Let’s take a look at some of my game notes from Sunday’s key games from a scheme and game-plan perspective.
Cadillac in OT
The Bucs’ 20-17 upset of the Saints in New Orleans was a shocker, but watching that game — especially in OT — I was amazed at how easily the Bucs moved the ball down the field to set up the winning field goal by using basic power running plays. When I say “basic,” I’m talking about the running package that’s installed by the offense on the first day of training camp: the Power O, the Lead strong, the Lead Open and the Iso (fullback on LB).
Downhill plays that require a back to make one cut off of the lead block and get downfield — exactly what I saw from Cadillac Williams in the overtime period. Usually, we see this type of game plan when a team is leading with under four minutes to go, not when they’re driving to pull off what might be the biggest upset of the ’09 season. It will be a tough day in the film room for Gregg William’s defense because they were physically beaten up front by a package of plays that a playoff team should be able to stop.
More and more 2-Man coverage
We have to understand that this is a so-called “copycat league” in the sense that tapes of each and every one of these games gets passed around to all 32 teams — and everyone is looking for that scheme, coverage or play that’s working on Sundays. This year — from a defensive perspective — it’s 2-Man coverage (2 deep with 5 underneath playing trail man). I saw it from the Ravens, Saints, Broncos, Packers, etc. The idea is simple — as it takes away any inside breaking routes by the underneath defenders playing with inside man leverage and “trailing” the receiver knowing that he has two deep safeties playing over the top of the defense.
Yes, it can be beaten down the middle of the field between the safeties, but a perfect example was Jarrett Bush of the Packers, who undercut a 15-yard dig route by Seahawks WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh — playing the technique so fundamentally sound that it looked like he was running the route. Sit hard inside and jump underneath the break. It will be interesting to see if teams trust 2-Man enough to use it as a lead call — especially on third downs — in the playoffs.
Defending the West Coast
One reason you’ll see a team like Green Bay have so much success as a defense against a West Coast team like Seattle is because it can play man coverage against an offense that lives off inside breaking routes. What I mean by that is that West Coast offenses throw the ball to a spot — usually between the numbers and the hash marks. And they rarely run routes that break toward the sidelines (besides the option route). The Packers, as a man team, can then jump routes and play to the scheme from their film study. Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck didn’t stand a chance against that defense.
McNabb’s fourth-quarter throw
I wanted to talk about the throw Donovan McNabb made to WR Jeremy Maclin to set up the winning FG in a very good football game between the Eagles and the Broncos in Philly. All day, the Eagles had been seeing man coverage from the Broncos because Denver felt confidant putting Champ Bailey on WR DeSean Jackson. What the Eagles did late in the fourth quarter was a direct reflection of this. They used a reduced split (WR aligns closer to the core of the formation) and ran a flat-7 (or flat-flag) combo away from Bailey, and away from the deep middle of the field safety.
Maclin was able to gain outside leverage on CB Andre Goodman, and McNabb put the ball on his upfield shoulder — away from the defender — where only Maclin could make a play. This type of route out of a reduced spilt is a classic example of an offense running a play to beat a certain coverage — which was man-to-man from the Broncos. But you still have to finish the play. Big throw and catch by McNabb and Maclin.
The Broncos’ quick screens
If you got a chance to see the Eagles-Broncos game, you should have noticed the overwhelming amount of WR screens and Smoke routes (quick throw based off sight adjust by QB and WR) used by Denver. The idea behind this is simple when you have a WR with the talent and physical ability of Brandon Marshall — get the ball to him quickly in open space with only one tackle to break. It puts a player like Marshall one-on-one with a corner in the open field and is an easy way to create a big play without having to throw the ball into tight coverage.
Red zone weapons
Two players I want to talk about from Sunday’s action in the red zone are Randy Moss of the Patriots and Todd Heap of the Ravens — because they were both used in ways to create mismatches to produce points.
Moss caught three TD passes in three different route combinations that allowed him to gain a one-on-one advantage. The first, a Double Dig route, put Moss on a safety, running an inside breaking route across the field. The second, a Smash-Dig, puts an underneath receiver in front of the safety for bait, allowing Moss to continue his route to the open zone behind him. The third, a deep comeback run with boot action, where Moss can gain leverage on the corner and work away from him to the sideline. Very common routes we see from NFL teams in the red zone, but when you have a QB in Tom Brady throwing the ball and a WR in Moss running the routes, the macthups they create are almost too easy.
In Heap’s case, this is no different than what we saw from Baltimore last week against Chicago. The Ravens will align Heap as the “X” receiver to the open side of the formation — away from the strength — where he’s now matched up with a corner. Twice yesterday in Pittsburgh, Heap ran a “9” or fade route in the red zone where QB Joe Flacco knows that if he puts the ball up with enough air under it, Heap has the physical size to gain leverage on a smaller corner and get the football. It’s a mismatch created by the formation and knowing what to expect from the defense.
The Giants’ front four
I’ve talked all season about the lack of production from the New York secondary, but how bad where the Giants as a defensive front yesterday? Carolina RB Jonathan Stewart finished with 206 yards on 28 carries in the Panthers’ 41-9 win — good for over 7 yards a carry. And he did it in the power game. Just as we discussed with the Saints in overtime against Tampa, the Giants were exactly the same — but they did it for four quarters. An awful effort getting off blocks, playing gap control and tackling. That was as bad a performance as you’ll see from a defense playing for a playoff bid at this level.
Austin and Witten
One aspect of the Dallas offense that I noticed Sunday night is how they incorporate both Miles Austin and Jason Witten in the passing game — using routes that play to their strengths.
For Witten, that’s the Dig and the Option route — both when he’s aligned in the core of the formation and matched up against a linebacker or a safety. As he did last night against LaRon Landry and London Fletcher, he can beat press coverage off the line of scrimmage, and he has the speed to get out of his breaks at the top of his route. Those are dependable routes that Tony Romo can count on from the TE position.
For Austin, outside of his deep-ball ability, the Cowboys used him over and over again in the China-Dig combo with Witten. Austin runs the China (5-yard in route) against man coverage with Witten clearing the middle of the field on the Dig route by pushing his break to 15 yards. This allows Austin to catch the ball with space in front of him — his biggest asset as a receiver in this offense.
Rivers vs. the Titans
I thought we would flash back to Christmas night and the Chargers’ blowout win over Tennessee because of one route that Philip Rivers throws with production — the skinny post. This route is more of an extension of the 3-step slant route, but instead, the receiver stems inside and gets vertical immediately — using his body to shield the corner. But the ball has to be thrown on time and with accuracy to avoid the free safety coming downhill and making a play on the football. Friday night, Rivers did just that against the Titans, and he throws that ball better than any QB in the league
I understand that a lot will be said today about Colts head coach Jim Caldwell’s decision to pull Peyton Manning and a number of key starters in what turned out to be an easy win for the Jets. But when you win every game and go into Week 16 with a 14-0 record and home-field advantage, you have earned the luxury of doing whatever you want as a coach.
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