Cover-3: Redemption Song

Cover-3: Redemption Song
Cover-3: Redemption Song
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Doug Farrar

The Eye in the Sky

There aren't very many moments that have me running around with a sense of absolutely unbridled excitement -- perhaps the last time this happened to me from a media perspective was when I discovered Sons of Anarchy or heard Mastodon's "Crack the Skye" for the first time. But when FO majordomo Aaron Schatz sent out an e-mail late last week to the FO crew indicating that's NFL Game Rewind site now had a "Film Room" feature in which coach's All-22 tape was featured on certain plays ... well, I think we all had our own little Navin Johnson moment. To add overhead film in which all players in pre-snap position, running and covering all routes from start to finish, would be to provide the Holy Grail to all football nerds who seek to make sense of TV tape without access to those more comprehensive views.

Unfortunately, the Holy Grail right now is more of a Holy Sippy Cup, since only a handful of plays in each game have coaches film provided on Game Rewind. Still, while Aaron is busy lobbying the league to put up "Film Room" for every single play, we can at least use this tool to investigate one of the more interesting stories of the 2010 NFL campaign: Where did this new, more disciplined version of Tramon Williams come from?

In 2009, the Green Bay Packers cornerback earned the nickname "Admiral Armbar" for his penalty-filled play. He racked up 124 penalty yards (second-highest in the NFL behind Seahawks cornerback Marcus Trufant) on six flags, and really gunked it up in a Week 13 game against the Baltimore Ravens -- three pass interference calls, and 106 penalty yards. It seems that the 2010 version of our good Admiral is a very different player. Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt put it succinctly in a recent Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article about Williams' possible upcoming contract extension: "Show me a corner having a better year," Whitt said. "Name one. At the corner position, he's outplayed all of them."

According to that same article (written by the outstanding Bob McGinn), Williams has given up one play of 20 yards or more, no touchdown passes, and one penalty. Whitt said that recent decisions to put Williams on Brandon Marshall and Randy Moss are the result of asking Charles Woodson to blitz more because of the team's injury-depleted front seven, but "the only reason we're allowed to do that is Tramon can cover anybody's No. 1 (receiver)."

Admiral Armbar Gets Promoted

The Film Room segments for Week 9 weren't up in time for this piece, and the work Green Bay's defense did against a Jon Kitna-led passing attack (if you want to call it that) in the 45-7 loss that led to the end of the Wade Phillips era wouldn't really represent a true challenge. With that in mind, I went back to a few recent instances in which Williams was the (or a) main man.

The first thing that stood out to me about Williams' overall play was his exceptional closing discipline on short passes. Not so much closing speed -- it's easy enough to understand how that can be an overrated attribute when you watch fast corners overrun tackles -- but the ability to step into the route established by an offensive player who has just caught a short pass. This did show up in the Dallas game as well and didn't require All-22 to see. When Jason Witten ran a flare out of a fullback position, or when Dez Bryant caught a bubble screen near the line of scrimmage, Williams would adjust immediately and make tackling his priority. Sounds obvious, but again, when you see enough cornerbacks, you know that it isn't. He's one of the best in the league at taking a juke move in space and refusing to allow additional yardage.

Figure 1: Tramon Williams' Interception

Williams' interception of a Mark Sanchez pass in the Pack's Week 8 win over the Jets was another example of his short-area skill. With 4:54 left on the first half, the Jets went three-wide, and Green Bay responded with a 3-3 nickel defense with a deep safety and some interesting blitz concepts (Fig. 1). Linebackers Brandon Chillar and A.J. Hawk moved up to the line pre-snap, leaving Clay Matthews as the only man at his position in space.

Matthews crashed through right guard at the snap on a loop blitz that LaDainian Tomlinson picked up. Mark Sanchez then had enough time to hit Jerricho Cotchery on a quick route in which Cotchery took five steps and made a sharp dig move inside. Such routes are better in exploiting off-coverage than the man looks given by the Green Bay secondary, but Williams' technique still made the difference. He slanted inside with the route, moved into inside position when Cotchery's attempt to flick him away gave him an opening, got his hands on the ball, and wrestled it away from the receiver. This was a good example of how Williams now avoids the early shot (and subsequent penalty) by using timing, read skills, and better technique. The Jets challenged that Williams got the ball from Cotchery before both players hit the ground, but simultaneous possession is not reviewable (of course), and it looked to me as if the ball started to come loose just before that happened. The play was upheld in a rare good call from Jeff Triplette's crew.

Against the slightly more dynamic Vikings passing attack in Week 7, Williams appeared to be fooled a couple of times on route concepts involving Moss. But one play in particular was the result of a schematic opening, and it showed me just how much defensive coordinator Dom Capers trusts Williams at this point -- we're back to the trust Coach Whitt discussed in that article. With 12:38 left in the first half, Moss started outside right and moved near Percy Harvin's slot position pre-snap.

At the snap, Harvin ran a deep seam route, and Moss executed a little in-and-out route (what looked like an option route), catching the ball under Williams' coverage for a 13-yard gain. The interesting part of this play was Charles Woodson's corner blitz. He moved off slot coverage up to the line, which led to revolving coverage from deep safety to intermediate coverage on Williams' side from safety Charlie Peprah, and a deeper zone look on Harvin from safety Nick Collins. You can see Woodson and Williams pointing out different coverage assignments pre-snap, and I'm thinking that Williams was directed to drop off from tighter zone coverage when Woodson stepped up to blitz.

Favre's second of three second-half picks was a direct result of Williams' ability to trail a receiver down the sideline. As linebacker Desmond Bishop ran with Moss to the left out of the left slot, Williams kept one eye on Moss' destination and another on fullback Toby Gerhart, who lined up wide and ran deep. Favre started a pass to the deep route, but he pulled it in and waited for what he thought was a wide-open Moss in the flat. Bishop came up with the pick. This was an epic fail on the Vikings' part -- the decision to put Gerhart wide and Moss in the slot is probably a terminable offense. The lack of effort Moss showed in coming back to the ball is something that Vince Young should note.

Over and over, the thing that impressed me most about Williams this season was the "right place, right time" concept. He seems to understand and thrive in Capers' more aggressive and varied defense than he did in 2009.

Peyton's Place

It's sometimes difficult to explain the value of a player, even with traditional and advanced statistics. It's often takes a player's absence to tells us how valuable he really is. Consider the case of Peyton Hillis. The 2008 seventh-round pick of the Denver Broncos, traded to the Browns by Josh McDaniels in March of 2010 with draft picks for (snicker) Brady Quinn, currently has more rushing yards, more 100-yard rushing games, and more rushing touchdowns, than the entire Denver Broncos team.

We can talk about the fact that he put up the third-best Total DYAR among all Week 9 running backs, but it's just as easy to say that the team Hillis left greatly misses him. And the team that currently has him wouldn't be the NFL's most dangerous sub-500 team -- and that's not a pejorative term when you beat the Saints and Patriots in consecutive games -- without him.

In the Browns' 34-14 thrashing of the Pats last Sunday, Hillis didn't just score two touchdowns and 184 yards on 29 carries, he also had just one negative play. Of the 29 times he took the ball, he failed to get back to the line of scrimmage or create yardage just once. That's expected of a 6-foot-1, 240-pound cement mixer, but you didn't see the fossilized version of Jamal Lewis doing this kind of stuff. Hillis' secret weapon is an agility that completely belies his appearance and renders the inevitable Larry Csonka and Mike Alstott comparisons utterly meaningless. Hillis can bull through any front line, but he's a different breed of cat, and his 35-yard touchdown run with 2:47 left in the game (Fig. 2) showed his burst after handoff as well as anything he's done this year.

Figure 1: Hillis' Touchdown Run

Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has been able to put Hillis in a lot of positive situations. This was a two-tight end formation with both tight ends stacked right, and an offset-I right with fullback Lawrence Vickers, who is on a short list of the NFL's best blocking fullbacks. The blocking was superlative -- from the two tight ends crunching inside, to the slide protection to the left, to the two key blocks on the play, Vickers on Pats safety Josh Barrett (36) and Eric Steinbach's pull block on safety Brandon Meriweather (31). It was a functional and schematic win before the handoff, and you can see the influence of Mike Holmgren, and Daboll's time in New England, in excellent technique behind the pull blocks.

But this play doesn't work without Hillis' speed to the edge. He got around Barrett and hit the open space hard, outrunning Sanders and linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes to the end zone. Mayo tried to reach for Hillis near the score, but Hillis just gave the standout defender a quick stiff-arm, and it was all over. You will go entire games without seeing backs and offenses working together with such efficiency, but you may not see a Browns series for the rest of the season in which the synergy between the Browns and Hillis isn't absolutely evident. Hillis still has a chip on his shoulder over that Denver divorce, but you can't imagine that he'd change the current plot for anything.

"You know, when I left Denver last year, it kind of left a bitter taste in my mouth," Hillis recently told Scott Van Pelt of ESPN Radio. "I felt like I was a better player than what I was playing at out there last year. And I prayed every night that I would get a new opportunity and shot somewhere else. The Lord gave me that here in Cleveland, and I felt like I had a responsibility to take full advantage of it. I'm glad I'm doing everything in my power to help this team and help this city win. From here on out, I ain't looking back."

One would have to be a fool, or Josh McDaniels, to disagree.


36 comments, Last at 03 Dec 2010, 3:00pm

#1 by PerlStalker // Nov 10, 2010 - 3:54pm

Of all the players that the Broncos should have let go at the beginning of the season, Payton Hillis wasn't one of them. He runs with authority, agility and vision which is ideal for a zone system. He even seemed to have reasonable hands out of the backfield.

Of all the mistakes McDaniels has made in his first couple of years, the Hillis trade was one of the worst.

Points: 0

#2 by Nathan // Nov 10, 2010 - 3:55pm

ive liked hillis ever since shanny ran out of bodies and had to start him at hb a few years ago... glad to see him finally getting a chance and making the most of it

Points: 0

#3 by narticus // Nov 10, 2010 - 4:02pm

All-22 potentially on the way: totally salivating right now.

Points: 0

#6 by Kevin from Philly // Nov 10, 2010 - 4:12pm

I'm surprised they never put that out on a pay-to-watch feature of NFL Films.

Points: 0

#4 by Ezra Johnson // Nov 10, 2010 - 4:03pm

I'm extra gratified that Tramon is being recognized, since I picked him for this year's most improved (or whatever it was) in FO's end of season poll last year. Also, the Packers beat the Ravens in that game.

Points: 0

#7 by Arkaein // Nov 10, 2010 - 4:16pm

Yeah, that game against Baltimore last year really distorted Tramon's value. 6 flags for 124 yards is not good, but when half of those flags and nearly all of the yardage comes in a single game which features flags for DPI and defensive holding all over the place against multiple players on both teams, it's really a case of a "reputation" (pretty much isolate to FO) being built on a puny sample. Considering that even in that game Tramon didn't allow a TD pass and in fact denied a scoring drive with an interception almost immediately after the longest of his DPIs it's hard to make a case that even that performance was terrible.

Tramon has also had pretty good conventional stats. He's had 4-5 INTs each of the past few years, and by FO Almanac in 2009 he was tied for 10th with 17 passes defensed, despite not becoming a starter until Al Harris' midseason injury.

He's definitely an improved player and having his best season. However he was never really as bad as his FO rep in the first place.

Points: 0

#10 by Independent George // Nov 10, 2010 - 4:23pm

No offense to Packer fans, but I'm a little saddened by his play; Admiral Armbar was an awesome nickname.

Points: 0

#5 by Mike from Boston (not verified) // Nov 10, 2010 - 4:09pm

Nice article per usual, just wanted to point out that #36 on the Pats is James Sanders, not Josh Barrett. This is far from the first time he's been thumped by a pulling guard, never a good thing for a safety whose strength is ostensibly run support.

Points: 0

#8 by ammek // Nov 10, 2010 - 4:21pm

That's a really good analysis of Tramon Williams' strengths and an intriguing snapshot of the Dom Capers defense. The give-and-take between Williams and Woodson and the safeties is critical: the Packers' defense is giving opponents all kinds of wacky looks in the secondary (not that you can see many of them on the TV — go Aaron!), and Woodson now plays as what is known in soccer as a libero: he's pretty much free to roam all over the defense in search of a matchup or a game-changing play. I'd guess he now plays little more than half of the time as a conventional coverage cornerback. With Clay Matthews also skitting about the line, it's absolutely essential that the rest of the defense knows and executes its assignments. As Doug says, the scheme is very, very much more complex than it was last year — and that's despite having to start rookie free agent Zombos and Shieldses because of injuries. Tramon Williams seems like a nice dude, so I'm delighted about his success. And Whitt is right: if DeAngelo Hall goes to the ProBowl in his place, I think Roger Goodell, not Mike Tanier, should be obliged to liveblog the game.

Points: 0

#20 by dmb // Nov 11, 2010 - 12:36am

Over the course of his career, DeAngelo Hall has generally been the embodiment of a corner who's hyped because of a few flashy plays and occasionally high INT totals, but whose actual performance is below-average due to excessive gambling and a low "football IQ." But he's actually been REALLY impressive this year -- and not just because of his success against Jay Cutler. Hall has been solid in coverage all season, and his tackling has been FAR better than in past years. I'd go so far as to say that he's been well above-average in that category thus far.

So when you consider that Hall has two game-winning TDs (his strip of Tashard Choice and the subsequent return was the winning score in the opener against Dallas, and his TD return against the Bears also gave the 'Skins the lead for good), has cut down drastically on surrendering big plays (so far....), and actually looks good as an open field tackler, I think Hall might actually be legitimately deserving of a Pro Bowl nod this year. Of course, it helps that Asomugha, Flowers, and Revis (assuming he gets healthy and on track) all play in the AFC...

Points: 0

#9 by Bobby Wommack (not verified) // Nov 10, 2010 - 4:22pm

James Sanders is terrible, atrocious against the run. He's always been a guy who doesn't do anything really well, but he's not terrible either. He's a solid backup. Pats missed Pat Chung dearly in that game.

Oh, and Brandon Flowers is having a better year than Williams. He's been the best corner in the league.

Points: 0

#11 by AudacityOfHoops // Nov 10, 2010 - 4:28pm

He sure didn't look like it in crunch time against Oakland. Not that one or two mistakes should negate a season of great play.

Points: 0

#14 by Doug Farrar // Nov 10, 2010 - 5:06pm

"Oh, and Brandon Flowers is having a better year than Williams. He's been the best corner in the league."

Agreed 100 percent, as you can see here.

Points: 0

#12 by ammek // Nov 10, 2010 - 4:34pm

In case anyone's interested, and too lazy to look them up, the Tramon Williams interception diagrammed by Doug is here and Moss gives up here.

Points: 0

#13 by Arkaein // Nov 10, 2010 - 4:44pm

You know, the more I look at the Moss play, the more I think it's really more Favre's fault than Moss's.

Moss starts out running what looks like a quick hitch, looks back to Favre, sees Favre not looking to throw that way, and then turns to break upfield away from coverage. Favre on the other hand waits too long, and then throws to the spot where LB Desmond Bishop is standing the entire time. Even if Moss had camped out and waited for the throw it would have been a stupid play by Favre to throw in the direction, and Moss probably thought the same thing which is why he started to run to the nearest open area.

To make the decision even more dumb, it was only 2nd and 6. Throws the ball away, even take a sack, and try again on 3rd down.

Bottom line: if a QB throws the ball right at a defender any interceptions are mostly his responsibility.

Points: 0

#16 by Reinhard (not verified) // Nov 10, 2010 - 6:15pm

I'm trying to find some better comparisons for Hillis.
Jerome Bettis
LeGarrette Blount

Points: 0

#17 by Doug Farrar // Nov 10, 2010 - 6:16pm

Le'Ron McClain (college version) is the closest I can think of.

Points: 0

#18 by drobviousso // Nov 10, 2010 - 6:29pm

I'd like to see some similarity scores at the end of the year.

Points: 0

#19 by Led // Nov 10, 2010 - 7:05pm

I think Bettis was more shifty than his size would lead one to believe. His success was based on great feet as much as his size. Maybe Ironhead Heyward? Barry Foster?

Points: 0

#21 by Mike Elseroad (not verified) // Nov 11, 2010 - 1:33am

My buddy Chris, who's a Tampa Bay fan, told me that because Hillis looks so much like Mike Alstott, wears his number (#40) and was nicknamed "The A-Train", we oughta start calling Hillis the "H-Train".

Points: 0

#22 by Mike Elseroad (not verified) // Nov 11, 2010 - 1:36am

Adam Kaplan and Jon hansen who both work at have called Hillis "The Great White Buffalo".

I kinda like that name.

Whatever you call him, he's damn good. And better yet, he's on my fantasy team! :)

Points: 0

#24 by Independent George // Nov 11, 2010 - 9:24am

The 2007-2008 version of Brandon Jacobs.

Points: 0

#28 by Arkaein // Nov 11, 2010 - 12:02pm

Haven't watch much of Hillis to make these comparisons, but Dorsey Levens is not what I think of in relation to the term "bruiser". Maybe my memories are just biased towards his post-injury days with GB where he couldn't push a pile while driving a bulldozer.

Points: 0

#25 by pet (not verified) // Nov 11, 2010 - 10:06am

I live in Britain and have the equivalent of game rewind (called gamepass). How do you access the all 22 segments? Do you need to watch a certain game and they automatically come up, or is there a separate tab for them?

Points: 0

#26 by Doug Farrar // Nov 11, 2010 - 10:37am

I'm not sure about Gamepass, but in Game Rewind, you click on one of the big plays, and check for the red "Film Room" icon to appear in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. If you have a series of pointers that reveal bigger plays (like Rewind's indispensable "Social Heatmap" tool), just go for any touchdown, interception, or long-yardage play.

Points: 0

#27 by Tom Gower // Nov 11, 2010 - 11:38am

I believe the bar graphs for the plays with all-22 available are actually a slightly different shade of color than the standard TV angle plays in the box below the viewing screen.

Points: 0

#32 by petr (not verified) // Nov 11, 2010 - 7:44pm

Thanks very much for your reply. Unfortunately I don't think that facility is available on the British version of game rewind, which is odd as it uses the same software and is 99% similar in everything else.

Oh well, please enjoy all-22 film on my behalf

Points: 0

#33 by Doug Farrar // Nov 12, 2010 - 12:03am

Huh. And there's no way to get Rewind overseas?

Points: 0

#34 by petr (not verified) // Nov 13, 2010 - 7:12am

game pass is the UK equivalent of game rewind. here is a screencap of it, as you can see it's the same program to all extents and purposes but with a few (really useful) features not used

Points: 0

#29 by KB (not verified) // Nov 11, 2010 - 3:33pm

Is flowers actually having a better year than williams or was that just said? i want to see the stats on that. it is true tramon williams is yet to give up a second play over 20 yards. has 1 penalty and ZERO tds allowed. with 3 int's.. What has flowers done to give him a better year than that? i mean its hard to argue any1 has done better than that. mainly the no tds and 1 play over 20 yards. 3 int is a bonus also but not the best measure for a good corner. does any1 actually have the stats backing that statement up? just curious

Points: 0

#30 by Arkaein // Nov 11, 2010 - 5:54pm

I have no idea personally which player is having the better year, but I'd jut like to add that I doubt anyone else here does either.

Evaluating CB play is quite difficult compared to WR, RB, or CB play. Schemes are different: man vs. zone, amount of blitzing, amount of help provided by safeties over the top. Stats are harder to come by. On the majority of good CB plays there are no stats because the CB isn't targeted due to his good coverage. On bad plays a QB may miss seeing an open WR and the CB may come out looking okay despite a potentially critical lapse.

Even taking all this into account, I think a person who watches every play of a team can get a pretty good feel for a CB. But how many people watch every play of two teams, in two different conferences no less? I've only seen one Chiefs game this year (their opener against SD), and I was watching for enjoyment and not looking specifically at the play of any one defender. I doubt many people who watch every Chiefs game have even seen much of Tramon Williams this year.

Even Doug, who is paid for this sort of stuff and will take a more object view of GB players than I am likely to, has likely watched a lot less Packers football this year than I have. And pointing to an article from September to explain that he believes that Flowers is outperforming Williams? I think the last five or so games for each team might deserve consideration in this discussion.

I look forward to the days when FO creates DYAR formulas for defenders. Until then, even the stats generated from game charting are not really sufficient to compare two defenders who are both playing at a fairly high level, unless one dominates in several areas.

Points: 0

#31 by BGNoMore (not verified) // Nov 11, 2010 - 6:32pm

I really like Hillis as a back, and I'm glad to see him succeeding in Cleveland. Actually, given the depth of my enmity toward Josh McDaniels, I'm absolutely gleeful regarding his success. That he is outperforming the entire Broncos running game is a wonderful source of irony and spite, but it has led to an unfortunate implication, namely that the Broncos would be better if they still had him. The Broncos running problems are primarily schematic. Knowshon Moreno, while over-drafted, is not a terrible back (although he isn't exceptionally good, either). Correll Buckhalter is injury prone and overpaid, but he isn't a terrible back. If Peyton Hillis were still a Bronco, he would be unproductive because McDaniels' run-blocking philosophy simply doesn't work in the modern NFL. Meanwhile, that terribly feminine zone scheme has resurrected Cleveland and Washington and kept Seattle on life-support (despite a comedy of injuries and a general lack of talent).

As for the trade, anyone who had seen even televised coverage of either player knew this: Peyton Hillis can play, Brady Quinn can't. McDaniels' hubristic dedication to his system is deserving of criticism, but it is his utter lack ability in personnel evaluation that will ultimately be his downfall.

Points: 0

#35 by dryheat // Nov 23, 2010 - 1:24pm


Points: 0

Save 10%
& Support Doug
Support Football Outsiders' independent media and Doug Farrar. Use promo code DERRIK to save 10% on any FO+ membership and give half the cost of your membership to tip Doug.