Just how often do championship teams in college football play at a championship level?
12 Oct 2007
by Mike Tanier
With the Cowboys hosting the Patriots this week, I decided to write a Too Deep Zone highlighting some of each team's most successful offensive plays. There was only one problem: Both offenses have been so good this season that I had too many choices. A laundry list of bombs to Randy Moss and Patrick Crayton might please Patriots and Cowboys fans, but it wouldn't shed much light on Sunday's game.
Instead of looking at signature plays in isolation, I decide to focus on successful offensive series. A series provides much more information about a team's overall style and game plan. When an offense is clicking -- like the Patriots were against the Bengals a few weeks ago -- a drive can show just what tactics coaches use to dictate to the defense. When an offense is struggling -- like the Cowboys were against the Bills in the first quarter on Monday Night -- a successful series is a study in small adjustments that yield big results.
After watching lots of tape and selecting two interesting drives, I was struck by the Patriots' ability to excel using both spread-formation principles and power running plays, and by the Cowboys' ability to overcome early turnovers without becoming too conservative.
When the Patriots went on their off-season wide receiver binge, I wondered how they were going to incorporate all those new weapons into their scheme. The Patriots successfully ran an offense built around multi-tight end formations in 2006, and while the team clearly needed more firepower, the additions of Randy Moss, Donte' Stallworth, Wes Welker and others seemed like overkill. As it turns out, the Patriots not only found roles for all of their new toys, but they did it without turning their offense into a run 'n' shoot. In fact, when watching game tape, I was surprised at how much of last year's two-tight end, run oriented approach was retained, and how seamlessly it mixes with a more wide-open philosophy designed to accommodate Moss and friends.
Let's examine the Patriots' second-quarter scoring drive against the Bengals two weeks ago. After receiving a kickoff and running once up the middle, the Patriots align in a shotgun, empty backfield formation on second-and-7 (Figure 1). At the snap, three receivers run curl routes at depths of five to seven yards. Kevin Faulk (33) presses up the field before attacking the right flat. Randy Moss (81) goes deep. Tom Brady reads the defense quickly and throws to Welker (83), who eludes a tackler and picks up nine yards.
Note the defensive reaction to the Patriots spread formation. The Bengals counter with a three-deep zone. Both cornerbacks drop into deep coverage at the snap, Landon Johnson (59) covers the offensive left curl zone, nickel back Leon Hall (29) covers the right flat zone, and safety Madieu Williams (40) steps up into the left flat zone. The Bengals fake a blitz up the middle presnap, but at the snap Nedu Ndukwe (41) blitzes, with lineman Robert Geathers dropping into the right curl zone. This is a conservative zone blitz. Marv Lewis and Chuck Bresnahan want to generate pressure while still keeping seven defenders in coverage. The Patriots pick Ndukwe up easily, and Brady makes a simple read. He throws into the zone Geathers is defending.
On the next play, the Patriots shuffle personnel a bit. Tight end Kyle Brady replaces fourth wideout Jabar Gaffney, and Sammy Morris replaces Faulk. The Patriots once again line up in the shotgun, this time with Morris at running back (Figure 2). Tom Brady makes a pre-snap adjustment based on what he sees of the Bengals defense: Cornerback Jonathan Joseph is giving Stallworth an eight-yard cushion, and two linebackers are threatening blitz. My guess is that Brady audibles out of a handoff or a deeper pass into a slip screen to Stallworth. After the snap, he fakes a handoff to Morris. Morris and the offensive line all sell a sweep to the right. Stallworth releases hard to attack Joseph, then cuts back and in to catch a quick screen from Brady. Welker attempts to block Leon Hall, and several offensive linemen flow out to attempt second level blocks. Hall makes a great individual play to corral Stallworth after just a five-yard gain, but the Patriots will take five easy yards on first-and-10.
At this point, the Patriots are executing a spread formation offense. They are very good at it. The Bengals must react to extreme speed and ability at nearly every position. Moss and Stallworth require an eight-yard cushion on most plays. Welker is much better than most third wideouts. Ben Watson (who hasn't made an appearance yet) is an exceptional pass-catching tight end. Five- to eight-yards gains are on the table for the Patriots on nearly every play, because the Bengals can't cover everyone, and the blitz leaves the Bengals far too vulnerable to a deep pass.
But after loosening up the Bengals defense, the Patriots suddenly change tactics. The Patriots' next eight plays are runs by Sammy Morris, their least imposing offensive weapon. They run several times from an I-formation with two tight ends. With Kyle Brady, Ben Watson, and Heath Evans leading the charge, Morris is able to churn out several six- to eight-yard gains. The Patriots changed tactics in part because Bengals linebacker Landon Johnson got injured in mid-drive, forcing the injury-depleted Bengals to use nickel personnel on rushing downs. But the Patriots ran several times before Johnson got hurt. Basically, they were running the ball because the Bengals couldn't stop them.
Figure 3 shows the kind of brute force tactics the Patriots used. Prior to the snap, Kyle Brady motions to the left side, stopping just behind the left tackle. What started as a balanced formation suddenly becomes a heavy running formation to the left. At the snap, Brady hooks into the left A-gap to double-team a defensive tackle, while Watson doubles down on defensive end Justin Smith. Even Stallworth gets in the act, taking on Madieu Williams. This is an old-fashioned mass blocking play that would make a high school coach proud. Morris only gains five yards because he bounces his run to the outside, allowing Williams to peel off his block and make a tackle. Had Morris followed Brady to the inside, he might have gained ten or more yards. But again, the Patriots merrily gain five yards on first-and-10, allowing them to dictate on later downs.
This drive ended with a seven-yard touchdown pass to Moss that I didn't diagram. Moss basically ran a stop route and out-jumped Jonathan Joseph to catch a surgically-precise Tom Brady pass. By this point in the drive, the Bengals were out of defensive options. They couldn't double-cover Moss or roll a zone his way without exposing a big weakness elsewhere. The touchdown gave the Patriots a 17-7 lead, but the game didn't feel that close.
The Patriots' offensive diversity will serve them well against the Cowboys. If Wade Phillips is able to generate heat with his 3-4 blitz packages, the Patriots can shift into two-tight end mode and still effectively churn out yardage. My guess is that Phillips will have to abandon the heavy blitz tactics early in this game. When that happens, the Patriots will spread the field and force the Cowboys to play pick-your-poison.
Tony Romo looked terrible in the first quarter of Monday night's game. He threw two interceptions, both of them aimed at Jason Witten. On one play, either Witten or Romo misread the Bills defense, and the error led to an almost embarrassingly easy interception return touchdown. On the second pick, Romo stared Witten down on a curl, and a linebacker jumped the route.
Clearly, Witten was a big part of the Cowboys' game plan against the Bills, a team with inexperienced linebackers and a third-stringer starting at safety because of injuries. The Witten-heavy strategy wasn't introduced against the Bills; the tight end leads the team in receptions and touchdowns this season. With Terry Glenn out, the Cowboys use more tight formations, crossing routes, and wipes to get their big, physical receivers open, and Witten excels at finding room to work over the middle.
Despite watching Romo throw two interceptions, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett wasn't ready to scrap the passing game or reduce the emphasis on the tight end. At the same time, Garrett clearly wanted to call a few "confidence" plays for his quarterback. On first-and-10 late in the first quarter, Garrett gave Romo an opportunity to do what he does best -- throw on the run -- by opening a drive with a waggle (Figure 4). The Cowboys initially line up in a trips-bunch formation to the left side, but Anthony Fasano (80) motions into the backfield pre-snap (the motion isn't shown for clarity). The Cowboys sell play-action to the left, leaving defensive left end Chris Kelsay (90) unblocked. After faking the handoff to the left, Romo rolls right, eluding Kelsay while doing a good job of maintaining space in relation to his receivers and depth from the line of scrimmage.
As Romo rolls, Terrell Owens runs a comeback at about 15 yards, Patrick Crayton (84) runs a deep post, Witten (82) drags at a depth of about 12 yards, and Fasano feigns a block before leaking into a shallow flat route. Romo's reads would typically be Witten, Owens, Fasano, run, but he doesn't have to look past his first read. Linebacker Mario Haggan blitzes, John DiGiorgio (52) gets lost in the trash after the play fake, and Keith Ellison (56) must spy on Romo. The free safety follows Crayton deep, and Witten is wide open for an easy 16 yards.
The next two plays on this Cowboys drive are Romo-to-Witten completions, one on a short curl route, another on an in-route. These are short, high-percentage passes, one of them coming on a mesh play where Fasano and Owens run crossing patterns and create a midfield traffic jam for Witten to exploit. These passes may have boosted Romo's confidence too much: His next throw to Crayton is nearly picked off. Owens helps Romo shake that throw off by out-jumping a defender for a 14-yard gain. On the next play, the Cowboys take a page out of the Patriots' 2006 playbook to produce a 22-yard Romo-to-Witten strike.
On first-and-10 from the 22-yard line, the Cowboys deploy a two-tight end, I-formation set (Figure 5). The Cowboys frequently use two tight ends and one back, but this formation is unusually power-oriented for them. The Bills counter with a surprising strategy: a 5-3-3 personnel grouping and formation. With defensive linemen Chris Kelsay (90), Larry Tripplett (98), Kyle Williams (95), Tim Anderson (77), and Aaron Schobel (94) all on the field, the Bills have a stout run-stopping wall and the capacity to generate a strong pass rush. With a deep safety shaded to Owens' side, they have ample coverage for the Cowboys' most dangerous deep threat. Unfortunately, the Bills are forced to isolate Ellison in single coverage on Witten.
You know what happens next. Fasano runs a five-yard out. Owens runs to the corner, taking two defenders with him. The fullback and tailback block Kelsay, allowing the Cowboys line to fan left and engage the Bills front five. Witten releases outside, turns his shoulders as if running a corner route, then dips and flies straight up the seam. Ellison enjoys the view from four yards behind. It's hard to determine what the other Bills linebackers were trying to do. One appears to be defending the (obviously unthreatened) middle zone, while the other, who may have been assigned to one of the backs in man coverage, just drifts around. Needless to say, the Patriots linebackers will probably make better decisions than their Bills counterparts if faced with this kind of play.
I was impressed by Garrett's calls on this drive. First, he keeps attacking despite the fact that Romo had a brutal first quarter. Second, he dials up high-percentage plays that still produce substantial yardage. Finally, he gives the Bills a different look -- the power package -- that puts the Cowboys in perfect position to take a shot at the end zone. I get the impression that if the Cowboys were in a base personnel grouping, or if they frequently used a two-tight and fullback package, the Bills would have kept four defensive backs in the game, and a safety would have been covering Witten instead of Ellison.
If the Cowboys hope to win on Sunday, they need Witten to play as well as he did on Monday night. The Patriots are 31st in the league in DVOA against tight ends; the numbers are slightly exaggerated because one of the games came against Antonio Gates, but still, this is one of their few clear weaknesses on defense. The Patriots linebackers, while smart and experienced, are a step slow and can be exploited in coverage. Garrett, Romo, and the Cowboys will attack with all of the Witten plays in their arsenal, but they must also be careful: Romo threw three of his five Monday night interceptions on passes intended for Witten.
These are two exceptional offenses. The Cowboys and Patriots offenses don't just look great because they faced some poor opposition; they are great, and they looked overwhelming at times because they faced some poor opposition. Both teams mix outstanding personnel with great creativity and (often) perfect execution. Both defenses are also quite good, but the offenses will have the edge no matter who has the ball.
The Cowboys, of course, have an obvious weakness: Romo's propensity for turnovers. Jason Garrett's task this week, and for the rest of the season, is to limit Romo's mistakes without sacrificing offensive aggressiveness. Garret scored high marks on the "aggressiveness" test on nonday Night, but he failed the "limit mistakes" portion of the exam. Don't look for the Cowboys to rein in Romo's deep passing or his scrambling, and don't expect them to play scared. You will see a couple of textbook Cowboys drives. You will also see an interception or two.
As for the Patriots, they're a chameleon. A very dangerous chameleon. From what I have seen this season, a defense cannot beat the Patriots by forcing them to change their style, because the Patriots can win with any style. The Cowboys' greatest challenge this week won't be containing Moss or accounting for Stallworth's speed or stopping Tom Brady from picking them apart with passes to Welker and Faulk. Their challenge will be accounting for everyone, from Moss to Heath Evans. No one has come close to meeting that challenge this year.
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