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?
03 Nov 2011
by Ben Muth
New Orleans’ loss to St. Louis certainly qualified as the biggest upset of Week 8, if not the entire season. Going into the game the Rams were winless and ranked dead last in Total DVOA, while the Saints were coming off a 62-7 victory over the hapless Colts. It certainly seemed as if the Saints were a team that could handle the bottom feeders of the NFL easily. Well, as the saying goes: "that’s why they play the games."
When you watch the tape play-by-play, the one thing that sticks out is how close the Saints were to making plays. It seemed like once a drive Darren Sproles just got tripped up, Drew Brees got hit just as he was releasing the ball to an open receiver, or a fullback just missed a block on a linebacker that would’ve sprung Pierre Thomas. That’s typical of these kinds of upsets: for whatever reason, the favored team just can’t seem to make the plays they typically make. New Orleans’ offensive line was certainly a big part of it.
I think the biggest problem up front for New Orleans (Besides Chris Long) was the inability to get up to the second level. It was strange, because the linemen were getting plenty of movement on the down guys, but for whatever reason always seemed to come off a second too late. As a result, St. Louis’ linebackers, James Laurinaitis in particular, were able to make a lot of plays in the running game. The struggles occurred across the board for New Orleans: from Jermon Bushrod to Charles Brown, everyone had trouble picking up the Rams’ linebackers. It could be that the St. Louis linebacking corps is better than I gave them credit for, as the Saints' tight ends and fullbacks had just as much trouble blocking them, but given their past performance that seems unlikely. I think it was more a case of New Orleans sleepwalking just a little bit, and getting caught off guard by the speed St. Louis was playing at.
The big news to come out of New Orleans since the last time I wrote up the team was Olin Kreutz’s sudden retirement. Kreutz has been replaced by Brian de la Puente at center. De la Puente looked okay -- he got into blocks fine, but seemed to have some trouble sustaining them. The biggest problem he has is that he doesn’t always continue to run his feet when the defender tries to shed his block. As a result, he ends up behind the block or falling off of it completely. One area Kreutz excelled in, blocking in space on screen passes, seems to be a weakness of de la Puente. But de la Puente was solid in pass protection and Kreutz was past his prime anyway. I see it only as a slight downgrade.
The Saints’ other replacement on the offensive line, Brown, did not have a good at all. He was matched up against Long and struggled all day, allowing two sacks and a couple more pressures. The one thing that really stood out was that Brown seems to have exactly one pass set, and as a result Long timed Brown’s hands perfectly and was knocking them down with regularity in the second half. (Brown went down with a knee injury in the fourth quarter, so Long would get his third sack against Pat McQuistan.) When scouts are talking about offensive tackle prospects they often use the phrase "natural pass set." This refers to a prospect’s traditional pass set, the one they use on a typical straight drop back play. However, just like a defensive lineman needs different pass rush moves, an offensive lineman needs a couple of different pass sets. The traditional kick slide out at about a 60 degree angle should be your fastball, but even Randy Johnson threw a slider.
There are a couple changeup-type sets that an offensive tackle can use. One I would've liked to have seen Brown try is the jump set, where an offensive tackle fires out at the defensive lineman as if the call was a running play before settling back into a typical pass-blocking position. Brown also could have tried a set-and-cut on a three-step drop to get inside Long’s head a little bit and give him something to think about.
Another option Brown could’ve tried is dubbed the "cocoa-butt." This is not an official name, just something a former defensive line coach called the play theory that I thought was clever. In the cocoa-butt, the offensive tackle takes two kick steps before lunging forward and head-butting the defensive lineman suddenly to throw them off their rush path. A couple of other notes about the cocoa-butt:
On top of all these sets, there are a couple slight tweaks a tackle can make to throw off the rusher's timing as well. He can set straight back at a 90 degree angle from the line of scrimmage. He can flash his hands, pull them away, and then throw a punch. He can throw a one-handed stab instead of a traditional punch.
Think about it: if you are blocking the same guy the majority of the game, continuing to use the same set and throwing your hands at the same time on every play makes you very predictable for a pass rusher with any kind of technique, much less a Long-type. Unless you're Mariano Rivera, you need, at least, a second pitch. And unless you’re Anthony Munoz, you need a couple of pass sets. Brown only had one, and Long was all over it.
On the other side of the formation, Bushrod was better, but not perfect. He got beat on a couple of inside moves by Robert Quinn, including once for a sack. I’m sympathetic to Bushrod here, because in both cases it was clear that Quinn was supposed to have contain. As an offensive lineman, you take a look at the defense and try to make a prediction on what the defense can do from how they are aligned, and what would be a worst-case scenario for you personally. As another former coach eloquently put it: "What can hurt you the worstest the fastest?" In both cases, I’m sure Bushrod wasn’t really concerned about a hard inside move from Quinn unless it was part of a twist, and even then he would have help from Carl Nicks. It was a case of young guy making a bold move that looks great if it works -- which it did both times -- but that also hurts the integrity of the defense if properly diagnosed. Still, Bushrod needs to be better about closing down if a defensive end does decide to go into the business for themselves.
The guards, Nicks and Jahri Evans, played well, but not up to their very high standard. Both were good when blocking defensive linemen, but struggled at the second level. Nicks pulling on the Power play was the one exception to these linebacker struggles. It just seemed like both guys were a step slower than normal on Sunday, and in the NFL that can be enough to turn an All-Pro into a merely above-average linemen.
|Figure 1: Rams Stunt|
Laurinaitis’ sack in the first quarter has me a little confused -- who deserves the blame? It was either a perfect blitz by Steve Spagnuolo, a poor play by Brees, or an assignment bust by De La Puente (Figure 1). The Saints lined up in a Bunch Left formation, then motioned their tight end inside to make it a Weak-I Twins Left. After that, things get a little foggy.
First, the Rams did a nice job of disguising their stunt. I have often said you can either run a stunt perfectly or disguise it. The Rams didn’t cheat on the blitz at all, asides for Quintin Mikell who wasn’t the key part of the stunt. While they were entirely out of position to cover behind the stunt, the Saints also didn’t see it coming. It was a risky call on a first-and-10, but when you’re big underdogs like the Rams were, you have to take a couple shots.
The blitz itself was a simple enough linebacker cross with a defensive back added. Chris Chamberlain blitzed hard into the left A gap and was picked up by Nicks (the nose tackle slanted to the right A gap). The safety that was lined up over top of the inside receiver blitzed the left C gap and was picked up by Sproles. With Bushrod locked onto the defensive end, there was no one to pick up Laurinaitis when he looped into the left B gap. But should there have been?
The Saints kept the right tight end in to block on the play, and it certainly seems like Brown and Evans are in full slide protection to the right. It’s hard to tell (even on the coach’s tape) if Bushrod or Nicks is in a full slide since they would do the same thing in a man- or slide-based protection in this situation. That leaves just Sproles and de la Puente to unlock this mystery. De la Puente certainly seems to be in more of a man mode, riding the nose tackle across his face until he feels that Evans is there to help. Sproles is trickier. Before the snap, Sproles is clearly locked onto Mikell. Now, did Sproles pick up on something pre-snap or was he always assigned to head that direction? I honestly don’t know. If it is a full slide, de la Puerte is probably to blame. If it’s a man-based protection or half-slide Brees is probably to blame.
Ironically, the Saints had the perfect route combination on against this blitz. Each wideout run a deep post (with the inside receiver being open right away thanks to the stunt) with the fullback and tight end running wheel routes behind it. Brees probably could have hit the slot guy right at the snap (if the wideout was looking) or laid it up for the fullback on the wheel. Both guys were wide open because of the stunt, and the only thing I can think of is that Brees thought they should have had the blitz picked up and was waiting for the fullback to get really deep for a huge play (probably a touchdown).
The reason I diagrammed this play is to point out how difficult it is to grade offensive linemen. Did de la Puente go the wrong way? Did Nicks take the wrong linebacker? Did the quarterback not know how many rushers his line could pick up? Heck, maybe the slot receiver was supposed to break hot and didn’t. Clearly someone messed up, but it’s impossible to know who if you aren’t in the huddle to hear the play call. As I said, the Saints were extremely close to hitting the big play -- things just didn't break right for whatever reason.
That does it for this week. I’m not sure if I’ll do a Twitter breakdown this week, but you should follow me anyway. If I do get to the breakdown, it will be about the Minnesota Vikings, just so that I can wrap up the NFC North.
9 comments, Last at 04 Nov 2011, 3:03pm by Ben Muth