Football Outsiders
Innovative Statistics, Intelligent Analysis

Cover-3: New York State of Mind

by Doug Farrar

Samuels 1, Kiwanuka 0

New York Giants 16, Washington Redskins 7

Since the clock ran down in Super Bowl XLII, the New York Giants' defensive line has been a cauldron of uncertainty. This means that Mathias Kiwanuka should feel right at home. If there's any defender who's had to change his stripes often during his NFL career, it's the 2006 first-round draft pick from Boston College. "Kiwi" had a very interesting rookie season, picking up 53 tackles, 4.0 sacks, two interceptions, and two forced fumbles. However, the play he's still best known for was a "catch-and-release" of Titans quarterback Vince Young, the result of Kiwanuka's oversensitivity to the roughing the passer rule.

In 2007, the Giants made two important defensive moves when Michael Strahan decided to play one final year -- they moved Tuck inside, where he would dominate at defensive tackle, and Kiwanuka was sent to the strong-side linebacker position full-time. The move wasn't completely foreign, as he'd been used as a linebacker in certain packages, and Kiwanuka took to his new role. He also played some end and even tackle in New York's "Four Aces" line, but he missed the team's unbelievable Super Bowl run after breaking his leg in November.

When Michael Strahan retired and Umenyiora was lost for the 2008 season with a torn lateral meniscus, Kiwanuka moved back to the right defensive end position. Tuck took the left side, and the Giants went forward against the Washington Redskins in the NFL's 2008 season opener in the hope that their formidable line wasn't going to spring holes everywhere.

In the opener, the Giants benefited from Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell's tendency to hold on to the ball far too long in the pocket. Campbell has gone through more offensive coordinators than any player should have to, and he's now adjusting to the timing of the Holmgren derivation of the West Coast Offense, as taught by former Seahawks quarterback tutor and new Redskins head coach Jim Zorn. On Washington's first play from scrimmage, Tuck shifted outside a double-team anchored by right tackle Stephon Heyer and brought Campbell down. Campbell had clutched and should have released the ball, which is something that observers of this game would be repeating a lot. Heyer was flagged for a false start on the next play, and that particular sequence of events should tell you everything you need to know about how Tuck will handle the Giants' left defensive end spot.

On to Kiwanuka. The Redskins' first drive ended when Campbell handed off to Clinton Portis on a third-and-20 from their own 17. Portis tried to head left and got a few yards up the gut, but Kiwanuka disengaged from left tackle Chris Samuels and showed good agility in reversing his field and getting the tackle. He showed this ability again when the Skins had second-and 15 from their own 19. The Redskins lined up in an I-formation, and Kiwanuka blew past Samuels only to watch Portis head up right guard on a draw. Kiwanuka stopped on a dime, reversed his course, and took a great angle to help free safety James Butler make the tackle on Portis. It's not uncommon to see a defensive end roll back to playside, but it's not every day you see a defender doing it this quickly. Quick ends will wing it and get within the vicinity of the ballcarrier, but Kiwanuka is very precise.

What Kiwanuka could not find, and this was apparent from the start, was consistent pass rush impact. Part of that was technique -- twice in the first quarter, I saw him come off the ball later than the rest of the front four. Most of it was his proximity to Chris Samuels, who had a whale of a game. Still, Kiwanuka's acumen against the run had me making more notes than I expected. On a tackle of Ladell Betts with 1:23 left in the first quarter, he read the line perfectly and sifted through trash to get to the ballcarrier. I like the way he mixes speed and technique as a run defender.

On the next play, both Kiwanuka and Tuck rolled back into intermediate coverage, and Campbell threw an incompletion. Yet another stalled drive for Washington.

With 10:52 left in the first half and the Redskins at their own 36, Kiwanuka grabbed Chris Cooley's jersey as Cooley went by him in the backfield. Cooley broke away and made the catch, gaining 18 yards. Kiwanuka was flagged for holding on the play. Samuels, who received a penalty of his own for an ineligible downfield pass, was developing more aggressiveness, blasting Kiwanuka with his hands and stopping him on counter plays. This drive ended in a touchdown for the Redskins, and Kiwanuka had few answers for Samuels at this point.

Kiwanuka's best play of the day came with 35 seconds elapsed in the second half. The Redskins had second-and-6 from their own 37, and lined up in I-formation with Antwaan Randle El in motion left to right. At the snap, Samuels pulled inside. Kiwi bounced off Cooley and blew across the line to wrap Portis up two yards behind the line. This brought Kiwanuka's quickness to light again, and illustrated that getting too creative with slide protection without a backside blocker was a mistake.

Kiwanuka followed that play by coming as close to a sack as would get all day, beating Samuels around the edge and just missing Campbell before the pass was released.

After those little victories, Kiwanuka went back to his role as Samuels' chew toy. On a 23-yard Portis run with 10 minutes left in the third quarter, Samuels boxed Kiwanuka outside as Portis read the play and cut inside for a huge gain. In pass protection, Samuels gave a little ground as the game went on, but not enough to threaten his quarterback. I noticed that the Washington line will wear down if you keep going after them when I reviewed a Redskins/Cowboys game last year in preparation to write about Seattle's first-round playoff game. What did I learn today? Mathias Kiwanuka is no DeMarcus Ware.

The play of the day involving Kiwanuka happened in a third-and-5 with 5:20 left in the third quarter. It's too bad this play wasn't a first down for the Redskins, because Portis deserved one. The Redskins lined up single back. Kiwanuka used a rip move to get an edge on Samuels. Portis hurried over and absolutely decleated Kiwanuka. Just a kill shot of a chip, and Kiwi went down like Han Solo in Carbonite.

Of course, Kiwanuka's real concern came on the last play of the game, when Samuels allegedly intended to cut his opponent by grabbing him from behind and falling onto his ankles, basically tackling his lower legs as Kiwanuka went by.

Kiwanuka called it a dirty play, but I don't know that it was anything but a flash reaction. Samuels had an easier time of it with Kiwanuka than I thought he might. Even late in the game, Samuels was walling him off over and over, leaving Campbell with little backside pressure. That subconscious "do whatever you have to" reaction you might expect to see from a lineman getting beaten repeatedly would have been a big stretch.

I'd call this particular game in favor of Samuels by a pretty wide margin (though it was Portis who had the knockout!). Kiwanuka tried rip moves, bull rushes, straight speed, and for the most part, nothing seemed to work. However, Kiwanuka did impress me with his short-area speed and determination on running plays -- the further away he was from Samuels, the better he looked. It will be interesting to see where Kiwanuka is in his development as a pass rusher when the rematch takes place at FedEx Field on November 30.

Dwight Lowery's Big Drive

New York Jets 20, Miami Dolphins 14

True to his past as Bill Belichick's defensive backs coach in New England, Jets head coach Eric Mangini has retooled his new team's secondary since taking the job before the 2006 season. He inherited strong safety Kerry Rhodes, the FO favorite drafted in the fourth round in 2005. However, 2007 first-round pick Darelle Revis was a standout who faced some very tough competition in his rookie season. Then, to complement Revis's physical nature, the Jets selected San Jose State cornerback Dwight Lowery in the fourth round of the 2008 draft.

Lowery gained a reputation as one of the NCAA's top pass defenders in 2006 and 2007, with 13 total interceptions for the Spartans in two years after a time at Camarillo College. In 2007, he was an All-American first-team selection by the American Football Coaches Association despite the broken jaw he suffered in the last spring practice. Lowery had to have his jaw wired shut, and lost 10 pounds.

In his first regular season NFL game, Lowery started at left cornerback when Justin Miller was unable to go because of a toe injury. Revis manned the right side. Lowery played well through the game, trailing Dolphins receiver Greg Camarillo especially well in press coverage, with and without help up top from Rhodes. Sean McCormick and Benjy Rose, our resident Jets fans, thought enough of Lowery's performance to mention him in the 2008 season debut of Audibles at the Line, and I wanted to review two plays that Sean and Benjy mentioned.

The Dolphins were down 20-7 as they started a drive from their own 42-yard line with 12:11 left in the game. Chad Pennington drove his new team against his old one to the Jets' 10-yard line, which is where our story begins. A first-down sack from the 10 put the ball at the New York 16, and Pennington connected over the middle with tight end Anthony Fasano for a 14-yard gain, and third-and goal from the 2.

On the next play, the Dolphins lined up in a left offset-I with three wide. Davone Bess, who was far right outside, motioned presnap to stack behind Greg Camarillo. The Dolphins had used this stack previously in the game to split coverage; I also saw them do it with some success against the Saints in the preseason. Lowery had Bess outside and motioned inside with him. At the snap, Bess headed back outside to the back of the end zone, with Lowery keeping Bess from a free release to the rear right pylon.

As Pennington's throw came in, Lowery got both hands on Bess' chest, but did not obstruct him in any way from catching the ball. The throw was to Lowery's right, and since he had position to the back of the end zone, I give the defender double points for not only batting the ball away, but establishing that position without drawing any sort of contact penalty. Bess simply had nowhere to go.

Fourth-and-goal. Camarillo was Lowery's next matchup in this drive. The Dolphins went goal-line, with Camarillo motioning left to right and angling into the end zone at the snap. Lowery played the ball like a ten-year veteran with first-day legs, cutting in front of Camarillo and batting the ball away once again. The drive was over, as was the game.

Earlier this week, I was talking to Rob Rang, Senior Draft Analyst for Rob's an old friend and an expert whose opinion I trust when it comes to college players. We discussed Lowery, and why he slipped to the fourth round with all his talent. Teams were particularly concerned about Lowery's speed during workouts, but as Rob told me, "he's another one of those kids where all you have to do is turn on the film. You'll know he's a player." Rob also told me that he's seen few defensive backs consistently around the ball more than Lowery during his time at San Jose State. From what I've seen, and the inevitable growing pains aside, Lowery shouldn't have too much trouble taking that ability to the next level.

Why the Bills are Special

Buffalo Bills 34, Seattle Seahawks 10

Special teams coach Bobby April stands tall in the pantheon of assistant coaches with the ability to get their personnel units to perform at a level beyond the norm. As we point out in the Bills chapter of Pro Football Prospectus 2008, most teams see a high degree of variance in special teams from year to year, but Buffalo's consistently high special teams rankings go against that trend. Since 2004, when April came to Buffalo from the St. Louis Rams, the Bills have added to the reliable roster spots taken by punter Brian Moorman, kicker Rian Lindell, and kick returner Terrence McGee. Roscoe Parrish replaced Nate Clements as the team's primary punt returner in 2005, and only Devin Hester provided more value in that capacity in 2007. Cornerback Leodis McKelvin, Buffalo's first-round pick in 2008, finished his first preseason with 360 combined return yards.

The Bills welcomed the Seattle Seahawks into Ralph Wilson Stadium last Sunday, and treated their guests to a special teams tour de force. Buffalo outgained Seattle in net punting average, 40.6 to 30.0. They put up 120 return yards to Seattle's 54, and 20 of the 34 points they scored were direct results of special teams play -- two Lindell field goals, Parrish's 63-yard second quarter punt return, and the real embarrassment for the Seahawks: a 19-yard third quarter touchdown pass on a fake field goal from Moorman to defensive end Ryan Denney. Let's look at Parrish's return, and the fake field goal.

The return touchdown was a real beauty because it showed, in sharp detail, the importance of special teams blocking. The Bills have been known for their technique and intensity in this regard since April came on board. Let's look at that return one moment at a time:

  • Parrish fielded a Ryan Plackemeier punt at the Buffalo 37 and took one step left before heading right to avoid the "cat-on-a-linoleum-floor" tackle attempt of receiver Logan Payne.
  • At the same time, Buffalo's Jon DiGiorgio was blowing up Seattle's Leroy Hill about five yards upfield, giving Parrish the outside lane he wanted. Before Parrish had even hit his own 40-yard line, there were five Buffalo blockers to three Seattle defenders.
  • As Parrish looked to find the edge of his lane at the 50-yard line, Donte Whitner pushed Will Heller out of the play and to the sideline. Meanwhile, Blake Costanzo demolished D.D. Lewis on the backside, and Bryan Scott held up Jeff Robinson enough to let Parrish slip through.
  • Parrish then turned back inside, blowing past David Hawthorne.
  • From there, Plackemeier was the only real obstacle Parrish faced, Game over, because...
  • As Parrish kept going back inside to the numbers at the Seattle 30, he eluded a John Carlson whiff, and spun Darryl Tapp into a whiff of his own. Which led to...
  • Parrish cutting back outside so sharply that it took C.J. Wallace a good five yards to stop going the wrong way. From there, it was all high tide and green grass.

Parrish talked about the play after the game: "When you break a long run like that, you don't want to cut back inside because all of the pursuit is coming from the inside. The guys did a good job of holding their blocks and that's the key thing. I just do whatever I have to do to get off their blocks and get to the end zone."

Well, one team had a plan, For Plackemeier, this would be his last game as a Seahawks player -- he was unceremoniously cut on Tuesday and replaced by ex-Packers punter John Ryan.

As for the fake field goal, with his typically mordant sense of humor, Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren tried to envision a scenario in which an entire field goal coverage unit could be forgiven for missing a 6-foot-7, 264-pound defensive end lining up as a potential receiver. "Unless they slipped him in from the sideline, but that's against the rules."

Denney said after the game that as many times as the play had been rehearsed in practice, "so far I haven't dropped one. We've probably done it six or seven times in practice, and I've been 100 percent."

While the rest of the NFL looks on with admiration (and in some cases, confusion) at April's special teams, the Bills know they'll have the winner's edge in many tight contests, because their front office pays attention to the "little things" that others ignore.


20 comments, Last at 10 Sep 2008, 8:02pm

1 Re: Cover-3: New York State of Mind

I think you mean green grass and high tide?

Man, finding special teams players for the Seahawks has been a joke this year. The Long Snapper they drafted is out, the Punter is gone, Logan Payne sucks. But it's ok, we have two kickers on the roster. I want to take up a poster in another thread on starting a support group with Colts and Steelers fans.

3 Re: Cover-3: New York State of Mind

Re: Dwight Lowery

You would think by now scouts and coaches would try to get beyond 40 dash times and bench presses to determine if a player is a player but every year gems fall thru the cracks of the draft. Hope Lowery keeps it up.

5 Re: Cover-3: New York State of Mind

I think the only times that the Jets and Giants actually go to NY, *ever -- is when they go to Orchard Park to play the Bills.

6 Re: Cover-3: New York State of Mind

i'm not sure where the appropriate place to comment, but this site has the most irritating ads on the internet. i hate having the ad appear and block the article i'm trying to read. do sponsors really think they're doing themselves a favor when they appear in this way? FO, pls fix your business model.

7 Re: Cover-3: New York State of Mind

The Bills don't actually play in the city of Buffalo, either. Ralph Wilson Stadium is in the suburb of Orchard Park, about 10 miles south of the city. (In comparison, Giants Stadium is about 8 miles west of Times Square.)

I think the only times that the Jets and Giants actually go to NY, *ever — is when they go to Orchard Park to play the Bills.

The Jets don't, now that they moved their training camp and practice squads to Florham Park, New Jersey. The Giants still hold their training camp in Albany.

8 Re: Cover-3: New York State of Mind

RE #1:
"I think you mean green grass and high tide?"

Not necessarily. Green Grass and High Tides is the Outlaws song. Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass) is the first Rolling Stones compilation album. I'd imagine Doug could have found a way to work Big Hits into the article to clarify this.

9 Re: Cover-3: New York State of Mind

#8: The Rolling Stones reference is indeed the one intended. The "Big Hits" omission is regrettable.

10 Re: Cover-3: New York State of Mind

I believe you mean “New York” teams, as two of them play in New Jersey.

This would make sense if sports teams were generally named after the state in which they play rather than the metropolitan area with which they are associated.

Great article, by the way.

11 Re: Cover-3: New York State of Mind

The article says: "Cooley broke away and made the catch, gaining 18 yards." Cooley had one catch for 7 yards in the game.

12 Re: Cover-3: New York State of Mind

#11: Offsetting penalties negated that play.

(10:52) 17-J.Campbell pass short left to 47-C.Cooley to NYG 46 for 18 yards (37-J.Butler). Penalty on NYG-97-M.Kiwanuka, Defensive Holding, offsetting, enforced at WAS 36 - No Play. Penalty on WAS-60-C.Samuels, Ineligible Downfield Pass, offsetting.

13 Re: Cover-3: New York State of Mind

I saw a very unusual play in the Giants Washington game where the Giants pulled their right guard over to the B-gap on the left hand side of the line. It was a passing play with no run fake but it froze the washington pass rush and gave Elisha lots of time to throw (though he had all day to throw for most of the game). I think I've recalled the play correctly and if so I don't think I've seen that trick used on a pass play before. It worked so I think we'll see it again but it's a pretty brave call.

14 Re: Cover-3: New York State of Mind

Karl Cuba: In the GB/Min game, GB ran what was originally supposed to be a quick slant play with trap blocking on the line. Rogers and Driver made a sight adjustment and it turned into a beautiful pass and catch on a fly pattern, which was called back because the guard was illegally down field. The quick slant would've been completed fast enough that there wouldn't have been a penalty, but the deep pass took too much time. So there's another example of a pass play using run blocking. I thought it was very interesting.

15 Re: Cover-3: New York State of Mind

I remember reading that Bill Walsh first used that trick to deal with LT, but it opened up the interior pass rush so much that it to be used sparingly.

16 Re: Cover-3: New York State of Mind

How do you not mention Samuel's 2 holding penalties? Chris had to hold or he gives up two sacks. If Samuels was doing such a great job, why bother chip blocking Kiwi for him? Portis(3.7 YPC) and the Washington run game was a non factor. The 10:52 drive mentioned did not end in a TD. It was a 3 and out, so close. Washinton's TD came after a kickoff to the 50 and a phantom face mask call. Did you watch the game?

17 Re: Cover-3: New York State of Mind

Re 14: Led: I thought that Jaws did a pretty good job on that play. It was called as a run but Rodgers spotted Winfield was giving a big cushion to Driver and called the quick slant. Winfield saw all of this and actually made a very heads-up play by jumping the slant. He knew that on any route longer than a quick pass the linemen would be caught downfield.

Re 15: I can understand why it would play havoc with your interior pass protection, that's why I described it as a brave call. If your RT and center can't deal with the LDT and the LE then you are screwed. What you are describing with the niners sounds more like Walsh was trying to find a way to double LT while still being able to operate his beloved 5-route offense. I still don't think that's the same as the play the Giants ran or at least the Giants had different motives for a similar play.

18 Re: Cover-3: New York State of Mind

#16 -- You are correct. The drive that began at 2:00 produced the touchdown. That was my error. I inadvertently deleted some play-by-play info between the two drives in a stretch where I didn't have notes, and misread the data when I wrote that part. I did watch the game, and I did mention Kiwanuka's ability to stop the run, and I did mention Samuels' "tackle" at the end. It wasn't as if Portis was chipping all the time, but the one particular play was worth mentioning.

In any case, thanks for the correction on the TD drive.

19 Re: Cover-3: New York State of Mind

Not sure where to post this, but you can't access the 2007 team stats on the site. It just brings you back to 2008. Must be a glitch somewhere.

20 Re: Cover-3: New York State of Mind

You bring up Campbell having to adjust to new offenses, what about Kiwi being asked to play DE last week when his buddy Osi got hurt? He lifted, conditioned, and practiced all year to play SAM LB, and then was just asked to shift on down to end.

The NY Giants play in NJ, but the Wash Redskins play in Landover Maryland.

Kiwi played the run well, he forced 2 penalties, had chip blocks, and should have sacked Campbell on the last play of the game. The came " could have ended" on a Campbell sack, if Samuels didn't commit the infraction. Kiwi beating him on the inital burst, virtually ended the game. You might not think it was a dirty play, but the refs flagged him and he doesn't want to be hit below the knees because of his injury last year.

The Roscoe Parrish run was fantastic. Not only was him gliding through the defense a work of art, but the blocking by his 10 teammates was fantastic. Credit Tony Boselli doing the game with pointint that out right away. Parrish ran well, but his guys were real physical blocking, following him, staying with their blocks, and making new ones. You could tell the coaching staff told the guys to " stay with their blocks", because all of the Bills were doing so. The short drives by both sides and the early "punt wars" were just asking Parrish to take over and were a heavy advantage for the Bills.