Cover-3: From Out of Nowhere
by Doug Farrar
Cincinnati's Offensive Line
Baltimore Ravens 7 at Cincinnati Bengals 17
The Bengals will run some effective zone concepts; blasting a guard or two upfield to help with the second level. They’ll also send linemen pulling in space and go with straight man-on-man drive-blocking. However, the fact that they ranked at or near the bottom of the league in every blocking stat we tabulate implies that perhaps they should pick a method and stick with it.
That's what I wrote about the Cincinnati offensive line in a preseason analysis of all 32 NFL lines. That Bengals 2008 line was simply rancid, finishing last in the NFL in Adjusted Line Yards and Stuffed rank, 31st in 10+ Yards, and 30th in Power Success. As we said in the Football Outsiders Almanac, the Bengals' line may have been the single worst unit in the league last season. As we also said in this year's Almanac, teams spending at least 1200 points on the Draft Value Chart on the offensive line in the draft tend to see a significant improvement in Offensive DVOA. The Bengals selected Andre Smith with the sixth overall pick, but he hasn't played a down this season due to an extended contract holdout, weight issues, and a foot injury. When Smith is ready, the team will risk upsetting the continuity of what has become one of the NFL's surprise tales of 2009. Absent their marquee pick, Cincinnati's put together a line that is primed for the power running of Cedric Benson, and the explosive passing game led by Carson Palmer, and they did it with relative no-names and patch jobs. The Bengals have moved up to 17th in ALY, 11th in Power and Stuffed, and 20th in 10+ Yards.
I asked Rob Weintraub, FO's reigning Bengals fan, about the reasons for the upswing in performance:
"There are several factors, first and foremost being a massive upgrade in attitude and cohesiveness. Cincy made a major push toward accentuating the power running game -- part of an overall trend toward upping the physicality of the team, a much-needed quality in the AFC North. Kyle Cook at center is a massive upgrade over Eric Ghiacuic, who was shoved backwards on a consistent basis. Andrew Whitworth is a natural guard, but he stepped in last year when Levi Jones proved immobile, and was a work in progress. Now he is a solid left tackle.
"The Bengals frequently use six-man lines, with Dennis Roland coming in as a third tackle. Roland was so good in that role he has taken the starting right tackle job from Anthony Collins. His improvement on a technical level has been amazing. The injury in the preseason to tight end Ben Utecht was something of a blessing in disguise. Utecht was a blocking liability. Now J.P. Foschi and Daniel Coats are the tight ends. They add punch to the run game and wind up staying in to block in many passing sets -- fortunately, the Bengals have good receivers that can get open without tight ends influencing the safeties. And don't underestimate the impact of fullback Jeremi Johnson -- out all last year with an injury, which forced Coats to play fullback. Johnson is no longer a receiving threat, but he can hammer linebackers.
"And lest we forget a certain number-one pick who has yet to hit the field ..."
The Bengals mirrored Baltimore's predilection for unbalanced and reinforced lines from their first play from scrimmage. On a Cedric Benson run up the middle for a one-yard loss, Whitworth lined up outside Collins, and Roland outside Whitworth. The Ravens brought five to the line for the first time three plays later, as the Bengals had first-and-10 from their own 39. Out of an I-formation, Cincy's line executed a nice zone slide as Palmer handed off to Benson. As Whitworth rode the right end out of the play and Cook slid over to take Kelly Gregg, both guards -- Even Mathis and Bobbie Williams -- took to the second level to deal with Ray Lewis. Jeremi Johnson rambled out left to take linebacker Tavares Gooden out as Benson headed left, and Benson was able to jump out of the scrum to gain 12 yards before he was tackled by Domonique Foxworth and Dawan Landry in the secondary. The Bengals could execute power runs against the third-best defense in Adjusted Line Yards, and they weren't done proving it. Whitworth headed back to the right side on the next play, with Foschi motioning to the left as an H-back in an intriguing max-protect concept, but an awkward handoff from Palmer to Benson negated any potential positive gain.
As far as pass protection, It was the little things they did that impressed me on the first drive -- sliding left in run looks so that Palmer could roll out right, and leaving the tight end to take care of any leaking defenders, or using Benson to take care of the extra man on an overload. These sound like very basic concepts, but when you're recovering from having the worst line in football, they show up on tape as graphic improvements. Where the pass blocking really showed up in the stats was when the Ravens blitzed and went away from their more successful zone coverage. The defensive pass interference penalty on Fabian Washington with 4:31 left in the first quarter was a perfect example.
The Bengals went for it on fourth-and-2 from the Baltimore 39, lining up in shotgun, single-back. The Ravens brought five to the line and added Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe on a dual A-gap blitz. This particular blitz is a featured component of the Baltimore defense -- Rex Ryan brought it to New York and has Bart Scott and David Harris doing it all the time -- but it was dampened on this play by some very strong pass-blocking. As Lewis and Ellerbe hit the line, Cook and Mathis moved right to win the leverage advantage, wiping both 'backers out of the play. At the same time, Whitworth was busy negating Trevor Pryce, and the slide worked again. Palmer moved slightly back and to his left, and had a completely clean pocket. The Bengals had three receivers to the right, forcing man-on-man matchups, and Washington had two choices as Chad Ochocinco blew right by him on a stutter-go -- either hand-check like crazy, or wave bye-bye. The penalty put the Bengals at the Baltimore 15, but it was the pass protection that forced the issue for the Ravens. Stripped of their ability to bring consistent pressure with fewer defenders, they had to compromise with their iffy man coverage abilities.
Cincinnati was also creative with extra blockers, using a lot of tight end or fullback motion to H-back to add power in running plays. The Ravens learned that blitzing this Bengals team was an open invitation for Benson to gash them for more yardage. With 4:26 left in the first half and the ball on their own 46, the Bengals went single-back, with Jeremi Johnson motioning from outside right to left H-back pre-snap. Baltimore had a straight 5-2-4 with off coverage. Lewis and Landry started for the center just as soon as Johnson settled two yards behind Whitworth. At the snap, Mathis pushed Lewis out to the right because Cook was able to hand Gregg off and out of the play. Benson had a perfect lane when he got the ball, as Whitworth drove Pryce out to the left and Foschi rode Jarret Johnson out the same way. Benson hit the gas down that particular highway for a 15-yard gain.
It's typical to think of teams with great passing games and previously ineffective power blocking as "finesse", but any opponent harboring that assumption about the current Bengals is making a very big mistake. This is as much a power team as any AFC North bully could be, with its stacked lines and inside running, and the schematic variations tell the story of a line with great confidence and continuity. If the Bengals capitalize on their hot start down the stretch, the line will be a major factor -- with or without Andre Smith.
Pat White's Pistol
Miami Dolphins 17 At New England Patriots 27
When the Miami Dolphins traded a fifth-round pick to the Kansas City Chiefs for quarterback Tyler Thigpen in late September, it didn't make a dent in the NFL landscape, except to those connoisseurs of interesting offensive formations. In 2008, the Coastal Carolina alum ran 359 of his 420 snaps from the shotgun formation for Kansas City, an extreme 85 percent, even for a league heading more to the shotgun every year. Kansas City's offensive ace in the hole last season was the Pistol formation, which offensive coordinator Chan Gailey superimposed on his struggling offense. Invented by Chris Ault of the Nevada Wolfpack, the Pistol is a short shotgun formation with a halfback behind the quarterback and an H-back or blocking fullback outside. It's an interesting way to apply wide-open concepts without losing the blocking stability that is so necessary in the NFL.
The Pistol worked for Thigpen, but the Dolphins were still looking for something that worked with second-round pick Pat White, the West Virginia quarterback expected to bring the missing aerial component to Miami's Wildcat packages. Through the first eight weeks of the season, White had been muted, gaining two yards on four carries and overthrowing Ted Ginn on his one NFL pass attempt. He looked slow and out of sync in his attempts in the Wildcat formations, and between his struggles and the Eagles' misbegotten trickery with Michael Vick, it's becoming more and more evident that the Wildcat is a timing- and power-based formation; despite the disparaging comments of those who call it an elementary single-wing offshoot, the moving parts still have to work.
Finally, against the Patriots and with the Pistol, the Dolphins solved the riddle of getting White involved in the offense. His first Pistol look came with 8:23 left in the first half and the Dolphins with second-and-8 on their own 22 after a direct snap to Ronnie Brown up the middle netted two yards. White was lined up in a short shotgun at the 17 with fullback Lousaka Polite about a yard to his left and Williams four yards behind him. At the snap, linebacker Tully Banta-Cain immediately overpursued into the backfield, allowing Polite to maintain his blocking momentum with safety Brandon McGowan downfield. Tight end Anthony Fasano helped chip Vince Wilfork inside, then broke off to deal with linebacker Gary Guyton. Left guard Justin Smiley pulled outside left tackle Jake Long to help downfield, and White was off to the races. He hit the hole created by Banta-Cain, ran past Guyton, and then past McGowan as he was handed off between Polite and Smiley.
Five plays after White's 33-yard gain, the Dolphins went back to the Pistol, with similar success. With Polite to the right this time, White took the ball and waited for Adalius Thomas to tip his hand. Once Thomas stepped inside to pursue, White pitched outside to Williams, who ran free for a 15-yard touchdown. Though the formation was different, this play brought to mind the simple, but brutally effective, option plays run by the Falcons back in the Dunn/Vick/Duckett days. Again, the downfield blocking was outstanding -- Polite cruised upfield and blocked McGowan, with Smiley not far behind. As with the original Wildcat last year, the Pistol runs worked because of good blocking matched the element of surprise.
I wrote about the Thigpen Pistol last year, and I'm even more impressed with Miami's implementation because Miami understands the value of downfield blocking in their option concepts. I would love to know how much of a factor Thigpen has been in practice and how involved he has been -- my sense is that this is one of the better recent examples of acquiring a player simply for his knowledge of a particular system. The question going forward is how, or if, the Dolphins will use these new looks and merge them with what they're already known for. It would be simple enough to counteract the rolling and blitzing defensive backs Miami's faced in the last few weeks with a motion to Pistol, allowing different directional and blocking ideas to stump the defenses who believe they have the Wildcat solved.
Colts cornerback Jerraud Powers
Houston Texans 17 At Indianapolis Colts 20
NFLDraftScout.com had Auburn's Jerraud Powers as one of the most underrated cornerbacks going into the 2009 draft. The 5-9, 188-pound two-year starter declared after his junior season and was selected in the third round by the Colts. It was estimated that with a strong preseason, Powers could contend for the nickel cornerback slot, but his performance had the Colts upping the ante. When the Jacksonville Jaguars came to Lucas Oil Stadium on opening week, Powers was starting at right cornerback, the first rookie defensive back to do so for the Colts since Ashley Ambrose in 1992. Going up against Torry Holt, Powers had four tackles and two passes defensed in his debut.
After missing the Week 2 matchup with the Dolphins with a groin injury, Powers was back in the lineup versus the Cardinals in Week 3. Going forward, Powers became more important to the team as veteran defensive backs started going down with injuries. In the week before the Colts faced the Texans, safety Bob Sanders and cornerback Marlin Jackson were lost for the year, and cornerback Kelvin Hayden would be out for up to a month.
Although they were without tight end Owen Daniels, the Texans have a passing offense capable as any in the league of bedeviling opposing defenses. Colts head coach Jim Caldwell wasn't worried about Powers' ability to match up, recently saying that Powers is "wise beyond his years. He plays like a much older guy. He doesn't play like a rookie." This was evident when he picked off a Matt Schaub pass with 6:11 left in the first quarter. The Texans were at their own 28 and Powers played Andre Johnson wide left at the line in a pretty standard two-deep look. Johnson took the inside position and ran an 18-yard comeback, but Powers snuck inside and jumped the route for the pick. This is an impressive young player. He sees the field well, has good physicality at the line for his size, good agility in space, and understands his roles and responsibilities.
Colts president Bill Polian is one of the all-time greats when it comes to sensing team needs and acting in a proactive fashion to address them. It appears that he has a real find in Powers.