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?
22 Sep 2011
by Ben Muth
It’s fair to say that Tennessee’s 26-13 victory over Baltimore was one of the more shocking results of Week 2. After losing their opener to a card-carrying McCown brother, the Titans came back and beat a perennial contender that had happened to demolish the defending AFC champions the weeks before. There were a couple of factors that led to the upset: Tennessee won the turnover battle, Matt Hasselbeck and Kenny Britt seem to have formed an instant connection, and they were able to shut down the Ravens short passing game. But what we’re concerned about here at Word of Muth is, of course, the offensive line.
One thing that jumped out at me when I was doing the preview column for this season's picks was how good Tennessee’s line has been at protecting the quarterback over the past few years. They’ve finished in the top ten of adjusted sack rate each of the past three seasons, and allowed the fewest quarterback hits in the league last year. My initial instinct was that opposing defenses were keying in on Chris Johnson so much that defensive linemen had a hard time rushing the passer, but if Sunday was any indication, that’s not really the case. It appears that Tennessee’s offensive line can just flat out pass block.
I once had a coach that said the goal of pass protection was "to surrender ground begrudgingly." What Tennessee did on Sunday was a living embodiment of that philosophy. In fact, I’d say the Titans line was more consistent than dominant. As I was watching the game a second time, the Titans didn’t have a ton of plays where it seemed like they gave Matt Hasselbeck all day to throw. Instead, on a snap-by-snap basis, they were locked onto the Ravens pass rushers, making Baltimore rely on methodical bull rushes to try and get to Hasselbeck. So while Hasselbeck never had a stupid amount of time in the pocket, he could always make his reads and deliver the ball before he was ever in real jeopardy. Any offensive coordinator will tell you it’s negative plays that kill drives, and with the exception of two penalties (a hold in the first and a really dumb clip by Leroy Harris in the third), Tennessee’s offensive line did a great job of preventing those negative plays.
Individually, I thought Michael Roos did the most distinguish himself from his teammates. Roos proudly wears the "underrated" tag, and I’ll admit he certainly raised my opinion of him on Sunday. He's quite good in pass protection, with a nice set and great patience. You never really see him lunge at guys to try to block them -- instead he stays within his set, and uses the rusher’s own momentum to either drive them inside or push them past the quarterback. Not only that, but Roos seemed to get better in run blocking as the game went along. I wasn’t impressed with him early on in the ground game, but as the second half wore on, he got more and more movement as a run blocker.
|Figure 1: Max man protect|
Rather than talk more about individual players up front, I’m going to skip straight to Tennessee’s first drive in the second half. After gaining just two yards on first and second down, the Titans faced third-and-8. Tennessee’s came out in a two-back shotgun formation (one back was tight end Jared Cook) and hit a deep pass down the middle of the field to Nate Washington (Figure 1). Who cares about the pass though? Up front they ran a max man protection: That means that the offensive line was responsible for the four down linemen and the Mike linebacker. Since Baltimore came out with only two defensive linemen, the standup linebackers at the end of the line of scrimmage, Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson, would count as defensive linemen.
As soon as Tennessee lined up, Baltimore walked one of their inside linebackers up into the left B gap. Both Eugene Amano and Harris pointed him out -- identifying the Mike linebacker to their colleagues. Oftentimes, offenses change the Mike on a man protection scheme to the most likely rusher. This means that there is less chance of the backs having to block, which is something we can all agree is a good idea. Here, rather than identify Ray Lewis as the Mike, like they normally would, they pick Brendon Ayanbadejo since he looks like he’s blitzing. On the snap, Ayenbadejo does blitz and Harris picks him up easily. Ray Lewis also blitzes, but he doesn’t come free. Because Amano and Harris made sure to point out the new Mike visibly, the backs behind them know that they are now responsible for him. Cook stepped up to block him, and the result of all that time is a 47-yard completion. Which I guess was pretty. Whatever.
|Figure 2: Stretch Lock|
The very next play Tennessee ran what was, at that point, their best running play of the game. Javon Ringer takes a stretch handoff and makes a nice cut back against the grain for another first down. But this wasn’t a typical stretch play: it was a designed cutback play called Stretch Lock. (Figure 2) The key to the play was Tennessee tight end Craig Stevens (who is a hell of a run blocker in his own right).
On a typical stretch play, the backside tight end would release inside to try to block a safety. On Stretch Lock, he instead is supposed to “lock” onto the backside edge defender to seal him off. The only other lineman that changes his assignment from a regular stretch play is the backside tackle. Rather than try to cut off the three technique, Roos wants to shove him down inside and eventually climb to a linebacker. Stevens does his job beautifully and keeps Suggs from coming inside, leaving a huge hole for Ringer.
The last and most important play of the drive came on a fourth-and-1 a few plays later. If you read Audibles, you probably know about said play since I already discussed it a bit. Tennessee came out in an I formation, with two tight ends to the right, and a wide receiver split out to the left. Baltimore was lined up in the Bear defense (named aptly, after Buddy Ryan’s Chicago Bears defense). Hasselbeck took the snap, faked the belly to the fullback (Quinn Johnson, who is not a hell of a blocker), and flipped it to Javon Ringer. Touchdown Titans. (Figure 3)
|Figure 3: Buddha blue pitch|
The key to the play, once again, was Craig Stevens. He motioned across the field until he was just outside of the Ravens outside linebacker Suggs. When he came across in motion, he brought Tom Zbikowski with him in coverage. At the snap he stepped inside to make sure Suggs was crashing with the play fake, and then turned out to block Zbikowski. It was the perfect meeting of design and execution. By motioning just outside of Suggs, Stevens wasn’t in Suggs’ immediate line of sight (Suggs would be looking inside at the ball and not outside at Stevens who could lead him to the play), but was close enough to crack back on Suggs if he read the play. Even in the worst case scenario of Suggs sniffing the play out, Tennessee still would’ve had Ringer one-on-one with a defensive back for one yard. A matchup most NFL running backs will win.
As soon as the play happened, I proclaimed (in Audibles and on Twitter) that it has never been stopped in short yardage situations. Naturally, later that day it was stopped on third-and-1 in the Dallas-San Francisco game. You can't fault the play itself though, but the way the Cowboys designed it: their decision to pull the left tackle led to the failure of the play. By pulling someone inside the widest defender at the line of scrimmage, Dallas gave away the play. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
16 comments, Last at 23 Sep 2011, 1:09pm by Ben Muth