Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
13 Jan 2010
by Mike Tanier
There's a matchup I will be watching this weekend more closely than any other.
It's not Darrelle Revis versus Vincent Jackson. It's not the Ravens tackles against Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
Buehler is the best kickoff specialist in the NFL. Thanks to him, Cowboys opponents start their average drive on the 25.6-yard line, the worst field position in the league.
Harvin is the best kickoff returner in the league. The Vikings start their average drive on the 32.2-yard line, the second best field position in the league.
A difference of 6.6 yards don't sound like a lot, so let's look at some specific examples of how field position made a difference for both teams this season.
The Vikings faced the Packers, who had awful special teams, in Week 8. The Packers forced a punt and a turnover on the Vikings' first two possessions. Nursing a 3-0 lead, the Packers gave up a 77-yard return to Harvin. The Vikings scored a touchdown seven plays later. After a failed drive, the Packers punted, allowing a 20-yard return by Jaymar Johnson. The Vikings drove 51 yards in seven plays. The score was 14-3, even though the Vikings' longest play on their two scoring drives was just 12 yards.
The Vikings drove just 37 yards for a field goal before the end of the first half. They got the ball at the 37-yard line after a short kickoff and a 24-yard Harvin return in the third quarter. They scored a touchdown four plays later, though the big play was a 51-yard Harvin catch-and-run that had nothing to do with field position.
The Packers came back, as they often do. They cut the score to 24-20. Then they kicked off to Harvin. The Vikings got the ball on the Packers' 38-yard line. The Vikings scored seven plays later. They eventually won, 38-26. Fourteen of those points came as the direct result of long kickoff returns, seven more came from a long punt return.
When the Cowboys faced the Chiefs in Week 5, their offense was playing poorly. They accomplished nothing in their first few drives, and when Patrick Crayton muffed a punt and Tony Romo fumbled, the Chiefs scored 10 points on 11 yards of offense. It took an 83-yard Cowboys drive to make the score 10-3, but Buehler's kickoff to the goal line left the Chiefs with the ball on their own 12-yard line. The Chiefs could only muster 36 yards on nine plays before halftime.
The Chiefs managed a 38-yard field goal drive in the third quarter, but after a Cowboys touchdown made the score 13-10, Buehler pinned the Chiefs at their 20-yard line. The Chiefs drove nowhere, and the Cowboys tied the game.
The Chiefs got the ball at their 27-yard line after one of Buehler's "short" kicks only traveled 63 yards. They then began to drive, and drive. The Chiefs needed 15 plays to travel 43 yards. Their 52-yard field goal attempt to end the drive and take the lead was blocked. The Cowboys quickly scored the go-ahead touchdown. There was some late-game tomfoolery, but the Cowboys held on to win 26-20.
It's not hard to imagine the Chiefs scoring six more points if they got the ball at the 30-yard line instead of the 20: three before half, three more on the kick that might not have been blocked from 42 yards out. Those six points would have changed the whole game. Heck, they might have gotten Wade Phillips fired.
These are extreme examples, but time and again the Cowboys and Vikings were helped by their kickoff and kick return units, respectively. Kickoffs and field position played a major role in all three of the Cowboys victories over the Eagles; the first game might have ended differently if the Eagles were able to start a few drives at midfield instead of their own 20-yard line. The Vikings offense often gets bogged down in station-to-station football, as Brett Favre takes all the underneath throws he's given and Adrian Peterson battles unblocked defenders. That kind of offense can be very effective when the first station is on the 38-yard line.
Buehler led the league with 29 touchbacks and added three more last week, so chances are he will neutralize Harvin just by kicking over him. If that happens, it will change the complexion of the Vikings offense. Neither team wants to have to battle for field position, but the Cowboys have more big-play capability on offense. If the Vikings must drive 60 yards for every field goal, they are going to lose.
So that's the matchup I am looking at: Buehler versus Harvin. There probably hasn't been a Twitter battle. There should be.
Chat Host: Welcome to today's Live Chat with Mike Tanier, who writes for Football Outsiders and makes his weekly picks in the Rundown column on the network that brings you The Simpsons!
Tanier: Happy New Year! This is a great chance to take a break from my three-year old son and pregnant wife. Can't wait to field your questions!
Host: First Question: Mike, with the Eagles coming off a 6-10 season and Donovan McNabb trying to come back from both an injury and the Terrell Owens debacle, is this the end of the Reid-McNabb era? I feel like the window of opportunity is closing.
Tanier: I think you have to be patient. McNabb is just 29, and I think he has some productive years left. I think Reid has proven he can run a sound organization, and you don't blow a team up that has won as many games as these guys have.
Radio Host: We're chatting with Mike Tanier today. Mike is a writer for Football Outsiders and a co-author of Pro Football Prospectus 2006.
Tanier: Great to be here. I may make mistakes, but I know what it takes to win, just like Rex Grossman. Can't wait to field some football questions!
Host: First Question: Mike, with the Eagles coming off an ugly playoff loss and the team clearly rallying around Jeff Garcia, is this the end of the McNabb era? And if Reid can't see that, shouldn't he go too? I feel like the window of opportunity is closing.
Tanier: I think you have to be patient. McNabb is a better quarterback than Garcia, and I think this season proves that Reid can put the right pieces together. You don't blow a team up that has won as many games as these guys have.
Chat Host: Welcome to a Live Chat with Mike Tanier, who writes for Football Outsiders and did a great job breaking down the Giants blitz packages in ESPN The Magazine a few weeks ago.
Tanier: Yep, those were some great diagrams. In fact, I have a feeling those blitzes will be good enough to beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl in a few weeks. Can't wait to field some questions!
Host: First Question: Mike, with the Eagles coming off a disappointing 8-8 season, haven't we seen enough of Reid and McNabb? I feel like the window of opportunity is closing.
Tanier: I think you have to be patient. I ... I have the strangest feeling of déjà vu.
Chat Host: Today's chat is with Mike Tanier, who writes for Football Outsiders and puts together those confusing capsules in the New York Times that no one really understands.
Tanier: As always, I'm thrilled to be here. Let 'er rip!
Host: First Question: Mike, with the Eagles coming off two straight losses to the Cowboys ...
Tanier: Stop for a second. I've been answering this question for four years. In the time since I was first asked it, I've seen six playoff games, three of them wins. I saw an Eagles-Cardinals NFC title game go to the wall. I've seen about 90 percent of the roster turn over, but I haven't seen a losing season.
I've been frustrated, angry, disappointed, and disillusioned as a fan at times, and I've scratched my head at some of the decisions that Reid has made and passes McNabb has thrown. But I have never seen any evidence that the team would have been better off changing horses after 2005, 2006, or 2007. I still don't see the evidence. Heck, if they fired everybody after the 2005 season, they would probably be firing all the new guys this year!
You have to be patient. You don't blow up a team that has won as many games as these guys have. And you have to take 10-6 and 11-5 seasons for what they are: exciting four-month periods where you look forward to the game, even if the end result is a little bitter.
So yes, I am ready for one more year of Reid and McNabb. The window really is closing, very soon. But someone has kept it propped open for four years. Two someones. Guess who they are.
Chat Host: Our guest today is Mike Tanier, who tweets for Football Outsiders, twiddles for ESPN, whimpers for the Virtual New York Times, and used to work for something called a "newspaper."
Tanier: Boy, how about that election! Has Florida been decided yet? Don't blame me, I voted the Runyan-Deen Buttermilk ticket! Let's field some tweets, chirps, yips, and twaddles.
Host: First Question: Mike, with the Eagles coming off a disappointing 11-7 season, don't you think ...
The over-under for Cardinals-Saints is 57. It should be 157.
The Cardinals are coming off a 51-45 overtime win. The Saints offense tailed off at season's end, but the team still scored 510 points this season. Drew Brees is the best quarterback in the conference, and the Saints are loaded at receiver, running back, and tight end. The Cardinals cannot expect the Saints to be as flat as they looked in December, and they can't afford to play defense the way they did in the third and fourth quarter on Sunday.
I watched tape of the Cardinals-Packers game to determine what the Cardinals did right defensively in the first half, what went wrong in the second half, and how the Cardinals will try to cover the Saints receivers. The Packers and Saints pose similar offensive problems: spread formations, multiple weapons at wide receiver and tight end, and a quarterback that can pick you apart when he's on. The Cardinals couldn't match up in simple man coverage with the Packers, and they won't be able to do it against the Saints. Blitzing, which was effective against the sack-prone Packers, is a riskier proposition this week. The Cardinals need a coverage scheme that will give a four-man pass rush time to pressure the quarterback.
The solution? The Cardinals used combo coverage to great effect in the first half, mixing man and zone coverage in a way that confused Aaron Rodgers and took away easy underneath reads. The Cardinals will use similar tactics this week.
(A quick disclaimer: there is much, much guesswork in figuring out coverage based on television tape. I do my best here to explain where certainty ends and educated guesses begin.)
|Figure 1: Cardinals Combo Coverage|
Figure 1 shows the Packers in a trips-left formation on third-and-5. The Cardinals are showing soft zone coverage in their pre-snap read. Notice how deep the safeties are; one of them wasn't even visible on television, but he was back there somewhere. This is a Cover-3 shell, but the Cardinals aren't in a typical three-deep zone. Instead, they are in a man-zone hybrid.
It is clear on tape that Bryant McFadden (25) has man coverage on Jermichael Finley (88), who is split wide right. Finley appears to be Rodgers' first read, but Finley has no chance of getting open against McFadden and safety Antrel Rolle (21), who creeps forward when Rodgers looks that way. Adrian Wilson (24) has man coverage on Greg Jennings (85), while Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (29) takes on James Jones (89). Jones appears to be Rodgers' second read, but DRC has him covered. At this point, the pocket breaks down, and Rodgers takes off.
What's interesting is that linebacker Karlos Dansby appears to have coverage responsibility on Donald Driver (80), a true mismatch. On the tape, though, it's clear that Dansby trades Driver off to the deep sideline safety once Driver runs his corner route. Dansby then slides back into an underneath zone.
Here's what I think was really happening on the offensive left: DRC, Dansby, and Wilson executed a kind of banjo coverage on Jones, Driver, and Jennings. No matter what the receivers did, DRC was responsible for the receiver closest to the sidelines, Wilson for the one nearest the middle of the field, and Dansby the receiver in between. If the receivers crossed, the defenders would switch off. And any receiver that went deep would be traded off to one of the safeties.
This kind of banjo coverage is similar to zone coverage in some ways, but there's a key difference: the defenders don't play as far off the receivers. DRC and McFadden maintain tight coverage on the outside receivers instead of dropping off and preparing to stop other players threatening their zones. This tight coverage takes away some of the easy reads and throws a quarterback gets when an opponent plays four-under, three-deep zone. It's a very good strategy to use against the Saints: the banjo principle negates some of the advantages the Saints get by stacking and crossing their receivers, and the three-deep coverage reduces the risk of a Devery Henderson bomb.
|Figure2: Cardinals Man Zone|
Figure 2 shows another man-zone combo principle the Cardinals used against the Packers. It's the second quarter, and the Packers are again in a trips-left formation. The pre-snap read here suggests some kind of two-deep zone. Rodgers has to like what he sees, because Finley and Driver are very good at getting open underneath in zone coverage. Unfortunately, the Cardinals aren't in zone coverage -- not in the middle of the field, anyway.
Finley once again draws man coverage, this time from Wilson. Driver also draws man coverage. The outside receivers, however, aren't covered man-to-man. DRC rides Jennings about 10 yards downfield, then flattens in underneath zone coverage. McFadden does the same to Jones. The safeties then pick the deep receivers up. My guess here is that the safeties weren't assigned to deep halves: they were probably covering deep thirds, with the middle of the field "open". I base that on their pre-snap spacing (they are spread much wider than typical two-deep safeties) and by the way the cornerbacks flatten out in front of the receivers. Rodgers sees Jones flash open, but the passing window is too small, and Rodgers is under duress from a stunting five-man rush. Rodgers overthrows the receiver.
Just to clarify: Had an outside receiver run up the middle of the field, the safety to his side would pick him up and cover him. Assigning the safeties to "thirds" instead of "halves" takes them out of position for that kind of throw, but it's a calculated risk. The interior receivers, the ones most likely to work the middle, are in man coverage, so there's less risk that they will get free in the middle of the field. The Cardinals let the running back leak out of the backfield uncovered on this play, which is another calculated risk. DRC and McFadden are in good position to tackle the back for a modest gain, and running backs are a very small part of the Packers passing game.
Defensive coordinators design coverage combinations like these with predetermined strengths and weaknesses. The strengths of this defensive call are its ability to take away easy throws over the middle, the deep protection it provides against sideline routes, and the pressure applied on the quarterback. The weaknesses are the fact that a sideline receiver could flash open over the deep middle and that the back could leak out for a 15-yard gain. Those weaknesses represent a fair trade against the Packers. If Reggie Bush is in the game, the Cardinals will probably make an adjustment to make sure that a fast safety or linebacker picks him up in coverage.
In the second half, the Packers started to figure out the combo coverage, and the Cardinals began to suffer execution lapses. During the Packers' first touchdown drive of the third quarter, Cardinals defensive backs can be seen waving each other off and shouting in confusion as they line up. On one play (not diagrammed), Driver gains 13 yards on a simple flat route because the Cardinals didn't shift their coverage to respond to Packers motion: Driver's defender, deep safety Rolle, was about 15 yards off the ball at the snap.
|Figure 3: Jennings Burns the Zone|
Figure 3 shows one of the Packers' biggest plays of the game, a third quarter catch-and-run by Jennings. The Packers are again in a trips-left look, and all indicators suggest that this coverage is similar to the one in Figure 2. The inside receivers are covered man-to-man, and the back is allowed to release into the flat, so McFadden is probably responsible for him. DRC has deep help, and it's clear by the way he sets and reads Rodgers' eyes that he's in underneath coverage. That leaves him free to gamble for an interception. This time, Jennings runs a hitch to the sideline, away from the coverage, and Rodgers puts the ball on his outside shoulder, away from the defender. DRC's gamble is excusable; with the score 31-10 and a safety behind him, it's a worthwhile risk. When nickel defender Ralph Brown slips, this turns into a huge gain for the Packers.
Despite the second-half lapses, the Cardinals can use similar principles against the Saints this week. They will use man coverage on underneath receivers like Shockey and Marques Colston. They will give their corners extra help along the deep sidelines. They will use banjo coverage to protect against rubs and moving picks. And they will usually rush four or five defenders, because blitzing the Saints too much is a bad idea. They'll have to modify their plans somewhat; they must protect the deep middle and pay more attention to the backs. And of course, they cannot confuse themselves in their haste to confuse Drew Brees.
The combo coverage packages won't be 100 percent successful. But the Cardinals don't need to shut the Saints down completely to win. They need to think in basketball terms: a turnover here, a stop there, and suddenly the score is 28-17 Cardinals instead of 31-28 Saints. The plan worked very well against the Packers. For about 35 minutes, anyway.
67 comments, Last at 16 Jan 2010, 1:16am by Spoilt Victorian Child