Happy Victory Tuesday, friends. Today, you’re going to get a Serving of thoughts on the Chiefs game, and something to Digest about the Jets, since that game is being played on Thursday night. Get excited, because it’s a two-fer Tuesday. Ready… BEGIN!!
1. Sunday’s win came in an unusual way, but you should never apologize for a victory. One of the Denver reporters got a little smart-assed with John Fox, and asked if he’d ever coached a game like that before. Fox kind of smirked, and said that yes, he had. It turned out that he won that one too. Jake Delhomme was out, and they pounded the hell out of the Falcons that day and played good defense.
For the last two weeks, the Broncos have gotten in touch with their physical side on offense, and a creative and effective running game has led to back-to-back road AFC West victories against both of the Broncos’ most hated rivals. For a Denver Broncos fan, it doesn’t get much better than that.
Somehow, though, being a Broncos fan has gotten to be more complicated than that. Somehow, everything came to revolve around the Quarterback, and sides have been chosen; everybody seems to have a bias one way or another, and the Broncos and Tim Tebow keep confirming it, whatever it is. For a while this was amusing, but it’s really kind of tiresome to me at this point.
I have a question for everybody to ponder. Is there a reason that final judgment needs to be rendered on the Broncos QB situation right now? I’m being completely serious in asking that. If you know of a reason to make a final decision on November 15th, please explain it in the comments.
I say that there’s no reason to make a decision right now. You may not think that Tebow is ever going to be good enough to consistently win with, and that’s cool and all, but is firing him right now going to give the Broncos a better chance to win over the next seven games? Is it defensible to fire a guy who’s been a key part of three wins in four games? You may not like how the dude throws the ball, but can anybody realistically say that he hasn’t been a positive force in each win? The future of the QB position is irrelevant, because nothing can be done about it right now, unless you think Brady Quinn is the answer. (I don't.) There's only the present.
There will come a day when the Broncos have to decide if Tim Tebow is the right answer as the go-forward QB. That day is not today, and it won’t be Thursday either. Honestly, it’s unlikely to come until April. Tebow’s best chance is to keep doing things that cause winning, even if those things don’t necessarily match statistics which tend to historically correlate with winning. After that, the day after the Broncos season ends, he should hire a private QB tutor like George Whitfield and work on improving his fundamentals. I mention Whitfield specifically, because he did a lot with Ben Roethlisberger, and there was noticeable improvement in Ben’s accuracy and fundamentals. He also worked with Cam Newton in the leadup to the 2011 Draft. When asked about working with Tebow a couple weeks ago, this is what he said:
Tebow needs a guy like Whitfield, who will work him from 8 AM to 8 PM every day for a couple of months and really focus on getting him moving in a better direction. Adam Gase can't do that because he has other responsibilities in the spring, like college player evaluation. Once he's gotten some intensive work in, Tebow can show up for voluntary workouts before the Draft and have a chance to wow the team with his growth, and maybe they decide to stick with him for 2012. Maybe they decide to take a QB in the first round anyway, but all the guy can do is his best to keep the job. If his work ethic is what people claim it is, you know he's going to do all he can to have his say on what happens.
There’s a long way between November 15th and April 15th. A lot can happen. The Broncos could make the playoffs, if you can believe that. You’re never going to see me say “Tebow just wins,” but when he’s winning, it’s probably best to give him his due, and accept that what he’s doing is winning for now.
2. Let’s talk briefly about Sunday’s offensive strategy, shall we? Continuing from the Raiders game, the Broncos used a very creative approach to running the ball and had a lot of success with it. There are people who say that running the ball in and of itself is inherently uncreative, but that’s wrong. Mike McCoy is making the best use that he can of the 11 guys he has on offense. The Broncos are using a lot of ballcarriers from a lot of angles. It’s obvious that a great deal of thought is going into it. Creativity doesn’t have to mean that something new was invented; a lot of times, it means that old tactics are employed to good strategic effect, in a way that is uncommon in the current time.
Chris Brown had a good article Monday that Doug linked to as a Prime Cut which echoed a point I’ve been making about the mathematics of the running game. By forcing a defense to account for Tebow, the Broncos are able to create favorable matchups in the running game, and it all comes down to arithmetic and geometry. I’m now going to try to do my best ever job of explaining that, so that it is easily found with The Google.
Remember gaps? There are eight of them in an offensive formation. There are different ways to describe them, depending on who taught you football, but I describe and teach them this way. Here is a balanced offensive line with the eight gaps noted:
Some people call the outside gap the D Gap, but I was taught not to, and I call it the Edge. The Edge is not a gap like other gaps, because it extends all the way to the sideline, so it deserves to be highlighted specially. Also, when an offense goes with an unbalanced line, there’s a D gap on the heavy side, and it’s inside of the Edge. This is what it looks like:
You notice how big the Edge area is on the light (right in this case) side of the unbalanced line? That’s important, and I’ll show you why momentarily. Let’s expand on this diagram, and give it a defense and some receivers.
Here, we see an unbalanced line left, with twin flankers to that side. This looks a lot like what the Broncos have been doing with their formations when they run the Zone Read. The following play is a simple outside zone stretch play like the Broncos used to run very successfully with Terrell Davis and others.
The backside OLB isn’t blocked, and the naked action by the QB is meant to occupy him. As I write this on Monday night, Chris Berman is fellating Mike Krzyszewski at halftime of the Vikings-Packers game, as if ESPN doesn’t slobber on Duke enough. I’m convinced that baby seals are dying somewhere as a result of this.
Anyway, the backside OLB is unblocked by design, and he may or may not crash on the play. If he doesn’t, the offense has seven zone blockers against seven defenders, and the RB can react to whatever opening emerges, and make his one cut and go. If the OLB is too aggressive in crashing, the naked bootleg is going to be open for business, and it’s easy to get that backside TE (Y) out on a short route with him. This is a devastating play concept, when it’s executed at a high level, as we all remember well. No matter what the defense does, there’s a right answer for the offense.
Typically, that OLB ends up taking a read step, and visually verifying that the QB handed the ball off, because that action is quick by design. At that point, he’d crash down the line to reduce the angle that the RB had for a cutback. What you end up with is an effective play area that looks like this.
Because the RB has the ball, and gets at least several steps to the left before deciding on a hole to attack, he’s limited by the angle he creates in how far he can possibly get back right. The OLB is also a major factor on how far to the backside he can get. That’s a lot of area that the RB can attack, but the defense knows that it has the far backside cut off as long as that Will LB does his job.
The preceding diagram is a rendition the Zone Read, from a formation that is also unbalanced. It looks a lot like what the Broncos are doing with this play the last couple weeks. If you look, you’ll see that it’s the exact same formation with the exact same zone blocking action as the previous play. We see the same 8 man box look on defense. Interesting, huh?
Let’s talk about math. In terms of the box count, I have 7 guys zone blocking to the left. The defense has 8 men close to the line of scrimmage. It’s up to them how they try to defend this, (get more athletic... we'll get right on that!) but it’s advisable to keep at least one of the LDE and Will LB at home strong, and have the other consider staying home based upon the keys that he reads.
The first problem is that the handoff isn’t as quick as the first play, because the QB doesn’t have to take time to move to a landmark to make the handoff. The RB is right there to his right, so the QB can hold the ball for a beat at the mesh point, and read what the DE and OLB are doing. Because the QB is located centrally at the snap point, if he decides to run, he can get a lot further right than the RB could in the previous Zone Read play. Check out this diagram, and compare it to the other play.
What we’re saying is that the geometry is a lot more favorable with the Zone Read than it is with the traditional Outside Zone Stretch from under center. This is what that statement looks like. The effective play area is literally sideline-to-sideline, so the backside pursuit is going to have to be a lot more cautious.
Here’s the read sequence:
Does the backside DE stay home? If yes, hand off. The count is going to be 7 blockers on 6 box defenders, which is really favorable.
If not, does the backside OLB establish good one-on-one position to tackle the QB? If yes, hand off. The count is 7 on 7, and that’s still pretty favorable.
- If not, does the backside OLB overpursue or get flat-footed to where he can be beaten to the edge? If yes, keep the ball and run to the backside edge.
That Chris Brown article that Doug linked to yesterday, and that I linked above, is very good but two years old, and you can be assured that Tebow has seen every tactic there is for defending this play. He reads the backside action like a guy who's done it a few thousand times in games and practices, because he has. NFL defenses so far play it like they've practiced it tens of times over a three-day period, because they have. For Tebow, it's natural and instinctive, and for defenders, it isn't.
I’m here to tell you that this is not a college play. Let’s just shut that down, along with the stupid notion that if college teams use a play, it’s somehow delegitimized and shouldn't be used in the NFL. This is a play that college coaches, led by Rich Rodriguez, learned from NFL teams in the 90s (especially the Broncos) and then adapted to employ to better effect in taking advantage of athletic QBs. The two plays are exactly the same, except for the following minor differences:
The front-side WRs are sometimes running routes to set up the deep ball off of the play action this can create. In the 90s Broncos version, they were blocking far more often than not.
The handoff happens in shotgun, which allows the QB to read the backside defenders from a good vantage point. It also means he never has to turn his back to them, which is very important.
- The QB therefore has the choice of handing off or keeping the ball on every play. In the traditional version, the handoff always happens, the coaches see the overpursuit, and they call the bootleg from the sideline eventually to take advantage of it. It’s not an option to the QB, in other words, but an option to the coach.
Other than that, this is the same play that the Broncos won two Super Bowls with. In terms of both box counting and geometry, it’s an improvement schematically over that version, and the value-add comes from the fact that the team is willing to risk the QB getting hit a little bit.
As a parting note, you may have noticed that the Broncos didn’t run this play as much with Lance Ball on Sunday, and I suspect that that’s because Tebow and Ball fumbled the ball on the long mesh action against Detroit. Playing RB in this concept is a learned skill, just like playing QB is. Willis McGahee did better with it once he learned how to do it, and assuming Ball is now going to play a lot, I would expect that he’ll improve at it too.
3. If you read Chewing the Fat yesterday, you no doubt ascertained that I didn’t love some of the specific play-calling, even though I do like the running scheme overall. I appreciate that the Broncos liked the way they were running the ball, and wanted to stick with what was working, but I think it was overdone at times, especially as the Chiefs started to adjust to it after halftime.
Particularly, on a few third-and-long(ish) plays, I think that Tebow needs to be allowed to try to convert those. You don’t have to go reckless with it, but let’s let him try on 3rd-and-7 or -8 with a good coverage-specific oblique stretch concept and a half-field read. (I do continue to think that low-risk plays on 3rd and 14-or-so are advisable.)
I also generally think that being willing to throw on non-obvious downs is a value-adding tactic, even when you’re pounding the other team’s defensive front. We saw that with a couple of the deep balls that were nearly completed on Sunday.
I guess what I’m saying is that there’s a happy medium between what we saw Sunday, and throwing Tebow to the wolves by asking him to drop back 50 times. I think that the Broncos would like to use him like the Steelers used Ben Roethlisberger as a rookie, and that that would be appropriate at this point. Remember, Ben wasn’t always the Ben we see today. He came into the NFL pretty raw, and he had to be brought up to the level he’s at now. The dominant Pittsburgh running game and defense gave him the cover he needed, and he did better and better with time, and what he was asked to do expanded as he went.
I know, nobody wants to wait for a QB to improve, and it might not even happen, and he threw it at Rosario’s feet on 3rd and short! I’m not thinking long-term right now. I’m simply saying that you can protect the guy from trouble, and still turn him loose as a passer more than what we saw Sunday. It’s pertinent to how competitive the team will be in the next seven weeks. (But yeah, I still have Rebuilding Fever, regardless of what happens in the next seven weeks.)
Digesting the Jets
And now, without artful segue (which is pronounced Segway like those dorktacular mall cop mobiles, but not spelled like them), here goes with some Digestion action.
Games Watched – Week 3 vs Oakland, Week 9 vs. New England
a. The Jets are the most package-happy defense in the NFL, and they like to bring pressure from all over the place. They have 26 defenders on their 53-man roster, against 24 offensive guys, and they maximize the use of their defenders. If you take a look at the snap data, you’ll see that the Jets play a lot of DBs:
|Pos||#||Name||Snaps||% of Total|
|Total Defensive Snaps||606|
In fact, they are the first team I’ve analyzed this year that averages five DBs on the field. They’re nominally a 3-4 team, but to me, it’s a lot more like a very multiple 46. You’ll see two really frequent fronts from the Jets, the Bear front, and the 44 (not 4-4) front.
The Bear front is named after the Chicago Bears, which was the team for which Buddy Ryan invented the 46 Defense. It simply puts big defenders directly over the Center and two Guards, in 2-, 0- and 2-techniques respectively. The idea is to pressure the middle and stuff the run, and to keep the interior linemen from getting out to the second level to block LBs.
The Jets sometimes show a modified Bear front, where the spacing is the same, but the guys covered will be the Center, Guard, and Tackle to one side, in 0-, 2-, and 4-techniques. The Jets like to do this in passing situations a lot and use what amounts to a hybrid zone blitz from it. I’ll describe that in more detail a little later.
The 44 front is the basic front of most 3-4 schemes. The two "4"s simply indicate that the DEs align in 4-techniques, head up on the OT. The NT is in a 0-technique usually (but sometimes a 1-technique), and the idea of the 44 front is to occupy five offensive linemen with three defenders. (Math again in football! This is like school or something. That sucks!) This is the main reason I get cranky when a Peter King calls a DE who plays in a 3-4 a “5-technique,” because they only play 5T sometimes, and it’s generally less often than they play 4T, esecially in a Fairbanks-Bullough variant.
b. Coverage-wise, the Jets are extremely man-to-man heavy. They’ll drop a D-lineman into zone coverage near the line of scrimmage sometimes on the side away from where their blitz is coming from, but they're not a zone-blitz team, per se, like the Steelers are. The idea of them doing it once in awhile is to take away hot reads, which historically have come from sight adjustments on the away side. The answer is to have a check-to-hot option to the blitz side.
c. On the defensive line, the Jets are kind of up-and-down. All of their starters can make a big play on one snap, and get buried on the next. The best player is Sione Pouha, and DE Muhammad Wilkerson (this season’s first-round pick) is going to be very good too. DE Mike Devito is a good run player who doesn’t provide very much in the passing game. The backups are kind of meh to me, but I do like Kenrick Ellis, who’s huge and strong. He doesn’t play much yet, but I expect that he will in the years to come.
d. The linebackers are interesting to me. The best player is ILB David Harris, and he’s joined by ILB Bart Scott, OLB Calvin Pace, and OLB Jamaal Westerman. Harris and Pace play almost all the time, and Scott and Westerman participate a bit more situationally. All LBs rush the passer sometimes, and all four players have two or three sacks this season.
One guy to watch out for is OLB Aaron Maybin, who was a bust in Buffalo, but who has grown to be a good pass-rush specialist for the Jets. He has three sacks, four pressures, and two QB hits in only 65 pass-rushing attempts. Rex Ryan and Mike Pettine are making good use of Maybin’s skills and not asking him to play the run much, which is where he can get buried.
As you see in the following table, the Jets LB corps are their primary pass rushers and QB sackers. As a team, they lack an elite rusher, and it’s very much about the scheme causing pressure. That can be effective, but teams which blitz a lot can leave themselves vulnerable to big plays:
e. The following table shows where the pass rush comes from for the Jets, and you can see the answer is all over the place. They’re still mostly a four-man rush team, but the challenge is figuring out who those four rushers are.
|Pos||#||Name||Rush||Coverage||% Rush||% Coverage|
f. In the secondary, the Jets have the all-world Darrelle Revis, and he’s a real problem for teams which heavily depend upon a star WR. On the other side is a guy we know well in Antonio Cromartie. His production has never matched his talent, and he was a star player in the Defensive Holding Bowl against the Raiders that I looked at. Cromartie is tied for second in the NFL (with Charles Woodson and Patrick Peterson, among others) in penalties assessed at the CB position. The third CB is Kyle Wilson, who was a first-round pick in 2010. He’s improving, but he can be had. Donald Strickland and Marquice Cole are the fourth and fifth guys, and they’re what you’d expect.
g. Safety is where there’s an opportunity. Jim Leonhard and Eric Smith are effective for a lot of the box duties that they’re assigned, but neither is particularly fast or good in coverage. Emanuel Cook is now the primary backup with Brodney Pool being hurt, but he rarely plays on defense. The secondary is effectively comprised of Leonhard, Smith, and a bunch of corners for Thursday’s game.
a. The Jets do some interesting stuff on offense, particularly with their running game. The locals don’t like Offensive Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, but like most locals, they don’t know what they’re talking about. There’s nothing schematically wrong with what the Jets do, and while none of it is flashy, it’s all well-thought out, and it’s varied to the point where defenses have to account for a lot. Bill Callahan is masterful at coordinating the running game, as he always has been. The Jets run a lot of bootleg stuff off of their running game, and those plays are when they’re at their most dangerous.
b. The QB is Mark Sanchez, in case you don’t subscribe to GQ, and every time I watch him I see things to like and things to dislike. I really like his mobility and ability to throw accurately on the run. His ability to hit downfield throws between the numbers is also really impressive. I strongly dislike Sanchez’s ability to deal with pressure. For a guy in his third year as a starter, he should be better than this, and the fact that he isn’t suggests that he may never be.
c. At RB, the Jets have cast their lot with Shonn Greene as the primary ballcarrier, and he’s really just a guy. The more dangerous player is LaDainian Tomlinson; LDT can still do a lot of damage when he gets the ball in space, and the Jets used him to great effect in the slot against the Raiders. Joe McKnight plays very little on offense, but he’s dangerous with the ball, and he needs to be watched closely. The primary FB is John Conner, who is an excellent lead blocker in the running game.
d. The WRs are Santonio Holmes and Plaxico Burress. This week’s Who Gives A Crap About Fantasy Football? note is that I’ve counted on Holmes to get going all season, and he hasn’t. That’s been a big reason why the warriors of Self-flagellation For The Homie Jesus are in last place in the IAOFM division of our league. (I am ahead of three of the five MHR teams, so that’s cool, at least.)
Anyway, Holmes has been disappointing this year. On a given play, you can see how good he is, but he hasn’t had enough of those plays. The ex-con on the other side is Plaxico Burress, and he’s not quite the player he used to be. He doesn’t separate from anybody, but he’s still an outstanding traffic catcher, and he’s dangerous in the scoring area. The slot guy is Jeremy Kerley, and he’s dangerous over the middle, but lightly used.
e. The starting TE is Dustin Keller, and he’s an all-catch, no-block guy. The Jets used to take him off the field on run plays, but that tipped the situation too much, so now they pretty much leave him out there and live with him getting rag-dolled. The second TE is Matthew Mulligan, and he’s an all-block, no-catch guy. He’s only okay as a blocker too, as Andre Carter showed on Sunday night. The Jets do sometimes line up extra linemen Vladimir Ducasse and Caleb Schlauderaff at TE too, in keeping with the league-wide trend.
f. If you check out the Jets skill-position snap data which follows this paragraph, you’ll see that they profile very similarly to the Raiders and Chiefs in their offensive grouping pattern. You’re going to see one RB, one TE, two WR, and another guy who could be any of the three. Identifying that fifth man gives a good clue about what kind of play will be run. If it’s Kerley, there’s a 75% chance it’s a pass. If it’s Conner or Mulligan, it’s a 60% chance it’s a run.
|Pos||#||Name||Snaps||% of Total|
g. The offensive line is a very mixed bag. On the one hand, you have the excellent C Nick Mangold, and the good (but overrated) LT D’Brickashaw Ferguson. On the other hand you have the average RG Brandon Moore, the marginal LG Matt Slauson, and the terrible RT Wayne Hunter. Overall, this line is a little better in protection than it is in the running game, but it’s not particularly good in either phase of the game. This line has fallen a long way from when Alan Faneca and Damien Woody played on it a couple years ago.
Beating the Jets Defense
a. I watched the New England game live on Sunday night, and in choosing another game to watch, I went back to the Raiders game, because they ran the ball really effectively against the Jets in Week 3, and I wanted to see what they did.
One thing they did was call a HB pass with Darren McFadden that was quickly identified and covered, and McFadden ended up running with the ball when nobody was open, and gaining 27 yards on it. It was effectively like a QB scramble. On the very next play, the Raiders ran a reverse to Denarius Moore for a 23-yard TD. That was two carries for 50 yards and a TD, and it gave the Raiders their first lead of the game, which they wouldn’t relinquish. The reason I point this out is that you can clearly make some plays by being creative against this aggressive defense.
b. If you take out those two carries, 50 yards and one rushing TD on special plays, you’re still left with 30 carries for 184 yards, and three other TDs. The Raiders still lined up, did a bunch of zone blocking, and knocked the Jets backward in the running game. The Broncos can too, if they keep playing the way they have been up front. The Jets are going to make a few plays and chop down a RB for a 1-yard gain here and there, but if you stick with it, you can eventually gash them.
c. The Jets want to play small and use a bunch of DBs all the time, and you have to make them pay for it. They’ll come out with two defensive linemen, two LBs, five CBs, and two safeties sometimes. You have to run it down their throats when they do and make all those CBs be tacklers.
d. Since the Jets play a lot of man-to-man, the QB scramble game is going to be open for business. The Jets will probably answer that threat by spying Tebow a lot (I’m thinking it’s a Bart Scott job), and that still helps the offense. When a team wants to play man and use a spy, you have to wear out the crossing route. Tebow throws it well, Eric Decker, Matt Willis, and Eddie Royal run it well, and you can do some interesting rub action to open it up against a guy like Darrelle Revis.
e. It’s not that likely that we’ll see Decker beating Revis deep, but I think it’s about time that Demaryius Thomas showed something in that area. Those safeties for the Jets are beatable, and Thomas is a physical mismatch for most CBs in the NFL when it comes to being strong and fighting for the ball.
f. The Broncos need some receiving production from Julius Thomas and Daniel Fells in this game. The middle of the field is where the softest spots are going to be, and the Broncos need to make a concerted effort to go there.
Stopping the Jets Offense
a. You have to have a good plan for containing the bootleg game of Mark Sanchez. The Broncos should play him as a thrower, but he moves really well, so you have to be cognizant of the run threat.
b. It’s very important to account for LDT, especially when he’s in the slot. I would consider auto-checking to zone when he’s out there, like you would against a smash concept at the goal line. He’s still dynamic, and he can still go a long way against you if you’re not careful.
c. Solid man coverage outside will work fine against Holmes and Burress, and the guy I want to double-team is Dustin Keller. He’s Sanchez’s favorite receiver, and he runs routes in Sanchez’s favorite part of the field; over-under coverage on him can lead to turnovers.
d. The Broncos won’t need to do anything exotic to stop the Jets running game, just man up and fight for their gaps. Did you know that the Jets and Broncos are 15th and 16th in rushing yards per game allowed, and 9th and 10th in yards per carried allowed? They’re practically the same in terms of their ability to stop running plays.
e. Above all, the priority against the Jets has to be to pressure Sanchez. He’s very good against no pressure, and very bad against pressure. It’s even more extreme than the case of Matt Cassel last week. (Side note: did you realize that the Broncos have now injured QB’s throwing hands in two of their last three games? They did Matt Stafford too, apparently.)
f. The Jets have a lot of holes in their protection, and on top of that they like to minimum protect, as you see in the following table. A lot of that is because they’re counting on play action to slow down the rush, but if you’re handling their run game, and forcing them to be a dropback team, they don’t do so well.
|Pos||#||Name||Protection||Pattern||Snaps||% of Total|
g. It’s really important against the Jets not to take penalties that put the offense off schedule. You never want to be desperate against them, because they’re going to blitz and cover, and it’s rare that you’ll beat them in a desperate situation. That would be true of the Packers, and it’s emphatically true of the Broncos. Stay ahead of schedule and execute in non-desperate situations where they don’t know what’s coming, and you can beat the Jets, as the Raiders, Patriots (twice), and Ravens have all shown this season.
That’s all I have for today, friends. I was thinking that I would write something short about pass protection for Friday, because I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately. Have a great couple days, and let’s get fired up for a Broncos win on Thursday night.