by Cian Fahey
Calling plays in the NFL is an unenviable task. Unlike playing any position on the field, the majority of people watching the game believe that it is something they could conceivably do. For that reason, the play-caller is inevitably the first one to blame when something goes wrong.
The problem with blaming the play-caller is that their impact on the game is often overstated. What the play-caller calls on the field is only the outline of what the play should look like. They have no control over how the play is executed. They don't control how the quarterback reads the defense or if his offensive line holds up. They also can't be sure of what the other team is going to do on any given play, even after a week of studying the opposition's tendencies. Essentially, play-callers draw a pencil outline of an image before someone else paints it. The painter can follow the design, but he chooses the colors and may not be an accurate painter. Only on rare occasions can we exclusively blame the offensive or defensive coordinator for the failings of their team on the field. There were two clear examples of poor decision-making and execution from the sidelines this weekend, but this isn't a case of making coordinators scapegoats for losing teams because both of their teams won.
During the offseason, much was made about who was going to call the offensive plays for the Dallas Cowboys. Head coach Jason Garrett was once considered a brilliant offensive mind, but he had his play-calling responsibilities stripped from him by Jerry Jones, instead asking offensive coordinator Bill Callahan to take over.
Callahan has focused the offense on quarterback Tony Romo. In nine games this season, the Cowboys have averaged at least 40.5 drop-backs per game (sacks+attempts) and only 18.2 carries from running backs per game. The Cowboys need to be more balanced. Callahan is playing to his offense's strengths by relying on Romo and their congruent group of receiving options, but he's also making it tougher on his entire offense by eliminating the threat of the run. Last weekend against the Minnesota Vikings, DeMarco Murray, Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar combined for just eight carries the whole game. The Cowboys don't normally run the ball well, they rank 21st in rushing DVOA, but the Vikings rank 16th in defending the run and Murray cut through the Vikings for a 27 yard gain early on in the game. That was his final carry of the game. Another offensive coordinator would have at least given him a few more opportunities to do the same on the ensuing drives.
If the Cowboys were trailing by a big deficit for much of the game, you could at least play devil's advocate and say that they needed to keep throwing the ball. They were behind just twice, once in the second quarter and once in the fourth quarter, both times by just four points. The Cowboys were behind in the fourth quarter because Romo threw an interception, which came on third-and-9 after four called passing plays. The Cowboys didn't run the ball a single time in the fourth quarter, and even though they led the entire third quarter they only ran the ball three times. It may be said that Romo bailed himself out after throwing an interception in the fourth quarter, but realistically Romo bailed out his coaching staff by leading that game-winning touchdown drive.
While Callahan was going pass-crazy in Dallas, Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray brought an outdated game-plan with him to St. Louis. Before Sam Bradford tore his ACL and Zac Stacy took over the starting job at running back, most teams sat back in Cover-2 against the Rams offense. Defenses facing the Rams understood that they couldn't run the ball effectively even in favorable situations and that they couldn't stop four man rushes from getting quick penetration in the pocket. With an immobile quarterback such as Bradford, those game-plans worked to perfection. Now that Stacy is on the field, that game-plan needs to be thrown out.
Stacy isn't overly explosive, but he is a very smart runner who consistently gets the most out of his blocking and creates more yardage than is given to him. He is the ninth ranked running back in DYAR. Any defense setting up to stop the Rams should first and foremost focus on him. This would be much more difficult to do if Bradford was in the lineup, because even though Bradford is less mobile than his replacement Kellen Clemens he does have a better deep ball. The Titans showed way too much respect to Clemens and the Rams speedy receiving options last week.
The Titans gave up too many easy throws underneath for Clemens and weren't aggressive enough in getting to Stacy. As the above image shows, they repeatedly kept their safeties deep in short yardage situations so they couldn't affect any running plays until it was too late. These weren't disguised formations either, the Titans regularly dropped their linebackers deep and played off coverage against receivers throughout the game. It was no real surprise that Stacy was able to rack up 127 yards on 27 carries with 51 more yards on six receptions, while Clemens finished with an efficient 210 yards on 20 completions.
Any case for the coaching staff wasn't aided by the mistakes made on the field by Titans players. More than once the Rams gained easy third down conversions because linebackers blew assignments in coverage, while there was one play design in particular that was simply baffling.
On second-and-7, the Rams initially come out with three receivers, one tight end and Stacy in the backfield. The Titans are already showing Cover-2 with off coverage and their linebackers typically deep. Before the Rams snap the ball, they motion Stacy out wide so that he becomes a fourth wide receiver. Now there is no real running threat, so the Titans defense as a whole widens with both safeties moving further outside and the left defensive end moving to the outside shoulder of the right tackle. Most important is the defensive tackle, Jurrell Casey, who is circled in yellow. Casey drops into a linebacker position when Stacy moves out wide.
At the snap, the Titans middle linebacker runs straight down the field to create a Tampa-2 coverage on the backend. It appears that their cornerbacks on the outside are playing zone coverage, but the inside trio underneath immediately focus on their assignments as if they are in man coverage. This leaves Casey matched up alone in space against tight end Jared Cook. Normally when you drop a defensive tackle into coverage, you send a blitz or disguised pass-rush to force the quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly. The Titans didn't do that. Instead, they showed off their intentions with Casey before the ball was snapped and then rushed just three defenders so Clemens had loads of time to exploit this matchup.
Simultaneously, the Titans both gave the Rams' receiving options too much credit by dropping so many defenders into deep coverage and gave them too little credit by asking a defensive tackle to cover a tight end. Cook runs a simple out route and loses Casey in his break for an easy catch. From there, Casey can't catch him before he turns upfield for an extra 10 yards. The Titans had the talent to be much more aggressive with the Rams offense. It's hard to believe a staff with Gregg Williams on it wasn’t more aggressive.
Don't Call it a Comeback, Call it a Reminder
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Andre Johnson has been an elite NFL receiver for a very long time. Even though his statistical production is lacking one key ingredient, Johnson still has the talent of the younger receivers in the league whose reputations are rising above his. He is 32 years old and has 875 career receptions with 12,076 receiving yards in his career. The only knock on Johnson is his 59 career scoring plays in 146 regular season starts. Today's fantasy driven world requires receivers to have a better scoring rate than just one touchdown every 2.5 games. However, Johnson reminded everyone on Sunday night that his inability to get in the end zone more often has much more to do with the offense around him than his own individual performance.
For a long time, Johnson performed and produced in spite of the Texans rigid, run-oriented offense. In recent times, he's also had to deal with a tentative, almost gun-shy quarterback in Matt Schaub. It's no coincidence that Johnson exploded on Sunday night against the Indianapolis Colts just two games into the Case Keenum-era in Houston while playing in a more expansive passing offense. Johnson had nine receptions for 229 yards, his highest yardage total since his last 200+ yard game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2012, and three touchdowns.
Johnson has always been able to rack up receptions and yardage no matter who he was facing because he is dominant in all facets of being a wide receiver. In order to score more touchdowns and make more big plays down the field, all he ever needed is a more aggressive quarterback who would trust him in favorable match-ups.
Colts cornerback Vontae Davis could argue that he has been the best cornerback in the NFL this season. He has played aggressive, press man coverage against some of the better receivers in the NFL and shown up very well. However, he was quickly reminded that Andre Johnson isn't just one of the better receivers in the NFL. In order to understand how Johnson beat Davis for his first touchdown, we must look back to the previous play when Davis wasn't covering Johnson at all. Instead, Davis was covering reserve receiver DeVier Posey on the left side of the field.
Keenum comes out in the shotgun, with Posey wide to the right, Johnson in the slot to that side and DeAndre Hopkins to the left. The Colts will eventually leave Davis completely alone with Posey, because the Texans roll Keenum out to the left and bring Johnson across the field so their top two receivers are to that side. This doesn't prevent Davis from playing aggressive coverage on Posey as he runs down the sideline.
Posey is running a comeback route that Davis covers perfectly. The veteran cornerback is very quick to work back down the field with the young receiver, but because Keenum extends the play and works back to their side of the field, Posey eventually is wide open in behind Davis. Keenum doesn't throw the ball to him down the right sideline, because it would have been a very difficult throw on the run, instead he finds Posey after the receiver turns again to work back towards the line of scrimmage.
On the very next play the Texans immediately called a double-move on a fake comeback route for Johnson against Davis. Johnson executed it to perfection, while Davis continued to be aggressive even in off coverage. That aggression afforded Johnson a touchdown that he made look relatively simple. That play shows off his fluid athleticism, precise route running and speed to get away from the defensive back once he has created separation. The catch itself wasn't difficult, but Johnson showed off outstanding ball-skills and natural hands for his second touchdown.
Just two drives later, Johnson is lined up to the right side of the offense in a receiver position but tight to the formation. The Colts secondary is playing off coverage and hinting at quarters coverage. This means Johnson has a free release.
This is the play that best shows off the impact of Keenum's aggressive approach to playing quarterback. The young quarterback runs a bootleg play action while Johnson runs down the seam. The Colts appear to be bracketing Johnson, as both players are looking directly at the receiver and the other deep safety ran forward to double cover one of the Texans' other receiving options. Critically, neither Antoine Bethea nor Davis, the two players covering Johnson, are tight to him.
When Keenum lets go of the ball, Johnson isn't open. Davis has dropped off into a wider position while Bethea has moved tighter to his body. Keenum is doing one of two things here. He is trusting Johnson to win a hail mary against a lesser defender, or he sees that Bethea is focused on Johnson while his receiver is looking back to the football.
Because Bethea is looking at Johnson and Johnson is looking at the ball, he is able to recognize the flight of the pass while the defender spins around and loses sight of the play completely. Johnson gets behind Bethea before extending to make a reception that he makes look very easy.
For his third touchdown, Johnson was somewhat lucky because Davis misjudged his attempt to play the ball. Going back to the theme of play-calling, the touchdown came on a fade route at the goal line, a play that has been almost non-existent under Kubiak in recent times. It will be intriguing to see if that play was a reflection of the altering approach of the Texans, or if it was just a result of Arian Foster's absence and Ben Tate's injury issues. For the sake of the Texans moving forward, they should hope that it is indeed a shift in approach rather than a forced diversion from the norm.