Word of Muth: Stretch Slice
by Ben Muth
The Redskins had a simple game plan against the Colts: run the football effectively and use play action to create big plays. They were able to run the ball pretty effectively, but they didn't find any big plays in the passing game. As a result, the Redskins lost another close game to fall back to .500. Despite not coming away with a victory, the coaching staff has to be happy with the way the team ran the ball. A big part of that success was the emergence of a possible workhorse in Ryan Torain, who ended the game with 100 yards and two scores.
Of course, Torain wasn't blocking for himself out there: he had a lot of help from the fullback, tight ends, and offensive line. The offensive tackles were the focus of Cris Collinsworth's commentary (and the majority of this article), but the interior offensive linemen played better. Artis Hicks and Kory Lichtensteiger never jumped off the tape. That was actually a good thing.
The Redskins were running a lot of Zone Stretch. It's a play that doesn't lend itself to really impressive blocks, especially on the interior line, where a stalemate is often a win for the offense. Both guards did a nice job of staying engaged with their men and keeping them on the line of scrimmage. This allowed Torain to be deep into the line of scrimmage before he would make his first cut. The later a running back can make a cut, the harder it is for linebackers to flow over top of plays without getting caught up on their own defenders or opposing offensive linemen. Casey Rabach was solid as well, but he was a slight tick below the guards.
The Redskins' tackles didn't play as well as the interior line, but then again, they had a much tougher job. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis may be the best defensive end combination in the National Football League (copyright: Ron Jaworski). In the running game, I think that Trent Williams and Jammal Brown brought the fight to the Colts. Ryan Torain was consistently able to get to the edge of the defense and chew up chunks of yardage at a time (let it be noted that the Colts secondary was a big part of this too -- they were MIA in run support). That being said, they were usually double-teaming with the tight ends on these plays, so they were rarely on their own. Still, they were effective double teams, and there's no such thing as style points for an offensive line.
Pass blocking was a different story. It's not that either of them was awful, because they weren't, but they were far from dominant. Robert Mathis finished with a sack and a half and two quarterback hits. And I think it might be because Jammal Brown seems to be hurt. He was on the injury report, and I don't expect him to come off any time soon. He just isn't moving as well as he did earlier in the year. It's possible that Mathis just made him look more hobbled than he is (Mathis has made a career out of making o-linemen look slow), but I think there is something wrong with him.
Trent Williams was only beaten cleanly once (he did get flagged twice for holding), but he was often in Donovan McNabb's lap as he was throwing. It's the kind of thing that will rarely kill a play by itself, but it can affect a quarterback a lot. When a quarterback is throwing and there are a lot of bodies around, he tends to be inaccurate. I'm not sure if it's because quarterbacks can't step into the throws, or if they're afraid of hitting their hands on their follow through, or if they simply have a hard time seeing with a bunch of 300-pounders 10 inches away. Whatever the reason, you don't want to be too close to your quarterback when he releases the ball.
The reason Williams was so close to McNabb was Freeney's bull rush. I was surprised to see how often, and easily, Freeney was bull-rushing Williams. Freeney is known far more for his spin move than any other move, but that's exactly why his bull rush was so successful against Williams. The best way to stop a spin move is to keep all your weight back and wait to throw your hands. If you can do this, you'll be on balance and ready to punch once the defender finishes his spin.
Well, that is the worst way to stop a bull rush. Williams was so focused on Freeney's spin move that he wasn't prepared for heavy dose of bull rush. It makes sense when you consider that Williams is a rookie and that most college pass rushers really only have one good move. The encouraging thing for Washington fans should be that, even though the first-year player was off balance most of the game, he was athletic enough and strong enough to prevent a truly bad game. A lot of rookies would have been in over their heads, but Williams was able to battle all game and have a decent outing against a superstar.
If you watched the game with the sound on, you probably noticed Cris Collinsworth discussing the impact Freeney and Mathis could have on the back side of running plays. Collinsworth noted that the Redskins staff was concerned that the Colts' two defensive ends would chase down everything in their zone running game from the backside. Usually, you don't worry about the backside defensive end on the Zone Stretch because if he is making the tackle on plays away, you just bootleg him to death until he learns to stay home. But with guys as fast as Freeney and Mathis, they can stay at home on the Bootleg and chase plays down from behind. So the Redskins staff got a little creative and added a slice concept to their zone stretch plays.
|Figure 1: Standard Stretch Slice|
The basic principle of slice blocking is to send one guy (always a skill player) across the formation, behind the line of scrimmage, to block back on the defensive end. It's a great way to divide the defense in two, because everyone is flowing one direction, and the slice block stops the momentum of one defender and creates a nice seam. I think that's where the name comes from; the goal of the play is to "slice" the defense right in two (a former teammate thought it was because whoever is coming across the formation will almost always throw a cut block on the defensive end). The slice concept is usually only seen on inside zone plays since backside defensive ends can rarely make a tackle on stretch plays. But like I said earlier, Freeney and Mathis aren't ordinary defensive ends.
The Redskins ran this Stretch Slice play from a bunch of different formations and motions. The way I liked the most was probably the simplest (just like Walter Sobchak, I'm a sucker for simplicity). Washington would line up in an offset I formation and use the fullback, Mike Sellers, as the slice man (Fig. 1).
There are two reasons I really like this stripped-down version. The first reason is that it gives the linebackers a quick misdirection read. Seeing the fullback run the opposite direction of the tailback will always freeze linebackers for a millisecond. That slight hesitation makes it so much easier for the offensive linemen to climb to the second level and block linebackers. The second reason is because I really like watching Mike Sellers block -- he's good at it. The Stretch Slice play provides Mike Sellers with an opportunity to throw a nice cut block on defensive ends, and I still hate defensive ends. Just because I stopped playing football doesn't mean I have to stop being an offensive lineman at heart.
|Figure 2: Single-Back Slice|
Another way Washington ran Stretch Slice was out of a single-back set with two tight ends. Earlier in the game, they had come out in a balanced single-back set, motioned Chris Cooley across the formation, and run a Stretch play that was designed to get to the outside immediately, with Cooley and Fred Davis double-teaming on the edge. They came out the exact same way this time, including the motion (in the diagram I left out the motion because it just got to be too many lines, instead I just started it with Cooley where he needed to be), but Cooley went back across the formation and became the slice man. As I said earlier, I prefer the other way the Redskins ran this play, but this version was effective as well. One advantage to running the play out of this formation is that it sets up much better for play action. Now, Chris Cooley will release in the flat and you still have another tight end to be a big target in the middle of the field.
The Stretch Slice was the bread and butter for the Redskins on Sunday against the Colts, but the Colts have struggled against the run this season. It will be interesting to see whether or not the Redskins running game is starting to find its stride. The success could just as easily be attributed to the Colts' horrendous tackling. I'm sure we'll learn more as the season goes along.