29 Jan 2008
by Mike Tanier
This is where we came in.
Five months ago, the new season of Too Deep Zone kicked off with tape analysis of Eli Manning. After watching a few games and breaking down several of his worst plays, I determined that one of his biggest problems was his inability to read an overload blitz and make a proper decision. Manning routinely missed open receivers and didn't account for defensive linemen dropping into zones during blitzes. It was an easy-to-spot and easy-to-correct flaw.
I wish I could provide a follow-up, but opponents haven't zone-blitzed the Giants much lately. I studied the Patriots, Cowboys and Packers game tapes looking for examples of overload blitzes, but I didn't see many. When opponents did blitz, Manning clearly made better decisions. He threw to checkdown receivers, bought time in the pocket, and even took a prudent sack or two. It was a clear sign of development, but there was no signature play to give the 2007 Too Deep Zone season a sense of closure. Bummer.
What was clear on the game tape was how simple, yet effective, the Giants passing game has been in the last month. Coordinator Kevin Gilbride isn't trying to confuse the world with wild formations or pass route combinations. Given a limited set of weapons, he appears to have scaled back his system, allowing his best players (Manning, Plaxico Burress) to work within their comfort zones. Thanks to a great defense and running game, his passing game doesn't have to be complicated to help win games.
One of the Giants' signature plays in the second half of the season was the Burress smash route: a quick five-yard hitch, either inside or outside. Against tight coverage, Burress sets up the smash with a hard release that forced the cornerback to backpedal. Against soft coverage, he snaps off the route and shields the ball with his body. The Giants used it so often in recent games that I believe that the smash route is a sight adjustment between Manning and Burress on the line. On early downs, if they like what they see (for example, no defenders in the throwing lane), they run the smash. It usually results in seven quick yards. There's nothing clever about the smash, but it requires excellent timing and communication between quarterback and receiver.
The smash isn't the only Football 101 play that the Giants are running to perfection. They've gotten a lot of mileage out of curl-flat concepts in recent weeks. Figure 1 shows a second quarter, second-and-5 pass against the Cowboys. Before the snap, Manning and center Shaun O'Hara read the Cowboys defense and make adjustments. Both point to Roy Williams, the safety playing close to the line of scrimmage. They may have anticipated a blitz which didn't come, but Manning clearly recognized zone coverage (the linebacker over Amani Toomer is a giveaway). O'Hara appears to change the pass protection pre-snap, but Manning does not audible. My guess is that he already knows the coverage and has decided how to exploit it.
The Giants run two standard curl-flat combinations on this play. A typical read progression for a play like this would have Manning read the cornerback, then the safety, then the linebacker on Burress' side. If the cornerback rides Burress, the flat to Brandon Jacobs is the safest throw. If the corner lets Burress go, Manning could throw to Buress if the safety stays high or go elsewhere with the ball if the linebacker takes away the throwing lane. Manning stares down Burress at the snap, but he has no intention to throw to him. He's pulling the linebacker out of the middle of the field. This is zone coverage with the safeties high, and Manning knows he can feint the underneath defenders out of position by locking onto his favorite target. The look-off works; the Cowboys middle linebacker drifts over to defend the curl, allowing Toomer to release into the middle of the field. Manning's pass is perfectly timed and on target, but Toomer drops it. Luckily, the Cowboys jumped offsides, and the Giants soon earned a fresh set of downs.
Figure 1 doesn't show a complicated scheme or a brilliant read; heck, it wasn't even a completed pass. What is shows is synergy between the system and the personnel, and it demonstrates fine fundamental football. Manning makes a good decision under duress, stepping up and delivering a pass under pressure. Toomer uses his experience to work a hole in the middle of the field. The simple call doesn't force anyone to do something he cannot do, and it nearly works because of solid execution.
Later in the second quarter, the Giants faced third-and-10 in the waning seconds of the half. Once again, Gilbride calls a shotgun pass built off basic curl-flat principles (Figure 2). On this play, Burress and Toomer run a curl-flat package to the left, while Steve Smith (12) runs a fly pattern to the right. Smith's pattern is a clearout route designed to occupy both a cornerback and a safety, but the Cowboys elect to cover Boss with a deep safety while leaving Roy Williams one-on-one with Jacobs. Manning and Boss both recognize the coverage, so Boss runs an out-route just past the first down marker. Manning throws a beautiful, daring pass. The red arrows show the motion of the Cowboys defenders when the ball is in the air. They converge on the throw, but Manning puts plenty of mustard on the ball and threads it to a point on the sidelines where only Boss can make the catch.
This is another simple offensive play. It allows Manning to make an easy read and a smart decision. His throw was high-risk, but from a game-management standpoint it wasn't a foolish gamble. An incomplete pass may have led to a 40-yard field goal, but the Giants couldn't expect to beat the Cowboys by trading touchdowns for field goals. An interception would have simply ended the half. Manning made a great throw after a gutsy decision.
The Packers blitzed often in the NFC title game, but Manning proved he could make the right read. Again, he was helped by the system and by his line. Figure 3 shows a third-and-long situation in the second quarter. The Packers show blitz pre-snap, moving Atari Bigby into the middle of the field and Nick Collins into the box. The blitz they unleash is pretty clever: Collins and linebacker Nick Barnett attack the left edge of the offensive line with the right end working inside. But while the pass rush was tricky, the coverage was straight man with a safety playing center field. Manning read the coverage and threw a bomb to a very open Burress, who couldn't quite haul it in. Blame the cold weather, not the scheme or the players. On a typical day, this play would have resulted in a Giants touchdown.
What struck me about this play was Manning's pre-snap reaction. Like most serious fans, I hate seeing an extreme close-up of the quarterback's face in the moments before the snap. It makes my life particularly tough: I need to see formations, not the look of determination on a player's face. But the FOX unnecessary zoom was revealing in this instance. Manning stepped up to speak to bark at his linemen, pointed to Bigby as he shifted into centerfield, licked his hands, and smiled. I know the road to sportswriter hell is paved with interpretations of a quarterback's facial expressions, but it looked like Manning was thinking, "wow, they are leaving Plax in single coverage. This is going to look great on the highlight reel." Manning knew he had a six-man protection scheme, so he held the ball long enough for Plaxico to separate. Again, the pass was on-time and on-target, and Manning absorbed a hit just after he released the ball. A simple play, executed precisely until the end.
In past years, teams with simple, physical offenses had success against the Patriots. But the days when the Broncos could give them fits with stretch runs and play-action passes ended when Wes Welker and Randy Moss joined the team. The Giants can play smash and curl-flat football when they are playing the field position/ ball control game. The Patriots excel at disguising coverages and taking away easy reads; Manning will have to be absolutely perfect to move the ball consistently using these strategies. I think Gilbride will use what has been working lately in the Super Bowl, but he'll have to throw in something more exotic at the risk of taking his offense beyond its comfort level.
I've long been a fan of The Sporting News, a great source for capsule information about all 32 teams, reliable draft coverage, and information about those other sports I no longer follow. This year, their Super Bowl preview included play diagrams. Their Patriots "signature play" diagram showed an option route by Kevin Faulk. Their signature Giants play was a blast up the middle by Brandon Jacobs from the I-formation.
I have a minor quibble with the Giants play. The Giants don't run up the middle very much. The average NFL team runs between the guards 50 percent of the time. The Giants run up the middle just 39 percent of the time, one of the lowest figures in the league. The Patriots actually run up the middle more often than the Giants, though many of their runs are delays and draws.
The Giants run to the outside more often than other teams; you can see the figures yourself at the bottom of the Line Yards page. I was surprised by how often the Giants ran to the left (30 percent of runs, as opposed to 31 percent to the right). Whenever I watch them, they always seem to be running off tackle to the right. Then again, when I diagrammed a play the Giants used twice in a row against the Bears early in the season (Figure 4), it was a sweep to the left behind a fold block by David Diehl and Jeremy Shockey. Replace Shockey in the image with Boss and Dedric Ward with Jacobs, and you have a pretty good Giants signature play, one that's a little more indicative of their tendencies than the one in The Sporting News.
I have two more Giants run diagrams coming up, and they are both runs to the left. Why do I think they run to the right so much? Maybe I shouldn't have watched the Buccaneers game in the mirror while riding the stationary bike at the gym.
The Giants, of course, have an excellent running game, and they will try to establish the run on Sunday. They tried to run the ball in the Week 17 meeting, but their success was limited; they gained 79 yards on the ground, but 11 of those yards came on a Manning scramble. I re-watched the Week 17 game tape to see exactly what the Patriots did in that game to slow down Brandon Jacobs.
Scheme-wise, they didn't do much. The Patriots didn't use many eight-man fronts or unusual line splits. On most rushing downs, they lined up in their base front seven and tried to out-execute the Giants. It was successful often enough that they didn't have to deviate from the gameplan.
In case you haven't noticed after nineteen games, the Patriots don't really run a 3-4 defense. They run a 5-2. Outside linebackers Mike Vrabel (50) and Adalius Thomas (96) are usually on the line of scrimmage, often with their hands in the dirt (Figure 5). There's nothing unique about this; the Chargers really run a 5-2, and the Bill Parcells 3-4 defense is really a "fifty". In run defense, Vrabel and Thomas play outside the tackles, making them C gap (between the tackle and tight end) and/or D gap defenders (beyond the tight end). The Giants like to run to those gaps, so Thomas and Vrabel must excel at the point of attack to stop them. In the first meeting, the outside linebackers, particularly Thomas, played very well.
Figure 5 shows a first quarter handoff to Jacobs that went nowhere. The Giants try to mass blockers at the point of attack on a sweep left: they load that side up with Boss, Madison Hedgecock (39, offset to that side) and pulling guard Rich Snee (76). Receiver David Tyree (85) is even in position to block force defender Ellis Hobbs (27). Theoretically, the mass of blockers gives them the luxury of double-teaming two defenders, leaving Hedgecock to attack the linebacker in the hole. The Giants double team both Richard Seymour (93) and Vince Wilfork (75).
This play is doomed because several defenders get an excellent jump. Thomas crosses the line of scrimmage quickly and gets in great position to press the play to the inside. Hedgecock blocks him hard, but Jacobs' route is immediately cut off. Seymour fights two blockers to a draw, but Wilfork actually defeats his double team. Ted Bruschi (54) also gets a tremendous read and jump, works inside of Thomas, and stacks Snee hard. Really hard; there's a jolt and Snee steps back when Bruschi hits him. It's a great example of gap defense, and it further clogs traffic for Jacobs.
When Jacobs does cut back, he finds that Wilfork has shed his blockers and both Vrabel and Junior Seau are pursuing the play from the backside. No back except Barry Sanders could make a play under those conditions.
The Patriots used similar tactics a few plays later on a run that was highlighted by Cris Collinsworth during the mighty triplecast. This play is a variation on the one shown in Figure 4. Here, two linemen, David Diehl (66) and Rich Seubert (69) fold around tight end Boss on a variation on the stretch run (Figure 6). Boss is expected to turn Seymour inside on this play, and he does a good job. Wilfork draws another double team, and once again he defeats it. Thomas, meanwhile, gets another great jump off the line and is in the backfield before Diehl is in position to block him. Thomas strings the play out by forcing Jacobs to work around him.
Seau gets to be the star on this play. Instead of flowing with the play to the sideline, he shoots the gap vacated by the guard and tackle. Jacobs tries to cut back but gets caught in a triple bind between Seau, Thomas, and Wilfork. Seau has been shooting that gap for 18 years, and he does it as well as any linebacker in the league.
A quick look at our defensive stats finds the Patriots ranked 15th in run defense. After watching the Giants and Jaguars game tape, I think they are better than that. Several elements make them effective: Thomas' ability to beat blockers off the snap, the experience and tenacity of Bruschi, Vrabel, and Seau, and most critically the presence of Wilfork in the middle. I don't think the Giants will have an easy time running on Sunday. Luckily, their passing game is good enough to keep it interesting.
I learned a lot from this season of Too Deep Zone, and not just about football. I learned that hi-definition videos of football games take up a lot of DVR space, so don't expect to save ten of them when your wife wants to tape The Tudors and your son needs his Avatar fix. I learned you can get eyestrain from trying to read the uniform numbers of safeties on the edge of the screen (that's in high-def; on regular TV I didn't even try to read those numbers).
It's time to give the diagramming software a rest and to devote all the DVR space to kids' programming for a few months. Don't let the subheading about "September" fool you. Rest assured that I'll be back with some Strategy Minicamps in the middle of July when there isn't a blessed other thing to write about.
Until then, protect your legs, mind your gap responsibilities, and keep battling till the echo of the whistle.
26 comments, Last at 05 Feb 2008, 8:34am by CV