07 Sep 2007
by Mike Tanier
There are more than 30,000 offensive plays in a typical NFL season.
Last year, teams executed 16,392 passes and 14,450 running plays in the regular season and playoffs. There were 1,161 sacks, plus some fumbled snaps and other oddities that don't fit neatly into any play category. Every offensive play is also a defensive play, so NFL coaches and coordinators made well over 60,000 calls last season.
Each offensive and defensive call consists of numerous components. Offensive and defensive coaches must determine formations and personnel groupings. Offensive coordinators devise and integrate pre-snap motion, blocking schemes, route combinations, read progressions and other details. Defensive coordinators implement coverage schemes, blitzes and stunts, among other tactics. Quarterbacks, centers and middle linebackers or safeties adjust their coaches' calls before the snap. Once a play starts, 22 players must react to what they are seeing on the field, improvising on the fly while doing their best to stick to the script.
So it's no exaggeration to say that an NFL season involves one million decisions. And talk-radio callers criticize every last one of them.
Few football analysts watch all 30,000 offensive plays (I don't). No analyst can watch each play carefully enough to truly evaluate each player and decision. Teams have whole scouting departments to do that sort of work. The best that most of us can do is to watch lots of game tape, pausing and rewinding at the key moments that tell us something about the teams and their players. Careful scrutiny, combined with a healthy dose of statistical analysis (think DVOA), can unlock many of the NFL's secrets.
Welcome to the new Too Deep Zone, a bi-weekly attempt to unlock a secret or two about what teams are doing to win games. Every other week, I'll diagram a play or two and focus on a particular element of strategy: a formation, a route combination, or some other minutiae. Think of the new TDZ as a supplement to your favorite x-and-o heavy television show, a detail-oriented preview of an important upcoming matchup.
With 60,000 plays and about a million details to choose from, my challenge will be to select the most meaningful plays to discuss. To do that, I'll do what I have always done: Record and watch lots of football in search of "eureka" moments.
One such eureka moment occurred as I re-watched game tape of the Eagles' Week 15 victory over the Giants. With 22 seconds left before halftime, Eli Manning threw a four-yard pass over the middle to Tim Carter. The play itself didn't have major game implications; the Giants called a timeout after the play and kicked a field goal to end the half. But something on the game tape struck me: Before making the catch, Carter, a wide receiver, got tangled up with Darren Howard, an Eagles lineman. What was that all about?
Closer inspection revealed that the Eagles zone blitzed on the play (Figure 1). Their pre-snap formation was unusual: There were four down linemen in the game, but one of them (Juqua Thomas, 75) lined up at middle linebacker. Cornerback Sheldon Brown (24), covering receiver David Tyree on the left side of the offensive formation, crept up before the snap to blitz (some players aren't shown in Figure 1 for clarity). At the snap, Brown and linebacker Omar Gaither (96) blitzed the offensive left side. Thomas also blitzed, starting to his right and then looping to his left. Howard (90) jab-stepped as if rushing the passer, then retreated into the hook zone. He nudged Jeremy Shockey (80) as the tight end ran his route, then positioned himself to engage Carter on the shallow drag.
That explains what Howard was doing covering Carter. But why did Manning throw to Carter? The simple answer -- Howard versus a receiver is a mismatch -- is unsatisfactory because Howard was all over Carter when the pass was thrown. Furthermore, Carter was on the right hashmark when he caught the ball. He was in no position to get out of bounds, and he had to dodge Howard before he could turn upfield. Carter did escape Howard, but he was still running laterally when Brown and Gaither caught up to him for a four-yard gain. The minimal gain wasn't worth a spent timeout. So what was Manning doing?
There are two possibilities. One is that Manning made the correct read but rushed the throw. Had he waited another second (the line picked up the Eagles' blitz well), Carter would have been clear of Howard and in position to turn upfield or race to the sidelines. The other possibility is that Manning misread the blitz and lost track of Howard. He assumed that Carter was uncovered once he disengaged from cornerback Lito Sheppard and that the receiver could cut upfield for a substantial gain. Either way, Manning made a minor mistake, one that didn't hurt the Giants much.
As I watched the rest of the game, I realized why this was a eureka moment. The Eagles held a 29-22 lead with 2:57 to play in the fourth quarter when Manning and the Giants got the ball on the 20-yard line following a kickoff. On the first play from scrimmage, Manning was hit as he threw a wobbling pass into the flat for Tiki Barber. Trent Cole caught it and raced 19 yards for a game-clinching touchdown. The Eagles' defensive call on that play: a zone blitz, with Brown and Gaither rushing the passer while a defensive lineman (Cole instead of Howard) dropped into coverage.
Figure 2 shows that the Eagles executed a different blitz than the one they used late in the second quarter. They attacked the offensive right side, not the left. They deployed a four-man front instead of the three-man look they used earlier. Still, the similarities are striking. Cole (58) jab-stepped and dropped into a zone, this time the flat zone on the offensive left side. Thomas, now at left end, took a wide release, allowing Brown and Gaither to attack the gap between the right guard and tackle. The Giants line, which did a tremendous job against the second quarter blitz, whiffed on this play. Brown reached Manning unblocked. Thomas was just a step behind him. Barber and left tackle Bob Whitfield blocked no one on this play. Manning or his center didn't call the proper pass protection adjustments.
But Manning made another mistake. Facing a hard blitz from his right, Manning tried to look and throw left. His pass appeared to be to Barber, though Manning said after the game that he was trying to hit Plaxico Burress (not shown) on a hitch route. Either way, he blew the read. Figure 2 shows David Tyree running a flat pattern to the right sideline. With Brown blitzing, Tyree is uncovered on this play. He's the likely hot read in a blitz situation. Tyree probably would have gained seven or eight yards and gotten out of bounds, a favorable outcome considering the game situation. Instead of a few yards and a stopped clock, the Giants got a batted pass, an interception and a touchdown.
The eureka moment clarified Manning's 2006 struggles. We all saw Manning throw some critical interceptions and miss some receivers badly last season. We also saw plenty of great throws, and we've all been deafened by mass media rhetoric about him, right up to two weeks ago when Tiki Barber sounded off. It's easy to caricature a player who is under so much scrutiny, pigeon-holing him with an easy label ("first-round bust," "not a leader," "lacks swagger") instead of focusing on his real strengths and weaknesses. After reviewing the Week 15 game tape, I have something specific to focus on: Manning's decisions when faced with an overload zone blitz. If he can correct the mistakes he made against the Eagles last season, he can go a long way toward fulfilling his potential.
Now you have something to focus on, too; instead of wondering whether Manning's teammates chuckle when he gives a pregame speech, you can watch for one-sided blitzes and dropping linemen. Whether you are a Giants fan or just a casual observer, it is sure to make the game a little more interesting. That's really the goal: Learn a little bit about the game, increase our (yours and mine) appreciation of the subtleties, and get a little bit smarter, one eureka moment at a time.
57 comments, Last at 10 Sep 2007, 12:17pm by Pete