Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
06 May 2010
by Mike Tanier
May is like Christmas for NFL coaches. Minicamps and rookie camps have arrived, so coaches get to unwrap all the new toys their teams acquired in the offseason. Some teams rebuilt entire units. Others added new quarterbacks. Some teams turned weaknesses into strengths; others turned strengths into something even stronger.
Let's put ourselves in the shoes of three coaches who may be making significant changes in the offseason. Imagine you got a new quarterback or a whole new defensive line. Sure, you drafted and signed players who fit your scheme, but sometimes you have to tweak your scheme to maximize the strengths of your personnel. For each team, we'll outline a few objectives, then diagram a few plays that can turn those objectives into reality. Is it a purely speculative exercise? Of course! That's what football in May is all about.
|Diagram 1: Suh Nut Stunt|
The Lions acquired three new defensive linemen in the offseason, but none of them is a pure pass rusher. Vanden Bosch is a high-effort defender who registered some high sack totals when he teamed with Albert Haynesworth in Tennessee, but he is not a Jared Allen-type who can slice through double teams or defeat elite left tackles on his own. Williams is a huge hombre with some sneaky quickness who collects some clean-up sacks, but he won't generate his own pressure. Suh is a quick, high-energy penetrator whose pass rush technique is not refined. The trio will immediately upgrade the run defense, but Jim Schwartz cannot just put them on the field and wait for a 45-sack season. He'll have to implement stunts and twists that take advantage of what each of his linemen does best.
Diagram 1 shows the Lions running what is sometimes called a "Nut" stunt. The "n" stands for nose tackle Williams (99), and the "t" stands for three-technique tackle Suh (1, because I didn't know his new uniform number when I made the diagram). Williams goes first in this stunt. Aligning between the center and guard, he attacks the center's inside shoulder and tries to draw a double team. Suh begins by threatening the right guard, then loops behind Williams. He hits the backside B-gap as Williams penetrates the A-gap. The combination of Williams and Suh attacking the offensive left side should prevent blockers from double-teaming Vanden Bosch (93).
|Diagram 2: Lions Double Stunt|
With so much quickness on the defensive line, Schwartz may want to run some double stunts like the one shown in Diagram 2. Here, Williams and Suh start the stunt by engaging the offensive tackles. Suh, in the strong side B-gap, attacks the right tackle's inside shoulder. Williams, here aligned with his helmet on the left guard's inside shoulder, attacks the guard then loops outside. Vanden Bosch takes an initial step to the outside to widen the tackle, then flattens hard to the inside. Ideally, Williams will scoop up both the guard and the tackle, giving Vanden Bosch a chance to get to the quarterback. The left defensive end (probably Cliff Avril) is also shown working inside, where he could be isolated against an out-of-position guard or center.
|Diagram 3: Lions Suh Sink|
The stunts above make maximum use of Williams' power and Suh's quickness. Suh and Vanden Bosch are also smart linemen who are capable of dropping into zone coverage. The Lions will certainly run some overload blitzes this season, usually with Vanden Bosch dropping. As an alternative, they could allow Suh to sink into a middle zone, as shown in Diagram 3. A "Sinking Suh" defense could be very effective against teams that throw a lot of passes to their backs and tight ends over the middle, including the Vikings and Bears.
|Diagram 4: Tebow Trap|
For Tebow to be successful, the Broncos must establish him as a rushing threat. Josh McDaniels can't be afraid to call some designed running plays. McDaniels said last week that Tebow would work from the pocket, but the coach hinted that he would also give the rookie some rushing opportunities. "If he rushes for two touchdowns on a Sunday at some point in his career, great, that's super," McDaniels said. For the Tebow experiment to succeed, there will have to be several Sundays like that.
Diagram 4 shows Tebow doing what he does best: running up the middle. The diagram shows a modified version of the quarterback trap seen in many spread-option playbooks. The trap block is executed by the left guard, who comes behind the center to knock the three-technique tackle out of the hole. Note that this block isn't as hard as it looks on screen. The three-tech, unblocked at the start of the play, will penetrate. He may be frozen briefly by Knowshon Moreno (27) running a pass/pitch route to the flat. The guard doesn't have to drive the defender backward -- he can simply shove the three-tech wide of the quarterback.
The right tackle also has a tricky assignment, climbing out to engage a second-level linebacker. Remember that the linebacker will also probably react to Moreno and move to his left (offensive right) before the block. Dan Graham (89) and Thomas (1) release as though running slant routes, then block their defenders to the outside.
|Diagram 5: Tebow Option Choice|
Thomas is a very effective blocker, and Diagram 5 shows him cracking a safety on a variation of the shotgun Choice Option. As drawn, Graham and the right tackle zone-block on the strong side, while the left tackle and guard zone block on the weak side. This play is drawn as a fake to Moreno and a off-tackle run to the right by Tebow. Graham helps the tackle control the defensive end, then climbs out to engage the strongside linebacker (who hopefully froze during the option handoff). Based on the front, the play could quickly be changed into a handoff to Moreno, or Tebow could make the decision during the mesh. This variation on the choice option is NFL ready: There's no unblocked defensive end careening into the backfield, as you often see on college or prep option plays.
We trust Tebow to throw, don't we? Well, McDaniels does. For now, let's keep things simple. Plays like Diagram 6 are already in the Broncos playbook; you've seen Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal (and Randy Moss and Wes Welker a few years ago) run them. Thomas jabs downfield on his first two steps to make the cornerback backpedal, then works back toward the quarterback to take the pass. Graham and the right tackle are the screen blockers, with the right tackle making sure not to turn upfield before the ball. Moreno cut-blocks any crashing defenders. As a wrinkle, Tebow could jab step toward the line of scrimmage to freeze any interior defenders looking for a quarterback draw.
|Diagram 6: Broncos Screen Right|
The offensive tackles figured heavily in all three of these plays, and I would name them if I had any clue who they are. With Ryan Clady hurt, Ryan Harris and Tyler Polumbo are the likely starters, but the Broncos could easily sign Flozell Adams or some other alternative by the time you read this. Rookie Zane Beadles may also sneak into the starting picture. Thomas and Tebow got all the headlines, but if the Broncos suffer another line injury, Beadles may wind up the team's most important rookie.
|Diagram 7: Jets Corner Blitz|
Kyle Wilson is a powerful little defender who will excel on the blitz and in run support. Cromartie is a dangerous ballhawk who will make mistakes in coverage but can turn any errant pass into a touchdown. Revis is the best cover corner in the league. Rex Ryan can make the best of each player's skills by designing some corner blitzes with man-zone hybrid coverage behind them.
Diagram 7 shows the Jets rushing five defenders from their nickel package. Wilson (1), in addition to blitzing, is acting as the force defender on outside runs to the offensive left. Revis (24) is isolated in man coverage against the lone receiver on the right side. The rest of the defense is playing a two-under, three-deep zone. The linebackers are responsible for the hook zones in the middle of the field, while Cromartie (31) and the two safeties play quarter-quarter-half coverage.
As diagrammed, Cromartie rides the outside receiver for a few strides, then gets deep if that receiver crosses the field. That technique puts Cromartie in good position to jump a route. If the quarterback reads blitz and throws to Wilson's receiver, Cromartie could intercept the pass. The safety on Revis' side, covering half the field, can focus on the tight end or any crossing receivers because Revis doesn't need much over-the-top support.
|Diagram 8: Jets Blitz vs. Bunch|
Let's look at the same blitz from a different formation (Diagram 8). In this blitz package, Revis always lines up on the side of the field where there's an isolated receiver. Wilson aligns on the opposite side, and Cromartie goes wherever there are "numbers." Against a bunch formation, as shown, Cromartie flows to the three-receiver side. Again, he looks to jump any hot routes at the snap, then backpedals to cover the deep sidelines. The "quarters" in deep coverage are always on the side of the field with the most receivers. If the offensive formation is balanced (a four-receiver set, two on each side), the Jets just select default sides. It would take about 15 diagrams to illustrate the typical variations in a blitz package like this, but we are rapidly running out of time.
Nothing I've drawn is out of character for the coaches in question: Schwartz likes to generate pressure with stunts and limited blitzing, McDaniels likes draws and screens from the spread, and Ryan isn't shy about the corner blitz. Chances are, teams spent the first week of May reviewing plays and concepts like these, plus about 200 more. They get their Walkthrough, we have ours.
I live-blogged the release of the NFL schedule for The New York Times a few weeks ago. Many of you may not have known I was doing it -- or thought I was actually attempting some kind of in-depth analysis. The live blog was meant to be ironic comedy, and you can still see it here. Much of the humor is very Walkthrough-like, and most of it wasn't specific to the show, so you can enjoy it a few weeks later. Scan down to 6:22 p.m. to read my synopsis of the 75-year history of schedule release programming.
You don't need me to tell you The Onion is hysterical, but I wish I wrote this piece about the Patriots. First one to post the factual error here on the Walkthrough board gets bragging rights.
And now the big news: I'm writing a book.
I'm not talking about my chapters in Football Outsiders Almanac, though I am working on them as well. A few months ago I began developing a project about Philadelphia sports history. Temple University Press liked the idea, and as soon as the Almanac is finished, I will begin writing The Phanatic Code.
The premise of The Phanatic Code is simple: I will rank the 50 most remarkable Philadelphia sports stars of the last 50 years. I won't be picking the best players, but the most beloved, reviled, and discussed players. In other words, the most "Philly" of the Philly stars. I will be using a (somewhat) quantitative ranking system to justify the selections, and each player will get his own chapter. It's a chance to relive the greatest, worst, and craziest moments in Philly sports history.
You can bet Donovan McNabb will have a long chapter. Randall Cunningham and Reggie White will, too. But The Phanatic Code isn't just a football book, so there will be plenty of Phillies, Sixers, and Flyers in the mix (plus a boxer or two). It's also a book of current history, not another rehash of stories about the Whiz Kids or Broad Street Bullies. Yes, the Bullies will have their say, but so will Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Brian Dawkins, and other contemporary stars. Instead of rehashing the Santa Claus incident again, the book will explore modern mythology -- McNabb's non-puke in the Super Bowl, Utley's obscene cheer during the World Series parade, and so on.
It's the perfect book for anyone who loves Philly sports, loves to hate Philly sports, or likes the offbeat mix of humor, history, and analysis you find regularly here at Football Outsiders!
The Phanatic Code won't take away from my work here at Football Outsiders, though I may take a brief hiatus as the school year ends. I'll be writing about football full-time through the 2010 season. If anything, I plan to be more active come September. It's my other job that will suffer. This has been a brutal year to teach in a New Jersey public school, and if I don't take an opportunity soon to try my hand as a full-time writer, I never will. I am taking a one-year unpaid leave of absence from teaching so I can write the book and focus on my football writing career. It's an exciting and scary move, but I know I have the support not just of a loving family, but of a great Web site and the best readers in the world.
More on the book to come. For now, back to football.
Scene: Seattle Seahawks practice facility
Charlie Whitehurst: It's great to be part of the Seahawks organization. I can't wait to compete with you for a starting job, Matt.
Matt Hasselbeck: And I look forward to the challenge, because that's the kind of mature, grounded guy I am. What about you, LenDale? You must be thrilled to be reunited with Coach Carroll.
LenDale White: Mmmph, Rummph, Mmmph, flugrrth.
Hasselbeck: LenDale, put away the Pacific salmon. And the crab legs. And the geoduck. What were you saying?
White: Pike's Place market is AWESOME!
Hasselbeck: True. But we need your help to understand coach's system. I expected there to be playbooks at this meeting, but all I see are cassette tapes.
White: Those are mix tapes.
Whitehurst: You mean the kind moody teenage girls give their boyfriends to prove how deep they are? With lots of Coldplay and Dashboard Confessional?
White: Yep. Coach likes us to guess what he's thinking. Before the draft, he made his assistant tweet the titles to a bunch of songs, like "Big Balls" by AC/DC, "Jeremy" by Pearl Jam, and "Ring of Fire" by Johnny Cash. Using those hints, fans were supposed to guess that the Seahawks planned to draft Russell Okung. Coach uses cassette tapes instead of mp3s because he's an old-school kind of guy.
Whitehurst: What do those songs have to do with Okung? Especially AC/DC? Unless ... my God, how in-depth are scouting reports these days?
Hasselbeck: Don't worry about it. Let's be professional about this. With my bald dome, these old-fashioned Walkman headphones fit me perfectly. I will listen to the songs, you guys interpret what they mean. The first song is "The Island" by The Decembrists.
Whitehurst: Never heard of it.
White: It's an 11-minute epic loosely based on Shakespeare's Tempest, the story of a mysterious island that has been the setting for battles, sexual misdeeds, and other shadowy intrigue.
Whitehurst: Wow. That was great analysis. So you like this band?
White: No. I had a lot of free time on my hands in Tennessee, so I started editing Wikipedia.
Hasselbeck: I think we may be reading too much into the song. Let's simplify.
Whitehurst: "The Island" might refer to a cornerback in man coverage, with no safety help. Maybe Coach is talking about a trips formation, with our No. 1 receiver isolated on the far side. Who's our top receiver?
Hasselbeck: T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
Whitehurst: No, seriously. Who's our top receiver? And who is this Sycorax? Sounds like somebody the Rams would draft.
White: It's a moon of Uranus. Maybe we're looking in the wrong place.
Hasselbeck: We're getting nowhere. Let me fast forward. The next song is from my era. "Tusk" by Fleetwood Mac.
Whitehurst: Never heard of it.
White: An interesting song. A Southern California egomaniac grows full of himself after a long run of success, then goes on a self-indulgent power trip, taking a whole bunch of USC students along for the ride.
Whitehurst: I can't see what that has to do with anything. Next song.
Hasselbeck: OK, it's "Tomorrow Man" by Gus Black.
Whitehurst: Never heard of ... wait, I think it's about me! I'm the Tomorrow Man. You know, the starting quarterback of tomorrow. Coach wants me to start instead of you, Matt.
Hasselbeck: Don't jump to conclusions. I am trying to make out the lyrics.
White: I know them. "Don't turn around/they're coming to choose/"
Whitehurst: Hear that? Choose a quarterback!
White: "Your haircut/the language you use."
Whitehurst: Only one of us has hair, buddy.
White: "I miss California/you're misunderstood."
Whitehurst: California! That settles it. Here's the clipboard, Yesterday Man.
Hasselbeck: That can't be right. Maybe we're overanalyzing the song. Maybe it's just a puzzle about the initials. What could "TM" be short for?
Whitehurst: Transcendental meditation.
61 comments, Last at 14 Jun 2011, 5:20am by Eric Thornton