We look back at Atlanta's worst games this year to see what weaknesses New England might exploit. Those weaknesses include pretty much everyone on defense, but is there a secret to stopping the Falcons offense?
08 Nov 2012
by Ben Muth
With both the Patriots and the 49ers on a bye this week, I had to make a decision. Do I break down the Chiefs offensive line for the third time in four weeks, or do I go a different direction? By the phrasing of that question, you can probably guess that I decided to go a different direction.
I didn’t want to do a San Francisco or New England game from a couple of weeks ago, and I didn’t want to add a new team to replace the Chiefs permanently, so this week I decided to take a cue from J.J. Cooper’s Under Pressure column. We're going to take a look at a couple of sacks by unblocked rushers.
The first of these took place in Week 7's Cardinals-Vikings game. This particular sack was the "Quick Sack of the Week" in Cooper’s weekly column. On the play, Daryl Washington explodes through the A-gap and brings down Christian Ponder before running back Toby Gerhart can step up to block him. Let’s take a look at how.
The Vikings are in a single-back formation and are running a 3-Jet protection. We’ve discussed 3-Jet a lot in this column, but we'll do a quick refresher. The left side of the line is in man protection. Since the 3-4 defensive end (Calais Campbell) is shaded down to a three-technique, the Vikings have counted him as a defensive tackle and the stand-up linebacker (Sam Acho) as a defensive end. That means left tackle Matt Kalil is responsible for Acho and left guard Charlie Johnson is responsible for Campbell. The center and the right side of the line are slide-protecting to their right.
Since Acho is being considered a defensive end, the Cardinals defense is technically being considered a 4-3. That means Washington is the Will linebacker and Paris Lenon is the Mike linebacker. Gerhart is responsible for both. If both decide to blitz, it is Ponder’s job to get rid of the ball before a sack.
The Cardinals are running a jailbreak blitz: they are bringing seven and playing cover zero behind it. Judging by the pace of their rushes, and the fact that both Campbell and Darnell Dockett are rushing wide enough to keep contain, I’m guessing the outside linebackers (Acho and O'Brien Schofield) are both responsible for covering the back. That means that if Gerhart releases to a side, one of them would have to peel off their rush and cover him man-to-man.
But let’s get back to the middle of the protection, since that is where the problem came from. No matter what happens here, Ponder is going to have to throw hot. But the goal of the protection is to leave the guy with the furthest to go to the quarterback unblocked.
As I said before, the issue is that Washington walks into the A-gap and is quick enough to get to Ponder before Gerhart can step in and block him. But the protection is actually designed to handle that situation.
The guard on the play side of the protection (in this case, it's left guard Johnson) is responsible for any rusher that walks up in the A-gap. If a defender gets close enough to the line of scrimmage (the guideline I've always been taught is that if he breaks the heels of the down lineman), then the guard has to jump him and leave the defensive tackle to the running back. This rule only applies when the quarterback is under center -- if it's a shotgun formation, the back has enough time to step up and make the block.
It may seem to make more sense to bring the offensive tackle down too, and simply turn it into a full-slide protection. That way the back wouldn’t have to block a 320-pound defensive tackle. But because people often creep into that A-gap so late in the cadence, it’s tough to get a call out and communicated.
So, instead the guard just jumps down without having to signal, and the back can read off him to pick up the defensive tackle. Of course, Johnson didn’t do that.
Even if Johnson did block Washington and Gerhart got a good block on Campbell, Ponder would still have to throw hot. The Vikings didn’t have enough people to block both Lenon and Washington. But by letting Washington go, Johnson killed any chance of Ponder getting rid of the ball.
Moving on to current events, let’s take a look at the most puzzling sack of Week 9. In their Sunday night game against the Cowboys, the Falcons managed to leave DeMarcus Ware completely unblocked.
The Falcons called a 3-Jet Scat protection from a shotgun formation. 3-Jet Scat is the same as 3-Jet except that the running back is out on a route immediately (thus the Scat). The Cowboys are in a three-man front with DeMarcus Ware walked up on the line of scrimmage.
Because the left guard is uncovered, he is part of the slide portion of the protection. That means left tackle Sam Baker is man-to-man with the defensive end right on top of him, and everyone else is sliding to their right. You may notice this means that Ware is totally unaccounted for.
At the snap the Falcons block it exactly like they drew it up. Unfortunately they drew it up in such a way that they have four linemen blocking two rushers, neither of whom is the best pass rusher of the last decade. Clearly the protection scheme is flawed against this defense, let’s try to do some trouble-shooting.
One thing I've seen teams do in the past when going up against a 3-4 team with one particularly good pass-rushing outside linebacker is to count that guy as a permanent rusher. They call the defense a Rush 3-4 and explain in meetings that Ware is the same as defensive end: that means that you always have to account for him no matter where he lines up.
In this case, that means the left tackle would have to call a fan block (because they'd need to fan out) with the left guard. That would put the left guard on the down defensive end and left tackle Baker on Ware. The center and right side of the line would still be sliding to their right.
Designating a certain defender as a permanent rusher also helps in man-protection schemes, as you avoid putting backs on the other team's best pass rusher. It’s what I would personally do against the Cowboys, but it can lead to some funky hot reads for the quarterback against certain alignments, as well as some confusing assignments for the backs in pass protection. But no scheme is without its drawbacks.
But let’s assume that the Falcons didn't want to designate Ware as a permanent rusher for whatever reason. What could they have done at the line of scrimmage to prevent the sack? Well, it looks pretty obvious when you see the whole field.
From the wide shot, it becomes pretty obvious that the Cowboys can only blitz one defender to the offense’s right -- I've gone ahead and highlighted this in yellow. Every other Cowboy on that side of the field is a non-threat due to alignment (free safety and cornerback) or coverage responsibilities (slot defensive back).
Alignment is obvious: the safety is 20 yards off the ball and the corner is 20 yards wide, both are simply too far away from Matt Ryan to pose any kind of threat. Coverage responsibility has to do with alignment, but it's a bit more complicated. Basically, you can get an idea who can and can’t blitz by how the defense is aligned around a defender.
Here, the slot defensive back is aligned to where he could easily blitz off the edge and get pressure. But, if he did, he would leave a huge hole in the defense. It’s obvious the Cowboys can’t blitz the guy over the slot and play man coverage (they don’t have enough guys with the free safety so deep), so that means they would have to play zone. And the way the secondary is aligned, any route combination the Falcons ran to the three-receiver side would go for a minimum of 10 yards, and that would require a great open-field tackle by a defensive back. The only way the Cowboys can blitz that slot and maintain any kind of integrity on the back end would be to walk the free safety up closer to the line.
Since the Cowboys are pretty neutered by who they can blitz from the wide side of the field, it makes sense to simply flip the protection and slide towards Ware. Since it’s a five-man protection, it’s incredibly easy to do this. You don’t have to move the back and it won’t affect the route combination at all. All Ryan has to do is yell "Opposite!" or any other code word for the protection he wants. (We used to use "Jerry" or "Julie" for Jet-right and Jet-left.)
On top of all this, even if the Cowboys' alignment indicated an equal chance for a blitz to come from either side, I’d much rather account for Ware on the line of scrimmage than anyone else.
I don’t know why Ryan wouldn’t flip the protection in an obvious case like this, but I do have three guesses.
1) Ryan can’t flip the protection. In that case, it’s the center's job, and the center missed it. This seems unlikely, because even teams who let their center call all the protections still allow the quarterback to make changes if he has to. Especially a veteran like Ryan.
2) The Falcons decided to always slide their protections to the field when they were game-planning. Some defenses have a heavy tendency to blitz from either the field side of the defense (wide side) or the boundary side (short side). Maybe the Cowboys have a heavy field-blitz tendency and the Falcons staff decided to always slide protections towards the wide side. Once again, though, you’d hope Ryan would be able to make an exception in this case.
3) Jacquizz Rodgers or Baker screwed up. Either Rodgers wasn’t supposed to release on the route right away, which means it was 3-Jet and not 3-Jet Scat, so Ware would be Rodgers’ man. Or, Baker was supposed to count Ware as a down lineman and didn’t.
I’m not sure what exactly happened, but I do know that the Falcons had enough manpower to pick up a straightforward blitz and were lucky it didn’t end in a turnover, or worse, a quarterback injury.
That does it for this week. Remember to follow me on Twitter.
14 comments, Last at 11 Nov 2012, 1:11pm by Karl Cuba