by Mike Tanier
Did you recognize the pigeon playing special teams for the Raiders?
Parents with small children identified him immediately. He was Pigeon, the star of such preschool classics as The Pigeon Wants a Puppy, Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late, and Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. Al Davis remembers how useful pigeons from his combat experience in World War I (he flew a Fokker DVII), so he signed the free agent Pigeon, who waited over a week to report.
I contacted Pigeon through his spokesman, cartoonist and award winning children's author Mo Willems.
Walkthrough: Did you really join the Raiders?
Pigeon: Yes, I did it. I'd had enough of those Eagles. Think they're so big just because they're on money. I'm on the Woodstock poster!
Walkthrough: Will there be a book tie-in to your football appearance? Paper Pigeon, or A Few Seconds of Pigeon? Or Don't Let the Pigeon Assault an Assistant Coach?
Pigeon: I've been trying to branch out from children's books. I don't want to be pigeon-holed.
|Oakland's Newest Star|
Walkthrough: What about you, Mo? Did you have any input on Pigeon's decision?
Mo Willems: I saw this as a great Kids Book/Pro Football cross over. You'd be surprised how much Children's Lit and Football have in common. Besides this, nothing. But that's still more than I would have suspected.
Sounds like a man who has never read Walkthrough.
Three straight losses were a disguised blessing for Mark Sanchez and the Jets. All of the Matt Ryan-Joe Namath talk has subsided. The New York media's attention is temporarily elsewhere. Expectations for Sanchez are now much more realistic: he can focus on winning some games, developing his skills, and keeping the Jets in the playoff picture instead of worrying about the specter of Namath.
Sanchez's five-interception performance last week was the result of several factors. It was the first bad weather game of his career, and he clearly had some trouble with the Meadowlands wind. Receivers Jerricho Cotchery and Brad Smith were both injured, so the Jets top receiver was Braylon Edwards, who was just signed a few weeks ago. Under the circumstances, any quarterback would struggle.
But how much of Sanchez's bad day can be chalked up to injuries, inexperience, and bad weather? Did the Bills reveal some fatal flaw in Sanchez's game? To find out, I watched the Jets-Bills game (it was torture), focusing on Sanchez's worst throws. I saw a rattled rookie who is going to make a few more mistakes, but I also saw a Jets team with too few experienced, reliable receiving targets to establish a passing game.
|Figure 1: Jets Rollout Interception|
Figure 1 shows Sanchez's interception early in the third quarter. The Jets run a play-action pass from a two-tight end set on second-and-11. With Dustin Keller (81) lined up between the left tackle and wing tight end Ben Hartsock (84), the Bills put safety George Wilson in the C-gap, inside right defensive end Aaron Schobel. Wilson's alignment, coupled with the fact that both cornerbacks are split wide to the right and there's a high safety, makes this an easy read, even for a young cornerback. This is man-free coverage, and the Jets play call, a waggle by Sanchez, is well-suited to exploit that coverage.
The problem is that no one gets open. Typically, Keller, running a corner route, is the first read on a rollout like this. Hartsock, running a quick shake route into the flat, is the second option. David Clowney (87), running a deep cross, is the third option, and a run by the quarterback is a fourth option. Keller doesn't get a clean release, and Wilson never strays from his assignment during the play action. Hartsock does not elude the linebacker covering him; he also releases poorly, bumping into Schobel and alerting the defender to drop into flat zone/quarterback spy coverage on the back side. Clowney drifts into the middle of the field but doesn't get open. Sanchez underthrows his pass (wind may have been a factor), and Wilson makes an athletic play.
Jets receivers, whose routes are outlined in red, could have done a much better job on this play. Hartsock should have taken his inside move further inside, or sold his linebacker that he was run blocking. Had he done either of those things, he could have given Sanchez a better outlet receiver. I don't know Clowney's exact route assignment, but when running a deep cross a receiver usually bends his route so he crosses in front of a deep middle safety. Clowney just drifts into him, and he's running like a third option who doesn't think he'll get the ball. Sanchez made a mistake, but better receivers would have given him better opportunities.
|Figure 2: Jets Two-Man Route Pick|
Figure 2 shows an interception from later in the quarter. This is another play-action pass, and the Jets work hard to sell it. Wayne Hunter (75) enters the game as a tackle eligible, Hartsock goes in motion toward the formation, and at the snap, left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson pulls left as if leading a sweep. The Bills have eight defenders crowding the box, and the play-action pulls them in while slowing the pass rush.
Sanchez only has two receivers on this route: Edwards on a go-route and Clowney on a deep cross. Sanchez stares Edwards down the whole way, drawing deep safety support. Edwards expects to turn outside and catch the ball on his far shoulder, but Sanchez's pass flutters to the inside. Free safety Byrd easily gets into position to intercept a jump ball.
Sanchez made a bad read (Clowney got inside his defender), locked onto his receiver, and threw a bad pass, but the play call is also questionable. Edwards is the only real playmaker running a pattern on this play. With Hunter as an eligible receiver, the Jets lose the ability to use a real tight end as an outlet receiver. Again, this is a personnel problem exacerbated by injuries. With Cotchery and Smith available, the Jets are far less likely to call two-man route combinations.
|Figure 3: Near Pick on Slant|
Figure 3 isn't an interception; it's a near pick at the end of the third quarter. Here, the Jets are making the best use of their available personnel. With Smith and Cotchery hurt, Leon Washington (29) is their second-best receiver, and he's isolated on the right side with the other receivers to the left. The Bills aren't trying to fool anyone with their pre-snap alignment. They appear to be in Cover 3, with Wilson as a deep defender to his side. Sanchez should have no problem hitting Washington on a skinny slant.
Sanchez's problem on this pass is -- let me cue Ron Jaworski here -- eye discipline. He starts looking to Washington's side before he completes his three-step drop. He leads the outside linebacker, who has responsibility in that flat anyway, right to Washington. Luckily, linebacker Keith Ellison only tips the pass. This is an example of a classic rookie mistake, the kind that is easy to correct.
|Figure 4: Edwards Tip Pick|
Sanchez's fourth-quarter interception doesn't initially seem like his fault (Fig. 4). The ball is tipped in the air by Edwards, then picked off by Reggie Corner. Sanchez does a better job with his eye discipline on this pass, looking toward Washington long enough to move linebacker Ellison away from Edwards.
The problem is that Sanchez makes the wrong read. The Bills are in Cover-3, with Corner slipping back at the snap into a deep zone. In that coverage, Washington will beat Ellison into the right flat, giving him an easy catch and a chance to run for extra yardage. On fourth-and-3 in a tie ballgame, Sanchez has to trust Washington to make three easy yards. Instead, he fakes, then works inside. Against a basic Cover-2 defense, that might be the right decision. It wasn't in this case. Edwards, of course, has a reputation as a pass dropper, and the problem is made worse by the fact that he and Sanchez are still developing their timing.
Sanchez is a very impressive rookie quarterback who will be able to win several more games this season once he has a full complement of offensive weapons. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's overall game plan against the Bills was excellent: he established the run and stuck with it, calling pass plays that emphasized play action and protection. It's up to the players to execute, and when Sanchez wasn't battling the wind or making mistakes, Edwards and Keller were dropping passes, or Clowney and Hartsock were running bad routes. The problem will self-correct once Cotchery and Smith return. Until then, Sanchez can live without the Namath comparisons.
Around the League
MIKE SINGLETARY: Listen up, troops! Michael Crabtree just ended his hunger strike and signed with the team. I need a volunteer to get him in shape, preferably a quarterback, preferably someone with nothing better to do.
ALEX SMITH: Ooh! Ooh! I'll do it! I'll do it!
SINGLETARY: Hey that's great. Any other volunteers? Anyone? Don't be shy.
TIGER WOODS: Thank you for inviting me to this U2 concert, Mr. Jones. This new stadium is truly amazing. I found a gold-inlaid alabaster sculpture in the men's bathroom.
JERRY JONES: That's a urinal cake, son.
BONO: Hello Dallas! We're proud to be here. As you know, U2 and the NFL go way back. We performed at halftime of the Super Bowl after the 2001 season. We performed before the first game at the Super Dome after Hurricane Katrina. Thanks to us, America has no more foreign policy concerns, and all of New Orleans' post-flood problems have been solved!
TONY ROMO: Any hot blondes in this band?
STEPHEN MCGEE: Mr. Jones, thanks for bringing Tiger Woods to the practice facility so an obscure backup like me could meet him. He's the greatest athlete of all time in my opinion.
TIGER: That's nice kid. And you say you share a locker room with DeMarcus Ware?
Back in San Francisco
SINGLETARY: Anyone? I am still looking for a volunteer. Someone who can throw a spiral about 20 yards without fumbling.
SMITH: Please, coach. My wife is busy during the day anyway, so I can come and get in a workout.
ALEX SMITH'S WIFE: It's true, coach. I'm busy, and he's not. He's always underfoot, driving me nuts. All he does is stalk more successful quarterbacks on Facebook. Right, dear?
SMITH: Not now, babe. (typing into laptop) I'll show you who has more hits in Mafia Wars, Fitzpatrick.
JASON CAMPBELL: I'm eager to learn my twelfth offensive system in the last 13 years. Who is the new play caller?
JIM ZORN: No one knows.
CAMPBELL: Coach Lewis, is it you?
ZORN: Sorry, kid. Sherm cannot really talk. His voice is so powerful that if he utters one word it will destroy a small city. He cannot call plays.
CAMPBELL: Who will call them then? Mr. Snyder?
DAN SNYDER: No kid, I am too busy deep-frying $100 bills and eating them with honey mustard dressing. We have a new guy. His identity is top secret, but he is a mastermind capable of creating and implementing outlandish schemes, the kind that can fool the whole country, at least for a short time.
CAMPBELL: I'm sold. I'll just wait for instructions in my helmet headset.
MYSTERIOUS VOICE: Jason, I want to you to hide in the garage while I launch this balloon.
Back in Dallas
JERRY: Go ahead, Tiger. Hit one off the giant scoreboard.
TIGER: If you say so, Mr. Jones.
Tiger strikes a golf ball with a driver. It crashes into the giant Cowboys scoreboard, which shatters into millions of tiny fragments.
TIGER: Oh my God! I'm so sorry!
JERRY: holding a remote controlThink nothing of it, son.
With a press of a button, an identical scoreboard unfolds from the stadium roof...
TIGER: That's amazing, Mr. Jones. But it's all so over-indulgent. All of this for a football team? One that can barely beat the Chiefs? Think of all the good we could do if we just invested the money it costs to build a giant scoreboard into something purposeful, like debt relief for Africa.
BONO: Screw that and pass me a nine iron.
Back in Frisco
SINGLETARY: Last call, troops. Arnaz Battle, you played quarterback in college, right? Maybe you can throw to Crabtree. Maybe one of the linemen can visit him.
SMITH: Coach, I know I disappointed the organization. I know you have no confidence in me. But I have made the Bay Area my home, and I am eager to help this team in any way I can.
SINGLETARY: Any way?
SMITH: Yes coach. What do you need?
SINGLETARY: We'd like to transplant your knee ligaments into Frank Gore.
I am about 75 percent of the way through Monday Night Jihad, the Jason Elam and Steve Yohn thriller about Riley Covington, an Air Force officer turned linebacker who battles a group of terrorists led by "The Cheetah," an Iraqi deep-plant operative disguised as an Italian tight end named Sal Ricci.
If you read that last sentence and your head didn't explode, you'll be happy to know that my full review will appear next week. If you cannot wait until then, join the Facebook group Walkthrough Readers. I am sending out periodic updates about my progress as a form of therapy.
Even if you don't care about Elam's novel, you can still join the group.
The Sacking of Donovan McNabb
The Eagles got some good news when they learned Jason Peters' injury isn't serious. Peters will be back at left tackle this week, replacing King Dunlap, who sounds like a small-town machine politician from a Faulkner novel.
The bad news is that Peters isn't very good, and that the Eagles offensive line as a whole has taken a step back from last season. Worse yet, it's that time of year again: Andy Reid has officially abandoned the run. He won't call two consecutive handoffs again until the Eagles are below .500 and every fan in Philadelphia has ripped his own hair out.
There's nothing wrong with pass-heavy gameplans, of course, but Reid takes them to the extreme. When the Eagles leave their running game in the locker room, they start playing terrible situational football. It happened last season when they tied the Bengals. It happened on Sunday. If it keeps happening this season, the Eagles will fall too far behind the conference leaders to execute one of their patented December comebacks.
|Figure 5: Eagles Sack 1|
Figure 5 shows the Eagles facing third-and-10 from the Raiders' 27-yard line. The Eagles are in field position, but their offense is in disarray. Donovan McNabb burned two timeouts on the previous two plays, both of them incomplete passes. On one of the passes, he was hurried and barely got rid of the football. The Raiders called a timeout just before this play started, and it's clear that the Eagles offense has absolutely no rhythm. It's a great time for the Raiders to blitz.
I diagram a lot of blitzes, and I usually point out how great the scheme or the execution was. There's nothing special about this blitz. Gerard Warren (61), Richard Seymour (92), and Trevor Scott (91) all attack the offensive left side to pressure King Dunlap (65). Strong safety Tyvon Branch (33) follows them on a very late delayed blitz. The rush is muddy and imprecise, so the Eagles line initially picks it up very well. Right guard Max Jean-Gilles is even able to slide over to support the left-side pass protectors.
McNabb takes a two-step drop from shotgun, pumps quickly, then backpedals two more steps. Two receivers run short hitches, but McNabb is looking for Jeremy Maclin (18) up the seam. McNabb waits too long, and Dunlap is eventually overpowered by Seymour. The eight-yard sack takes the Eagles out of field goal range.
The Raiders did some things right on this play. Seymour was relentless after initial contact, and the secondary kept Maclin from breaking free. This sack, however, is all on McNabb and Andy Reid. It's an example of bad situational football.
Remember that the Eagles are in field goal range. They are on the road, facing a bad team, and their offense is playing poorly. They need points, but they don't necessarily need a touchdown. A three-yard completion on third-and-10 would yield points, as would a short scramble. An incompletion would result in a makable 45-yard field goal.
The figure shows most of the Raiders pass rush congested on the offensive left. That created a large hole up the field and to McNabb's right. McNabb probably would not have gained ten yards before the safeties converged, but he would have gained three or four. Passes to the hitch receivers, left open in short zone coverage, could have netted about five yards. McNabb instead waits for the deep pass, backpedaling despite the fact that his left tackle is trying to block an All-Pro.
Reid, meanwhile, refused to call a safer play to net three points. It's better to be aggressive and play for six in most situations, but the Eagles were in no position to gamble at this point in the game. Coming on the heels of a near sack and two misplaced timeouts, with Dunlap at left tackle and Brian Westbrook on the sidelines, a draw play was the best call, especially against a Raiders team that can be beaten by field goals.
|Figure 6: Play-Action Sack|
Figure 6 shows another example of bad situational football. It's second-and-2 in the third quarter. The Eagles have the ball at the 48-yard line. If you think the Eagles are going to run up the middle, get the first down, and try to grind down the field, you've never watched them when Reid was in pass-at-all-costs mode.
The Eagles run play-action from a two-tight end, two-back set. They use a seven-man protection scheme, with Alex Smith (82, I swear the Eagles got another tight end named Smith just to torture me) and Shady McCoy (29) as extra blockers. The Raiders only rush four defenders. There's no excuse for a Raiders sack.
As the diagram shows, three Eagles blockers triple-team Warren. Smith chips Jay Richardson (98), before leaking out into a route. Richardson bounces off Smith's block, works behind the Warren commission, and attacks the gap McCoy is supposed to protect. Richardson is freelancing, and McCoy doesn't expect a defensive end to come through his gap, so he whiffs badly. McNabb compounds the problem by backpedaling in an attempt to scramble, a tactic that worked for him seven years ago. The Eagles lose 13 yards and a great field position opportunity.
It's second-and-short, your offense is struggling, you have two healthy backs. Why go for the deep ball? Reid was tying the offense in knots to cover for Dunlap at this point. He rolled protection to the left and put two tight ends on the left side on some plays. On other plays, he even moved his backs to the line to chip outside rushers, as shown in Figure 7 (the next play in the game). The only thing Reid didn't do is run the ball on obvious running downs.
|Figure 7: Eagles Max Protect|
With Peters back, the Eagles will be able to run their regular offense. Their annual wake-up call about running the football may have come early this season. Reid usually doesn't bring the running game back until hope is nearly lost, often after McNabb has missed a few games and a backup has won a game or two with a stripped-down gameplan. The backup has already come and gone this season. The Eagles are a playoff team if they play smarter. When they are playing dumb, any team in the league can beat them.
Note: Pigeon art copyright 2009 by Mo Willems.