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Cover-3: Breakdown Dead Ahead

Cover-3: Breakdown Dead Ahead
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Doug Farrar

What Happened to Philadelphia's Offense?

Washington Redskins 23 at Philadelphia Eagles 17

After the Redskins beat the Eagles last Sunday, Washington cornerback Carlos Rogers had a very interesting comment about Philly's offense, and how the Eagles came out of the gate. "We'd never seen those plays they came out with," Rogers told's Matt Mosley, talking about the Eagles' first 15 scripted plays. "I'm serious. Those were great plays. But after that, I guess our coaching took over."

Anyone familiar with the West Coast offense and the Bill Walsh lineage knows that Walsh used to script 15 to 25 plays to start a game. He started that practice as an assistant coach in Cincinnati under Paul Brown and taught it to the coaches who worked under him, like Mike Holmgren in San Francisco. Holmgren and other Walsh disciples would, in turn, teach that practice to their assistants -- like Andy Reid, who worked for Holmgren in Green Bay before his long-time position as the head coach of the Eagles.

I thought it would be interesting to go back and see what Rodgers was talking about, and how the first batch of plays affected the Washington defense. Here's the first Philly drive -- 12 plays in all. Then, we'll detail the Eagles' (lack of) drive success later in the game, and get some answers from Mike Tanier, our onsite Eagles expert.

First-and-10 from the Philadelphia 20 (14:55)

The Eagles went shotgun, single-back, three receivers with Jason Avant motioning right to left slot. McNabb dumped the ball to Brian Westbrook at the 18 around the right hashmark. Westbrook had three blockers in front of him. Guard Max Jean-Gilles took out safety Reed Doughty at the 23, allowing Westbrook to get outside right past the numbers. From there, Westbrook gave London Fletcher a little shake-and-bake, rumbling further upfield past Kedric Golston and Rocky McIntosh before being tackled at the 37-yard line by McIntosh. Sending Avant from left to right cleared Fletcher and McIntosh out from instant run or short pass pursuit. They started backpedaling right at the snap with two receivers and a tight end in front of them, leaving them to adjust to get to Westbrook and help with the tackle. Jean-Gilles' downfield block and Westbrook's shiftiness added up to a 17-yard gain.

First-and-10 from the Philadelphia 37 (14:08)

I-formation with Tony Hunt and Westbrook in the backfield. Two receivers. DeSean Jackson was split wide right and came back to the backfield presnap with a reverse look. The reverse was a fake, as Donovan McNabb handed off to Westbrook. The Redskins lined up in a 5-2-4 and motioned to a 4-3. They didn't really bite on the fake (except for McIntosh, who hesitated reading Jackson and then rushed in to the tackle), maintained their gaps, and allowed a gain of 5 up the middle. Clearly, the Eagles were trying to see how the linebackers could be pushed and pulled.

Second-and-5 from the Philadelphia 42 (13:23)

Single-back, three wide. The Redskins motioned their outside linebackers from the line back on the weak side, then the opposite from the strong side. Westbrook got a gap up the middle and gained 3, as McIntosh made another tackle.

Third-and-2 from the Philadelphia 45 (12:41)

Offset I, two receivers. L.J. Smith on the right. Smith chipped Golston at the line and released to the flat, where McNabb threw him a little dinker. Smith did the rest upfield for a gain of 8 and a first down. The key to this play was the defense keying on Westbrook, who ran a short route left.

First-and-10 from the Washington 47 (12:11)

Single-back, two receivers, seven on the line. Tight end Brent Celek ran a short inside slant from the right side and dropped McNabb's pass. McIntosh then gave him a nice hit at the Washington 40-yard line.

Second-and-10 from the Washington 47 (12:05)

I formation, two receivers. The handoff was to Westbrook. Tackle William Thomas bulled end Andre Carter inside, and Westbrook had a free lane for five yards.

Third-and-5 from the Washington 42 (11:25)

Single-back, three receivers, with DeSean Jackson in the slot. With Westbrook headed to the right at the snap, receiver Reggie Brown took a toss left coming back through the backfield. Using Westbrook as bait in misdirection was obviously effective, as the entire Washington front four bit to the right, leaving Brown enough room to pick up 6 yards and the first down. The Eagles believed they could dictate direction with the Washington defense, especially the front seven, and it was working early on. On this particular play, Carter in particular almost sprained something trying to get back the right way to tackle Brown, only to be chipped by McNabb.

First-and-10 from the Washington 36 (10:37)

Shotgun, single-back, two receivers split wide right. The Redskins blitzed, but McNabb had good protection and hit Smith (who was sliding left to right and hand-fighting with Chris Horton) for 11 yards and a first down. The guy who made this play happen was right tackle Jon Runyan. At the snap, Smith headed downfield, leaving Runyan to deal with left end Erasmus James and McIntosh, who started on James' right hip and twisted outside. Runyan controlled James with his left hand, fanning outside and taking McIntosh with his right. Neither defender could provide any pressure. Just an amazing job by Runyan.

First-and-10 from the Washington 25 (9:55)

Offset I, two receivers. At the snap, Hank Baskett and Jackson turned to face each other, the first clue that something was up. Baskett took the end-around left to right and handed off to Jackson for the reverse. Jackson headed upfield on the left sideline, only to be taken out by Horton, who shot into the play like a missile and probably saved a touchdown. Still, the Redskins' need to focus on Westbrook upended them here. McNabb's quick play-action fake to Westbrook froze McIntosh and Fred Smoot, giving blockers the time needed to get upfield and clear space for Jackson coming from right to left.

Second-and-2 from the Washington 17 (9:08)

A close trips right formation, with McNabb in the shotgun and Westbrook as the back. L.J. Smith was split left, one-on-one with McIntosh. Smith headed straight downfield to the end zone and McNabb threw the ball his way, but McIntosh broke up the play by staying in close and playing the receiver instead of the ball. The Redskins were motioning to their left all the way presnap, and this was the predominant idea I think the Eagles had early on: to send their playmakers (especially Westbrook) or larger groups one way, forcing mismatches in other areas.

Third-and-2 from the Washington 17 (9:03)

Unknown formation (Thanks, FOX!). McNabb got the first down with a quick outlet pass to Jackson and a run after catch.

First-and-goal from the Washington 9 (8:31)

Three-wide, single back. Westbrook came from right to left on a fake end-around look. This took the attention of Washington's defense away from Westbrook just long enough for the man himself to shoot up the middle and head right, away from the momentum, for the 9-yard touchdown run. It was a nice touch, after using him as the decoy to great effect, to turn around and make Westbrook the key man on the score.

The Eagles were up 7-0, looking very impressive on that opening drive. After forcing the Redskins into a three-and-out, they took the ball back downfield again. When McNabb hit Brown for a 24-yard completion over the middle to put the ball on the Washington 42, it looked like more of the same. But Philly's drive stalled, ended with a missed field goal, and everything just fell apart after that.

In the first quarter, the Eagles gained 119 total yards on 20 offensive plays, had nine first downs, and converted four of five third downs. Second quarter: One first down, 32 total yards. Third quarter: No first downs, 17 total yards. Fourth quarter: Four first downs and 86 total yards, but the Redskins were on fire by then and the Eagles endured their second frustrating, game-deciding goal-line stand in as many weeks.

What went wrong? I turned to Mike Tanier, FO's Eagles expert, for his take on the debacle that was the final three quarters. It sounds like Tanier's team was upended by regression to the same old, same old:

1) The Eagles rarely run as much "junk" as they ran in that first drive: a jet sweep, double reverse, and a wide receiver screen. I think those plays were a direct result of something they saw on the Redskins film, maybe about backside pursuit. I don't know why they didn't use more misdirection later in the game.

2) The Eagles have never been a good slants-and-curls offense. McNabb sometimes throws high or low, and the receivers rarely turn upfield and make plays the way the receivers do on the Packers or Broncos. A 6-yard pass for the non-Westbrook Eagles is often a 6-yard gain. What's frustrating is to see the Eagles complete a pass on first down but still face third-and-4.

3) DeSean Jackson is a guy who can make a move after the catch, but the Eagles are having a hard time getting him open against good cornerbacks.

4) The Eagles keep things very simple when they run. They really just like to run the stretch and give Westbrook cutback lanes. It's not as effective when Westbrook is banged up or another back is in there. You will rarely see a lot of designed counters, pulling guards, other runs with complex blocking schemes from the Eagles. That makes them predictable and easy to stop when Westbrook is not at full speed and/or a key blocker like Andrews isn't around.

5) The lack of playmakers is still a problem. Watch the tape and you will see Lorenzo Booker trying to run the deep sideline route. He catches the ball out of bounds; I don't know if Westbrook would have made the catch in bounds or created more room for himself on the sidelines so McNabb could make a better throw. You've got Jason Avant and Hank Baskett running around doing very little. Greg Lewis is still playing a significant role. These aren't players who are going to make much happen against a good defense.

There's a lot of blame to go around. McNabb started the season hot, but since he got hit against the Steelers he is more of the guy we saw in 2007 and the first half of 2006. The weapons, besides Jackson, are all familiar to Eagles fans and foes. Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg clearly dreamed up some stuff for Jackson, but otherwise they are doing the same old things, the play-action fake and deep pass, the endless shotgun hitches, passes over the middle that bounce off L.J.'s fingertips. (Note: Do NOT invite Mike Tanier and L.J. Smith to the same party!) It can all still work when McNabb and Westbrook are 100 percent, but they rarely are, and there is no Plan B.

Seattle's Linebackers -- Anatomy of a Faceplant

Seattle Seahawks 6 at New York Giants 44

From Tanier's team to mine (sigh) ... Ladies and Gentlemen, your 1-3 Seattle Seahawks!

The idea in Seattle for 2008 was to compensate for a run-down offense with the kind of defense Seattle team president Tim Ruskell helped build in Tampa Bay as a personnel executive a decade ago -- the kind of defense that can win a Super Bowl. Certainly, the Seahawks' linebacker trio would be the centerpiece. With Leroy Hill and Lofa Tatupu (both drafted in 2005) and Julian Peterson (signed in 2006), the Seahawks had the kind of 4-3 'backers that any team not named the Chicago Bears could only dream of. The hope was based on a consistently good performance through the 2007 season, plus the fact that all 11 starters were returning.

However, Ruskell likes his defenses fast and light, which leads to the kind of domination the Green Bay Packers enjoyed in their 42-20 divisional playoff win over the Seahawks at Lambeau Field on January 12. The Packers put up 235 yards rushing on a lot of fullback/H-back/tight end motion plays, dominating the Seahawks with power formations as the speedy defense struggled to find traction.

Traveling to the Meadowlands to face the Super Bowl champs, the Seahawks had to know that in Brandon Jacobs and the Giants' outstanding offensive line, they'd be facing another serious power challenge. As the Giants' first drive illustrated, while the intent may have been on the field, the execution must have been lost on the trip.

From the first play of the first New York drive, Seattle's linebackers showed difficulty in dealing with the power brought by running back Brandon Jacobs. On first-and-10 from his own 9, Eli Manning threw a short pass to Jacobs up the middle. Julian Peterson gave Jacobs a little shoulder shiver at the 13, which was a bit like hitting a water buffalo with a flyswatter. Peterson isn't really known for his dominant physical tackling anyway, and this was a really bad move. Jacobs bounced off and rumbled forward for five yards after first contact before being brought down by Peterson and end Lawrence Jackson.

On the second play, the Giants ran three-wide motion to trips right with Kevin Boss in the cluster. Tight end Michael Matthews motioned out to H-back (more of this power motion -- someone was watching some Green Bay film), erasing left end Patrick Kerney as Jacobs headed up the middle. Peterson fought off and shed a block from guard Chris Snee, and gave Jacobs another stupid shoulder check (This isn't hockey, dude!), leading to more unnecessary forward yardage. Safety Brian Russell, playing his usual role of the guy who got to the party late, "wrapped up" for an assist.

The next play was the killer. The Giants ran a great protection on first-and-10 from their own 24 with left tackle David Diehl, center Sean O'Hara, and tight end Kevin Boss sliding right, while guards Rich Seubert and Snee pulled left. Seubert first took out Hill with Jacobs three yards behind. Meanwhile, Amani Toomer blocked Kelly Jennings out of the play to the outside, which was probably for Jennings' own good. Snee, a few yards further upfield, managed to wall off safety Deon Grant (nice "Ole'" move there, Deon!), Hill, Lofa Tatupu, and Peterson, all of whom were trying in vain to recover from the initial movement to their left as they went with the slide protection. To add to the absurdity of the play, Russell actually got halfway decent position and brought Jacobs down with an ankle tackle after 44 yards. Expect a more detailed breakdown of this outstanding Giants offensive line in the near future.

On the next play, Jennings bit on Domenik Hixon's "My First Double Move" for a touchdown. The G-men were on their way to a major beatdown.

Seattle's next opponent? The Packers, who will bring the Inverted Wishbone (this, not this)
and other selections to Qwest Field this Sunday. Those positive defensive projections seem like nothing but hubris at this point. If the Seahawks would like to avoid a 1-4 start to the season, a change of plans is in order.

San Francisco's Offensive Line -- Picks or Sacks?

New England Patriots 30, San Francisco 49ers 21

If there's one thing we know about the formations used by current San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Martz, it's that production will result. If there's another thing we know, it's that Martz's reliance on multi-receiver sets eliminate extra protection and get his quarterbacks sacked more than the norm. Tom Marino, a Senior NFL Analyst for, scouted for the St. Louis Rams during their "Greatest Show on Turf" days, when Martz ran that offense. I asked Marino about the formations and calls, and how a quarterback's ability to get the timing together defines the offense.

"The offense is very complicated, and it usually takes a long time for the quarterback and receivers to get on the same page," Marino said. "I can remember Mike telling me that in Torry Holt's rookie year, Holt didn't have a clue what he was doing. Also, while most teams have 15- to 30-play game plans, Mike's game plans have as many as 110 plays. He never runs the same play with the same blocking scheme. He also runs a lot of combination routes. Kurt Warner, Trent Green, and Marc Bulger were all smart, had years in the system (Green in Washington) and all got the ball out very quickly.

"This might surprise you, but there are no audibles in Mike's system. I'm sure he brought (current 49ers starting quarterback J.T.) O'Sullivan over because he had a year of experience in the system (O'Sullivan played for Martz in Detroit in 2007) -- not because he was the best quarterback out there."

Coming into the game against New England, O'Sullivan had been sacked 19 times, the most in the NFL. He was sacked only once against the Pats, but 20 is still the league's most -- yes, he's been sacked more than Ben Roethlisberger. Hence the "J.T. O'SmellingSalts" nickname given to him by Rich Eisen.

O'Sullivan is also tied for the league lead in interceptions with six, but he had half of those against New England. When I see a sack-happy quarterback taking an unusual amount of picks and staying off the turf, I immediately think back to the first four games of Drew Brees' 2007 season, when he threw nine interceptions to one touchdown. Many of those interceptions happened as the result of Brees' tendency to hurl the ball into complex coverages rather than taking a sack. Given the history of Martz offenses and the pressure they put on quarterbacks, let's see if any of the three picks were based on protection.

The first pick came with 12:51 left in the first quarter. The 49ers had the ball on New England's 45 and a first-and-10. Tight end Delanie Walker went in motion from left to right and ran a deep route at the snap. The Patriots countered with safety Brandon Meriweather playing deep, running stride for stride with Walker, and taking the ball in as he fell to the turf after jumping up to get position at the New England 4-yard line. O'Sullivan had good protection on the play -- good enough to wait for Walker to run that route. The interception was the result of Meriweather 's great play.

The second interception came with 8:08 remaining in the third quarter. The 49ers had five receivers at the line at their own 21, but O'Sullivan had enough time to set and throw to Arnaz Battle, who ran a short in route and got his route jumped by Rodney Harrison.

O'Sullivan's final interception of the day happened with 2:55 left in the game, and the 49ers at their own 40. His one sack came on the play before, when the 49ers went four-wide shotgun and Adalius Thomas helped collapse the inside pocket on a blitz. Facing fourth-and-16 and down 30-21, San Francisco had no choice but to go for it. Another four-wide shotgun set, and O'Sullivan was pressured and had to run to his left. A throw to Isaac Bruce along the left sideline didn't have much of a chance -- Rodney Harrison tipped the ball that was intercepted by Deltha O'Neal at the New England 38.

One of three O'Sullivan picks could be directly attributed to pressure, but you never know how a quarterback will be affected by pressure during a game. The Patriots currently rank 26th in Adjusted Sack Rate, but they have a group of smart defensive veterans who know when to drop into coverage and read a quarterback's intentions. What O'Sullivan learned is that you don't always have to be in a quarterback's face to mess up his day.


12 comments, Last at 10 Oct 2008, 11:17am

1 Re: Cover-3: Breakdown Dead Ahead

So, if the Philly offense is too simple, and the SF offense is too complex, whose offense is Just Right?

8 Re: Cover-3: Breakdown Dead Ahead

As one of the Giants' die-hards, I am very much looking forward to it.

I was thinking tonight about just how quickly perceptions are changing about this team. Won't last season look very different in retrospect if the Giants lost Strahan to retirement, Shockey to a trade for a future draft pick, and Osi to an injury, and did not make any big free agent acquisitions, yet still were able to be a top contender (if, and this is a big if, they keep playing at remotely this high level)?

This is mostly the same team as last year minus a few key parts. Either this team will come down to earth, or that team last year was likely most well represented by their end-of-year performance than by most of their regular season's performance.

Knock on wood.

12 Re: Cover-3: Breakdown Dead Ahead

My take on the Giants is that they had some really good drafts in 2006/2007, and it paid off late last year and this year.

Everyone says it takes a season or 2 for the NFL game to "slow down" for most players. I think what we are seeing is young guys like Webster, Ross, Bradshaw, Eli (a little older, but tougher position), etc. starting to "get it" after being clueless early last year. It took 14-15 games last year before the young guys "got up to speed" and it resulted in a SB win (along with a lucky velcro helmet and a D-Line performance for the ages).

All through last year, the general take on the Giants was was that folks had talent, but were often out of position, etc. This year, they're in the right spots... and hence, a very good team.

3 Re: Cover-3: Breakdown Dead Ahead

Not to excuse Seattle's defensive performance against Green bay in the playoffs last year -- how possibly could I? -- but I think what Green Bay did was suited to the weather/field conditions. Seattle will be no less vulnerable to power running games, but I'm gonna prognosticate that we won't see the Packers roll that out again, this week.

4 Re: Cover-3: Breakdown Dead Ahead

Have the Seattle Seahawks had any coaching changes on the defense? Aside from Jim Mora Jr. getting ready to take over the show in 2009.

5 Re: Cover-3: Breakdown Dead Ahead

No coaching changes, but Larry Marmie is the other secondary coach, who was the Rams' D-coord, back when their defense was atrocious....Oh, wait.

Anyway, they were atrocious back then, too. He's been with Seattle a couple years, now, and under Mora the secondary had one of their best years in a while. The speculation obviously is that Mora, as assistant head coach, and future head coach, isn't doing as much with the secondary this year, hence the regression. Mora and anyone else will publicly tell you he's focused on the secondary, and that's all, for this year.

And honestly I'm inclined to believe him. Or at least, I seriously doubt that's the reason, here. He's definitely fully engaged in secondary matters, during the game, it's plain to see. Also, the differential between the two performances is just too much, it doesn't make sense. They still are a largely cover 2 defense; most of the creativity comes in blending the stunts/twists with blitzing linebackers. There's not so much going on in how coaches call coverage assignments, More so great and Marmie so atrocious that the product of Mora halfway between the secondary coach seat and the head coach seat would yield these kind of results.

My best guess is, Brian Russell's value is intelligence, and leadership. He gets the other guys in position, he doesn't let things get behind him or anyone else in the secondary. I think the second year where all 11 guys have returned, has resulted in less communication being necessary, complacency's set in, and now that a few big plays were given up, particularly against San Francisco (which itself might have resulted in complacency because of the stellar pressure being generated up front) each guy is trying to overcompensate for each other, since it's embarrassing, Russell is small, Wilson is smaller, Jennings is like a Olsen twin out there, and Russell is a poor tackler unless he engages head on.

Yesterday Holmgren met with the defensive staff, and said "we’ve identified the problems," and in two separate statements, mentioned practices. He said he told the defensive staff there's some things he wants to make sure are being done in practice, and the other one was, to make sure the DBs don't get lazy in practice, in terms of doing things in practice that would produce penalties in a real game.

Does that novel answer your question?....

9 Re: Cover-3: Breakdown Dead Ahead

Some have asserted that John Marshall, the D-Coordinator who makes the calls, has been losing some creativity. In 3rd and long, he loves the 7 man blitz and the prevent soft zone, two really bad plays.

And while the back seven is small, it is really bad up on the d-line. There is no massive fat dude who demands multiple blockers and can cover two gaps. All the lineman, especially tackles, are quick, upfield penetrators, and can get blown off the ball. Brandon Mebane may be the guy to fill this role, he may be ready very soon, but he's still young. Since we lost Marcus Tubbs in early 2006, the d-line has had trouble with letting blockers get to the 2nd level and easily block little LBs like Tatupu and Peterson.

10 Re: Cover-3: Breakdown Dead Ahead

I you think about it the Giants seem to be a very well set up team. They have a very well coached defense, an outstanding quarterback and a power running game. Opposing defenses will have to choose their poison, you either bring a safety into the box and Eli will kill you or play seven in the box and give Jacobs the opportunity to get a head of steam before obliterating whichever unfortunate defensive back that gets in his way. I don't see a very reliable way to stop this without a very physical set of linebackers or an elite secondary.

11 Re: Cover-3: Breakdown Dead Ahead - O'Sullivan

Not really sure you could blame the third interception on pressure either (at least not as much as the clock, the score, or the down). On 4th & 16, with 3 minutes left and a two score deficit, throwing the ball away or taking a sack is not an option. Better to throw it into triple coverage than get sacked or throw it away, the latter two options effectively ending the contest.

The Pats field position was actually worse because of the pick. I believe the son of TMQ would tell you his dad smiles proudly when he tells O'Neal he should have just knocked that ball to the ground.