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Cover-3: Divisional Playoff Edition

Cover-3: Divisional Playoff Edition
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Doug Farrar

Baltimore's Red Zone Blues
Week 11 -- Indianapolis Colts 17 at Baltimore Ravens 15

Setting a team record for field goals in a game is a bit like establishing a franchise mark for passing attempts in a contest -- situational precedent tells us that certain records can be precursors to, and indicators of, defeat. When Drew Bledsoe attempted 70 passes against the Minnesota Vikings on September 13, 1994, it took the Patriots an overtime period to win. Vinny Testaverde wasn't so lucky on Christmas Eve day, 2000 -- his 69 attempts couldn't prevent a 34-20 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. George Blanda threw 68 passes for the Houston Oilers on November 1, 1964 and lost by two touchdowns to the Buffalo Bills. Rob Bironas kicked eight field goals for the Tennessee Titans on October 21, 2007, and the Titans eked out a 38-36 win.

Scoring only threes against an offensive juggernaut like the present-day Indianapolis Colts, even when Peyton Manning is making terrible reads and looking very mortal, is a mistake. That's what Baltimore Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff discovered in Week 11, when he tied Matt Stover's franchise record with five field goals against the Colts and the Ravens lost because they couldn't score any touchdowns. The simple and crushingly obvious moral of the story? Touchdowns are good. Add to that the FO metric basis that touchdowns based on consistent drive success are even better, and you get something the Ravens seemed to forget last time they faced Indianapolis.

The Ravens' first scoring drive started with 11:24 left in the first quarter, after the Colts went up 7-0 on Dallas Clark's utterly ridiculous one-handed "pizza delivery" catch. Baltimore started from their own 21-yard line with a pair of two-yard Ray Rice runs. On each of these plays, fullback Le'Ron McClain motioned from receiver to offset-I fullback, and two themes were established that would repeat throughout the game. First, the Ravens were frequently running out of pass formations, eschewing the run-heavy stuff that allowed them to bulldoze the Patriots in the wild-card round. The McClain motion telegraphed the run as much as anything would, yet the offense wasn't set up to blow the defense off the line -- McClain would either block inside while Rice ran off-tackle, or block outside while Ray Rice ran inside. Second, the closing speed of the Colts' linebackers is something Baltimore will have to deal with again, although they've certainly changed their approach from a schematic and blocking perspective since the two teams' previous contest. The more I watched Week 11, the more I wondered if this game was the catalyst for change for the Ravens.

Baltimore didn't have any problem moving the ball downfield all day; it was more about what happened when they got within scoring distance. Let's look at the five drives that ended in field goals, starting either in the red zone, or with the final first down before the field goal.

Drive No. 1

The Ravens took that first drive down to the Indianapolis 34-yard line with 6:39 left in the first quarter on a seven-yard pass over the middle to Willis McGahee. This was right after Joe Flacco had to call a timeout over what looked to be formation confusion -- again, motion with McClain, and lining him up in different places. This smacked of the Ravens trying to be cute when it wasn't necessary. On the next play, Todd Heap went in motion from right as the Ravens set up in an offset-I. The Colts moved their front seven to the motion, but it was revealing that none of their defenders bit on play-action. The linebackers hung in their gaps, and rookie Jacob Lacey was able to defend an incomplete deep corner route to Derrick Mason one-on-one. Rice then got six yards on a draw to the right against the Colts' nickel defense, which was exactly the kind of call and result the Ravens needed, but Flacco ended that drive on third-and-4 by overthrowing Mason deep right against an Indy nickel blitz-look-to-cover. Cundiff kicked his first field goal. Colts 7, Ravens 3. The Colts didn't respect the run because they didn't have to -- they could get away with playing pass.

Drive No. 2

The Ravens started this drive by way of a golden opportunity after Manning tried to float one to Clark in a very tight window, and safety Dawan Landry came up with the pick. Landry ran the ball down to the Colts' 29-yard line. Rice got three yards off left tackle, and the Ravens surely noted Indy's linebackers keying on their running back. Time for a cross-up? Maybe not. Baltimore moved the offset-I from left to right, and the Colts dropped into coverage right away. Again, not even a hint of effect from the play-action -- Indy simply didn't bite on it. Flacco tried to hit Mason in the end zone, but there were Colts defenders congregating all over the place, and safety Melvin Bullitt swooped in to bat the pass away. The Ravens went shotgun, single-back on third-and-7 from the Indy 26-yard line, and Flacco tried another out to Mason -- a sideline outside curl. Cornerback Tim Jennings was able to come back on the re-route and deflect the pass, and it was obvious that Mason wasn't going to get separation on a consistent basis. The Ravens don't generally set up route combinations designed to enhance separation as other teams do (the Saints and Patriots come to mind). Cundiff kicked another field goal. At this point, given the way the Colts were oblivious to play-action, I expected the Ravens to make them pay for it with some smashmouth on the next drive.

Drive No. 3

A much more conservative start here, after Ed Reed picked off a Manning pass at the Baltimore six-yard line and returned it to the 48 -- a short pass to McClain, two Rice runs for five yards each, and then a really nice shotgun draw to Rice for 14 yards on second-and-5 against the nickel; even Flacco was out blocking on that one. Well, sort of. The Ravens tried another draw on the next play, but the Colts had that one sniffed out and crashed through the passive right side, stopping Rice for no gain. Then, a left offset-I with receiver Demetrius Williams in motion from right to left, and -- hey, Ravens? You guys remember how the Colts move their fronts to motion a lot, right? Well, they did once again, and Rice picked up three to the left, going right into the teeth of it. On third-and-7, the Colts had the advantage, they knew what was coming, and they brought eight to the line in a blitz look. At the snap, The Colts looked to have a cool overload left thing going, until linebacker Gary Brackett did a brilliant job of breaking off and covering the clearing route to Rice. Flacco couldn't hook up with his target under the pressure, and Cundiff kicked his third field goal. The Ravens now led, 9-7, but they had blown two gifts from Manning. They wouldn't get another chance.

Drive No. 4

The Colts went 80 yards in eight plays to answer with their second touchdown. Five points down, the Ravens responded as if they had to make up four touchdowns in two minutes. They got off nine plays in their drive, and eight of them were passes, as Flacco scattered shotgun checkdowns over the last 1:23 of the first half, interspersed with a couple of nice downfield fires to Mason. The ninth play was Cundiff's fourth field goal -- Colts 14, Ravens 12.

Drive No. 5

Baltimore's final scoring drive of the game started with 3:17 left in the third quarter, lasted over eight minutes, and contained six plays inside the Colts' 20-yard line. The first, on first-and-10 from the Indy 15 with 12:56 left in the game, saw Rice take the ball over left guard for two yards out of a three-wide set. This was about when I started to wonder if the Ravens were using the Colts' playbook by mistake. A nice comeback to Mason got the Ravens down to the 1-yard line, and then ... more red zone debaclization. Flacco got nothing on a sneak up the middle on first-and-goal. Then, McGahee to the left for no gain, behind a slow pull to the left by right guard Chris Chester -- the linebackers were just too fast for it. Then, a weird delayed handoff to McGahee for a loss of a yard. That one looked more like a mistake. Field goal No. 5. Had the Ravens used the blocking schemes they were successful with against the Raiders and Patriots over the last two weeks, that goal line stand would have had a very different result. Baltimore ran a weird line on the second-down play, by the way. From left to right: Marshal Yanda, Ben Grubbs, Matt Birk, Chester, Michael Oher, and Jared Gaither.

In my opinion, the Ravens made several schematic mistakes against the Colts that they have since corrected. The temptation to put Joe Flacco in a Peyton Manning suit too soon has been replaced by an almost over-compensation to the run. Straight five-man fire-out blocking and ill-timed draw-related passiveness has given way to six-man smashmouth and great timing with pulling guards. Instead of rolling McClain all over the place in motion, it's now about using his power in conjunction with that line. The Ravens will have to pass more than they did against the Patriots -- four completions in 10 attempts won't work unless the Ravens can get Manning to play like Brady did last week -- and they already know what happens if they don't capitalize on the mistakes Manning does make.

Step 1 is to make the Colts respect play-action. Flacco sells it very well, and it's obviously predicated on consistent run success. Step 2 is to use misdirection off motion and make the Colts pay for their quick downfield pursuit; I was really surprised at Baltimore's seeming unwillingness to go against the Colts' line movement off motion. Step 3 is to understand what their receivers can't do -- Mason will not blow by Indy's fast defense, but he can sit in holes and zone flats and make things work underneath. The obvious key is to convert in the red zone with the use of personnel overloads. Baltimore did this extremely well against the Patriots, sending left guard Grubbs to the second level as right guard Yanda pulled to fill the gap. McClain would seal the edge as left tackle Gaither and center Birk forced alleys open side to side. The Ravens can upset the Colts if they take what they've learned, and add in just a taste of what they used to do.

Mark Sanchez's Piece of the Action
Wild-card Playoff -- New York Jets 24 At Cincinnati Bengals 14

If the Week 11 version of the Ravens wanted to see what to do with a line-stacked, run-based, smart-passing offense, the Week 11 version of the New York Jets would not have been the optimal example. That was the game where rookie Mark Sanchez lost whatever luster was left of the whole "Sanchize" hype when he threw four picks against the Patriots. It was the near-nadir of an eight-game stretch from October 8 through December 20 in which he threw seven touchdowns and 15 interceptions. The Week 6 overtime loss to the Bills, where he threw no touchdowns and five interceptions, would have to qualify as the low point of a season in which Sanchez was "supposed to" join with Matt Stafford and become this year's Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco.

Didn't happen, and Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer got very conservative with the passing game down the stretch. In their last two games, both victories against varying levels of effort from the Colts and Bengals, Sanchez completed a total of 20 passes in 35 attempts. No scores, no picks. I asked Greg Cosell of NFL Films and State Farm NFL Matchup, who graciously gave me his take on the embryonic NFL version of Sanchez in an earlier Cover-3, for an update on how things were rolling after he went 12 of 15 (two drops) for 182 yards and a touchdown in the Cincinnati rematch. The first thing Greg and I discussed was how the Jets set Sanchez up for success.

"Given the concept, Sanchez played extremely well in the wild card game," Greg told me. "It’s clear that they’re not asking him to do a lot of things. They’ll throw the ball on occasion on first-and-10 and take a shot, as they did with Braylon Edwards, and obviously that ball should've been caught for a touchdown. But for the most part, everything the Jets do works off run personnel, run formations, they do a great job of forcing defenses to have to work through a lot in terms of defensive front alignment and mechanics, because the Jets do an awful lot with six offensive linemen, they do a lot with unbalanced lines, they do an awful lot with changing the strength of their formation through motion, and that puts the defense through mental gymnastics before the snap of the ball. We usually think of all this kind of stuff just in the pass game, but it’s very effective in the run game and the Jets do it exceptionally well. Their pass game works solely off their run game, with very, very few exceptions. That touchdown pass to (tight end Dustin) Keller was a perfect example of that."

Figure 1: Sanchez Bootleg Right to Keller Cross

Indeed it was. On first-and-10 from the Bengals' 45-yard line, the Jets executed a left zone slide, taking the Bengals' front seven away from Sanchez's bootleg action right. Keller ran a deep crossing route against the defense (as Greg put it, Keller was "wide-ass open"), got out ahead of everyone, and rumbled in for the score (Fig. 1). When Ron Jaworski and Merrill Hoge talk about the Jets on Matchup, they'll usually mention run-action, and Greg told me why.

"Run-action is where the offensive line fires forward and truly simulates run blocking (on a pass play). Where they keep their hats down and it clearly looks like a running play, so the defense, linebackers in particular, are reading run keys ... The Jets are very good at run-action, truly simulating running plays. And boot-action is very good for that, because it truly dictates run-action. That touchdown to Keller was zone-flow left all the way, and it looked like run all the way. Actually, it was all-flow left. They had the fullback wind back to the right, which made it look it could be a wind-back run, as well, and it got (fullback Tony) Richardson out in the flat so that if Keller was taken away, Sanchez had an outlet to dump it off to Richardson."

The Jets flipped this around on another run-action pass to Keller with 10:19 left in the game, using slide protection to the right as Sanchez took off to the left and hit his tight end in the left flat. Keller went 43 yards from there, from the Jets' 34-yard-line to the Bengals' 23. Instead of going in motion pre-snap, Keller went right to left in the motion track on his quick route.

Given the Jets' ability to run the ball and set up their passing game on the run, and given the San Diego Chargers' inability to stop the run, the best way to put Sanchez in a hole is for Philip Rivers and his ginormous receivers to come out and put up a few touchdowns early, forcing the Jets to play a game they don't want to play. I asked Greg if he thought Sanchez could win a game in which his team was reliant on a 30-pass performance.

"My sense is, at this point, he would not be ready to make consistent throws play after play. But, he’s not playing against a very good defense. The secondary struggles. The safeties are not very good in pass coverage. Who's to say that he can't stick a couple of throws deep down the field and they get big plays? One or two plays make it look like, to the average person, that you're playing great. And that's not always the case, but that can change games, too. So I'm not going to sit here and tell you he can’t do it. Percentage-wise, I’m not sure he can, but I don't want to say it’s an absolute, that there's no possible way he can do it."

The key to a Jets victory in San Diego seems to be what that Rex Ryan defense does to Rivers, as opposed to how Rivers can press his young compatriot. That's where Ryan's array of blitzes come in, and that's what Greg and I talked about next.

Jim Leonhard's Ballroom Blitz
Wild-card Playoff -- New York Jets 24 At Cincinnati Bengals 14

Figure 2: Leonhard Triple A-Gap Blitz

"(The Jets) blitz from atypical locations, and a major staple of their blitz packages are third-level defenders who are very difficult to account for," Greg said. "To me, those are the two things that make the Jets' blitzes so difficult to pick up. A classic case was the Jim Leonhard sack/forced fumble on Carson Palmer (Fig. 2). He came from the third level. The Bengals had that blitz picked up perfectly based on the rules that you use for blitz pick-up, but then Leonhard, in effect became the third A-gap blitzer. There's no way you can pick up three A-gap blitzers with any protection scheme, when you really get down to it. So they're so good at that, and that to me, combined that with the fact that they really don't play -- contrary to popular belief -- a lot of pure man, there's always some kind of hybrid behind all this, so there's always a player in a position you’re not sure he's going to be and it makes it very difficult."

The play in question came with 2:55 left in the first half, and the Jets up, 14-7. New York set up with a four-man line, and cornerback James Ihedigbo (44) set up between the tackles. Pre-snap, linebacker Bart Scott (57 -- the only linebacker on the field for this play) joined Ihedigbo in the A-gap. Ryan loves A-gap blitzes as much as anyone, but this particular blitz also brought elements of his favored 46 elements, with the kinds of blitz numbers any offense would find difficult to deal with. Running back Brian Leonard (40) picked up Scott, but the push upfront and Leonard's assignment left strong safety Leonhard with a free lane, and he set off after Palmer as Greg described.

It's not just about Darrelle Revis on Vincent Jackson, or how the Jets cover Antonio Gates -- given enough time, anyone can get open, even against this defense. The Jets are very good at balancing pressure and coverage. They have an enormous advantage in Revis' ability to erase a good third of the field and filter other defenders elsewhere, but the Chargers have too many weapons for the "Deion Sanders and anyone else" philosophy to hold up through an entire game. Ryan's system places his defenders in interesting, diverse, and optimal positions.


25 comments, Last at 16 Jan 2010, 3:55am

1 Re: Cover-3: Divisional Playoff Edition

Nice piece. As Doug said, "The more I watched Week 11, the more I wondered if this game was the catalyst for change for the Ravens." I think they saw enough of Right Guard Chris Chester getting blown up, just like you did. Two weeks later, Marshal Yanda re-entered the starting lineup at RG for the Ravens' OT win vs. the Steelers. In the 7 games with him starting at RG, through the playoff win at New England, the Ravens have run the ball 246 times for 1279 yards (5.2 yards per carry, with per game averages of 35 carries and 182.7 yards). And Gaither was hurt a couple of times this year, so they've only had the current configuration for 4 games all year (including the last 2: 240 rushing yards vs. Oakland and 234 vs. New England).

I think the line in its present configuration is on the verge of being dominant. But word in B-more is that Gaither is banged up again, so we'll see if they can keep it together.

3 Re: Cover-3: Divisional Playoff Edition

Gaither missed practice yesterday. Not sure if they rest guys or if it's injury related.

Doug, this was an awesome piece and makes this Colts fan a little nervous. One thing that you did not mention, in terms of contratst between Nov and Jan, was the other side of the LOS on these plays. Neither Freeney nor Mathis shows up on the stat sheet and Freeney ended up sitting out the next game--both were a bit gimpy around then and Mathis ended up sitting out the last 2.5 games. They are expected back, and while they are not known as run stoppers, the run D collapsed at the end of the season and some of that has to be attributable to their absense. Not big, but they are fast. Also Hayden was out so UDFA rookie Lacey started at corner with Jennings at nickel. With Hayden back on the field both run D and pass D are improved. (Colts fans like to roast Jennings, and while he's not quite a liability anymore, he's a clear step below the other three--or four if you include Marlin Jackson).

4 Re: Cover-3: Divisional Playoff Edition

Interesting stuff. Wondering about Colts/Ravens Drive No. 5. It mentions the Ravens getting down to the 1 and then having first and 10?

6 Re: Cover-3: Divisional Playoff Edition

The San Diego defense has struggled against the pass in the last few games because they were missing FS Eric Weddle, who is a very sure tackler and a good student of the game. Their other safeties (Ellison, Oliver, Gregory, Spillman) all have some flaws. Both Jammer and Cromartie are top-20 CBs, though neither is playing like Revis this year; Cason is an able backup, very physical if a bit of a gambler. Weddle participated in full practice yesterday, and will almost certainly be on the field at/near 100%. DVOA also underrates San Diego a little bit: a big part of their success is their penalty discipline and the accuracy of their kicker; DVOA is right to undervalue these things, but this team is an exception. This game is hardly a gimme, but the Jets will have to force some turnovers or get some ST scores, or they're going to get hosed.

7 Re: Cover-3: Divisional Playoff Edition

Isense that the planets have to align for the Jets to win; but it's certainly possible. Other than the bounce of the ball, the most likely cause of an upset would be Rivers being less accurate than you'd expect from his year to date.

10 Re: Cover-3: Divisional Playoff Edition

This is why I was so surprised when Dilfer said on ESPN that the Jets were the perfect (bad) matchup for SD. His logic was okay, but not very convincing. Jets great at Pass D could neutralize the Chargers' biggest strength, and Jets also great vs the run, where the Chargers are mediocre. On the other side, Jets strong run game vs a suspect run D could control the clock (blah blah blah). Jets passing game... uh, never mind. So big-picture, broad strokes, he made some sense, but it just seemed.... wrong. And if it becomes a shootout, sheesh, is there a mercy rule?

But hey, everybody has a crap day, usually helped by the other guys having a good day. See Pats/Ravens last week or, Manning vs the Pats in 2003/2004 comes to mind. One season he had two of the best postseason passing games ever, and then fell pretty flat with 4 INTs in the 3rd. The next year, the greatest QB season ever ended in a 3 pt effort in the playoffs. It was not all him, and the other guys get paid too, but the tremendous statistical momentum came up against a solid and well prepared D, and the D won. Could happen in SD, I suppose.

12 Re: Cover-3: Divisional Playoff Edition

Well, the run defense has been a problem since (insert generic post-Jamal Williams analysis here). On the other hand, the Dolphins-Colts game taught us everything we needed to know about blanket statements like, "Control the clock, and you control the game." My sense of the Ryan blitzes is that they're just as much about turning what you would think would be a perfect situation for a quarterback into a real pain in the ass. Hey, look -- the Jets are bringing three DBs from the weak side in a dime package! Gates should be wide open! But Gates isn't. because Rex has dialed up some other weirdness, Revis allowes more defenders to play the seams and flats, and Mr. Quarterback might get pounded before he can hit the bailout route.

I agree that a shootout favors the Chargers to an extreme degree, so I'm very interested to see what the Jets come out with on defense.

13 Re: Cover-3: Divisional Playoff Edition

Since the Chargers discovered Tim Dobbins and Brandon Siler, and Travis Johnson and Ian Scott got to full health (somewhere around Week 8), the San Diego run defense hasn't been awful up the middle, mostly getting gashed off-tackle. It's sort of a mirror image of the run offense: seriously lame-o until it really counts, and then average. The thing that makes SD resistant to run teams (and why no team without a serious offensive balance has even threatened the Chargers) is the combination of a highly-efficient offense with good ball control despite the lack of a midfield ground game, an excellent kicker and a punter who can put it deep. So every drive, the Chargers drop 3-7 points or a really long field, and you just can't run your way out of that. One holding penalty or backfield drop, and your drive is in massive jeopardy. Even just a false start is a big deal if you can't throw on 1st-and-15.

17 Re: Cover-3: Divisional Playoff Edition

Well, they had close victories against the Bengals, Oakland (twice) and Cleveland. So they were challenged by three teams that are not particularly good offensively (particularly throwing the ball) and are overall inferior to the Jets. Unless Sanchez melts down this will be a close game. The Jets only lost two games by more than 5 points, and in both Sanchez threw at least 3 picks.

18 Re: Cover-3: Divisional Playoff Edition

Oakland is a different team against their division. Cleveland put up a lot of points at the end, but only when the game was really functionally over: at the end of Q3, the score was 27-7, and it's not like Cleveland ever seriously sniffed a shot at that gap (much like the Cowboys, who got within 3 just in time to watch the Chargers line up in victory formation). Since the Broncos beat them in week 6, only the Giants and Bengals have actually played games that were competitive the whole way through.

24 Re: Cover-3: Divisional Playoff Edition

I would say if the game becomes a shoot out of course it will favor San Diego, they're the better offensive team.

However, it should be very unlikely it becomes a shoot out. Check out the DVOA of each team, they are practically mirrors of each other.

8 Re: Cover-3: Divisional Playoff Edition

Nice stuff on the Leonard blitz. As a Ravens fan, I'm very familiar with Rex's affinity for triple gap blitzing.

As you said, in a practical sense, it is impossible to pick up 3 blitzers in the A gap. Notice that, had the z-receiver sight adjusted to a quick slant, a pass may have been completed. However, the QB would still probably have been hit.

That seems to be why Rex loves these blitzes so much. Even if they don't result in a sack, free rushers in the A gap almost guarantee a hit on the QB. Look back at Ravens vs. Dolphins Wildcard last year to see Pennington get pulverized by this blitz repeatedly. Good for a hit on the QB everytime.

9 Re: Cover-3: Divisional Playoff Edition

And after a while, either the O keeps committing "extra" blockers, reducing their potential receivers out in a pattern, and the QB might get a little jumpy. Ideally, either (A) he can't find an open man and holds the ball for a sack or (B) he makes a hasty decision/throw and an INT is the result.

I think the right QB/OC can counter this, but it is no picnic.

11 Re: Cover-3: Divisional Playoff Edition

Shouldn't the Bengals, if anyone, be prepared for blitz action like that? They play in the same division with Baltimore and Pittsburgh, which are both teams that will also throw that kind of action at you.

21 Re: Cover-3: Divisional Playoff Edition

not to mention the speed of the Jets defenders.They're down right scary when 3rd and long. Acouple turnovers, or big special teams play and Jets can win. Remember what happened last time jets went to san diego in the play-offs....

22 Re: Cover-3: Divisional Playoff Edition

"There's no way you can pick up three A-gap blitzers with any protection scheme"

Strongly disagree there. A QB who identifies a big blitz up the middle can/should call a slant/hitch/bubble screen, and set the protection to inside zone pass block (every OL takes a big step inside, a bit like on a FG attempt, OT/TE cut the playside DE to give his QB a lane(or screen WR more room), who throws immediatly after a 3 steps drop/throw the ball away if first and only read is covered.

25 Re: Cover-3: Divisional Playoff Edition

Effectively, if the center and guards are on the same page, you can handle three A-gap blitzers by gumming up the works; everybody pinches in and the third blitzer will find both A-gaps occupied by blocker-on-rusher, without room to squeeze through. If he has to switch gaps and/or go around the trash, well, that takes time.

In the indicated diagram both 44 and 36 are unblocked, but the RG is doubling the DE. If that RG pancakes or even stands up 44 - who's a CB, so it's not like that's difficult - then 36 could end up running right up 44's back and going nowhere.

You can't block 3 A-gap blitzers if they can control the gaps, true, but that's true no matter which gap you pick. (On the other hand, if you can control a gap, the A-gap is closest to the ball at the start of the play.) If you win the battles on the line of scrimmage, it always goes a long way towards winning the war.