Cover-3: The Past is Prologue

Cover-3: The Past is Prologue
Cover-3: The Past is Prologue
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Moss vs. Revis
New York Jets 14 at New England Patriots 31

Last time the Jets and Patriots met before last Sunday's game, it was Week 2, and both teams were in very different places. The Jets were riding high on Rex Ryan's defensive schemes and Mark Sanchez's semi-prodigious NFL debut. The Patriots were still putting everything together with several new defensive pieces and the small matter of getting Tom Brady comfortable in the pocket and synced up with Randy Moss again. Wes Welker missed that game with a knee injury, and Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis shut Moss down, a trend that Revis has extended through the season against some of the NFL's best receivers. Without Welker in the first game, Brady found understudy Julian Edelman for eight receptions, and Moss for four catches in eight targets for 24 yards.

Now, the Jets are in free-fall as their defense (Revis very much excepted) has struggled. Sanchez hit the rookie wall at about 100 miles per hour against the Pats in the rematch, throwing four picks and looking completely lost on the field, from his reads to pocket presence. The Jets have lost six of their last seven games after starting the season 3-0, and they're 1-5 since acquiring Braylon Edwards (Somebody alert Gregg Easterbrook! There's another receiver curse!). Meanwhile, the Pats look very much like you'd expect -- back on top in DVOA and winners of four of their last five games. The Brady-Moss combo is what we thought it was again, but there were no guarantees when Moss and Revis went at it for the second time.

The face-off started with 13:43 left in the first quarter, and the Patriots with third-and-3 at their own 34. Revis had Moss tight at the line, and Brady threw to Moss out of a stutter-go look with Moss on outside position. Safety Jim Leonhard was rolling right from a single-high position, but the deflection was all Revis. Moss hit the brakes at the 50 and gave Revis a little push, but Revis recovered to deflect. He used the inside position to his advantage, and he would not allow Moss to take him out of the coverage area. New England's first drive ended with a three-and-out.

Fast-forward to New England's second drive, and 9:40 left in the first quarter. The Pats had first-and-10 at the Jets' 47. Brady took the shotgun snap and handed to Laurence Maroney, who pitched the ball back to Brady on a flea-flicker. This insured late breaks in coverage for the Jets' defense and no help for Revis, and Moss took off down the left side with Revis in hot pursuit. Brady overthrew the ball deep, but because Revis was right on the spot, the only throw that would have worked was the standard bomb a foot over Moss' head. The most impressive aspect of Revis' coverage on this play was that at the snap, Moss faked a block and then turned on the jets to the outside. Within one step, Revis was right on him and never lost contain. I don't know that there's a receiver in this league with the ability to lose Revis one-on-one without running some kind of pick -- he's much too quick and his acceleration is exceptional.

On New England's third drive, Brady fired another one off to Moss on second-and-8 from the Jets' 46 with 2:24 left in the first quarter. In a shotgun, no-huddle -- the most favorable set-up for Brady's offense -- and a single-safety look for the Jets, Revis now trailed Moss down the right sideline. Moss with the outside stutter-go again (more like a jab-step-and-go), and a great throw by Brady to line up with Moss at about the New York 22-yard line. Revis, however, used his inside position and amazing speed to exceed Moss' line and bat the ball away. Again, no rolled coverage, and no safety help.

Five plays later, and after two completions to Wes Welker, it was back to Moss from the New York nine-yard line with six seconds left in the first quarter. Brady threw incomplete to Moss in the end zone, but this was the result of a busted play. Brady rolled out left and fired over Moss' head with safety Kerry Rhodes in front of Moss. The holding penalty on linebacker David Harris gave the Pats one more play in the first quarter. On this play, Brady threw a quick screen left out of a power formation and Revis playing off at the goal line. Brady and Moss may have caught Revis looking for the run play, and the zip of a pass gave Moss his first catch of the day against Revis, and New England's first offensive touchdown of the season against the Jets.

Moss was targeted again with 13:05 left in the first half, and back on the left side. This time, the Pats took the deep ball out of the equation and had Moss run a quick outside comeback at the first-down marker on second-and-6 from the New England 45. The game plan now was to get Moss in front of Revis and take away the downfield deflection. Two plays later, Moss went in motion away from Revis from right to left, and Brady overthrew him on a quick out with Drew Coleman covering. It was interesting to me that the Jets didn't seem to want Revis following Moss wherever he went -- they just handed the coverage off in their mid zone, from Revis to Coleman.

With 9:19 left in the first half, Moss and Welker ran a quick cross at the line of scrimmage out of a shotgun, four-wide set with Moss staying closer to home and drawing Coleman's coverage. Welker went inside from outside deep and took Revis with him. Moss caught another pass underneath for five yards. And when it came to the strategy with Moss for the rest of the game, it was pretty much underneath the rest of the way. Moss didn't have a completed target in his direction longer than 13 yards, he was targeted 11 times overall, and he caught five of those passes -- just two more than Leigh Bodden caught from Sanchez.

Welker may have had his greatest day on a football field with 15 catches for 192 yards, but he should credit Revis with an assist on that one (not to mention the nickel corners and linebackers covering him on all that underneath stuff). Against the Jets in two games this year, Moss averaged 9.5 targets, 4.5 catches, and 29 yards. In his eight other games through Week 11, Moss has averaged 10.75 targets, 6.75 catches, and 108.4 yards. For the season, the Jets rank fifth in DVOA against No. 1 receivers, and no team has allowed fewer yards per game (34.9) against the top guys. I don't know if these are the best ways to measure VORC (Value over Replacement Cornerback), but game tape backs up everything the numbers tell you. Against the best in the game, most often on an island, Darrelle Revis comes as close as anyone in the NFL to a "shutdown corner," that most overused of terms. It's pretty exciting to see on the rare occasions when someone actually backs it up.

Vince Young's Counter Option
Tennessee Titans 20 at Houston Texans 17

Last time the Titans and Texans met before last Sunday's game, it was Week 2, and Kerry Collins was Tennessee's starting quarterback. Vince Young hadn't held that title since Week 1 of the 2008 season, and Collins was in the driver's seat to start 2009 following Tennessee's 13-3 record the year before. After frustrating the franchise on and off their field, Young was an afterthought to most, yet another spread-option bust who couldn't hack it in the NFL when more than ancillary weight was put on his shoulders. But Collins was pulled once and for all after completing two passes in 12 attempts for -7 yards in an all-time franchise-worst 59-0 loss to the Pats in Week 6, a defeat that put the Titans at 0-6. Young completed one pass in two attempts in that game -- unfortunately, it was to the other team.

So what are we to make of what's happened since? After a much-needed bye week, the Titans came back with Young under center and running back Chris Johnson as the centerpiece of their offense, and they haven't lost a game. In two of those games, Johnson put up more yards on the ground than Young did in the air (gotta love that "Quarterback Wins" stat, no?), but Young has made a tangible difference in the play-to-play effectiveness of the offense because his coaching staff played to his strengths.

One of the primary factors of Young's recent success is the use of the option -- the counter option specifically. Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger has mixed in more option looks that match Young's comfort level. If there's one good thing above all about the Wildcat, it's that the NFL has had to take a step back and evaluate the judicious use of multifaceted shotgun and option formations. The Texans were very aware of Tennessee's success with these formations. What they didn't see coming was the (temporary?) evolution of Vince Young, Pocket Passer -- but that's a story for another Cover-3.

Figure 1: Young Counter Option

In option mode, Young combined the passing and running threats on his second-quarter touchdown pass to Kenny Britt. The Titans had third-and-3 from the Houston 13 with 12:57 left in the first half. Young lined his offense up in a two-wide offset I. The Texans countered with a tight two-safety shell in a 5-2-4. At the snap, receiver Nate Washington (85) ran an end-around, which was sold beautifully by the offensive line's slide protection to the left, and the blocking look of the fullback. Washington's run cleared left cornerback Glover Quin out through the middle, and Johnson's swing look brought strong safety Bernard Pollard up into the box. Left end Mario Williams was busy chasing Young as he rolled out of the pocket, but Young was more interested in the crossing over route run by receiver Kenny Britt (18), who was just ahead of cornerback Dunta Robinson (23). It was pitch-and-catch for Young and Britt because the rollout, swing pass threat, and potential end around cleared out Houston's intermediate coverage and left the play up to Britt's speed.

In their win over the Texans, the Titans used the threat of the counter as much as the actual play itself. A great example of this came with 1:08 left in the first half, when Tennessee had the ball with second-and-7 from the Houston 11. Tight end Alge Crumpler went in motion from left to right, switching from left flex to right blocking inside to the left cutback. Again, the line sold the left-side slide protection perfectly, and Young led the defense to the left with a quick fake to the fullback and a run right. Crumpler pinched inside to seal Mario Williams, and Young had a free lane for a 10-yard run.

The Titans have some very interesting decisions to make this offseason. Young is due a $7.5 million base and a $4.5 million roster bonus in 2010 (total cap charge: $14.21 million), and that's a lot to pay for an option quarterback when every draft presents the NFL with a new crop. If the Titans want to stick with Playbook 101, Young's in for a reality check. But if he's able to convince those in charge that he's ready to make the jump Michael Vick never did -- from Go-Go Gadget guy to Actual NFL Quarterback -- it will be one of the most remarkable comeback stories in recent years. In the short term, the Titans will keep running that option, keep forcing opponents to adjust, and be a lot of fun to watch.

Seahawks Linebacker David Hawthorne
Seattle Seahawks 9 at Minnesota Vikings 35

Last time the Seahawks and Vikings met up before last Sunday's game, it was Week 7 of the 2006 season and the beginning of the Seahawks' long, cold, winter. When former Seahawks guard Steve Hutchinson walled off half of Seattle's defense on a 95-yard run authored by Chester Taylor, the poison pill that started Seattle's demise was even tougher to swallow. In their 31-13 win, the Vikings proved that they were the more physical team, and the Seahawks have struggled to find any sort of consistent toughness ever since.

Nobody expected much in this regard from backup linebacker David Hawthorne when he replaced an injured Lofa Tatupu in a Week 3 loss this year against the Bears, but Hawthorne put up 15 solo tackles and an interception, and he's been just about the only reliable performer ever since on a defense with underperforming stars and coaches unable to adjust to offensive alterations.

Signed by the Seahawks as an undrafted free agent in April of 2008, Hawthorne was the 80th-ranked linebacker on's 2008 list. I asked NFLDS Senior Draft Analyst Rob Rang why Hawthorne has outperformed that ranking to date, and Rang pointed to two things during Hawthorne's time at TCU -- a hyper-aggressive blitzing front that hid him from regular tackling opportunities, and a serious knee injury before his sophomore season in 2005. Rang told me that when he asked people from several front offices about Hawthorne, he was pointed in the direction of that injury and Hawthorne's size (6-0, 240). Under team president Tim Ruskell, the Seahawks pursue undersized players to a fault, but it definitely worked out in this case. Now, Ruskell's talking about going to more of a 3-4 defense when Tatupu returns in 2010, having recovered from the pectoral injury that cost him much of 2009, and the undrafted guy making $385,000 is the best part of Seattle's $60 million linebacker corps.

On the good side, Hawthorne takes nice angles on forward pursuit, like when he stopped Adrian Peterson for a short gain in the first quarter after a cutback left him hanging. He's good to the outside on screens and pitches. He will occasionally overpursue, as he did on a Chester Taylor run early on, but he's quick in downhill space and he's a good tackler.

On the bad side -- and this is an advisory for those in Seattle who would for some reason like to see Hawthorne replace Tatupu outright -- he's a severe liability in coverage. Hawthorne bites hard on play action, and he isn't fast enough in his drops to make up for it when asked to ride a Tampa-2 look up the middle seam against a tight end. One of the things that puts Tatupu above the average middle linebacker and would have made him a good fit for whatever the hell the Seahawks are trying to do with their defense these days is his ability to cover up top and stem outside if necessary.

It's been a rough time for the Seahawks, and the occasional find like Hawthorne shouldn’t be enough for the team to discuss a contract extension with Ruskell. But Hawthorne does have a bright future in the NFL, and the Seattle faithful will take whatever feel-good story they can get these days.


20 comments, Last at 19 Feb 2010, 12:06am

#1 by Rich Conley (not verified) // Nov 25, 2009 - 2:38pm

"This insured late breaks in coverage for the Jets' defense and no help for Revis, and Moss took off down the left side with Revis in hot pursuit. Brady overthrew the ball deep, but because Revis was right on the spot, the only throw that would have worked was the standard bomb a foot over Moss' head."

I'm gonna disagree with this one, if its the play I'm thinking of. It looked to me like Moss just misadjusted when the ball was in the air. He cut inside slightly and slowed down, and the ball was to the outside. If he'd just kept running straight, I think it would have been 6.

Revis looked great, but I have a hard time saying a cornerback "Shut someone down" when the guy on the other side of the field breaks a franchise record for receptions.

Points: 0

#17 by Whatev (not verified) // Nov 26, 2009 - 6:57am

It's not Revis's fault that happens, though, just like it's not Nnamdi Asomugha's fault that people get passes off against the Raiders.

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#19 by funbob (not verified) // Nov 27, 2009 - 8:39pm

I'm not understanding what Welker's production has to do with whether Moss got shut down.

Welker != Moss

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#2 by alexbond // Nov 25, 2009 - 2:59pm

The linebacker situation for the Seahawks is so frustrating. We've got one of the best LB corps in the game, but 4-3 LBs have trouble being game-changers without a good line in front of them, and as you said, we have too many of them. I think the 3-4 switch would be unwarranted - Tatupu is already small, he'd be crushed in a 3-4, and in such a move, Darryl Tapp would probably move to rush OLB, so it wouldn't really solve the problem of trying to get your best players on the field. To say nothing of how many other 4-3 to 3-4 switches have turned out when the personnel weren't right. This defense is another pass rush DE (to replace Kerney) and a safety (to replace Big Play Babineux, who only makes big plays against the NFC East) away from potential eliteness. Let's just not talk about the offense and especially the offensive line...

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#4 by Doug Farrar // Nov 25, 2009 - 3:06pm

Right. I could see Aaron Curry in that LaMarr Woodley position, where he's covering and rushing with fairly equal flexibility from the edge, but I struggle to see the other guys as 3-4 linebackers. Unless Leroy Hill could adjust to the straight Ware/Suggs/Harrison role, which he might be able to do.

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#5 by alexbond // Nov 25, 2009 - 3:22pm

I think Hill could make the switch - he's always been a good blitzer, and been at his best when his first step is forwards towards the LoS. But the discussion is beyond academic - who would play line? Mebane is a Pro Bowl calibur player, but I don't think he's got the size to be a Wilfork or Jamal Williams, maybe a Jay Ratliff. Cory Redding could play a 3-4 DE, but Tapp weighs what, 255? He'd be the Merriman of the defense, which kicks one of the other LBs off the field, which would be the whole point of going 3-4 - to get all 4 of your LBs on the field at once. I'm content to stay 4-3 and have an excellent back-up for when a guy gets injured.

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#7 by Rich Conley (not verified) // Nov 25, 2009 - 4:24pm

Tatupu is pretty much the same size as Jerod Meyo (Meyo is 6'1 240, Tatupu is 6'0 240).

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#3 by tally // Nov 25, 2009 - 3:01pm

Revis can't cover both at the same time. Welker's day was as much Brady throwing away from Revis as anything.

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#10 by AFireSnake (not verified) // Nov 25, 2009 - 5:00pm

Might be a stupid question, but would it not be smarter to play Revis against Welker and double team Moss? Moss may catch more deep balls, but Welker keeps drives alive and is in my eyes more important for the Patriots passing game - both in terms of longer drives and eating more time of the clock.

The latter being two problems the Pats offense has had this year (at least compared to 2007:))

When Belichick cares more about taking Dallas Clark out of the game when the Pats face the Colts, shouldn't the Jets do the same to Welker?

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#12 by JSA (not verified) // Nov 25, 2009 - 5:11pm

It could make sense, but Welker and Moss are two very different types of receivers. Revis's skils may be better suited for covering Moss than Welker. Also, sticking one CB on Welker means that CB has to follow Welker around when he goes in motion before the play, which he does more often than Moss. As the article notes, at times when Moss went in motion, Revis did not follow him.

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#18 by dryheat // Nov 26, 2009 - 10:46am

One team did exactly that when they played the Pats in '07. Put their #1 on Welker and handled Moss via group effort. I don't remember who it was...although I'm pretty sure it was a non-conference opponent.

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#6 by MJK // Nov 25, 2009 - 4:10pm

I've given a bit of thought to how you rate CB's, given the whole "the QB will presumably throw to the open guy" scenario. I personally think that an incomplete pass (or a completion for insufficient yards) should count as a success to ALL DB's on the field, since it means that they each did their job adequately so that the most open WR the QB had time to see wasn't open enough.

On the other hand, a successful completion is ONLY a failure for the DB(s) that allowed it. All a successful completion means is that that particular WR managed to get says nothing about how open any other WR was.

What this means is that Welker's career day means we have very little data on how well Revis played on those plays...Moss could have been wide open but so was Welker. However, given how successful Revis was when Moss was targeted, I think it's safe to say he's a pretty elite guy.

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#8 by Doug Farrar // Nov 25, 2009 - 4:26pm

I think it's extremely difficult (if not impossible) to rate cornerbacks accurately without mixing in a pretty large sample size of game tape. We just don't have the kinds of coverage stats that adequately replace the eye test. Of course, it's even more difficult to rate safeties, since you can't see them break off the ball unless you have "All-22" film. In the case of Revis vs. Moss, the Rematch, I'd say that the deep coverage was impressive enough, but the way in which that coverage altered New England's game plan was the real clincher for me. Revis flat-out took away the deep ball against what's generally regarded to be the NFL's best deep-ball combo. He didn't just take it off the field, he ripped it out of the playbook. Whenever you can erase part of a coach's playsheet, that's as impressive as shutting down a half or third of the secondary. But you have to watch the games and let the stories unfold, because as you intimate, "Brady deep left incomplete to Moss" could indicate many very different things.

But if we have a situation where a guy like Nnamdi Asomugha forces us to lower our floor for targets just so we can put him in the book, and the film tells us how good he is, that's where we have a better idea. Just targets won't do the job -- the guy could be playing across from Jason David or Mike Rumph. Even in 2008, when Nnamdi was playing across from DeAngelo Hall in the first half of the season, the numbers might have been a little distorted without that mitigating factor. You can't really evaluate any position without watching it extensively, but I think that's especially true of defensive backs.

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#15 by BroncosGuy (not verified) // Nov 25, 2009 - 7:52pm

Great article, Doug, but your comment above is even better. I appreciate what FO attempts to do with statistical analysis, but I also appreciate the inherent limitations of the endeavor; football simply does not lend itself to statistical analysis the same way baseball does (and baseball is unique in this regard among team sports). Sooner or later, one needs to use one's eyes.

There is a common misconception that if analysis is not purely numeric, it is not objective. When scientists watch rats in a Skinner box, they are looking for clearly defined behaviors. This is also true for position coaches grading game tape. And, I submit, this analogy is more appropriate than many of us would care to admit.

Finally, to nip it in the bud: Heisenberg enthusiasts, please cork it. Sub-atomic particles and left tackles do not play by the same rules.

Again, excellent article. I learned some things about players I don't necessarily see week-to-week (but I should make clear: I really did know Revis is really, really good). Doug, you are too good to be cursed with Seahawks-fandom. Return to your roots! Oh wait. The Broncos are an exponentially larger train wreck. Carry on.

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#16 by Subrata Sircar // Nov 26, 2009 - 4:08am

While I don't disagree with the general point, I would say rather that baseball and football are at different ends of a continuum. In particular, the heart of baseball is the individual matchup between the batter and pitcher, played one pitch at a time. Basketball, hockey and football don't really have that element (penalty shots in hockey aside).

(Interestingly enough, baseball and football are similar in that the best player in either sports' history simply can't dominate a full season's worth of games relative to his competition. The best player in the history of baseball - no matter who you think it is - is worth at most 15 wins more than a replacement player would have been, or less than 10% of a season. Football is even worse in this way. On the other hand, numerous basketball teams have taken transcendent players in the draft and immediately moved from 20 win to 40-50 win teams - an improvement of over 20% of the season.)

However, basketball records points at a rapid rate - particularly in the NBA, where teams routinely exceed 100 points in 48 minutes - that plus-minus rating means something. Most NBA players get enough shots from the line and behind the arc to produce sufficient sample size for analysis. And so forth.

Hockey has the opposite pace - points are rare - but plus-minus rating still seems to indicate a fair amount about most players. Even though scoring is infrequent, shots are not - last I checked, NHL teams took 30-35 shots a game and scored on 10% - so again the numbers add up over a season.

Both sports have teamwork issues bound up in the numbers, but not to quite to the extent of football. If a player shoots 50% from the field and 40% from behind the arc on 10-15 attempts a game, you don't know if he's creating his own shot or playing with gifted passers ... but you know he can score efficiently in volume and you should get him the damn ball :<)

Football is unique in having the dominant teamwork factor over and above individual numbers. It's hard to tell *anything* about a QB unless you know something about his offensive line - and even that might be better observed by watching the games than by looking at box scores. It's hard to tell anything about a defender without knowing scheme and role.

The teamwork issues and short sample sizes make many metrics, even DVOA, unstable from year to year, and hence hard to reliably use as predictors. It's not clear to me that this will change until we start analyzing process, not outcomes. (That is, start measuring things like a DE's reaction time off the line and his average "leverage" at point of contact - regardless of whether he makes the tackle or not.) Those sorts of things are traditionally the domain of scouts, though, which makes things like the game-charting effort and Dr. Z's old columns so interesting. (Here's hoping Dr. Z recovers to write many more, particularly of the line-play-observation variety!)

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#9 by Rich Conley (not verified) // Nov 25, 2009 - 4:26pm

"What this means is that Welker's career day means we have very little data on how well Revis played on those plays...Moss could have been wide open but so was Welker. However, given how successful Revis was when Moss was targeted, I think it's safe to say he's a pretty elite guy."

Pretty much what I was trying to say.

Revis looked good when he was on camera, but the other CB was getting beat so badly that its tough to tell if Moss wasn't open, or wasn't AS open.

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#11 by maxe211 (not verified) // Nov 25, 2009 - 5:04pm

When the jets saw that Welker was going crazy how come they did not let Revis cover Welker and the cover Moss with Lowery was safety helpeepover the top. This way they could have maybe slowed down Wewlker and Moss because Moss runs mainly deep go routes and Wlker run quick hitting routes

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#13 by Spielman // Nov 25, 2009 - 5:49pm

"Against the Jets in two games this year, Moss averaged 9.35 targets,"

That's kind of shocking, given that the only way that could have happened is if Moss had somehow gotten .70 of a target in one of those games. Typo for 9.5?

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#20 by Rewis (not verified) // Feb 19, 2010 - 12:06am

Well look who got further into the playoffs. Revis and the Jets came together at the right time. And despite folks saying they backed their way in I thought the Jets beat some quality teams in the post season to prove otherwise. Also they hung in there with the AFC champs Colts during the Championship game. Looking forward to watching this team next season with Leon Washington and Kris Jenkins returning from injuries.

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