The Cowboys, however, haven’t had a viable rushing attack since DeMarco Murray injured his foot on October 14. It’s surprising that the presence of veteran lead-blocker Lawrence Vickers hasn’t made Felix Jones a more stable runner. Murray is reportedly inching closer to a return, but he hasn’t practiced since going down.
Whether Murray is available Thursday or not, the Cowboys will likely have to win this game through the air. Washington inside linebackers London Fletcher and Perry Riley are excellent run defenders, especially when the Skins crowd the line of scrimmage with strong safety Reed Doughty. The Redskins struggle at rushing the passer. They don’t have an adequate replacement for injured Brian Orakpo, which is disappointing considering they invested a first-round pick in outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan last year. Kerrigan has been so inept even in one-on-one matchups against lowly right tackles that, these days, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett doesn’t even think twice about dropping him into coverage.
Even Haslett’s all-out blitzes haven’t generated consistent pressure this season. The hope was that DeAngelo Hall could become this team’s Charles Woodson in the slot. Haslett frequently sent Hall after the quarterback early in the season, but over the past month or so, Hall has been mostly a traditional coverage player out of the slot. He's even spent time at safety in certain packages. With Hall, the inside isn’t much different than the outside; like in past years, he’s given up too much separation against skilled receivers in man coverage.
The Cowboys would be wise to attack the Redskins downfield early in the game. Judging by their frequent changes and eclectic mixes of personnel packages, Haslett doesn’t like what his safeties have to offer in coverage. (The signing of Brandon Meriweather was supposed to address this, but the rangy journeyman has missed most of the season with a knee injury.) It may be hard for Romo to patiently let his wideouts' deep routes unfold though, Haslett is not averse to taking risks with coverage concepts, and will likely burden his inside linebackers with defending Jason Witten in space.
The Redskins have only faced one 3-4 defense this season: Pittsburgh in Week 8. That happened to be the only game in which Robert Griffin did not scramble. That may have just been a coincidence; it’s hard to say because the lopsided score in that game forced the Redskins to play a drop-back-and-throw brand of football. That’s about the last thing Mike Shanahan wants for this offense.
The Redskins are built around toss runs and play-action passes, often out of various pistol and shotgun formations. Their multitude of backfield looks, coupled with a zone-blocking front and Griffin’s speed, puts a lot of stress on perimeter run-defenders. The Cowboys, however, have two of the game’s best playside run-defending outside linebackers in DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. As long as defensive ends Marcus Spears and Jason Hatcher can hold ground, Dallas should be able to contain Alfred Morris and Washington’s zone-read options. They did a wonderful job against these concepts when facing Cam Newton and the Panthers in Week 6.
But how do you keep Griffin from scrambling on pass plays? One idea is to play press-man coverage on the outside and use inside linebackers Bruce Carter and Ernie Sims as quarterback spies. Press-man is what corners Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr are most comfortable playing. When press defenders are locked into a man, they don’t have to keep an eye on the backfield, which renders a lot of Washington’s fakes and deceptive motion tactics obsolete. Even with a healthy Pierre Garcon, none of Washington’s receivers are capable of consistently beating Dallas’s press defenders. Santana Moss in the slot against penalty-prone corner Orlando Scandrick might give Dallas some problems, but Scandrick’s physicality will be problematic for the diminutive, finesse veteran receiver.
Man-to-man only works against Washington if a second-level defender is accounting for Griffin. As the Vikings and Giants found out, man-free coverage (i.e. with only a third-level defender free) gives Griffin too much room to take off and run. Carter and Sims both have the raw speed to handle Griffin. The only concern is whether they have the discipline and comfort in Rob Ryan’s system to make patient reads against Washington’s unfamiliar pistol action.
It’s tempting to just fall back on the trial-tested analysis of the "Jets can’t run or throw, they have no chance." But recall that when these clubs met about a month ago, the Jets put up 26 points and over 400 yards of total offense. They did it by attacking the seams through the air. That’s where Mark Sanchez is most comfortable, as interior throws require less arm strength and, occasionally, not as much mud in the pocket.
The past two weeks, we’ve seen Indianapolis and Buffalo both attack New England at the deep-intermediate levels inside. New England has had voids in those zones all season long. Like Indy and Buffalo, New York regularly features its tight end (Dustin Keller) in the pass game. What Indy and Buffalo have that New York doesn’t is a go-to wide receiver. It’s hard to build a passing attack without wideouts that defensive coordinators have to even consider double-teaming. Sanchez appears to be most comfortable with Jeremy Kerley. But, for whatever reason, offensive coordinator Tony Sparano has often chosen vertical route combinations over horizontal concepts. That doesn’t highlight a shifty slot weapon like Kerley; Sparano must believe that unpolished Stephen Hill is New York’s most dangerous target. In theory, he probably is. After all, Hill was talented enough to be drafted in the second round. But, in actuality, Hill has caught passes in only four games this season.
New Patriots corner Aqib Talib should have little trouble taking Hill out of the equation. The question is whether Kyle Arrington and the Patriot linebackers can reroute Kerley and prevent him from wiggling open on crossing patterns to the outside, which is something they had problems with the last time these teams met. Doing so would eliminate Sanchez’s safety outlet. Pass-rush pressure is another way to make Sanchez uncomfortable. Chandler Jones had success against left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson in the first matchup, but the rookie defensive end left last week’s contest with an ankle injury. Inside, Jermaine Cunningham’s litheness posed problems for New York’s unathletic guards, but Cunningham isn’t an every-down difference maker.
It’s possible the Patriots will become more blitz-oriented now, with Talib giving them a corner who can play true man coverage. We saw them sprinkle in some slot blitzes and constantly attack the A-gaps with inside linebackers Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo against the Colts. Given that it’s a short week, Bill Belichick may want to surprise Sanchez by replacing his coverage-based zone scheme with more pressure concepts. Sanchez is decent at diagnosing defenses before the snap, but diagnosing and executing are two different things. He hasn’t shown nearly enough accuracy this season to give Belichick pause with any aggressive defensive tactic.
What will the Patriots offense look like without Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez? Probably a lot like it’s looked the past two months. At least through the air, anyway. With Hernandez out, this has been predominantly a three-wide receiver offense in 2012. Brandon Lloyd is the downfield presence on the outside (his lack of speed has capped his effectiveness in this role, but defenses still have to fully account for him). Wes Welker and other Wes Welker (the one who wears number 11) have been the option route weapons inside.
Yes, Gronkowski’s mere presence commands plenty of defensive attention, but he’s not the only reason underneath crossing routes consistently open up for New England. Welker and Julian Edelman are both superb option route runners, and their quarterback might be the best in all of football at disguising where the ball is going on a three-step drop. Tom Brady is also the best at making throws from multiple platforms after resetting in the pocket. Even perfect underneath zone defense can’t always stop the Patriots. New York’s best bet is playing man-to-man across the board and hoping that Kyle Wilson and Ellis Lankster can win inside (Antonio Cromartie should be fine on the outside against Lloyd).
The absence of their tight ends will be felt more in the run game. Often, defenses played nickel when these two were on the field, which allowed the Patriots to run against smaller, more spread-out front sevens. The Jets probably won’t bring in extra defensive backs to combat the pass-catching prowess of Visanthe Shiancoe and Michael Hoomanawanui. But with four linebackers on the field, the Patriots will bring in Danny Woodhead and create one-on-one passing matchups for him against linebackers. Jets rookie linebacker Demario Davis is fast, but he’ll have trouble handling Woodhead’s change-of-direction. Ditto David Harris.
4 comments, Last at 26 Nov 2012, 2:55am by Jim G