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?
19 Jan 2007
by Mike Tanier
Are you drowning in a sea of hype?
If so, here's a football-shaped life preserver: a no-nonsense breakdown of all four conference title contenders. There's nothing fancy in the Too Deep Zone this week, just four teams, four plays (five, actually), and a bunch of diagrams to give you a closer look at what you should expect on Sunday.
|Figure 1: Saints pre-snap motion|
|Note: #12 Marques Colston mistakenly marked as #87.|
The Saints have a balanced offense in the truest sense of the word. They can throw long or short to various receivers, and they can run inside or out with Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush. Opponents cannot really scheme to stop one particular aspect of the Saints offense. If your run defense is strong, they'll throw the ball. If you drop to stop the pass, they'll run. And they have a playbook full of gadgets to attack you with once you are on your heels.
The Eagles defense was starting to fall back on its heels late in the first quarter on Saturday. McAllister had already ripped off 12-yard and 28-yard runs, both of them on simple handoffs to the right side. The Eagles were defending the pass well, and they were clearly committed to stopping the run on first-and-10. Sean Payton wanted to catch them off balance, so he called for a waggle: a play-action rollout designed to get the ball to a tight end on a crossing route.
Figure 1 shows some of the subterfuge that is giving Payton a reputation as a master schemer. Before the Saints set, Mark Campbell lines up as the tight end on the left side, Terrence Coooer as the split end to the right, and Marques Colston as a flanker left. Then they quickly shift, with Campbell moving left to right, Colston stepping up to the line of scrimmage, and Copper sliding into the left slot. The Eagles don't react much, because they haven't really set yet; only Sheldon Brown really changes his position, moving into a force alignment when Copper disappears. The pre-set motion shortens the amount of time the Eagles have to make pre-snap decisions, and it helps disguise this play action pass.
Before the snap, Copper moves again, from slot left to flanker right, and Brown must again adjust to cover him. Figure 2 shows what happens at the snap. The Saints linemen slant right, with left tackle Jammal Brown climbing out to the linebacker level. Jammal Brown must be careful: this is a pass play, so he cannot get more than two yards down field. He manages to sell a run block well while avoiding a penalty. Brown's block is further sold by the fact that Trent Cole, the Eagles' best pass rusher, is allowed into the backfield on the play. All signs point to another run off right tackle by McAllister.
|Figure 2: Saints waggle to Mark Campbell|
But this is a play-action pass. Drew Brees sells the fake, then turns and rolls left. Cole is blocked by fullback Mike Karney. The fake was incredibly successful. Eagles linebackers Omar Gaither and Jeremiah Trotter sold out on the running play. The rookie Gaither obligingly runs right into Brown's block, while Trotter recognizes the fake a split-second too late. Campbell runs a simple crossing route, and he's wide open the moment he leaves Dhani Jones's zone. Brees actually has two open receivers on this play: after Karney slows Cole down, he leaks into the flat and could easily gain 10 yards on a short pass. But Brees connects with Campbell for 23 yards.
It appears that Gaither and Trotter had zone coverage responsibilities on this play. But convincing play action by the Saints, made possible by their strong running game, forced the Eagles to vacate their zones. It's a simple play, but great execution and a well-timed call made it extremely effective.
The Saints may reach deep into their bag of tricks on Sunday because they aren't good enough to match up physically with the Bears defense. They must be wary of relying too much on double-reverses and hide-the-Bush plays, because disciplined defenses can sniff those out and turn them into big losses. But a simple waggle can take away some of a defense's aggressiveness and get linebackers, even great ones, thinking instead of attacking.
(Note: Error confusing Joe Horn and Colston with Colston and Copper has now been fixed.)
We spent last week diagramming Bears offensive plays, so it made sense to analyze a defensive play this week. The most interesting call I saw on Sunday was one that didn't work, but one which I have seen the Bears use effectively earlier in the season.
|Figure 3: Bears Cover-2 Dog|
When the Bears are defending their red zone or have an opponent backed up deep in their own territory, Ron Rivera likes to deploy six-man and seven-man fronts. Most teams blitz from such heavy fronts, but the Bears frequently drop defenders into zone coverage from a six- or seven-man look. The Bears can do this because defenders like Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher are incredibly fast when dropping off the line and can react quickly to the offensive play. The offense is often left in a choose-your-poison scenario: run against the stacked front, risk a pass against a blitz, or try to exploit the middle of the field, only to find that Urlacher dropped into coverage and is waiting for you.
Figure 3 shows a formation the Bears used on third-and-10 in the third quarter against the Seahawks. It's a heavy blitz look. Both defensive tackles are playing 3-technique, creating a wide lane for Urlacher to blitz through. Briggs (offensive left side) is also in position to blitz, and slot defender Ricky Manning could also blitz if the Bears decided to leave Jerramy Stevens to their safeties. But the Bears are just dogging; at the snap, Uralcher, Briggs, and Manning all drop into zones, with Urlacher making one brief jab step toward the line of scrimmage before backpedaling.
|Figure 4: Seahawks draw off Cover-2 Dog|
This scheme and others like it were very effective against the Vikings and Rams. But you probably recognize the formation and situation from last Sunday: the Seahawks ran a draw play against this defense, and Shaun Alexander scored a touchdown. Figure 4 shows the basics of the Seahawks call: Stevens blocked inside on the play, center Chris Spencer nailed Urlacher as he dropped into coverage, and Briggs was suckered into the Urlacher-Spencer-Stevens traffic by a fine Alexander cutback. This was a great call by Mike Holmgren, and the Bears defenders could do little to stop it. In slow motion, it's clear that Urlacher and Briggs read the play quickly, and Urlacher sheds Spencer only to collide with Stevens. The Seahawks call lots of third down draws, so Rivera probably should have defended the middle of the line of scrimmage better. In most situations, though, this is a scheme that makes great use of the Bears personnel.
Rivera will probably throw a lot of heavy fronts at the Saints this week. He'll want his defenders to string Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister out at the line of scrimmage when possible, and he wants those backs blocking, not running routes, on passing downs. The Saints ran well against the Eagles' four-man fronts last week, but the Bears have the talent on defense to attack them with a very different look.
I reviewed the Patriots-Chargers game looking specifically for plays that the Patriots offense might use against the Colts. That was tricky, because the blitz-happy Chargers execute a scheme very different from Tony Dungy's Cover-2 system. Late in the first quarter, the Patriots ran a two-play sequence that could be very effective against the Colts. Like the Bears play from the last segment, these plays were ultimately unsuccessful for the Patriots last Sunday. But that doesn't mean they'll be scrapped.
Figure 5 shows a play the Patriots ran on second-and-9 from the Chargers 40-yard line. The Patriots are expecting a blitz, so they keep tight end David Thomas in as an extra blocker to neutralize Shawne Merriman (#82 vs. #56). Tight end Ben Watson is in the right slot, just a yard left and three yards behind receiver Jabar Gaffney. The close formation suggests that the Patriots may attempt some kind of cross or wipe. The formation also makes Tom Brady's read easier: only cornerback Drayton Florence is aligned against the bunched duo of receivers, so the Chargers are clearly not in man coverage (the left split receiver and cornerback are irrelevant and omitted for space purposes).
|Figure 5: Patriots out and corner|
|Note: #86 David Thomas mistakenly marked as #82.|
The Chargers do blitz at the snap, sending both Merriman (technically a down lineman on this play) and Shaun Phillips. Thomas' presence makes blitz pickup easy. The Patriots flood the right side of the field with receivers at three depths. Corey Dillon rolls into the flat at a depth of about three yards. Watson runs an out route at a depth of about 12 yards. Gaffney starts his route with an inside move, fakes briefly toward the post, and then heads to the corner of the end zone.
The Chargers, who appear to be in a Cover-3 defense behind their blitz (this is a real guess), don't defend this play well. Florence follows Watson to the sidelines, apparently losing track of Gaffney when the receiver works inside. Dillon is not picked up at all. Gaffney is isolated against safety Marlon McCree, who is not in good position to make a play. Gaffney beats McCree, Brady smells a touchdown, and only a slightly off-target pass prevents a quick score. Brady could have gained 10-15 yards by dumping off to Dillon, but you can't blame him for taking a shot on this play.
This route combination can be very effective against a two-deep zone, which would require a cornerback to break off and defend either Dillon or Watson while a safety defended the corner route. If a defense countered with man coverage, Dillon would probably beat his defender to the flat for a solid gain.
|Figure 6: Brady to Brown vs. Cover-2|
The Patriots coaches clearly liked what they saw on that play despite the incompletion. They ran a similar play on the very next down. Figure 6 shows the Patriots in their nickel personnel package, with Troy Brown as the split receiver and Kevin Faulk in the backfield. The faces have changed, but the basics of the play have not. A tight end (Watson this time) is still assigned to help block Merriman. The back still runs to the flat. Pre-snap motion by Brown creates a formation similar to the one in Figure 5, and Brown takes an inside release behind Gaffney. This time, though, Brown isn't running a corner route. Instead, he's looking for a soft spot in the Chargers zone coverage while Gaffney tries to clear out behind the safeties. But the Chargers are in a vanilla Cover-2, and they defend the play well. Florence drops off at the snap and gives plenty of cushion to Faulk on third-and-long. Donnie Edwards drops precisely and reacts quickly when Brown sits down to catch the ball. The play nets seven yards when the Patriots needed nine, but the reception does put the Patriots in field goal range.
Route and play combinations like these force the linebackers and safeties to make reads and react quickly to the ball in the air. Colts linebackers may be cheating toward the line of scrimmage on Sunday to defend the run, and the Colts have a rookie and a run stopper at safety. Brady will try to flood zones, find soft spots, and pick his spots to go deep when Bob Sanders or Antoine Bethea is isolated against a receiver. This two-play sequence is a good example of how the Patriots can use the similar-looking plays to attack two different points on the field. Imagine it in reverse -- a short pass to Brown to set up second-and-3, followed by a deep attempt -- and you can see how deadly it could be.
The Colts run defense has improved drastically over the past two weeks, but players swear they aren't doing anything different scheme-wise; they are just executing better. To an extent, that's true. The Colts haven't made major modifications on defense, and they are executing better than they were late in the season. But they have made some tweaks defensively.
One way for a smaller, quicker group of defensive linemen to gain an advantage over bigger blockers is by stunting. The Colts stunt frequently on third-and-long situations, but they don't often do it on neutral downs. While we usually think of stunting as a pass rushing strategy, stunts can help a team's run defense as well: they mix up blocking assignments and clog lanes that a running back expects to be open.
Figure 7 shows a strong side stunt that the Colts used early in the game against the Ravens. It's second-and-9, a passing down for most teams but a neutral down for the more run-oriented Ravens. The Ravens line up in a strong-I formation with H-back Dan Wilcox playing fullback and split receivers (not shown). The Colts are a basic 4-3 with their linebackers about five yards off the line of scrimmage. Nothing unusual there.
|Figure 7: Colts run stunt|
At the snap, Raheem Brock (#79) and Robert Mathis (#98) execute a stunt on the offensive right side of the formation. Stunts succeed because of timing, and my diagrams don't display timing very well. Brock initiates the stunt by slanting hard across the face of right tackle Tony Pashos. Mathis takes a jab step forward, loops behind Brock, and attacks the gap left of guard Keydrick Vincent. Mathis executes the loop on the Ravens side of the line of scrimmage as he is supposed to.
The stunt confounds the Ravens' blocking scheme. Pashos has no help from tight end Todd Heap, who is feigning a pass route so he can block a safety. The Ravens center and left guard are double-teaming Booger McFarland, so Vincent doesn't have much help either. The Ravens are trying to run an inside delay to Jamal Lewis, the type of play that the Jaguars and Eagles got big gains out of against the Colts defense. Ideally, the Ravens want Heap and Wilcox on the second level to block linebackers. But Wilcox is forced to help Pashos, and when Lewis takes the handoff, he finds that the middle of the field is clogged by Mathis and McFarland, and that linebackers Gary Brackett and Rob Morris are unblocked.
Lewis attempts to make something happen by bouncing the play outside to the right. His quick cut is initially effective: Brackett and Morris are drawn towards the line by his inside move and get caught up briefly in the Wilcox-Brock-Pashos mess. But Brock makes a great individual play, shedding Pashos and making contact with Lewis. Morris breaks through to finish off the tackle for a minimal gain.
The differences between a 20-yard burst in Week 13 and a two-yard run in the playoffs are subtle. Signs of the old Colts defense were evident on this play. McFarland was pushed about four yards off the line by the double team. Brackett and Morris took bad angles to Lewis. But the stunt call, coupled with a great effort by Brock, changed the whole outlook of this play. Brock, Mathis, and McFarland occupied five blockers on this simple delay, limiting the amount of blocking Lewis could expect at the linebacker level.
A strong side stunt on a rushing or neutral down is a dangerous call, and you shouldn't expect to see the Colts do this very often against the Patriots. As an occasional wrinkle, it will keep the Colts from becoming too predictable, and it should slow down New England's delay-and-draw game.
If watching game tape has taught me anything, it's that coaches, in their effort to stay one step ahead of each other, are always miles ahead of armchair analysts like me. If I've spotted a strength or weakness, you can be assured that the coaches have known about it for weeks and have devised a dozen strategies for countering it.
But that doesn't render all of this work useless: the Bears ran many of the same plays last week against the Seahawks that they used against the Bucs and Rams. Tape study gives us a little leg up and a little extra insight. Best of all, it reminds us how much we don't know: for every play I feel confident diagramming and explaining, there are a dozen that I omit because I don't feel I know for sure what happened.
Next week, we'll diagram a few more plays by the Super Bowl participants, then we'll put the playmaking software away for a while. Good thing, too. I'm starting to see little tan circles and blue triangles in my sleep.
51 comments, Last at 20 Jan 2007, 12:11pm by mb