Short-yardage passing had a good year, except at the end of the Super Bowl. We look at the return of quarterback runs, the rise in pass-happy strategy, and 2014 success rates for offense and defense.
15 Oct 2009
by Mike Tanier
NFL Red Zone will begin in five, four, three, two, one ...
Hanson: Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to Week 5 in the NFL. I'm Chris Hanson, and with the help of ten video monitors, a team of spotters, and enough stimulants to get a trucker from Key West to Anchorage without blinking, I'll be bringing you every play of significance over the next seven hours.
First Announcer: It's first down, and Manning completes a short pass for nine yards. Brandon Jacobs gains nine yards on second-and-short. Jacobs again, for three yards. Fans, no doubt you are just settling into the flow of this game and ...
Hanson: Let's flash quickly over to the Redskins game!
Second Announcer: Clinton Portis catches a swing pass and races to the outside. Touchdown!
Hanson: Hey, that was exciting, but let's rush you back to the Giants game!
First Announcer: Manning to Jacobs for a short gain. Jacobs for six yards. The Giants are knocking on the door.
Hanson: The Giants are about to score, but so are the Bengals. Let's show both games using double boxes. The Giants are at the top of your screen, the Bengals at the bottom.
Third Announcer: Shayne Graham attempts a field goal and, what happened? Brad St. Louis' long snap was so inaccurate that it just floated into the air and disappeared!
First Announcer: Something strange just happened between plays. A ball seemed to materialize out of nowhere and hit Eli Manning in the head.
Hanson: That double box technology is something. Let's look in on the Steelers and Lions in the six seconds we have before the Giants score.
Fourth Announcer: Daunte Culpepper jus ...
Hanson: No time! No time! Back to the Meadowlands!
First Announcer: Brandon Jacobs, touchdown.
Hanson: What a play! And now that the Giants are on commercial, we can just go buck nutty. What's going on in the Browns-Bills game?
Fifth Announcer: Dave Zastudil just punted, and Josh Cribbs downed it. It was a beautiful play. It was the highlight of my week. If CBS doesn't take me off Browns games soon I am going to open a little thrift store and sell spools of yarn.
Hanson: No more of that! What are the Vikings doing?
Sixth Announcer: Adrian Peterson rolls in easily for a touchdown. And now let's go to Philly for a Game Break.
James Brown: Check this out: Donovan McNabb throws a great pass to Jeremy Maclin for an Eagles touchdown.
Hanson: Hey, no cutaways when I am cutting away. Let's go to Philly.
Seventh Announcer: Here's a replay of that great pass from McNabb to Maclin. And now for a game break, let's see what Adrian Peterson ...
Hanson: Oh, no you don't! The Ravens, Steelers, and Cowboys are all in the red zone, so let's unveil our Triple Trapezoid Technology to watch all three games. For best results, turn your head at a 45-degree angle.
Ten seconds of tiny, indecipherable figures and overlapping, foreign-sounding speech.
Hanson: Our friends at the cable company tell us that Triple Trapezoid Technology caused a breech in space time. We welcome those of you watching Red Zone on in-flight televisions who thought you were traveling to the 1939 Worlds Fair. We hope you enjoy our thrilling, terrifying future. Now over to the Giants game.
First Announcer: It's 21-0. Russell just tied his cleats together. Go away.
Hanson: Okay, what about Browns-Bills?
Fifth Announcer: Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
Hanson: C'mon people! It is only 1:20 Eastern Time! I have to do this for six more hours! You have to score faster. Do you hear me? FASTER! THE BEAST MUST BE FED. MORE TOUCHDOWNS. MORE HIGHLIGHTS. I HUNGER.
Mike Singletary: Chris, you need to calm down. Take a timeout.
Hanson: Wow, that feels good.
Mike Singletary: And another, and another.
Hanson: Ahh. Coherent thoughts are returning. Football is about much more than disjointed highlights. The viewing experience should be fast-paced but not frenetic. Red Zone is fun for commercial breaks, but it's no substitute for watching a good old-fashioned game, boring parts and all.
Mike Singletary: I won't apologize for what I did here today.
Chris Brown is one of the rising stars in the world of football strategy analysis. He runs Smart Football, a blog dedicated to Xs and Os and other tactical decisions, and his diagrams and commentary have appeared in the New York Times Fifth Down Blog and Yahoo! Sports.
I often do a lot of diagramming, and I sometimes need some fresh input so my ideas don't just feed back on themselves. Chris has become a Wildcat expert while covering Dolphins and several college teams, so I asked him to chat with me while watching the Dolphins-Jets game so I could get a different perspective about the Wildcat, the Jets defense, and young quarterbacks Mark Sanchez and Chad Henne.
Before the game...
Mike: How much mileage are you getting out of dissecting the Wildcat?
Chris: I wrote a Wildcat article for the New York Times Fifth Down blog last week. I still think for all the discussion of it people don't really know what makes it effective and how teams can and should try to defend it. I also wrote about it the very week it debuted. I predicted it would not die at a time when other experts thought it would disappear quickly, and I feel vindicated by that. But the fact that the video of David Lee explaining it was already floating around back then took some of the wind out of the sails for me. I think it has a definite role in the game. For all the talk about it being a "fad," many commentators, announcers, and yes, evidently some teams still don't quite get what is going on.
Mike: I wrote about the Wildcat a week or two after it debuted, too, but the article never saw the light of day. What's interesting is that you say so many of the same things in the Fifth Down that Doug Farrar wrote in Football Outsiders Almanac -- how there's more to the Wildcat than just a direct snap to the running back, and so on -- and I have written similar things that have appeared in ESPN The Magazine and elsewhere. I am guessing other experts have also stressed the same points. Yet the moment a running back takes a direct snap, the announcer shouts "Wildcat!"
That may finally be changing, though: Jon Gruden explained the variations in direct snap plays during a pre-game segment. He showed some of direct snap plays teams like the Panthers were using four years ago.
In the first quarter, the Dolphins drive slowly down the field for a touchdown.
Mike: The Dolphins aren't being shy about using the Wildcat early. I also like the two-tight end, two-back look they used a lot on this first drive.
Chris: Right: a lot of power personnel, which keeps Rex Ryan out of his multi-defensive back blitz formations. Also, while in the Wildcat the Dolphins have used a balanced line, but with a tight end plus wing to the same side. They threw the ball once (Anthony Fasano was the tight end, not the wing/H-back, on his catch from Ronnie Brown), and ran the jet sweep.
Mike: That was a vintage Dolphins 2009 drive: It took about 8 minutes, almost all of the plays were runs. The Dolphins are using a lot of trapping and pulling blocking schemes early on.
Chris: The Dolphins ran "power" a ton on that drive: the fullback kicks out the end man on the line of scrimmage, while the backside guard pulls.
Later, Steve Weatherford runs a fake punt for a first down.
Chris: Big fake punt. A lot of teams give their punters the option to run if it is there. I don't know if that's what happened there.
Mike: I agree with Jaws and Captain Coffee. I don't think that fake punt was designed. I remember Buddy Ryan had a punter named John Telchick who would take off on his own if he bobbled the snap or saw an opening. I wouldn't be surprised if it's a coaching point for Weatherford.
Chris: It's not just a freelancing thing with punters. They are instructed to go if the other team's rush is unsound. The bobble just added to it. You'd have to have insight into their coaching points, though, to know when he's free to run.
Mike: I think for Telchick it was a freelance thing. Those old Eagles did a lot of freelancing.
The Dolphins get the ball back after a Jets touchdown. A Ricky Williams screen is the biggest play of the drive.
Chris: The Dolphins are doing a ton of bunch sets with rub routes to deter the Jets man-to-man blitzes.
Mike: I love the screen from the two-back, two tight end set. The play action helped sell it, I think. One big key was how long Henne held the ball there. You can't rush that throw, and you can't turn and look at the receiver too soon or else the blitzers will react.
Chris: The screen worked because of numbers. The Jets blitzed and Ricky slid off a guy after chipping him. As a result there was no one left to account for him. A well executed screen requires the defense to use two guys on the running back -- usually the blitzer and a safety or spy linebacker (at least against man-to-man).
Mike: Right before the Dolphins field goal, we see our first really effective Jets blitz of the game.
Chris: On third down, Ryan uses a lot of his blitzes with loose coverage to force short throws so his guys can make the tackle on a short gain.
Another Jets fake punt, followed by two two-minute drills: one effective, one ineffective.
Mike: Don't turn your back on the Jets when they are punting. Brad Smith as personal protector, lined up about three yards behind the center? It was suspicious, but the Dolphins were out of timeouts, so they were forced to react on the fly.
The Dolphins really don't have any plan in terms of a two-minute drill. Granted, one long pass was called back by a penalty, but I didn't get the impression they were going to get anything done. Their lack of a coherent passing game is a major problem.
Chris: The Dolphins' lack of a two-minute drill is really odd. That said, the Jets wasted a down by spiking it on first down. It cost them: They had to kick a field goal on fourth down with time remaining. Teams spike the ball way too often, and it routinely costs them points. It takes as much time to call a play as it does to call the spike play.
Mike: I don't mind playing for three in that situation. You have a rookie quarterback, you are out of timeouts. The defense is going to take away the end zone and hand you the middle of the field. It's not a bad idea sometimes to take what was handed to you.
Chris: I guess. Teams just waste so many chances to score with spikes. It's irrational. Bill Walsh used to talk about this.
At half and early in the third quarter
Mike: Sanchez did an excellent job managing the Jets' short field goal drive. Mostly easy reads and throws, but he delivered the ball on time. What were your thoughts on him leaving college?
Chris: I have to say I am very impressed by how well he's done because I didn't see it coming. Not that I didn't think he'd be a very good QB one day, but he hadn't really had many opportunities to prove himself. I was very confused by the use of Sanchez during the "evaluation period" between him and Kellen Clemens. In one preseason game Sanchez threw something like four passes, and in the next he really struggled -- Ryan did not put him out there for the two-minute drill. Yet Ryan named him the starter and off we've gone.
You have to remember too that Sanchez had one full season of work at USC. He looked good, particularly in the bowl game against Penn State, but Southern Cal is generally so physically dominant that their pass game has evolved from the days when Carson Palmer was there. They use fewer quick, timing type reads by the quarterback, basically because they don't have to. Instead, they slide or gap protect the line, keep seven guys in quite often, and send just two or three super-talented receivers downfield to get open. Sanchez found them, but it is a different speed at the NFL.
Mike: And Henne?
Chris: Henne was just a solid guy. He had some ups and downs but he won a lot of games, has all the physical tools, and very much reminds you of the other trusty Michigan quarterbacks who either became viable starters (Brian Griese), or became so trustworthy and dependable that they actually became great, like Tom Brady. There is a threshold level of arm strength and athletic ability you need in the NFL: You have to be able to throw the 18 yard comeback to the sideline from the opposite hashmark, which -- if you do the Pythagorean theorem and factor in the depth of the quarterback's drop -- is a very, very long throw. Beyond that, I don't care if he has a gun versus a cannon versus a bazooka -- that part is overrated. Henne has the physical tools and appears to have a good amount of poise; he just has to prove he can make good decisions and deliver the ball into small windows. That is as much about timing as it is arm strength.
A long bomb to Braylon Edwards sets up a short touchdown.
Mike: Braylon Edwards sure was a significant addition. This game is starting to play out like Dolphins-Colts a few weeks ago. The Dolphins need ten plays to score, and the opponent only needs two plays to answer.
Now the Dolphins are back in their two-back, two-tight end look, and they are running more Wildcat. This time they are tweaking the formation a bit, with the tight end, wing, and Williams to the same side, creating a trips look.
Chris: All those wrinkles are there to set up the base Wildcat stuff: the jet sweep to Ricky, and the fake jet sweep and "power" play to Ronnie Brown. As I mentioned recently in Fifth Down (and as David Lee explained back at Arkansas in the training video), the Wildcat at its best is "series" based football based off a given look, then a counter, and a counter to the counter. It all begins with the jet sweep, and once the defense flows too fast to the sideline, they come back inside.
You can't help but get the impression that the Dolphins do more with less than just about any team in the NFL. If schemes have any role in a league about "matchups" and "playmakers," it's their ability to give the undermanned team a chance to compete by giving them numbers advantages and putting their players in position to succeed.
After the Dolphins score, the Jets quickly answer with a quick drive set up by pass interference. The Dolphins again go on a long, slow march
Mike: Defending the Dolphins must be like trying to punish a student who enjoys detentions. You hold them to three yards and they happily take it. I have never seen a team so methodical and committed to power football when trailing at the end of the fourth quarter.
Chris: The Dolphins use the Wildcat so well because they understand it better than other teams. To other teams it's a trick play -- to the Dolphins it is a package they run, just like some teams practice a three-tight end or five-wide set. Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams are their best weapons, and this puts the ball in their hands. They can also use Pat White in spot duty where he can be effective, and, most importantly, the numbers and angles they get puts their offensive line in position to block well.
Mike: I have been impressed by the blocking of the wide receivers. Fullback Lousaka Polite is also an important part of their success.
The Dolphins win in the final seconds.
Chris: Brown faked it to Williams on the sweep and ran the "power" play. "Power" refers to a specific scheme and a mood: The line blocks "down," meaning they leave the defensive end unblocked to their side so they can get very good blocking angles and double teams. The defensive end is taken care of by the fullback who blocks him from the inside to out, and the linebacker to the playside is taken care of by a pulling guard. Keep in mind that all of this is set up by faking to Ricky Williams. Jets linebacker Bart Scott went unblocked; yet, likely because of the fake to Williams, his angle was too wide and Brown went into the end zone behind his line, just inside of Scott.
|Figure 1: Dolphins Mesh|
Mike: Henne played a solid game. The long touchdown to Ted Ginn looked like a rope-a-dope play that they have been setting up since August.
Chris: I was particularly impressed with his poise on third down. That's when Ryan likes to throw a lot of stuff at a quarterback. Sometimes his strategy is to zone blitz and play loose coverage to force a throw short of the stick, or the same concept with a man-to-man blitz. Other times, of course, he wants to put the guy on the ground.
Henne had two impressive third down conversions on the last drive. The first came on third and five when Ryan brought the house. Henne stared down an unblocked blitzer and managed to throw an out route to Greg Camarillo for a big play. Shortly thereafter, the Dolphins expected another blitz so they rolled Henne out (Fig. 1). The original route combination -- a deep "mesh" play where two receivers run deep crossing routes -- was not there. Camarillo was on a simple clear-out route deep, but Henne saw that his first option was covered and also that he could deliver the ball to Camarillo as a de facto comeback. It was excellent quarterbacking.
Mike: Thanks for the contribution, Chris. See you on the Fifth Down!
16 comments, Last at 17 Oct 2009, 8:55pm by BroncosGuy