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?
08 Dec 2011
by Ben Muth
The thing that amazes me the most about Tennessee’s offensive linemen is how consistent they are. Watching Michael Roos play this season has been like waking up to "I’ve Got You Babe" on the radio in Punxsutawney. He’ll give you great pass protection, and run blocking that gets better as the game goes along. Eugene Amano and Leroy Harris are almost as consistent, and the right side of the line with Jake Scott and David Stewart is pretty steady as well. I see miniscule variance from week-to-week from this unit when I put on the tape -- at least in the six or seven games I’ve watched. That leads me to believe that the biggest reason for Chris Johnson’s recent success is, in fact, Chris Johnson.
What sticks out most for me while watching Johnson recently is the sense of urgency in his running style that was absent in the first half of the season. Earlier this year, Johnson seemed too willing to take a very short gain and get back to the huddle to fight another day. He seemed to be waiting for that big play to come, and just trying to make do until it did. Well, big runs in the NFL aren’t just given to you. Sure, you’ll occasionally catch the defense with the perfect call and pop one untouched for forty yards, but that happens maybe four times a year. Big plays, more often than not, are the result of great downfield running or blocking, and neither of those things are provided solely by the offensive line.
Recently, Johnson has been fighting to stay up longer, and has been more willing to try and make someone miss instead of lowering a shoulder just to fall forward. The holes really haven’t been that much bigger in the last month than they were in September, but CJ is finding ways to squeeze through them now. The result has been a couple of longer runs. This week, we’re going to look at some of those runs.
|Figure 1: Shotgun Counter|
Figure 1 is Chris Johnson’s 48-yard touchdown run in the first quarter of Tennessee's Week 13 victory against the Bills. It was a pretty simple shotgun counter play. CJ was lined up to Matt Hasselbeck’s right, took the handoff, and ran off the right tackle. That may not seem like a counter play, but you’ll notice that most shotgun runs go to the opposite of the running back's alignment. That’s because the runner's momentum is going that way as he receives the handoff, so it's just logical to keep that steam going. So, any time the ball carrier takes the ball and heads towards his original alignment, it’s a counter play.
The blocking scheme was a single-back power. That means the tight end, Craig Stevens, blocks the defensive end lined up right over the top of him. The tackle (Stewart) and the guard (Scott, who had his best game of the season) are responsible for the defensive tackle and the middle linebacker. In this case, Scott blocked back on the linebacker and Stewart blocked down on the defensive tackle. The center is responsible for the backside defensive tackle, while the backside offensive tackle (Roos) has a simple punch-and-hinge block. Basically, he steps inside to make sure a linebacker doesn’t stunt into the backside B-gap, and then pivots out to seal off the edge.
There are two key blocks on the play typically. The first is for the tight end: he has to keep the defensive end on the line of scrimmage and cannot allow any penetration. He doesn’t have to kick him out or drive him down, just simply stay locked up with him. The other key block is the pulling backside guard. He has to read the tight end’s block and either turn it up inside and lead up or continue pulling around to kick out on the edge defender. The guard will block the same guy either way, but how he blocks him depends on the defense’s run fit. In this case, the Bills are running a gap exchange. This means that the defensive end is responsible for the C-gap, just inside the tight end, and the outside linebacker is responsible for the D-gap outside.
Harris did a great job of reading Stevens’ excellent block (I hate to say it because of the whole Cal thing, but I might be president of the Craig Stevens fan club right now), and he got outside just in time and made a serviceable kick-out block. The play was finished with a great downfield block by Nate Washington on the deep safety. This play is also a good illustration of why you never block a cornerback unless you’re running right at them. They generally don’t care much for tackling, and seem content to passively sit in their run fit without making an effort to do anything more than the minimum.
This play was extremely well-blocked, but CJ was still the one who really made it work. As soon as he got the ball, he knew he had to go outside, but he also had to wait for the guard to get there. Earlier in the season, CJ probably would just rumble forward for a short gain. Here, he stutters a little bit just behind the line of scrimmage before exploding inside of Harris’ block and into the secondary. I know I talked about his sense of urgency earlier and now I’m preaching patience, but I’m not contradicting myself, I swear. Earlier I was referring to the urgency to make the big plays happen and not wait for them to come. On this play, he could’ve barreled forward for a semi-successful four-yard gain, but instead, he extended the play a little bit and generated a big run because of it.
|Figure 2: Toss Counter|
The second big play I’m going to cover, I honestly just picked because it was a really cool scheme. It may not further my point, but it’s fun to break down. In Figure 2, Tennessee lines up in a Trips Right set with Javon Ringer in the backfield and Johnson in the slot. CJ ran a deep jet motion into the backfield and caught a toss from Hasselbeck. He immediately stopped though, and went back to his right. The defense’s momentum was already going left, where both the motion and the "fullback" Ringer were heading. Johnson was able to get to the edge with ease.
Because of all the action seemingly going left, Tennessee was able to pull both guards without the defense following them to the play. Scott kicked out to the force player, and Harris led up -- they both threw nice blocks. At the end of the line, Stevens did a great job of stepping inside to bait the defensive end before clubbing him down, wheeling, and sealing him off inside. After that, CJ was up one-on-one with a safety and spun out of his tackle. He was brought down immediately after by a cornerback, but it was still a big gain in the running game.
Since it’s impossible to write a column about the 2011 Titans without being critical of Johnson at some point, I will point out that the lone sack given up seemed to be his fault. It was pretty clear that CJ went to the same linebacker that the three interior linemen did, and, as a result, nobody picked up the other linebacker. Other than that though, it was a very good day for CJ, and another solid effort from the Titans offensive line.
That does it for this week. However, before I go, I want to discuss the rest of the year. I’m officially dumping the Seahawks. They’ve had a ton of injuries, are out of the playoff picture (basically), and just aren’t interesting without the rookies and Russell Okung in there. We had a good run, Seattle. As a result, I’ll be adding a new team to the rotation. I want an AFC playoff contender, and I’m allowing you, the readers, to vote on the winner. The eligible teams are:
Please vote in the comments section below. One vote per reader. I’ll announce the winner this Monday on Twitter, or you can just see who I write about next week. (Or, if you are good at math, you can probably add up the votes yourself).
83 comments, Last at 11 Dec 2011, 5:59am by Doug London