"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
29 Nov 2007
by Mike Tanier
Don't forget to discuss this game in the Thursday Night Open Discussion thread on our in-game discussion message board.
The Packers rank first in the NFL in Adjusted Sack Rate. They've allowed just 14 sacks, an excellent figure when you realize that Brett Favre has already thrown nearly 300 passes. The Packers are protecting Favre despite the fact that their running game isn't much of a threat and they have been forced to shuffle offensive linemen because of injuries several times during the season.
With the Packers in Dallas on Thursday night, I wanted to learn know how they are protecting Favre, and if they can do it against an excellent pass rush. The Cowboys feature top pass rushers in DeMarcus Ware and Greg Ellis. They also have a 3-4 scheme that allows them to move defenders around to exploit mismatches and create confusion. The Packers don't have outstanding personnel on the offensive line. They can't expect to block the Cowboys five-on-four (or -five, -six, or -seven) on obvious passing downs. Their game plan must be built around their protection strategy.
If film of their last game is any indicator, the Packers will keep Favre upright using a mix of maximum protection and quick slants. It's a simple plan, and it just might work.
The Packers haven't moved far from their West Coast Offense roots in the Mike McCarthy era. Their current offense looks similar to the one they used in their mid-1990s heyday. They still execute more screens than most teams. Favre knows where his hot route receivers are, so the Packers pick up a lot of yards on three-yard passes in the direction of a blitzing defender. Screens and hot routes are standard anti-blitz strategies, but Favre and the Packers like the slant route most of all. The slant is the bread-and-butter play of the old-school West Coast Offense, and because it develops quickly and exploits one-on-one coverage well, it can be a devastating weapon against the blitz.
Favre attempted several slant passes against the Lions last Thursday, and he completed most of them. Early in the game, though, he had trouble finding his rhythm, in part because the Lions were surprising him with defenders in underneath coverage.
The Packers attempted a slant to Greg Jennings on their second play from scrimmage. On first-and-10, they line up in the I-formation (Figure 1). At the snap, right tackle Mark Tauscher pulls as if blocking for a run to the left side, and both the fullback and halfback flow in that direction. But Favre takes a quick one-step drop, turns to his right, and tries to float a pass to Jennings. Fernando Bryant (25) has tight coverage on Jennings, so the receiver releases to the inside and starts the slant portion of his route immediately.
The quick development of this play and the run action to the left suggest that this was a line call by Favre: Perhaps only he and Jennings knew about the pass, while the rest of the offense executed a left-side run called in the huddle. Such line calls are usually "smoke" passes -- quick throws out to the receiver when his defender is ten yards off the line -- but it's possible that the Packers have other options in their playbook. There were no linebackers or safeties in the passing lane between Favre and Jennings, so Favre may have assumed he could pick up ten easy yards on the slant.
Unfortunately, the Lions threw a wrinkle at Favre. At the snap, end Jared DeVries (95) buzzes the pass route, slipping into the throwing lane under Jennings and then into the offensive right flat. DeVries doesn't do anything spectacular (he over-runs the route a bit), but he forces Favre to adjust the angle of his pass. With DeVries buzzing and Cory Redding (78) bearing down, Favre must lead Jennings further down the field and throw with a higher arc. That allows Bryant to trail Jennings and break up the pass.
On the next drive, the Lions broke up another Packers slant. Facing third-and-2, Favre lines up in the shotgun. Koren Robinson (81) is split wide right, with Ryan Grant (25) in the backfield beside Favre. The pre-snap suggests man coverage, with Bryant directly over Robinson and Ernie Sims (50) in position to blitz the A-gap. The Packers execute a slant/flat route combination to Robinson's side. This combination should succeed against man coverage: Grant can clear Paris Lenon (53) out of the passing lane, allowing Robinson to work inside Bryant.
The Lions do two things to disrupt this play. First, Bryant does an excellent job of redirecting Robinson. The receiver takes an inside release, but Bryant rides him for a stride or two, forcing him further inside than he wants to go. A few feet or milliseconds can mean the difference between success and failure on a slant route. Second, Sims is only dogging. The Lions are in man-free coverage: There's a safety in the deep middle, with Sims defending the short middle zone. Sims reads the pass and moves to his left, constricting Favre's throwing lane further. With such a tiny window, Favre's pass must be perfect, but it isn't. He leads Robinson too far upfield, resulting in an incompletion.
The Packers didn't abandon their commitment to slant routes despite the early failures. After a fumble recovery in the second quarter, Favre threw a slant to Jennings for an 11-yard touchdown from a full-house backfield formation.
The Packers have used variations on the full house all season, but they used the formation sparingly against the Lions. Clearly, they were more interested in spreading the field and testing the Lions defensive backs than running the ball or bolstering their pass protection. The "inverted wishbone" formation they commonly use (Figure 3) is a great running formation, but it also creates space between the split receivers and the rest of the formation. Examine the Lions' defensive alignment, and you'll see that most of their defenders are bunched in the middle of the field. From that alignment it would be hard for any defender to buzz underneath a wide receiver's route, particularly if the Packers sell their play-action well.
On this play, the Packers do sell the Lions on a running play. The left tackle and guard down block to their right, fullback Korey Hall (35) prepares to lead block box safety Gerald Alexander (42), and Grant looks like he is expecting a handoff to the left. The action sucks Alexander in, and linebacker Boss Bailey (97) aggressively crashes down the line in run pursuit. Jennings takes two steps upfield, slants, and uses his body to shield defender Travis Fisher (21). Note that Fisher is further off the ball than Bryant was in the first two diagrams; he is in no position to redirect the route, so Jennings can run the pattern the way the coaches drew it. Favre takes a one-step drop, turns, and fires a strike.
This play is interesting for several reasons. I think the Packers will use more full house backfields on Thursday night as they try to account for Dallas' 3-4 blitz schemes. It's also interesting how similar this play is conceptually to the failed slant in Figure 1: the run action, the route, the one-step drop. In both cases, the Packers faced a five-man defensive front and apparent man coverage. The Cowboys play a lot of five-man fronts and use a lot of man coverage. The one-step, run-action slant may be the Packers' counterattack.
Late in the first half, the Packers executed yet another slant, this time from an empty backfield formation. Grant begins the play in the backfield, then motions to an H-back position on the right side (Figure 4). Jennings is split wide on that side, with three receivers bunched tight to the formation on the left. Sims follows Grant in motion, and Bryant is directly over Jennings. Factor in the "leveled" defenders to the bunch side, and the pre-snap read is man coverage, with safety Alexander shaded to Jennings' side.
This is another slant/flat combo like the one in Figure 2. The Packers actually run slant/flat routes on both sides of the formation, with Donald Lee (86) mixing things up with a hook-in route. Unlike the last figure, there is no zone linebacker to constrict the passing window, and Bryant doesn't press Jennings. The receiver takes four steps, plants, and slants at a sharp angle: Jennings knows he must separate from Bryant but cross in front of Alexander. Again, timing is key. Favre's five-step drop and Jennings four-step stem give Grant time to lead Sims to the flat, so there's a wide throwing lane between Favre and Jennings. This is a longer, deeper slant well-suited to attacking a spread-out defense. In the third quarter, James Jones runs a four-step slant against quarters (four-deep) coverage. (This play is not diagrammed). With his cornerback and safety falling back into deep zones, all Jones must do is run his pattern and slow down to sit in an uncovered spot on the field. The result is even more easy yardage.
From full-house backfield to empty backfield, from goal-line run action to the two-minute drill, the Packers use the slant in every possible way. Old fashioned West Coast Offense tactics like slant/flats make the most of Favre's ability to read defenses and adjust the timing of his passes to suit the defensive call. The best way for the Cowboys to counter the slant is to put some linebackers in underneath coverage. It's a sacrifice the Packers want to force them to make. If DeMarcus Ware and Bobby Carpenter are lurking in the flats, they won't be chasing Favre.
No matter how many slants the Packers throw, the Cowboys are eventually going to blitz. Not all problems can be solved with a short pass. Sometimes, the Packers will have to keep extra blockers in to protect Favre. The Packers impressed me with their six- and seven-man protection schemes against the Lions. Their linemen communicate well and react quickly, and their tight ends and backs are willing (if not spectacular) pass protectors.
Early in the second quarter, the Packers call a deep pass on second-and-10. To make sure Favre has time, they keep Ryan Grant and tight end Ryan Krause (87) in to block. It's a good thing, because the Lions show blitz, with Kenoy Kennedy (26) creeping toward the line pre-snap.
This particular protection package is designed to double-team Shaun Rogers (92) while freeing an extra blocker to stop blitzers from the offensive right side. With end Chuck Smith (93) aligned on Krause's outside shoulder, right tackle Tauscher is the uncovered blocker, so he has blitz pickup responsibility. At the snap, Smith takes a wide release, where he draws the attention of both Krause and Grant. Rogers gets eaten up by the double team. The one-on-one blockers do their jobs. Kennedy blitzes, but Tauscher easily picks him up.
Favre understands how pass protection works. His blockers are fanned out to the right, so the best way for him to move in the pocket is to slide left. When no receiver gets open at the start of the play, Favre shuffles left. This is where alertness and experience is a factor. Krause peels off his double team once Favre starts scrambling. That puts him in position to block Redding, who eventually slips off his initial block. The action isn't shown in the diagram, but left tackle Chad Clifton alters his blocking technique once he realizes Favre is behind him. Instead of allowing his defender the outside shoulder, he turns him inside. Favre easily escapes pressure, has plenty of time to throw, and completes a long pass to Donald Driver.
In the third quarter, with the Lions running kitchen sink defenses in a vain effort to stop the Packers, Favre and Clifton simultaneously pick up a Lions blitz while Favre goes through his cadence. They see Fisher sliding out of pass coverage alignment to blitz (Figure 6): Both the quarterback and his veteran protector point directly to Fisher, then reset. Clearly, something is up: Redding is a half-yard behind the other linemen on the line of scrimmage, and Lenon is hopping in and out of his gap. There's a blitz on, and with Redding looking suspiciously ready to run a twist, the Packers linemen must be ready for anything.
At the snap, Grant moves to his right to pick up Fisher. Center Scott Wells and guard Jason Spitz double-team Rogers. Clifton doesn't react when both Lenon and DeWayne White bail into pass coverage in front of him. Clifton knows an overload blitz when he sees it. He and guard Daryn Colledge (78) double-team Redding. The right tackle (it may be Tony Moll at this point, because Tauscher left the game for a while) knows he has support from Grant, and he doesn't get confused when DeVries twists to the inside. He easily picks up the blitzing Sims.
A blitz like this can still be effective against six-man protection. The key is what happens on the left side of the line. If Clifton and Colledge didn't make proper reads, if Clifton chased ghosts when his defenders bailed or Colledge got caught up in the temporary double-team of Redding, than DeVries could loop through a gap between center and guard and nail Favre. But the close-up replay of this play shows how well the Packers linemen work together. Clifton and Colledge engage Redding, Clifton controls him, and Colledge immediately disengages and looks inside. He spots DeVries and is in good position to block him when he arrives. That's an indication of superior preparation and teamwork by the offensive line: They understand the defense's tactics and know how to counter them.
The Cowboys front seven is much better than Detroit's, and they can beat most protection schemes with a mix of creative blitzing and solid execution. But if Mike McCarthy calls a generous amount of max-protect schemes, and if players like Colledge and Grant make smart reads in blitz pick-up, the Packers can slow the Cowboys pass rush, if not completely stop it.
In Rundown, I pick the Cowboys to beat the Packers. That's because the Packers suffered several injuries on defense; they won't be able to limit the Cowboys passing game with Charles Woodson and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila out or limited. The Cowboys could put up 21 or 24 points against a healthy Packers defense. They'll put up closer to 30 points on Thursday night.
But I believe the Packers can keep up offensively. Their slant passing game and protection are good enough to allow them to move the ball despite a mediocre rushing attack. They can use wrinkles like their full house backfield to counter the Cowboys' all-angles blitz ability. And while their offensive line can be beaten physically by the Cowboys, their instincts and protection schemes can buy Favre just enough time to throw some deep passes.
That's my call. I'll check back by Friday afternoon to update this article, either here or in an extra point. Unless everything I wrote is wrong, in which case I'll just hide under my desk.
Mike McCarthy clearly doesn't game-plan the way I expected him to. His Packers came out throwing, and throwing down the field. In the first half, I didn't see a single pass to a receiver on a slant, and I only saw one pass into the flat on a slant/flat combo (late in the second quarter). Instead, Packers ran many go routes and posts, and Favre threw heave-ho after heave-ho, often after slow-developing play action, with little success.
As for the full house backfield, the Packers deployed it once in the first half on a running play. Their most interesting pass protection formation came when the quarterback (Favre or Aaron Rodgers) was in shotgun. In at least three instances, Ryan Grant lined up to the passer's right, about five yards behind the right tackle, while tight end Donald Lee lined up just off the right guard's right shoulder, about two yards behind the line of scrimmage. Lee was in position to pick up inside blitzes, though he also ran some pass routes from that formation. The formation was successful at blitz prevention but did not generate much yardage.
For most of the first half, the Packers used five-man protection schemes, and their linemen were often blocking five-on-five. This resulted in a great deal of pressure and a hit that knocked Brett Favre out of the game. McCarthy eased up on the deep passes when Aaron Rodgers entered the game, but he stuck with the spread formations and five-man protection. Rodgers' two-minute touchdown drive was the result of several completed passes on curl routes and a great yards-after-catch effort by Adam Jennings.
In the second half, Rodgers completed several passes on curl/hitch type routes. The Cowboys didn't do a lot of blitzing; they may have been sitting back and waiting for mistakes. On one key third-and-5 early in the fourth quarter, the Packers tried to block the Cowboys five-on-four, with DeMarcus Ware lined up as a defensive end about a yard wide of Chad Clifton's outside shoulder. Ware beat Clifton easily to sack Rodgers. On this play, I wondered why the Packers didn't keep a back in to block or chip Ware. But that's the give-and-take of offensive scheming. The curls were open because there were five receivers in the pattern to spread out the Cowboys zone. That left a vulnerability that the Cowboys exploited when it counted.
In summary, the Packers didn't throw slants, used little max protect, and really didn't protect Favre. At the same time, they spread the field and found plenty of yardage underneath, allowing them to move the ball with their backup quarterback. The game was a shootout, but the Packers didn't do what I expected. But heck, that's what Too Deep Zone is all about: learning more about the teams and their schemes as the season progresses.
19 comments, Last at 30 Nov 2007, 1:46pm by Eric