Are the best defenses against play action the best against regular passes too? How much impact does play action really have in an NFL game, and does it correlate from year to year?
16 Dec 2010
by Ben Muth
The Redskins offense started hot against the Buccaneers on Sunday. By the time the first quarter had ended, Ryan Torain had more than 100 yards rushing. Washington also finished strong, marching down the field for a potential game-tying touchdown with just nine seconds left.
Of course the hot start wasn't all that scorching because despite all the yards and first downs, the Redskins walked away with zero points in the first quarter. And the strong finish was offset by a botched hold on the extra point. In the end, Sunday's game will go down as another disappointment for Washington fans in a season full of them.
In the final Redskins-centric Word of Muth we're going to focus on what changed from the first half to the second half in terms of Washington's running game. The biggest difference for the Redskins offense was the Bucs defense. Tampa Bay decided to abandon any semblance of gap discipline early in the game. The Bucs' defenders seemed to wander around hoping that Ryan Torain would run into them. It was bizarre to see from an NFL team, particularly one with the Bucs' record.
|Figure 1: Redskins' first play|
On the first play from scrimmage, the Redskins ran a simple outside zone to the left from a balanced single-back formation. The nose tackle (Roy Miller) was lined up to the offensive's left and wanted to set the tone for the game by knocking Casey Rabach straight off the ball. The good news is that Miller succeeded and drove Rabach two yards into the backfield. The bad news is that Rabach was trying to reach Miller and did so easily because of Miller's complete lack of interest in holding his A Gap (between the left guard and center). The play-side defensive end was responsible for the C Gap (between the left tackle and tight end). He technically held his gap -- but not before he was knocked about three yards wider than he should have been.
The outside linebacker wants to be the force player on the play, which means he is going to disappear outside of the tight end (who is responsible for blocking him) to turn everything back inside. Now, if you can picture all this in your head (hopefully the diagram helps), you may be able to see that the Mike linebacker, Barrett Ruud, has the B Gap (between the guard and tackle). With the struggles of the defensive line, that B Gap is now about five yards wide. Not only that, but the play-side guard, Kory Lichtensteiger, was able to climb to the second level to block Ruud. The result of all this is that Ryan Torain hit the secondary untouched and ran full-speed for a 35-yard gain.
After Washington's success running the ball, the Redskins would expect Tampa would shoot linebackers through gaps to try to slow Torain. One such play came with about 6:10 left in the first quarter on a Stretch Slice play (again to the left) out of an I-Formation. The Bucs were in a base 3-4 defense, which meant they had a head-up nose tackle and two head-up defensive ends over the offensive tackles. Tampa ran a stunt, or rather attempted to run a stunt that went wrong. On the play, Ruud shot the left A Gap. That was supposed happen, but one of his teammates messed up around him.
|Figure 2: McCoy's Miss|
Either the Bucs' linebacker (the weakside inside linebacker is also called a Jack or Moe) or the defensive end blew his assignment. With Ruud responsible for the A Gap, and the Sam 'backer responsible for the D Gap, that leaves the B and C Gaps. At the snap, Geno Hayes comes behind Ruud hard to the play side, and eventually gets blocked by Lichtensteiger in the B gap. Just after the snap, Gerald McCoy makes a hard move inside of Trent Williams (the B gap) to get into the backfield. But by the time McCoy is in the backfield, Torain is a yard outside him and the first-rounder can barely get an arm on him. Torain steps through McCoy's arm tackle and into the empty C Gap for 23 yards.
After rewatching the play, I'm pretty sure McCoy messed up. The fact that he didn't slant in immediately means he probably made the move inside because he thought he could make a play as the play developed. But when you have a stunt on behind you, the defensive linemen can't afford to take chances and abandon their gaps because the linebackers won't be in a position to make a tackle if you miss.
This is one of the reasons coaches feel more comfortable with veterans. Rookies can memorize their assignments, but if they don't understand the scheme around them, they won't be very effective. Veterans are far more likely to understand schematic concepts, rather than simply memorizing specific assignments.
The second half was a different story for Tampa. On the Redskins' first play from scrimmage in the second half, the Bucs set the tone with a safety blitz. Washington came out in an I-Formation with the tight end to the left. They ran the same stretch slice play we just discussed. Tampa was lined up in in a 4-3 Over defense (three-technique to the tight end side) with a safety creeping up into the box. At the snap, Ruud blitzed into the weakside A Gap, and Sean Jones came in the B Gap to the same side. Both were blocked, but they eliminated any chance for a cut back.
The defensive line slanted to its right (the offense's left) to make up for the pressure coming from the opposite side. All the defensive linemen occupied blockers and their gaps. The result was a mass of humanity that Torain couldn't get around. Not only that, but because Trent Williams refused to climb to the second level, Geno Hayes was able to hit Torain in the backfield.
A lot of people would say the play was more a mistake by Williams than a great play by Tampa's defense. But even if Williams had gone to the second level and blocked Hayes, there still would have been too many bodies to gain any real yards. That's what gap control football is all about: Even if you do have a blocker on you, there's nowhere for the back to squirt go.
The next play Tampa went to a Bear front (discussed in last week's Word of Muth) and held Washington to another short gain on the ground. Raheem Morris had come out of halftime determined to stop the run, and that's exactly what he did on the first series of the second half. From there it was a Michael Jordan/Dean Smith situation as Mike Shanahan took it upon himself to stop Ryan Torain, giving him just four more carries the rest of the game.
This is one thing that coaches can fall into pretty easily. In the first series of the second half, the Bucs sold out to stop the run -- they blitzed defensive backs and played an old school Bear front. Shanahan saw that he got stuffed and decided to try to stay a step ahead by going to the air. But Donovan McNabb was inconsistent, and the Bucs went back to playing base defenses two drives later.
Finally, I want to talk about the basic three-man screen play (three-man screen plays are called such because they involve three offensive linemen). I'm going to break it down mainly because I've wanted to do it all year, but also because the Redskins ran a successful one (even though it wasn't a textbook one).
The three men involved in the basic halfback screen are the center and the two guards. They stay in pass protection (usually a man scheme) for a specified amount of time (usually one-and-half to three seconds) before releasing down field. The counting has to be precise, especially in the NFL, where linemen aren't allowed downfield till after the ball is caught.
Once the linemen release, they have specific roles. Contrary to popular belief, they aren't just wandering around out there. The first man out (usually the play-side guard, but it can be the center if the guard gets caught up) is the kick man. His job is to get outside and kick out the widest defender in zone coverage. He's also responsible for blocking the defender covering the running back if it happens to be man-to-man. The next man out (usually the center, but could be the play side guard) is the alley man. His job is to turn up just inside of the kick-out block (usually around the numbers) and be a lead blocker for the ball carrier. Finally, there is the peeler (always the back-side guard). His job is to take a couple of steps towards the screen then peel back around for any defensive linemen that read the play. This is the best job because you don't have to run as far and because you get the occasional shot on an unsuspecting defensive linemen, although these kind of hits might be illegal now.
|Figure 3: Three-Man Screen|
The Redskins had a big gain on this type of screen with two minutes left in the first half. Of course, just because the play works doesn't mean it was blocked well. The problem with the Redskins screen was that Lichtensteiger was ahead of Rabach (horizontally), but Rabach didn't see him because he was a couple yards behind him (vertically). So both guys tried to be the kick-out men, and there was no alley man.
Luckily, Tampa's defensive back took an awful angle to Keiland Williams and came nowhere close to making the tackle (at least Sabby Piscitelli would've been close enough to miss ... possibly). Not only did they not get an alley man, Will Montgomery got bull-rushed and was unable to get out at all. But hey, they gained about 30 yards, so it wasn't all bad.
To put a cap on my Redskins coverage, I want to discuss Trent Williams briefly. After the first game of the year, I thought he would make the Pro Bowl this year. Well, that won't happen this year (right up there with my Bears prediction). But in my defense, I assumed he would stay healthy and the Redskins would be a playoff contender after beating the Cowboys (hindsight is beautiful).
Still, despite playing soft at times, I think Trent Williams is the answer at left tackle for a team that has a lot of questions elsewhere. My biggest complaint about Williams was his run blocking, and anyone who watched this game would say he's solved that issue. This Tampa game was just one sample, but it is very promising when you consider how far he's come. If Williams can continue to run-block like he did on Sunday and keep that athletic ability that him a Top 5 pick, he'll be a Pro Bowler eventually.
11 comments, Last at 14 Apr 2012, 6:10am by shaneanthony