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Cover-3: Highway Stars

Cover-3: Highway Stars
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Doug Farrar

Detroit's First Big Drive
Washington Redskins 14 at Detroit Lions 19
September 27, 2009

Through Week 4 of the 2009 season, there have been 10 drives of at least 92 yards. If I asked you to name the one team with two drives in that Top 10 (without looking at the title above), I suspect it would be a while before I'd hear the right name. Give up? It's the Detroit Lions, with a 99-yard touchdown drive in Week 3 against the Washington Redskins in the victory that broke their long winless streak, and a 98-yarder for a score last Sunday against the Bears. Against the Redskins, Detroit actually put together three scoring drives in the first half (hey, it's impressive for them!): 69, 89, and 98 yards resulting in two field goals and a touchdown. This was a neat trick against the defense with the most three-and-outs in 2008 (32.7 percent). Except for one thing: that isn't the Redskins' defense anymore.

Through four weeks, Washington ranks 17th in Defensive DVOA on third and fourth down (9.5 percent) after finishing seventh in that category last season (-12.3 percent), despite the additions of Brian Orakpo and Albert Haynesworth. They’ve allowed 42.9 of their opponents' third-down conversions in 2009 after only 35.6 last year, and the unlikely Lions were ready to take advantage.

The Lions' longest drive actually began with Clinton Portis's failed fourth-and-goal rushing attempt, where he ran right into a Detroit overload with 7:10 left in the first quarter. The first five subsequent Detroit yards were gifted due to an encroachment penalty on defensive tackle Kedrick Golston. On first-and-5 from the six-yard line, Matt Stafford gave a little play fake to running back Kevin Smith, and hit Smith right up the middle for a four-yard gain as Washington's outside linebackers cleared the zone by backing up into deeper coverage. This left the Lions about one inch short of a first down, and fullback Jerome Felton took care of that on the next play by bulling up the middle for 2 yards. The Redskins had seven in the box with safety Chris Horton cheating up outside left end, but Felton found a small alley behind center Dominic Raiola and left guard Manuel Ramirez and got the first down.

On first-and-10 from their own 12, the Lions went shotgun, three-wide with a delay to Smith as the Redskins brought four and hung back. Ramirez and right guard Stephen Peterman split Golston and fellow defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin with one-on-one blocking as Raiola headed to the second level to take linebacker London Fletcher, who was playing a good eight yards back from the line of scrimmage. New offensive line coach George Yarno has taken Jim Colletto's zone schemes to the recycling bin, and the Lions seem to be gaining the benefit of a more powerful approach up front. Smith gained seven on the run. The Redskins got a bit back on the next play, with six at the line and the 'backers three yards back. Horton trailed Smith outside left out of an I-formation for a loss of three. Unfortunately for the Redskins, Albert Haynesworth flew into the line a bit early, which erased the loss and gave Detroit a first down at their own 24.

In past Detroit seasons, the next two plays would have doomed the drive and the game. Stafford threw two incompletions -- first, a ball down the middle of the field about 3 feet above tight end Brandon Pettigrew's head, then a flat-out drop by Bryant Johnson on a quick in from wide left. But on third-and-10, Stafford threw an absolute bullet to Dennis Northcutt at the right sideline for a 20-yard gain. It's on plays like this where you see that the Stafford arm is all it's cracked up to be; he can gun it downfield with all the effort other quarterbacks use on a three-yard swing pass. From their own 44, the Lions went back to the running game, and Smith bounced outside left for five yards as Washington brought four and their compadres behind them hung back in read-and-react mode. If I didn't know better, I'd say someone had kidnapped the Greg Blache who sent as many blitzes as any defensive coordinator in 2008. The Redskins were playing defense on this drive as if they were waiting for a figurative bomb to go off. Of course, that's usually when a figurative bomb does exactly that.

Figure 1: Morris Screen

Second-and-5 from his 49, and Stafford executed a nice play fake/screen combo to running back Maurice Morris (Fig. 1). I really liked the way the Lions set this up using the previous run to the left. The fake brought linebacker H.B. Blades up into pursuit, where Ramirez peeled off and took Blades out of the play to the left. Meanwhile, Raiola and Peterman were free to create havoc at the second level. Morris shot outside left for 12 yards (leading to my most recent expletive-filled tirade directed at Seahawks team president Tim Ruskell), and Detroit was in business at the Washington 39. A near-sack and incompletion came next, as Andre Carter beat Jeff Backus just as Stafford threw downfield to Bryant Johnson, and then another Smith run for six, a delay out of an offset-I versus Washington's four-man front.

Here, another play that would have doomed last year's Lions -- this came on third-and-4 from Washington's 33. Rolling right with three Redskins after him, Stafford threw a great pass that was dropped by tight end Will Heller. Add an offensive pass interference call on tight end Casey Fitzsimmons (blocking on the other side of the field?), and it was now third-and-13 from the Washington 44. But Stafford wasn't going down. Literally. Taking the ball out of a shotgun, split-back set, Stafford ducked under a potential Haynesworth bear hug, saw nothing downfield, and tucked the ball in for a run. And maybe this is why Blache didn't blitz a lot in the early parts of this drive -- Washington brought seven to the line and left a huge hole in the middle of the field, which Stafford was only too happy to exploit. With the corners playing under, nobody had position to tackle Stafford until Horton came down and caught up with him at the 21. Then, the simple fade left, with Bryant Johnson out-jumping Carlos Rogers in the end zone, for the score.

The more I watched Detroit's offense, the more I became convinced that new head coach Jim Schwartz is presiding over the emergent aspects of actual competitiveness in the Motor City. The question was what the Lions could do for an encore. For one half in Chicago, they responded convincingly.

Detroit's Second Big Drive
Detroit Lions 24 at Chicago Bears 48
October 4, 2009

The 98-yarder against the Bears began with 4:51 left in the first half, and the touchdown tied the game at 21. The Lions started so deep because Chicago punter Brad Maynard put them in a deep freeze with a 47-yard punt out of bounds at the 2 ... ah, those Chicago special teams. There were no defensive penalties to start things off with breathing room this time, and Stafford began with a long pass to Calvin Johnson, overthrowing him and the two Bears defenders covering him at the Chicago 45 by a good five yards. Again with the arm -- if this kid ever gets a GPS unit attached to it, watch out. Smith got three yards out of a blast left on second-and-10, and the unfazed Stafford earned his wings with a gorgeous sideline throw to Megatron down the left side that covered 29 yards. Stafford didn't like what he first saw at the line with an I-formation, called time out, talked to offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, and came back with the shotgun throw. The pass was low and on a line just over the outstretched hands of cornerback Zack Bowman.

Still, this is an embryonic offense -- Raiola was busted for a false start on first-and-10, which put the ball back at the Detroit 29. Stafford lined up shotgun again, with the Bears playing a tight Cover-2. He pitched outside right to Smith, and right tackle Gosder Cherilus hit the second level on an end pull and executed a great block on linebacker Nick Roach to seal the edge and give Smith the outside advantage for an 11-yard gain. Then, out of an offset-I and Megatron motioning inside from wide left, Stafford play-faked to Smith. With the screen option to his right, Stafford responded to pocket pressure by exploiting the area left open by Johnson's clearout slant. There were literally no Bears defenders on the left side of the field, so Stafford turned that way and picked up 17 rushing yards before heading out of bounds. He's not the most mobile guy, but his functional foot speed is good enough to get him out of trouble and create positive gains at times. Then, a quick crossing tight end screen to Brandon Pettigrew, which the big rookie extended for 28 total yards down to the Chicago 15 behind several outstanding downfield blocks. This is where franchise turnarounds begin -- with simple fundamentals.

Another pitch right to Smith, with Felton blasting the way, for four yards. After an incompletion to Heller, Stafford faced third-and-6 from the Chicago 11. He took the ball out of shotgun, three-wide, and threw another hummer -- this time to Pettigrew on a short up for eight yards, and first-and-goal from the 3. Then, the drive concluded with another of those delays to Smith, and Smith bulled up the middle for the score.

The Lions' remaining flaws arrived in the second half in a big way, and the score reflected that. According to Schwartz, the Bears switched from frequent "under" coverage and stacking the box to more of a vanilla Cover-2 to take away the Stafford-to-Megatron threat, and the running game couldn't capitalize. Smith gained 14 yards on 12 carries in the first half when the defense was keyed on the run, and 16 yards on seven carries against a more balanced defense. Raiola told the Detroit News that the team was often "one block away from getting it to the safety and we didn't do it," The Lions were outscored 27-3 in the second half and went three-and-out four straight times in the third quarter. They're showing flashes of what they will be, undercut as they sometimes are by the hangovers of past personnel failures. But Schwartz and the new-look Lions are on to something, and it will be interesting to see it develop over time.

More Bailey Than Witten?
Dallas Cowboys 10 at Denver Broncos 17
October 4, 2009

Putting your players in the best positions to succeed? It's Football 101. It's elementary. So, when the Dallas Cowboys targeted cornerback Champ Bailey 16 times in their loss to Denver, one had to wonder what quarterback Tony Romo and ex-wunderkind offensive coordinator Jason Garrett were thinking. Targets are often based on play reads as opposed to play calls, so it's reasonable to assume that as great as Bailey has been, Romo saw something on many of those pass plays. The plays I wanted to review were the Cowboys' final two -- with Dallas down 17-10, they had third-and-goal and fourth-and-goal from Denver's two-yard line after driving 78 yards in less than two minutes.

Bailey targets aside, the real question about Dallas' offensive thought process down the stretch had to do with the use and placement of tight end Jason Witten on those final two plays. Romo was especially jittery in the second half, missing open receivers and displaying decreasing efficiency. After going 14 of 18 for 134 yards in the first half, Romo bottomed out with 11 completions in 24 attempts for a JaMarcus-esque 121 yards and a pick. Romo finally got it together on that last drive: dropping shorter passes in, converting a fourth-and-3 along the way with a floater under pressure to Sam Hurd, and letting his receivers help him drive downfield -- until that third-and-goal with nine seconds left in the game.

The Cowboys went three-wide, shotgun single-back, and the Broncos played all eleven defenders at the line of scrimmage. Witten was on the far right, blocking an overload. At the snap, Witten engaged end Elvis Dumervil inside, while running back Tashard Choice took the edge defenders Brian Dawkins and Wesley Woodyard out with an awesome cut block. At the same time, Hurd turned from right to left, hitting the middle of the end zone, with Bailey draped all over him. Bailey broke up the pass as Hurd went for it. Back near the line of scrimmage, it seemd to me that with the left side of Denver's defense blitzing as they were, Witten could have released off the Dumervil block and been an easy target with just enough time for Romo to make the throw. The next play, another Witten block, would indicate if the idea was really to keep Romo's best target out of the picture.

Both teams went with similar formations on fourth-and-goal, with Bailey playing a couple yards off Hurd this time. Witten was set to block the overload right again. Witten took the exact same block inside on Dumervil, as Choice came up out of shotgun to block the outside rush. This time, just to ensure that Witten didn't release up the middle, Woodyard stayed in to chip with Dumervil before releasing to Romo. Again, Bailey baited Romo by giving Hurd the inside release in the end zone. Again, Romo fell for it. Again, Bailey batted the ball away. Given the quick timing of short end-zone throws, these are plays that only the best defensive backs should even dream of trying, but Bailey knew what he was doing.

As for the play calls, I'm more inclined to call out the Cowboys for not throwing to Witten on those two final plays than I am for their decision to target Bailey. Taking half the field out of the equation is an iffy proposition when your quarterback has a case of the shakes and a lack of elite receivers. With all the talk about Jim Zorn's supposedly imminent termination in Washington, would Zorn call two goal-line square-ins to Malcolm Kelly and keep Chris Cooley in to block? Maybe the Redskins aren't the only NFC East team in need of "another set of eyes."


13 comments, Last at 12 Oct 2009, 11:33am

1 Re: Cover-3: Highway Stars

Nice writeup. One question, as I didn't see the game. Did Dallas have timeouts at the end, and if so, did they use any before the 3rd or 4th down call?

3 Re: Cover-3: Highway Stars

Not having Witten in the route is ridiculous. You've got a Pro Bowl TE blocking with two undrafted WRs as your only options? Give me a break. Martellus Bennett can block well enough if you really want to get a TE blocking in there. Witten should've been the target of both those passes, not Hurd.

Not only is Witten a more reliable option, but he also has the resume to get a call if the defender drapes all over him, as Champ did Hurd. Hurd will never get that call. Ever. Put yourself in the best situation to both score and get a call to go your way if there's anything fishy.

Garrett dropped the ball big time on that one. Also, why not have Choice go out on a delayed wheel or screen?

4 Re: Cover-3: Highway Stars

Any delayed route to Choice would have left the edge unblocked (Choice's block on third down was really great -- one more reason I like him so much as a player), and I dont think there would have been time to complete the pattern either way. But for Witten not to release on one of those two plays seemed really weird. Romo had hands up over the middle on third-and-goal, but that's still a makeable throw.

6 Re: Cover-3: Highway Stars

Also, rumor is that Romo thought fourth down was third down. In the replays, you can see him trying to get people lined up for the play on fifth down. Who knows if Garrett was also confused.

11 Re: Cover-3: Highway Stars

The story is that Romo knew it was 4th down, but was wondering why the down indicator on the sideline still said '3'. Turns out they were flipping the numbers bak from 4 to1, and he happened to look when it was at 3

7 Re: Cover-3: Highway Stars

The even more frustrating thing that happened on both of these plays is that Miles Austin beat his man both times and was wide open in the endzone. Dallas ties this game up if Romo bothers to look to his left at all. I know hindsight vision is 20/20, but it was amazing how open he was compared to Sam Hurd.

8 Re: Cover-3: Highway Stars

I think the problem is Sam Hurd looked just as open as Austin; they both got inside position on a slant route, which is what you're supposed to look for. Hurd's route was shorter, and so it was probably the first read. The problem is that a 31 year-old Champ Bailey is still pretty friggin' awesome. There's also the question of whether Patrick Crayton could have gotten out-of-bounds on 1st down, or if Hurd should have conserved a timeout by running out-of-bounds on the long play.

All told, it might not have been the best sequence of events for Dallas, but it wasn't unreasonable in the circumstances.

9 Re: Cover-3: Highway Stars

Agreed. ESPN keeps freezing the replay when Champ is making the play on the ball and saying "hey look how open Austin is". Really, you need to freeze the shot before Romo begins his throw; that's when he is making his decision. Well, in theory. This is a really fast-developing play in which Romo does not have the luxury of spending a lot of time looking around. He might have had a pre-snap bias as to which target he wanted. At any rate, when Romo begins his throw, Hurd is as open as anybody.

10 Re: Cover-3: Highway Stars

All fair, but if you're going to have a pre-snap bias as to which slanting receiver you're going to target, would you not be inclined to choose the one who's not covered by Champ Bailey. Don't get me wrong - I think Romo played the worst game I've ever seen from him (and I've never been as high on him as some), but I don't think these two passes were very high on his list of mistakes.

13 Re: Cover-3: Highway Stars

Don't forget Zorn's decision to accept the PI call on Fitzsimmons ... an interesting decision, but I don't think I agree with Billick (the color man for the game) that a field goal was automatic. I mean, Hanson's a great kicker (how many kickers have other teams had in the last 30 years? the Lions have had exactly two), but he's aging and apparently not 100%, and it would have been a 50-yard attempt.

Anyway, from what I've charted so far, there's no question that the Lions' offense is much better than it was last season. I think it's a great example of how significant improvement rarely comes from a single change. New QB (two replacement-level QBs instead of Culpepper and oh no), new RBs (so Smith has quality backups), new WRs (although if Megatron is out, it's still going to be a problem), new TE (Pettigrew > Heller + Fitzsimmons), new head coach, new coordinator, new OLs (even if they just provide guidance).

They've got a ways to go, but it's great to see Detroit able to run on teams like Minnesota and Pittsburgh, great to see protection that gives Stafford and Culpepper time to hit receivers ...