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23 Nov 2012

Under Pressure: Decision Loops

by J.J. Cooper

One of the great military theorists of the 20th century was an Air Force colonel by the name of John Boyd.

Boyd was a fighter pilot, and was considered one of the best in the Air Force in the 1950s. He was known as "40-second Boyd" because he had a standing bet that he could start out with a fighter pilot on his "six" (behind him nearing gun range) and could reverse that to be in control of the dogfight within 40 seconds. If you managed to stay on his tail, he’d pay you $40. Despite facing all kinds of challengers, he never had to pay up.

But Boyd’s bigger contribution was in the realm of theory. He came up with the idea of the OODA decision loop. The decision loop was the idea that it takes a certain amount of time to observe, orient, decide, and act. If a military force can operate at a faster tempo than its opponent, if it can be moving on to its next action before the opposing force can react to its previous action, it can paralyze and quickly defeat its enemy.

This theory has started to be adopted by some football teams as well. In a way, one might argue that Chip Kelly’s speed-it-up offense at Oregon is an attempt to run plays quickly enough that opposing defense can’t react quickly enough to make adjustments.

But taken to its ultimate form, one can also see it in action during a play. On Sunday, Von Miller learned that he could beat Chargers right tackle Jeromey Clary repeatedly by messing with Clary’s decision loop.

Miller is significantly faster than the somewhat slow-footed Clary, but he didn’t try to just beat Clary to the outside on every play. After all, Clary has long arms and the ability to generally give Miller enough of a well-timed shove to knock him past the pocket and quarterback Philip Rivers.

Instead, Miller used his ability to transition from one move to another quicker than Clary could react. As a result, Miller picked up three sacks of Rivers and an additional quarterback hurry.

Miller’s first sack had nothing to do with an OODA loop: it was just ineptness by the Chargers. Facing a very straightforward four-man rush, the Chargers slanted their line to the right, leaving Miller completely unblocked. It’s a fair question to wonder why the Chargers would call any protection scheme that leaves one of the NFL’s best pass rushers unblocked without even a play-action bootleg to attempt to sucker him away from the quarterback, but that’s what they did. Unsurprisingly, Miller was able to sack Rivers in just 1.7 seconds.

The final two sacks were examples of Miller’s ability to transition from move to move quicker than Clary could react. On the first one, Miller fired off the ball like he was going to head upfield on a speed rush, but he then planted his left foot to cut back to the inside, going directly at Clary on a bull rush.

At that point, Clary understandably stopped his feet and anchored to absorb the blow of a full-speed Miller trying to drive him into the backfield.

But just as Clary stiffened to stop the bull rush, Miller planted his right foot and cut back upfield. At this point, Clary was finished. He simply wasn’t agile enough to stop sliding his feet and get back to the outside. The last thing he could do was to try to dive at Miller’s legs, but Miller was already by him at that point, and hit Rivers to force a fumble.

Less than 10 minutes later in the third quarter, Miller did it again. Once again, Miller started to the outside, then started to chop his feet to engage Clary with an upfield move. Once again, Clary stopped his feet to try to center his momentum, and when he did that Miller again slid back to the outside. Clary was forced to lunge at Miller ineffectively again as Miller hit Rivers and knocked the ball loose for another fumble.

The only way the Chargers could prevent Miller from causing havoc was by reducing the number of Clary’s decisions. If San Diego had assigned a tight end or a back to help Clary on the outside, then Clary could have focused on stopping inside moves and bull rushes without worrying as much about being outmatched by Miller’s speed to the outside. Without that, Miller’s agility was simply too much for Clary to handle.


The Bears offensive line has been a problem for years, but they haven’t had many days worse than the one they turned in on Monday night against the 49ers.

Aldon Smith picked up 5.5 sacks, and the blame could be shared nearly equally between left tackle J’Marcus Webb and right tackle Gabe Carimi.

Smith beat Webb for the first two sacks. On the third sack, Smith started out lined up against Webb, but he looped inside on a line twist with Justin Smith. Guard Chilo Rachal failed to pick up Aldon Smith, but at the same time, Webb was beaten by Justin Smith. The sack was given fully to Aldon Smith, but he could have shared it with Justin Smith as both wrapped up and took Jason Campbell to the ground.

For the next sack, Aldon Smith slid over to the other side to torment Carimi. He used a stutter step to beat Carimi to the inside. He then shared his next sack with Justin Smith as both bull rushed to drive Carimi and Webb respectively into the backfield to meet at Campbell.

And to finish it off, Smith beat Carimi to the inside again, this time for a safety. Three of Smith’s 5.5 sacks came in 2.3 seconds or less, and only one took longer than three seconds. This was a nightmare performance by the Chicago tackles.
Neither had been this bad before Monday night, but with each of them giving up 2.5 sacks, it jumped both of them into the top 7 for most sacks allowed this season.

Most Sacks Allowed (through Week 11)
Player Team Sacks Allowed
Bobby Massie ARI 11.5
D'Anthony Batiste ARI 9
Jeromey Clary SD 6
Anthony Castonzo IND 6
Leroy Harris TEN 5.5
T. J. Lang GB 5.5
Gabe Carimi CHI 5.5
Jordan Gross CAR 5
J'Marcus Webb CHI 5
Marshall Newhouse GB 5
Mike Adams PIT 5
Austin Howard NYJ 5
Tyson Clabo ATL 5
Michael Harris SD 5


Unlike most sacks that can be timed with a calendar, Matthew Stafford wasn’t trying to run for it after finding no one to throw to when he was sacked six seconds after the snap. Instead, Stafford ran a play-action bootleg, rolling out and looking for somewhere to throw the ball. He never found it. (The rollout does reduce your options by cutting the field of potential receivers in half.) Eventually safety Morgan Burnett got tired of watching Stafford run around so he came up from the secondary to pick up the sack.


The sack where the Chargers left Miller unblocked was the quickest sack of the week. We learned that it takes Miller 1.7 seconds from a standing start to sack the quarterback if the offense doesn’t bother to try to slow him down.

Posted by: J.J. Cooper on 23 Nov 2012

10 comments, Last at 30 Nov 2012, 8:39pm by Anon.


by Anonymouse (not verified) :: Fri, 11/23/2012 - 11:36am

Could you include snap counts in the table of sacks? That will help us to compare how often tackles allow sacks. Some teams throw much more often than others and, therefore, have more opportunities for sacks.

by J.J. Cooper :: Sun, 11/25/2012 - 10:36pm

If we can get my database and FO's to work together quickly enough for me to turn it around, yes, but it may be something that can't be done consistently til the end of the season. Let me see what I can do.

by Anonymouse (not verified) :: Fri, 11/23/2012 - 11:43am

Pass attempts, too, if possible.

For example, the Indianapolis Colts have the fifth most pass attempts, and Anthony Castonzo has played most of the offensive snaps. His six sacks allowed probably aren't as bad as Gabe Carimi's. Chicago is near the bottom in pass attempts, and Carimi has played almost 150 less offensive snaps than Castonzo but allowed almost as many sacks.

by Rich A (not verified) :: Fri, 11/23/2012 - 1:00pm

Love the reference to the OODA loop. As a fan of all sorts of competition I don't hear enough about this and how to implement it in particular sports.

by J.J. Cooper :: Sun, 11/25/2012 - 10:29pm

Thanks for the positive feedback. I was worried that this might be getting too far out there, so I'm glad to hear that there are people who like to see there kind of theories synthesized in different fields. There are a couple of really good biographies of Boyd out there--the best in my opinion is the one called simply Boyd by Robert Corman. And there is a lot of good info on the OODA loop on the Internet. I left out that Boyd also was the guy who was called in to fix the F-15 during its design and the genesis of the idea of the F-16.

Amazingly Boyd retired as a colonel. As brilliant as he was, he was too much of a maverick to ever make general. The Air Force doesn't even really do much to honor his memory, although the Marines do--it's easier to honor a guy who made great contributions and ruffled feathers if it isn't your generals feathers he was ruffling.

by Karl Cuba :: Sat, 11/24/2012 - 10:25am

That's probably the best Under Pressure yet. The OODA stuff is great though I'm not sure if you can assume that it was Clary's slow decision making that was responsible, it could easily be him just not having quick enough feet. If you view it as Miller overwhelming his response time then it's a perfect description.

by LionInAZ :: Sat, 11/24/2012 - 3:55pm

I believe Cooper made that point about Clary's slow feet.

by Karl Cuba :: Sun, 11/25/2012 - 10:25am

Looking again you are probably right.

by J.J. Cooper :: Sun, 11/25/2012 - 10:24pm

Thanks Karl. Yeah, as I see it, Clary's slow feet are part of his response time. He's unable to match Miller's ability to change from one direction to another.

by Anon. (not verified) :: Fri, 11/30/2012 - 8:39pm

Love the Boyd reference. F-16, F/A-18, A-10, Desert Storm "left hook," USMC doctrine on maneuver conflict (see Granada and opening of OIF), time-oriented strategic framework (the OODA Loop); the man was a genius.

Also as a note, the origin of the OODA loop idea was in Boyd's study of aerial combat in the Korean War. He noticed that while the Soviet/Korean MiG-15 outperformed the American F-86 in a number of key areas (it was faster, climbed better, turned sharper), it couldn't transition from one maneuver to another as fast. F-86 pilots capitalized on that to secure a superior combat record.

I think there's a parallel to the quick feet issue here, in that having the foot quickness to react to a changing situation is an important element of good OT technique and successful play.