Offensive line problems highlight the needs in the NFC North ... except in Chicago, which is kind of unsettling to think about.
11 Jan 2007
by Mike Tanier
Rex Grossman's hot-and-cold performance was one of the major subplots in the NFL this season. After playing well in his first five games, Grossman endured a seven-game stretch in which he mixed competent performances with some of the worst games a quarterback has had in recent memory. He bottomed out in Week 13 against the Vikings, when he threw for just 34 yards and was intercepted three times in a Bears victory. Since then, he's gotten the short leash and training wheels treatment. The Bears hope that he can do just enough offensively for their defense and special teams win games.
How does a team compensate for a major weakness at quarterback? To find out, I broke down tape of three late-season Bears games to see what coordinator Ron Turner was doing to get Grossman back on track. It was clear from the game tape that Turner was taking the "keep it simple" approach with his quarterback, stressing power running, short passing, and relatively primitive formations and reads. The goal was to protect the football and Grossman's psyche, and the strategy was successful ... to a point.
The best way to protect a shaky quarterback is to run the ball. The Bears have a strong running game; running backs Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson are both effective, and the veteran line is anchored by Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz. The Bears can win games with running, defense, and special teams, but they cannot allow teams to constantly play eight-man fronts and simply tee off on Jones and Benson. For Turner, the challenge is to disguise the Bears' run-oriented personnel packages and formations.
|Figure 1: McKie in motion|
One way to keep opponents from stacking the box is to use pre-snap motion to hide a run-dominant formation. The Bears don't use complicated motion schemes the way the Redskins, Jets, and other teams do. Turner uses basic motion principles, like moving a fullback or tight end across the formation, to keep defenders from recognizing the strong or weak sides of a formation or to force defensive backs to change assignments. These simple tactics can be very effective.
Figure 1 shows a typical Bears pre-snap tactic. Fullback Jason McKie begins the play as a slot receiver, then motions into the backfield. He becomes a strongside-I fullback in the diagram, but Turner will move him to the traditional I or the weakside, and sometimes McKie moves twice: from slot to strong-I, then to weak-I without re-setting. McKie will motion from slot to backfield 10-to-15 times in a typical Bears game.
The goal of the motion is simple. Before the shift, the Bears are in a three-receiver look, and while the left side of the formation is technically the strong side, McKie's presence on the right makes it impossible for the defense to stack one side. After the motion, the Bears are in a power running formation, with McKie and Desmond Clark on the left side. The rest of Figure 1 shows how the Rams reacted on one first quarter play in Week 13. They flipped their safeties just before the snap, but they weren't in position to make other adjustments. Had the Bears simply lined up in a strong-I, a Rams linebacker would probably have played head-up on Clark in a five-man front, and the extra safety would have started the play in the box. The play the Bears ran -- a power sweep with guard Roberto Garza blocking the safety as McKie logs the linebacker -- would have been harder to execute against a five-man front, because Clark wouldn't have the luxury of blocking down on a defensive end.
|Figure 2: McKie in motion vs. Bucs|
There's a downside to this kind of simplified motion: defenses are quick to adapt. When the Bears played the Buccaneers, Turner tried to stretch the defense horizontally with the formation shown in Figure 2. It's a flip formation, with three receivers (McKie in the slot) on the right side. McKie then motioned into the backfield. This should create a variety of problems for the defense: the formation has gone from trips-right to balanced and from pass-oriented to run-oriented. But the Bucs never bit. At the snap, they lined up in a very vanilla formation, with their three linebackers shifted left and a safety shading forward to cover the inside receiver. After the motion, the linebackers simply slid to their right. The Bucs were probably in a Cover-3 defense on this play (that's a guess, mind you), and they weren't worried about accounting for McKie in man coverage or making adjustments to the three-receiver look. Translation: the Bucs weren't that worried about a successful pass. The dive by Benson gained a few yards, but Turner would rather have feigned the Bucs into a dime defense and cleared out some linebackers for a longer gain.
As you can see, running to set up the pass only gets a team so far. Eventually, Grossman has to put the ball in the air. When that happens, Turner tries to limit the number of long throws and complex reads his quarterback has to make by emphasizing screens and throws into the flat.
Screen passes do a lot for an offense. They slow the pass rush by forcing defenders to worry about the screen threat. They get the ball into a running back's hands in the open field. And they can boost a quarterback's confidence by giving him some short, easy-to-complete passes. The Bears have used screen passes frequently in the last two years when trying to manufacture a passing game with Grossman and Kyle Orton.
|Figure 3: Thomas Jones screen|
Figure 3 focuses on the right side of the Bears formation on a well-executed screen pass against the Rams. The diagram is rather busy, so bear with me. It's first-and-10. The Rams are in man coverage with a deep safety. Left linebacker Brandon Chillar (54) is blitzing, and Will Witherspoon (51) has coverage on Thomas Jones. At the snap, Jones squares to block, and Witherspoon reads a double team as Olin Kreutz and Ruben Brown pair off on the nose tackle in front of him. The three receivers to the left side (not shown) run deep routes. Bernard Berrian cuts off his route after about five yards and appears to be running a shallow drag.
Two factors make this screen successful at the outset. First, there are sustained blocks by Kreutz and right guard Roberto Garza. Kreutz stays with his double-team long enough to freeze Witherspoon, while Garza rides La'Roi Glover deep into the backfield so the Rams tackle doesn't suspect a screen. The second factor is a remarkable block fake by Jones. He squares to engage Chillar, flinches as if he is shying from contact, then appears to whiff on the block when he is actually leaking into the region vacated by the rushing defenders. Everything about this play suggested that Jones was responsible for blocking the A-gap to Kreutz's right. In fact, it was all a con to get the Rams defenders up the field.
Sure enough, Grossman flicks a screen to Jones. Grossman times the pass well and is nearly crushed between Chillar and Glover when he throws. Witherspoon and cornerback Tye Hill are in position to make a tackle, with Kreutz and Garza climbing out to block. Here's a final factor that makes this play successful. Remember Berrian? Instead of turning to stalk block Hill, he crosses the middle and blocks Witherspoon. Garza then nails Hill, who must shift quickly from his coverage responsibility to the pursuit of Jones. The cross blocking puts Berrian and Garza in better position to engage their defenders. Berrian gets an assist from Kreutz, but he does an impressive job of stopping Witherspoon. Jones turns upfield and gains 21 yards before Pisa Tinoisamoa catches up to him, and Grossman draws a roughing the passer penalty to boot.
The Bears must execute perfectly on their screens because they rarely have the element of surprise on their side. Opponents know that they will throw screens to open up their passing game. The Seahawks will be looking for plays like these, so Turner must do his best to disguise them.
|Figure 4: Simple flat pass|
Screen passes aren't the only way to boost Grossman's confidence and get the backs involved. The Bears execute a lot of quick passes into the flat to Jones, McKie, and Benson. Figure 4 shows a typical example, a play so simple your local high school might use it. The fullback and right wide receiver run a slant-and-flat route combination, with the tight end running a curl to the middle. The key to this play is the block by the halfback: he is left alone to take on the defensive end while the right guard and tackle double team the 3-technique defender. This play is designed to go to the fullback, and only the fullback: the blocking scheme creates an easy throwing lane, and the halfback won't be able to sustain his block long enough for Grossman to look around. Against man coverage, the linebacker assigned to McKie (or any other fullback) will almost certainly be beaten into the flat. Against a zone, McKie can leak into the cornerback's zone while that defender is busy dropping or jamming his receiver. Either way, it's five quick yards.
When Grossman was playing terribly in midseason, the Bears couldn't execute this play successfully. Against the Vikings, Grossman waited too long to throw to McKie, then inexplicably tried to find his tight end as the pass rush closed in. He threw the ball away just in time. Later in the game, Turner called the exact same play, and McKie gained eight yards. The same play re-appeared against the Rams with a slight wrinkle: McKie started the play in the slot, then motioned into the backfield as in Figures 1 and 2. Didn't think McKie was that important, did you?
Fullbacks aren't the only players who can exploit the flats. When a tight end slips into the flat, he forces the defense to cover a lot of ground along the sidelines. The Bears' best weapon for stretching the field isn't tough receiver Muhsin Muhammad or speedster Berrian. It's tight end Desmond Clark.
Clark was a major weapon in the Bears offense early in the year, but lingering injuries slowed him in the middle of the season. Against the Buccaneers, he caught seven passes for 125 yards and two touchdowns. When he's on the field and healthy, the Bears passing game is much more diverse and dynamic.
|Figure 5: Bootleg pass to Clark|
Figure 5 shows how Turner uses Clark to work the flats as a short-yardage passing option. It's third-and-2, and the Buccaneers are crowding the line in anticipation of a running play. The Bears respond with a tight three-receiver, single-back formation, and they execute a play-action pitch at the snap. Grossman and Jones sell the pitch well, and the Bucs defensive line flows in the direction of the fake. Clark blocks defensive end Greg Spires at the snap; this helps sell the run, and it also makes safety Jermaine Philips, who is assigned to Clark in man coverage, creep to his right to defend the cutback lanes.
After the fake, Grossman turns and rolls to his right. Grossman is mobile, and Turner often rolls the pocket to help his quarterback find easier throwing lanes. This reverse rollout buys time and keeps Grossman away from blitzing Ryan Nece. Clark disengages from his block and leaks into the flat. Philips is out of position in coverage. A short pass by Grossman turns into a long catch-and-run by Clark. The Bears need plays like this, particularly in short yardage situations, to keep defenders from ganging up on the running backs.
Once the Bears forced the Bucs to cover the flats, Grossman was able to complete passes over the middle of the field. Just a few plays after Clark's catch and run on third-and-2, the Bears used the threat of a pass to the flat to pick up a big gain. Figure 6 shows the Bears in a single-back, slot-left formation, with Clark as the tight end to the right and McKie as a wing or H-back next to him. The Buccaneers use this opportunity to call a zone blitz. Defensive end Greg Spires drops into flat coverage on the offensive right, while linebackers Derrick Brooks and Shelton Quarles blitz. It's a smart defensive call: the zone blitz could easily confuse the turnover-prone Grossman, and there are no fast receivers to the offensive right to challenge Spires.
|Figure 6: Clark's double move|
As with Jones' successful screen play, several things go right for the Bears on this play. The offensive line makes an accurate read, and left tackle John St. Clair stops Brooks' outside rush. Good blocking gives Grossman time to read the field. McKie runs hard into the flat, clearing away Spires. Clark runs what appears to be a corner route. Flat-and-corner routes make a natural combination against this kind of coverage, but that's not what the Bears are doing on this play. McKie turns his flat route into a wheel route by turning upfield, and Clark executes a fine double-move, turning his shoulders around quickly and working back to the middle of the field. Cornerback Phillip Buchanon is in a bind: he must support Spires and respect McKie up the sidelines, and he's suddenly out of position to cover Clark. Grossman makes the right read and hits Clark for a 17-yard gain. The Bears score on the next play.
Later in the game, Clark scored a 12-yard touchdown on a similar double move. The routes worked because Clark is a very athletic tight end, and because the Bears spend a lot of time tossing the ball into the flat. Turner does a good job of adding simple wrinkles to keep the Bears from becoming too predictable (although they are somewhat predictable). But the key remains Grossman, who must stay comfortable in the pocket, make accurate reads, and deliver the ball both accurately and on time.
Rex Grossman does a lot of things right. He moves well in the pocket. He isn't afraid to hang in and take a hit. He sells fakes and does the little things. Some of his passes are crisp and right on target. But the things he does wrong can kill a team. His timing is terrible at times, and he'll throw to receivers a second or two after they flash open, leading to interceptions. He doesn't appear to always think through his reads and often locks on his primary target, which is another recipe for a turnover.
Turner's simplified offense seems to have helped Grossman late in the season, though he regressed against the Packers in a meaningless season finale. The trouble with a simple offense is that it's just as easy for the defense to figure out as it is for the quarterback to master. Turner went against his tendencies a few times in the Rams and Bucs games, keeping those defenses off balance. But he's working with a limited palette. Everyone has seen tape of Clark's double moves and of Jones' screen passes. Everyone knows that Berrian is a burner. The Bears will have to come up with something new or they'll become very predictable.
The Bears have enough offense to get past the Seahawks, a team that can be out-muscled at the line of scrimmage and is struggling to cover up injuries in the secondary. The Saints or Eagles will be a tougher task. The Saints front four is very good and can take away the run. The Eagles blitz constantly and force a lot of turnovers. All three of the NFC survivors have better defenses than the Rams or Buccaneers teams that Grossman played well against late in the year.
Should Grossman have been benched at some point this season? Probably. It's too late for that now. The best the Bears can do now is keep things simple and hope that the offense does just enough.
46 comments, Last at 13 Jan 2007, 1:19am by Fnor