"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
21 Jan 2010
by Mike Tanier
Run defense is a tough, thankless job. The Vikings are great at it.
The Vikings finished first in the NFL in run defense DVOA. Five teams allowed fewer yards per rush (3.9) than the Vikings (the Steelers, Jets, Packers, Niners, and Ravens were lower), but the Vikings finished second to the Redskins in Power Success (stopping short yardage runs) and third to the Packers and Giants in stuffs. Their defensive line even has a cute nickname: the Williams Wall. When the line has a nickname, it's a sure sign that they are playing well.
Run defense played a major role in the Vikings' victory on Sunday. The Cowboys wanted to establish the run, but they managed just 92 yards on 25 carries. The Cowboys were coming off 188- and 179-yard rushing performances against a good Eagles defense in back-to-back weeks, so they were expecting more than 92 yards. The Cowboys wanted to establish the run but couldn't, and not because it was a blowout; the score was 17-3 for much of the game, so running was still an option.
Good run defense is always a team effort. Defensive tackles occupy blockers and penetrate the backfield. Linebackers maintain gap responsibility and shed blockers. Second-level defenders diagnose the offense quickly and make plays in the open field. The following example shows how the Vikings did all of those things effectively against the Cowboys.
|Figure 1: Vikings Disruption|
Late in the third quarter, the Cowboys faced second-and-6 at their own 24-yard line. The score was 17-3, so there was no reason for a great running team to completely scrap the run. To their credit, the Cowboys didn’t. They called an old-fashioned Vince Lombardi sweep, as shown in Figure 1. The principle is simple: both guards pull, the other linemen block down, and Felix Jones (28) sweeps left and waits for a seam to develop.
The Cowboys are good at this kind of running play. Leonard Davis (70) and Kyle Kosier (63) are effective pull blockers. Center Andre Gurode (65) is one of the few centers in the league who can handle Pat Williams (94) one-on-one. Despite all this, the play falls apart because the Vikings do such a great job disrupting the blocking scheme.
There's one mismatch on the line of scrimmage that favors the defense on this play: Kevin Williams (93) against backup left tackle Doug Free (68). Williams easily beats Free to the inside. Free maintains the block, but he is forced to ride Williams into the backfield. Williams is driven inside, so he cannot make a tackle, but he does disrupt both Kosier and Davis as the try to pull. Kosier is delayed as he tries to step around Free and Williams. Davis runs into Williams as he tries to reach the edge. Both are thrown off their timing for a split second, and Jones is almost running up Davis' rear as he tries to turn the corner.
The delay allows outside linebacker Chad Greenway to further disrupt the play. Greenway reaches the edge before Kosier and is in position to shed a block. Kosier tries to cut Greenway, but the linebacker stays on his feet. When Davis finally arrives, with the ball carrier hot on his tail, he's forced to engage Greenway.
Two other Vikings defenders do an excellent job on this play. Gurode fires off the ball and stands Pat Williams up at the snap, but Williams soon breaks free of the block. Williams pursues the play hard from the backside, leaving no cutback lane for Jones. Strong safety Tyrell Johnson does a tremendous job reading this play. He keys on the blocking scheme and attacks the line aggressively; the red line in the diagram represents the ground he covered before the actual handoff. Think of what Johnson saw: Kosier pulling, Witten (the most likely receiver to threaten Johnson on a pass) engaging Jared Allen (69) on the line of scrimmage. He reads run and comes up quickly to stop it.
Johnson tackles Jones for a four-yard loss. The tackle is made possible by Greenway, who eliminates both Kosier and Davis as blockers, by Kevin Williams, who slows the guards long enough for Greenway to get into position, and by Pat Williams, who keeps Jones moving laterally with no cutback options. Johnson gets the tackle for a loss, but four defenders play fundamentally sound run defense, making the play possible.
On the next play, facing third-and-10 instead of third-and-short, Romo throws an interception, and the game turns into a rout.
We think of the Saints as a passing team, but their offense is very balanced. They ran 46 percent of the time in the regular season, just over 50 percent of the time (240 runs to 233 passes) on first-and-10. Some of that statistical balance comes from the number of times they routed opponents this season: when you are up 45-14, you are going to run on first down. Still, stopping the run is a big part of stopping the Saints. The Vikings have proven all season they can stop the run. They proved last week they can do it against a great running team in the playoffs.
The Saints want to establish some semblance of balance. If the Vikings defense plays the way it did on Sunday, they'll have a hard time doing so.
Super Bowl III was a history making, generation-defining event. It was football’s Woodstock, a transitional moment that transcended sport and became part of American culture.
No one thought of it that way when it happened.
As part of another project, I watched the Super Bowl III pregame show. I wanted to see how Super Bowl hype has changed over the years. The Super Bowl wasn’t that big a deal in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but it was still a championship game, one with novelty appeal because the participants played in separate leagues. What passed for hype in January of 1969 would be best described today as understated, detailed coverage. You’ll hear five times more histrionics about Sunday’s Jets-Colts championship matchup than NBC served up in the 30 minutes before the same teams met in Super Bowl III.
Yes, thirty minutes. Four Super Bowl pregame shows from that era could fit into one typical NFL Countdown.
"The name of the game is defense. The offense sells the tickets, but defense wins the ballgame." Curt Gowdy says at the beginning of the show, voicing over a montage of sacks by the Colts and Jets. It was NBC’s theme for the program: instead of focusing on Joe Namath or profiling Colts quarterback Earl Morrall, the network (which at the time broadcast the AFL, while CBS had exclusive NFL rights) planned to spend 30 minutes talking about defense.
Kurt Gowdy suddenly appears in front of the highlights, blinking onto the screen like Endora from Bewitched, wearing a bright green blazer to remind viewers they were watching the Peacock network. Gowdy gives a weather report (rain is in the forecast) and explains the basics: the game is a sellout (this bore mentioning in 1969), the Colts are heavily favored, and so on. Then come the commercials: a guy in a trenchcoat who would walk a mile for Camel cigarettes, another fellow with mint growing out of his Rapid Shave cream.
Gowdy returns from commercial break with a two-minute highlight reel from the league championship games: Jets over Raiders, Colts over Browns. After the montage, color commentator Al DeRogatis appears next to Gowdy. I admit that I don’t remember DeRogatis; he was a broadcast legend from before my time, and I am happy to have discovered him. He looks and sounds like Jon Gruden wearing Clark Kent glasses, speaking a thick pidgin of English and X’s and O's. When re-watching the program, I sometimes fast-forwarded through DeRogatis’ segments, and at double speed, the Gruden illusion is complete: DeRogatis twitches and delivers statistical complexities at machine-gun pace. The former defensive lineman explains the difference between man and zone coverage to the audience. "We’ll be seeing Bobby Boyd coming up, hitting Don Maynard, playing a short area of about 10 yards," DeRogatis explains. "We’ll see Mike Curtis, No. 32 dropping to his left, taking away the short zone." It’s more detailed defensive analysis in one minute than Tony Siragusa has provided in his whole career.
Gowdy then cuts away to pre-recorded interviews with defenders Gerry Philbin (Jets), Bubba Smith, and Billy Ray Smith (Colts). Tobin Rote speaks to the Jets, Pat Summerall to the Colts, and as was the style at the time, questions and answers are shown nearly in their entirety: no jump cuts or sound bytes. Rote’s delivery is slow and quiet, like a librarian explaining a card catalog. Summerall was slightly more animated, but the players responded to each question with a mixture of grunts and polite clichés. It’s more like C-Span’s Book Notes than a Super Bowl pregame show, but there’s just as much actual football information as you’ll hear three weeks from now, maybe more. "Joe sets rather deep, probably deeper than anybody we faced all year," Bubba Smith says, explaining his pass rush technique. "A lot of times this year I know I’ve overrun the quarterback and maybe this time when I come around the corner he’ll be right there."
After the interviews, more breakdowns by DeRogatis. "You’re going to see a lot of red dogging" he says of the Colts defense. "He doesn’t extemporize," he says of pocket passer Earl Morrall. Then, a commercial: A Flamenco dancer stomps on a 19-cent Bic pen, which still writes.
"Now how about stopping the running game," Gowdy says as he returns, 13 minutes into the 30 minute broadcast. Rote and Summerall interview linebackers Ralph Baker and Mike Curtis. More DeRogatis breakdowns follow: The announcer sounds prophetic when he states that the Jets can win if they can get "100-130 yards on the ground ... If they do that, this is going to be a whale of a football game."
(Give DeRogatis some credit here. The old "Run to Win" fallacy wasn't a fallacy in late-1960s football, when teams ran with far more frequency. He’s predicting a run-heavy Jets gameplan, and history proves him to be dead on.)
More than halfway through the broadcast, I start to crave a little hype. DeRogatis is great, and the players are more open when talking about technique than they are these days (when interviewers don’t dare ask such complex, "boring" questions), but the deliberate pace and earnest tone of the broadcast makes it a little dull. NBC’s 1969 coverage was a lot like Football Outsiders coverage, but that’s a qualified compliment. We do what we do because the networks do what they do, and readers like you crave something a little less shrill and more thoughtful. Imagine if we were all you had: Your only pre-game entertainment options were DVOA breakdowns and static play diagrams. After 20 minutes, you’d be begging for a Taylor Swift video and a Go Daddy commercial. A little razzle-dazzle isn’t a bad thing. Somewhere between today’s bleating, low-content pregame hysteria and the meditative documentary tone of 1969 there’s a perfect balance of analysis and spectacle, one nobody in the television industry is searching for.
Finally, it’s time for fluff. Gowdy explains that while the Jets and Colts have never played each other, their players and coaches know each other well from college and other professional stops. "Today’s super-game is really a family feud," he says. The scene switches to a pre-recorded segment of players lounging by a pool somewhere in Miami. One by one, players explain who they played against or roomed with in college or on other teams. John Unitas makes his first appearance, wearing what appears to be a robe while leaning back on a lounge chair.
Think about it: 17 minutes and 33 seconds into the broadcast, and a Hall of Fame quarterback is mentioned for the first time. Yes, Unitas was injured and only available as a backup for the game. Imagine Brett Favre gets injured Sunday, but the Vikings still reach the Super Bowl. Do you think any pregame show would go 17 minutes without mentioning Favre? Seventeen seconds?
You’ll notice something else that never came up: the guarantee. Namath’s famous guarantee isn’t mentioned at all during the pregame show, though Gowdy talks about it as soon as the actual game telecast starts. Namath never speaks during the pregame show, even during the pool montage; I expected him to emerge from a wiggling pile of blonde bombshells to explain that he once met a Colts linebacker at an Alabama sock hop, but it didn’t happen.
After a United Airlines commercial that shockingly suggests that many business travelers are women (Being women, they notice crystal salt shakers, not the boring safety and punctuality preferred by men), Gowdy narrates player-by-player highlight reels for each team. Even highlight reels were slower-paced in the days before digital editing, but at least they’re exciting, with John Mackey running end-arounds and Maynard catching Namath bombs. Highlights, commercials, and a Gowdy wrap-up fill the final six minutes of the telecast. NBC then reminds viewers that Wild Kingdom will be seen right after the game.
Once upon a time, a New York quarterback could boldly guarantee a Super Bowl victory without touching off a 24-7 poop-storm. Namath made headlines and sparked controversy with the guarantee. But 30 minutes of football-related television could pass without 12 different analysts offering their opinion on it. There was no ESPN, no Around the Horn or Rome is Burning devoting hours to telling us how to feel about an off-the-cuff expression of youthful brashness. It was a different world, though not necessarily a better one: a minute of "guarantee" related coverage would have been more compelling than the pool party or DeRogatis’ third dissertation on the Colts linebackers.
During the AFC pregame show on Sunday, there will probably be several flashbacks to Namath and Unitas. There’s a good chance that they’ll be talked about more on Sunday than they were before the game they actually played. The pregame show will be louder and less substantive than the Super Bowl III pregame show 40 years ago. It will also be more fun. I guarantee it.
The Saints can be predictable in their unpredictability. Here's a look at what you will see from their offense on Sunday:
Two Tight Ends to One Side
I broke down the Saints' multi-tight end sets earlier in the season. They are still a major part of the typical Saints gameplan. Look for Jeremy Shockey to line up as a wide receiver frequently, with David Thomas as a tight end or H-back on the same side of the formation. This "heavy" personnel grouping gives the Saints extra blocking power to one side of the formation, and it makes it hard for defenses to predict what they will do when they break huddle in a two-tight end personnel grouping.
Seamers off Play Action
Drew Brees has one of the quickest releases off play action of any quarterback in the league. He'll fake the handoff, drop, set, and throw in one smooth motion. Watch for him to throw down the seam to a tight end on quick-developing play action passes. The speed with which these plays develop prevents linebackers from dropping into coverage once they realize the hand off was a fake.
Play Action with Pulling Guards
You didn't think this would all be recycled information, did you? The Saints pulled their guards a few times in play action against the Cardinals. Not only does the guard movement sell the running play, but it allows the Saints to use one of their guards as an exterior pass protector.
|Figure Saints Play-Action With Pulling Guard|
Figure 2 shows a play-action fake to Pierre Thomas (23) with Jahri Evans (73) pulling. Evans takes the defensive right end in pass protection, allowing left tackle Jermon Bushrod to engage a less-threatening interior linemen. Brees then rolls right in the pocket, giving Evans a better angle to block the speedy end. This tactic can be effective against Jared Allen, who can beat Bushrod easily but may get engulfed by Evans. As diagramed, Devery Henderson (19) runs the kind of deep post that often results in an easy Saints touchdown. Against the Saints, Shockey usually stayed in to block, but the blue route in the diagram suggests a way he can release into the pattern and slip past the defense.
Short Yardage Cuteness
Sean Payton loves to empty the backfield on third-and-short, and he did so a few times against the Cardinals. He'll also do it against the Vikings. On third-and-2 against their defense, what would you do: leave a back in the backfield to maintain the threat of a run (the Vikings aren't really threatened), or spread the field to try to isolate Shockey or Reggie Bush against 255-pound rookie linebacker Jasper Brinkley.
On the season, the Saints were 23-of-28 when running on third-and-short, 6-of-16 when passing on third-and-short. Interestingly, they ran 30 times and threw just four passes on second-and-short. Those four passes netted just six yards: So much for the bomb to Henderson on second-and-1. Payton dialed up a run 10 times but threw just twice on fourth-and-short, a sign that he's grown more conservative in short-yardage situations. Still, he's more likely than many coaches to get exotic during the one situation when most coaches get primitive.
62 comments, Last at 31 Jan 2010, 5:36pm by Roscoe