Word of Muth: Crashing the Nickel
by Ben Muth
After one quarter of the 49ers-Jets game on Sunday I was already getting excited about breaking down San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick package. But as the early games on Sunday developed, another story piqued my interest as well: the Patriots were running all over the Bills’ vaunted defensive line. By the time the game was over, New England had gained 247 yards rushing and 19 first downs on the ground, which is the same number of first downs Buffalo had for the whole game.
Still, I was torn, so I looked at the upcoming schedules for New England and San Francisco, figuring I’d save the team who had the more interesting game for next week. The Patriots play Peyton Manning and the Broncos next week -- it doesn't get much more interesting than that. I thanked the football Gods and prepared to write about the 49ers’ Not Wildcat offense.
But I decided to look at San Francisco’s schedule for kicks, and I’m glad I did because they play the Bills next week. I figured if I choose to write about that game next week, it would be a great chance to see how the Bills adjust, what San Francisco uses from the New England game plan, and whether or not Mario Williams is actually alive or if we have a Weekend at Bernie’s situation. With that decided, I was back to the Week 4 games and the Patriots.
Last time I wrote about the Patriots, they couldn’t move the ball against a defense that used two down defensive linemen. Since then, Dan Connolly has returned from injury and took over the right guard position. On the other side, perennial Pro Bowler Logan Mankins replaced Connolly on the inactive list, forcing Donald Thomas back into the lineup at left guard. Nate Solder (left tackle), Ryan Wendell (center), and Sebastian Vollmer (right tackle) are all healthy and in same positions they have been all year.
As far as their individual play goes, it’s pretty obvious they all played well. They gave up one sack -- a coverage sack -- and ran for over 200 yards. There’s not a lot to critique. I will say that the two guys that stood out were Vollmer and Connolly.
It seemed that whenever the Patriots wanted to pull a guard, Connolly was the guy, and he usually impressed. When I watched tape of the Patriots last year, it was usually Mankins that was the designated puller, so it seems Connolly has been asked to step up in his absence. He did a nice job of dropping his pads at the point of contact and moving guys out of the hole when he had to. If you look at the photo below you’ll see a great, grainy, example.
Buffalo linebacker Nick Barnett steps up to meet Connolly in the hole. Notice in the first shot that Connolly is lower than Barnett at the point of contact, but then in the second shot, Barnett is a yard-and-a-half wider than he was at the point of contact. That’s a big difference right at the point of attack.
Sebastian Vollmer impressed for a very different reason: he made Williams an absolute non-factor in the passing game. Williams has been a non-factor for most of the year so far, but he still has enough of a reputation to where stonewalling him is impressive.
One positive thing Vollmer did in pass protection that jumped out was the way he got into Williams quickly. Williams has really long arms and likes to extend on offensive tackles, either to bull rush them straight back or snatch them downward towards the turf. Vollmer short set Williams a lot, meaning he made contact almost on the line of scrimmage, engaging Williams before he could create any distance.
I had an offensive line coach who always compared pass blocking to boxing. The most important thing is good footwork and balance. It’s better to punch short, quick, and accurate than looping and powerful. And, finally, you have to tailor your style to your opponent. You don’t fight Wladimir Klitschko the same way you would Mike Tyson.
Vollmer on Sunday was a nice example of tailoring your play to your opponent. If you’re playing a guy like Dwight Freeney, who likes to spin and come up underneath you, you want to create as much distance as possible. This way you have time to react to his sudden moves and change in direction. But against longer-limbed guys like Williams or DeMarcus Ware, you want to eliminate distance so you can get inside of their frame and control them. That’s exactly what Vollmer did.
As good as Vollmer and Connolly were though, the real star may have been New England’s game plan. There were two key factors to Patriots’ running game. They were able to keep Buffalo in nickel personnel, and against that, the Patriots ran a lot of Strong formations (two tight ends or a tight end and a fullback on the same side of the formation) and ran right at the defensive back who was aligned in the box to counteract the run-friendly formation. Let’s go to the tape for a better look.
There’s 5:53 left in the third quarter and the Patriots are in a single-back formation with both tight ends to the right. The Bills are in a 4-2 front modified into a 4-3. The Bills shifted their linebackers over to the strength of the formation and walked free safety Jairus Byrd into the box in a Will linebacker position.
New England runs a simple counter play, with Rob Gronkowski pulling across the formation and leading up in the hole. Because the linebackers are shifted towards the two tight ends, the Patriots can block straight ahead on the backside. Thomas (LG) down blocks on nose tackle Marcell Dareus and Wendell (C) can release directly up to the Mike linebacker Barnett. Left tackle Solder just has to turn out on the defensive end.
If you look at the picture above, you see there’s already a huge hole developing. Byrd has a great view of the play as it is developing and has the best chance to stop it. It’s Byrd’s job to come in and squeeze that hole as much as possible while keeping his outside arm free to make a tackle if Brandon Bolden bounces it outside Gronkowski’s block.
But Byrd doesn’t squeeze the hole at all. He hugs up next to the tackle and waits for Gronkowski to come to him. He keeps his outside arm free and thus maintains his leverage, but by not squeezing down at all, he has left a crater in the middle of the defense for Barnett to fill. Making Barnett’s job more difficult is the fact that he’s being blocked by Wendell, so Bolden just has to cut off the center’s block.
The other big issue for Buffalo is the fact that Dareus is being blocked for an eternity by Donald Thomas. He doesn’t move the big tackle, but Thomas locks onto him like Velcro and doesn’t let him cross his face to make a play.
Eventually, Bolden cuts back off Wendell’s block and into the secondary. It was a 20-yard gain for the Patriots.
Let’s take a look at another play on the next series. It’s the final play of third quarter. The Patriots lined up in a Strong I formation with the strength to the left and twin receivers to the right. Daniel Fells was aligned in the backfield as a fullback. The Bills were aligned in a modified 4-3 again, but this time it is strong safety George Wilson walked into the box as the Sam linebacker.
Once again, the Patriots run right at the defensive back in the box with counter action. This time, they run an inside zone with a lock concept on the backside. Every offensive lineman is running an inside zone blocking technique to the right. The lock concept is for the tight end and fullback and is exactly what it sounds like: it tells the tight end on the left side (Gronkowski) to lock onto the defensive end over him instead of running inside zone like the rest of the line. Here the Patriots have also added a fullback to the lead up onto the Sam (Wilson). It’s a designed cutback play that works as a counter without having to pull anyone
You can see how effective this type of play can be when Bills linebacker Bryan Scott (highlighted below) decides to try to run through a gap right at the snap. That would be great if it was just a straight inside zone as it appears, but since the play is bending back, he’s essentially blocking himself.
As the play progresses, a hole begins to open up on the left side. A big reason why is that to defensive tackle Kyle Williams, it feels like he’s being blocked on an inside zone to the right. So, he fights into to the center to close down with the play. By the time he sees Stevan Ridley winding back he’s already closed down a couple of yards widening the gap between him and the DE.
Luckily for the Bills they have a guy responsible for that gap. Unluckily for the Bills it’s the safety playing in the box.
Just like Byrd in the previous play, it is Wilson’s job to squeeze the hole and eliminate space for Ridley to run through. Also, just like Byrd, Wilson hugs the tackle and defensive end to his side, and doesn’t shrink the hole at all. So even though he’s kept his outside leverage on Fells, there’s such a big hole inside that it doesn’t matter.
The other key facet of this play is Gronkowski’s block on former teammate Mark Anderson. Jimmy Graham may be a better receiver (maybe), but he’s not in Gronk’s league as a blocker. His ability to block a defensive end one-on-one on a slow-developing play like this is a huge advantage for the Patriots. Anderson was barely able to lay a hand on Ridley as he ran through the hole for an 11-yard gain.
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Obviously, it’s not just the safeties at fault on these plays. You don’t give up almost 250 yards because your safeties don’t fill holes well enough. Dareus got blocked forever on the first play, and Scott ran through and took himself out of the play on the second one. But the reason I singled out Byrd and Wilson is that both plays were deception-based, and both times the safety in the box had the best view of the backfield to see exactly what was coming. I’m sure it wasn't a coincidence that the Bills defenders that had the best chance to stop the Patriots running game (I only diagrammed two plays but there were probably eight more plays in the same vein) were defensive backs.
That’s what game planning is all about: you find areas where you can get the defense into something predictable. In this case, the Patriots knew that if the Bills were in nickel personnel, New England could line up in Strong formations and get defensive backs in a position to be exploited. Once you know what look you are going to get, you can pick the plays with the best chance of succeeding.
Seeing as how the Patriots would run at the box defensive back almost every time, regardless of whether he was on the strong or weak side of the formation, it makes me think the Patriots were packaging all their runs. They would give Brady two (or more) running plays, and tell him to run right at the guy playing linebacker wearing a number that started with a two or three. It was a great game plan that was executed to perfection.
It’ll be interesting to see how the 49ers attack the Bills next week. I’m sure the Bills aren’t going to give Alex Smith the respect they gave Tom Brady, which will mean a lot less nickel. So, we’ll have to see what the San Francisco coaching staff can come up with to take advantage of the holes on the Bills defense. I’m certainly looking forward to it.