Sunday's upset was the latest in a series of unexpected wins for Jeff Fisher and the Rams. How do they keep pulling this off?
06 Nov 2008
by Mike Tanier
You know you're a Football Outsider when you take a break from watching one of the most historic events of your lifetime to check your e-mail and find nine new messages. None of them are about the election, or your personal life. All of them are about DeAngelo Hall.
Hall's release was the second biggest mistake the Raiders made this year. Signing him to a big new contract after the trade was the first. Lane Kiffin's firing is in there somewhere. The release made my DeAngelo Hall Fathead obsolete, but it still looks cool. It covers over 1,000 square inches on my wall, which is more ... ah, you finish this joke.
At least Hall gave us something to talk about besides politics. Mike Singletary told reporters early in the week that he voted "in his mind." That was a wise move: Lines were short and irregularities were minimal on the astral plane.
Politics and football merged in other strange, annoying ways. Chad Johnson promised/threatened to endorse one of the candidates in the unlikely event that he scored a touchdown on Sunday. He scored two, but he didn't stake any lawn signs in the end zone. The candidates might not have wanted Ocho Cinco's endorsement; on one play, I swore he was triple-covered by Rashean Mathis, Reggie Nelson, and David Plouffe.
Johnson made a less overt political statement during the Jaguars game by kissing every man he saw on the sidelines, from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Marvin Lewis. If you want to know if Ocho Cinco loves you so, it's not in his eyes, it's not in his smile. It's surely not in his hands, because there's usually nothing in his hands.
In a completely unrelated story, George Takei just became a Bengals season ticket holder.
Before the Hall e-mails, I deleted one with a message line about Garrett Hartley and Glenn Pakulak. Why do people waste their votes on these third-party candidates? Actually, Hartley and Pakulak are the Saints' new kicker and punter. Oh, Russell Erxleben, where art thou?
By the way, this week's Walkthrough is coming to you via hologram. It's surrounded by a weird, ethereal aura, like Olivia Newton-John in Xanadu. CNN used holographic technology to interview several politically-minded celebrities Tuesday night, including one of the Black Eyed Peas. I think. I always get the Black Eyed Peas and the Backyardigans mixed up. It was either will.i.am or Uniqua.
There's no truth to the rumor that holographic technology is coming to the NFL. That wasn't a Mike Jenkins hologram on the field for the Cowboys against the Giants. He just tackled like one. Luckily, a talented-but-clueless cornerback just hit the waiver wire. Jerry Jones is eager to complete the whole set.
The undefeated Titans and the 5-3 Bears have a lot in common. No one expected either team to be doing this well at the season's midpoint. Both teams are winning with journeyman quarterbacks and anonymous wide receivers. Each team's breakout star is a rookie running back, but their big names are concentrated on the defensive side of the ball. When explaining each team's success, analysts use words like "discipline" and "fundamentals." Great terms, but a little vague. The Titans and Bears are winning because they sweat the details, and the best way to understand their success is to watch lots and lots of film. Between Phillies parades and CNN marathons, I sat down to take a long look at what these two surprising contenders do well.
|Figure 1: Titans Stretch Play|
Both teams block the stretch run very well. The most important blocks on a typical stretch run occur on the back side of the play. Figure 1 shows a typical Titans stretch, executed with two tight ends to the strong side. At the snap, the blockers "bucket step" to the right, pulling the defensive line with them. In this example, the defense is showing a five-man front and an eight-man box, a typical strategy against a run-oriented offense in a two-tight end set. Left guard Ken Amato chips the nose tackle so center Kevin Mawae can control him, then climbs out to the second level and cut-blocks the weakside linebacker. Left tackle Michael Roos stands up the right end and keeps him from flowing with the play. That creates a backside seal, allowing Chris Johnson or LenDale White to execute a designed cutback.
The stretch you see is a basic football play, but the Titans' execution makes it very effective. Mawae is still quick and strong enough to control his defender without help, so Amano or right guard Jake Scott can get to the second level quickly. Johnson is fast enough to beat an unblocked middle linebacker through the hole. The Titans receivers are good blockers, so cornerbacks have a hard time crashing the back side of the play.
The Bears have similar personnel strengths, including a great veteran center, solid blocking receivers, and rookie Matt Forte, who is surprisingly patient when setting up these backdoor plays. Proper execution allows both teams to run effectively against stacked fronts.
Both teams defend the stretch run very well. In Figure 2, the offense is running the same stretch-cutback play we saw in Figure 1. This time, though, proper execution and discipline by the defense thwarts the run. There's nothing strategically unique in Figure 2, but the defenders in red play their roles perfectly. The defensive end doesn't allow the left tackle to control him; instead, he engages the block, flows along the line, and constricts the cutback lane. It's a tricky assignment, because the end must not flow too far and get washed out (creating a huge hole to his right), but he can't get stood up, either.
|Figure 2: Defending the Stretch|
The weakside linebacker defeats the cut block by protecting his legs and knifing past the guard. Again, he must make sure he doesn't stray too far from his gap assignment while avoiding the block. With both defenders in position to make a tackle, the running back has little chance of making a positive play.
Stretch runs are very common, and good defenses must be able to stop them. The Titans and Bears are two of the best teams in the league at stopping the play (the Bucs are also great at it). Veteran linebackers Lance Briggs (Bears) and David Thornton (Titans) know how to play the weak side, and they win more than their share of battles against offensive linemen. Defensive ends like Alex Brown in Chicago and Kyle Vanden Bosch in Tennessee rarely allow themselves to be taken too far upfield and can shed blockers against the run. Vanden Bosch has been injured, but Jacob Ford has been solid in relief, and Albert Haynesworth slides out to defensive end at times.
Both teams get both tight ends involved. The Titans throw to Bo Scaife and Alge Crumpler a lot, usually on typical tight end patterns: crossing routes, waggles, quick hitches. The Bears are much more creative at getting the ball to Desmond Clark and (more importantly) Greg Olsen. Olsen has been getting the star treatment in the Bears offense, lining up as a wide receiver to catch slants, motioning out of the backfield, and running the deep routes we usually associate with players like Antonio Gates.
Figure 3 shows a deep pass that the Bears used against the Vikings. I diagrammed "Texas" route combinations a few weeks ago, and this is a variation on that type of play. Clark runs the angle route, starting toward the sideline before snapping back to the middle of the field. Olsen runs up the seam. The two wide receivers attack the deep sidelines. The Bears receivers aren't great, but they are fast, drawing safety attention as they streak up the field. Kyle Orton has a simple read against the Vikings Tampa-2 offense: Throw to Clark if the middle linebacker gets deep quickly, throw to Olsen if the middle linebacker is slow to drop. On this play, the middle linebacker got deep but never got good position against Olsen, so Orton completed a seamer over the middle.
|Figure 3: Bears Deep TE Route Combination|
There's nothing wrong with featuring the tight end, as long as he can get the job done. Both the Titans and Bears can deploy two-tight end sets without limiting the offense.
There's more. Both teams penetrate very quickly on the defensive line. It isn't unusual to see two defenders in the backfield on a handoff. Once again, discipline is key: These aren't out-of-control pass rushers getting shoved 15 yards wide of a play. They are aggressive, under-control defenders who force running backs to get back to the line of scrimmage.
Both teams excel in blitz pickup. They use a lot of six-man protection schemes, and they emphasize pass protection by using fullbacks as blockers on downs when other teams might bring a fourth wideout off the bench.
Most importantly, both teams play to their strengths. DVOA shows that the Titans (19th) and Bears (15th) have serviceable passing games. That's because they play within themselves, using short passes and play action to complement lots and lots of running. That seems obvious, but there are some teams built for running-and-defense that have an odd habit of trying to pass 35 times per game (the Vikings, for instance). The Bears and Titans know they have to win 19-16 games to survive, and they manage games with that in mind.
The Pick: Call it paralysis by analysis, but I have no read on this game. The Bears should stymie the Titans running game, and despite all of the Rex Grossman jokes you've read here over the years, he's a pretty good option off the bench. The Bears are getting three, but I like their chances of winning outright.
Oddsmakers must read Football Outsiders.
There's no other way to explain the fact that the Eagles are three-point favorites. The Giants have the best record in the NFC and are coming off a convincing division win. The Eagles are 5-3 and in better shape than they were three weeks ago, but they just finished a Laff-O-Lympics against the NFC West, with the upstart Falcons wedged in the middle. The Giants are world champions with a national media vibe. The Eagles spent last week guarding their cars from overzealous Phillies fans. Based solely on the logic of the no-rooting-interest gambler, the Giants should be favored by three or four, even if you spot the Eagles three points for home field.
The oddsmakers know better. They read FO religiously, and they know this game pits the DVOA Leaders against the DVOA Darlings. With the Giants and Eagles at the top of the statistical heap, they wisely called this game a pick-'em before giving the Eagles some home points.
Of course, handicapping doesn't work this way. The goal isn't to pick games accurately, but to even out the money on both sides. We'd love to think that DVOA is influencing the lines, but it's just not feasible unless some reader is throwing around a lot of money. Oddsmakers certainly peek at Football Outsiders, but they have their own in-house formulas, some of which no doubt work a little like DVOA (I read a handicapping guide that explained a concept similar to "fumble luck" about nine years ago). What's happening here is that oddsmakers, betting enthusiasts, and DVOA are all reaching the same conclusion. The Eagles are better than their record. They are nearly as good as the Giants. Therefore, the Eagles should be mild favorites at home.
There are matchup-related reasons to be optimistic about the Eagles. Brian Westbrook, Kevin Curtis, and Reggie Brown are all healthy, giving Donovan McNabb a full complement of receiving options (minus L.J. Smith, but who cares?). The Eagles now have enough receiving talent to create mismatches against linebackers and nickel defenders, something they couldn't do in their early-season losses. The Giants had trouble dealing with the Cowboys blitz last week, and the Eagles aren't shy about blitzing.
Pessimism is passé in Philadelphia. Optimism is in. The Eagles win, vindicating their DVOA photo-finish and keeping the Philly sports scene on a roll. And of course, the Vegas house wins as well. It always does.
The Steelers are the only traditional AFC powerhouse that is still able to win "their way."
The Colts can win games, but they can't do it with 34-point offensive firework displays anymore. The Patriots can win, but their new method is to wait for disorganized, dispirited opponents to pass out, then shave their eyebrows in their sleep. The Chargers can hang around .500, but their defense suddenly lives in a sack-free world. The Titans are a powerhouse this year, but not a traditional one. The Ravens win "their way," but they are a good little team, not a powerhouse.
The Steelers have been able to stick to their script despite injuries throughout the lineup. Steelers victories look the way you expect them to: defensive beatdowns with a few big pass plays, a solid running game, and too many sacks. Steelers losses look like the victories, but the sacks are more frequent and the running less solid, with a bad snap or two mixed in. Even with Ben Roethlisberger joining the list of casualties, the Steelers appear poised to maintain the same pace all season, finishing around 11-5 and in firm control of the AFC North.
With Roethlisberger questionable, Byron "The Windup" Leftwich likely gets the call against the Colts. Leftwich's wait-till-tomorrow delivery, coupled with the Steelers' porous pass protection, seems like the recipe for an eight-sack debacle like the one the team suffered through against the Eagles in Week 3. Luckily for Leftwich, the Colts defense has registered just 10 sacks. The return of Willie Parker gives the Steelers more options in the running game, so the Steelers should be able to move the ball.
The Colts, meanwhile, will ask Peyton Manning to drag the team bus up a freeway on-ramp. The Colts average just 3.3 yards per carry, while the Steelers allow just 2.9 yards per carry. If the Colts abandon the run before the national anthem, they're in trouble. Their passing game needs the zone-delay-draw counterpunch to thrive, and the Steelers can unveil all of their most exotic fronts if they force a lot of third-and-longs.
The Steelers are built to win sloppy slugfests in poor conditions (the early forecast calls for rain and cold weather). It's Steelers football. In the AFC, Steelers football is one of the few things you can rely upon.
A few weeks ago, we took a long look at the six worst teams in the NFL: the Seahawks, Raiders, Lions, Bengals, Rams, and Chiefs. I dubbed them the Sinister Six, in part because these teams are so bad that they create point-spreading nightmares, and also because I read a lot of Spider-Man comics to my son.
The Sinister Six are still up to their tricks. They own the bottom six slots in the DVOA rankings, and all but the Seahawks are under -30.0% in DVOA. There have been a few signs of minimal competency among the six teams, so the 20-point spreads I feared in early October haven't materialized. At the same time, the Sinister Six have embarked on that part of the schedule where playoff hopes are completely dashed. That leaves them with lame-duck or interim coaches and general managers, muddled roster situations, few goals, and the tough decision to either keep fighting for a 6-10 record or dive head-first into rebuilding. Oh, and they still make enticing 14-point dogs against .500 opponents.
Here's what's new with the Six. The saddest category that follows is "Rebuilding or Wasting Time." Not many teams are on the "rebuilding" side of the ledger.
Team: Oakland Raiders
Signs of Life: Every once in a while, Shane Lechler boots the ball 65 yards or someone gets cut.
Signs of Futility: The Raiders have scored 29 points in the four games since Lane Kiffin was fired. No Raiders player has scored more than one touchdown. They're converting 24.1 percent of their third downs. You get the idea.
Rebuilding or Wasting Time? Wasting time. JaMarcus Russell's devolution is a natural by-product of sudden upheaval in the offensive coaching staff. The Raiders should be developing Russell, McFadden, and other youngsters, but there's no long-range plan in place, so they will drift from week to week. Cutting a 24-year-old cornerback with Pro Bowl-caliber tools for playing exactly the way he played for his last team is not a sign of institutional coherence.
Pick: Panthers, a win and a cover.
Team: St. Louis Rams
Signs of Life: Back-to-back wins against the Redskins and Cowboys in October took the Rams off most "worst team ever" watch lists, and the desperate futility of Scott Linehan ("Let's start Trent Green!") is now a fading memory. Jim Haslett gets some abuse in this space, but he is at least trying, and his defenders generally play well for him.
Signs of Futility: After one good quarter last week, the Rams sunk to their mid-September lows against the Cardinals. They are still talent-poor in the secondary, and Steven Jackson has been ridden hard behind a bad line. Haslett's Power of Positive Thinking motivational tactics are wearing off, and the St. Louis crowd spent more time cheering for Kurt Warner than the Rams by the second half last week.
Rebuilding or Wasting Time? A little of both. Haslett's push for a permanent job will keep him from making some hard choices when it comes time to bench veterans for rookies. Still, there's a lot of young talent on the defensive side of the ball; players like Chris Long will benefit in the long term if the team battles hard for wins for the rest of the season.
Pick: Rams to cover. The Jets keep walking the tightrope and winning ugly games. If they don't flat-out lose here, they'll at least get lulled into another sloppy performance.
Team: Cincinnati Bengals
Signs of Life: The Bengals have gotten used to life with Ryan Fitzgerald at quarterback. They roll the pocket more, with T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad Johnson running lots of underneath routes. Cedric Benson occasionally gains more than two yards on handoffs, making him a major upgrade over Chris Perry.
Signs of Futility: The Bengals defense played well against the Jaguars but still generates almost no pass rush (nine sacks). The new-look Bengals offense has almost no big-play capability, and one good game doesn't transform Fitzpatrick into a game-management maestro.
Rebuilding or Wasting Time? Wasting time. Marvin Lewis is a lame duck, the offense is veteran-laden, and most of the young defenders are already in the lineup. The team's mental makeup doesn't suggest a spirited sprint to the finish.
Pick: Hurricane-assisted bye week.
Team: Detroit Lions
Signs of Life: The Lions' last four losses have all been by eight points or fewer. Dan Orlovsky no longer uses the back of the end zone as a Wii Fit, and he looked downright competent at times before getting hurt.
Signs of Futility: The Lions secondary is dreadful; they've only picked off two passes all year, and neither safety knows what he's doing in deep coverage. Rod Marinelli wanted to run the ball this year, but neither Rudi Johnson nor Kevin Smith has provided much ground game.
Rebuilding or Wasting Time? Wasting time. Daunte Culpepper is material evidence.
Pick: The Jaguars are in must-win mode. This game offers a prime opportunity to restart their running game and adjust the aspect ratio on a passing game that has too much horizontal and not enough vertical. That six-point spread is shaky, but the Jags should cover.
Team: Kansas City Chiefs
Signs of Life: The team's switch to a modified spread offense wasn't as crazy as it sounded. Jamaal Charles is playing well. Tyler Thigpen is no longer a punchline.
Signs of Futility: If the league's worst DVOA doesn't get your attention, how about 1,459 rushing yards allowed in half a season?
Rebuilding or Wasting Time? Rebuilding. At least the Chiefs entered the season knowing that they should be sifting through young talent. Thigpen isn't a top prospect, but he has earned a second look. Young defenders like Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr are getting plenty of on-the-job training. Herm Edwards probably won't be around next year, but he'll stay on point and keep giving youngsters opportunities instead of seeking quick, career-saving fixes.
Pick: Chiefs to cover a 14.5-point spread, but lose. If the Chargers manage to lose this game, Norv Turner may have to fire the ticket takers.
Team: Seattle Seahawks
Signs of Life: A win over the Niners two weeks ago showed that its possible to win a football game with Seneca Wallace at quarterback. Wallace had a few good passes against the Eagles last week. Veterans like Matt Hasselbeck and Patrick Kerney are expected back next week, though that's a mixed blessing.
Signs of Futility: The Seahawks punted 11 times against the Eagles and only possessed the ball for 22 minutes. Opposing quarterbacks complete two-thirds of their passes against the Seahawks.
Rebuilding or Wasting time? Wasting time. The Seahawks were built to win for Mike Holmgren. They have lots of veterans and few prospects. Hasselbeck will make them competitive again, just in time to lift them to a 9-7 record. An on-the-decline veteran like Kerney is too good to bench, but all he'll be doing in December is taking snaps away from a player who could help the Seahawks down the road. They can't even fire the coach in frustration, because he's about to retire anyway.
Pick: The Dolphins can be beaten by any good team with a steady quarterback and a strong receiving corps. Does that sound like the Seahawks to you?
Packers at Vikings: The Vikings defense keeps losing important players. Jared Allen is out with a separated shoulder, weakening the team's strongest unit. The Titans proved last week that a good front seven can set up a disassembly line in the Packers backfield, taking away their five-wideout package and forcing Ryan Grant to break three tackles for every two yards. With Allen and E.J. Henderson on the shelf, the Vikings won't be able to generate that kind of pressure. And unlike the Titans, the Vikings can't count on smart coverage from their secondary. Packers.
Bills at Patriots: Cover your eyes! It's AFC East football! What's worse: watching the Bills march 60 yards on 15 plays only to turn the ball over, or watching the Patriots run a dozen gadget plays and fancy screens for a net gain of six yards? The Bills' inconsistent running game and need to be picture-perfect on offense will hurt them on the road, but the Patriots' victory won't lead any columnists to make poetic comparisons to last year's team.
Ravens at Texans: There's a right way and a wrong way for a team to integrate the Wildcat into their offense:
Right way: Find a running back or receiver who can throw, shift into a Wildcat formation after the huddle, mix option-style runs with a few surprise pass plays, and find unpredictable times to deploy the formation.
Wrong way: Bring your backup quarterback into the game, have him run the same dive over and over, cause internal confusion by trying to use the package during critical third downs, and do it all because you want to shut one of your linebackers up.
The Ravens used their Troy Smith-Joe Flacco "Terrell Suggs Appeasement Package" brilliantly two weeks ago; against the Browns, it became unneeded window dressing. The Ravens will be able to pound the ball against the porous Texans offense, setting up one or two Flacco bombs and obviating the need for Smith chicanery. Sage Rosenfels is back in the huddle for Houston; he'll find the Ravens' defense far less forgiving than that of the Broncos.
Niners at Cardinals: Mike Singletary is a mass-media godsend, a loose cannon capable of wigging out in a press conference and dropping his trousers in less than two full weeks as head coach. By December, he had better be hanging by his underwear from a ceiling fan singing nursery rhymes, or I want my money back. Singletary's routine devolved into camp so quickly that it's probably backfiring as a motivational tool. Don't look for any Hawthorne Effect bump; instead, look for the Cardinals to complete the sweep and continue their unexpected climb into the heart of the playoff picture.
37 comments, Last at 07 Nov 2008, 7:14pm by The Ninjalectual