Eight weeks ago, the Vikings were undefeated and ranked No. 1 in DVOA. Now they're 6-6 and probably done. What went wrong?
06 Aug 2007
by Mike Tanier
Now that preseason football is finally here, it's time for our seventh and final Play of the Day for the 2007 off-season. By now, our Football Outsiders playbook has given the defense the "taffy pull" treatment. We stretched the defense horizontally with our empty-backfield plays. We stretched the defense vertically with our deep post passes. They are on their heels. Now it's time to profit from their confusion with some wide receiver screens. These plays hit the defense quickly and generate easy yardage. yardage. Sometimes, they even produce big gains.
Offensive coordinators always try to get the ball to the "playmakers in space." (What a great sportscaster clichÃ©!) We'll do just that with out first screen, taken from the Week 2 matchup between the Panthers and Vikings. The situation: first-and-10, second quarter, Panthers ball, 50-yard line. Steve Smith is injured, so the Panthers compensate by using rookie running back DeAngelo Williams as an all-purpose threat. As seen in Figure 1, Williams lines up as a split wide receiver in an empty backfield formation, takes a quick screen from Jake Delhomme, and picks his way for a 16-yard gain.
The diagram is pretty self-explanatory. Here are a few coaching points:
1) Note the defensive formation: safeties deep, cornerbacks man-up on the receivers but about seven yards off the ball. Williams must threaten his cornerback by taking two quick steps off the line, then pivot and work back toward Delhomme to take the screen. The brief vertical release forces Williams' defender to backpedal, taking him out of position to jump the route.
2) Tight end Kris Mangum (82), after motioning to the play side, briefly sets in pass protection. His motion freezes the linebacker covering him. Mangum will not block the linebacker -- it is Williams' job to elude this out-of-position defender -- so he cannot allow the linebacker to guess screen and crash the play.
3) This play is yet another example of the way an offensive coordinator can use unusual personnel packages and formations to create defensive problems. The Panthers personnel on this play include a running back, a tight end, and three receivers, so the Vikings don't anticipate an empty backfield set when they leave the huddle. Splitting Williams wide against man coverage causes further defensive problems. Mangum's pre-snap motion puts another blocker at the point of attack. It's a simple play to design and execute, but a real challenge to defend.
Hiding a running back as a split wide receiver is cool. Hiding a wide receiver in the slot is even cooler. When the Cowboys switched from Drew Bledsoe to Tony Romo last season, they started emphasizing spread formations and quick passes. The offensive changes suited Romo's quick read-and-release style, and they forced defenses to worry about four or five receivers coming off the line, two of whom were named Terry Glenn and Terrell Owens. This Glenn screen was the Cowboys' first play from scrimmage in their Week 14 loss to the Saints.
The Cowboys have four wide receivers in the game -- Terrell Owens, split left, is not shown -- and they initially line up in a 2x2 formation: two receivers on each side of the field. The Saints respond with a nickel personnel package and appear to be in zone coverage. When receiver Patrick Crayton (84) motions across the formation, the Saints linebackers and nickel defender shuffle back and to their left. The Cowboys are now in a 3x1 receiver formation: Saints defenders must watch for wipes and crosses on the offensive right, and they are well aware of Owens, who is isolated on the left.
Obviously, this play is designed to give Glenn space to run against the Saints linebackers. Crayton picks off the nickel defender. Sam Hurd (17) releases to the outside, runs a go route, then blocks once his cornerback reads the screen. The left tackle, as noted, cut-blocks the right defensive end; he cannot allow that defender to penetrate and bat down/intercept the pass. The Cowboys running back releases left to attract some defensive attention.
Romo, whether by design or by mistake, drifts to the right as he throws this pass. His throw is slightly off-target, forcing Glenn to turn completely around. As a result, the Cowboys gain minimal yardage. Romo's semi-rollout may have drawn linebacker Scott Shanle in the direction of the screen. Had Romo not drifted toward Glenn, and had the pass been perfect, Shanle might not have been in position to tackle Glenn. This play is an example of the importance of precision execution; a slight footwork flaw or a poor follow-through can turn a 15-20 yard gain into a two-yard gain.
The Williams and Glenn screens should look familiar to college football fans. They are typical spread offense plays, quick-hitters designed to strike the defense before it can react. The evolutionary high point of this type of play is the tunnel screen: slot receivers and linemen create a "tunnel" by picking off defenders, and the receiver runs through that tunnel to catch the screen before turning upfield. At some colleges, the tunnel screen (or slip screen; tunnel screen is a term borrowed from basketball) is basically the equivalent of an outside running play, and spread offense teams will execute a dozen of them per game. The play is starting to appear more regularly in the NFL. Our next example comes from the Broncos-Niners season finale. It shows the versatility of the tunnel screen: it's a confidence builder for a rookie quarterback, it gives a top receiver a chance to be creative with the ball, and it can even be used effectively in the red zone.
The situation: third quarter, Broncos face third-and-goal from the 14-yard line and are trailing 17-13. It is a freezing cold day, and rookie Jay Cutler is helming the Broncos. Mike Shanahan would like a touchdown, but he doesn't want to put Cutler in position to force a throw. He knows that the Niners will be laying back to prevent a touchdown, so he calls a tunnel screen to Javon Walker. If Walker scores, great. If not, the Broncos cut the deficit with a field goal.
Figure 3 shows the play. At first glance, it looks like a mirror image of the Williams screen: a tight end and receiver block, Walker releases vertically but comes back for the ball. But there are key differences. This play develops more slowly than the Williams screen. Cutler takes a shotgun snap and a two-step drop. Walker takes three vertical steps, then pivots and drives hard toward Cutler to take the pass. Tony Scheffler (82) and Rod Smith (80) aren't Walker's only blockers. Center Tom Nalen (66) peels off a double team and heads downfield to provide additional interference. It's rare to see a center downfield on this type of screen, but then Nalen is a rare breed.
Note the Niners defensive alignment on this play. They are showing straight zone, with no defender opposite Smith. At the snap, one linebacker races down the alley into deep coverage. The Niners' tactics are wise on third-and-14, but the Broncos almost make them pay for their conservative approach. Nalen blocks the alley linebacker. Scheffler engages the nickel safety. Walker picks his way for 11 yards before safety Mark Roman tackles him. It's a close call, but in the end Roman does what a deep safety is supposed to do: he stops the touchdown.
We're screened left, screened right, slot-screened and tunnel-screened. Let's fake a screen for our final play. When the Cowboys faced the Saints in Week 14, they used a lot of man coverage and five-to-six man blitzes. The Saints countered with lots of screens and passes into the flat. By the Saints' third possession, the Cowboys were ready to sniff out and defend those screens. But they weren't ready for the double-fake that Sean Payton threw at them.
Figure 4 is complicated, so let's tiptoe through it. The Saints formation is simple enough. The Cowboys are in their base 3-4 defense, which is really a 5-2 because Demarcus Ware (94) and Bobby Carpenter (54) are usually on the line. The situation: no score, first-and-10 on the Cowboys 21-yard line. At the snap, Brees takes a three-step drop. Reggie Bush (25) stays in to block the blitzing Ware. Tight end Mark Campbell (80) blocks Carpenter. Brees turns to Marques Colston, who jab-steps then turns. Screen, right? Nope. Brees pump-fakes to Colston, then turns 180 degrees counter-clockwise while drifting back two more steps.
Mike Karney released into the flat at the snap. Right guard Jahri Evans slipped out to the second level to block for a screen. Brees pumps to Karney. This is the fake that truly fools the Cowboys. Carpenter disengages to chase Karney. Roy Williams (31) steps up to stop Karney. Bradie James (56) starts to chase Karney. But Karney doesn't have the ball, and he isn't getting it. Brees takes two more steps back and sets. Campbell leaks into the hook zone. There are no defenders near him when he catches a short toss from Brees. He gains 14 yards before a safety tackles him.
The other screens were relatively simple; this play is complex. It requires precision execution by Campbell, who must sustain his block long enough to fool Williams, his coverage defender. Bush must survive his encounter with Ware (he does well, aided by the fact that Brees keeps moving behind him). Evans must convince Cowboys defenders that he is blocking a screen. The pump fakes must freeze both the coverage and the pass rush. But when a play like this works, it doesn't just net 14 yards. It forces the defense to think twice before selling out on passes to running backs. For a team like the Saints, who count on Bush and the others for a big part of their passing game, a little defensive reluctance goes a long way.
After seven articles and about a dozen plays, our playbook is brimming with all manner of subterfuge and deviltry. Opponents can't expect us to line up and run off tackle 20 times per game. They will have to be ready for everything.
So will we. While we were designing our rollouts, reverses, and fake screens, defensive coordinators dreamed up overload blitzes, stunts, and unusual coverage schemes. Defensive playbooks contain almost as many surprises as offensive ones. No matter how good our plays look on paper, we'll have to be careful when we call them.
In the end, playbook creativity is meaningless without execution. The simplest play (think LaDainian Tomlinson off tackle), when executed correctly, can be unstoppable. The most exotic (think our Redskins reverse from last month) is a train wreck if some players miss their assignments. Drawing up plays is easy. The hard part of coaching is going on right now in training camps: instilling the fundamentals, installing the system, and transforming the plays that look brilliant on a whiteboard into something that will look brilliant on the field on Sunday.
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