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?
12 Jan 2012
by Ben Muth
I really enjoyed re-watching the Texans-Bengals game from Saturday. Watching it live was okay, but certainly not anything memorable. Upon further review, it was one of my favorite games I've ever watched on NFL Rewind with an eye towards a write-up. Line play, which is always difficult to really get a handle on during a first viewing, was excellent in this game. Both fronts are talented and well-coached, and I enjoyed how they played off of each other.
Each line had one player that really stood out to me. For Houston it was Duane Brown. He looked solid as always in pass protection, but really stepped up his game on running plays. He made a couple of really nice blocks that sprang some plays. Eric Winston was also good, including a few awesome (or borderline if you’re a defensive-line enthusiast) cut blocks.
For Cincinnati, I felt Geno Atkins really jumped off the tape. I’m a big fan of Houston’s interior line, and felt they all played pretty good ... except when they had to block Atkins. It didn’t matter who was blocking him, Atkins was physically overwhelming. He made a couple of plays in the backfield, and came damn close to making many more. Atkins was, in football coaching terms, a "War Daddy."
It wasn’t just players that stood out though. I felt Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer had a nice game plan to try to stifle the Texans running game. One thing they were trying to do early is spill the Texans run game. The Texans may call their running game an outside zone scheme, but ideally most of their plays will cut up inside the tight end. They want to stretch the defense with the threat of the outside run, and then cut it up inside. Cincinnati tried to take that away with how they ran their run fits.
The Bengals started the game by having their defensive ends play the C-gap (between the tackle and tight end). That means their linebackers had to scrape over the top to be force players. If you watch the first quarter, you’ll see Cincinnati’s defensive ends really anchoring down inside while their linebackers go flying over the top to get outside of the box. It was effective. The defensive linemen were allowed to be very physical because they weren’t worried about being hooked (which allowed for some nice penetration), and the guards were having a tough time getting to the linebackers, since they were going outside so fast. Really, the only big play in the running game for Houston early came when one backside defensive end flowed a little too much and allowed Arian Foster to take it all the way out the backside. That wasn’t a schematic issue as much as it was an execution issue.
After a couple of drives, it was clear that Houston needed to get outside against the Bengals. Now, all outside zones have the chance to bounce outside, but the Houston guards were having trouble getting to Cincy’s linebackers. So, Houston needed to get different blocking angles, and the best way to do that is through formation. Houston had the ball on first-and-goal from the 8 when they called their first clearly-designed outside run of the day (Figure 1).
|Figure 1: Seal Andre|
Houston came out in a basic single-back formation with the tight end right, and the slot receiver, Andre Johnson, to the left. They motioned the tight end across the formation to form a trips left. Cincinnati’s linebackers widened to deal with the three receivers to their right. At the snap, the tight end and left tackle Brown worked in combination from the defensive end to the Mike linebacker. This is one of two key blocks on the play. Since the defensive ends had been playing inside all day, the tight end just gives the defensive end a quick hand check before moving onto the linebacker. Because the tight end could get outside so quickly, he has a great angle on Rey Maualuga and blocks him fairly easily. Brown does a great job of hooking the defensive end without giving up too much penetration and allows Foster to get the edge.
Now, most teams would not be able to run this play out of this formation and personnel grouping. That’s because you end up with a slot receiver on a linebacker. So usually teams end up sticking another tight end to flex out there, basically holding up a sign that says "we’re running over here." However, since Houston has Andre Johnson, a big, physical, and (most importantly) willing blocker outside, they can get away with running it out of 11 personnel (one back, one tight end). Johnson has a good angle and does a great job of sealing the outside linebacker, allowing Foster to score. It was only an eight-yard play, but being able to run it in a goal-to-go situation relieves so much of the pressure on a rookie quarterback. The scoring play was the result of great execution on a perfect play call.
After Houston had that success outside, they altered their blocking schemes to take advantage of how Cincinnati was playing them. They started to call more designed bounce plays, ones that strayed from a traditional zone scheme. Instead of using combination blocks on everything, Houston started pulling the uncovered man (either the guard or tackle) outside to intercept the scraping linebackers. The Texans continued to have success outside against the Bengals all day.
One thing Houston did a great job of was not running the designed outside bounce plays to death. They made sure to keep mixing in traditional outside zones (where the play is really designed to cut inside) to keep the Bengals guessing. They even mixed in a couple of zones where the backside cutback is actually the goal, and those worked perfectly. Take this slice play they ran late in the second quarter (Figure 2).
|Figure 2: Red Slice|
Houston came out in the exact same formation (including the motion) as they did on their touchdown run. Everyone did the exact same thing except for the tight end. He came back across the formation and cut blocked the backside defensive end, as opposed to working in combination with the left tackle.
While he was doing that, backside guard Mike Brisiel and right tackle Winston were working from the backside three-technique to the backside linebacker. Since Houston had ran this action and got outside earlier, all the linebackers were flying that way. That makes it real easy for Brisiel to pick up his man. Winston throws a great cut block and gets the defensive tackle on the ground, leaving a huge hole on the backside.
Foster reads it perfectly, puts his foot in the ground, and cuts it back to tons of green grass. Unfortunately, he trips over the defensive tackle that is on the ground and only gains six, leaving at least ten yards on the field. Even really good running backs can sometimes leave yards out there though -- it was a great play call that built off of an earlier one.
That does it for this week. Follow me on Twitter, and tune in next week for a Saints-49ers breakdown.
4 comments, Last at 12 Jan 2012, 11:17pm by Joseph