The Vikings' quarterback seemed to regress in his second season. Did that tell us more about the player, or the Minnesota offensive scheme?
02 Nov 2007
by Mike Tanier
This play-diagramming gig isn't all sunshine and gumdrops. Sometimes, your DVR malfunctions, corrupting several game recordings, including two Colts games. So much for the obvious story hook this week. Luckily, there's a lot of action going on that doesn't involve the Game to End All Games, and there are plenty of scribbles in the Too Deep Zone notebook worthy of diagramming and dissection.
Early in the Eagles-Vikings game last week, Kelly Holcomb threw a nine-yard touchdown pass over the middle to Visanthe Shiancoe. It was an easy touchdown, and it seemed to illustrate a point that we bandied about in Audibles at the Line back in Week 7: The Cover-2 defense just ain't what it used to be. Tight ends seem to get open at will over the middle. Defenses give up way too many short completions in the name of avoiding long ones. It's one thing to get picked apart by Jason Witten or Dallas Clark when you are focused on stopping the Cowboys or Colts wide receivers. It's another thing to leave Shiancoe open at the goal line when there's only one wide receiver on the field, and he's not that good. The Eagles aren't a "Cover-2" team. I wanted to know why they were playing Cover-2 on the Shiancoe touchdown.
It turns out that they weren't. I'm not exactly sure what their defensive strategy was, but it wasn't a straight Cover-2.
Let's examine Shiancoe's touchdown, first with most of the defensive assignments toggled off (Figure 1). The Vikings line up in the I-formation with two tight ends (Shiancoe and Jim Kleinsasser) to the right on first-and-goal. This is a run-dominant formation. The Eagles counter with base personnel, but they align safety Sean Considine (37) as the force defender to the offensive right, with cornerback Sheldon Brown (24) as one of the deep safeties. Considine is clearly close to the line of scrimmage so that he can aid in run support. Adrian Peterson (28) is the Eagles' primary concern.
The Vikings execute play-action at the snap. This draws all three linebackers to the offensive right (their left), and it freezes Considine. Peterson blocks Jevon Kearse, while Shiancoe (81), Kleinsasser (40), and fullback Jeff Dugan (83) run a three-man route combination. Dugan attacks the flat, Kleinsasser runs a corner route to the back of the end zone, and Shiancoe releases to the sidelines, then cuts and runs an in-route at nine yards.
Quarterback Kelly Holcomb stares Kleinsasser down as he runs his route. Zone defenders are trained to read the quarterback's eyes and the route combination; on this play, the Eagles are playing right into Holcomb's hands. Brown and Considine both follow Kleinsasser to the back of the end zone. Omar Gaither (96) drifts in Kleinsasser's direction. Shiancoe, reading a zone, sits down two yards to Gaither's right as the defender shuffles left. Holcomb resets his feet and throws. Gaither cannot redirect and make a play, nor can Quentin Mikell (27), who is caught in the no-man's land between Shiancoe and the receiver running the hook route on the weak side.
It's clear that Gaither is a middle zone defender. Still, this is no simple two-deep, four- or five-under scheme. Figure 2 shows my best guess at what the Eagles called. It appears to be a Cover-3 defense with a twist: Takeo Spikes (51) has man-on-man responsibilities against Peterson. Mikell, who aligned as a deep safety, has flat responsibilities on the weak side. Lito Sheppard (26) covers the deep sidelines. Chris Gocong (57) takes the flat to the strong side (or possibly has man responsibilities on Dugan). Gaither covers the middle, Brown the deep middle.
Considine's role on this call is a mystery. As drawn, I have him covering the deep defensive left, which is where he ends up on this play. It's possible that both Considine and Spikes were responsible for Peterson, depending on which way the running back released. When Peterson released right, Considine prepared for man coverage. When Peterson blocked, Considine dropped into a deep zone. Sheppard, Brown, and Considine may be playing "half-quarter-quarter" coverage in the end zone, meaning that Sheppard is responsible to the weak half of the field while Brown and Considine split the strong half.
No matter what defensive coordinator Jimmy Johnson called, it wasn't the correct call. Shiancoe got open, and Gaither was asked to cover too much ground in the middle. Could the Eagles have played man coverage in this situation? Certainly. Considine could have covered Peterson. Brown could have handled Shiancoe. Sheppard could have easily blanketed any Vikings receiver. Gaither and Gocong could have handled Kleinsasser and Dugan. Spikes would have been free to blitz with Mikell in the deep middle. It would hvae been harder for Holcomb to throw to a very ordinary receiver in a tight spot than it was for him to use his experience to look off the defense and find a seam in the zone. Why allow an easy touchdown with a zone call?
The key is to remember the Eagles' biggest worry: Peterson. Man defense requires defenders to turn and run with their receivers, which puts them in poor position to read and react to a running play. Johnson needed Considine, Brown, Spikes, and others looking in the backfield. He gambled that Kelly Holcomb wouldn't be able to make a play. The gamble didn't work in this case. It worked many other times in the game.
It's important to remember that every team in the NFL uses a mix of man and zone coverages, and that each defensive call is designed to stop the run and the pass. Each defensive call has a weakness. Zone coverage schemes often require defenders to cover huge swatches of turf and process large amounts of information in a split second. Most coordinators will live with a few 10-yard passes to the tight end if defenders also force some turnovers and prevent long touchdowns. No defensive coordinator will accept a lapse like the one the Jaguars suffered against Joey Galloway last week.
Joey Galloway is fast. He hasn't lost much speed since his prime, and he has gotten better at reading coverages and adjusting his routes to burn defenders deep. He's not the kind of guy you want to leave uncovered as he sprints across the field. But the Jaguars did just that, allowing Jeff Garcia to connect with a wide-open Galloway for a 58-yard touchdown last week.
Let's examine the play. On first-and-10 in the second quarter, the Bucs align in an offset I-formation with both wide receivers tight. This is an effective running formation that also works well for short passing; the receivers have plenty of room to run out-routes and can also quickly execute mesh plays (a polite name for a moving pick) in the middle of the field. It's not a classic deep passing formation, though the tight alignment gives Galloway plenty of room to run a corner route to his left. The Jaguars counter with a Cover-2 shell.
Garcia executes play-action, then rolls to his right. Two eligible receivers -- halfback Michael Bennett and the tight end -- stay in as pass protectors. This is maximum protection. Three receivers run patterns: the fullback to the flat, the left end a dig at about 15 yards, and Galloway a post. Jaguars linebacker Mike Peterson follows the fullback into the flat (not shown). The other defenders play a straight Cover-2. Reggie Nelson (25) follows the in-route receiver crossing through his zone, leaving Galloway isolated against Sammy Knight (26). Unlike Galloway, Knight has lost much of his speed to age. Galloway cruises past Knight and into the end zone.
Steve Mariucci diagrammed this play on NFL Network on Sunday. Mooch knows a teensy tiny bit more about football than I do, but he was working on a tight deadline, and I don't agree with his evaluation of the play. Mooch blamed Nelson for biting hard on the in-route, but I believe Nelson made the correct decision. He was the deep zone defender on that half of the field, and Garcia was rolling to his direction. Nelson could not afford to peel off and cover Galloway.
The player who made the biggest mistake was yet another greybeard: cornerback Aaron Glenn (31). Glenn is responsible for the flat zone on the offensive left side. After the in-route receiver clears through his zone, Glenn doesn't have anyone to cover.
Let's take a close-up look at Glenn's responsibilities (Figure 4). His first job is to ride the left end through his zone. While riding that receiver, Glenn must note that Garcia is rolling to the far side of the field. Once the left end runs his in-route, Glenn must scan for other threats. Bennett is blocking, and the fullback is in the opposite flat. There is no underneath receiver in position to attack Glenn's zone. Even if someone crossed through (or Bennett stopped blocking), Garcia would have to throw across his body into the opposite flat to reach him. That's a recipe for an interception. Garcia would never attempt such a throw.
When an underneath defender in a Cover-2 scheme is sure that there are no receivers who can threaten his zone, he's usually expected to turn and assist with the deep coverage. Glenn does this, but he is far too late. By the time he turns upfield, Galloway is about to streak past Knight. Had Glenn followed his receiver, ascertained immediately that the left flat was out of play, and gone deep, he would have forced Garcia to throw into a smaller window.
Sammy Knight and Aaron Glenn have been playing Cover-2 for over a decade, but both have lost something to age, and neither has been with the Jaguars long enough to master the minutiae of Mike Smith's system. Even veteran defenders can be caught thinking when they are still figuring out defensive terminology or adjusting to a coach's specific instructions. Hesitation can get you killed in zone coverage, especially when you are on the wrong side of 30 and can no longer use pure athleticism to overcome your mistakes.
I hoped to diagram some Steelers blitz plays this week. Specifically, I wanted to take a closer look at what Stuart Fraser tells me is called the "Eleven Angry Men" blitz package. The Steelers line up with only one down lineman; the other defenders just mill around the line of scrimmage until the snap, then blitz or drop into coverage.
Unfortunately, the Steelers-Broncos game was lost in the great DVR Malfunction of 2007, which also wiped out an episode of Heroes and lots of children's programming (there were no survivors in Bikini Bottom). An activity called "trick-or-treating" limited my ability to break down Steelers-Bengals tape. Luckily, I took some notes from the Steelers-Broncos game; not enough to break down a specific play, but enough to whip up some general diagrams.
Figure 5 shows an approximation of a typical Eleven Angry Men alignment. Remember, only nose tackle Casey Hampton (98) is set with his hand in the dirt. The other defenders are loosely aligned, and most are in motion until the snap. This alignment stands the principles of pass protection on their head. Offensive linemen are taught to make certain reads based upon whether they are covered or uncovered (a defender directly across from them or not), whether the A, B, or C gap is immediately threatened, whether there are three, four, or five or more down linemen, and so on. When the Steelers use this formation, only the center and guard are covered, and there are six or seven linebackers and safeties nearby who could come from any direction. You can imagine the blockers' dilemma.
The Steelers also give up something when using this strategy. Obviously, the Steelers are using smaller personnel and aren't in position to stop an off-tackle run. That isn't much of an issue, because this is a third-and-long tactic. More importantly, they lose leverage and defensive precision. Linemen start with their hands in the dirt because they want to get their hands under the shoulder pads of the blockers. At the line of scrimmage, lower means stronger. The blitzing defenders can still gain a leverage advantage against opposing blockers, but it isn't as natural as it would be when exploding out of a stance. Precision is important when blitzing, and it's hard for defenders to maintain their lanes and angles when they aren't set in exact locations pre-snap. The Steelers have several experienced pass-rushers among their linebackers and safeties, so they'll trade a leverage advantage and precision for the ability to strike from all angles and confuse their opponent.
What's most interesting about the Eleven Angry Men formation is that there are often only four or five angry men rushing the quarterback. Figure 6 shows a typical blitz package, with the Steelers rushing five. Travis Kirschke (90) runs a stunt with Troy Polamalu (43): Kirschke executes a hard inside move, while Polamalu threatens the edge by looping wide. LaMarr Woodley (55) adds an extra blitzer to Polamalu's side. Clark Haggans (53) threatens the offensive left and provides containment, while Hampton gums things up in the middle. What looks like a jailbreak is a simple Cover-3 with three defenders underneath. A quarterback who panics and throws too soon is likely to connect with James Farrior (51), James Harrison (92) or safety Ryan Clark (25). If the quarterback survives this play, he'll discover that Harrison and Clark are blitzing with Polamalu on the next play while Haggans and Woodley drop into zones. It's harder to read than a Russian newspaper.
When I wrote about the Four Giant Aces two weeks ago, I noted how an unusual defensive personnel grouping can confound an offense and cause major mismatches. The Eleven Angry Men scheme is similar. Typically, the Steelers use two linemen, four linebackers, and five defensive backs in this formation. They use specialized personnel like Woodley, a pass-rusher off the bench, and Anthony Smith, a deep safety who allows Polamalu to act as a roving enforcer. The Broncos had some success running screens and quick slants against the Eleven Angry Men, but most teams (including the Bengals) have been unable to consistently beat it. The Ravens will have to use their power-oriented offense to avoid third-and-long situations this week, because they don't want to test the continuity of their rebuilt offensive line against this scheme.
When you think of detailed play diagrams and jargon-filled descriptions of the minutiae of football strategy, you no doubt think of Maxim magazine.
That's right: In the December issue of Maxim, you'll find a brief Too Deep Zone-type discussion of goal-to-go strategies. It will be wedged somewhere between some hot young starlet with her hands over her bare bosoms and ... well, if you don't get to the play diagrams, I won't blame you.
My long-range career goal is to sell play diagrams to ever-more salacious magazines. I will know I've made it when I stand in front of the Supreme Court, Larry Flynt-style, and defend my constitutional right to display my waggle.
Next week: TDZ's annual trip to NFL Films.
37 comments, Last at 06 Nov 2007, 9:15pm by Matt