Bill Connelly takes a look at the early-season S&P+ outliers and whether his eyeballs agree or disagree with the stats. Spoiler: Alabama is underrated. Alabama! Underrated!
10 Jan 2008
by Mike Tanier
I've done it. I created The Blueprint. Not just any blueprint. Not the plans for that two-story addition on the back of my house I've meant to get to for the past three years. I'm talking about The Blueprint. The document Jimmy Johnson thought he had. The one Rob Ryan thought he had. The one Steve Spagnuolo thought he had.
I created a game plan that could stop the Patriots.
The Blueprint is a foolproof series of philosophies, strategies and plays designed to stop Tom Brady, Randy Moss, and company from setting up permanent shop in the end zone. It won't work for a team like the Dolphins -- it's a game plan, not a magic scroll -- but it can work for teams like the Jaguars, Colts, Chargers, and Cowboys. It's the product of hours of tape study during that Patriots orgy the NFL Network broadcast on Week 17: eight or nine games back-to-back. For a few days, I saw more of Dan Koppen than I saw of my own children.
My life has changed since the moment I created The Blueprint. Everybody wants it. The Jaguars want to buy it. The Chargers want to steal it. The Patriots ... well, let's just say that Bill Belichick has his methods of persuasion, and he would love to put a match to this game plan. My safety is in jeopardy. My only chance is to post this sucker on the Internet where everyone can read it. That way, no one has a strategic advantage, and the threatening phone calls can stop.
The Blueprint begins with a series of objectives. It's important to set lofty-but-realistic, concrete goals. Success in football is defined by winning, of course, but saying "our goal is to win" doesn't mean much. We have to set some subgoals that can guide our planning and preparation during practice. To that end, here are the anti-Patriots objectives:
Against a normal team, the objectives would be higher: a touchdown-free game or three turnovers, and so on. But when facing the Patriots, you need to focus on attainable objectives. You don't want to set a six-sack objective against the Patriots, only to see linemen breaking containment or blitzers ignoring their screen responsibilities. A team using The Blueprint must devote practice time to a handful of fundamental concepts: pass pressure that forces bad throws, deep coverage, and sure open-field tackling against screen threats like Wes Welker and Donte' Stallworth.
After establishing these goals, The Blueprint outlines some general defensive concepts. Again, these concepts guide how the defensive game plan is assembled, the points of practice emphasis, and what plays are called on the field. These concepts dovetail and support the four goals listed above, making it very clear what to do against the Patriots:
By stating what's included in The Blueprint, we get a good idea of what isn't. Six- and seven-man blitzes are out of the playbook. The Cover-2 defense is just an excuse to get picked apart or beaten deep by Moss, so it will be called as infrequently as possible. Run defense is barely mentioned in the goals and concepts because defenders must think about pass defense first. If a team can force the Patriots to start running draw plays to Laurence Maroney or to switch to an I-formation, then the game plan has succeeded.
The Blueprint calls for a base four-man front against the Patriots, but that doesn't mean four defensive linemen should be on the field. The defense needs as much speed and flexibility as possible, so the base front includes one defensive tackle, two ends, and one outside linebacker (Figure 1). One of the ends plays the 3-technique, creating a faster pass rush inside. The outside linebacker playing with his hand in the dirt (let's call him the "down linebacker") should be a big defender with good pass rush and run stopping ability.
So if the Jaguars use this game plan, their base front would include John Henderson as the nose tackle, Paul Spicer as the 3-technique tackle (moving inside), Reggie Heyward as the end, and Daryl Smith, a big linebacker with some pass rush chops, as the down linebacker. If Marcus Stroud were healthy, we might modify the game plan to get him on the field with Henderson, but most teams don't have two tackles good enough to merit this kind of change. The Colts would use Raheem Brock as the nose tackle, Josh Thomas as the 3-tech, Robert Mathis as the end, and Rob Morris as the down linebacker. Teams with a 3-4 set like the Cowboys and Chargers could easily make the adjustments to fit this alignment. They could even get creative: DeMarcus Ware and Shawne Merriman make natural down linebackers, but so do Greg Ellis (a former end) and Shaun Philips, and Ware and Merriman might be better off at the other linebacker spot.
The base package, then, is a 3-2-6 grouping, with one linebacker on the line to create a 4-1-5 alignment. To create a six-man box, a defensive back must play close to the line of scrimmage. He's labeled as a nickelback in Figure 1, but this is an ideal place to put a "hitter" safety like Sammy Knight, Bob Sanders, or Roy Williams. This defender must be effective in run support, because the Patriots won't see many seven-man boxes, and they will only see eight or more at the goal line.
The 3-2-6 package allows the defense to drop as many as eight defenders into pass coverage. In most cases, it will drop seven and rush four. That doesn't mean that the game plan abandons all hope of pressuring Brady. Instead, it call for focused pressure on the interior line. After watching defenders like Justin Tuck and Jaqua Thomas have some success rushing up the middle, I believe that you can beat the Patriots interior linemen with speed. I also believe that it is possible to force Brady to make some bad throws if he cannot step up in the pocket, and that he isn't as effective when rolling to the outside as he is when moving forward. The reason The Blueprint puts two ends and a linebacker on the line of scrimmage is so they can aggressively attack the interior gaps and use quickness and technique to beat the Patriots' guards.
Blitzing the Patriots with more than five defenders is futile; you're just begging for a catch-and-run completion. Even rushing five is dangerous, but there are some five-man rushes in the game plan. Figure 2 shows the base blitz concept. Note that there isn't a lot of stunting involved, because the Patriots are good at picking up twists. The middle linebacker slides over the center presnap, then blitzes the weak side (defined in this case by the location of the running back) A-gap. The nose tackle rushes the strongside A-gap, and the 3-techinique defender (the "inside" defensive end) rushes the strongside B-gap. The outside defenders rush wide to stretch the tackles and contain Brady. This is an aggressive rush up the middle which will force the Patriots linemen to block quicker defenders one-on-one. This should force some hurries, if not a sack or two.
Note the locations of the defensive backs in Figure 2. When blitzing, the defense must account for the outlet pass to Faulk or Maroney. Ideally, there should be a defensive back on Faulk whenever possible in man coverage. For this blitz, the two inside defensive backs have man responsibilities on Faulk depending on which way he releases. The defender who isn't covering Faulk will buzz any slant or hitch routes to his side. If Faulk stays in to block, both defensive backs will buzz routes. This extra coverage component is crucial; with five defenders blitzing and two keying on Faulk, the defense is forced to play single coverage on Moss and company. Hopefully, the buzz defenders can take away any short passes and allow the corners to play a little deeper. The double coverage on Faulk has one more advantage: It minimizes his effectiveness on draws, delays, and screens.
This five-man blitz and its cousins are primarily a first-and-10 or second-and-long strategy. The goal is to force as many long-yardage situations as possible. On third-and-long, it's better to rush four or even three defenders to make Brady's throwing windows as small as possible and to force him to throw in front of the sticks.
No one is going to fool Brady or coordinator Josh McDaniels with a lot of intricate coverage schemes. It is also impossible to take away everything the Patriots want to do: No matter how may drawings I create, there are going to be situations when Moss is single-covered or someone like Jabar Gaffney is isolated against a (hopefully very fast) linebacker. For this defense to be successful, it must use simple man and zone assignments to take away Brady's favorite throws: the bomb and slant to Moss; the flat routes to Faulk, Maroney, and Welker; the screens to Welker and Stallworth; and the 14-yard out-route to Watson. The next few coverage schemes won't fool anyone, but they should make life as hard as possible for Brady.
Figure 3 shows the Patriots in a typical 1x3 spread formation. That means that there are three receivers coming off the ball on the right side of the formation but only one (Moss) on the left side. The Patriots love to use variations on this formation because it forces defenses to pick their poison: Do you isolate a cornerback on Moss, or double-cover him and leave your defense short-handed on the offensive right side?
The coverage scheme in Figure 3 is taken from the Giants game tape. Giants linebacker Gerris Wilkinson frequently served as the underneath defender in double coverage against Moss; in fact, the Giants often single-covered Moss with Wilkinson in the red zone and a safety deep! Wilkinson was overmatched, but a linebacker like Nick Barnett (Packers) or Gary Brackett (Colts) should be able to stay with Moss, assuming that a cornerback is also on hand to take care of the deep routes. The presence of a linebacker underneath should limit Moss' effectiveness on slants. He'll also allow the deep safety on Moss' side to roll into the middle third of the field for deep coverage. As a wrinkle, the deep safety could also slide to his left (offensive right) presnap and defend the deep third of the field on the Welker-Watson-Stallworth side. With Moss double-covered and a safety deep, it is easy to single up the other receivers. The defense even has the luxury of a defensive back covering Maroney or Faulk. With a safety and our "down linebacker" to the offensive right, there's plenty of speed and tackling ability on hand in the event of a screen to Welker or Stallworth.
The Patriots might react to this coverage by motioning a receiver to Moss' side. Figure 4 shows Welker going in motion to the left and creating a real nightmare: two of the league's best receivers on the same side of the field. Defending Welker with the free safety may not be the ideal solution, particularly if that safety is inexperienced (like Reggie Nelson of the Jaguars).
One solution to this problem is to shift defenders when Welker moves. The cornerback covering Welker could just follow him, but in Figure 4 the dime defender across the formation and the free safety slides back to the deep middle. After the shift, the linebacker's coverage assignment changes from doubling Moss to working from the curl zone to the flat zone underneath Moss and Welker. If the Patriots think they can move Welker, isolate him on a rookie safety or a slow linebacker, then get him the ball on a 10-yard in or out route, this wrinkle should thwart their plans. This scheme also covers Watson with a cornerback, which should prevent deep outs or seam routes by the fast tight end.
As an alternate plan to Figure 4, the defenders can remain in place when Walker motions. Instead of shifting positions, they'll shift responsibilities. Figure 5 takes advantage of the "down linebacker" by giving him man coverage responsibilities on Maroney. That allows the other linebacker to blitz (note that he attacks the A-gap to create interior rush) while keeping seven defenders in coverage. Welker is isolated on a safety, which isn't ideal, but the defense switched to a man-under scheme with two deep defenders, which should prevent catastrophes. Instead of asking the safeties to cover deep halves, they roll to the Moss-Welker side and cover thirds. Stallworth might be able to get open on a fly pattern, but he's pretty one-dimensional, so as a coaching point the corner covering him must squeeze him toward the sideline and not bite on any fake in or out routes.
Moss and Brady are most dangerous from about the 40-yard line in. We've all seen Moss out-jump two defenders in the end zone to haul in a long touchdown. There's nothing in The Blueprint that can stop acts of uncanny athleticism, but the game plan is designed to put defenders in a position where they can succeed. That means they must be deep, with their eyes on Brady, when he releases the football. When it reaches the "front zone" (from the opposing 40 to the opposing 21), the defense must use more deep zone coverages than it uses elsewhere on the field. At the same time, it cannot afford to give up the farm on underneath routes.
The Blueprint calls for quarters coverage when the defense anticipates a pass into the end zone. Quarters coverage is simple enough: Four defensive backs cover a deep fourth of the field each, while three defenders handle the underneath zones. It's an easy coverage to pick apart with short passes, so I've added some wrinkles. In Figure 6, I take advantage of our down linebacker by once again dropping him into coverage while the other linebacker blitzes. The goal is to disrupt blocking assignments and get some inside pressure, but the shift also places the "hitter" safety in the middle zone, the place where Moss or Welker might sit down to collect a short pass. Hopefully, the hitter can deliver a blow that forces a fumble or at least causes the receivers to hear footsteps.
The game plan also includes some Cover-3 in the front zone, but the three-deep zone in Figure 7 is somewhat unorthodox. It's Man-3: three defenders back, three rushing the passer, and the rest in man coverage. At the snap, this coverage should look like one of the man coverage schemes in Figures 4 or 5. I want Brady to think that there is one deep safety and one short zone defender during his presnap read. But the dime back (aligned on Jabar Gaffney in this example) is actually responsible for a deep zone, as are both safeties. For added Moss prevention, the deep safeties play quarter-quarter-half, with two defenders covering Moss' side of the field. If Brady throws deep to Moss, he throws into triple coverage. If he assumes he can hit Stallworth or Welker on a fly route, he may be surprised by the deep safety to that side. There are major trade-offs -- Faulk and Gaffney are covered by linebackers -- but this isn't an every-down strategy. For best results, it should be called once or twice when the Patriots are closing in on the red zone. If it doesn't generate a turnover, it should at least save a touchdown.
Stops at around the 30-yard line are crucial for a team that hopes to hold the Patriots to 20 points. A field goal is a defensive victory against them.
The Blueprint should work. The goals and concepts are sound. There's nothing too esoteric in the game plan. The Jaguars, Chargers, Colts, and the NFC teams could adjust their systems without too many changes. They have good enough personnel to at least slow the Patriots' offensive onslaught.
Of course, any joker can draw up a bunch of plays in his office. Many an experienced coordinator has crafted a brilliant series of plays, only to see everything go to pot when the opponent makes radical changes of its own ("Hey, the Patriots are in the wishbone!") or when the guy you were counting on to cover Donte' Stallworth proves that he can't. In football, execution is always far more important than design. The Blueprint will work, if the nickelback can match up with Welker or Gaffney, if the front four can consistently win battles, if everyone tackles well, if the safeties maintain discipline, if your own quarterback doesn't throw a pick-six to Asante Samuel, and a hundred other "ifs."
It may not be the best blueprint, but it's the best I can do. Better minds are working on their own blueprints as we speak. We'll see how well they succeed.
137 comments, Last at 15 Jan 2008, 1:46pm by allsmiley