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 Oct 2011
by Ben Muth
The Saints beat the Jaguars last week, 23-10, in a game that really wasn’t that close: At no point did anyone watching this game seriously consider that Jacksonville might win. The Saints offensive line was at the center of this understated dominance. The unit gave up more sacks than expected, but they seemed inconsequential even as they were happening. After watching the Saints over the first four weeks, it is clear that they have a good offensive line and a very good offense.
Since I last wrote about the Saints, the offensive line has suffered two injuries. Both Zach Strief and Olin Kreutz went down against Houston in Week 3 and didn’t start on Sunday against Jacksonville. They were replaced by Charles Brown and Brian De La Puente respectively. As good as the Saints offensive line played, I do think they missed Kreutz a little bit. It wasn’t that De La Puente played poorly -- it’s just that the line seemed to be missing the chemistry that was developing between Carl Nicks, Jahri Evans and Kreutz.
This lack of cohesion up front was really only noticeable when the interior linemen were passing off twisting blitzers and defensive linemen. One play in particular that stood out was Paul Posluszny’s fourth-quarter sack of Drew Brees (available with coach’s tape for
those with NFL Rewind). It was third-and-10 and the Saints came out with an empty backfield and two tight ends off the ball (one of these was actually Darren Sproles, but I always identify players by alignment, not position). The Jaguars came out with three techniques on both sides, and their defensive ends lined up as seven techniques (inside shoulders of the tight ends). Posluszny walked up into the right A gap.
A little before the snap Jermon Bushrod starts pointing at the defensive back lined up over the furthest wide receiver to his side. Basically, what he’s doing is identifying this player as a likely rusher. There are two indicators that make this defensive back a likely rusher: the first are that his eyes are in the backfield. The fact that he is looking into the backfield doesn’t mean he’s blitzing, but it is a real good indicator he isn’t playing man, and is therefore in zone coverage or blitzing. The other indicator is that he is "topped." What that means is that there is another defender -- in this case a safety -- lined up within five yards of him. That means that the closer defensive back can blitz without burning a zone or leaving a man uncovered for the first ten yards.
|Figure 1: Toppling the topped|
At the snap the defensive back does blitz in the outside rush lane (Figure 1). The defensive end over Bushrod loops into the backside A gap while Posluszny and the three technique over Nicks rush straight ahead. The backside three technique loops outside for contain while the defensive end over Brown drops into coverage (looks like he had Jimmy Graham man-to-man and dropped into a middle zone when Graham blocked).
Now the Saints have the perfect protection called, a full slide right into the blitz. They even have the added bonus of their left tackle pointing out the Cat (corner blitz) before it happens. But they don’t pick it up because of De La Puente’s misunderstanding of where his help is. When the backup center sees the defensive end stunting across his face, he leaves Posluszny to pick him up. He needs to realize that Evans is sliding with him, and is responsible for anything that comes into the backside A gap. Needless to say, Posluszny gets the sack and the Saints are forced to punt.
A similar play earlier in the game (about four minutes left in the second quarter) forced a hurry and an incomplete pass on third down, which resulted in the Saints attempting a long field goal which they missed. The Saints were once again lined up in empty (Figure 2).
|Figure 2: Flip the script|
The Jaguars had a head up nose tackle and defensive ends over each offensive tackle. The linebacker over Evans (Posluszny) walked up to the line of scrimmage early in the snap count before dropping back to get one yard directly behind the nose tackle. At the same time, the linebacker over Nicks, who had started off four yards off the ball, moved to the line of scrimmage outside the defensive end.
At the snap the Jags ran the strike stunt, which is also known as the NCAA blitz because every college team runs it at least four times a game. This time the Saints had the worst possible protection on, as they were full sliding away from the blitz and did not have a tight end staying in to block. Now, since it was only the offensive line in protection, it should have been fairly easy to flip the protection from a full slide to the right to full slide to the left. It would probably only be a one word call, and I can’t imagine it was that loud in Jacksonville that it would’ve needed to be echoed. However, the Saints didn’t flip the protection, and that would seem to be on the center.
He should have seen the rotation of the linebackers and gotten the call out in time to slide left. Neither of the defensive backs was topped on the right, so at most only the defensive end could’ve come on that side once the linebackers started moving. Not only that, but the linebacker lined up over Nicks was actually John Chick, a defensive end. Now, I’m the first to say that you identify guys by where they line up, but when a defensive end is lined up at middle linebacker on third-and-long, you should be aware that he is the most likely linebacker to blitz. There were a lot of clues that De La Puente missed that could’ve led to the blitz being picked up.
For some reason, I decided to spend the first thousand words of this column talking about the only two negative plays the Saints had on Sunday. Since they did play really good as a unit (particularly the guards) I want to end on a positive note. In Week 3 against the Texans, the Saints ran a pitch play to Sproles that went for a touchdown. In Week 4, they ran the same play only to watch it regress. It only went for 34 yards.
|Figure 3: Toss crack left|
The basic play is a toss crack scheme (Figure 3), which is run from a close twins look. Last week, the Saints lined up in a trips bunch look and motioned one guy away to get into it. This week they just lined up in it. The inside man of the twins, in this case a flexed tight end, cracks back on the defensive end (thus toss crack). The outside receiver cracks back on the outside linebacker (double crack!). The playside tackle (Bushrod against the Jags) pulls and kicks out the force defender. The left guard releases on a zone stretch path and blocks anyone he runs into. Here, he lets the playside inside linebacker (who is walked up to the line of scrimmage) go because he isn’t pursuing hard enough to make the play , then climbs to the backside linebacker. Sproles gets the edge, makes a guy miss, and is finally forced out 34 yards down the field. It’s a well-executed play that defenses are going to have to focus on in practice.
That pretty much wraps it up for this week. I want to encourage people to go to the Extra Points entry about the All-22 film and vote the full boat load on interest and pay scale (even if you could care less). I don’t really care about the press conferences, but the end-zone view would be fantastic. It would really add to not only this column, but every column and statistic on this site. Also, make sure to follow me on Twitter. I’m almost to 500 followers and if I get there I’ll start doing brief quick tweets about offensive lines I’m not covering. Hopefully I’ll get to 140 characters on each starter. We’ll see.
7 comments, Last at 06 Oct 2011, 8:55pm by nath