In what is likely the best opening week of college football we've seen in years, we're treated to a series of neutral-site, out-of-conference matchups that could have a resounding impact on the entire college football season.
29 Nov 2012
by Ben Muth
Having to catch up with some things after Thanksgiving break meant I wasn’t able to write a typical column this week. This week will be entirely devoted to one play from the Cowboys-Redskins game on Thanksgiving. The play itself was pretty unremarkable (it set up a third-and-long), but FOX’s microphones picked up Tony Romo’s protection adjustments before the snap.
Romo had been sacked the play before the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter. They faced a second-and-21 from their own 30. Dallas was in 11-personnel with Tight End Flex Trips to the right. The Redskins were in a Nickel 3-3-5.
The Cowboys were in a man-based protection scheme (which they, along with San Diego, tend to use more than most teams), meaning the offensive linemen were responsible for the four down linemen and the Mike linebacker. Since the Redskins only had three down linemen, the Cowboys would have to count a linebacker as a lineman.
Based on how Romo adjusts the protection later, the above picture is how I believe the Cowboys originally counted the defense. The three defensive linemen are obviously counted as down guys. I think I saw the center point to the linebacker over the left guard -- I say "think" because the wide shot was blurry and it happened right as the film cut on -- which would make him the Mike.
They probably counted Lorenzo Alexander as the fourth down lineman. He is lined up just outside of right tackle Doug Free's shoulder, within a yard of the line of scrimmage. He is also the only linebacker on that side not lined up over a receiver: that would designate him as the most likely rusher.
With the Redskins front being counted like this, the offensive line has to block the three down linemen, Alexander (being counted as a down lineman), and Mike linebacker Perry Riley, who is lined up over the left guard. The running back would be responsible for the two defenders over the slot receivers.
However, before the snap, Washington’s linebackers shifted. Riley went from a couple of yards off the line of scrimmage to walking up right into the A-gap. Alexander backed up further off the ball and stepped inside a little bit. Not a huge difference, and Dallas still has everyone accounted for. Still, Romo wanted to make sure he and his offensive line were on the same page.
Romo walks up to the line and identifies that "52 is down." 52 is rookie linebacker Keenan Robinson, lined up on the line of scrimmage between right tackle Free and flex tight end Jason Witten. He’s a stand-up Wide 9 technique, so it makes sense to count him as a down lineman, even though he would back off just before the snap.
As a side note, let’s appreciate Free’s pointing in the picture above. That’s strong big-man posture right there. While FOX doesn’t pick up what Free is saying, I’d like to imagine it’s "...and a couple of them bear claws in the back."
Not content to just identify the four down linemen, Romo also declares "97’s the Mike." (Once again, a direct quote thanks to FOX.) 97 is Alexander, and previously seemed to be counted as a down lineman. Because of his alignment, center Mackenzy Bernadeau is responsible for Alexander. He’s probably working in some combination with right guard Derrick Dockery. Unlike Free, Bernadeau doesn’t feel the need to point at a guy that Romo just pointed to. I assume Free mops the floor with Bernadeau when they watch Blue’s Clues.
Now the Cowboys are locked into their men. It’s important to note that the quarterback always has the last say when it comes to identifying guys in protection. It doesn’t matter if he changes the Mike from Ray Lewis to a sideline reporter. You slide to Pam Oliver if that’s where the quarterback sends you.
On this play, the blocking is pretty straightforward. Both guards and tackles are responsible for defenders lined up right over top of them. The center has the Mike linebacker lined up over the right guard. The running back has the only other linebacker in the box.
At the snap the Redskins run an inside cross blitz. Every coach has a different name for this blitz, but my personal favorite was Bozo Cross. Riley is coming into the left A-gap and Alexander loops in behind him. In all twist stunts -- whether they be tackle/end, tackle/tackle, linebacker/end, or in this case linebacker/linebacker -- there is a penetrator and a looper. On this stunt, Riley is the penetrator, and his goal is to blow up the center’s hip to create a hole for Alexander.
Both defensive ends are dropping. Stand-up end Robinson is dropping for coverage, and down end Ryan Kerrigan, who lined up over the left tackle, is dropping to spy. It’s also possible that Kerrigan is running the world’s worst twist, but going off his pace, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and say he’s spying. Both defensive tackles are rushing wide for contain.
Notice in the picture above how center Bernadeau is looking at Alexander, but is leaving a hand out to feel for Riley. Because Riley was lined up in the A-gap, Bernadeau has to be aware of a possible pick stunt.
As Alexander continues further laterally, without attacking the right A-gap, Bernadeau figures out what Washington is trying to do. He feels Perry coming and turns back into him. That’s a key to stopping a cross/twist stunt in man protection: the blocker responsible for the looper has to recognize the stunt and turn back into it. The guy blocking the penetrator (the running back, in this case) can’t tell the difference between a stunt and a straight rush (here, a straight A-gap blitz), but his teammate can based on the pace or route of the defender’s rush. This was a nice job by Bernadeau.
Because Bernadeau recognizes the stunt early, running back Lance Dunbar can adjust off him. Yes, it’s man protection, but you still have to pass off twists. Here the Cowboys do a great job of passing off a stunt that is typically difficult for man-protection schemes.
The last thing I wanted to point out was the Redskins' inability to keep contain here. Once Robinson drops into coverage, Free turns inside to to help on the defensive tackle. He immediately seals the defender, and the defensive tackle doesn’t really make an effort to get contain again. Even though the Cowboys did a great job picking up the inside blitz, Romo rolls right simply because he can. He ends up completing an eleven-yard pass.
This is what I never get: if you are a defensive tackle who has to loop outside for contain, it is almost impossible for you to get a sack. It’s just too long of a route. The only way you can get a sack on a blitz like this is if the quarterback is forced to escape right into your contain. Still, at least twice a game, you’ll see a defensive tackle do this thing where he tries to keep contain and rushes the passer. This is the worst of both worlds.
Looking back, that play probably didn’t need 1200 words written about it. Or eight diagrams. But because FOX’s coverage picked up something interesting, I thought it would be fun to look at how even the ultimately meaningless plays are little chess matches.
45 comments, Last at 03 Dec 2012, 2:47am by derp