Short-yardage passing had a good year, except at the end of the Super Bowl. We look at the return of quarterback runs, the rise in pass-happy strategy, and 2014 success rates for offense and defense.
19 Sep 2013
by Cian Fahey
There doesn't appear to be an Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin, Russell Wilson, or even a Ryan Tannehill in the 2013 draft class. Because of that, an argument can be made that the most important move of the offseason was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' acquisition of Darrelle Revis.
Much like an elite quarterback, Revis isn't an ordinary cornerback. There are many elite cornerbacks in the league who can contain their assignments regularly. There are some who can even shut down their assignments consistently. However, none do what Revis has done over the last few seasons. In New York, as a member of the Jets, Rex Ryan built his defense off of Revis' ability to shut down the best receivers in the league without any safety help. The term "Revis Island" was born from this.
Ryan repeatedly left Revis alone, instead crowding the middle and other side of the field with the rest of his secondary and linebackers. This meant that the Jets' safeties had less ground to cover, the team's linebackers could be more aggressive against the run, and quarterbacks were forced to throw into tighter windows.
When the Buccaneers acquired Revis, they weren't just improving their play at the cornerback position. They were acquiring a base that they could build a new defensive philosophy on. The addition of Dashon Goldson to play alongside Mark Barron at safety implied that they were going to put Revis back on his island and mimic what Ryan had done previously.
With all that in mind, it was very surprising to hear that Revis was unhappy with the amount of zone coverage the Buccaneers played in Week 2 against the New Orleans Saints.
Revis was eased back into action in Week 1 against the Jets, so he only played 15 snaps in man coverage. In Week 2 he played almost every snap, yet he finished with just 16 plays that were definitely man coverage. For context, Drew Brees attempted 46 passes, was sacked four times, and two passing plays were negated by penalties. Only three times was it unclear what coverage the Buccaneers were playing -- two quick passes into the flat and a spike to stop the clock -- so Revis ultimately played zone coverage 31 times against the Saints.
Revis is an above-average zone cornerback, and his awareness and quickness allows him to break on the ball faster than most in the league. Playing zone takes away from his value and his unique ability to improve those around him, but it would make sense if it was for the greater good of the defense.
Unfortunately for Greg Schiano, it's not.
The first example of the Buccaneers misusing Revis came in the first quarter. The Saints had the ball on their own 44 facing a first-and-10. They set up with two tight ends to the left of the offensive line and a receiver wide on either side. Barron, the safety to the bottom of the screen, is closer to the line of scrimmage than Goldson on the other side of the field. This is because both tight ends are on his side of the field, but he is still deep enough that the Buccaneers are showing off a Cover-2 look.
After the snap, the Buccaneers don't play Cover-2. Instead, they are playing Tampa-2 with Mason Foster sprinting back to the deep middle of the field. The cornerbacks on the outside initially press the outside receivers as if playing man coverage, before turning around to drop into zones underneath. Revis is at the top of the screen, where Brees initially pump fakes towards after the snap.
All of Tampa's defenders are in the Tampa-2 coverage, except for Mark Barron who hesitates at the snap. Barron's feet stay planted in the ground for a short moment, but his momentum begins to lean towards the line of scrimmage to drag him out of position.
Barron eventually runs at Pierre Thomas, who curls underneath over the middle of the field. He appears to be confused, thinking that he had man-coverage responsibilities on the running back. The ultimate result is that Jimmy Graham runs into open space running down the left seam. Brees quickly finds him in stride for an easy touchdown.
Neither Barron nor Goldson are natural free safeties. Neither player excels at covering deep. Barron wasn't stressed in coverage at Alabama before playing strong safety for the Buccaneers as a rookie, while Goldson was exposed in the playoffs last season with the San Francisco 49ers. Having two safeties with such aggressive attitudes and skill sets makes each player more prone to mistakes when playing further from the line of scrimmage.
Barron was exposed here, but Graham had another big reception that should have gone for a touchdown in the second quarter when Barron made the mistake.
The Saints come out with the same formation as before, but this time it's second-and-6 so the Buccaneers are more aggressive with their setup. Barron is the deep safety, circled in yellow, while Revis is lined up over the receiver to the top of the screen. Goldson is lined up over Graham on the edge of the line of scrimmage.
Brees immediately looks to Revis' side of the field, where the cornerback is covering Marques Colston. Barron reacts to Brees' eyes and body shape as he appears to be locked into throwing to that side of the field.
Brees keeps his eyes on Colston long enough for Barron to take himself out of the play. At that point, Brees swivels back to the other side of the field and locates the most favorable matchup on the field for the Saints: Graham running down the seam against Goldson. With the huge space in front of Graham, Brees has an easy throw to hit his tight end in stride for a 30-yard gain that is stopped just short of the goal line.
An argument can be made that this play came about because of the brilliance of Brees rather than the ineptitude of the Tampa safeties. That argument loses ground when you look at Revis' success in man coverage during the game. Revis covered Colston seven times; Colston was covered well on every single snap.
In fact, using my Pre Snap Reads criteria, Revis wasn't beaten once on his 16 man coverage snaps. That means for the season, he has been beaten just three times on 31 qualifying man-coverage snaps. He is not struggling to recover from offseason surgery. He is not playing zone coverage for the greater good of his teammates. Schiano needs to understand this, just like Barron needs to better understand the matchups on the field in the above play.
While the talents of one veteran cornerback were being underused, the talents of a rookie wide receiver were brought into the spotlight.
Houston Texans rookie wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins has never really had the spotlight. During his college career at Clemson, he was overshadowed by the exceptionally gifted Sammy Watkins. During the draft process, it was Tavon Austin and Cordarrelle Patterson who drew most of the media's attention. Once he landed in Houston, he was immediately thrust into the shadow of the immaculate Andre Johnson.
The 21-year-old isn't your typical rookie receiver. Much like quarterbacks, young wide receivers often take time to develop into NFL caliber players. Outliers such as Julio Jones and A.J. Green are able to be effective immediately with their overwhelming physical talents. Hopkins doesn't have Jones' incredible athleticism or Green's combination of length, strength, and fluidity. But he is a strong athlete who carries a rare understanding of how to play the game for a player with such little experience.
Hopkins is 6-foot-1 and roughly 215 pounds. His size gives him the strength to bully some defenders at the line of scrimmage, but he also has the quickness to turn defenders around when releasing into his routes. This allows Hopkins to line up all over the field. Hopkins has caught most of his passes after lining up wide right, but he has been targeted after lining up inside and on the left side as well.
It's important that the young receiver is also able to understand situations and read coverages. This is something he excels at, and his crisp route-running means that defenders never have it easy against the young receiver. Hopkins runs the full route tree and he has caught 12 of 14 catchable targets. The two catchable targets he didn't catch were both very tough balls in the end zone.
Those numbers alone don't do his catching ability justice.
Hopkins has big hands and he uses them to pluck the ball out of the air. Young receivers can get away with allowing the ball into their chest, but at the professional level it is pivotal that receivers are aggressive to beat defensive backs to the ball. Hopkins showed off that ability with big plays late in the game against the Tennessee Titans in Week 2. Those were the spectacular catches, but he also shares a trait that Michael Crabtree has seemingly perfected: he is able to set up defensive backs for yards after the catch with how he contorts his body before he catches the ball.
Late in the fourth quarter when the Texans needed a score in Week 2, Hopkins ran a slant route before turning back outside for a first down. There was space infield, but he was able to get out of bounds by taking the ball outside. The defender pursuing him was taken out of the play as soon as Hopkins pushed off his right foot while catching the ball.
This is the awareness, intelligence, and sheer talent that should allow Hopkins to prosper as often as opportunities arise in Houston. Opportunity is the only issue. The Texans have been a run-first team in recent years, while Johnson and Owen Daniels have been Matt Schaub's most-trusted targets. Schaub began to look to Hopkins more in Week 2. Hopkins responded by coming up with big play after big play, while the late pick-six intended for Hopkins was solely a result of a bad decision by Schaub.
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