We look back at Atlanta's worst games this year to see what weaknesses New England might exploit. Those weaknesses include pretty much everyone on defense, but is there a secret to stopping the Falcons offense?
02 Oct 2008
by Mike Tanier
Matt Millen, Matt Millen, why have you abandoned me?
My need is great in these times of difficult blogging.
But you are so far from my lamentations
In these days with no Brady-filled tabloids
When Romo and Jessica's romance has grown stale
I cry out for an easy humor target
Yet you hear not my pleas.
When Vince Young's crisis is too sad to be funny
When Kiffin and Linehan were fired too soon
Even Herm Edwards will someday forsake me
Whose stupid words and actions shall make me look clever?
Current events offer no consolation
Stock crises aren't funny, the weather brings only fear.
Aaron chokes me the moment I type Sarah Pa-- (oof!)
I need Lion incompetence, but you are nowhere around.
Maybe Al Davis will hire a cat named Mr. Tibblesworth
Or Chris Cooley will blog with a parasol over his ... playbook
Or perhaps your divine idiocy will shine upon another city.
Just a few more stupid quotes, Matt. Please? I have a deadline.
Future generations will know of your foolishness, oh Millen.
I shall proclaim it until I am fired and my voice grows silent.
My only other option is to rely on my God-given talent.
And that will not take me far.
Next Week: Blogger's Lament No. 23: Tom Cable is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
Tim Tebow stood in shotgun on fourth-and-1 in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter against Ole Miss. Two blocking backs stood directly behind the line of scrimmage to Tebow's right. Not surprisingly, Tebow plunged into the line behind those blockers, where he met most of the Rebel defense. No gain. Mississippi wins. National analysts criticized the play call, with good reason: With no other backs in position to take a handoff, there was no hope of play-faking, misdirection, or subterfuge.
How quickly times change. A decade ago, a shotgun sneak with two single wing-style blocking backs aligned one yard behind the guard and tackle would have been an exotic play selection. Now, it's so predictable that we criticize Urban Meyer for calling it. In college football, like the pros, last year's innovation is this year's cliché.
Spread and spread option offenses have taken over college football, and principals from both schemes have infiltrated the NFL over the past decade. In the past, teams rarely lined up in shotgun, empty-backfield sets on first down in the second quarter. A handoff from the shotgun was once a third-and-forever desperation tactic; it's now a large part of the Colts passing game, and the Patriots are likely to use the handoff as a play fake before a slip screen to Wes Welker. These principles are lifted from the wide-open offenses that have become so common in college football that I'm sometimes shocked to see an I-formation on a Saturday afternoon.
At Football Outsiders, we have been writing about the rise of shotgun and spread tactics in the NFL for years; I outlined the rise of shotgun sets in Pro Football Prospectus 2007, and Doug Farrar wrote at length about the spread in PFP 2008. Because we are FO, we try to be precise when delineating meanings, parsing out the differences between the pure spread (five wide receivers, extra wide gaps between the linemen), the spread option (Florida's offense, lots of quarterback keepers and misdirection), and the run 'n' shoot (the old Mouse Davis-June Jones system, usually with four wide receivers and lots of crossing patterns and draw plays). We always make it clear that no NFL team runs a true spread offense, and that Meyer's/Rich Rodriguez' tactics wouldn't form the basis of a successful pro offense. Still, teams like the Patriots, Packers, and Broncos run very spread-like systems, and we're often asked if the spread is the "next big thing."
I used to answer that spread principles are on the rise. I now think they have peaked and will soon be on the wane.
Just as the mainstream media is taking note of the spread, defensive coordinators are starting to defeat it. Last week's Tebow stuff is just one example of how defensive coordinators are bringing back balance. Roll the college highlight reels from recent weeks, and you will see more quarterback keepers getting stymied, more slip screens broken up or returned for pick-sixes, and a general sense that fewer defenders are fooled by the sprint-option right/toss back to the left tactics of coaches like Meyer. College coaches used to see one or two spread option teams per year. Now they see ten. They had to adapt or change careers.
At the pro level, the recent fascination with spread principles may also be subsiding. The Patriots set passing records last year, but they are learning that what works for Tom Brady may not work for Matt Cassel. The Packers are in a similar situation: Aaron Rodgers ran their multiple offense successfully early in the year, but his injury may force rookie Matt Flynn into a system that asks an awful lot of a young quarterback. The Broncos currently run the most spread-like offense in the NFL, and they have had a lot of success. But last week, shotgun handoffs to Selvyn Young were getting stuffed at the line, quick screens to the receivers had little success, and a too-cute pitch play to Brandon Marshall resulted in a turnover. All three teams are getting diminishing returns from their wide-open tactics as opponents learn to better defend them.
How are defenses adapting to all of the receiver screens, draws, and shotgun sets? I've seen some small but significant changes.
|Figure 1: Defending A Tunnel Screen|
Figure 1 shows all four principles at work against a tunnel screen. Most defensive calls wouldn't include both an end and a cornerback attacking the backfield, but you get the idea. All of the small changes add up to greater equilibrium between offense and defense. Tunnel screens are still effective, but they have lost the elements of surprise and novelty. Similarly, empty backfields on early downs are now part of the NFL offensive canon, but they've lost their "wow" factor. Coaches will soon rediscover the simple joy of the I-formation run off tackle.
Let's review some of this week's games through the prism of the spread offense. All of the games below feature one team with a pass- and shotgun-happy scheme. Will recent adversity force them to scale back?
Spread Options: Matt Cassel told The Patriots Ledger that he spent the bye week working on his mechanics, watching film, and learning "how defenses are approaching us as an offense." That sounds like a guy who will still be slinging it from the shotgun this week, especially against a Niners secondary that got immolated by the Saints. The likely return of Laurence Maroney (who was practicing in pads last week) will improve the Patriots' draw-and-stretch game, making them less predictable when Cassel is in the gun.
Pick: The disgruntled Randy Moss takes a week off. The happy, streaking-through-the-endzone Moss clocks in. Patriots.
Spread Options: The Packers offense is diverse. Mike McCarthy can load the formation with five wide receivers, get primitive and switch to the full house backfield (great for snowy playoff games against the Seahawks), or channel Urban Meyer and use a tight end as a blocking back in front of a shotgun quarterback. If Matt Flynn steps in for the injured Aaron Rodgers, expect lots of power running and max protect principles. That doesn't mean the Packers will run 45 times; McCarthy loves to call slants and fade patterns from run-heavy formations, and a few screens and quick slants will help Flynn get his rhythm while allowing the Packers receivers to work in space.
Pick: Injuries to Rodgers and Al Harris have exposed major depth issues at key positions in Green Bay, but Greg Jennings and company should feast on a porous Falcons secondary. Packers win, with or without Rodgers.
Spread Options: The Broncos have strayed far from their zone blocking roots in the last two years, embracing an offense as full of tunnel screens and spreadish trickery as any in the NFL. The change has brought a mix of big plays and big mistakes. Last week's loss to the Chiefs will force them to take a step back from the chasm's edge. There's no need to use Brandon Marshall as a tailback, and it's sometimes better to keep it simple against weak opponents. Mike Shanahan may cut down on the cuteness against a disciplined Bucs defense that loves to bait quarterbacks into mistakes.
Pick: This is the toughest game of the week to decide. The Bucs don't have the offensive speed to capitalize on Broncos defensive errors, and I expect the Broncos to protect the ball after Sunday's ice water wake-up. On the flip side, the Bucs defense is playing well, Joey Galloway could be back, and for all their talent and big-play potential, the Broncos could easily be 1-3 right now. Take the Broncos, but that's not the world's safest investment right now. Which is saying something.
Spread Options:The Colts offense bears only surface similarities to a college-style spread, but they are constantly in three-receiver sets and operate out of the shotgun frequently. They are lumped here for convenience. The first-team offense practiced regularly against the first-team defense during the bye week, as Peyton Manning and company tried to perfect their timing. Center Jeff Saturday and tight end Dallas Clark are back, so injuries are no longer a legitimate excuse for the team's offensive woes. Don't expect many changes as the Colts head for Houston this week. "It's just trying to fix those little things," Joseph Addai said of his bye-week preparation.
Pick: The Texans are the best 0-3 team in football, and they're happy to have a home, if not a roof over their heads. With Steve Slaton adding a big-play run threat to the offense, they can keep it close. Still, look for the Colts to win; I like the idea of getting them with a three-point line.
In my La Salle University heyday, I followed college hoops more fervently than football. The Big Five was my beat, but the Big East was the best conference in the NCAA in those years. They literally played a different game than the other conferences, allowing six fouls before an ejection instead of five. Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo played on the same court, and while their Georgetown Hoyas were a powerhouse, they faced at least two battles per week against strong Connecticut, Seton Hall, and St. John's squads. The sixth or seventh best team in the Big East in those years could have finished second or third in the Big-10 or SEC, and they would have lapped the field in any mid-major conference.
The NFC East is the new Big East, only bigger. The Redskins and Eagles, who face off in Philly on Sunday, are the presumed also-rans of the division. Place either of them in any other NFC division and they would be front-runners. With the Patriots battered and the AFC South topsy-turvy, you could argue that the Redskins or Eagles could pace any division in the NFL.
The Redskins are on a roll because they are doing the little things well. Jim Zorn's focus on ball control has kept turnover totals low. Clinton Portis is finding holes, running hard, and not fumbling. Defensively, the Redskins are taking away the middle of the field and avoiding big plays. It's the kind of formula that can yield a 11-5 record in most divisions but could land them in third place in the Great Big East, where their lack of offensive firepower and deficiencies on special teams may be their undoing.
The Eagles, when healthy, field a much more talented top-to-bottom roster than the Redskins, and they nearly squeezed out a win against the Bears despite the absences of Brian Westbrook, All Pro guard Shawn Andrews, and L.J. Smith. For the Eagles, losing is often an exercise in creativity: Few teams can mix muffed punts, crossbar-plunking field goal attempts, and goal-line futility into a frustrating montage of missed opportunity like the Eagles. The Philly Phaithful spent Monday wondering how many defenders the Bears would have to crowd into the A-gap at the 1-yard line before Andy Reid would call something other than an inside run (Figure 2). We all drew up our own innovative goal-line schemes, but the soberest among us soon realized that with so many players injured, DeSean Jackson yippy after his punt return errors, and Hank Baskett downloading pics of his Playboy Bunny girlfriend, Reid had few options.
|Figure 2: Bears 5-6-5 Stack|
Portis is worried that if reporters mention his 86-carry streak without a fumble, it will jinx him. Eighty-six carries without a fumble! Think about it, Clinton. It's quite a streak. Attempted whammies aside, the Eagles will be healthier this week, and a rock-paper-scissors round robin among the Eagles, Redskins, and Cowboys seems appropriate in the Great Big East.
Speaking of the Cowboys, the always-obliging Terrell Owens is halfway to Planet T.O. right now, that place where the millionaire athlete becomes a persecuted victim of his stifling offense and inadequate quarterback. It takes a few months to reach the planet's upper atmosphere, and the Cowboys offense will be fine until their Bucs-Giants series at the end of October. Will Carroll told me that Carson Palmer needs more than a week of rest to fix his ailing elbow. If Palmer is out, the Bengals offense will once again move in Fitz and starts.
Plaxico Burress is out for a week as the Giants host the Seahawks. Receivers Bobby Engram and Koren Robinson returned to practice during the bye, and the Seahawks can use any contribution they can get from their veteran wideouts. The Plaxico suspension narrows the gap between these two teams, and the Seahawks run defense (second in DVOA) will slow the Brandon Jacobs wrecking ball. The Giants rate a big edge in special teams and will generate plenty of pressure. Look for a field position battle, with the Giants winning on a big sack or a big return. The line is hovering around seven at press time; if it reaches eight, I would lean toward the Seahawks to cover.
The following is a public service announcement.
Tarvaris: Hi, I'm Tarvaris Jackson of the Minnesota Vikings. I have fallen on some hard times lately, and so have several of my young, highly-touted quarterback buddies.
Vince: We've been accused of poor play, bad decisions, emotional instability...
Matt: Binge drinking, co-ed cuddling...
Tarvaris: You get the idea. But all of that is about to change, thanks to the Quarterback Reconstruction Project initiated by MIT. Using modern genetic engineering, MIT scientists will make one great quarterback from the DNA of three failed prospects.
Vince: I will provide my incredible arm and uncanny athleticism.
Tarvaris: I will provide my outstanding work ethic and level-headed personality.
Matt: And I will provide my good looks, California attitude, and ability to funnel three 40s of Olde English while simultaneously peeling the thong off a sorority sister.
Tarvaris: This new Super Quarterback, named Vincaris Youngleinson, will be cloned three times and placed on the rosters of the Vikings, Titans, and Cardinals.
Vince: Hopefully, the new guys will justify the ridiculously high salaries paid to the three of us.
Tarvaris: Speak for yourself, Vince. You can do your part by purchasing Youngleinson jerseys and bobble-heads, and by drafting one of the three clones onto your fantasy teams.
Matt: Vince, Tarvaris, and I never want to disappoint another fan. The only way we can do that is by disappearing and allowing genetically modified freaks to live our lives. Support the Quarterback Reconstruction Project, and we'll all go quietly away.
Brodie: Hey, guys, sorry I am late. Did I miss the PSA? I'm still part of the team, right?
Tarvaris: Sorry, pal. The best we can do is stick you in a cloning vat with Ryan Fitzpatrick and create the ultimate future Division II offensive coordinator.
Brodie: I'll take it!'
You can't tell one 30-something journeyman quarterback from another without a program. Luckily, Walkthrough is keeping track of the grey haired game managers so you don't have to.
Geezer Index: Steady. Collins has produced low completion percentages in back-to-back games, and his ability to avoid turnovers is a mirage; he fumbled against the Vikings and will throw late into tight coverage at times. On an offense that lacks quality receivers, though, Collins is moving the ball adequately.
Quick Quote: Some straight talk from the man himself: "I'm on a good football team. Are we a great football team? No, I don't think so. Finding ways to win and winning ballgames keeps adding to the confidence and makeup of your team. We've got a good bunch of guys who work hard and play hard. We've got a good bunch of coaches. We have to keep believing in each other."
Pick: The Ravens should bounce back from a Monday Night road loss with a home win. I am lukewarm about that pick, but I love the over at 35. Two great defenses plus a rookie and an old man at quarterback usually equals turnovers that lead directly to easy scores.
Geezer Index: Rising. Huard's 21-of-28 effort on Sunday was heavily padded by micro-throws -- Larry Johnson, Jamaal Charles, and Mike Cox combined for five yards on nine receptions -- but he got the ball to Dwayne Bowe several times when he needed to move the chains. Huard's resume is skimpier, but he is no better or worse than the other old-timers on this list.
Quick Quote: Huard took the cliché out of the writers' mouths on Sunday: "I managed the game well. I didn't force anything, was pretty smart with the football for the most part."
Pick: Panthers over Chiefs. Even with Huard playing well, it took a dozen Broncos mistakes to allow the Chiefs to win.
Geezer Index: Falling. Frerotte had a pass picked off and lost a fumble on a botched snap last week, hurting his "game manager" cred. On the other hand, Bernard Berrian dropped some passes, and Tarvaris Jackson was sacked twice in one late-game series, so Frerotte may be the best option.
Quick Quote: Matt Birk on his team's sloppy offense: "On the road, you can't turn the ball over and you can't commit penalties. We did both of those and really didn't give ourselves the best chance to win, obviously."
Pick: Brad Childress periodically forgets that he has the best rushing attack in football. Last week's 47-to-20 pass-run ratio (counting sacks) can only be partly explained by game circumstances: There's no reason to abandon the run when down 20-10 at halftime. There's trouble on the Vikings defense, too: E.J. Henderson injured his foot last week, and the Vikings will be hard-pressed to stop the Saints' misdirection-based rushing and short passing attack without their top linebacker. The Saints are becoming my new Jaguars -- I am always wrong no matter how I pick them -- but I have to keep making selections. It's my job.
Geezer Index: Flatline. Don't let the wacky comeback bid on Sunday snow you. Check the date on your Warner calendar. The "couple of good games" are over. We're in the part of the year where he keeps fumbling in the red zone and getting jittery in the pocket. He'll be injured in three weeks.
Quick Quote: Warner on Sunday's effort: "You play the way I did in the first half, it's hard to come back and win those games. Unfortunately, you have those in this business, but you hate to have them. I hope, personally, I don't have another one all year long."
Pick: The 4-0 Bills aren't that good. But I won't pick the Cardinals again until Warner stops fumbling or Levi Brown proves he can do more than toss bouquets at defensive ends.
Mister Bumbles (Brian Griese)
Geezer Index: Falling. Griese threw three picks and several other bad passes (at least one gift-wrapped interception was dropped to go with one tip-drill pick), making Sunday's win harder than it needed to be. He also threw three picks in his 68-attempt Gruden Gone Wild game against the Bears. At this rate, he will put NFL interception records in jeopardy.
Quick Quote: Griese on the Bucs' offensive potential: "I want to find out how good we can be when we don't turn the ball over. That's what I want to find out."
Pick: Broncos (see previous section).
The Steelers and Jaguars have combined to play three overtime games already this season. The average margin of victory for the Jaguars' four games has been three points. The Steelers followed a tough win in swampy conditions against the Browns in Week 2 with a tight, rib-rattling loss to the Eagles. For an encore, they battled into overtime against a typically defense-oriented Ravens team. The Jaguars overcame a rash of Week 1 injuries and are adjusting to life behind a built-on-the-fly offensive line. The Steelers are losing important players at a rate of two per week. Next Sunday night's game promises to be a violent battle into the night that won't be won until the final field goal attempt.
The Jaguars running game is showing signs of life. Coordinator Dirk Koetter is making minor adjustments, like sending center Dennis Norman to pull block on sweeps instead of one of the guards. What once came easy to the Jaguars is now a struggle, but David Garrard is starting to find Reggie Williams and Matt Jones now that opponents are once again respecting the run. Look for the Jaguars to get better, week-by-week, as the new line becomes established and free agent mistakes (Jerry Porter) get buried deeper on the depth chart.
With Rashard Mendenhall and Kendall Simmons out, the Steelers lack a power-running option, and their bad pass protection is about to get worse. Until Willie Parker returns, Mewelde Moore will get most of the carries. Moore is a situational back, not a pile mover. The Steelers will fall deeper into their stuff-incomplete-sack-punt offensive pattern, digging a hole so deep that their defense won't be able to scoop them out. Luckily for them, the Ravens are in the same boat, and the rest of their division is curled up in the fetal position.
Take the Jaguars this week, but be ready for the quintessential Steelers-type game. They aren't pretty, but they are always close, and you can't claim that the guys aren't hitting one another.
Bears at Lions: The new era in Detroit will look a lot like the old era, with Jon Kitna suffering a half-dozen sacks. Bears.
Chargers at Dolphins: Let's hope that Tony Sporano doesn't break out the Wild Hogg this week. He would be like the guy who got big laughs by wearing an evening gown at last year's office party, so he puts the same gown on this year. "Hey, I'm wearing the dress! Is everybody ready to get wild? Wacka, wacka, wacka!" The Chargers are getting their groove back. They'll be fine if they don't look past this game to the Patriots.
Reader Jason Hassler writes:
I find myself watching games and trying to determine defensive and offensive formations and intent, basically trying to read how the plays may unfold before the snap. I have learned a ton about doing this and football from your articles. However, there are a couple of things I still have questions about. When the offense goes to four receivers, two on each side, how do you try and determine who the primary receiver should be? When the offense goes to five receivers, three on one side and two on the other, how do you try and determine who the primary receiver should be? When the offense has three receivers bunched close together on one side (may or may not have wide receivers on the other side), how do you try and determine who the primary receiver should be?
Trying to determine the primary receiver based on formation is hopeless. Offensive coordinators work hard to disguise their tendencies, and none of them want to tip off where the ball is going presnap. There are, though, a few general principles to look for. For example, when three receivers are bunched to one side and a fourth receiver is isolated to the other, the lone receiver is often single-covered, making him an appealing target. That's why coaches design a myriad of plays for the three bunched receivers: to keep defenders guessing and prevent them from double-covering or "buzzing" the receiver on the island.
|Figure 3: Route Combinations|
If you are analyzing formations, a better approach is to watch pattern combinations and see how they interact to stretch zones or put defenders in untenable situations. The top left diagram in Figure 3 shows the split receiver running a slant underneath a fly pattern by the slot receiver. This is an effective combination against all types of coverage, but it can create easy yardage against man coverage because the slot receiver can create a traffic jam while running upfield. The upper right diagram shows the slot receiver running a corner route while the split end runs a short smash. Against a Cover-3 defense, the cornerback will drift back in response to the corner route, leaving the split end with room to turn upfield after catching the smash. Against man coverage, the quarterback must either get the ball to the split end before he makes his cut, wait for the slot receiver to get open deep, or go elsewhere with the ball. The bold-faced route in each diagram is the primary receiver, but there's no way the defense could determine that at the snap.
The lower diagram in Figure 1 shows that all 2-by-2 receiver formations are created equal. Generally, we think of four-receiver sets as spread formations, but it's very common now to see the two receivers aligned tight, just a few yards wide of the tackle. The tight receivers, as shown, are in great position to throw a crack block, run a seam route, or work the middle of the field. They also have room to outrun a defender to the sidelines. The spread receivers don't have as much room to work with along the sidelines, but they have plenty of open pasture to play in, and they usually take two or three defenders with them to the outskirts of the field, making them de facto blockers on running plays.
Watch the same team week after week, and you can see which route combination they use the most, which can help you understand what the coaches are trying to accomplish. But you probably won't find yourself calling out plays presnap. Only the guys who spend 80 hours per week studying and coaching football can do that, and even they are far from perfect.
25 comments, Last at 05 Oct 2008, 3:53pm by Sergio