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?
21 Nov 2013
by Ben Muth
This week, we’re going to take a slight detour from our regular path and cover a team outside of the usual three. The Chicago Bears offensive line has gone from being a perennial punching beg to a respectable unit in the span of a year, and I needed to figure out how this happened.
There are a lot of reasons for the improvement -- four new starters being a big one -- but to me the biggest difference has probably been Marc Trestman’s scheme and playcalling. Trestman has a reputation of making life easier for his quarterbacks, but he also does some things that put his offensive line in a position to succeed. One thing that has stood out is how Chicago stretches defenses horizontally in the box before the snap.
They stretch you out with a wide variety of formations, the most common of which is to get in shotgun formations with three wide receivers. (In one of the games I watched, it seemed like Chicago lined up from the gun 85 percent of the time.) But they’ll also line up wideouts and extra tight ends just off the tackle in a variety of hipped (just off the tackle's hip) and bunched alignments and force the defense to account for an extra gap or two right at the line of scrimmage.
(Ed. Note: The Bears have run shotgun on 60 percent of snaps this year, 14th in the league but a big increase over 2012 when they were 30th at 34 percent. Also, the Bears have the second biggest gap in DVOA between shotgun and not shotgun plays; only Tennessee's gap is larger. -- Aaron Schatz)
They’ll also stretch you out in more traditional ways by going to tight ends. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about from early in last Sunday’s game:
A lot of fans would consider the Bears a spread team -- after all their coach came from the CFL, where everyone runs the spread -- but Chicago can line up in some classic formations as well. Here, they brought in an extra tackle at tight end and lined up Martellus Bennett (who’s as big as a tackle) just outside him. So now the Ravens have to cover eight gaps across the line of scrimmage with just seven guys in the box.
This isn’t revolutionary by any means, but what I like is that Trestman will mix in a formation like this in any situation. This isn’t just a short-yardage deal, this is something they’ll use anywhere on the field. It makes it tough on a defensive coordinator when you bounce back and forth between traditional spread stuff and six-lineman sets. In one three-play sequence against the Lions I saw Chicago go shotgun formation with trips to the left (two wideouts and a tight end) and another wideout to the right on first down, then the formation above on second down, and finally an empty shotgun alignment on third down. That’s a nice variety of formations, that are all stretching the defense, in just a three-play sample.
As far as this play goes, it’s very simple. You spread the front seven out and let Matt Forte pick a hole. I’m guessing the back is reading off the double-team of the three-technique. In the picture above, you can see Jordan Mills does a nice job banging the three-technique out of his gap and all the way onto fellow rookie Kyle Long before climbing to the LB.
Chicago does a nice job of covering everybody up on the front side of the play. That allows Forte to press the line of scrimmage before bending it outside between extra tackle Eben Britton and Martellus Bennett’s block.
Forte runs through a couple of arm tackles here and ends up gaining 20 yards. Again, the play itself is very simple. It’s just a dive, and the formation is something every team in the NFL has (although I like the wrinkle of replacing a tight end with an offensive tackle), but because the defense is stretched so thin, it just takes one defender losing up front to create a seam. The linebackers can’t cover for any mistakes despite the fact that nobody even really gets a hat on 51.
In the play above, the three-technique is the only Ravens defender that really gets beat. The play goes a couple of gaps outside of that, but the double team on him sets up the whole thing. Mills knocks the three-tech off the ball and to his knees. That allows Forte to press the B-gap. When he does that, the defensive end starts to peek inside, so Forte bounces outside him.
It’s not just before the snap that Chicago’s offense stretches a defense thin; the Bears also do a nice job of mixing up their runs to attack the defense in every area. Their base play is an inside zone, but they do a really nice job of mixing in tosses and reverses to get to the edge and keep a defense honest.
This is another example of the Bears stretching the Ravens front seven with their formation. Notice how the Bears line their two outside receivers just close enough to the tackle so that the Ravens defensive end has to honor the space between them as a true run gap. The Bears run away from that, but it’s another example of Trestman creating natural running lanes within the box with formations.
Again, the blocking is simple. Everyone runs inside zone to the right, except for the tight end who pulls across the formation to lead on Terrell Suggs.
The tight end gets a great cut block on Suggs and Alshon Jeffery is up the seam for a gain of 11. A lot of people seem to think that every gadget play has to go for some huge gain, but any play that results in a first down and gives the defense something to think about is a success.
It’s not just the plays, of course; the players Chicago has brought in have helped too. The Bears have four new starters up front. Only center Roberto Garza is back from last year’s team. If you were to do an informal poll in Chicago I bet they’d be up there with Vienna beef hot dogs in popularity. The two guys that I’ve seen getting the most praise for the Bears' turnaround seem to be Jermon Bushrod and Long, so I’m going to focus on them.
Let’s start with Long. He seems to be bandied about as a legitimate candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year. (FO even chose him as our midseason OROY for our special midseason elite FO stars in Madden 25 Ultimate Team.) After watching him closely for three games I feel confident in saying that would be pretty ridiculous. It’s not that he’s bad. In fact, he’s pretty good -- particularly for a rookie -- but he’s probably a little overhyped right now due to his last name and the fact that the things he does do well jump out at you when you watch a game live.
The way for an offensive lineman to stand out during a live broadcast is to have an announcer mention you a lot. Long has his name mentioned a ton for an interior linemen because his dad is a Hall of Famer and he’s a good puller.
That may sound a little simple, but think about how often you hear an announcer mention a guard on regular plays. How often does any guard get mentioned in a typical game? Once every ten plays, maybe? But if someone pulls, that guy is almost always mentioned if they show a replay, even if he doesn’t block anybody. The fact that Long is actually very good at pulling and has a famous Dad ups his Q rating over a typical offensive lineman. That leads to him getting a little more praise than he probably should. Long is like a defensive end that can just rush the passer. The end may not play the run worth a damn, but if he starts approaching double-digit sack totals people will know his name.
Like most rookies Long is overaggressive in pass protection and gets beat with quick moves as a result. He also plays a little too high, and can get thrown off his block by defensive linemen from time to time. That’s the bad news. Again, he’s not a bad player: he’s just a rookie that didn’t play a ton in college.
The good news is that the things Long does do well bode very well for his future. I’ve already mentioned he's a terrific puller, mainly because he’s such a good athlete, but he does something else very well too: a couple of times a game he’ll just come off the ball and kick someone’s ass. I’m talking about one-on-one drive blocks where he’ll knock his man three-to-four yards off the ball. For proof, here's the second play of the Ravens game:
He’s playing too high and his base is too narrow, but that’s just pure power right there. The key (other than being as strong as Derek Zoolander is good looking) is how tight he is with his hands. He’s got both hands right on the defender’s chest and uses that leverage to just walk the defender back. That third frame is terrible from a technique standpoint. He’s straight up and down and he has no base, it’s really bad. But his hands are great, and he just keeps pumping his feet. Once he gets some of the other stuff straightened out he’s going to be flat-out scary.
As far as Bushrod goes, I feel like everyone either overrates him or underrates him. He’s made two Pro Bowls that were probably undeserved and the Bears overpaid for him in free agency. At the same time, his detractors claim that he was completely made by playing next to great guards and in front of Drew Brees. The truth is somewhere in between. He’s an above-average, top-12 left tackle that got a big deal because a team was tired of having abysmal guys at that particular position.
The thing I like the most about Bushrod is that he makes pass rushers beat him. It sounds basic, but you’d be surprised how many sacks are caused by offensive tackles beating themselves with poor technique. Bushrod has a sound set, and a consistent punch, and he uses both effectively. You’re not going to catch him totally oversetting a defender or lunging with his head down, he’s technically sound and steady.
He’s a real heady player. The big criticism in New Orleans was that he got beat around the edge too much and the only reason he didn’t have worse sack numbers was that Brees is so good at stepping up. I think there’s some truth to that, but watching Bushrod in Chicago I’m starting to think that no one was more aware of Brees’ strengths than Bushrod, and he intentionally set up so that he wouldn’t get beat inside and into Brees' face. I could be giving the veteran too much credit, but the the way he changes his pass set depending on the quarterback drop and protection makes me think he’s the type of guy that takes everything into account.
If this looks familiar to you it’s because this is the exact same scenario Doug Free screwed up in this column last week. Here, Bushrod is setting on Suggs and knows he has help to his inside. Bushrod oversets Suggs intentionally and actually throws a one-armed punch to Suggs' outside number. Since Bushrod is completely taking away the outside, Suggs rushes inside where the guard is waiting to deliver a blow.
This is a pretty simple play by Bushrod, but I love it. He knows where his teammates are going to be and cheats his set against a very good rusher to take advantage of it. As a simple as that is, it doesn’t always happen, and in Chicago, plays like this haven’t happened consistently for a long time.
23 comments, Last at 11 Dec 2013, 10:27pm by Chuck Vekert