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?
15 Sep 2006
by Mike Tanier
We waited seven months for a meaningful touchdown. And then, last Thursday night, one finally happened: Charlie Batch to Nate Washington, 27 yards.
Wait a minute. Batch-to-Washington? Are you sure it's not still preseason?
The first touchdowns of the season have a magnified significance right now. They are all we have to work with, all that the sports talk personalities have to dissect. After half a year of waiting, we all want to talk football, football, football, on the radio or around the water cooler.
But we have little to really discuss. Every team is either undefeated or winless. The storylines and stats are still percolating. All we have are the highlights, the plays we all witnessed, the ones that stuck in our memory. We can talk about those plays in gee-whiz, did-you-see-that tones. Or we can learn from them. There's information to be gleaned from the first plays of the 2006 season. You just have to look closely.
So let's pause, rewind, and freeze frame, again and again, looking for football truth one blurry frame at a time.
It's third-and-2 at the Dolphins 27-yard line. The Steelers are driving at the start of the second quarter in a scoreless tie. Third-and-2 is usually a running down for a team like the Steelers, but they line up in a shotgun formation with four wide receivers on the field. Hines Ward (inside), Nate Washington (middle, on the line of scrimmage) and rookie Santanio Holmes (outside) are bunched right. Cedrick Wilson is alone on the far left of the formation. Change-up running back Verron Haynes stands to Charlie Batch's left.
The Dolphins counter with their dime defense. Zach Thomas is the only linebacker on the field, though safety Yeremiah Bell lines up to Thomas' right as a second linebacker. The Dolphins respond to the Steelers' bunch of receivers by moving cornerback Will Allen inside over Ward, with rookie nickel back Michael Lehan on Holmes' outside shoulder and safety Travares Tillman so deep that he can't be seen on television. Andre Goodman defends Wilson, with Renaldo Hill playing deep on that side of the field. It's a Cover-2 look, with two deep safeties and two corners covering three receivers. With Bell playing shallow, it appears that Nick Saban is worried about Ward on a drag route.
Holmes goes in motion, crossing behind Washington and Ward, turning just before he reaches the right tackle, then returning to his original position. Lehan and Allen shuffle right when Holmes starts, then slide back when he returns. It's definitely a zone look. A split second before the snap, Thomas crashes the line of scrimmage, heading for the bunch-side A-gap. At the same time, left defensive end Matt Roth pops out of his stance and steps back. Zone blitz. Did Batch have time to read it? It's hard to tell, but the Steelers offensive line appears ready for it.
The ball is snapped. Thomas hits the line. Bell charges as well, attacking the other A-gap. Roth drops into a hook zone. The receivers start their routes. Ward releases outside, as does Washington. Lehan drops into the flat zone along the sidelines. Allen appears ready to retreat into the seam zone. Holmes takes two steps out, pivots with his right foot, and turns for the football.
The Dolphins don't want to give up the quick screen in a short yardage situation. Allen, Lehan, and Roth all react to Holmes' route. Holmes, after waiting a second for the ball, backtracks toward Batch as if anticipating a slip-screen pass, then runs a short drag. The deception hooks Lehan, who mirrors Holmes. The defenders lose track of Washington, running an out-and-up route. While Holmes runs his dipsy-doodle, Batch focuses on Washington, who gets behind Lehan and Allen. Batch pumps slightly just before Washington breaks up the sideline.
It's up to the pass rush to stop the play. Thomas is picked up by center Jeff Hartings, turned out, and doubled by Kendall Simmons. Right tackle Max Starks, who would normally block Roth, handles Kevin Carter with ease. Left tackle Marvel Smith has no problem with Vonnie Holliday. Where's Jason Taylor? After a quick penetration step, he drops into zone coverage on the far side of the play. Wilson runs a slant route on that side of the field, far from Taylor. The Dolphins' top pass rusher guards grass.
Only Bell gets any penetration, slipping past Alan Faneca and overpowering Haynes. He's in Batch's face as he throws, but the pressure comes too late. Tillman, the deep safety, has little chance to make a play on Washington, now streaking up the sidelines well beyond the reach of Lehan or Allen. Tillman gets good position, but Washington leaps at the five-yard line, shields the defender with his body, and lands in the end zone. Touchdown. The season is truly underway.
Watch a play a hundred times, and you can learn a hundred things. But what good is information about Nate Washington and Charlie Batch? If the Steelers mount another Super Bowl run, they'll be watching from the sidelines. Santonio Holmes ran a fine decoy route. Yeremiah Bell beat a double team. Interesting tidbits. Will those insights make my analysis 1 percent better this season? Probably not.
Just look at the players who score in Week 1. Washington. Anthony Thomas. Bernard Berrian. Chris McAlister. Some of these guys won't score again all year. For many fans, the Week 1 results themselves are suspect -- Rams over Broncos, Seahawks and Patriots just edging the Lions and Bills. We all remember the Panthers team that won their opener 24-13, then lost 15 straight, and the Patriots team that lost to Buffalo 31-0 to start a Super Bowl season. Week 1 results are meaningful, but overreact to them at your own peril. And if you scrutinize plays at stop motion until your eyes are tearing and the batteries in your remote are dying, it's easy to turn a molehill of blown coverage or poor tackling into a mountain of false conclusions.
But there's little else to do. Reading transcripts of coach's press conferences only gets you so far. Surfing blogs for fan reaction is more interesting than informative. There's not enough data to muster meaningful DVOA. There are Rundowns to write. Radio stations need sound bytes. A successful Pro Football Prospectus 2007 next July starts with careful observation today.
Rewind. Freeze frame.
It's first-and-10, and the Cowboys have the ball at the Jaguars' 23-yard line. It's early in the first quarter, and the Cowboys are driving easily. Their passing game is clicking, but their running game isn't. On a rainy day in Florida, that could be a problem. Bill Parcells wants to establish the run.
The Cowboys line up in an I-formation, with rookie tight end Anthony Fasano at fullback. Terry Glenn is the flanker, aligned tight to the right side. Terrell Owens is wide left. The Jaguars are showing a vanilla 4-3. Then, motion: Jason Witten backs up, Glenn steps forward. Witten crosses the formation, right to left, pauses behind Drew Bledsoe, then turns back and sets up two yards behind right guard Marco Rivera. Actually, he never quite sets up: he's adjusting his weight at the snap, preparing to move to his left. The Jaguars appear to be in man coverage, as the Jaguars linebackers can clearly be seen checking their assignments as Witten moves. But it's irrelevant. The Cowboys aren't planning to throw the ball.
The ball is snapped. Left guard Kyle Kosier is covered up by defensive tackle John Henderson, one of the best linemen in the game. But Kosier drop steps with his left foot and turns his attention to right end Paul Spicer, allowing Henderson to enter the backfield unblocked. A suicide strategy? No, because Witten's motion essentially gave the Cowboys a full house backfield. Witten blocks Henderson under his left shoulder and turns him out. By the time Jones takes the handoff, Henderson is in no position to make a play.
Marcus Stroud, the Jaguars other tackle, is easily blocked and turned to the right by Rivera. Center Andre Gurode may have double-team responsibilities on Stroud, but Rivera doesn't need any help, so Gurode climbs out to the second level. Flozell Adams is already there; with Kosier blocking his defender, he's free to embark on a linebacker seek-and-destroy mission.
The Jaguars have three linebackers on the field: Mike Peterson (middle), Daryl Smith (defensive right), and Nick Greisen (defensive left). By the time Jones takes his first step with the ball, the Cowboys have three second-level blockers: Adams, Gurode, and Fasano. All three Cowboys find their targets. Gurode smothers Greisen. Adams brushes Smith aside as Smith tries to run around the block. Peterson gamely tries to fill a hole about seven yards wide. Fasano gets under his pads and drives him back three yards. Peterson sheds, but Jones is already through the hole and cutting to his right.
It's up to the secondary. Cornerback Robert Mathis isn't far from the play, but Glenn does a fine job tying him up at the line of scrimmage. Brian Williams is far afield, his attention focused on Owens running a little slant route. Neither Donovan Darius nor Deon Grant is blocked; either could stop the play for an eight-yard gain. But Jones makes a tight, downhill cut. Gurode pulverized Greisen so badly that Jones can simply hug the block and turn on the burners.
Both Darius and Grant anticipate a wider cut by Jones, and they take bad angles. Jones closes the distance between them too fast. Darius attempts an ankle tackle at the 19-yard line, Mathis comes off Glenn's block and dives at the 17. Jones is tripped up momentarily but keeps running. Grant realizes that he took a poor angle; he starts at the 10-yard line, drives to about the eight, then plants and starts giving ground as Jones escapes from Darius and Mathis. He chases Jones to the far right corner, but can only apply a shove as Jones reaches the end zone.
Touchdowns make great analytical tools. We all saw the last two plays several times on highlight shows. You read the header "Julius Jones" and you knew what was coming. It's easier to describe action to an audience that already knows the particulars. Plus, touchdowns are important plays, reviewed from multiple angles on television. The more angles, the more thorough the breakdown.
But touchdowns aren't the only important plays. There are sacks, interceptions, and long gains that don't result in a score. Then there are the incomplete passes, nearly 7,000 of them every season, each one an example of great coverage or poor pass protection, a heads-up play on defense or a mental breakdown on offense. Indeed, except for the scores by the McAlisters of the world, most touchdowns are offensive successes and defensive failures. Study only the touchdowns, and you risk learning only half the story.
But we have to start somewhere. There will be time to break down sacks and fumbles and four-yard runs in the weeks to come. Week 1 is the time to brainstorm and outline, not to edit and fine tune. Touchdowns tell us what the offense wants to do and what defenses must do to stop them. Touchdowns tell us the Steelers plan to throw on third-and-short, and that the Cowboys can ignore their star-studded receiving corps, run up the middle, and achieve some success. They're simple insights, but they'll do.
Plus, we can break down other plays while searching the tape (DVR, actually) for the touchdowns. Scan the first quarter of the Chargers-Raiders game, and you'll find LaDainian Tomlinson's 58-yard run. A slow-motion review reveals beautiful blocking: Lorenzo Neal on Thomas Howard, Antonio Gates on Michael Huff, Shane Olivea on Derrick Burgess. A fake reverse freezes the backside defenders. Kirk Morrison fills the wrong gap or just takes an awful angle. L.T. does what he does best.
But it's not a touchdown. Fast forward.
It's fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line at the start of the second quarter. Marty Schottenheimer is going for it. Pick your jaw up off the ground.
Schottenheimer isn't a subterfuge kind of guy. He plans to run the ball. The Chargers are lined up in a traditional goal line formation, with three tight ends, one of them actually tackle Cory Lekkerkerker. Brandon Manumaleuna and Lekkerkerker are on the left side of the formation, Manumaleuna a yard off the line of scrimmage. Tomlinson is ready to run behind a battalion of vowels and consonants. The Raiders respond accordingly, with six defensive linemen and five "linebackers," though cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and safeties Jarrod Cooper and Derrick Gibson are among the nominal linebackers.
The ball is snapped. The play is clearly designed to open a hole between the guys with the long names. Manumaleuna stands up linebacker Jeremy Irons and turns him out to the left. Lekkerkerker and left tackle Marcus McNeill slant left and cut their defenders. There's no initial defensive penetration on that side of the line. Center Nick Hardwick helps prevent an interior surge. Fullback Lorenzo Neal draws a bead on Asomugha. Tomlinson follows Neal and takes the handoff. It looks like he will walk into the end zone.
But Asomugha makes an alert play. He prevents Neal from getting a clean hit, shedding the block and gumming up the hole. Cooper is charging behind him, unblocked. Tomlinson assesses the information, plants with his right foot, and squares his shoulders. Change of plans. He's going over the top behind Harwick's block.
Tomlinson leaps from just outside the three-yard line. Morrison meets him in the air just at the goal line. Another linebacker, Robert Thomas, reads the play from the backside and leaps to help Morrison. Terdell Sands, who had some penetration, tries to get a piece of Tomlinson but whiffs. By the time Thomas collides with Tomlinson, it's all over. Momentum carries them both into the end zone.
This may be tealeaf reading or naval gazing, an exercise in futility for the football obsessed. Maybe I've studied the wrong plays, looked for the wrong things, made the wrong interpretations. For every detail I've included, I've omitted a dozen more. Maybe each omission was an error.
But I know what I saw. Ovie Mughelli crushes Barrett Ruud. Pause, rewind. Chris Simms misreads zone coverage and throws to Chris McAlister. Pause. Rewind. Donovan McNabb sells a play fake, tucking the ball behind his hip. Pause. Safeties bite. Linemen miss blocks. Blitzes are picked up. Rewind. What's his uniform number? 56? 58?
I really need a high-definition television.
(Check out the Football Outsiders blog on FoxSports.com in the weeks to come for more stop-motion analysis of interesting plays.)
47 comments, Last at 19 Sep 2006, 8:36am by Peter, Denmark