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?
18 Jan 2008
by Mike Tanier
Football strategy is so complicated that it defies metaphors. Calling football a "chess match" is an insult to coaches and coordinators, who have much more to worry about than does the average chess champion. I am sure that chess masters study each other's moves as closely as Steve Spagnuolo studies game tape, but chess' rigid rules limit tactical creativity. It's not like there have been any new formations developed in the past 600 years. ("Oh my God! Topalov just lined up in a three-rook, no-bishop formation! That forces Kramnik to put his queen in the slot to the near side.") And in chess, if you knock out Bishop Rivers, Bishop Volek doesn't come off the bench to en passant his way into the end zone.
Desperation plays â€“- fourth-and-forever, two-ticks-on-the-clock, heave-it-and-hope passes â€“- sometimes offer fascinating insights about football tactics. They're like desert island plays: If you had just one page in the playbook to gain 10 yards, 20 yards, or a touchdown, what would you call? Who would you throw to? How creative would you try to be?
Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett got to answer those questions on Sunday. The situation: fourth-and-11 from the 23-yard line, 16 seconds left, no timeouts, down by four points.
Think about exactly how dire the Cowboys' situation is and how limited Garrett's options are. The Cowboys must gain 11 yards or the game is over. They must score a touchdown or get out of bounds; otherwise, they face the iffy proposition of lining up and spiking before time runs out. An all-or-nothing deep pass to the end zone makes the most sense, but the Giants are well aware of that. There's no chance of isolating Terrell Owens or Terry Glenn on an unaided cornerback; there will be safeties in the end zone. Do you take the deep shot? Do you send a receiver on a 15-yard out-route, hoping to stop the clock? And what do you do about the Giants pass rush?
Garrett's call didn't work, of course. Figure 1 shows a rough interpretation of R.W. McQuarters' game-clinching interception. There's little complexity here. The Giants are clearly in man coverage with two deep safeties stationed at the front of the end zone. The Cowboys run two go routes, with Terry Glenn running a post from the slot. The game tape showed that no one was open. Glenn had half a stride on McQuarters for a moment, but McQuarters knew he had deep help and was in good position to come underneath Glenn and intercept the pass.
What's most striking about this play is that it uses a seven-man protection scheme. Marion Barber and Jason Witten, two of the Cowboys' best weapons, are stuck in the backfield for the most important play of their season. On one level, that shows what kind of impact the Giants pass rush can have on an offense. Garrett didn't want to risk blocking the Giants five-on-four (or more) when he knew Tony Romo would have to throw deep.
On another level, the three-man route is part of the design of the play. More receivers in the end zone would just attract more defenders, and the defense always wins that numbers game in prevent situations. Witten or Barber could run underneath routes, but with the middle of the field essentially closed, there's not much they could do. Interestingly, the defenders assigned to cover Barber and Witten do not blitz as defenders often do when their receivers stay in to protect the passer. The two defenders drop in anticipation of a) a release route or b) a Romo scramble. That's sound defensive discipline. If nothing else, they force Romo to put some air under his throw.
I could sit at my computer and devise all manner of deviltry that would look better on the screen than Garrett's post to Glenn. Figure 2 shows a slight variation on the Cowboys' final play. In this hypothetical play, Barber runs an option route, breaking outside if his defender gives him the sidelines or running the angle route in the (much more likely) event that the middle of the field is open. The most likely outcome of this play is a completion to Barber over the middle, hopefully for more than 11 yards. The Cowboys would then have to hustle to the line and spike the ball.
Of course, if Barber doesn't reach the sticks, if he breaks two tackles and gets stopped at the 4-yard line when the gun sounds, if Osi Umenyiora sacks Romo ... A lot can go wrong with a play like Figure 2. There's no such thing as a high-percentage play on fourth-and-11 in the waning seconds with no timeouts left. Instead of trying to outsmart the world, Garrett did his best to isolate a very good receiver against a nickel cornerback, then crossed his fingers and hoped Romo and Glenn could make a play.
Last-ditch passes are interesting but rarely successful. Great strategists don't design brilliant schemes for fourth-and-11. They design brilliant schemes to avoid fourth-and-11.
When the Giants upset the Cowboys, they ruined a potential Rundown intro. If Jessica Simpson lays down for Tony Romo, and Brett Favre laid down for Michael Strahan, and Strahan said that he would gladly lay down for Jessica Simpson, does that mean that Romo will lay down for Favre?
Then again, the world needed another Romo-Simpson joke the way I need two more waistline inches.
Every Internet chucklehead has probably also weighed in on the Seinfeld ban by now. In case this is the only football article you read, the local television affiliate in Green Bay has canceled all airing of Seinfeld this week. Seinfeld is Eli Manning's favorite show, and Wisconsin football fans don't want baby bro to feel at home.
As hollow gestures go, this one is exactly backward. Less time watching Seinfeld means more time watching game tape. The television station should run a Seinfeld marathon. Heck, they should invite Jerry himself to come up to Wisconsin and meet the Giants while hawking the DVD release of Bee Movie or doing whatever it is he does in his down time.
In lieu of that, the station should at least declare a moratorium on other Giants' favorite shows, including Divorce Court (Michael Strahan), Gomer Pyle (Tom Coughlin), and the Pauly Shore classic Son In Law (Chris Snee).
Or maybe they should run an endless loop of Good Morning America.
At about this time of year, I realize that I am completely unprepared for winter: no rock salt, no scraper for my car, not even a good pair of boots. Watching Packers-Seahawks reminded me that I needed to find the shovels in the garage and that the car could use a jigger of antifreeze (Just in time, too: it snowed on Thursday as I finished this piece). They're always ready for snow in Green Bay, which is why Mike McCarthy winterized his offense, adding more inverted wishbone to the mix.
The Packers have been using the full house formation (a.k.a. inverted bone, or u-formation, or diamond) since McCarthy became head coach, and I diagrammed some of their plays from the alignment earlier in the season. But the full house is perfect for snow and ice, so McCarthy used it again and again on Saturday. His goal was simple: To exploit the over-pursuit of the Seahawks linebackers by positioning an extra blocker to open cutback lanes.
Figure 3 shows the first-quarter play in which Ryan Grant fumbled, but only after a substantial gain. All three Seahawks linebackers flow right with the motion of the play at the snap. That makes it very easy for Packers center Scott Wells to climb out and block Lofa Tatupu while the backside fullback erases Hill. Grant starts to his left, then pivots in a classic cutback move and has a wide lane.
Figure 4 shows a similar play from later in the quarter. Here, McCarthy uses a different look. The Packers start in a 2-tight end I-formation, but Bubba Franks shifts into the backfield presnap. It's a high school/small college formation that has a hundred names but is rarely seen above the Division III level. The blocking scheme is similar, with Franks taking out LeRoy Hill on the weak side while the linebackers over-pursue.
There are a few differences between Figures 3 and 4 besides the formation. In Figure 4, the right tackle chips Patrick Kerney, releases, then takes on a safety, leaving Kerney unblocked. This risky move provides additional second-level blocking at the risk of a stuff by Kerney, but only the best defensive ends can come off a chip block, then get a clean hit on a runner cutting inside. Unlike the play in Figure 3, the center doesn't double team the nose defender but climbs straight out to the second level. Favre doesn't turn to his left presnap; this play is clearly designed to go to the right, and Grant's first step left is just a jab to sell the motion to that side. But the concept is the same, and the Packers used tactics like these again and again, especially after they took the lead.
Of course, the full house isn't just for running the ball. Figure 5 shows the first-quarter touchdown pass to Greg Jennings. Here, the Seahawks start in a Cover-2 look, but before the snap they move a safety into the box on the offensive left side and shift another into the middle of the field. The adjustment is a natural reaction to a run-heavy formation. But it effectively isolates the cornerback on Jennings. When the in-the-box safety reacts to the motion in the backfield by stepping up to stop a potential running play, Jennings has lots of space to release outside then get inside on a slant route.
When I diagrammed these plays on Sunday morning, I assumed they wouldn't be relevant this week. The Packers probably wouldn't have used the full house formation much against the Cowboys. They would probably be playing catch-up in good weather for most of the game. Two-fullback formations aren't effective in high-scoring shootouts.
But we'll see some full house alignments against the Giants in Lambeau. The Packers want to establish the run to slow the Giants pass rush. They'll want to throw some high-percentage passes from max-protect formations. And the weather is supposed to be downright Arctic. The Packers should have some success against the Giants with plays like the ones diagrammed above, but remember that they won't be facing the Giants' smallish Four Aces line when they put two fullbacks on the field. Steve Spagnuolo will counter the full house with a conventional personnel package featuring guys like Fred Robbins and Barry Cofield. Expect both teams to do a lot of personnel swapping when the Packers have the ball. The players will appreciate it: Running on and off the field will keep them warm.
My five-year-old takes a sports readiness class, which is a nice way of saying that I pay 25 bucks a week to watch him run around a gym with other kids and throw things. This week they played a game called Gladiators, which is kind of like dodgeball for the hyper-litigated culture. One kid runs a straight-line gauntlet on a well-padded surface while six others try to bean him or her with Nerf balls so foamy that they wouldn't hurt you if you fired them out of a howitzer.
My boy took his foam ball and his place on the firing squad, then waited. A hyperactive preschooler ran the gauntlet, and my boy watched, poised to throw. But he did not throw. Another little Nintendo junkie sprinted through the no-man's-land, but still my son didn't throw. The coach told him to throw. Another kid ran, and my boy watched, but he just couldn't make up his mind to throw. He held the ball and held it, waiting for goodness-knows-what.
On the way home, I bought him a Ben Roethlisberger jersey.
My "Blueprint" to beat the Patriots garnered a lot of attention last week, and I want to thank everyone who took the time to read it and comment, ask questions, or just boast that it is all meaningless because the Patriots are just too good to be beaten by non-Asgardians.
Several people suggested that the Jaguars used something close to the blueprint. When I watched the Patriots game on Saturday night and saw the Jaguars using a three-man formation with a linebacker flashing as if he might blitz from the edge, I started dancing around and singing "I'm a genius!" Everyone at the sports bar looked at me funny. But for a moment I felt ecstatic, thinking that the Jaguars coaching staff struck upon the same ideas that I outlined in last week's article.
Of course, a sports bar is no place for the sober dissection of plays. Once I was home (and sober), I took a hard look at what the Jaguars did. Mike Smith had his own blueprint, which looked superficially like my blueprint (which was really a mish-mosh of Jimmy Johnson's and Steve Spagnuolo's blueprints) at times. The three-man fronts were there. There was a lot of man coverage. But there were two major fundamental differences that I was able to spot immediately: 1) The Jaguars used a great deal of Cover-2, something I tried to avoid in my gameplan. 2) The Jaguars specifically double-teamed Randy Moss, whereas I suggested a variety of rolling coverage schemes and man/zone mixes.
Clearly, my game plan would have worked better.
Yes, that was sarcasm. One of my main goals when writing the blueprint was to show that a game plan isn't a haphazard collection of plays that a coordinator thinks will work. It's a top-down master plan that flows from the general (stop the long pass) to the specific (double-team Moss) to the microscopic (have Brian Williams jam Moss at the line and force an outside release, align the safety 12 yards deep and 2 yards inside of Moss and coach him to anticipate the Moss corner route when Ben Watson tries to bait him with the seamer). Smith prioritized stopping Moss, as most sane people would. He left his defense vulnerable to the Laurence Maroney delay and the 6-yard pass over the middle to Jabar Gaffney, both reasonable concessions. The scheme plain didn't work.
What will the Chargers do? They'll use three-man fronts, because that's the system they run. They will rush Shawne Merriman, Shaun Philips, or both, because they are elite blitzing linebackers. I am guessing that Antonio Cromartie will draw Moss in man coverage as Ted Cottrell tries to match athletic freak on athletic freak.
Beyond that, I won't speculate. I was eliminated from the playoffs last week. No more game plans until next season. It's time for me to focus on a less mentally taxing activity.
42 comments, Last at 20 Jan 2008, 10:57pm by JoRo