Cover-2: The No-Huddle Defense
by Doug Farrar
It would appear that sometimes, as much as we try to deny it, the Football Outsiders staff does operate as a hive mind. Just as Ben Muth put up his typically brilliant dissection of the Seattle Seahawks' new no-huddle concepts, I was finishing off this piece on how the New England Patriots finally broke the Rob Ryan code against the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday. Surprise, the answer is: with a major dose of the new "big thing" among NFL teams -- the increasing use of the no-huddle offense.
Since I cover the Seattle Seahawks (who have used it more and more as the season has progressed), I’ve been able to watch this idea grow, and ask specific questions about how Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell have used the no-huddle as a specific weapon as opposed to a curio that throws a defense off for a play or two.
"It’s about controlling the tempo," Carroll told me in early October, just before his team used the no-huddle to rack up 53 percent of their total yardage on 43 percent of their plays in an improbable road win against the New York Giants. "You get to call the plays you want to call, the formations you want to call, the way you want to do it and the time and all of that. The time it takes to get to the line of scrimmage and get them called. It’s just about being on the attack. I think I’ve felt us being much more aggressive in the mode, but we’re going in and we’re not doing anything exclusive.
"We’re not that far along yet. We’re just growing and we’re a young team that’s trying to put stuff together. As we learn and gain more confidence and get more of an understanding of what we can do we’ll just continue to try to make it hard –- the idea is to make it hard on the defense. Some of that is the no-huddle, some of that is just by deployment, some of that is by game plan and all that. We want to try to utilize as much as we can -- staying on the attack is really what it’s about."
That is indeed what it is about –- but it is also about foiling Ryan, the other Ryan, Dom Capers, Dick LeBeau, and any other defensive coordinator who likes to create headaches with not just multiple, but unconventional fronts.
Regarding the perception that Rob Ryan has some sort of bead on the Patriots’ offense, a notion that goes back to last November’s 34-14 loss to the Cleveland Browns (when Ryan was the Browns' defensive coordiantor) ... well, there are certain repeatable elements to Ryan’s defenses that have given Tom Brady and company pause. Ryan throws everything and the kitchen sink at an enemy offense. When he was with the Browns last season, his first three defensive plays against the Pats featured two down linemen, then one, then a "moving cow" or "amoeba" defense in which all 11 defenders stayed upright pre-snap so that Brady couldn’t key on anything.
Against the Patriots this time. Ryan threw in a few different looks to start -– on the Pats’ first offensive play, Ryan flared outside linebackers Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware into short coverage zones against New England’s two-tight-end set. Brady hit Rob Gronkowski on the right side with a short pass, but since Ware only gave the appearance of rushing before backing off, he was able to corral the play for a one-yard gain.
|Figure 1: Bunch Run|
On the next play, the Cowboys got a little more exotic (Figure 1), lining three standup defenders over the Patriots’ bunch left formation. Based on the strong side cornerback placement, it seemed to be a run fit, but the Pats switched things up with one of the things the Steelers do better than just about any other team -– running out of bunch. It’s one of my favorite things to see a team do, because it still forces the defense to stretch its concepts pre-snap, but if you have great blocking tight ends as New England does in Gronkowski, you can really play it up and win the battles when it comes to run placement.
On this play, Gronkowski took a short step inside to an H-back look out of bunch after motioning from the other side, and pulled to the right to execute a perfect seal block on Ware. The most interesting aspect of this play is the faith the Patriots put in Gronkowski to execute that block; right tackle Nate Solder and right guard Brian Waters took Marcus Spears inside, leaving Ware wide open, and running back Stevan Ridley went right through that lane for a 16-yard gain. This is obviously a lot easier to execute, and less risky from a conceptual standpoint, when you’ve got a running play rather than a seven-step Brady drop, but it’s still pretty impressive.
I’ve liked Gronkowski’s blocking since I saw him pull off some pretty solid kick-steps in his rookie season, and he’s become one of the best in the game. If you follow the Bill Belichick film breakdowns on the Patriots’ official website (and if you don’t, you really should), you’ll hear the coach talk a lot about blocking, and specifically, the importance placed on the blocking of his receivers and tight ends.
|Figure 2: Psycho Cyan|
The Cowboys were more effectively creative at the line in their two first-quarter sacks. The first one came with 9:08 left in the first quarter (Figure 2), and Ryan setting up with one down lineman –- Jay Ratliff shading the center. Everyone else was either in two point stances, like Ware and Spencer in the end positions, or milling around. Because the coverage bracketed the receiver groupings up top and the back stayed in to block, Brady was off his hot route, and the line structure threw off his protection calls. Take that and add Ware’s amazing move on left tackle Matt Light –- Light took Ware’s furious charge back off the snap, but he couldn’t keep up as Ware moved back up to the pocket -– and that was it for the play.
In this week’s edition of the matchup preview podcast with Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN NFL Matchup that I do on Yahoo, I asked Greg why these line sets and specific pressure concepts can throw off any quarterback –- even one as alert and proven as Brady.
"It’s really common sense, if you think about it," Greg said. "Tom Brady sets the protection at the line of scrimmage, and here’s how you set the protections -– you have to choose the five players the offensive linemen are going to block. And then, when you get to six and seven rushers, backs and tight ends become responsible for them. When there’s no defensive linemen, and nobody with their hands on the ground –- they’re kind of milling around in undefined amorphous positions –- who do you designate as the five defensive players to be blocked by the five offensive linemen?
"So now, Brady comes to the line, and he sees seven or eight people [at least] standing up. How does he set the protection? How does the offensive line know who to block?"
That resonated with me, and it’s also a good primer when you’re watching a well-executed zone blitz and wondering just how that guard or tackle, whose estimated defender just dropped into coverage and was replaced by somebody unexpected, could look so out of place. Still, something bothered me about this theory -– Belichick has been using these types of defenses for years, and if there’s anyone who should have an idea of how to call protections against it, wouldn’t it be the man who’s coached by Belichick?
"You still can’t do that, because you don’t know how they’re going to move, That’s a blackboard response, and now, you’re dealing with human beings moving around. So, Brady comes to the line -– let’s say that there are six guys to the right side of the offensive line, and two on the left. Brady sets the protection. Then, just before the ball is snapped, four of those six on the right side move to the left side. The protection has been set, and the ball has to be snapped because there’s two seconds left on the play clock. What do you do?"
The second sack of the first quarter was more of the same. The Cowboys had two down linemen and nine guys milling around, which caused the same sort of confusion.
So, how do you counter all of this stuff? I think that this is where the increasing no-huddle narrative has become a major factor this season. If you’re the Patriots, or any number of other teams, you start running a lot more no-huddle to keep those complicated defenses honest. In the first quarter of this game, New England ran 12 plays and scored three points, with two sacks and an interception mixed in. Not one no-huddle play. In the second quarter of this game, the Pats ran 20 plays and scored 10 points. No picks, no sacks. From the second play of the second quarter, every single play that didn’t start a drive – every possible play that could be no-huddle -– was.
You could see the change in Dallas’ defense immediately. As soon as they realized that Brady was calling the offense and not just the protections from the line, that Cowboys kaleidoscope defense became much less colorful in a hurry. Through the drive that took up the first three minutes of the second quarter and ended in a field goal, you saw two down linemen, Ware standing up on the defensive right side, and a nickel base defense. Over and over. The Patriots did another smart thing –- they punctuated the hurry-up stuff with running plays, ensuring that the Cowboys knew they’d have to pay if their quicker adjustments led to any poor run fits or gap integrity mistakes.
As much as Carroll has said that establishing the no-huddle is about setting tempo in a game, I think it’s as much or more about putting a defense on its heels by establishing a forced simplicity that no defensive coordinator wants. This seems to be the NFL's new highlighted schematic battle, and it will be fun to watch all season.